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Rabindranath, The Internationalist

Rabindranath in one of his celebrated poems confidently asserted that he is a poet of this world and wherever there is a cry whether of sorrow or joy, that would find an instant response in his poems This assertion, of course, came much later in his life when he had virtually completed his mission of peace and understanding in all the continents he was able to go. It may be surmised that this was an appreciation of love and respect showered on him in an abundant measure by people from all walks of life, wherever he went. But this is not the whole truth.

Rabindranath’s life from an early age shows a unique sensibility to the pains and sufferings of people, whether in his native land or in other parts of the world. No doubt this was something unusual in a man, born in an aristocratic family of very high social status. Socially and materially there was not the slightest chance of sufferance of any kind in his life that was the general lot of the people. But his insight into the social reality developed both intuitively and intellectually, brought him close to the masses both here and abroad. Witness for example his merciless exposure of colonial exploitation in China. This piece was written at a time, when even among the literati in this country, there was hardly any intelligent and sympathetic understanding of the lot of the hapless Chinese.

Decades later when he had the opportunity to visit China and see for himself the harsh realities, he could immediately perceive that things had hardly improved in spite of this considerable lapse of times. His insight led him to realise that political freedom, state hood, was not a panacea to social ills. Some of Rabindranath’s candid observations in this regard irritated a section of his hosts at that time. They were not prepared to learn anything from a poet of a country yet to be free.

One major theme of his talks and speeches in China was the brotherhood of man. This he conceived not simply as, a philosophical exercise, a mere idea. What, he had in mind was something concrete the solidarity of the suffering people all the world over. The concept of Universal Man liberated completely from all constraints, indigenous and those imposed from outside by the colonial masters, holding his head high, fearless and unbending to pressure, had already started taking shape in his mind as some kind of a religion. This was further concretised in his Hibbert lecture, entitled “Religion of Man” delivered at the Oxford a few years later in the early thirties.

This concern for hapless fellow human being was deep and everlasting in the poet’s mind. At an early age he must have come into contact of men holding socialist ideas. They must have inspired him to take more than nominal interest in socialism. We are yet to know the details of it. But that he had some grasp over the subject of socialism is proved beyond doubt from his numerous writings on the subject, published in the eighties and nineties of the last century in the pages of periodicals, he either edited or in whose publication he had some hand.

No doubt these writings are not imbued with Marxist ideas. There is nothing on record to show that Rabindranath at that time had read Marx or that even afterward he had ever referred to Marx or his ideas. That does not diminish the value of his concern for the masses.

Rabindranath felt deeply for the wretched of the world. In a sense this was an extension of the patriotic fervour that burnt in his soul and nurtured by the family atmosphere of the Tagores’ at Jorasanko. This urge was further steeled through his numerous visits to England which began in his teens. The social thought that dominated English intellectual life was not Marxist at that time. But Marxism had started casting its influence on British thinking public. Had Rabindranath been inclined to be a social worker, as the veteran political activist was not in use, then he would have definitely come to grips with the most advanced social ideas of his time, Marxism. But he chose to be a poet. Only subsequently the pressure of events drew him out of the poet’s seclusion into the humdrum of public affairs.

It is of interest to note that from the early days of organised political activity of sorts that the Indian National Congress began in 1885, Rabindranath became ‘a participant observer’ in national politics. Indeed it could not be any things resembling political activities of today. The Congress politics was then a three day annual affairs. But it began to evoke some interest in the thinking minds and drew them into its fold. And young Rabindranath could not remain aloof. His contemporary writings on socialism had this national perspective.

Rabindranath’s ideas were constructive humanitarian and some were even radical. Long before constructive activities began to be considered into any degree of seriousness at the national level, it was Rabindranath who drew up an elaborate scheme and started propagating it. His speeches in the Bengal Provincial conference bear witness to that. By politics he meant a type of mass activity calculated to snap the ties that held the nation in subjection to the assertive superiority of the alien rulers. This mental frame of him to characterise the type of politics indulged by the recognised leadership of the tease as “politics of mendicancy”. He believed in national character building as basic to Swaraj and nation building.

Decades later in the mid-thirties when Rabindranath was invited to deliver convocation address at the Calcutta University, he in his characteristic way reminded his audience of the pitfalls in the current dominant national mood fostered by the political leadership that education may wait age, Swaraj cannot. Fresh from his pilgrim to the Soviet Union he wanted his Countrymen to emulate the spirit of the young socialist republic as regards the task of social awakening through war against illiteracy. He was too tremendously impressed by the massive work undertaken by the Soviet society for the development of human personality the key to which lies in education.

Rabindranath’s concern for human wellbeing was not confined at any time to the country of his birth. He had shown an intense awareness for it throughout life. One can recall his famous poem” Ebar Phirao Morey” in “Chitra” in this connection. The poet here is praying to his god, not deity in the ordinary sense of the term but his “Jeevan Devata” – The eternal diving spirit in him to lead him back from the world of imageries built by the poet in him to the harsh realities of life. The immediate provocation was massacre of an African community. It’s chief Lobengula whose entreaties to the colonialists to spare his innocent people from the next of the British Colonialists touched his sensitive mind. But Lecic Rhodes who led operation, was a man with a different mission. And a grateful British Government made the event memorable by naming the newly acquired territory after its conqueror Rhodesia. Rabindranath did not forget this massacre of the innocents.

In the mid-thirties Rabindranath wrote his famous poem “Africa”. It was written in response to requests made by young Indians resident in London who befriended the young fighters against in Colonialism Africa then living in exile in Europe. They deeply moved by the understanding and comparison of the poet and the call to the conscience of the world that Rabindranath gave to rally round Africa. One can recall his speeches delivered in the early years of the World War I in U. S. A. and then in Japan, entitled “Nationalism” He bitterly attacked the spirit of nationalism there manifest in policies of the major states of the world. It was national chauvinism pure and simple Rabindranath found in nationalism a crafty device to subjugate the spirit of man within narrow confines. It teaches man to love one’s own nation passionately which results ultimately in the mood my country right or wrong. Even for a subject nation like India, then struggling for freedom, his recipe was not nationalism in that sense. He was all for a fusion between nationalism and internationalism which would liberate man from his Cobweb.

It is no exaggeration to say that the October Revolution could be regarded as an event of great consequence in the sensitive minds of the poet. He was probably the first Indian who reacted to events of great October with hope. Those were the days where the alien rulers did not like the subject people to hear about anything that might kindle their hope for change. The news about it were scanty and delayed. But the poet could discern in there a message for the oppressed. His very favourable response may be considered as a great turning point in the life of our nation. It roused in him a feeling of understanding and a curiosity to know more about it.

The few years that elapsed between the great Octobers and Rabindranath’s visit to Soviet Russia had built up bit by bit a tremendous urge in him to see and know the land of the Soviets better. That was why he could call his visit to the U. S. S. R. at pilgrimage.  His “Letters from Russia” are well known to be narrated in any detail. What is significant is that what he saw there he wanted his countrymen to learn and emulate of course, in their own way and suited to the Indian genius. Its impression had a lasting impact on his mind, which enabled him to look forward to the future high hope and expectation.

At the turn of the Century, Rabindranath like many of his contemporaries was impressed by Count Okakura’s slogan of “One Asia”. For various reasons the move fell through. But October revolution and then his visit to the U. S. S. R. led him to think, in a much larger term. The rise of Fascism and the menace it posed before the mankind was sufficient to evoke in him the spirit of quest for a better future for mankind. His was a faith and trust born of an insight of a seer that fundamentally believed in the oneness of mankind, in a kind of world free from fear and exploitation where reason, love, equality and freedom would triumph over the forces or lust, death and destruction. That was why he could assert in quick succession almost within weeks from each other, that it is a crime lose faith in man and that the Soviets should for a new hope for mankind.

– Basab Sarkar


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