The 159th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore (Tagore Jayanti) was commemorated without much fanfare this year amid the coronavirus-triggered lockdown. While netizens across the world took recourse to social media to mark the day with live sessions, we, at Rabindranath Tagore Institute,  paid our floral tributes to the bust of Gurudev Tagore. This year, the celebration was without customary ceremonies; cultural performances with accompanying mirth and flurried activities were missing. On 7th May, every year, school and college students at RTI commemorate his anniversary by organizing various cultural activities in his honour; memorial lectures are held, which are delivered by prominent scholars of Tagore studies hailing from India and other countries. However, all events and activities were cancelled due to the pandemic.

With deep reverence in our hearts, we remembered the great visionary thinker, humanist, and poet par excellence on the auspicious day of his birth anniversary. This occasion makes me reflect on the relevance of Tagore and his thoughts to our times. As many serene and sobering thoughts flood my mind, I realise that this is the most appropriate time to rethink Tagore’s message of inner strength and hope.

The ravaging COVID-19 pandemic has wrought havoc on the lives of millions of people throughout the world. The epidemic and the consequential lockdown have forced us to stay home and follow social distancing. We stand face to face with the naked reality that we are weak and vulnerable. Several unnamed fears, anxieties, and insecurities engulf the mind as an uncanny sense of uncertainty loom large on the whole of humanity; we all falter in the face of imminent danger of the small virus. In such depressing times, Tagore’s writings remind us that no one is alone; that we all take part in a larger collectivity. We are a small drop in the ocean of humanity; our existence is bound to those of several others. We will survive if we help others to sustain. His writings advocate service, sacrifice, forbearance, and above all, steadfast love of Man – values that can help us to steer clear of this global calamity.

In his essay, “Crisis in Civilization” Tagore wrote « As I look around, I see the crumbling ruins of a proud civilization strewn like a vast heap of futility. And yet I shall not commit the grievous sin of losing faith in Man. I would rather look forward to the opening of a new chapter in his history after the cataclysm is over and the atmosphere rendered clean with the spirit of service and sacrifice. Perhaps that dawn will come from this horizon, from the East where the sun rises. A day will come when unvanquished Man will retrace his path of conquest….”

Tagore emphasized values of simplicity and empathy, and he also stressed the need for the simultaneous development of the aesthetic imagination, arguing that education should not merely provide information but should bring our lives in harmony with our environment. He further stated, “from our childhood habits are formed and knowledge is imparted in such a manner that our life is weaned away from nature and our mind and the world are set in opposition from the beginning of our days Thus the greatest of education for which we came prepared is neglected, and we made to lose our world to find a bagful of information instead. We rob the child of his earth to teach him geography and language to teach him grammar ».

He firmly believed that the mission of education is to lead us beyond the present day and to prepare for a better future. Arts and culture enable products of mind to exist and to be valued, and culture can only be transmitted through man to man. Culture grows and moves and multiplies itself in life through this human contact.

Tagore also underlined the importance of poetry, which nurtures and nourishes the mind and soul. Tagore’s writings highlight and elaborate on a philosophy of love and understanding. He is also called the Shakespeare of modern India. The work that drew global attention is his poetic masterpiece called Gitanjali, or Song Offerings. Tagore composed more than 2,000 songs besides several poems, novels, short stories and plays. He has not only penned down Indian National Anthem- Jana-Gana-Mana but also the National Anthem of Bangladesh- Amar-Sonar-Bangla and that of Sri Lanka – Sri-Lanka-Matha.

Tagore rises above parochialism and stands for universal love and brotherhood. He asked a question, Nation ki? (what is a nation?). Since there is no Bengali word for (‘nation’). So, he used the English word without apology. A nation, he says, cannot and should not be restricted to any geopolitical community based on ethnicity, geography, language, or any other external factor, preferably a nation should be formed by a shared tradition and a commonality of being and purpose.

Tagore believed that pre-modern man built up his social life around these shared bonding; according to his needs, he organized into communities held together by cultural bonds rather than political regimes. He felt that modern man had organized into nations, armed with the power of machines, and driven by the greed, and now is moving with a menacing speed across the world wiping out local differences in the name of modernization. This homogenizing modernization and globalization have caused calamities like the present pandemic.

This great visionary philosopher was a great philanthropist and educationist too. He was the first Indian to be awarded Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 when he was 52 years old. Shortly after receiving the prestigious award, England honoured him with a Knighthood, which he relinquished in 1919 in protest of the cruel massacre in Amritsar. Tagore was a man of conscience. He, therefore, invested his Noble Prize money to construct the Vishwa Bharati School in Shanti Niketan, which has given India precious and distinguished gems like Amartya Sen, Satyajit Ray, Indira Gandhi and so forth. Tagore’s Nobel Peace Prize was stolen from Shanti Niketan, so the Swedish Academy gave him a replica of the same in Gold and Silver.

I hope that a day will come when an institution like Vishwa Bharati School could be created with a similar vision for our students.

 When he breathed his last on 7th August 1941, after a long illness, he had left his indelible footmarks on the path which we can tread in this man created crisis – the love of Man. Rest will follow itself inevitably.