By Abhismita Sen
Much before our civilization had learnt to celebrate the World Environment Day, or make organizations for the conservation of the environment, Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for literature , had already composed as much as 283 songs on the theme of environment , as ‘parjay prakriti’ , which now have become an integral part not only of the Bengali culture but of the world as a whole and translated widely, Tagore thus was an early environmentalist and ecologist with a strong sense of both ethics and aesthetics. His concern for the environment was not a product of remorse to compensate for existing depletion of natural resources but of his through knowledge of the Upanishads and the Vedas. Tagore considered nature and human life as integral parts of the single entity, the omniscient, omnipresent, ubiquitous like sarbang khallidang and attribute-free nirguna Brahman. So Tagore emphasized symbiosis and balance between man and all other aspects of the mundane world (plants, other living beings, the Earth, atmosphere and the rest of the universe), and between man and the world beyond, for attainment of ‘moksha’.
Tagore churned out poems, plays and short stories emphasizing the need to protect nature, his best friend in times of distress and loneliness. The Brundtland Commission termed ‘sustainable development’ in 1972, but almost before half a century, the vishwakabi had already formulated the essence of it. In the short story “Balai” Tagore highlighted a young boy’s love for a Simul tree in front of his house. Through the song, “khachar pakhi chilo shonar khachate”, Tagore brought out the plight of a tamed bird ,in sharp contradiction of the free bird ,it also highlighted the way in which man wants to domesticate nature, which they see from only their own perspective. Tagore’s play “Raktakarabi” (1925) was inspired by the image of a red oleander plant crushed by pieces of discarded iron that Tagore had witnessed while taking a walk in Shillong. Another play, “Muktadhara“, tells the story of man’s limitless greed and the backlash from nature. In Gurudev’s article “The Robbery of the Soil” he wrote about the unsustainable modern civilization robbing the soil of the earth and depleting its life force. In ‘Aranya Devata’, Tagore opines that modern man indulges, too much in luxurious and profligate living and he is to retrieve his love and respect for the forest and restore symbiosis with the forest in order to avert peril. In articles ‘Tapavan’ and ‘Bilases Fans’ Tagore commented that consumerism, which has been eating into the vitals of western societies, is now making inroads into Indian lifestyles vitiating all spheres of Indian life. Consumerism would not only generate pressure on the purse of the rich but also cause unimaginable hardships to the poor who, being enticed by demonstration effect, will try to spend beyond their means. In ‘Samabaya Niti’, Tagore attributes agricultural backwardness in India to subdivision and fragmentation of agricultural plots, problems of marketing, storing and mechanization of small farmers, lack of finance and exploitation by money lenders etc.
Tagore was not simply a theoretical advocator of conservation of the Environment but also an activist to restore ecological balance in the environment at large. He referred to himself as ‘prakritir sadhok’ and at Santiniketan , the sprawling campus where he founded his Brahmacharyashrama school and later Visva-Bharati university, Tagore started in July 1927 the festival of the earth through ‘brikkharopan‘ (planting of trees) and ‘halakarshan‘ (tilling the land).In 1920 Tagore started the Vasanta utsav, where he encouraged the planting of the “amra kunja’ (mango groove).The legacy of which along with the Varsha mangal, sharad utsav and nabanna festival still continues. As early as 1905 he underlined the need of local small scale irrigation to be managed by the farmers rather than the British government.
A pioneer in his own way of women empowerment and of the view of nature as a maternal deity, Tagore argued that because civilization became masculine in character it lost its equilibrium and sanity. His words at the National Conference on Women in 1934 that “And at last the time has arrived when woman must step in and impart her life rhythm to this reckless movement of power” sounds like voice of a feminist of twenty first century incessantly striving to restore the rightful place for women in every aspect of life, be it politics, economics or nation building.
To the Indians like us, who owe our national anthem to him the vishwakabi would always continue to be a living institution even after hundreds of years of his demise may have elapsed, who would not only inspire us in the contemporary context but also be a guiding light to the future generations. Tagore’s writings in defense of nature constitute a reservoir for enriching our social diversity which is the need of the hour to defend our unity and multiculturalism. The twenty first century is often being referred to as ‘the century of fear’ due to the twin problems of terrorism and global warming. It is in this context that we need to rediscover Tagore and realize the significance of his ideas which are there in between lines of his numerous essays and writings, who in Gitanjali contemplated a situation “Where the Mind is Without Fear and where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls “, now it is our duty as countrymen to awaken our country in that “heaven of freedom”.
Abhismita Sen: A postgraduate student of the Jadavpur University-Department of International Relations, Kolkata, West Bengal. Has interned with the Alexis Centre for Public Policy and International Relations on the project- media and (mis) representation of minority groups. Speaks German and French in addition to English, Hindi and Bengali. Won the Winter Spring Writing Competition organized by the Centre for International Relations, International Affairs Forum for authoring the essay “China – Getting Ahead or Losing Ground?” which was published in the summer 2012 issue of the same.