Looking Beyond the Postcolonial Reading of Rabindranath Tagore’s Works

The postcolonial discourse in India has attempted to appropriate Tagore within its fold. But he cannot be appropriated by a single discourse, let alone by postcolonialism. His works, when keenly examined, transcend postcolonial thinking. The re-examination of Tagore’s views and ideas, on the other hand, hold immense value for the current political discourse of nationalism and democracy in India.   


There are striking similarities between the topics covered by Rabindranath Tagore’s works and the postcolonial literature. Tagore has been portrayed as a unique postcolonial scholar who approached issues from a unique vantage point. Even Edward Said has accorded Tagore the identity of a postcolonial thinker.

The postcolonial discourse in India has made many attempts to appropriate Tagore within its fold, and it is not that its arguments are weak. We can take two of Tagore’s famous novels The Home and the World (1916) and Four Chapters (1934), which are set against the backdrop of political upheavals, for the purpose of examining this point. The protagonists from both the novels—represented by Nikhil, Bimala, Sandip (from The Home and the World) and Indranath, Ela, and Atin (from Four Chapters)—embody the happenings that took place during their subjugation by the British colonisers, amidst the Indian freedom struggle. The main focus in both the novels is on the discourse encompassing cultural, political, social, and economic issues which reflect the mindset of the people during those times. The novels clearly depict the British colonisation of India, the bold rejection of subjugation by the protagonists, and the reasons for doing so. Thus, the need for self-identity and recognition was beginning to take root in the heart and soul of the people of India at that time. Tagore’s initiative to instil self-worth into a colonised people is portrayed through his novels (Ebenezer 2005).

But, surely, Tagore cannot be appropriated by a single discourse, let alone by postcolonialism. His works, when keenly examined, transcend postcolonial thinking. Michael Collins in his 2011 book, Empire, Nationalism and the Postcolonial World: Rabindranath Tagore’s Writings on History, Politics and Society, argues that postcolonial historiography has not accorded Tagore the intellectual standing he deserves. His book strives to explain, on the one hand, why “Tagore has been consistently misunderstood, misrepresented, sometimes ignored, and in many respects diminished as a writer and thinker” (Collins 2011: 1). On the other hand, it attempts to locate more precisely Tagore’s importance for historians, political scientists, and theorists of modernity, postmodernity, and postcolonialism alike. It does so by laying out Tagore’s “distinctively universalist philosophy,” presented as a critique of certain aspects of modernity, and as an alternative to both empire and nation. On the other hand, Collins (2011) claims that “Tagore can help us better understand some of the failures of postcolonial theory.”

The Perils of Nationalism and the Merits of Cosmopolitanism

Tagore does not engage in an outright denunciation of the West, but acknowledges its good aspects (Tagore and Dasgupta 2009). He does not indulge in mirrored reactions; that is to denigrate the Western culture in return for their denigration of ours, the non-Western. Apparently, this appears to be a trend of postcolonialism in its attempt to reassert the self (the East). In contrast, Tagore attempts to draw an overarching bridge between the East and the West. He engages in an attempt to find harmony and unity in its true essence, a call to be one with “the infinite.”[1] We can observe this in his novel The Home and the World. His conception of internationalism—located in the interactions between colonial and postcolonial, East and West, tradition and modernity—contains the seeds of cosmopolitanism, as he perceives colonialism as a two-way process. 

Taking the context of British colonialism in India, he observes that colonialism steers nationalism into becoming imperialistic. He was concerned about anti-colonial resistance in India which morphed into chauvinistic nationalism, which has been the characteristic of Western nationalism. For instance, referring to the burning of “foreign” goods by Indian nationalist leaders, during the freedom struggle, he said such acts were not only self-defeating, but also a mere imitation of Western nationalism.

However, on the other hand, Tagore believed that colonialism presented a chance through which the West came to be experienced by India, and thereby, introduced a channel of learning and exchange. Tagore argues that certain extreme forms of nationalism, espoused and used in India’s struggle for independence, are ultimately self-defeating, and perceives nationalism as a purely Western construct, warning against the extreme frenzy of nationalism. For him, independence lay both in denunciation of imperialism and the retention of the channel of learning and exchange. It is in Tagore’s ability to accommodate such contrasting viewpoints does one finds the roots of cosmopolitanism (Dharmani et al 2015). Surely, this cosmopolitanism is beyond the coverage of postcolonial discourse. 

Tagore and Postmodernism

Moving on, many scholars have opined that Tagore exudes “aesthetics of postmodernism” in his works (Stunkel 2003). Tagore’s works do not seem to adhere to Edgar Allan Poe’s emphasis on ensuring “unity of effect or impression”—a storytelling method in which the author uses all the elements to create a predefined impression on the readers— as the prerequisite for a successful story, which supposedly had been the traditional modern way of storytelling. We have an open-ended structure in Tagore’s writings so that the emotional effect and the ending of short stories often remain inconclusive. In non-fictional writing as well, consider a passage from Sadhana: The Realization of Life, Tagore begins by saying that "through our sense of beauty we realise harmony in the universe," and continues:

“As we become conscious of the harmony in our soul, our apprehension of the blissfulness of the spirit of the world becomes universal, and the expression of beauty in our life moves in goodness and love towards the infinite” (Tagore 1914: 141).

That Tagore is more than a postcolonial figure becomes evident if we further explore the shades of ambiguity in his philosophy. He did not appear to be particularly receptive to the postmodern discourse; even though one might state that postmodernism was not an established discourse in his time. Nevertheless, there have been forerunners of postmodernism, displaying shades of it, since the time of Friedrich Nietzsche. One of the hallmarks of the postmodern discourse is to indulge in the reinterpretation of texts (even speeches and utterances fall under the ambit of text). The author’s or the speaker’s words are subjected to academic analysis with theoretical tools such as deconstruction, whereby texts are contended to be constructions governed by power relations with respect to various variables such as race, class, gender, or ethnicity; or “texts are viewed as ‘metaphors’ of something or other, open to endless reinterpretations assembled from ambiguous sign systems, or texts that are arbitrary ‘narratives’ … In the domain of postmodern aesthetics, creators relinquish their acts of creation and works [only to] yield to the subjectivity of readers” (Stunkel 2003: 244).

Coming back to Tagore, he, indeed, took note of this aspect of readers in his writings to allow readers to accord meaning to text on their own. 

"We have heard judges in the modern time giving verdict, according to some special rules of their own making, for the dethronement of immortals whose supremacy has been unchallenged for centuries” (Tagore 1961: 12).

Even though such rhetoric has anti-postmodern undertones, Tagore considers such reductions as a modernist phenomenon. As such, Tagore recognised this modernist phenomenon of reductionism and levelling in which the worst rises to take its place beside the best:

"We live in an age when our world is turned inside out and when whatever lies at the bottom is dragged to the surface” (Tagore 1961: 12; Stunkel 2003: 245).

He noted that originality in the West is often confused with novelty, which according to him is erroneous, for "the things that are original are as old as the hills and as simple as the morning breeze" (Lago  1972: 258). The frustration of being trapped by a culture and language that incites postmodern criticism did not trouble him; he instead engaged in it. Tagore did critique aspects of modernity, but he did not reject it altogether. As such, Stunkel (2003) calls Tagore an “ambivalent modern” thinker.

Tagore’s conversation with Albert Einstein on truth, beauty, and reality highlights his unflinching humanism and his views on complex physical/metaphysical issues. It can be correlated to many contemporary developments in science, notably physics. An abstract of the conversation is as follows:

Einstein: “There are two different conceptions about the nature of the universe—the world as a unity dependent on humanity, and the world as reality independent of the human factor ...”

Tagore: “This world is a human world—the scientific view of it is also that of the scientific man. Therefore, the world apart from us does not exist; it is a relative world, depending for its reality upon our consciousness.” (Gosling 2008)

Thus, for Tagore, reality exists as a part and parcel of “man’s universe.” If man goes away, so will the surroundings, so will the objects, so will the beauty. For Einstein, even if man does not exist, reality will continue to exist.

This belief of Tagore in “man” forms the core of his views on industrialisation. It also raised questions relating to the material/spiritual aspect of life, and it would also make it impossible for him to take extreme positions. These concerns seem to be beyond the ambit of postcolonial discourse, and, as such, Tagore does indeed transcend postcolonial thinking.

Even so, it would be farfetched to say that Tagore was completely averse to postcolonial discourse. It is not that Tagore did not display any shades of postcolonialism.  He did. But it would be wrong on our part to compartmentalise a scholar, like Tagore, within the fold of postcolonialism. Indeed, Tagore has been much beyond that.

In the light of the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, Tagore’s internationalism and his warning against mimicking Western nationalism could prove to be a worthy guide in leading India out of the ongoing crisis.

In the words of Amartya Sen:

“If Tagore were to see the India of today, more than half a century after independence, nothing perhaps would shock him so much as the continued illiteracy of the masses. He would see this as a total betrayal of what the nationalist leaders had promised during the struggle for independence—a promise that had figured even in Nehru's rousing speech on the eve of independence in August 1947 (on India's "tryst with destiny") … Rabindranath would be shocked by the growth of cultural separatism in India, as elsewhere. The ‘openness’ that he valued so much is certainly under great strain right now —in many countries. Religious fundamentalism still has a relatively small following in India; but various factions seem to be doing their best to increase their numbers. Certainly, religious sectarianism has had much success in some parts of India (particularly in the west and the north). Tagore would see the expansion of religious sectarianism as being closely associated with an artificially separatist view of culture.” (Sen 2001)

Such occurrences are against Tagore’s notion of “the infinite.” In essence, they are simply articulations of forced unity and not harmony.


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