Tagore walked alone with this anthem

G.K. GOVINDA RAO | Updated on March 12, 2012 Published on March 08, 2012

Rabindranath Tagore plays Balmiki in his dance-drama Balmiki Pratibha . - The Hindu Photo Archives

Calling to mind the immortal ones that tread the path alone, fearlessly and dangerously…

Tagore, I believe, wrote two anthems. The one, obviously, is the national anthem, though of course it was adopted as such later and not written with that intention. Jana Gana mana… is collective celebration of being a part of this glorious land, a joyous moment of identifying oneself with the land of such vast and varied dimensions; it is, at the same time, bringing to mind the innumerable faiths and languages and cultures which make the country of ours unique, and feeling humble and proud at the same time to be its citizen. This is collective experience expressed full-throatedly, and it is, in a manner of speaking, assertion of our dignity and the very fact of being.

There is, however, another anthem he penned which is highly personal, very intimate and almost could be called a soliloquy addressed absolutely to himself. But when we read it, it turns out to be one that we wish we could sing to ourselves, which after all is what a good poem always does; it is both invocation and inspiration, much more so in a democracy where the courage to be independent and self-confident are primary requisites.

The poem was written in a particular context. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya in his recently published work on Tagore ( Rabindranath Tagore, An Interpretation, Penguin Viking) briefly describes the particular event that prompted the poet to write it. It was 1905; the year in which Bengal was partitioned. Tagore did not succeed in getting “the attention and support of the mainstream nationalist leaders in the anti-partition agitation”. Tagore's advocacy of “a programme of self-empowerment through constructive activities” was not well received at all. The poet was distressed. He felt lonely. But then he would not “withdraw himself from the movement”. He decided to “walk alone” ( ekla chalo), which Bhattacharya rightly says, “demonstrates… the unity of the whole corpus of Tagore's writings”.

We are now hundred years and more removed from the actual event; we have only the poem. And the poem, now, is our personal anthem too. It is not for nothing that Gandhiji should have found such great inspiration and strength from the poem, which he quoted often during his own difficult moments:

If they answer not to thy call, walk alone,

If they are afraid and cower mutely facing the wall

O thou of evil luck

Open thy mind and speak alone.

If they turn away and desert you when crossing the wilderness

O thou of evil luck,

trample the thorns under the tread,

And along the blood lined track travel alone.

If they do not hold up the light

When the night is troubled with storm

O thou of evil luck

With the thunder flame of pain ignite thine own heart

And let it burn alone.

( English Writings of Tagore, Poems; Sahitya Academy).

I consider this the intimate poem of not just Tagore but one that he gave to the entire country, for all such as would wish to be full-fledged citizens in a free country. This would necessarily entail struggle and suffering, which choice is willingly made. Feeling let down and lonely is usual with all of us; but then to render this into a state of aloneness and find inner strength to walk alone is what makes us meaningful. And this process is a movement, however painfully slow, towards an identity with the larger, the undying and eternal, and in this context, the nation.

Needless for me here to be naming the immortal ones that tread the path alone, fearlessly and dangerously; Socrates, Christ, Gandhiji, Tagore and Ambedkar are a few I should necessarily mention here.

The national anthem is celebration as I said, of variety, of diversity and unity. It is collective chanting of our oneness.

Ekla chalo is a highly private one, a dialogue with the secret, mysterious self. It is not, of course, merely for satisfying a personal curiosity in vacuum; on the other hand, it is also to make it as much a social and political act as well.

Tagore is relating the experience of ‘walking alone' to the experience, in the long run, of being a relevant, responsible and highly dynamic citizen. The courage to stand alone also means the readiness to become unpopular too. And a poet, a social reformer and a genuine political leader in a democracy have necessarily to ‘walk alone'.

The two anthems, then, taken together carry in them the notions of the self and the universe, which when carried a little further would mean the mortal and the immortal and how they ever are inseparable; if one is celebration the other anthem is meditation.

The significance of the mortal, the dying is only when it keeps in its vision the truth of the Eternal which it is part of, an infinitesimal one though, yet most certainly significant and valuable.

Published on March 08, 2012
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