Maitrayee Sen, “Tagore’s ideal of Paradise”, review, Tagore Speaks to the Twenty-First Century by Christine Marsh (TagoreanWorld Publishing, 2016), Hindol, April 2017, 129-231.
The name of the book itself—Tagore Speaks to the Twenty-first Century—is arresting enough, and as one begins to read, one realizes how different it is to what one normally expects in most of the countless books written on Tagore. The author, Dr. Christine Marsh, focuses not on his poetry or songs that, as she correctly says, he is indeed worshipped for, but on his essays, through which she feels he intended to convey his message to the future man – essays that have been vastly ignored or at best by-passed by all except scholars.
Perhaps her not being an Indian (she is British) has provided her with a better perspective from which to observe Tagore in his full totality by enabling her to look with complete open-mindedness at all the aspects of his multi-faceted personality and select this aspect as a particularly striking one. Her lack of knowledge of the Bengali language naturally kept her from getting swept away by the magic of his poetry; talking about Gitanjali, somewhat startlingly for most Tagore fans, she states, “I confess that very few of Tagore’s renderings of his poems into English appeal to me. On the other hand, many of Tagore’s poems which have been translated into English by experts such as William Radice and Ketaki Kushari Dyson have moved me to tears”.
In this book she discusses the “myriad-minded poet”, with the intention to help readers to appreciate the key ideas of the “social reformer” Rabindranath Tagore, “by holding up his image as an important pioneer and advocate for the principle of self-help”, an aspect of his work that she feels is still not well-understood.
There are six chapters in the text, the first being the Introduction. Then come five chapters, one on each of the five books of essays, with a conclusion, followed by an essay selected from the respective book, to be read “with open curiosity”. “One must allow Tagore’s ideas to flow through his words –and just listen”, the author says. Her admiration and deep regard for Tagore as a man and his writing are obvious as she explains how she has presented the contents “to provide an experience of immersion into Tagore’s own words”. She says in the Preface itself – and I feel that it would be best to use her own words here, “The intention of this book is to provide a new platform for the great Indian social reformer Rabindranath Tagore to communicate his ideas. He had warned the world that it was headed along a dangerous path and we now know he was right. He spoke about an alternative course, and carried out such practical experiments as his resources allowed, in the hope that they would set an example which would be followed”. He believed that people should be given the freedom to work cooperatively towards self-reliance at the local community level, and enrich their lives as a result. Listening to Tagore could at least revive the faith he had in humanity and “give us hope and courage” to face the future.
Dr. Marsh sought to reconcile the aspirations of a Romantic poet that the world knows Tagore to be, with “the indefatigable man of action”, taking considerable pains to show that to Tagore, there never was any contradiction between the two. Five books of Tagore’s essays, “Sadhana”, “Personality”, “Nationalism”, “Creative Unity” and “The Religion of Man” provide the basis of this book. In it the author argues that these writings have not been properly appreciated and that the 42 essays published in these five books are the most important of all Tagore’s writings. She has, however, acknowledged immediately that her idea of what is most important may of course differ from that of others. She also asserts that in giving priority to this particular set of essays she does not mean to disregard his oeuvre as a whole. She cites Dr. Karan Singh’s suggestion that the reason for Tagore’s ‘philosophy and his remarkable views on many contemporary social, economic and political issues’ not having ‘received adequate attention’ is because they were ‘overshadowed’ by his famous poetry. It is in order to bring Tagore out of such ‘shadows’, that Dr. Marsh earnestly urges the twenty-first century “to listen to what he said to us so many years ago” through her presentation and analysis of the material selected by her.
According to Dr. Marsh, throughout his English essays, there is evidence of Tagore’s sense that either a retreat from modern civilization or its collapse is inevitable in order that mankind can return to the ideal society of cooperative and creative communities, with the aims of integrating village and city people and removing caste, class and religious barriers. She has referred repeatedly to his ‘‘life’s work”, as he himself called it, as encompassing his practical endeavours in education and rural reconstruction in Shantiniketan and Sriniketan over almost thirty years. All accounts of these show his tremendous commitment and energy, but the most important thing coming out is his vision, his understanding and his stubborn faith in humanity. It is this which inspired him to persist with them through fifty years of his life.
As Dr. Marsh gives her interpretation and analysis of the essays, she comes back again and again to discussions of Tagore’s ideas of religion. She observes that his “religion is his philosophy and also his science and everything he writes is permeated by the emotions and insights of the poet and artist.” Religion is important here because his work was “as much a religious mission as a social one” to him. Poetlike, Tagore does not define terms that appear repetitively in his writings, such as personality, reality, art etc. This fact obviously made some commentators uncomfortable; one of them interestingly comments, “Tagore’s mission is that of the prophet – neither to define the truth nor prove it, but to convey it.” Dr. Marsh feels that it is this opinion of Tagore – that he was a seer, a mystic, even a prophet – that kept many of his important statements in political and social matters from being taken seriously by thinkers of the day. She mentions how in “Sadhana”, Tagore shows that active work was central to his religion. There he quotes from the Isa Upanishad, which was a favourite with him, “Let not the work of man cling to him”, suggesting that the aim is to outgrow life by living it to the full, hence, “Do your work, but let not your work cling to you”.
She dwells at length over Tagore’s association with C. F. Andrews, Rothenstein, Elmherst, Edward Thompson, as also Gandhi, Nehru and many others whose interactions with him might have had bearing upon his writings of the nature dealt with in this book. She also writes in some detail about the Swadeshi Movement and his foreign tours in the same context. She repeatedly mentions his frequent changes of mood that she feels also influenced his thought processes considerably.
Dr. Marsh feels that all through the writings of Tagore is his intense faith in and desire for harmony between the individual man and God, and “the harmony of completeness in humanity, where poverty does not take away his riches, where defeat may lead him to victory, death to immortality”, as he writes at the end of the essay “Naionalism in India”.
In Tagore Speaks her aim clearly is to present Tagore’s ideas as having down-to-earth practical value, and her message to the reader is to focus more attention and thought on such material as presented by her in it. She brings forward and upholds the relevance of Tagore’s ‘alternative course’ in the modern world. The book is full of her sensitive observations regarding Tagore, speaks eloquently of her faith in him and is eminently readable. The delicately drawn sketch on the front cover gives it a special look.
In this very carefully and exhaustively researched book the author has brought in references from a very large variety of sources, Eastern and Western – litterateurs, scholars, philosophers, social thinkers, politicians, poets, ancient scriptures like the Upanishads, and film-makers (like Satyajit Ray). It is not possible to do justice to all of this in a short review. Because of all the inputs received from these varied sources it may, at times, become a little difficult for the uninitiated reader to comprehend the picture that the author intends to depict. It is nevertheless a veritable treasure trove of information, that any serious student of Tagore would appreciate and greatly value.
I would like to end with Dr. Marsh’s own words in connection with her concept of Tagorean world change, which she declares “is friendly, joyful, imaginative and highly diverse, fulfilling Tagore’s faith in an ideal of that Paradise, which is ‘the ultimate reality towards which all things are moving’, and which ‘is to be seen in the sunlight, and the green of the earth, in the beauty of the spring, and the repose of a winter morning.’”
To buy a copy of Tagore Speaks to the Twenty-First Century, click the paypal button below. I’m offering it for only £10, including UK or international postage [£10 = $12.57, €11.57, 830 rupees]