Bairagyasadhane mukti, se amar noy.
At various stages in his life, enriched by ever new experiences—both mystical and material—Tagore celebrates a sense of liberation. In all the genres of his literary oeuvre, the subject of freedom appears again and again—sometimes evidently, at other times in a nuanced fashion. His personal philosophy, which includes the idea of freedom or mukti, drew a lot from the ancient Indian Upanishadic texts. That and his own realizations led him to believe that true freedom does not come from the pursuit of individualism, but in the coming together of minds and hearts. At the same time, Tagore remains a staunch votary of exercising individual exploration as a key to finding freedom.
On a temporal level, Tagore uses the notion of freedom to decry narrow nationalistic boundaries, governed by myopic ambition and greed. We look at four of Tagore’s plays—Dakghar (The Post Office), Achalayatan (The Immovable), Muktadhara (The Waterfall) and Raktakarabi (Red Oleanders), which bring out different facets of his broader abstraction of freedom.
In Dakghar (The Post Office), young Amal, the protagonist, bonds with numerous strangers with the spontaneity and guilelessness typical of most children. The play cleverly unravels Tagore’s thoughts on freedom. Being ill, young Amal is confined to his bed by the kaviraj’s orders and isn’t allowed to step out of the house. Lying on his bed, he watches the world go by, as he makes friends with passersby—a curd seller, a watchman, a flower girl, and an old man.
Even though Amal is physically bound, he isn’t a prisoner in the spiritual or creative sense. His flourishing imagination, coupled with his disarming affability, connects him to the hearts of seemingly disparate people. For as Tagore writes in his foreword to S Radhakrishnan’s The Philosophy of Upanishads : “When our self is illuminated with the light of love, then the negative aspect of its separateness with others loses its finality, and then our relationship with others is no longer that of competition and conflict, but of sympathy and co-operation.” Young Amal is an embodiment of the child heart that has not yet been contaminated by man-made divisions of social or economic class. Thus Amal can mingle with his fellow humans with complete ease and no sense of separation.
Amal: Honestly, Doi-walla, I haven’t ever been there. When the kaviraj allows me to go out, will you take me to your village?
Freedom in Tagore’s book also means the liberty to make mistakes and learning from them. “Those in authority are never tired of holding forth on the possibility of the abuse of freedom as a reason for withholding it, but without that possibility freedom would not really be free. And the only way of learning to use a thing properly is through its misuse.” Achalayatan (The Immovable) is a classic manifestation of this joy of learning from one’s own fumbling. The play is eponymous with a school that puts excessive emphasis on dry, ritualistic learning, imposed with punishments and devoid of life. Young Panchak is a misfit in this environment and doesn’t mind facing the unknown risks of his wrongdoings.
Panchak: Listen, Subhadra, I have no idea what happens because of what. But whatever happens, I am never afraid.
Assimilation, as opposed to individualism, is at the core of Tagore’s interpretation of freedom. For him, liberty isn’t about the more conventional notion of choosing one’s own way in life. Rather, true freedom, Tagore insists, comes with the conjoining of souls. “The most individualistic of human beings who owe no responsibility are the savages who fail to attain their fullness of manifestation…Only those may attain freedom…who have the power to cultivate mutual understanding and co-operation. The history of the growth of freedom is the history of the perfection of human relationship.”
In his play Muktadhara (The Waterfall), Tagore robustly employs this element of freedom. The play relates the story of an exploited people and their eventual release from it. By setting up a dam, Ranajit, the king of Uttarkut, attempts to penalize the citizens of neighbouring Shiv-tarai, who have failed to pay their taxes. Abhijit, the crown prince, differs with this harsh stance and steps forward to help the people of Shiv-tarai by opening a passage that links that state to the wider world. His vision is a broad one—a reflection of Tagore’s own—encompassing the good of all people, regardless of nationalistic boundaries.
Messenger: The crown prince has sent me, Royal Engineer, Vibhuti.
As it courses through his consciousness, freedom, for Tagore, becomes a vital reference point in his political discourse. He openly censured the increasing materialistic and mechanical nature of the human condition, often paralyzing a person’s mind to the extent that it cannot free itself from narrow compartments, conventional or self-imposed. He observes, “The freedom of unrestrained egoism in the individual is licence and not true freedom… For his truth is in that which is universal in him. The idea of freedom which prevails in modern civilization is superficial and materialistic.”
A classic example of such a confined mind is Raja or King in Raktakarabi (Red Oleanders) written shortly after Muktadhara. Packed with symbolism and metaphors, Raktakarabi unveils the veiled life of a king incarcerated in his own web—of accumulating wealth at all costs. In contrast is Nandini, a young girl, unfettered and fearless, whose only possessions are her surging life-force and Ranjan—the love of her life. Raktakarabi proceeds to its end with the dramatic act of Ranjan (never seen during the course of the play) getting killed by the king, without the latter having recognized his victim. Filled with remorse, the king ultimately comes out of his shell, and joins Nandini as she becomes the leader of the masses.
Nandini: Can you hear that song in the distance?
All these different strands of the theme of freedom are often concurrent, sometimes even converging into each other in Tagore’s analysis and in his works. In the present times, the situations Tagore highlighted in the plays discussed here are manifest in different variations. Entire tribal populations across India are being uprooted with impudence so dams can replace their homes; children’s imagination, especially in urban areas is fuelled more by video games, television, and the internet and less by direct human interaction; education for a lot of societies means little more than students cramming recycled information inside boxed classrooms, pushing for higher grades and bagging lucrative jobs; and capitalist economies all over the world are being remote-controlled by avaricious, profit-minded corporate houses, which care little about the development of those who need it most. In such a scenario, Tagore’s message of freedom, in all its shades, is of utmost relevance.
 Foreword to S. Radhakrishnan’s The Philosophy of Upanishads by Rabindranath Tagore
 Tagore's quotation taken from "Tagore on the banks of River Plate" by Victoria Ocampo, included in Rabindranath Tagore: A Centenary Volume 1861-1961; Sahitya Akademi; 1961; (p: 42)
 The Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore by Kalyan Sen Gupta, Ashgate Publishing Ltd. 2005 (p:14)
 The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore; Volume Two, Edited by Sisir Kumar Das; Sahitya Akademi
Published in Parabaas, May 9, 2011.
Bhaswati Ghosh. Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction and non-fiction. Her first work of translation,.....(more)
Illustration by Ananya Das. An author of several books and an illustrator, Ananya Das is based in Pennsylvania.
© Parabaas 2011