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May 7 – an ode to a poet and a thinker

Portrait of Rabindranath Tagore. Known as Gurudev, he was born in British India on May 7, 1861 in Calcutta; Image credit
Portrait of Rabindranath Tagore. Known as Gurudev, he was born in British India on May 7, 1861 in Calcutta; Image credit

“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high…” these lines from Rabindranath Tagore’s memorable poem couldn’t be more relevant than in today’s times.

As a modern creative artist, Tagore created a bridge between the East and the West and was born on May 7, 1861 in Calcutta (now Kolkata). The only person to have written the national anthems for two different countries – India (Jana Gana Mana) and Bangladesh (Amar Sonar Bangla), ‘Gurudev’, as he was popularly known, urged people to avoid victimology but seek self-help through education. He preferred a “steady and purposeful education” even for the extremely poor, instead of “blind revolution. Despite lionising the Indian Freedom Movement, Tagore shunned irrationality, even getting into a conflict with Mahatma Gandhi when the latter attributed the Nepal-Bihar earthquake of 1934 to the practice of untouchability among Biharis. Gandhi had called the natural disaster “a divine chastisement for the great sin we have committed against those whom we describe as Harijans”. Opposed to untouchability, Tagore found this argument on Gandhi’s part illogical. Tagore wrote a rationalist rebuttal, requesting its publication in Gandhi’s journal, Harijan. Tagore expressed his ‘painful surprise’ at ‘this kind of unscientific view of things’. It was simply inaccurate, Tagore insisted, to ‘associate ethical principles with cosmic phenomena’.

Tagore’s dislike of the idea of a nation and nationalism is as surprising as it is pragmatic. Tagore said: National is not “a spontaneous self-expression of man as social being,” but a great menace which is “supremely dangerous to humanity”. In the course of a lecture on Nationalism that he delivered in America during 1917, Tagore openly condemned the “fierce self-idolatry of nation worship”. He said that the Nation with his “magnificent power and surprising appetite” was nothing but an “organisation of politics and commerce…incessantly growing into vast stature, out of proportion to all our needs of society – and the full reality of man is more and more crushed under its weight.”

Tagore performing the title role in Valmiki Pratibha (1881) with his niece Indira Devi as the goddess Lakshmi; Image credit
Tagore performing the title role in Valmiki Pratibha (1881) with his niece Indira Devi as the goddess Lakshmi; Image credit

Some of his views did not go down well with a lot of people. He narrowly escaped assassination by Indian expatriates during his stay in a San Francisco hotel in 1916 – the plot failed because his would-be assassins started arguing with each other over a disagreement.

The humanism and optimistic quality of Tagore’s writing (and thinking) should not simply be confined to books and literature. The call for action is there in most of his works. Loathing formal education, it would be interesting to note that the man who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 abhorred English – it was his least favourite subject.

Even as China celebrates the 155th birth anniversary of the painter-poet-philosopher-educationist by releasing the first ever Chinese translations the Nobel laureate, the true tribute to him would be to follow his ideal of ‘Aekla chalo re’ – to forge a path where there is none, to speak up even if you are the only one.

May 7 also marks the birthdays of many artistic and creatively inclined people from history. German pianist and composer Johannes Brahms (1649); Russian composer and educator Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840); Indian author, poet and Nobel Prize laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861); American actor Gary Cooper (1901); and wrestler Owen Hart (1965). It is also the birthday of Yugoslav field marshal and politician and the first President of Yugoslavia Josep Broz Tito (1891); Argentinian actress and the 25th First Lady of Argentina, Eva Peron (1919); German-American author and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabwala (1927); English rapper and producer Master Shortie (1989).

May 7 - STS 49
Three crew members with STS-49; Image credit

The following major events occurred on May 7 in history:
• 1429 – Joan of Arc ends the Siege of Orléans, after removing an arrow from her own shoulder and leading the final charge, despite being wounded. The victory was a turning point in the Hundred Years’ War.
• 1664 – Louis XIV of France begins work on the Palace of Versailles.
• 1824 –Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony premieres in Vienna, Austria. Michael Umlauf conducts the performance that was supervised by the composer.
• 1832 – The Treaty of London recognises the independence of Greece and Otto of Wittelsbach, Prince of Bavaria, is crowned king.
• 1915 – World War I: German submarine U-20 sinks RMS Lusitania.
• 1946 – Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering (later known as Sony) is founded with 20 employees.
• 1954 – Indochina War: The French are defeated at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.
• 1992 – The Space Shuttle Endeavour is launched on STS-49 – its first mission.
• 1998 – Mercedes-Benz buys Chrysler for US$40 billion USD and forms DaimlerChrysler in the largest industrial merger in history.

 

Text by Aarti Kapur Singh

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