Rabindranath Tagore and Nationalism: An Interpretation
Rabindranath Tagore is often referred to as a ‘nationalist poet’ or a ‘nationalist leader’. This presents problems both historical and historiographical, since by the end of the first decade of the twentieth century Tagore had explicitly rejected nationalism. At the same time, Tagore’s legacy is further complicated by certain trends in Indian postcolonial historiography. Work emerging from the Subaltern Studies Collective has often put forward a more complex historical analysis, moving beyond a straightforward dichotomy between nationalism and anti-nationalism. In this version of Tagore’s place in India’s past, he is simultaneously both inside and outside: a Bengali intellectual deeply marked by his ‘cosmopolitanism’, ‘modernism’ and other derivative tropes of western bourgeois intellectual and cultural life. But in this mode of analysis, Tagore too often suffers from simplistic application of various Western classifications, for example as a ‘romantic modernist’ or ‘liberal humanist’. In fact Tagore, like Hegel, Tagore saw World History as the steady unfolding of an idea. The marked distinction was that, unlike Hegel, he placed India at the centre of that process. In this regard, Tagore developed an alternative conception of modernity which saw the ideas, politics and technology of the West as only one aspect of a developing historical process, rather than its core movement. This not only challenges the spatial dimensions of modernity but also challenges us to think more critically about ‘modernities’ and the kinds of categories we deploy to make sense of the ‘modern’ and ‘counter-modern’. In this respect, the Tagore-Gandhi debates become a crucial historical and textual source for an interpretation of Tagore’s thinking on nationalism. These debates centred on the freedom struggle and India’s stance towards the West; and towards Britain as the colonial power. They point towards a complicated engagement with the West, its position in the world, its relationship to India and the political and intellectual influences that it had in India.
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