Rabindranath Tagore is a freedom fighter

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Rabindranath Tagore - bridge builder and universal genius

Essay by Yogendra
(June 2011)

With flowing hair, a long beard and traditional Indian garb, an exotic-looking figure stood in front of enthusiastic crowds in Germany in 1921. Staged as a mystical saint from the wise east, Rabindranath Tagore gives lectures on intercultural understanding, reconciliation and world peace as part of a European tour, triggering a euphoric wave of enthusiasm among German youth traumatized by World War I. Tagore suddenly became world famous in 1913, when, to everyone's surprise, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for the English translation of his collection of poems, Gitanjali. The Tagore enthusiasm in Germany was short-lived, however - two further visits in 1926 and 1930 hardly met with any response, and after the Second World War it was almost forgotten. It was only decades later that he was slowly rediscovered, primarily as a writer, with direct translations from the Bengali original. In his Indian and, above all, his Bengali homeland, Tagore is considered the greatest universal genius of the 20th century with his diverse artistic work and his social commitment.


Rabindranath Tagore was born 150 years ago, on May 7th, 1861, in a well-known family of intellectuals in Calcutta. His grandfather Dwarkanath supported social, cultural and educational institutions and his father Debendranath formulated the beliefs of the neo-Hindu reform movement Brahmo Samaj. His older siblings were also writers, scholars and philosophers. As a teenager he discovered his connection to nature while traveling through India. And as a young man he got to know and appreciate western art, culture and way of life while studying in England. The roots in Indian traditions, the closeness to nature and the openness to Western ideas resulted in a unique life's work, which with its innovations decisively shaped modern Bengali literature, gave the education system new holistic impulses, promoted the development of rural areas, created an extensive painterly work and created the new musical genre Rabindra Sangit with hundreds of songs. Tagore was also politically involved in the Indian struggle for independence against British colonial rule, wrote the Indian national anthem and found the nickname Mahatma, great soul, for M.K. Gandhi, who became the father of the Indian nation as a freedom fighter under the name Mahatma Gandhi.


Even if Tagore's work in Germany does not seem sustainable at first glance, he must be recognized as an important pioneer of intercultural exchange, which we may take for granted today. In the first half of the 20th century, on the other hand, nationalist and imperialist ideologies shaped the European self-image - not particularly fertile ground for appreciating non-European cultures. The fact that Tagore and other pioneers such as Hazrat Inayat Khan (see below) managed to leave lasting traces in the West despite this rather hostile climate must be given great credit to them. They contributed to directing the European gaze away from the navel gaze into the world and thus prepared the ground on which friends of Indian sounds move in this country today. The fact that Tagore has meanwhile been stylized as a figure of salvation says something above all about the local audience's yearning for redemption and the difficulty of bridging the gap between what is foreign and what is one's own. Real encounters are only possible with a realistic understanding of each other and constructive cooperation. We are still working on these learning tasks to this day.