The Global Polymath

Last year on 7th May, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s 160th birth anniversary was celebrated in India and elsewhere in the planet, but perhaps not with usual fanfare because of COVID-19 restrictions. The influence of this prolific polymath on the post-modern Indian literature is still very much evident even 80 years after his demise, on 7th August 1941.

It is common knowledge that he was a poet, novelist, playwright, essayist, composer, philosopher, and educationist all rolled into one. His versatile genius was manifested in varied forms of literature and also in the original music form created by him – Rabindra Sangeet. That was not all. In his late 60s, he began trying his hand at painting, drawing with earnestness, and twenty years later he was already regarded as a celebrated modern Indian painter.

The first Asian Nobel laureate (in 1913, for his collection of poems titled Gitanjali) was a product of Bengal Renaissance with a pluralistic world view. His seminal writings and other artistic contributions are the products of myriad influences on him, and they, in turn, have influenced successive generations of writers, poets, artists and musicians in India and abroad.

Tagore was perhaps the first to introduce magical realism and open-ended story telling in Indian literature with his celebrated work Kshudhita Pashan (Hungry Stones)

Short Story Teller

Tagore’s literature can be very simply described as a bridge between the nineteenth century Indian literature and the modern Indian literature which began to take shape from 1940s. A bridge you need to cross to get a comprehensive view of the evolution of Indian literature. He can be easily credited with heralding the wave of modern literary trends in India. One of the foremost contributions of Tagore towards Bengali literature was the developing of the short story format.

He can be credited for giving birth to short stories in Bengali literature and grooming this literary form from birth to its full blooming youth through his immense literary inputs, from where many other illustrious modern Bengali litterateurs, of course, took the form to its present maturity.

In fact, Tagore as a world class short story writer can be regarded at par with Anton Chekhov, Maupassant and O Henry. It is not sure whether Tagore was inspired by the west in developing the short story format in Bengali literature but it is interesting to note that three of these maestros of short stories began writing their short stories during the same period that is between late 1870s to early 1880s. O Henry began his short literary career of nine years in 1901.

Feminism and Magical Realism

One can say that thanks to Tagore, short story writing in India was developed and chiseled in the same way as in the west, during more or less the same period. But it can be safely assumed that one of the famous short stories of Tagore titled Streer Patra (The Wife’s Letter), which is perhaps the first short story in Bengali literature written in colloquial Bengali, was inspired by the world renowned drama of Henrik Ibsen titled Doll’s House.

It is also the first literary work of Tagore with a strong feminist perspective, a stance which he took rarely in his long and illustrious literary career. His female protagonist in the story, Mrinal was etched in far more modernist lines than was then conceivable in Indian literature. The story was written in 1914.

Tagore was perhaps the first to introduce magical realism and open-ended story telling in Indian literature with his celebrated work Kshudhita Pashan (Hungry Stones). That was almost seven decades before Gabriel Garcia Marquez amazed the literary world with ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’, in 1967, which is perhaps one of the most profound post-modern works of magical realism. Both magical realism and open-ended story telling are among the important elements of western literature. Chekhov can be credited with hugely developing the art of open-ended story telling.

Evolution of Bengali

Tagore also immensely contributed towards evolving Bengali language and literature to its present rich and flexible state by removing its rigid shackles, which in turn helped future writers in Bengali literature to flow their thoughts lucidly.

Another Nobel laureate and world renowned economist Amartya Sen while doing a book review in The New Republic, said, “In many different ways, Tagore’s writings reshaped and reconstructed modern Bengali in a way that only a handful of innovative Bengali writers had done before him, going back all the way, a thousand years earlier, to the authors of Charyapad, the Buddhist literary classics that first established the distinctive features of early modern Bengali.”

Multidimensional Characters

Tagore was one of the firsts to introduce nuanced multidimensional characters with grey shades in the realm of twentieth century Indian literature. His writings (especially his novels) often focus more on deep analysis of the characters’ mind; their conflicts and turmoil, etc. in the backdrop of complex socio-cultural and socio-economic dynamics rather than the plot or the narrative structure. Tagore’s Gora and Ghare Baire can be construed as apt examples of such a form of literary endeavour.

Similar trend began developing in western literature during the mid to late nineteenth century. In fact, this writer found the narrative structure in his novels to be seldom entertaining and almost never racy; almost always demanding careful, introspective reading.

Radical Thoughts

The western influence in Tagore’s writings was more marked in his later years. In his novel Sheseher Kobita, the great literary genius hailed as Kobiguru, Biswakobi put forward the case for open and simultaneous multiple relationships between man and woman through his protagonist Amit Roy’s words. In the rigid and conservative India of those times (the book was published in 1929) such a radical thought was seldom discussed in daily life and never in contemporary literature of those times. In Sesher Kobita, the influence of western liberal thought is very much pronounced. The book can be regarded as modern in appeal even by the European standards of morality.

Interestingly, in the same year of the publication of Sesher Kobita, eminent philosopher Bertrand Russel’s Marriage and Morals, where open marriage is unabashedly advocated and the virtue of sexual fidelity is strongly questioned, created quite a controversy even in the liberal west.

In his short story Laboratory (1941), Tagore even introduced a thoroughly sexually liberated woman protagonist named Sohinee, which clearly indicates influence of western literature and defies the convention of Indian literary trends of those times.

Cigar smoking Neela in the same story also seems to be influenced on western lines and was much ahead of her times. Such sexually liberated and strongly individualistic woman protagonist is seldom found even in today’s Indian literature, which by and large, even today is conformist in its character. However, despite such ambitious attempts, Tagore couldn’t handle his women characters with nuance in Laboratory and to this writer the story seems quite contrived, especially in its ending.

Connecting Thread

Being a true internationalist, Tagore believed in smooth flow of ideas between the east and from the west for the growth of humankind. He not only holistically presented India before the west with all its beauty, ugliness, complexities and nuances through his complex and subtle literary creations, but also gave a novel education system to the world through the platform of his experimental school of Santiniketan, which disseminated learning that was far removed from the regimental system of western education.

He wanted to position Santiniketan as a connecting thread between India and the world, and was moderately successful in such praiseworthy attempt.

“Rabindranath was very much influenced by Indian classical music, Bengali folk songs, kirtan and also western classical and folk music”

Western Musical Influence

The creativity of Tagore is perhaps best manifested through his poetry and Rabindra Sangeet. The latter is a distinct genre of music founded by him. Many of the songs of Rabindra Sangeet genre resonate with universal appeal. Rabindra Sangeet has imbibed varied musical influences, which include influences from Indian classical music, folk music, kirtan, and music from faraway Europe to shape its distinct but diversified musical character.

“Rabindranath was very much influenced by Indian classical music, Bengali folk songs, kirtan and also western classical and folk music,” explains Swagatalakshmi Dasgupta, one of the greatest exponents of Rabindra Sangeet of our times. Swagatalakshmi is not only a fascinating and soul-stirring singer of Rabindra Sangeet but she has been a distinguished teacher of Rabindra Sangeet for many decades.

According to Swagatalakshmi, who has the unique and astonishing distinction of recording all the 2,232 songs in Tagore’s celebrated book of songs titled Gitabitan (her collection of rendition of all the Tagore’s songs is termed Ekala Gitabitan), several songs composed by Tagore during 1881-1888 were inspired by western tunes. “Robert Burns’s famous Scotish poem and song Auld Lang Syne inspired Rabindranath in creating his famous song Purano Sei Diner Katha; then the world renowned song Ye Banks and Braes (also written by Burns in 1791) inspired him in creating Phoole Phoole Dhole Dhole”. She goes on to enthusiastically narrate and also sing several more apt examples of western musical inspirations in Rabindra Sangeet while maintaining “In my own opinion, Rabindra Sangeet can be best expressed through piano.”

Thus, we can see that Tagore presented a wonderful synergy of Indian and the modern western traditions in his diversified creative manifestations, which in turn contributed to some extent towards his towering cosmopolitan and global persona. The fact that he kept the windows of his mind open till his last breath helped him to emerge among the very few truly global Indians and a global citizen of his time.

Written by Swarnendu Biswas.

Writer is a New Delhi based veteran journalist. Many of his features have been published in reputed Indian and overseas publications. He is also author of the book Inspiring Indian Women: The Bold and Restless in Pursuit of Passion. In this book comprising a collection of mini biographies he narrated achievements of nine inspiring women of post-modern India.

This feature was first published in

Canadian Truckers Protest: What India Must Learn


Disclaimer: IndicVoices has zero interest in Canadian politics and does not have allegiance with any political parties.

IndicVoices considers truckers' demands are unscientific and Canadian government has taken the right step.

Worldwide, vaccines have been proved to be beneficial against COVID-19 spread and severity. Unvaccinated individuals are not only carrying risks for themselves, they are prolonging the pandemic and increasing risks for others.

Canadian truckers protest has stepped into the third week since the rally blocked Parliament Hill in the capital city of Ottawa on 29th January. Multiple key locations have been blocked, especially the US-Canada borders. The Ambassador Bridge blockade is the biggest news grabbing headline for last few days as this port of entry is the busiest border crossing in North America covering 25% of US-Canada trade.

Why Is This Protest?

The protest was triggered by the new mandate from the Canadian government that requires all truck drivers to be fully vaccinated in order to cross the US border. The government also mandated vaccine passport, a digital or paper document with QR code with COVID-19 vaccination details, for domestic and international travels. This has been made mandatory for many amenities like restaurants, movie theaters, and sporting events. Government employees without such proof were sent for unpaid leave.

Ambassador Bridge Blockade: A key bridge connecting USA with Canada

Many citizens protested against it as they did not want to take the vaccines and considered it as an attack on their freedom of choice. Unlike most Indians, many people in USA, Canada and other developed countries have vaccine hesitancy and such people are called anti-vaxxers. These people among the trucking community and outside have now come down on streets to protest against the government mandate. Their primary demand is to withdraw the mandatory vaccine requirements. As a matter of fact, we, Indians, should take pride in the fact that we took a more scientific approach when it came to vaccination and protecting our communities.

What Can We Learn?

But there is a big learning for us from this incident happening almost 12,000 kilometres away. For that we need to understand the response from the Canadian governments to tackle this crisis. The Canadian Federal government, led by Liberal Party leader and Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, criticized the protest vehemently. He said that the truckers and the anti-vaxxers are defying science. He told the protesters to go home or face severe penalties as high as $100,000. He termed it as "illegal" and "unacceptable". Large number of heavily armed police forces have been deployed in order to clear out the blockade of the Ambassador Bridge by force. Finally on 13th February, the bridge reopened after six-day long complete blockade. On 14th February, Prime Minister Trudeau invoked Emergency Act to bring this protest to an end.

On the other side, the government of Ontario, a province in Canada, led by Conservative Party leader and Premier of Ontario, Doug Ford, went one step ahead and declared state of emergency on 11th February itself threatening fines and jail for the protesters. He asked the courts to freeze donations to truckers on a crowdfunding site.

Left: Justin Trudeau, Right: Doug Ford

Those who are not familiar about the Canadian politics, Liberal Party and Conservative Party are two arch rivals like our BJP and Congress. Very recently, the Liberal Party defeated the Conservative Party in the central, called Federal in Canada, election. Whereas a reverse situation happened in Ontario in 2018 when the Liberals lost to the Conservatives in the state level election. But see how they have come together on a national cause.

What did our opposition leaders do during the year-long Farmers Protest? Just last year, Rahul Gandhi staged tractor protest and reached parliament on a tractor! Mamata Banerjee met Rakesh Tikait to extend her full support to the protest. What else can you expect from her who destroyed her own state’s industrialization dream for her mere political ambition?

So, what do we learn here? We learn that self-proclamation of 56 inches of chest is not useful. It has to be demonstrated in action. Instead of repealing the laws and in turn canceling hope of any farm reform, ruling government should have taken strong step even if that means losing popularity.

What else do we learn? Opposition parties are not there just for mere opposition. When there is a national cause, parties should set aside their electoral priorities.

What Else We Must Learn, Remember & Never Forget?

There is one more learning in this drama. Note the fact that Canadian government brought police and court actions against a protest that is not even a month long. They invoked Emergency Act to end a protest that entered just its third week. What did the same Justin Trudeau say during the year-long Farmers Protest in India? "We're all very worried about family and friends. We believe in the importance of dialogue", he continued “Canada will always stand up for peaceful protests”. No one asked for his advice. But, he still did it and to the detriment of India's national cause.

Even Biden’s America is now asking Canada to end the protest, in not so democratic way! Last week, the White House urged Trudeau's government to use its 'federal powers' to end this demonstration. Do you know what the American government told us last year? The Biden administration urged the Modi government to resolve farmer protests through ‘dialogue’.

How can we forget how the British ministers debated Indian Farmers protest in their British parliament! Several MPs from the Liberal Democrats, Labour Party and the Scottish National Party had expressed concern about the safety of the protesting farmers.

Hypocrisy Exhibit # 1

We must not forget multiple rallies in all these Western countries supporting farmer's protest last year. There were huge donations from foreign countries for the protesting farmers and that is one of the reasons why they could sustain the agitation for over a year. Many so-called Western celebrities like Greta Thunberg, Rihanna spoke in support of the protesting farmers. Many Western medias like NYT, Washington Post, BBC criticized the Indian government as if there was a holocaust going on here. The same Washington Post is now publishing article with the headline “Auto industry already feeling the pinch from Canadian bridge blockade - More workers could be idled if protests keep car parts gridlocked

Hypocrisy Exhibit # 2

I just wonder if there is an Oscar for hypocrisy! When Canadian truckers defy science, it must be stopped by force. But when Indian farmers defy economics, it is their democratic rights! 

When US-Canada trade is impacted then it is time to invoke the Emergency Act. When Indian central government loses 1.5 lakh crore rupees (20 billion USD) of taxpayer’s money for buying grains at MSP (Minimum support Price) that is already over 2.5 times of stipulated buffer stock norm and the grain that finally rots in the government warehouse, nobody bats an eye.

Now we should know what to do when the West lectures us on democracy and human rights. I have to now find a new dustbin!

Read why Farm Reform was very critical for India: Farm Laws - When Politics Triumphs Over Economics