The mahatma and the poet - extracts

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The Mahatma and the Poet – Letters and debates between Gandhi and Tagore 1915-1941

-compiled and edited by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya


This book puts together letters exchanged by Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore along with some essays which they wrote debating major national issues. These letters preserved in the archives of Vishva-Bharati, the University founded byTagore, are of great historical interest. Of more than historical interest is the debate between Gandhi and Tagore over certain issues and questions which continue to be relevant to this day and age. This intellectual exchange began in 1914-15 when Mahatma Gandhi along with his students of Phoenix school in South Africa visited Shantiniketan. Gandhi recalled later. “It is here that the members of mySouth African family found warm hospitality in 1914, pending my arrival from England, and I too found shelter here for nearly a month”.

At that time, Tagore’s school at Shantiniketan was not yet 15 years old. Tagore was 53 years of age and he had received the Nobel Prize just a year earlier. Gandhi was younger by eight years and yet to attain a national stature in India, though his great work inSouth Africa was widely known. There were many striking contrasts between these two personalities. Yet, they found some common chord and there began a friendship which lasted till Tagore’s death in 1941. as early as February 1915 we find Tagore referring to Gandhi as ‘Mahatma’ and Gandhi readily adopted the form of addressing Tagore as ‘Gurudev’.

But theirs was not a friendship pased on justmutual admiration. They had differences on fundamenta philosophical questions, which led to disputation about many political, social and economical matters. Both were unsparing in their debate and, indeed, it cannot be said that either were successful in perusading the other towards a path of convergence of views. Each accepted cordially the other’s right to differ. These differences on publicissues never affected, as far as one can judge from the letters, their personal relationship.

In editing this volume, I had to choose between two possible ways of organizing the letters and essays. One could place the material before the reader simply following the chronological order. Alternatively, one could group the material around the major issues discussed by Tagore and Gandhi,e.g. theefficacy of boycott of educatinal institutions, the possibilities and milits of handicraft industries and the charkha, the discourse of science as opposed to that of religiosity, etc. The course adopted in this collection of writings is to present the writings within a chronologifval framework, but alsot to highlight the issues beihg debated in the perios to which they belong. The chronologicalframework in the following pages is one suggested by the private and public communicatins included here. It broadly corresponds to the rhythms of development of the discourse of nationalist politics and culture.

What were the circumstances in which the intellectual exchange between Gandhi and Tagore commenced and developed? Rabindranath Tagore’s experience as an active participant in the swadeshimovement following the partition of Bengal (1905) may have sensitised the poet to the limitations of the pre-Gandhian Congress and its politics. He saw, perhaps before many of his countrymen, that Gandhi promised to give an althgether new turn to the Indian struggel for freedom. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi of South African fame school might have sent his Phoenix School students to the TagoreShantiniketan because he saw that something was underway in that remote corner of Bengal, which shared some traits with his own endeavour and philosophy. They were not total strangers to each other. It is on record that in 1901 at the Calcutta Session of the Indian National Congress, M.K.Gandhi moved a resolutin “as a petitioner on the behalf of the hundred thousand British Indians in South Africa.”...