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Uma Das Gupta (ed), The Oxford India Tagore: Selected Writings on Education and Nationalism, 2009, Oxford University Press.
macrocosmic and microcosmic aspects of the Tagore legacy. From the macro-perspective,
as Jawaharlal Nehru was the main founding
father of modern Indian politics, Rabindranath Tagore was that of modern
Indian culture. In this sense, Tagore’s greatness cannot be sized up merely through
the prism of a historical personality. Any appreciation of
While no single book can size up both the macro and micro aspects of the Tagore legacy, the book under review authored by a seasoned historian, Prof. Uma Das Gupta, inspires its readership for such a discourse. I see Uma making micro its entry points and macro its end. The book teaches us how to approach the Tagore legacy in the first place, and then gives us valuable glimpses of that legacy. In this sense, it is a unique, penetrating and sophisticated academic work, trying to achieve the impossible yet having achieved it substantially. For those who wish to know or understand Tagore, it is a study-companion at hand. For the general public, it is remarkably absorbing and inspiring reading material.
Americans think a good driver is one who let the car drive itself. Likewise, Uma is a good commentator on historical personality that she would always reveal very little of her own views so that the target person of her book could have a dialogue with the readers without intermediary. When we read Uma’s book we don’t see the editor, but we see what the editor wants us to see --- as if happily, comfortably and leisurely guided by an invisible tour guide during sightseeing.
History constructs itself hence no historian is supposed to construct, but only to interpret it. In this book, Uma Das Gupta has done both interpretation and construction. She is a historian, but has, in recent years, shown much kung fu in Bengali literature, especially in Tagore literature. I see in this book and its forerunners<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>, Uma’s intentions to construct a historical phenomenon --- a kind of Tagore-lore for want of a better expression. She is in the process of constructing a historical figure who made history, and yet has not been fully recognized nor well identified by history. As is described elsewhere, Tagore has been actively worshipped and “raised to the Olympian pedestal” in Bengal on the one hand, and regarded as a carpet-bagger-like Nobel laureate who has evanesced and is “barely more than a name” in most parts of the world.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> To Uma who always talks gently even when she is annoyed, such a commentary is meaningless, if not misconceived. She is ready to defend Rabindranath Tagore and gain justice for a man whose real image in the mirror of history, nevertheless, should emerge, justify and defend itself, letting all the eulogies and vilifications fall by the wayside.
The book has five chapters respectively under “Autobiographical”, “Founding a New Education”, “East and West in a Scientific Age”, “The Problem of India”, and “A Self-Respecting Nationalism as Our Salvation”. These are like five separate platforms to stage Tagore’s own words and sentiments. They are designed by Uma to view Tagore from five different angles, and thus to obtain a panoramic image of Tagore.
The first chapter
is especially projected to “reflect how his [Tagore’s] thought and action grew
out of his family’s non-conventional patriotic influences as also from the
ambivalent and politically charged times in which he grew up.” (p. 4) The text
included a great number of excerpts from Tagore’s reminiscences in various
writings and talks (including his talks in
chapter contains lots of new information and insight to unpack what Tagore has
thought and done as educator and educationist, and even further as the
custodian of the human “treasure of spiritual wisdom”. Tagore’s educational ideas and the “mission of
Visva-Bharati” (Tagore’s new educational
institution imbued with his universalism) are
highlighted in these pages. It is interesting as well as enlightening to read
Tagore’s description of the “English education” in
chapter is easily the most exciting and inspiring part of the book, projecting
a sage’s overview of the human civilization of his times. This overview further
projects Tagore as the man of all
times in search of “the eternal laws of universe”. There is Tagore’s
observation and prophecy that the might-is-right
has judiciously highlighted Tagore’s admiration and worry for
chapter contains excerpts of Tagore’s political opinions from his essays and
correspondence that have been put together under the rubric of “the problem of
chapter, under the caption of “a self-respecting nationalism as our salvation”,
further spells out the commonality and difference between the Tagorian and
Gandhian approaches to
As the book is the forum for Tagore’s spoken and written words, Uma worked hard in her archival research at the libraries of the university of Oxford and London, Reading University, Harvard University, in Dartington Hall, the British Museum, the New York Public Library, and, in particular, the Rabindra-Bhavana at Santiniketan which has now become an autonomous institution directly under the custody of the Department of Culture of the Government of India. Years of hard work have wrought in Uma one of the rare walking-encyclopedia on Tagore. In most instances, she has quoted from Tagore’s English words directly, and, in a few cases, has herself rendered Tagore’s Bengali words into English. Material-selection becomes a matter of delicate skill, and Uma has done an excellent job in presenting the quintessential Tagore.
I would have wished to see as the book's subtitle something like “the greatness of an Indian” or “the noble soul of a mundane man” instead of “Selected Writings on Education and Nationalism”. For, what comes out from the 500-odd pages is neither “education” nor “nationalism”, it is the personification of a brilliant leaf out of Indian history. However, while I am doing it, I see myself ill-equipped to comment on such an excellent book. What I can do is to reflect on how I have been educated by leafing through it from cover to cover.
reading the book, I already had visualized Tagore as a lighthouse at a period
I have rendered his original words “pinghezhi xiang” (literally “village of peace”) into “Santiniketan” (Tagore’s “abode of peace”) because I am sure that was what he meant. In another poem of Guo Moruo during the same period entitled Chen’an (Good Morning), the poet rhymed “Good morning, Venerable Tagore of Bengal!” and “Good morning, academic friends in the ashram of nature!” which is an unmistakable reference to Santiniketan. <![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Guo was a
staunch Chinese Marxist revolutionary who never met Tagore (who refused to
criticize Tagore in 1924 in spite of the strong urging by his leftist comrades,
but did not attend the receptions for Tagore either). Yet he had no better
poetic sentiments than likening his own chaotic motherland to “Santiniketan”! In
the past, Chinese had likened
While I had all this information and impression, I could not explain why this was so until reading Uma’s book. The reading has crystallized my understanding of the spiritual Tagore --- of seeing Tagore as a man of truth and a sentinel for harmony, of seeing Tagore’s aim of education in making the students return “to the simplicity of perfect truth”, and to be harmonized with his/her surroundings through the “digression of doubt”. (p. 89) I am particularly moved by these words of Tagore:
In his boyhood, Tagore hated school as “a hideously cruel combination of hospital and jail”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>, and quit it at the age of 13. He told the Chinese teachers in Beijing “When I was thirteen I finished going to school” to escape the “unbearable torture” with a burning desire inside him to jump 15-20 years of his early life to become “a grown-up man” free from the education process that he was experiencing in schools (p. 107). Uma has given Tagore lengthy coverage of his complaints against the lifeless and colourless “education factory” of his times (p. 108). The readers will also likely appreciate many remarks of Tagore that Uma has quoted in the book, such as “children are lovers of the dust, their whole body and mind thirst for sunlight and air as flowers do,” and that childhood ought to have the “freedom from the necessity of specialization into the narrow bounds of social and professional conventionalism”. (p. 91) She has judiciously brought to the reader’s notice Tagore’s “education of sympathy”, and Tagore’s goal of education in making “our life in harmony with all existence”. (p. 90) I think all the educators of the world, especially those of China and India, have to read Uma’s book and be re-educated by Tagore to avoid the kind of behaviours of treating “the students as the basket into which knowledge is thrown” and misleading them into thinking that the “goal of learning” is to pass exams.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
book, we learn that as a Man of Truth,
Tagore was, first and foremost, true to
not misunderstand Tagore. He called Tagore the ‘sentinel’, a soldier against
the ‘enemies called Bigotry, Intolerance, Ignorance, Inertia and other members
of that brood’. They [Gandhi and Tagore] ?? in
one another firmly through their differences, and allowed each other the right
to criticism. But in other Nationalist and Revolutionary circles Tagore was
accused of being anti-nationalist and capitalist even feudal.” (p. xxxi) “Mahatma
Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were never in any doubt that Tagore was a
Another great revelation of Tagore via Uma’s book is about Tagore’s universalism which has also enhanced my insight into Tagore’s charisma in fellow-Asian minds. Though much of the passion of Tagore’s universal love is reflected in his works of art rather than what Uma’s narrative deals with, she has highlighted Tagore’s universalism diligently and truthfully. Uma has made us share the “joy and the new light” that “Universal humanity has sent us its call today”. (p. 359) Universalism to Tagore is the holy spirit “who is One, who is without distinction of class and colour”. (p. 360)
Uma has lauded Tagore’s life-long efforts in freeing “his country from the lure of territorial nationalism” (p. 163) and reiterated Tagore’s description of nationalism as the “collective Egotism of the whole nation”, the “barrier-god” and “a mania for sacrificing one another”. (p. 199) As Uma informs us, Tagore has written and talked again and again against nationalism with a missionary zeal. For instance:
“Nationalism is the training of a whole people for a narrow ideal; and when it gets hold of their minds it is sure to lead them to moral degeneracy and intellectual blindness. We cannot but hold firm the faith that this Age of Nationalism, of gigantic vanity and selfishness, is only a passing phase in civilization, and those who are making permanent arrangements for accommodating this temporary mood of history will be unable to fit themselves for the coming age, when the true spirit of freedom will have sway.” (p.228)
Thus, through Uma’s book, we see Tagore as a man of the “Age of Nationalism” but living beyond in the realm of universalism and enjoying “the true spirit” of universalism. The concrete evidence is, as Tagore reiterated on many occasions, of his devotion to imparting in “our Educational colony in Santiniketan a spirit of genuine international collaboration” (p. 231) and to make it into “a great meeting place for individuals from all countries where men who believe in spiritual unity can come in touch with their neighbors” (p. 112). Uma has earlier analyzed in another book the true meaning of Tagore’s international university, the Visva-Bharati, in having adapted a Vedic mantra “yatra visvam bhavati ekanidam” (where the whole world meets in one nest) as its goal for fulfillment.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
It was this world-in-one nest that had radiated its
waves to unite the nascent Marxist Chinese youth, Guo Moruo, with Santiniketan where
he had never been. The same radiation also united another Chinese youth, Tan
Yun-shan, and made him physically join Visva-Bharati in 1928 at the age of 30.
Tan Yun-shan started his long march to Santiniketan in the footsteps of the
great 7th century Chinese pilgrim to
out in the volume under review as a symbol of the golden bridge between the
West and East. “I know there is a call for me to work towards the true union of
East and West”, said Tagore. (p. 207) Uma does well to show how Tagore personified
the honour and dignity of the East while admiring and respecting the West for
its contribution to humanism and its advancement in science. Tagore challenged Rudyard
known concept “East is East,
and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”. Tagore explained, “The great event of the
meeting of the East and the West”, said Tagore, “has been desecrated by the
spirit of contempt on the one side and a corresponding hatred on the other.”
(p.191) Tagore was candid: “We in the East have long been suffering humiliation
in the hands of the West. It is enormously difficult for us either to cultivate
or express, any love for Western races --- especially as it may have the
appearance of snobbishness or prudence”, wrote Tagore. (p. 207) He added that “Once
even when being exploited and beaten Asia acknowledged
Tagore had a
penetrating insight into the Asian psyche vis-ŕ-vis the West. Tagore was proud
of the East but not uncritical. “We have not seen the great in the West because
we have failed to bring out the great that we have in us” (p.161) said Tagore. “It
is impossible for Asia today to lower her prestige before
It was Tagore’s
deep commitment, body and soul, to universalism that made him reject
nationalism which was characterized by Tagore as the “barrier-god” and “the
collective Egotism of the whole nation”. (p. 199) To Tagore, spiritual values
were far greater than material. This made him strongly critical of the Western civilization
which mutilated “man’s personality” and reduced
the human “to a machine”. (p. 202) I should add that the solitary Chinese Padma Bhushan, the late lamented doyen
All the above just demonstrates how I have been educated by Uma’s excellent book, The Oxford India Tagore: Selected Writings on Education and Nationalism, which, I am sure, will be widely read in the English-language reading world.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> A Difficult Friendship: Letters of Edward Thompson and Rabindranath Tagore (OUP 2003), Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography (OUP 2004), Rabindranath Tagore: My Life in My Words (Penguin 2006).
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Krishna Dutta
& Andrew Robinson, Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-minded Man,
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Cf. Tan
Chung, In the Footsteps of Xuanzang: Tan Yun-shan and India, 1998,
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Liang Qichao was poetically expanding the connotations of the two Chinese words “zhen” (shock) and “dan” (dawn) with which he had christened Tagore.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Guo Moruo, Huangpujiang
kou (At the mouth of
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Guo Moruo, Chen’an (Good Morning).
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Dutta & Robinson, p. 59.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> These are the
wrong tendencies of Chinese education as pointed out by a Chinese expert. Cf.
Tan Chung, “Education in China Through Indian Eyes”, in Sabyasachi Bhattacharya
(ed), The Contested Terrain: Perspectives on Education, 1998,
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Uma Das
Gupta, Rabindranath Tagore: My Life in My Words, 2006,
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> The Chinese
government built the Dayanta (Pagoda for the Great Swan) to commemorate the
return of Xuanzang in the Tang capital, Chang’an. For thirteen centuries, this
Dayanta has been a famous monument there to eternalize Xuanzang’s memory and is
today a tourist spot in downtown
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Just after my birth in April 1929, I was presented before Tagore at Santiniketan and christened by him as “Asoka” --- a name I have borne at heart all these years, but never printed on my card. Not only that, I strongly feel that it was Tagore who changed the destiny of my father, Tan Yun-shan, in 1927, and it was Tagore who had made my destiny --- Malaya born, brought up in China, and completed my career in India.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Sisir Kumar Das, p. 94.
Published in Parabaas November 9, 2009.