Rabindranath Tagore's Nobel Prize has been in the news for the past few months, more for the manner in which the medallion disappeared from the Vishwa Bharati Museum at Shantiniketan. Much has been spoken about the loss of the medal and the event has been politicized to great lengths. No doubt it is a great loss for the country's heritage, as much or maybe even more than the loss of the Kohinoor Diamond or the Peacock Throne. But, an interesting comment was offered on the subject by Dr. Amartya Sen. Sen, another Nobel laureate, was bold enough to state that, if looked at in perspective, it was still the loss of a material possession and not something as horrifying as communal riots or deaths by starvation on account of abject poverty. While the national channel, Doordarshan, reported Dr. Sen's comment, most of the media failed to pick up this angle.
With Tagore's 143rd birth centenary being celebrated between the 7th and 9th of May, it would be interesting to speculate on what Tagore himself might have thought of the loss. Gurudev Rabindranath was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 and was its first Indian recipient. The masterpiece that won him this recognition was the Gitanjali, a touching book of verses that he penned in Bengali in 1910 after he lost his father, wife, second daughter and youngest son. He later translated this work into English, and the story goes that the Nobel Committee decided to go with his own translation, since they did not have a Bengali translator on their panel. William Butler Yeats, who wrote the introduction for the English translation of the Gitanjali had this to say: I have carried the manuscript of these translations about with me for days, reading it in railway stations, or on the top of omnibuses and in restaurants, and I have often had to close it lest some stranger would see how much it moved me. These lyrics ' display in their thought a world I have dreamed of all my life long.
Tagore, who was brought up in an atmosphere of spirituality, was a precocious child and started writing verse from the age of 13 years. For the next 67 years, till his death in 1941, he had to his credit a voluminous amount of writings comprising poems, dramas, novels, short stories, songs, discussions and essays, all of which flowed effortlessly from his thoughts on to paper. It is very difficult to put Rabindranath in a particular category, as he was a multi-faceted personality. He composed the music for his own songs (drawing inspiration from sources as varied as Western classical and Indian Carnatic), sang them, painted, evolved his own language style and wrote lyrical letters and essays, besides being a genius as a poet, mystic, philosopher, humorist, novelist and dramatist. Tagore was one of the pioneers of the Indian Renaissance and used his creativity and talent for half a century to give a direction to the political and spiritual revival of India.
Tagore's religious beliefs were shaped by the Upanishadic philosophy that he imbibed from his father, Maharishi Devendranath, who was one of the early leaders of the Brahmo Samaj. Like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the founder of the Brahmo Samaj, Tagore's ideals encompassed a blend of Western science and practical efficiency, along with the spiritual legacy of the East. His philosophy was one of Personal Idealism, which subscribes to the belief that the human mind at its highest is the best example of experienced reality, and this idealism was manifest in all of Tagore's creative output. Tagore explains this best in The Religion of Man when he speaks about the personal feeling that a man has for his son as being an ultimate truth - the truth of relationship, the truth of a harmony in the Universe, the fundamental principle of creation.
Parallels have been drawn between the metaphysical nature of Tagore's poetry to that of poets like John Donne and Herbert, but while they were narrowed by a Christian and often theological approach, Tagore's work was of a universal nature in true Vedantic tradition. Tagore's poetry could well be compared to some of England's best poets, though he may not have achieved their degree of worldwide recognition. Tagore is known to have covered all aspects of human life and emotions in his writings, and there are those who firmly believe that he would have surpassed the best of Western dramatists, poets and writers, had he been born in the West and written in the language of the West.
Tagore was intensely preoccupied with world peace and the brotherhood of man. He was deeply distressed by the I World War and anxious about the looming war clouds prior to the Second. He expressed the feeling that while countries had been brought closer by science, this coming together had not always been of a sympathetic nature. He lamented that in addition to creating objects that men fought over, science and technology had also led to the creation of devastating weapons that give rise to war and destruction. In the Religion of Man he wrote: The primitive barbarity of limitless suspicion and mutual jealousy fill the world's atmosphere today, the barbarity of the aggressive individualism of nations, pitiless in its greed, unashamed of its boastful brutality.
About the loss of his Nobel medallion (which the Nobel Committee has offered to duplicate), Gurudev Rabindranath might well have said as he did in his Gitanjali in anticipation of death: From now, I leave off all petty decorations. Lord of my heart, no more shall there be for me waiting in corners, no more coyness and sweetness of demeanour. Thou hast given me thy sword for adornment. No more doll decorations for me! This is certainly understandable from a savant who returned his knighthood after the Jalianwallah Bagh massacre. Tagore, if he lived in this day and time, would rather have mourned the loss of humanism in Iraq, Gujarat, Palestine and elsewhere in the world. His vision was for a world that has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls whilst his prayer was for aheaven of freedom into which his country might awake.