“Gandhi is a universal figure. […] He is affirmed and avowed in many parts of the world while Indians might of course forget him or scorn him or defile him as they are doing now.” – Historian Ramachandra Guha in conversation with sociologist Nandini Sundar (The Wire, 21 March 2022) >>
I would go so far as to say that Western music which has made immense strides should also blend with the Indian. Visva-Bharati is conceived as a world university […] I have a suspicion that perhaps there is more of music than warranted by life, or I will put the thought in another way. The music of life is in danger of being lost in the music of the voice. Why not the music of the walk, of the march, of every movement of ours, and of every activity? […] So far as I know, Gurudev [Rabindranath Tagore] stood for all this in his own person.
I interpret image-worship in two ways, in one form of image-worship, the person who contemplates the image becomes absorbed in the contemplation of the qualities for which it stands. This is image-worship in its wholesome form – in the other form of it, the person who contemplates the image does not think about the qualities but looks upon the image itself as the primary thing.
Gandhi on image worship in Singing Gandhi’s India, p. 78
Born on October 2, 1869, the father of the nation is known of his struggles for non-violence, equality and freedom. However, does anyone know how good Gandhi was as a student?
Mahatma Gandhi was born in Porbandar on October 2, 1869 and received primary education in the city. He was not a bright student and used to learn by writing with his finger in the dust. He was neither considered to be very gifted in the classroom nor in the playing field. However, a book ‘Mahatma on the Pitch: Gandhi & Cricket in India’ talks about how his fondness of cricket. – Read more in the Indian Express (9 October 2018) >>
“You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is like an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.” – Mahatma Gandhi quoted by H.E. Mrs. María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, President of the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly on the occasion of the International Day of Non-Violence at the United Nations >>
Listen to Tagore: Unlocking Cages: Sunil Khilnani tells the story of the Bengali writer and thinker Rabindranath Tagore: https://bbc.in/1KVh4Cf >> The acclaimed BBC 4 podcast series titled Incarnations: India in 50 Lives has also been published in book form (Allen Lane).
“I was moved by how many of these lives pose challenges to the Indian present,” he writes, “and remind us of future possibilities that are in danger of being closed off.” – Sunil Khilnani quoted in a review by William Dalrymple in The Guardian (14 March 2016)
It should not be an exaggeration if one claims that in terms of the average citizen’s ability to recall a large number of songs and to hum them in however terrible a voice, India probably tops the world chart.
When I was three or four years old, my father brought home a radio set. This was six decades ago. It was among the few radiograms that the village had by then, a proud possession for us and quite a public spectacle for the neighbours.[…]
Six decades later, I still recall with great clarity the sweet melodies I heard coming through the first radio programme I ever heard. Over these decades, I have been listening to the radio, almost entirely for the musical part of its broadcast. Of course, it was not the radio alone that brought songs to me. They came from older members of the family who used to hum while carrying out activities at home. They came to one during festivals and weddings and during ceremonies associated with welcoming new arrivals in the family. They came from wandering mendicants, bullock-cart drivers, farmers engrossed in sowing fields, women gathered to make pickles and spices, katha and kirtan performers and the sweetest among them came from mothers trying to put babies to sleep.
Later, much later, when I was in my thirties, I started working with adivasis in western India. Whenever our discussion revolved round their identity, they invariably alluded to the traditions of songs they had. By then, I had read plenty of Marx, Gandhi, Ambedkar and Lohia, and I liked to imagine that adivasis would want to speak in agony about the injustice that the ‘system’ had caused them. To my surprise, they were not as much articulate about things political as they were about things cultural. Through my years of work with them, I have met individuals who can go on singing the entire Mahabharata. The Bhils living on the border of Rajasthan and Gujarat have several epics of their own: the singers took immense pride in rendering the entire opus, without missing out a single syllable. I also came across members of the Bharthari community from central Indian forest states who could render, just for the asking, an entire saga of a legendary king. A friend of mine from the Banjara community once told me that the Banjaras have a poetic genre called ‘lehngi’. When I suggested that he should pen them down if he remembered any of the compositions, he said that he could recall close to 6,000 ‘lehngis’. I was not stunned by his claim because previously I had heard from a friend from the Nayak community that he knew more than 9,000 songs. And this one had a great voice. I still recall how mesmerized I was when he sang for a few hours, one song after another. […]
Very few people know that Gandhi was extremely fond of Music and arts. Most of us have been all along under the impression that he was against all arts such as music. In fact, he was a great lover of music, though his philosophy of music was different. In his own words ‘Music does not proceed from the throat alone. There is music of mind, of the senses and of the heart.’ […]
According to Mahatma ‘In true music there is no place for communal differences and hostility.’ Music was a great example of national integration because only there we see Hindu and Muslim musicians sitting together and partaking in musical concerts. He often said, ‘We shall consider music in a narrow sense to mean the ability to sing and play an instrument well, but, in its wider sense, true music is created only when life is attuned to a single tune and a single time beat. Music is born only where the strings of the heart are not out of tune.’
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. 4 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.” 5
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. 6 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. 7
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 baulsingers credited with inspiring some of his most beloved songs to this very day. 8
Time and again his “silver voice” left a deep impression among large audiences 10 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:
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. (More about this is found 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. 11
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. 12
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. 13”
Rabindranath’s idea of samaj [society] is closely related to the idea of Santiniketan. He was growing more and more against the idea of Nation and seeing the formation of samaj as the only solution to social problems in India. In one of his lectures delivered during his trip to Japan and the USA in 1916 he says, “This time it was the Nation of the West driving its tentacles of machinery deep down into the soil. […]
A nation, in the sense of the political and economic union of people, is that aspect which a whole population assumes when organized for a mechanical purpose. Society as such has no ulterior purpose. It is an end in itself. It is a spontaneous self- expression of man as a social being. It is natural regulation of human relationships, so that men can develop ideals of life in cooperation with one another.”14
“Tagores bezoek maakte diepe indruk en bracht in Nederland een ware rage teweeg.” – Read the post published by the Amsterdam city archive (in Dutch). Critical voices were not wanting either, as summarized by the English periodical La gazette de Hollande with reference to a Roman Catholic cleric’s view that “we do not believe Dr. Tagore’s appearance in the body answered the high expectations which had been cherished”, referring to an earlier article in the patriotic Vaderland “which says that the prophet from India has only repeated what the prophet of Nazareth expounded centuries ago.” https://resolver.kb.nl/resolve?urn=MMKB19:000104236[↩]
“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[↩]
“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[↩]
“‘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[↩]
Read the full commentary by Ramachandra Guha Nationalism on Worldcat.org.”[↩]
“In 1901 Tagore founded an experimental school for boys and wrote plays to be performed by his students. Arguably the best known of these is “Dak Ghar” (The Post Office, 1912). This play, written in just four days, is from his “Gitanjali” period (‘Songs of Offering’), which had among its dominant themes death and passage into the next life. In this one-act, Amal is a sick child watching life pass, seeing the construction of a modern post office and imagining that he might someday receive a letter from the king. The play was first performed by and for schoolboys at Tagore’s school in Santiniketan. The first western performance was just two years later in 1914 at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. It has subsequently been translated into many languages and performed throughout the world. 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.” – Summary on Worldcat.org[↩]
In vielen Ländern der Welt herrschen heute Wut, Hass, Kampf, Erniedrigung von Minderheiten und Zuwanderern, Handelskriege und bewaffne- te Auseinandersetzungen. Können wir heute, siebzig Jahren nach seiner Ermordung, noch etwas von Mahatma Gandhi lernen?
Gandhi schrieb: „Keine Kultur kann überleben, wenn sie danach strebt, exklusiv zu sein“ und: „Ich möchte, dass die Luft aller Kulturen so frei wie möglich um mein Haus weht.“
Ein höchst lesenswerter Artikel des Hochschullehrers Asit Datta (Gründungsmitglieds der Organisation „German Watch“) nimmt diese weiterhin aktuellen Anliegen Gandhis unter die Lupe: Säkularismus: Bei Toleranz mag die unbegründete Annahme mitschwingen, andere Glaubensrichtungen seien der eigenen unterlegen, und Respekt lässt auf gönnerhaftes Verhalten schließen, während Ahimsa uns lehrt, den anderen dieselbe Achtung entgegenzubringen, wie wir sie unserer eigenen entgegenbringen. Ökonomische Ungleichheit, denn ohne eine andere Form der Verteilung des Vermögens und Einkommens zwischen Arm und Reich ist ein Frieden nicht erreichbar – weder auf nationaler und noch auf internationaler Ebene. Kultur: Gandhi schrieb: „Keine Kultur kann überleben, wenn sie danach strebt, exklusiv zu sein“ und: „Ich möchte, dass die Luft aller Kulturen so frei wie möglich um mein Haus weht.“ Wenn man diese Lehren in aller Welt beherzigen würde, gäbe es heute keine rechtsnationalen Parteien mehr.