Let me begin my speech in this birthday webinar organized by the High Commission of India in Dhaka to commemorate Rabindranath Tagore's 159th birthday by referring to his last public address, Sabhyater Sankat or Crisis in Civilization. Read out on behalf of the unwell poet four months before his death on 14 April, 1941, it is an address made pessimistic initially, not only by the shadow cast on the whole world by the seemingly all-engulfing Second World War, but also by the colonial arrogance on display then. But for Rabindranath, though the situation was grim, and though misery, misunderstanding and violence seemed to cloud the horizon, hope was not something to be forsaken, even in an apparently apocalyptic situation. To quote from the concluding section of the poet's speech, although all around him were "crumbling ruins of a proud civilization strewn like a vast heap of futility," he would not "commit the grievous sin of losing faith in Man" (The Essential Tagore, 215). Rabindranath goes on in his speech to envision "a dawn" emerging eventually, in all likelihood from the East, "where the sun rises," to allow humankind to reclaim their "lost heritage" (216).
Rabindranath Tagore thus offered to a world, even when fratricidal armies were clashing bloodily in one of the gloomiest phases of human history, a "ray of hope" through his vision of the future. This is why I believe that the theme chosen by the Indian High Commission of Bangladesh at this critical juncture of human existence is a particularly apt one—kabiguru offers us through this final address to the world, as he always did through his works and philosophical musings as well as his actions, a demonstration of his unwavering faith in humankind. Rabindranath, is ultimately the poet of hope, encouraging all of us to cope with public as well as personal crises, through his actions, as well as his words. Now that we are in a corona-infected world, confined to our homes, constricted in our movements, and leading cramped lives in shrinking, bordered spaces, more than ever, we need to remember on this birthday event what Rabindranath articulated at every turn of his eighty years in the planet---hope is what we can never abandon. For him, the sun will rise again and break through night, inevitably, naturally and invigoratingly. Surely, his father Maharshi Debendranath Tagore had been prophetic in naming him Rabindranath— for he is truly "Robi," a sun who can guide us in these, and all other times of crisis.
Personally, I am more addicted to Rabindranath's songs than any other genres or creative outlets that streamed from him, and so let me focus in particular on one of his best-loved songs, "Anandodhara Bohiche Bhubane," (Happiness Streams Across the Universe), to see how he himself coped with personally difficult situations. The song was composed in 1908 at a time when Rabindranath had become overwhelmed by personal tragedies. His dear wife and unfailing helpmeet Mrinalini Devi became ill and died on 23 November, 1902; nine months later, his daughter Renuka died at the age of thirteen; Satis Roy, a young poet and teacher of his Shantiniketan school he was particularly fond of, died four months later of typhoid then raging in Bengal, and his youngest and dearest child, the thirteen-year old Samindra, died of cholera in November 1907. As Rabindranath's biographer Krishna Kripalani, puts it, it was as if God had "sent him, as He had done to His Servant Job of the Old Testament, a series of bereavements and afflictions" to try him (201). What he does in the song, however, is admonish himself for letting depression grip him when God seemed to be sending down every day reasons for living. As Rabindranath berates himself in the song, why was he sitting alone, submerged in the self, and "feeling forlorn," when day and night heavenly bliss was splashing across the universe, and the sun and moon beaming down forever? He should rather consider his sorrows "inconsequential," fill the void in his life with love for others, and act positively. This then is the kind of philosophical musing offering rays of hope to us that we can recall on his 159th birthday in this corona-infected year.
Let us remember at this time too that during these years of bereavement, Rabindranath was fully involved in all kinds of humanitarian and national causes and not only writing poetry and staying depressed. After all, these were the years when he was running his fledgling school in Shantiniketan set up for altruistic purposes with his own money, taking an active part in the swadeshi movement till he got fed up with its excesses and increasingly communal bent, and working on schemes to help the peasants in his estates in east Bengal lead better lives.
Always, Rabindranath was the activist coming up with ways of helping people cope with the consequences of the natural or man-made disasters periodically ravaging the subcontinent. An example that comes to my mind on this occasion is the way he decided to aid the victims of people suffering from the famine-like conditions created by floods in North Bengal in 1932. What he did on this occasion was adapt for performance the long poem he had first written in English titled "The Child" that he had subsequently recreated as the Bengali poem "Shisu Thirta" in 1932. This adapted version became a Kolkata fund-raising event organized to help distressed people. What we find then is Rabindranath typically contributing the way he could at a moment of crisis, yet again.
The Rabindranath I would like us to commemorate on this birthday webinar is therefore the activist, as well as the seer-poet, who offered again and again rays of hope for his people through his life and works. In a part of the book he translated as Thoughts from Rabindranath Tagore, he urges us to "meet the morning light" and not sit with our face "turned away" from it; in his essay on "Hindus and Muslims," he exhorts them to 'demolish the barriers that have been built" in their minds; in another essay titled "The Tenant Farmer" he points out that no matter how difficult the situation is, one must not give up "the will to live"; in his breakthrough poem "Nirjharer Swapna-Bhanga" or "The Fountain's Awakening" he is rhapsodic in the final line because "the sun has finally found its way!" In another poem "Sabhyatar Prati" or "To Civilization" he declares that we must "burst through all barriers that hem us in and feel/This boundless universe's pulsating heartbeat!" In his last, death-bed poem, "Tomar Srishtir Poth" or "On the Way to Creation", he tells us to embrace "truth" and cleanse "our innermost being by its light". And in a song-lyric he wrote on one of his birthdays, "Hey Notun" or "O Herald of the New," he urges himself to be "Like the rising sun/ Burst through the heart of the void and unveil yourself/ Let life be revealed as triumphant."
Rabindranath Tagore, then, is forever our "robi" shining steadfastly over our part of the world, sending his rays of hope across the subcontinent, and even to other parts of the world, warming our hearts and minds with his poems, songs, plays, dance-dramas, fiction, prose, the institutions he created like Visva-Bharati or Sriniketan, and, indeed, through his exemplary life. His musings on the world of the spirit, harmony between peoples, the limitations of nationalism and the need for an international outlook; his thoughts on rural reconstruction, cooperative development, preserving the environment and education amidst nature are as relevant as ever. For us in Bangladesh, in particular, he has been an unending source of inspiration and a sustaining force. For our two nations, of course, he is a bond that is permanent. On this birthday webinar, being organized at a time when our people are trying to cope with the crisis brought about by Covid-19, we know that he is a ray of hope we can turn to and be inspired by as we move on to better days and a brighter future.
Fakrul Alam is UGC Professor, Department of English, University of Dhaka.