Tagore and Nationalism

Nassef Manabilang Adiong's picture

Concept Note

Rabindranath Tagore’s estimation of Indian nationalism is best expressed by the term ‘ambivalence’. Paradoxically, he had composed the national anthems for three nations: India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. This ambivalent response of Tagore towards nationalism as an ideology was apparent in the complicated set of responses he received from Indians and non-Indians alike. For the British, he was the quintessential representative of the mysterious Orient. His English writings, in certain political contexts, resonated deeply within the Anglophone world. Yet, the British intelligentsia felt uneasy with his ‘exotic’ persona. At home, Tagore developed the concept of ‘syncretic’ civilization as a basis of nationalist civilizational unity, where ‘samaja’ (society) was given centrality, unlike the European model of state-centric civilization. However, from 1921 onwards, as the subterranean tensions of communalism became clear, Tagore discerned these fractures of community and caste and reflexively critiqued his own political position within it. In this regard, Rabindranath confessed: “I took a few steps down the road, and then stopped”. Thus, in the Indian political context, the early Rabindranath’s (1877 to 1917) stance on the Swadeshi and anti – Partition movements was in sync with the contemporary political climate. His subsequent withdrawal as the muse of the Nation was, therefore, both bewildering and unpleasant to a nationalised community. 

Tagore, post-1917, emerged as the critic of the modern idea of nation/ nation-state and shared the deep unease that Romain Rolland and Albert Einstein also felt. The three novels—Gora, Char Adhyay and Ghare Baire—where he unravelled the dangers of hyper-masculine aggressiveness cum hyper sexuality, reflect his ‘dis-ease’ with nationalism. Tagore, in his Nationalism (1917), criticised not only the “organizing selfishness of Nationalism” in the West, but also the replication of this alien concept of nationalism in India by the nationalists. He observed that, “India never had a real sense of nationalism” and that India’s reverence for ‘God’ and the ideal of ‘humanity’ need not be replaced by the European concept of a limited ‘national identity’. Rabindranath’s prolific writings register his ultimate affinity with non-sectarian humanist/modernist position.

Tagore’s (post/anti)nationalism seemed to have slightly disturbed Gandhi, though both of them shared much philosophical affinity. Despite some conceptual contradictions in the sphere of political praxis, both Gandhi and Tagore believed in freedom as the ultimate goal for India. For Tagore, however, Gandhi’s politically grounded notion of ‘swaraj’ and the ‘satyagraha’ “would naturally bring out violent and dark forces”. In his view, such a route to freedom would not eventually lead to the “liberation of the soul”. Tagore’s reading of nationalism as a passion without compassion, of an unfeeling negative bond between the self and the other made him the target of criticism, not only in India, but also in Russia, Germany, Spain, USA, Yugoslavia, Poland, Turkey, Japan and a large section of the literate world influenced by the West.

Tagore himself suffered from deep disillusionment with his former conviction in the liberating power of European Enlightenment. However, he retained his faith in humanity. This faith imparted to a colonized subject like him the courage to aspire to a metaphysical cum universalist modernism/humanism: a position that he could trace to Indian philosophical traditions. He thus bypassed the corrosive effects of colonization and could envision ‘pedagogy of decolonization’ through the establishment of the Visva Bharati. Tagore’s vision and discourse of an alternative modernity and “freedom” was a counterfoil to a colonial power that emanated from mere imperial/racial/technocratic superiority.

This seminar would try to revisit the concepts of nation, nationalism, identity and selfhood, civilization, culture and homeland, thereby addressing how Rabindranath’s (post/anti/inter)nationalist standpoint would possibly contribute to the creation of a transnational and transcultural identity of a universal global community. How can one approach the internal contradiction in Tagore’s own evaluation of nationalism? He regarded self-sacrifice for the sake of the nation as a demoralizing and dehumanizing force on account of the nationalist claim that “the nation is greater than the people”. Nevertheless, he considered that the “power of self-sacrifice” and the “moral faculty of sympathy and co-operation” structure “the guiding spirit of social vitality”. Is there an alternative discourse in his terminologies like deshabhiman, swadeshprem, deshbhakti, swadeshchetana as not being synonymous with nationalism? How far was his suggestion of maintaining India as ‘a land without a centre’ got addressed through his interrogation of the issues of class/caste/gender/minorities in his own creative exercises? Can Tagore’s philosophical critique of nationalism which is based on a critical reading of Indian traditions, particularly with the extensive deployment of hisBrahmo inheritance and the ideas of the Vedas and Upanishads, be used as a counter-narrative against extremist Hindu nationalism? How can we locate Tagore vis-à-vis the contemporary views/stances on nationalism? What is the regional/Indian/global response to Tagore through translation/adaptation?

Papers are invited for presentation, related to any of the following suggested themes:

  • Tagore and Nationalism: Contemporary Visions/Receptions of (Post/Anti/Inter)Nationalism
  • Civilization and Nationalism:  Regional, National and Global Mediations
  • Interrogating Nationalism in Literature, Art and Culture
  • History and Politics: Concerns regarding ‘Home’, ‘Other’ and the Future of Nationalism
  • Tagore’s Pedagogy and “De-colonization” of the Self.
05-Nov-2015 to 07-Nov-2015
Venue of Event: 

A limited number of participants will be invited for the Seminar. Those interested in participating should send an abstract (500-700 words) of the proposed paper along with their C.V. to:

Professor K.L. Tuteja (Coordinator)
Tagore Fellow
Indian Institute of Advanced Study,
Rashtrapati Nivas, Shimla- 171005
Tel: 0177-2832930 (Extn. 350): +91-9416571831 (Mobile)
Email: kltuteja@gmail.com
Dr. Kaustav Chakraborty (Co-coordinator)
Indian Institute of Advanced Study,
Rashtrapati Nivas, Shimla- 171005
Tel: 0177-2832930 (Extn. 220): +91-8988051421 (Mobile)
Email: kaustavchakraborty2011@gmail.comkc.southfield@yahoo.com
Shri Kamal Sharma
Academic Resource Officer,
Indian Institute of Advanced Study,
Rashtrapati Nivas, Shimla- 171005
Tel: 0177-2831385; +91-9418450024 (Mobile)
Email :aro@iias.ac.in


The last date for submission of abstract (500-700 words) is 1 July, 2015. The date for short listing of participants is 8 July, 2015. The Institute intends to send Invitation letters to selected participants by 15 July, 2015. It is the policy of the Institute to publish the proceedings of the seminars it organizes. Hence, all invited participants will be expected to submit complete papers (6000-10000 words), hitherto unpublished and original, with citations in place, along with a reference section, to the Academic Resource Officer, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla – 171005 by 5 October, 2015. IIAS, Shimla, will be glad to extend its hospitality during the Seminar period and is willing to reimburse, if required, rail or air travel expenses from the place of current residence in India, or the port of arrival in India, and back.


Categories: CFP
Keywords: nationalism, Tagore, CFP