Rabindranath Tagore is considered one of the masterminds of modern Indian civilization. While mostly known for his artistic endeavors in literature, music and education, Tagore was also an active cultural anthropologist. The magnitude and influence of his poetry and music often overshadows the observations he made about culture. Gandhi and Tagore had wildly different perspectives on India’s interaction with the outside world, yet Gandhi’s ideology has been more widely employed. Tagore lived from 1861 to 1941, before the politically charged Indian Independence and Partition era. And even further from the rampant globalization era that we are now in the midst of.
Tagore believed in an open India, an India open to the world’s ideas and influence. He believed that Indians should never be threatened from an outside worldview, but that it would only make one more aware and appreciative of his/her own context.
He was quoted “Whatever we understand and enjoy in human products instantly becomes ours, wherever they might have their origin.”
Is this a timeless perspective to be adopted? Or simply a reaction to the isolationists of the early 1900s?
Was he aware of white privilege and the tendency to appropriate cultural phenomenons? Or was his audience merely the paranoid/exclusionists Indian, who were afraid of letting other cultures invade and corrupt the ancient Indian past?
In our current age, the pace of global interactions is astronomically different than the simplicity of the early 1900s. Merchants no longer travel from faraway lands, peddling their goods, bringing art and music from afar as they settle down and make Mother India their own. The speed of our travel, connectedness and technology quickens the pace of cultural exchange. There is now a trend to make things ours, without appreciating or acknowledging the source. Cultural digestion trumps cultural appreciation.
Tagore also said “Celebration of Indian civilization can go hand in hand with an affirmation of India’s active role in the global world.”
I hope this can still be true today, and I believe it depends on the attitudes of the Indian people and retaining confidence of Indian identity in a global world.
When we are challenged, we are expanded. And that expansion can help us see the beauty about who we are, and the truth about where we come from.