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Empire, Nationalism and the Postcolonial World: Rabindranath Tagore's Writings on History, Politics and Society (Routledge/Edinburgh South Asian Studies) Hardcover – 22 Sep 2011
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"Rabindranath Tagore remains one of India's greatest thinkers. Michael Collins' book brilliantly sets him in the context of his European contemporaries, indicating how he was both interpreted and mis-interpreted for the wider world." - Sir Christopher Bayly, University of Cambridge, UK
"Michael Collins' fine research on the Indian poet and thinker Rabindranath Tagore sheds intriguing new light on the making of his reputation in the West. The book casts the intimate history of understanding and (as often) misunderstanding between Tagore and some of his closest supporters into poignant relief, and reminds us of the powerful and revelatory effects of close historical investigation." - Elleke Boehmer, University of Oxford, UK
"Works of scholarship can spread ripples, and I foresee a considerable ripple effect from Dr Collins' painstaking pursuit of unity amidst the often baffling contradictions of Tagore's discursive writings" William Radice, SOAS; Frontline, Volume 28 - Issue 27 : Dec. 31, 2011-Jan. 13, 2012
About the Author
Michael Collins is Associate Professor of Modern British History, University College London (UCL), UK.
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The common perception about Tagore is that he dabbled too much in the realms of metaphysics and wrote "too much about God" (inspired by his study of the Upanishads) and that this was a direct challenge to the rationalism of the liberal imperial project of the West. This essentialising of the man is strongly challenged by this work, pointing to his foundation of educational institutions as evidence that he was also grounded in the practical and concrete.
When he first arrived in England in 1912 he was initially embraced by the avant-garde romantic modernist intellectuals of the early 20th century, most notably W B Yeats, whose relationship with Tagore gets a good airing in the book. Yet this relationship was a complex one which Collins analyses with fine and insightful detail, further complicated by Tagore's award of the Nobel prize for literature in 1913 following the translation of his poems into English. He seemed to offer a voice to those who deplored the intense rationalism and materialism of a mechanistic society that had evolved in the West since the industrial revolution. Yet Collins, through his detailed research into Tagore's thought and writings, gives a description of the man which eschews essentialisation.
Collins is also unequivocal in his critique of postcolonial theorists who, he argues, fall into the trap of essentialising Britain's relationship with India and he uses his nuanced account of Tagore's attitudes towards colonialism as ammunition to support his attack on the global academic industry that is postcolonialism. For example, whereas Tagore opposed British colonialism in India he paradoxically felt the best response was to engage in a constructive dialogue with the British which would be mutually beneficial. Following on from this, he sequestered himself from the nationalist cause and did not agree with Gandhi who mobilised the masses, a strategy which Tagore saw as essentially a negative response to the British presence in India, the antithesis of what could be gained from a constructive dialogue. The benefit, as Tagore saw it, was the creation of an evolving synthesis with the world deterministically moving towards greater unity and mutual understanding, and even love of one's fellow human beings. A stark contrast to a model that highlights conflict, and human relationships governed by relations of power, an appallingly pessimistic view of the world, yet a mantra so often to be heard in academic circles espousing postcolonialism.
It was, of course, the nationalist cause that ultimately triumphed with Independence in 1947. This explains Tagore's intellectual marginalization since his death in 1941 and Collins argues that given the passage of history he essentially failed in his political analysis. Yet I argue that Tagore may have been a century ahead of his time and that with the newly globalised world he may yet become an intellectual force to be reckoned with following the demise of fashionable postcolonial theorists who presently dominate university faculties all over the world, speaking in that appalling language of `poco'. It is certainly worth considering that colonisation in various guises is an inherent part of the historical process and will never end. Intellectual history is a case in point.
Edmund Burke pointed out that a model for cross-cultural relationships should be a civilised conversation between two individuals whereby no one dominates and mutual listening is an intrinsic part of the dialogue. These are rules of dialogue based on common sense which anyone would recognise. One should extrapolate from this model to the macro-level, which might be taken to mean cross-cultural encounters between civilisations. This may be an idealised concept but one which Tagore would surely have endorsed. `Ahead of his time' may well be the verdict on Tagore in a future, more enlightened age.
A book which all serious students of Anglo-Indian intellectual history would do well to read. It is expensive but a long-term investment to grace the libraries of those who appreciate intellectually challenging history. Certainly a book in a different class from that incessant stream of postcolonial theorising that continues to pour off academic presses, paying little heed to well-researched historical evidence. Evidence so well exemplified in this book.