India Instruments EN » Network » Texts » Rabindranath Tagore - Ambassador and Creative Genius

Rabindranath Tagore - Ambassador and Creative Genius

Essay by Yogendra
(June 2011)

An exotic-looking figure with flowing hair, long beard and traditional Indian robe stood in front of enthusiastic crowds in Germany in 1921. Staged as a mystic saint from the East, Rabindranath Tagore lectured on intercultural understanding, reconciliation and world peace during his European tour and triggered a euphoric wave of enthusiasm amongst the German youth after the traumas of World War I. Tagore become world famous all of a sudden in 1913, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for the English translation of his collection of poems called Gitanjali. The Tagore-enthusiasm in Germany, however, was quite short-lived - two further visits in 1926 and 1930 got hardly any response, and after the Second World War he was almost forgotten. He was only rediscovered decades later, especially as a writer, when direct translations from the Bengali original slowly started to get published. In India however, and especially in his Bengali homeland, Tagore is considered the greatest creative genius of the 20th Century for his eclectic artistic work and his social commitment.

Rabindranath Tagore was born 150 years ago, on May 7th, 1861, in a well-known intellectual family in Calcutta. His grandfather Dwarkanath supported social, cultural and educational institutions, and his father Debendranath formulated the credo of the neo-Hindu reform movement Brahmo Samaj. His older siblings were writers, scholars and philosophers. As a teenager he discovered his strong connection to nature while traveling through India. And as a young man he learned to appreciate Western art, culture and ways of life while studying in England. Firmly rooted in Indian traditions, in a connection with nature and open to Western ideas, he created a unique life's work. His creative genius shaped modern Bengali literature, gave new holistic impulses to education, helped in the development of rural areas, gave rise to a comprehensive pictorial work and composed hundreds of songs in a new musical genre later called Rabindra Sangeet. Tagore also committed himself politically in the Indian independence struggle against British colonial rule. He wrote the Indian national anthem and invented the name "Mahatma", literally "great soul", for M.K.Gandhi, the non-violent freedom fighter and father of Indian independence.

Although it might seem as if Tagore's work in Germany had no lasting effect, he is appreciated today as an important forerunner of intercultural exchange. The first half of the 20th Century was dominated by nationalist and imperialist ideologies in Europe - not a particularly fertile ground for an appreciation of non-European cultures. It is truely remarkable that Tagore and other pioneers (such as for example sufi Hazrat Inayat Khan) were able to leave a lasting mark in the West, in spite of this rather hostile climate. They helped to broaden the European horizon away from self-centered navel-gazing to the riches of the world beyond its borders - and thus prepared the soil, on which the friends of Indian music move so freely today. The fact that Tagore was temporarily stylized as an omniscient saviour, reveals his audience's cravings and the difficulties of bridging the gulf between the alien and the own. Genuine encounter is only possible on the basis of realistic understanding and constructive cooperation. We are still working on these learning tasks today.