Tagore's role in shaping Asian identity and Eastern culture


Oct 8, 2009
Dead poet's solace | Sydney Morning Herald

The bard of Bengal has much to teach Australians as the nation takes its place in the front row of the Asian century, writes Tanveer Ahmed.

Earlier this month, on an unusually cool Saturday evening, almost a thousand people packed a concert hall at Macquarie University to hear the musical and theatrical imitations of the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. Most were first-generation migrants from India and Bangladesh plus a sprinkling of academics with an interest in south Asia. They hung on every word and note as they paid homage to their idol, the pre-eminent literary figure of the subcontinent's modern history and the first Asian to receive the Nobel Prize for literature.

The scene was being replayed around the world, from expatriate centres such as London and Toronto, to the Indian parliament, where the country's leader, Manmohan Singh, praised Tagore for being one of the key shapers of modern India and among its great internationalists. The revelry will continue for the rest of the year, in celebration of the 150th anniversary of his birth.

Just before World War I, Tagore was made famous by the writer W.B. Yeats, who said of his writings that they were "a world I have dreamed of all my life long". He became a seminal figure embodying the mysticism of the Orient, a projection of Europe's obsession with the perceived spiritual core of the East.

As this week's New Yorker magazine recounts, an alleged story is that German army medics revived an Indian soldier by saying Tagore's name. While the account is unlikely, it illustrates that Tagore, for close to a decade, embodied the possibility of saintliness in the mind of Europeans.

But this ignores Tagore's most prescient and more relevant obsessions, virtually forgotten outside India, about the rise of Asia and its relationship to Europe, the possibility of an intellectual union between East and West and how to be modern and Asian at the same time, as he wrote in an essay on nationalism: "If the new age has indeed come to Asia then let Asia give voice to it in her own special idiom of civilisation. If instead of that she imitates the roar of Europe, even if it be a lion's roar, yet it will sound pitifully unreal."

He is relevant to Australia because our country has hitched its economic wagon to the speeding locomotive that is China and, to a lesser extent, India. Indeed, there is considerable room to move in expanding our relationship with India.

We have bought front-row tickets to the Asian century and play a prominent role backstage. What happens in the minds of Asians - their conflicts and passions as they hurtle towards becoming the dominant mass of the world's middle class and the crucial engine of global prosperity - matters. It is important to us because it will surely spill over both into our suburbs and our boardrooms.

Tagore's ideas were rooted in a wide experience of a freshly globalised world. Born in May 1861 to a wealthy, Brahmin family in the Indian region of Bengal, he came of age on a continent pathetically subject to the West, intellectually as well as materially.

The colonial masters, be they British, French or Dutch, were backed by garrisons and gunboats and free to transport millions of Asian labourers to far-off colonies, to extract raw materials and commodities from Asian economies, and to flood local markets with their manufactured products.

The Europeans, convinced of their moral superiority, also sought to impose profound social and cultural reforms upon Asia. Even a father of modern liberalism like John Stuart Mill assumed that Indians had to first grow up under British tutelage before they could absorb the good things - such as democracy, economic freedom, science - that the West had to offer.

The result was widespread displacement: many Asians in their immemorial villages and market towns were forced to abandon a life defined by religion, family and tradition amid rumours of powerful white men fervently reshaping the world, by means of compact and cohesive nation-states, the profit motive and superior weaponry.

These trends are being mirrored today, whereby the traditional ties that most people in Asian societies had to family, clan and religion are being usurped to recreate citizens bound to a nation state. Rural suicide has quadrupled in India and China in the past two decades, as history's most rapid urbanisation marches onwards.

One of the great tensions in this modern, sociological theatre is whether there can be something uniquely Asian about embracing the industrial age, as espoused by some of the continent's greatest modern statesman, from Gandhi to Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew.

Tagore observed that dignity, even survival, for many uprooted Asians seemed to lie in careful imitation of the West. He keenly registered the moral and psychological effects of this worldwide destruction of old ways and lifestyles and the ascendancy of Western cultural, political and economic norms. He argued presciently that a synthesis with Asian identities was crucial to avoid social instability and cultural disintegration.

Likewise, Tagore observed long before more modern thinkers, such as the British-Indian author Pankaj Mishra, that one of the central aims of India's 19th-century anti-colonial movements was to invent Hinduism as a religion. As part of building a modern Indian nation that could resist and overthrow British rule, the Hindu elite simplified and remoulded India's rich tapestry of beliefs and practices into something resembling a Western creed.

Like Shinto in Japan, Hinduism in Indian politics today is a byproduct of an encounter with the West. In order to resist Western domination, Asian peoples have found themselves compelled to copy them, often with muscular versions of Islam, Hinduism or Confucianism.

With this history in mind, modern trends such as Islamic fundamentalism can be seen in the context of a reaction to and origination from Western values, and not merely an archaic opposition. When the divisions of the Cold War were still in place, communist regimes were seen as belonging to an Eastern bloc that stood apart from the main thrust of Western civilisation. Far from being anti-Western, communism was hyper-Western and built on a radical interpretation of Western enlightenment values.

The current view of Islam as being somehow anti-Western is just as unreal. In terms of its basic picture of the world, Islam belongs in the Western tradition of monotheism, and radical Islam is in many ways a hybrid offshoot of Leninism and anarchism - also Western ideologies. Like Soviet Russia and Maoist China, Islamist movements owe more to the modern West than we - or they - care to admit. Tagore unwittingly foresaw such trends at the turn of last century.

While Tagore denounced British imperialism as exploitative, he welcomed the liberal roots of Europe and its redeeming modernity. Other dominant figures of Asian modern history, such as Gandhi and Mao, derided the West for what they saw as an obsession with rapacious material riches, discounting the achievements of political liberty and the scientific method. Like his compatriots, Tagore began by believing in an essential dichotomy between the two cultures and, for a certain period, talked of a spiritual East and the materialistic West. But there was an evolution in his understanding when he discovered for himself a spirituality in Western civilisation too, which he placed in the West's dynamism and experimentation and its continuous pursuit of truth.

Tagore's reputation, within India and outside it, has suffered from his being made a parochial possession of one province, Bengal. It was in Bengali that he wrote his poems, novels, plays and songs, works that are widely read and regularly performed many decades after his death, aged 80, in 1941.

This geographical diminution of the man and his reputation has been commented upon by another great world traveller and global citizen of Bengali extraction, the sitar player made famous by the Beatles, Ravi Shankar. In his autobiography, the musician writes that ''being Bengali, of course, makes it natural for me to feel so moved by Tagore; but I do feel that if he had been born in the West he would now be as revered as Shakespeare and Goethe".

One of the best-known Indian historians, Ramachandra Guha, labelled Tagore the third most influential figure of modern India after Gandhi and Nehru, basing his decision on the influence Tagore's writings and conversations had upon the minds of the former two. In particular, Tagore's idea that a cultural and political identity can be built around an ethos that embraces religious plurality resonated long after his death.

This is particularly true in today's globalised world, where many of us have what the Nobel laureate and economist Amartya Sen has called a multiplicity of identities. Sen counts Tagore as his greatest intellectual influence. According to Sen, our identities are defined by a multiplicity of factors: gender, ethnic origin, religious affiliation, political preference and geographical location. In a world of globalised communication and mobility, the ferocious schisms engendered by extremist interpretations of identities are not only a real and sinister threat but simply wrong - and the reasoned, inclusive tolerance of a Tagorean mindset can be a wondrous antidote.

It is something I see in my patients, where those with rigid identities unable to shift in a rapidly changing world are most likely to suffer mental illness.

As India and China rise with their consumerist middle classes in a world of finite energy resources, it is easy to imagine that this century will be ravaged by the kind of economic rivalry and military conflict that made the last century so violent. In any case, the hope that fuels the pursuit of endless economic growth - that billions of customers in India and China will one day enjoy the lifestyles of Europeans and Americans - is potentially a dangerous fantasy. It may condemn the global environment to early destruction, and looks set to create reservoirs of nihilistic rage and disappointment among hundreds of millions of have-nots.

While the average Australian is unlikely to have heard of him, Tagore was arguably one of the most relevant and prescient thinkers of the last century, but consigned to the intellectual scrap heap for the world beyond Bengal and Bangladesh. This is a tragedy. In the one multicultural, Western country most tied to Asian expansion in every sphere, Tagore's ideas may well be worth reviving.

Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist.

Latest Replies

Global Defence