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Beyond Nationalism: “My freedom lies not in pursuing detachment” – Rabindranath Tagore

“Vrije Gemeente” (Paradiso) image © Ludwig Pesch

In September 2020 Amsterdam remembers the 100th anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore’s visit. It did not just made a deep impression, it caused a sensation:

Tagore with his hosts and members of the Vrije Gemeente Amsterdam
23 September 1920) © Spaarnestad Photo

Tagores bezoek maakte diepe indruk en bracht in Nederland een ware rage teweeg. – Read the post published by the Amsterdam city archive (in Dutch)

2020 also happens the year when Amsterdam celebrates the 75th anniversary of liberation from nazi-occupation 1 while confronting the legacy of collaboration among some sections of society including local authorities 2.

Between these two seemingly unrelated dates – Tagore’s lecture tour in 1920 and liberation from nazi rule in 1945 – lies a period of immense suffering all over Europe and beyond: the emergence and fall of the “Thousand-Year Reich” whose leaders propagated a nationalist-cum-white-supremacist ideology (Aryanism). For twelve long years its leaders coopted others in an insane scheme whereby countless “righteous” people were first enticed into condoning, even facilitating the oppression and persecution of their fellow citizens, then to “sacrifice” their lives for the greater glory of the “nation”. Among the political and business “elite” of that period there were many who condoned the systematic extermination of millions of people for no fault of their own, without ever being held to account even when nazi rule had ended.

The fact that some still do – all over the world – makes it all the more remarkable that long before his 1920 lecture-cum-fundraising tour of Europe, Rabindranath Tagore had foreseen the catastrophic potential of nationalism, be it for India or other countries 3. This is evident from several lectures published under the title Nationalism in 1917 and still in print:

And the idea of the Nation is one of the most powerful anaesthetics that man has invented. Under the influence of its fumes the whole people can carry out its systematic programme of the most virulent self-seeking without being in the least aware of its moral perversion – in fact it can feel dangerously resentful if it is pointed out 4.

There is only one history – the history of man. All national histories are merely chapters in the larger one.

Revisiting Europe in 1920, so shortly after World War I, Tagore had rallied support for peace and cooperation among peoples independent of prevailing notions such as “race” or “creed”, being convinced that “there is only one history – the history of man. All national histories are merely chapters in the larger one 5. He knew from experience that the only way to achieve a lasting change of hearts and minds was progressive education on all levels and in an atmosphere that allowed these issues to be addressed in an unprejudiced manner. This is evident from the theme chosen for one of his two lectures at Amsterdam University: “Ideal of Education”, held on on 27th September 1920 6.

Being Asia’s first Nobel Laureate in 1913 did not delude him into thinking that a more peaceful and just society could be achieved merely by agreement on an intellectual plane or diplomatic means. So as a poet and song writer he reached out where others had failed in search of intercultural understanding, as evident from the title of another lecture, indeed the very first one on Dutch soil (23 September 1920): “Some songs of the Village Mystics in Bengal”, delivered at the Church of the Free Christians: a virtual homage to the baul singers credited with inspiring some of his most beloved songs to this very day 7.

Gram Chara Oi Rangamatir“, a modern” ensemble arrangement; one among many popular Tagore songs composed in Baul style8; excerpted from Raviragini: A Treasurehouse of Tagore Songs – Dramas & Operas” CD6 © Saregama 2002

Time and again his “silver voice” left a deep impression among large audiences 9 with whom he shared a will to overcome divisions, be it within societies or between nations, and the ensuing hostilities echoed by misunderstandings prevailing in our own time. He was convinced that these would eventually resolved by resorting to unconventional means, such as the realisation of a shared, non-sectarian legacy available to all, and later summarized as follows:

Rabindranath Tagore sketched by Martin Monickendam (Amsterdam lecture, 23 September 1920)

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. – Tagore in his foreword to S. Radhakrishnan’s The Philosophy of Upanishads | Read more on parabaas.com

During lectures delivered during the First World War, Tagore urged his audiences in Japan and the United States “to eschew political aggressiveness and cultural arrogance.” Noted Indian historian Ramachandra Guha believes that “it was by reading and speaking to Tagore that these founders of modern India, Gandhi and Nehru, developed a theory of nationalism that was inclusive rather than exclusive. Tagore’s Nationalism should be mandatory reading in today’s climate of xenophobia, sectarianism, violence and intolerance 10

My freedom lies not in

pursuing detachment.

Amidst a thousand fetters

shall I savour the taste of freedom

in delirious joy.

Quoted by Bhaswati Ghosh on Parabaas.com

By the time of Tagore’s visit to the Netherlands, his favourite play Dakghar had been translated into English and Dutch (as The Post Office and De brief van den koning, in 1912 and 1916 respectively). Beyond the enduring success of several western theatre productions based on these and other versions, its themes remain relevant in the context of peaceful resistance in the face of despotism in all its manifestations, past, present and future:

Its themes of liberation and transcending difficult situations through imagination, creativity and love of life made the play a favourite during the Second World War, with famous productions in Polish in the Warsaw Ghetto and a Paris radio production on the eve of the Nazi invasion 11.

Dakghar is one of many works, including several plays, wherein “Tagore uses the notion of freedom to decry narrow nationalistic boundaries, governed by myopic ambition and greed […] which bring out different facets of his broader abstraction of freedom 12.”

Amal in De brief van den koning, a popular Dutch edition of Tagore’s favourite play.
The first among a series of six illustrations created by Rie Cramer (1887–1977)

References
  1. “Around 250,000 Dutch people died in World War II, including around 100,000 Jews, according to figures from the country’s Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide studies.” – Reuters, 5 May 2020[]
  2. “[I]t has been very difficult to publicly debate sensitive issues such as the permanent shunning of collaborators, the virtual destruction of Dutch Jewry, the cold reception of the few Jewish survivors and the bystander-role of the Dutch population during the deportations.” – Chrisje Brants in “Complicated Legacies of Justice: The Netherlands and World War II”, Journal of International Criminal Justice 13(4), September 2015 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/282295569_Complicated_Legacies_of_Justice_The_Netherlands_and_World_War_II[]
  3. As regards Tagore’s warning “that jati prem (aggressive nationalism was utterly self-destructive”, and his ideas about a Hindu socio-cultural utopia, see “Tagore and Caste: From Brahmacharyasram to Swadeshi Movement (1901–07)” by Rajarshi Chunder.

    https://www.sahapedia.org/tagore-and-caste-brahmacharyasram-swadeshi-movement-1901–07

    []

  4. Nationalism by Rabindranath Tagore. Penguin Books – Great Ideas. London: 2010 [first ed. 1917], p. 63[]
  5. Nationalism, p. 68[]
  6. Rabindratirtha – A Timeline of Tagore’s Life and Work, accessed 9 July 2020[]
  7. “Tagore songs which are correspond to Baul style […] contain ideas with double meaning and the style of the tune pertaining to a homeless minstrel. They are fit for singing with modest or even without accompaniment. Rabindranath had combined this style with other formats of Hindustani classical music in order to suit his compositions.”
    http://www.geetabitan.com/raag/light-classical-and-regional-forms/baul.html[]
  8. Gramchharda Oi Ranga Matir listed on http://www.geetabitan.com/raag/light-classical-and-regional-forms/baul.html[]
  9. “‘Met zilveren stemgeluid leest dr. Tagore de rede, die hij te voren op papier heeft gebracht. Hij vertelt van de dorpsmystici ginds in Bengalen, van mannen en vrouwen wier godsdienst het Hindoeïsme is en die in religieuze devotie het dagelijksche gebeuren rondom hen vertolken in liederen van zeldzame bekoring.’ Tagores bezoek maakte diepe indruk en bracht in Nederland een ware rage teweeg.” – Press report cited on www.amsterdam.nl/stadsarchief, the official “Amsterdam City Archives” website, on 20 May 2020[]
  10. Read the full text recommending the 2017 Penguin India edition of Nationalism on Worldcat.org.”[]
  11. Synopsis on Worldcat.org[]
  12. Bhaswati Ghosh in “Freedom in Tagore’s Plays — an essay”. Parabaas Rabindranath Section.
    https://www.parabaas.com/rabindranath/articles/pBhaswati.html[]