The Three Tagores have been hailed, by historians, cultural scholars and even politicians of all hues, as harbingers of Indian modernism and our cultural icons. Here are three comments they made on the India of their times which look like a commentary on our society today. The first is an excerpt from Rabindranath Tagore’s essay ‘Nationalism in India’ (1916) the other two are images by Gaganendranath Tagore and Abanindranath Tagore.
Rabindranath argued that India was historically ‘a country of no-nation’, and, unlike modern nations, its ideals were not self-aggrandizement and self-adulation but the harmonizing of differences. India’s contribution to the world he argued was this experiment in the resolution of race conflict, or bringing together men of diverse ethnicities, languages, religions and customs into a harmonious whole. He also recognized that, unique as it is in human history, India’s solution to her race conflict has been partial, remains imperfect, and needs to be carried forward. In accepting diversity over its suppression, as many other countries have done, he argued that India was right in her efforts; but she failed to realize that in human beings differences are not like mountains, fixed forever, but fluid with life’s flow. He wrote: ‘She accepted nature where it produces diversity, but ignored it where it uses that diversity for its world-game of infinite permutations and combinations. She treated life in all truth where it is manifold, but insulted it where it is ever moving.’ He wanted the Indian nationalists to address this issue before achieving political freedom, if not, he asked, ‘can we ever hope that these moral barriers against our race amalgamation will not stand in the way of our political unity ?’ And if we don’t, the outcome he warned would be terrible, and concluded by saying: ‘If a man tells me he has heterodox ideas, but that he cannot follow them because he would be socially ostracized, I excuse him for having to live a life of untruth, in order to live at all. The social habit of mind which impels us to make the life of our fellow-beings a burden to them where they differ from us even in such a thing as their choice of food, is sure to persist in our political organization and result in creating engines of coercion to crush every rational difference which is the sign of life. And tyranny will only add to the inevitable lies and hypocrisy in our political life. Is the mere name of freedom so valuable that we should be willing to sacrifice for its sake our moral freedom ?’ Doesn’t this sound like a question to us today?
Now the two images. The first is by Gaganendranath, it is one of the cartoons from Adbhut Lok or The Realm of the Absurd which he published in 1917. It shows a man and wife who are righteously scandalized by a news item that reports the sinful killing of fish from the Ganges two Europeans, forgetting the fact that fish from the Ganges is one of the things that the Bengalis relish and that killing it is what the scandalized duo are themselves doing.
The second image is from Abanindranath’s Kudhur Jatra which is a retake on the Ramayana, retold with satirical references to various contemporary nationalist postures. The image represents Makaraksha the demon sent by Ravana to fight Rama and Lakshmana arriving in the guise of a gorakshak on a bullock cart fortified by cow hide assuming that challenged to commit the sin cow slaughter Rama will meekly surrender to him. However, in the jatra this does not happen, and Rama blows away the bullock cart, cow-hide shield and all, and slays the demon.
Rabindranath’s text was written almost a hundred years ago, so was Gaganedranath’s cartoon, and Abanindranath’s jatra and its illustration were composed about seventy five years ago. Going by the recent events in India one wonders if we have paid heed to these sensible caveats by three of India’s clear-thinking nation builders, or have we chosen to live in a time warp.