Ram Guha, himself a giant amongst contemporary scholars, makes a case for seeing Rabindranath Tagore as one of the ‘four founders of modern India’ alongside Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar.
Guha begins by correctly noting that Bengalis and in particular the university that Tagore founded, Vishwa Bharati, have tried to appropriate for themselves this intellectual giant. “Ravi Shankar compared Tagore to the German genius Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832); so, before him, had the critic Buddhadeva Bose. Both men, remarked Bose, ‘participate[d] in almost everything’. Certainly, no one since Goethe worked in so many different fields and did original things in so many of them. Tagore was a poet, a novelist, a playwright, a lyricist, a composer, and an artist. He had good days and bad, but at his best he was outstanding in each of these fields.”
So why is Tagore such an important figure in India’s development? Firstly, Tagore was perhaps the first contemporary Indian who “…travelled to other lands out of curiosity, simply to see and speak with humans of a cultural background other than his own.”From these experiences he produced the first synthesis of Eastern and Western thought which we now take as a given in India.
Here is Tagore writing in 1885,“‘I sometimes detect in myself ‘a background where two opposing forces are constantly in action, one beckoning me to peace and cessation of all strife, the other egging me on to battle. It is as though the restless energy and the will to action of the West were perpetually assaulting the citadel of my Indian placidity. Hence this swing of the pendulum between passionate pain and calm detachment, between lyrical abandon and philosophizing, between love of my country and mockery of patriotism, between an itch to enter the lists and a longing to remain wrapt in thought’.
Quoting this precocious passage, the Tagore scholar Swapan Majumdar says that it ‘strikes the keynote in his understanding of the West’. Tagore’s mission to synthesize East and West was part personal, part civilizational. In time it also became political. In the early years of the 20th century, the intelligentsia of Bengal was engulfed by the Swadeshi movement, where protests against British rule were expressed by the burning of foreign cloth and the rejection of all things Western. After an initial enthusiasm for the movement, Tagore turned against it.”
Secondly, very few people realise the scale of Tagore’s intellectual achievement. He was the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize in any category. In the West’s understanding of Asia, Tagore was a milestone. The story behind Tagore’s journey to Nobel is itself very interesting: “In the summer of 1912, Rabindranath Tagore visited England, a country he had been to twice before. He was carrying some translations of his poems, which were misplaced on the London Underground. Fortunately, they were retrieved from the ‘lost luggage’ department of the Underground. Shortly afterwards, Tagore struck up a friendship with W. B. Yeats, who helped him refine the translations. Published by the India Society under the title Gitanjali, these poems were an immediate sensation, going through ten printings in six months. In November 1913 Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.
The Nobel Prizes had been in existence only a decade, but had acquired a considerable prestige. Tagore was the first Asian winner in any category. He was already known in Europe and the United States (which he had visited, after finishing with Yeats and company, in that summer of 1912), but the Nobel award gained for him a massively enhanced status within India, and across Asia. The award was seen as an acknowledgement of the importance of a continent anxious to reclaim its past greatness. Thus, when Tagore arrived for the first time in the Japanese capital of Tokyo in June 1916, some twenty thousand people turned out to receive him at the city’s central railway station.”
Thirdly, even before Mahatma Gandhi has returned to India from South Africa, Tagore had with his own resources (augmented by payments received for lectures given in America often in front of sneering audiences) started creating what became India’s first privately funded university, Visva-Bharati“….which may be translated as ‘India in the World’, or alternatively as ‘The World in India’. Its Memorandum of Association described its objectives as the bringing together of ‘thinkers and scholars of both Eastern and Western countries, free from all antagonisms of race, nationality, creed or caste…’; and the realization ‘in a common fellowship of study [of] the meeting of East and West’.
Tagore raised money for his new university through friends in India, and by subscriptions from abroad. In the summer of 1920 he undertook an extended trip of Europe and North America for the purpose.” 
The man’s practicality – in realising that India could not move forward through idealism and through harking back to a golden bygone age – is remarkable if you put it in the context of what was happening in India and in Europe in the 1910s and 1920s.
Fourthly, the exchanges between Tagore and Gandhi are a turning point in Indian history not least because Tagore gave Gandhi the prefix of the “Mahatma”. More importantly, the relationship convinced Gandhi to tell the world that anti-Western thought and philosophy is not what he was espousing. Most memorably Gandhi said, ‘I hope I am as great a believer in free air as the great Poet. I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any’.
This debate between two of the titanic figures in modern Indian history is worthy of being made into a Netflix movie (ironically, Bollywood won’t have the stomach for it). Guha writes: “Eighty years on, the Tagore-Gandhi debate still makes for compelling reading. The Mahatma insisted that a colonized nation had first to discover itself before discovering the world. The poet answered that there was a thin line between nationalism and xenophobia—besides, hatred of the foreigner could later turn into an hatred of Indians different from oneself (he was particularly sceptical of the claim that non-co-operation had or would dissolve Hindu-Muslim differences). Both men come out well; Tagore slightly better perhaps. He stood his ground, whereas Gandhi shifted his, somewhat. Pressed and challenged by Tagore, he broadened his nationalism to allow in winds from all parts of the world.”
Finally, and most importantly perhaps, whilst Tagore did not live to see India gain Independence (he died in 1941), his vision of India –  as a tolerant, heterogenous society which embraces the best ideas from the rest of the world whilst developing on its own terms – is the only credible vision we have had with which to build a nation.“No one could accuse Tagore of not loving his country. This is what lends a special force to his criticisms of nationalism. As he saw it, the staggering hetereogeneity of India was the product of its hospitality, in the past, to cultures and ideas from outside. He wished that this open-ness be retained and even enhanced in the present. Unlike other patriots, Tagore refused to privilege a particular aspect of India—Hindu, North Indian, upper caste, etc.—and make this the essence of the nation, and then demand that other aspects conform or subordinate themselves to it. For Tagore, as the historian Tanika Sarkar has pointed out, India ‘was and must remain a land without a centre’.”

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