Rabindranath Tagore’s Kangri Convocation Address: The One Who Looks Through

It was only natural of Rabindranath Tagore in the 81st year of his life (which proved to be his final) to talk of assimilation and synthesis, almost relentlessly, to the point of sounding repetitive. The man had, throughout his long and prolific career, preached the necessity of seeing things in unison rather than in their separateness in order to understand the truth of being.

Standing tall amidst turbulent events and unimaginable artistic hardships, there was hardly a time when Tagore seemed to lose hope. His faith in the essential voice of love and truth that humanity is blessed with never faltered. It sounds equally firm in his convocation address written to the graduates of the Gurukula at Kangri, in 1941.

Yet, while I say that his faith seemed unshakeable even in this – one of his final addresses to mankind, I must also mention that this address (which Tagore could not deliver in person due to his failing health) was not without a pinch of despair and doubt, to begin with. When I read his Atmaparichay, or Shantiniketan, or snippets from Thoughts from Tagore, his explanations on the spiritual journey of an individual from ‘without’ to ‘within’, from ‘dissociation’ to ‘harmony’, from ‘education’ to ‘knowledge’ always seem full of conviction. That is exactly why this particular brief, one-and-a-half page long convocation address catches my attention as I leaf through the body of Tagore’s public speeches – due to its tone of uncertainty and hopelessness that are so unnatural of the man.

The address, stretching across nine short paragraphs, seems at the beginning to have disillusioned Tagore about his hope of a unity in the understanding of India from a people’s perspective. Addressing a group of students who are now mature enough to “go out boldly into the wide world”, the poet specifically points at their responsibility henceforward which is to understand the “human interest” of a motherland as varied and diverse as India.

It is from this point that his voice starts to seem a little apprehensive about the goodwill of the communities in India. A man of his age who has seen and almost tiringly outran his own stretches of ideality, sounds fatigued when he mentions only four paragraphs down:

“We love to talk about politics and economics; we are ready to soar into the thin air of academic abstractions, or roam in the dusk of pedantic wildernesses; but we never care to cross our social boundaries and come to the door of our neighbouring communities …”

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The seventh paragraph comes, and the man who has been a staunch critic of Western binaries and an advocate of Eastern flux starts talking about the “enormous intellectual power” of Europe and “her co-ordination of minds”. The great Western “concert of ideas” are placed sharply against the Indians’ lack of “hunger for knowing”.

“The mind of India, on the other hand, is divided and scattered; there is no one common pathway along which we can reach it. We cannot but look and regret at the feebleness of stimulation in our academic training…”

At this point, I found myself extremely puzzled. In my venture of reading Tagore, I had never seen the man so bluntly, scathingly critical of something that has an Indian connection. I was so used to clinging to his hopes by now that this almost found me bereft of my well-being.

I somehow managed to move to the final paragraph, starting with, “we in India are unfortunate in not having…” and I could almost see the faces of these 1941 Kangri graduates, on their all-important convocation day, listening to a speech by the leading man of letters of their country which, incidentally, is getting bashed from all sides.

Suddenly, almost out of nowhere, there appears a streak, only a faint streak of light. With two sentences left to conclude his brief speech, Tagore inserts a “yet”:

“Yet, we have our own human voice which truth demands. Even in the region where we are not invited to act we have our right to judge and to guide the mind of man to a proper point of view, to the vision of ideality in the heart of the real.”

The speech ends. Somewhat by the grace of a miracle, I had eventually found my Tagore back – the man who nullifies every single boundary posed by “nation” and “continent” and “east” and “west” by using two all-encompassing words in his final two sentences, sending a shiver and an assurance down my spine, “human” and “man” – standing independent of any nation, race, caste or creed.

The design now becomes clearer than ever: he was not really talking about the pitfalls of academic systems, nor did he wish to sound a cynic. He simply wanted his words to be harsh enough to greet the students in the “wide world”, gradually taking them to the root again – the assimilation of the opposites. Please note “the vision of ideality in the heart of the real”.

Almost after a decade, I am again reminded of the English-Latin noun Vates, meaning the prophet, the seer – one who looks through.

(Source consulted: Tagore, Rabindranath. The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1996.)

Suvankar Ghosh Roy Chowdhury is a writer from Calcutta, having 10 books to his name till date, in English and Bengali.

Featured image credit: Flickr/Amazon; Editing: LiveWire