Tagore; the 150-year-old, 21st century poet

May 2011 celebrated the 150th birthday of one of the greatest and most prolific poets the world has known.

A writer of such skill and precision, he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1913. Revered by the great English poets of the early 20th century, a line from one of his best known poems was found on the body of Wilfred Owen after he was killed in the First World War: ‘When I go from hence let this be my parting word, that what I have seen is unsurpassable.’

I’ve discovered in the last few weeks that the body of work of this literary giant is indeed, unsurpassable. A poet, activist, radical educator, essayist, playwright, painter and dancer, he is still held in the highest possible esteem in India and much of east Asia. But who is he? If you went through the UK primary and secondary education system as I did, you’re unlikely to have heard of him.

The man is Rabindranath Tagore and this spring, followers and devotees of his daunting legacy seized upon the opportunity to inform unknowing western minds of the inspiring achievements of an extraordinary life. Across the country, events sprung up to honour Tagore and many column inches were dedicated to his birthday. A three day event at London University and a six day festival at Dartington Hall in Devon were two of the grandest celebrations, introducing his work to a new generation.

Look to this Day;

For it is Life, the very Life of Life.

In its brief course lie all the verities

And realities of your Existence:

The Bliss of Growth,

The Glory of Action,

The Splendour of Beauty.

For Yesterday is but a Dream,

And To-morrow is only a Vision;

But To-day well-lived makes every Yesterday

a dream of Happiness,

And every To-morrow a Vision of Hope.

Look well to this Day

I attended the week-long festival at Dartington first and foremost as a curious journalist, not a follower, and I arrived with a slightly cynical eye on all the hype. On the opening night I sat down to watch a multimedia presentation of Gitanjali, the work that won Tagore the Nobel prize. Within a very short time it became clear to me that this man had a distinct and at times breathtaking talent for devotional poetry. I’m a private poet and know how difficult it is to write original, clear, authentic poems about the beauty of life without being sentimental. Despite this pre-emptive aversion I had a strong and positive emotional response to Tagore’s words as they were projected onto the high walls of Dartington’s Great Hall. His clear, succinct, lyrical poetry was married to images and music bringing his beloved Gitanjali vividly to life. Words Tagore would no doubt have recited on one of his many visits to Dartington during his latter years.

Dartington Hall was bought by Dorothy and Leonard Elmshirst in 1925 and they quickly set about transforming the spectacular ancient site and grounds into a living experiment in sustainability, social justice and the arts; three areas of life very close to Tagore’s heart. He was invited as an advisor and had great influence on the Elmshirst’s work, philosophy and spiritual direction. It became clear during the festival that Dartington was the first place in the country to offer a serious platform for world music and poetry, laying early foundations for Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD festival.

The legendary musicians who performed at the Tagore festival, including Wajahat Khan, clearly saw the international and cultural significance of Dartington and held the site in great reverence and respect. The list of names on the programme speaks volumes about the man they came to honour, hoping to connect him and his work to a new audience: Deepak Chopra, Jane Goodall, Mark Tully, Benjamin Zephania, Tim Smit, Andrew Motion, Vandana Shiva, Rob Hopkins, Alice Oswald – the best part of 100 speakers praising the man, the message and the legacy.

At the age of 21 I moved to Dorset seeking refuge from a difficult few years and I found solace in poetry. I discovered a piece of writing that spoke to me and stayed with me as a part of my daily practice and meditation. Its only credit was ‘Sanskrit’. I have recently uncovered, to my surprise, while reading Resurgence magazine’s tribute to Tagore, that it is sometimes attributed to the great poet himself. Hearing the piece again after so many years, sent a fire through me. I realised Tagore had been anonymously reaching down through history, touching my heart and mind and daring me to do something amazing with my life. This is the presiding feeling I’m left with having experienced Tagore’s work during the festival at Dartington.

Tagore was clearly a great man, as relevant today as during his lifetime. It’s important not to be overwhelmed in the face of such a powerful body of work; the trick is to be inspired by using the beauty of what he brought to the world to stay bright, alive and faith full. To be motivated by the belief that however small our contribution to the world may be, what we do ripples into the future like a pebble dropped in water, connecting to all living things through creativity, joy and service to our community. As Tagore wisely summed up: I slept and dreamt that life was joy. / I awoke and saw that life was service. / I acted and behold that service was joy.

The wave of Tagore’s life is still moving out, inspiring the East and increasingly the West to dare to offer our unique talents to society in the hope that we too may inspire reverence and respect for a life well lived.