Although Rabindranath Tagore was a celebrated poet during his time – the first non-European to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1913 – and a prominent figure in India’s struggle for independence and social justice, he is not well known outside of India today. With the 150th anniversary of his birth coming up this year, York political science Professor Ananya Mukherjee-Reed hopes to bring this influential intellectual to a wider audience.
To do this, Mukherjee-Reed, director of South Asian studies at York, became a core member of the Tagore Anniversary Celebrations Committee Toronto (TACCT), which will organize a series of events throughout the year to celebrate Tagore. The first is a tribute to Tagore in conjunction with the Royal Ontario Museum’s (ROM) 3rd annual South Asia Heritage Day tomorrow. Mukherjee-Reed will deliver an introduction to Tagore at the ROM theatre.
“Our primary objective is to bring Tagore’s work and his worldview into the mainstream, particularly in North America,” says Mukherjee-Reed. “His brilliant work and his profound philosophical worldviews based on equality, humanism and justice have much to offer to us today.”
Right: A photo of Rabindranath Tagore taken during his visit to Canada. Photo by John Vanderpant, Library and Archives Canada.
In addition to poetry, Tagore wrote novels, short stories, essays and plays, and composed music and became a painter in his late sixties. He was also a leading social philosopher and fought for equality and justice for all, striving to build ties beyond borders of race, class, caste, ethnicity and culture. “He had a profound influence on the making of modern India,” says Mukherjee-Reed. His ideas of de-colonization, local self-reliance and autonomy, and a cooperative way of life deeply inspired India’s anti-colonial struggle. His views have influenced Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela and Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi.
Mukherjee-Reed says as she watches the events in Egypt and Libya, she is reminded of Tagore’s words. “No matter how mighty a power is and how much artillery it has at its disposal, if there is a collective will to challenge its illegitimacy, it eventually cannot endure.” These thoughts permeate the vast repertoire of poetry and music that became household chants during India’s struggle for independence. “Tagore saw colonialism as one major impediment to equality, but also feared that nationalist, elitist visions of progress would be equally problematic,” she says.
Tagore had great faith in the power of youth and those who would challenge established norms. “One of our aims is to engage the young with Tagore’s ideas,” says Mukherjee-Reed. “Unleashing the creativity inherent in people, particularly the young, was something Tagore strongly advocated.”
Left: Ananya Mukherjee-Reed
His strong belief in the power of education saw him establish a unique university with two campuses in India. “We have a lot to learn from Tagore’s ideas of education,” says Mukherjee-Reed. The first, he named Visva-Bharati, a Sanskrit name meaning “where the whole world forms its one single nest”. It brought scholars, artists and students from every part of the world together to create a community, and even touched the lives of ordinary people.
“Tagore’s objective was to break with the traditional model of the university where the elite pursued knowledge for its own sake. It was no accident that Visva-Bharati was located in a village and not in a city, not amidst the urban, British-schooled affluent classes,” says Mukherjee-Reed.
“Very close to Visva-Bharati, Tagore established the Institute of Rural Reconstruction, yet another university designed specifically to serve the rural economy. The predicament of rural India was at the heart of Tagore’s work. His views on this remain very salient in today’s India where the benefits of ‘development’ still elude millions of its citizens.”
For more information or to hear Mukherjee-Reed’s discussion about Tagore on CBC Radio’s Fresh Air and CHRY Radio, visit the Tagore Anniversary Celebrations Committee Toronto website.
For more information about the performances, live music, children’s activities and poetry readings during South Asia Heritage Day tomorrow at the ROM, visit the Royal Ontario Museum’s website.