Legacy of Rabindranath :

Discard the Dead, Uphold the Living

Arindam Sen



It was Rabindranath’s firm conviction that (a) occasional issue-based protests against excesses committed by the Raj are necessary, but these should never be allowed to transgress or disturb the framework of long-term mutual co-operation between the king and the subjects and (b) Indians themselves are often to blame for state repression.i Naturally he stood aloof from massive agitations like the non-cooperation and civil disobedience movements and fiercely opposed the activities of national revolutionaries.
“Our Most Dangerous Enemies”
Yes, Robi Thakur went to this extent in depicting those who were allegedly “spoiling the holy yagna” of swadeshi “by throwing sinful materials into its sacred fire”–i.e., revolutionaries who were destroying the sanctity of the cause by indulging in bloodshed.ii The novel Ghare Baire or Home and the World (serialised in a Bengali periodical in 1915, the year “Bagha (Tiger) Jatin” embraced martyrdom in a heroic confrontation with the police) remains a powerful polemic against the major mistakes of the swadeshi movement in its later phase. However, the portrayal of Sandeep – a selfish, hypocritical, cowardly villain – as a typical leader of the agitation came in for widespread criticism, and not without justification. The most bitter and biased attack on national revolutionaries was launched in Char Adhyaya or Four Chapters (1934). The utterly disgraceful portrayal of revolutionism – cruel, conspiratorial and absolutely dehumanising – came as the rudest shock to the people of Bengal and the poet’s admirers throughout India.
Indranath, the dictator of an underground revolutionary group, has embarked on this path purely for ego-satisfaction: “not for achieving something, but to prove my heroic qualities”. He recruits Ela, the beautiful heroine, to attract and catch young men. Atin, a highly gifted youth from an aristocratic background, falls in the trap and joins the group. Before long the hero (Atin) and the heroine (Ela) get totally disillusioned but cannot escape the bond of commitment. Meanwhile, a male member of the group becomes jealous of Atin and turns into a police informer. Out of anxiety that Ela may get arrested and divulge the secrets, Indranath orders Atin to kill her. The actual killing is not shown, but the fiction ends with a clear hint that the order is carried out.
To lend credence to the storyline, Rabindranath added a preface where he narrated his last meeting with Bramhabandhab Upadhyaya, a highly respected Vedantic scholar who joined the swadeshi movement and became the fiery editor of the periodical Sandhya, getting arrested on sedition charges. Upadhyaya had come to convey, writes Thakur, his deep sense of guilt for having joined the violent agitation, from which it was no longer possible to move away (a clear allusion to Atin’s situation). Many if not most readers considered this story to be fictitious (Upadhyaya had died long ago, so his version was not available) and in the face of public disbelief Robi Babu silently withdrew the preface itself from subsequent editions of the book.
Not that the revolutionary patriotic movement did not suffer from some of the negative traits (e.g., internal squabbles leading to arrests) depicted in Four Chapters. But these were blown out of proportion and the positive aspects were unduly suppressed. Even if we leave aside Bhagat Singh’s HSRA, in Thakur’s Bengal itself “Master-da” Surya Sen’s group (credited with the establishment of parallel state power in Chattogram, now in Bangladesh, in 1930) demonstrated exemplary courage, determination, discipline and clarity of purpose. More important, women revolutionaries like Pritilata Waddedar, Kalpana Dutta (Joshi) and others played highly responsible roles, earning fullest trust and respect of all. Four Chapters by contrast depicts only the dark side (the reference to some honest, idealist young boys pales into insignificance) added with some falsehood (like attractive women entrapping and intoxicating young men) and doubtful elements (like the very unusual narration of the Upadhyaya episode).
It would be worth our while to take a glance at the political backdrop that stirred the poet into writing this intensely political novel. From the late 1920s the country was seething with anti-British movements of all kinds: workers’ strike struggles and a two-hour occupation of the Congress conference pandal in Kolkata (1928) by nearly fifty thousand workers with slogans of purna swaraj and socialist republic; armed actions and publicist activities of national revolutionaries; establishment of parallel governments in Peshawar, Sholapur and Chattogram; the civil disobedience movement with all its ramifications and so on. Thakur’s Soviet trip in 1930 was undertaken in this setting and the combined impact of the domestic situation and the Soviet experience on his thought process can be seen in a letter to his son. [See box; he seemed to be preparing for some kind of revolutionary upheaval in India as well – one that would sweep away landlordism, on which his entire family had been reared.]
Retaliation by the British government also surpassed all previous records. As many as 10 ordinances were passed, more than 120,000 arrests were made in the 15 months to April 1933, three new prisons had to be built and the police resorted to firing on numerous occasions. Rabindranath himself came out with strong statements condemning the atrocities. (All this did not, however, deter him from putting his own words into the mouth of Indranath to the effect that the English was the greatest among all European nations, carrying the maximum burden of foreign nations and hesitant about going to extremes in unleashing repression.) In May 1934 an attempt was made on the life of Sir John Anderson, the hated Governor of Bengal, in Darjeeling. Robi Thakur immediately cabled a couple of messages from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) – one to the Governor and the other to Daily News – condemning the attack and expressing regret on the part of “all of us in Bengal”. He immediately set about writing Four Chapters; the major part of the book was completed by the next month. The book was published at the end of 1934. Early next year Anderson paid a visit to Shantiniketan on condition – which was duly met – that all students and bulk of the teachers (save the departmental heads and Thakur himself) must vacate the place during the visit to ensure the security of the royal guest.
The government immediately seized upon the novel as a weapon of reactionary propaganda. In the words of Major C.J. Brenan: “Dr. Rabindranath Tagore has also recently been persuaded through the Assistant Director of Public Instruction/Bengal to dramatise one of his books Char Adhyaya which delivers a powerful attack on the cult of terrorism.... it is also proposed to make it staged in the first-class theatre in Calcutta like Rangmahal or Natya Niketan.”iv 
A dramatised version was indeed prepared (the manuscript is available in Rabindra Bhavan, Visva Bharati) but Four Chapters was not staged. According to Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyaya, the government bought hundreds of copies of the book and distributed it widely, including among political prisoners;v  however, some scholars believe this was not true.
The novel was greeted with the widest and sharpest criticism ever to be directed against any work by Rabindranath. Writing in the March 2, 1935 number of the Bengali weekly Desh, Meghnad Gupta (believed to be a pseudonym) opined that the poet’s arguments against terrorism were acceptable, but in many places his attack had been mean, ugly and untruthful. Gupta compared the book to a double-headed serpent, with one mouth biting the terrorist movement and the other pouring venom on the Gandhite agitation. In May Robi Thakur wrote back in Prabasi that the main theme of the novel was the love affair while the political context was a minor matter. A sharp rejoinder was immediately issued by Bijoylal Chattopadhyay, a well-known author and admirer of the poet. Writing in Desh, he effectively demolished Thakur’s poor defence and condemned him for “abandoning his flute for a megaphone”, and conducting “abrasive propaganda against the progressive nationalist movement”.
None of the critics, however, failed to pay handsome tributes to the great internationalist patriot even in the polemical pieces. The same was true for the dumbfounded revolutionaries, many of them in jail. If this is partly explained by the love and admiration he enjoyed on account of his great contributions to art and literature and some of his social activities, there were more solid reasons for this.
“Nobleness of the Heroic Hearts”
The foremost among these, of course, was the fact that decade after decade freedom fighters from Congress, revolutionary patriotic and socialist/communist backgrounds found in Rabindranath’s poems, songs and other works an ever-flowing spring well of spiritual inspiration, although on many occasions they found his political positions unacceptable. What his contemporary Ramendrasunder Trivedi noted in early 20th century from direct experience was reconfirmed 100 years later through systematic research done by social scientist Partho Chattopadhyaya: “as a poet and composer of songs, Rabindranath was a principal architect of the intense patriotic consciousness that drove thousands of young Bengali men and women to the politics of armed struggle.”vi  When for instance the young Jatin Das breathed his last on 13 September 1929 after 63 days of hunger strike in jail, the very next day Robi Thakur composed a song that instantly became the marching song of revolutionaries of Bengal: “ O Bhairava, the flames of your wrath consume all that is mean, so give us strength...”vii  In an exquisite poem written in response to a splendid salutation sent to him by revolutionaries of Buxa jail on the occasion of his 70th birthday, he admired them as messengers of light soaring above the dark prison walls and singing the song of freedom in the clutter of their chains. [See CW Vol. 2 pp 896-97]
Despite irreconcilable ideological difference, Robi Thakur had very warm affection for revolutionary patriots. He appointed some of them in his estates and in Shantiniketan, thereby earning the displeasure of the authorities. On one occasion government employees were pressured to take away their boys from Shantiniketan. In certain periods his mails and movements were subjected to police surveillance and one high official described him as the “aristocratic representative of the revolutionary party”. Writing in Deshahitaishi of 21 January 1983, Saroj Mukhopadhyaya (the then West Bengal state secretary of CPI(M) gave a vivid account of his and his comrades’ rendezvous with the poet at Jorasanko and Shantiniketan. As he tells us, the discussions would be always frank and cordial. One day the comrades told Robi Thakur that they did not like certain observations in “Letters from Russia” and that they were going to publish a critical assessment of the book. The poet replied, “Sure, go ahead. But tell me, are not my letters reasonably good? After all, I’m not a communist like you!” The Comrades replied, “Of course, what you have written has proved very effective in demolishing hostile propaganda against the Soviets.”viii  Interestingly, according to Ramananda Chattopadhyay, in private conversations with close friends Robi Babu would often say that he was a communist.ix And late in his life he also recognized the worth of the revolutionary patriots:
“They were born in this country with a light to kindle the lamp – but inadvertently lighted up a devastating fire, burnt themselves and on their way forward took a wrong turn. However, the nobleness of the heroic hearts that was expressed in the midst of terrible failure caused by the great mistake, I had never seen anywhere in India.” x
And again: “... I am sure, the soil on which they were born will produce such heroes again and, learning from past experience, they will go forward on a constructive course.”xi  
Vashishtha and Vishvamitra
Scholars have explained the contrast between the two roles and the two pens of Rabindranath (one producing emotionally charged songs and poems and the other weaving cool logic in prose) in various ways: the flickering moods poets are known for, the concern for reassuring the government that his patriotic outbursts were not to be taken too seriously, and so on. While these may be partially true, “the paradox” can be better understood in terms of a fundamental conflict of ideals that he always struggled to reconcile.
As he put it in The Religion of Man, these are: (a) “the best ideal in the West, the great truth of fight. For paradise has to be gained through conquest.” and (b) “Our own course is not so much through the constant readiness to fight in the battle of the good and evil, as through the inner concentration of mind, through pacifying the turbulence of desire.” He seeks to combine the two – as part of his lifelong project of bringing the East and the West together in the universal union of Man – in the light of the Gita: “Action there must be, fight we must have – not the fight of passion and desire, or arrogant self-assertion, but of duty done in the presence of the Eternal, the disinterested fight of the serene soul that helps us in our union with the Supreme Being.”xii 
A comparable conflict of ideals can also be discerned in the Indian philosophical/theological traditions. In Creative Unity Rabindranath speaks of two great sages -- “Vishvamitra sought to achieve power and was proud of it; Vashistha was brutally smitten by that power. But his hurt and his loss could not touch the illumination of his soul; for he rose above them and could forgive. Ramchandra, the great hero of our epic, had his initiation to the spiritual life from Vashistha, the life of inner peace and perfection. But he had his initiation to war from Vishvamitra, who called him to kill the demons and gave him weapons that were irresistible.
“Those two sages symbolised in themselves the two guiding spirits of civilisation. Can it be true that they shall never be reconciled?”xiii
A most genuine, most intense urge to reconcile the two ideas characterises the poet’s whole approach to life and politics, often tormenting him with questions and enriching many of his artistic creations with vibrant colours of imagination.
In any such combination or unity of opposites, as a rule one aspect predominates over the other and this is decided by a complex interplay of various internal and external conditions. Given Rabindranath’s class position, philosophical-cultural training and personal temperament, it was only natural that in an overall sense “the Eastern ideal” or the Vashishtha trait predominated, although the other aspect too would express itself now and then like lightning flashes – momentary but extremely bright, beautiful, thunderous. He paid highest tributes to freedom fighters precisely at moments of their intense suffering: to the imprisoned Aurobindo Ghosh, to Subhas Bose when he was rudely sidelined in and thrown out of the Congress, to Gandhi during his fasts and generally for his ascetic image, and so on. His praise of the revolutionary patriots cited above, it should be noted, finds place in addresses delivered in support of the already sidelined and agonised Subhas Bose and only in 1939, by which time they had practically ceased to exist as an organised force.
“Pilgrimage” to Russia
Rabindranath was a globetrotter of his time, but the trip that left the most lasting influence on him was the one to Russia. Despite hostile propaganda against the Bolshevik regime, he was very determined to go there. A tour was planned in 1926 but he fell seriously ill while in Vienna. The tour had to be cancelled. No visitors were allowed, but the patient somehow managed to smuggle into his bedroom a representative of the Soviet government and chalked out the tour. The poet was persuaded with great difficulty to abandon the idea. He planned to make the tour in 1929 but fell sick again. Finally he made it in September 1930 and wrote,
“... had I not come, my life’s pilgrimage would have remained incomplete.... to come to visit Russia at my age and in my present state of health was a rash undertaking. But since I had received the invitation, it would have been unpardonable not to see the light of the mightiest sacrificial fire that has been lit in the world history.” [Unless mentioned otherwise, all quotations in the section are from Letters from Russia, henceforth cited as LR]
Rabindranath visited Russia two years after the Sixth Comintern Congress, generally known as the initiator of “left” sectarianism. However, he received the most warm and massive welcome, being greeted “as a man of great vision and deep intuitive understanding of life’s essential realities.” As many as 25 volumes of his works had already been translated and published, so he had many readers in the country. He was immensely impressed with the wide interactions he had with peasants, intellectuals, students, Young Pioneers, cultural personalities and others.
LR also contains some criticism, e.g., dictatorship and “suppression of the individual in the name of the collective”. However, what strike the readers are the profuse and frequent bursts of joy and astonishment over the unthinkable progress in health, education, culture, collective farming, industrialisation, women’s liberation, childcare and all-round welfare and dignity of the people:
“What has pleased me most here is the complete disappearance of the vulgar conceit of wealth.... peasants and workers have all shaken off the load of disrespect and raised their heads. How wonderfully easy has become man’s relations with his fellows.”
The immense joy takes on a melancholy touch when the poet thinks of the downtrodden of his own country:
“I thought of the peasants and workers in my own country. It all seemed like the work of the genie in the Arabian nights. Only a decade ago they [the Russian working people – A Sen] were as illiterate, helpless and hungry as our own masses: equally blindly superstitious, equally stupidly religious. ... Who could be more astonished than an unfortunate Indian like myself to see how they have removed the mountain of ignorance and helplessness in these few years?”
But the sadness quickly dissolves into a new inspiration and hope. He was “staggered by the list of difficulties”, Thakur writes, and did not “entertain much hope for our country”, but “Henceforward I shall never believe in difficulties.”He repeatedly compares his “small endeavour” in Shantiniketan and Sriniketan to the great work being done on a huge national scale in the Soviet Union, contemplating the improvements he should introduce in his workplace once back home.
In LR, Thakur singled out universal education as the basis of the tremendous progress made in the USSR but in reply to a query from Prof. Petrov he cabled, “Your success is due to turning the tide of wealth from individual to collective humanity.” As we shall see in the next and concluding part of this article, actually he made no mistake in locating the foundation of all progress in a violent revolution; maybe he did not wish to express it in the letters meant for public consumption.

[To be concluded]

i See for example Yatrar Purbapatro (Prelude to the Journey) written in 1912 on the eve of a trip to Europe) where he clearly stated that “if it is true that India is invoking or arousing too much of greed, audacity, cowardice and cruelty among the English, it is not the latter that are to be blamed; the main responsibility must be borne by ourselves.” (CW Volume 10, p 58)
 ii Deshhita (What Is Good for the Country) 1908, CW volume 12. In a number of other essays also Rabindranath expressed broadly similar ideas.
 iii Letters from Russia, (henceforth LR) Visva Bharati, 1961, p 158
 iv Cited by Hitendra Mitra, Tagore without Illusions, Sanyal Prakashan, Kolkata, 1983, p 184.
 v Rabijiboni, Vol 3, p 509.
 vi Praja o Tantra or The Subjects and the System p 108.
 vii Bhairava is one of the many names of Shiva, referring to his role as destroyer.
 viii Cited by Chinmohan Sehanobish in Rabindranath O Biplabisamaj (Rabindranath and the Revolutionaries) Visva Bharati, 1985, p 120
 ix Ibid., p 65
 x Deshnayaka  or Leader of the Nation, CW Vol 13, p 389
 xi Mahajati Sadan, CW Vol 13, p 391
 xii The Religion of Man, Rupa, New Delhi, 2011, pp 71-74
 xiii Creative Unity, Macmillan, 1922, pp 67-68

 xiv Excerpted from Prashna (Question) translated by William Radice, Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Poems, Penguin Books, p 96