Rabindra-radicalism: Re-reading Rabindranath Tagore for the Twenty-first Century

I don’t want to become obsessive about this blog, and I thought about skipping today. But then I thought of a little piece I wrote for a presentation three years ago.


To place Tagore in time I’ve got my mother’s knitting book,[1] published in the year Tagore died, 1941, aged 80. 1941 was the year before I was born, so I’m now 66, and when Tagore was that age, he was in the middle of 18 years travelling round the world delivering his very powerful message – hence ‘Rabindra-radicalism’ in my title. Most people didn’t get what he said. That’s the weird thing about reading and listening: we bring our own stuff to it, and if what you expect and need is a prophet or a mystic, that’s what you find. I hear Tagore as an angry wizard, and a world change visionary, so that’s what I find.

I first heard of Rabindranath Tagore (in 1991, I think) from Marjorie Sykes, who had known Tagore and translated his autobiography My Boyhood Days into English in 1940. She wrote a quotation from Tagore’s essay, ‘City and Village’, in my copy of her book about Gandhi, and I looked that up and found it in a collection of his essays: Towards Universal Man).[2] Years later, I encountered Tagore again in the Leonard Elmhirst papers in the Dartington Archive, and found out about their work together on rural reconstruction in Bengal. Later still, I read about Tagore, the Poet, while studying W.B. Yeats, who wrote an introduction to Gitanjali, [3]  which got Tagore the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.

I became utterly fascinated by this man and his work, not the poetry, but his other writings and his practical projects, I wrote my MA dissertation on ‘The Village and the World: A Political Reading of Rabindranath Tagore’s Prose Fiction’. I can’t read Bengali, so I’m now taking a subset of his writing, his English Writings, [4] which he either wrote in English, or translated himself, three big heavy volumes, quite enough material to work on – but how?

Back to the knitting book, which is all about patterns, yarns and thrift. My mother used it a lot so it’s fallen apart. The part about thrift – what to do when yarn was scarce – reminds me of my mother unravelling old jumpers and things, winding up the wool into balls and keeping them ready to knit into something later. After she died I found bags and bags of hundreds of balls of wool, and bits of knitting with the needles still in. So far that’s pretty much how I’ve done research.

A pattern is what I need. Firstly I need to know what I’m knitting, a pair of mittens or a waistcoat, say? – in this context, what’s my argument? I think what I want to argue is that there’s a parallel that can be drawn between Tagore’s notion of ‘the village’, and ‘village dharma’: the essential nature of a village, and the current movement focussed on ‘re-localisation’, and also ‘rooted identity’, in contrast to ‘categorical identity’, as discussed by Patrick Colm Hogan, who has written about dharma in ways I can understand, in an essay about Tagore’s novel Gora.[5]

I could take the first thing I read of Tagore, the essay called ‘City and Village’ – and there’s plenty more on the same lines from the English Writings – and link that to books from my educational work on land degradation: Topsoil and Civilization,[6] and Fire and Civilization.[7] I’ve long held the view that civilisation, as in cities, exploiting land and human resources, is a very bad thing, which Tagore says too in uncertain terms. And on the alternative, the village or re-localisation, there’s this short biography of Tagore, focussed on what the author calls ‘the lesser known aspects of Rabindranath’s life’[8] – and much else.

Back to the knitting pattern analogy. I’m heading towards making a big stripy jumper from yarn taken, however selectively, from Tagore’s English Writings, combined with a lot of my own stuff. I need ‘something else’, another kind of thread. I was in Waterstone’s with my granddaughter, who was examining the extensive section on dragons, trying to find a book she hadn’t got, so I sloped off to the Lit Crit section – and spotted a book by Foucault: Madness and Civilization [9] which goes nicely with Topsoil and Civilization and Fire and Civilisation. Better still, I found two useful scraps inside Foucault’s book, one where he says that too much liberty, not enough physical work to do, and too much reading, makes people go mad (MC, pp.202-9), and the other is on how poverty makes wealth possible, the poor being ‘the basis and the glory of nations’ (MC, p.218-9), and I expect he says more of the same elsewhere.

There is another thread I’d add from ‘my stuff’, taking two books from my collection: Darwin’s Blind Spot[10] and Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid.[11] What they are saying – or how I read them – is that civilisation is anomalous; it is not ‘the norm’; being and behaving as a citizen is not ‘normal’ human behaviour and state of mind. They discuss how animals generally evolved, and the human species too, and what was the main driver behind evolution, and our evolutionary strength. The answer lies in cooperation, the concept of symbiosis, which includes parasitism – and cities are parasitic – and the opposite, which is mutualism, also the intriguing idea of exo-symbiosis – and the village is an exo-symbiotic super-organism, as it were. In his own way, Tagore tells the same story about what is wrong with Western civilization, and why we need to recover and reconstruct humanity from the traditional village – but not going back to that, Tagore was not against modernisation, when it can be usefully applied.

So, that is my challenge: how to knit up those threads into the trend-setting creation I am aiming for.

[1] Margaret Murray and Jane Koster, Knitting for All Illustrated (Odhams, 1941)

[2] Rabindranath Tagore, Towards Universal Man (London: Asia, 1961)

[3] Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali (London: Macmillan, 1913)

[4] The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, edited by Sisir Kumar Das (New Delhi: Sahita Akademi, 1994)

[5] Patrick Colm Hogan, ‘Orthodoxy and Universalism, Rabindranath Tagore’s Gora’, in Colonialism and Cultural Identity: Crises of Tradition in the Anglophone Literatures of India, Africa and the Caribbean (New York: State University of New York, 2000), pp.213-55

[6] Topsoil and Civilization, by Vernon Gill Carter and Tom Dale (University of Oklahoma Press, 1974 [1955])

[7] Fire and Civilization by Johan Goudsblom (London: Penguin, 1994)

[8] Uma Das Gupta, Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography (New Delhi: OUP, 2004)

[9] Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, translated by Richard Howard (London: Routledge, 2001 [1961])

[10] Darwin’s Blind Spot: Evolution Beyond Natural Selection, by Frank Ryan (London: Thomson, 2003)

[11] Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid (London: Heinemann, 1904)

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