Rabindranath Tagore and the Nationalist Movement in India

In the second of her guest blog posts, Priyasha Mukhopadhyay (a DPhil student) situates the work of Rabindranath Tagore in relation to the political context of nationalism in India. You can read her first post on the work of Leonard Woolf here.

Rabindranath Tagore in Kolkata (probably taken in 1909). Source: Wikimedia.

The first non-European to win a Nobel Prize, Rabindranath Tagore’s negotiation with the politics of his times is particularly complex. Born in 1861 (just shortly after the 1857 Mutiny, often thought of as the First War of Indian Independence) into an upper-caste privileged Bengali family, he was instantly surrounded by the cultural and political excitement of late colonial rule in India. The sheer range and versatility of his novels, poems, plays, songs and paintings are perhaps a result of the vitality of this age, and are definitely instruments through which he articulated his opinions regarding the upheaval that enveloped India from the late nineteenth century onwards.

Much of Tagore’s writing deals with the problems of national belonging. Gora (Fair- Skinned, 1910), written in the early years of anti-colonialism, examines these through its British protagonist, Gora, an orphan who is raised in a Hindu family, only to discover his true identity as an adult. But while nationalism remained an issue Tagore returned to throughout his life, his own involvement in the nationalist movement in India fluctuated, largely because of the ideological differences he had with its leaders. While Tagore was, without a doubt, patriotic, his notion of “freedom” was not simply political release from the British. He was wary of violent public movements, clearly understanding how these marginalised smaller players in the colonial state. Of these, Tagore was particularly critical of two: the Swadeshi Movement, and the rise of revolutionary nationalism.

The Swadeshi Movement, beginning with the Partition of Bengal in 1905 and continuing till 1908, targeted the economic stronghold of the British in India. Reacting to monopolies of production through which the British were able to sell Indians goods at highly inflated prices, a large group of people in Bengal chose to boycott foreign goods, instead preferring to buy domestically produced ones (swadeshi means of one’s own country, and here, by extension, refers to self-sufficiency). While this seemed an effective strategy of resistance, the movement failed to take into account the enormous losses that small traders, mainly Muslims, incurred as a result of this. Tagore’s novel, Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1916) is particularly poignant in its depiction of Muslim traders, harassed into giving into the demands of the public to burn their stocks of British goods in a highly spectacularised, ritualistic manner. When Nikhil, the well-meaning zamindar or landlord, widely considered Tagore’s mouth-piece in the novel, protests against the treatment of the traders living on his estate, he is branded unpatriotic and regressive.

The boycott of foreign goods was but a small part of a more disturbing turn in anti- colonial politics, the rise of revolutionary nationalism. Tagore withdrew from the forefront of the nationalist movement after an eighteen year old, Khudiram Bose, killed a woman and child by accident, in a botched attempt to assassinate the magistrate of Muzzafarpur, a town in the Indian state of Bihar. His horror of violence and the blinding irrationality that comes with it is portrayed through Nikhil’s antithesis in The Home and the World, Sandip. Deceptively charismatic, Sandip has extraordinary rallying powers, mesmerising everyone, including Nikhil’s wife, Bimala. In his private moments, he is revealed to be egotistical, mean-minded and selfish. Tagore is particularly critical of Sandip’s relationship with Bimala. The progressive Nikhil wishes for his marriage to Bimala to be a companionate one among equals, andencourages her to read, introduces her to his friends, but Bimala is quickly taken up by the rush and excitement of Sandip, who christens her Mother India and worships her as a Hindu goddess, which becomes in the course of the novel, the sign of Indian freedom. While on the one hand, the political use of Hindu iconography in a national struggle introduces a communal element into the Nationalist movement, the figure of the Mother also creates new concerns in the novel. The rhetoric Sandip uses is problematically erotic. Bimala fails to realise this – instead of liberating her, the power Sandip attributes to her does nothing more than turn her into a sexual object on display, an image and nothing more. She only realises this when she finds alternative relations to channel herself into, with the young revolutionary Amulya for whom she develops maternal feelings, but it is too late – the novel ends with Nikhil, disillusioned and fighting for his life. Tagore was to continue denouncing revolutionary nationalism and its reliance on spectacle, violence and sloganeering, and his last novel, Char Adhyay (Four Chapters, 1934) continues to depict its disastrous effects.

Nikhil, on the other hand, as Bimala realises at the end of the novel, has a much more nuanced view of the political situation. Selflessness rather than selfishness characterises Nikhil’s narrative voice. He understands that anti-colonialism cannot merely take the form of rejecting everything British, but rather, should be aimed at synthesising all that is good in western societies with that of the East. He argues, much as Tagore was to in his speeches and lectures, most significantly in his collection, Nationalism (1917) that “freedom” is not just political freedom from the British, but rather the ability to be honest and truthful with oneself, without which self-rule loses all meaning. These ideas, of course, were later to become the corner stone of the philosophy of another nationalist leader, Mahatma Gandhi.

Priyasha Mukhopadhya

You can download some of Tagore’s books for free from Project Gutenberg.

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