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Past & Present

What Nehru owed to Tagore


Like the poet, the politician saw India as a melange of cultures, without any single dominating essence.

Photo: The Hindu Photo Library

A blend of the best of east and west: Rabindranath Tagore and Jawaharlal Nehru in 1940.

Rabindranath Tagore died in 1941. Five years later, Jawaharlal Nehru published his book The Discovery of India. The text is peppered with references to the poet, whom the author saw as one of the two dominant figures of the age (Ga ndhi being the other). “More than any other Indian”, wrote Nehru, “he [Tagore] has helped to bring into harmony the ideals of the East and West, and broadened the bases of Indian nationalism. He has been India’s internationalist par excellence, believing and working for international co-operation, taking India’s message to other countries and bringing their messages to his own people”.

From the evidence of The Discovery of India, Nehru had clearly read a great deal of Tagore. He mentions characters in Tagore’s plays, invokes his views on the Vedas, and speaks appreciatively of his emphasis on the civilisational ties that once bound India and China. In the book’s epilogue, Tagore is held up as an exemplar, as one “who was full of the temper and urges of the modern age and yet was rooted in India’s past, and in his own self built up a synthesis of the old and the new”.

Evocative lines

Tagore is also mentioned several times in Nehru’s first book, Glimpses of World History, which consisted of letters written to his daughter Indira from jail. The letter which completed this course of parental instruction invoked the stirring lines from Gitanjali which begin “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high…” and end “into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake”.

The future Prime Minister of free India had first met Asia’s first Nobel laureate in the early 1920s, when he accompanied Gandhi to Santiniketan following a Congress meeting in Calcutta. The trip is recalled in Nehru’s autobiography, the first foonote of which incidentally mentions the striking coincidence that Tagore was born on the same day in the same month of the same year as his own father, Motilal. Later trips to the poet’s home are also lovingly recalled, with Nehru speaking of how he spent his time in Santiniketan talking to the sage and his circle. In 1934, he took his wife Kamala there for the first time. Their only child, Indira Priyadarshini, was appearing for her matriculation, and they were worried about her future education. Nehru believed that the atmosphere of the regular universities was “official, oppressive and authoritarian”. He hoped that for his daughter “Santiniketan offered an escape from this dead hand”.

First meeting

Indira first saw Tagore in September 1932, when the two of them were among the crowd of patriots attending on Gandhi while he was fasting in a prison in Poona. Hearing of the meeting, Nehru wrote to his daughter from his own prison cell in distant Dehradun: “You have met, probably for the first time, another great son of India, Rabindranath Tagore. He is very different from Bapu, but he is a great writer and artist and it is a privilege to meet him”. In later letters to Indira, Nehru frequently quoted or invoked the poet. In June 1934, he sent her the prospectus for Tagore’s university, remarking: “Do not be prejudiced against S[anti] N[iketan]. It has its faults but it has its good points too and I think the latter far outweigh the former”. The next month Indira became a student of Visva-Bharati. She stayed there until March 1936, when she had to be withdrawn to attend to her ailing mother, then undergoing treatment in Europe. It was the only Indian university she attended.

In his years as Prime Minister, Nehru followed Tagore in seeking a synthesis of tradition and modernity, in taking from the West what his country needed while upholding and even avowing the civilisational antiquity of India. Nehru’s pan-Asianism, and his determination to stay “non aligned” in the Cold War, also bear the mark of Tagore’s thought. Meanwhile, his respect for the diversity of cultures and religious traditions within India also owes a great deal to Tagore’s example. Like the poet, the politician saw his country as a mix and a melange, which had no single essence. After a long trip through India’s north-eastern borderlands in 1952, he wrote to the Chief Ministers of States that the region “deserves our special attention, not only [of] the Governments, but of the people of India. Our contacts with them will do us good and will do them good too. They add to the strength, variety and cultural richness of India. As one travels there, a new and vaster richness of India comes before the eyes and the narrowness of outlook which sometimes obsesses us, begins to fade away”. He went on: “Rabindranath Tagore wrote in one of his famous poems about India: ‘No one knows at whose call so many streams of men flowed in restless tides from places unknown and were lost in one sea: here Aryan and non-Aryan, Dravidian, Chinese, the banks of Saka and the Hunas and Pathan and Mogul, have become combined in one body’.”

Like Gandhi, Nehru’s own outlook on the world was fundamentally shaped by speaking to and reading Tagore. It was through Tagore’s provocation that these two men developed a theory of nationalism that was inclusive, not exclusive; a nationalism that sought not just political freedom for the Nation but equal rights for all its citizens. Where other nationalisms insisted on a homogeneity of attitudes and worldviews, the idea of India respected and even celebrated the linguistic, cultural and religious diversity of its peoples. And it was inclusive outside its borders, prepared to overlook the horrors of colonialism once colonialism had formally ended, to forge new and equitable relations with all the countries and peoples of the world.

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