Santiniketan, declared a World Heritage Site in September by Unesco, was founded in 1901 by Rabindranath Tagore. It was started with just five students, one of whom was Tagore’s son. Tagore was disillusioned with the 19th-century formal school education that had English as the medium of instruction.

British politician TB Macaulay, in his Minute on Education written in 1835, had emphasised on English language education: “The question now before us is simply whether, when it is in our power to teach this language [English], we shall teach languages in which by universal confession there are no books on any subject which deserve to be compared to our own...”

After that, Bengal Governor General William Bentinck officially made English the medium of instruction in schools. But Tagore, born in 1861, was of the view that children should be taught in the mother tongue, at least in their formative years.

Santiniketan, in West Bengal’s Birbhum district, was started as an experiment in alternative education. The medium of instruction was Bengali and classes were held mostly in the open, under the shade of trees. In this respect, Shantiniketan was a precursor to the open university system of education practiced all over the world today.

Given his preference for the mother tongue, it is not surprising that Tagore’s vast body of poetry, short stories, novels, plays and essays was mostly written in Bengali. He was different here from his well-known contemporaries, Aurobindo Ghose and Sarojini Naidu, who wrote monolingually in English.

It is not as if Tagore did not write poetry in English. But his relationship with the English language was an uneasy one. As MK Naik, a scholar of Indian literature, points out, Tagore’s career as an Indian English poet began by sheer accident in 1912 when he was on his way to England by steamer for medical treatment. He spent his time during the long voyage translating some of his Gitanjali poems into English.

On reaching England, Tagore showed his translations to Irish poet WB Yeats, American poet Ezra Pound and English artist-writer William Rothenstein who were enthusiastic about the content of the poems, given that they came as a breath of fresh air in a war-torn world.

But Tagore’s English was awkward and clumsy. Pound and Yeats realised that they would have to sit with Tagore to edit the poems before they could recommend them to the Swedish Committee for the Nobel Prize. Tagore won the Nobel Prize for Literature the following year.

After Gitanjali, Tagore returned to India and wrote a few more collections of poetry in English. These were The Gardener, The Crescent Moon, Fruit-Gathering, Lover’s Gift and Crossing and The Fugitive. In the absence of poets of the stature of Yeats and Pound to work with Tagore, the poems declined in quality. Today, looking back, one can safely say that Tagore was a reluctant poet in English.

William Rothenstein and Rabindranath Tagore. Credit: in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In a way, Tagore anticipates writers of the nativist school of criticism who made their appearance in the 20th century in post-independent India. These writers believed that writing should strictly be in the mother tongue and not in English, the language of the erstwhile coloniser. One of the pioneers of the movement is the Marathi novelist and critic Bhalchandra Nemade whose views author and Sahitya Akademi Award winner GN Devy describes as “widely influential”.

Nativism had a strong influence in India considering that writers and critics of the reputation of Devy himself, UR Ananthamurthy, Rajeev Patke, Ravindra Kimbahune and many others became its adherents.

However, as writer Vilas Sarang says, “The concept of nativism is closer to nationalism. Nemade should be alerted that his concept of nativism is likely to be covertly misappropriated by those organisations who raise the high flag of aggressive nationalism in our country.”

Nemade may also be criticised for trivialising the argument by making the following facetious statements: (i) writing in English is like writing with one’s fingernails; (ii) Indian English writers cannot make literary sense of the banter that goes on, say, among barbers in a barbershop; (iii) in Jejuri, Arun Kolatkar goes to the Khandoba shrine in Jejuri as if he is going to a Juhu Beach cocktail party. And so on. (Poet Kolatkar’s sequence of poems Jejuri describes his visit to the temple town near Pune in Maharashtra.)

Such flippancy has provoked writers who write in English to strike back. In a 1997 issue of The New Yorker, for example, Salman Rushdie says: “The prose writing – both fiction and nonfiction – created in this period [1947-1997] by Indian writers working in English is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the eighteen ‘recognized’ languages of India, the so-called ‘vernacular languages’ during the same time; and, indeed, this new and still burgeoning ‘Indo-Anglian’ literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books.”

These language wars, as it were, have done nothing to give Indian literature the global visibility that it deserves.

In retrospect, can Tagore be called a nativist?

Although Tagore may resemble the nativist writers and critics in his preference for the mother tongue, he was by no means an aggressive nationalist. Tagore’s critique of nationalism comes out strongly in his 1910 novel Gora.

Here, Tagore is clearly opposed to his protagonist Gora’s idea of Bharatvarsh, based on an acceptance of orthodox Hindu traditions and customs. Instead, through the characters of Binoybhushan, Lalita, Anandmoyi and Poreshbabu, he upholds the principles of the Brahmo Samaj, founded in 1828 by Raja Rammohun Roy and Tagore’s own father, Debendranath Tagore.

The Brahmo Samaj rejected the authority of the scriptures and the four-fold division of caste into Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra, elucidated in texts like the Manusmriti. In its belief in the monotheistic idea of one god, and its rejection of idol worship, the Brahmo Samaj actually came close to both Islam and Christianity. In Gora, speaking unequivocally through the character of Poreshbabu, Tagore writes:

“The gates of the Muslim community are open to the whole of humanity, and the Christian community also welcomes everyone. The same law applies to all communities belonging to the Christian world. If I want to become an Englishman, it would not be entirely impossible: by living in England and obeying their laws, I can gain entry into their society; I need not even become a Christian...With Hindus it is the exact opposite. The way into their community is completely shut, but there are a hundred thousand ways out of it.”

Tagore’s views become relevant in the light of a recent controversy in Pune, where a junior college lecturer was arrested for extolling the virtues of Islam and Christianity as monotheistic religions, while critiquing Hinduism’s polytheism. They also assume significance in the context of the Sanatan Dharma imbroglio currently raging in India, and in the BJP’s changing of the name of India to Bharat.

In the end, it is Tagore’s famous poem in Gitanjali (Poem Number XXXV) that proves without a shadow of doubt that he was neither a nativist, nor a narrow-minded nationalist:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls; Where words come out from the depth of truth; Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection; Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way in the dreary desert sand of dead habit; Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action – Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

R Raj Rao is a writer and professor.

‘Behold the universe’: What draws Bengalis to visit Visva-Bharati – Rabindranath Tagore’s world