Rabindranath: a successful social reformer

Ahmad Rafique | Published: 18:05, May 07,2017


Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the Nobel laureate poet, is the greatest versatile genius of Bengali literature. His creative genius touched deeply all the fields of literature and culture, such as poetry, songs and lyrics, music and dance, drama, novel, short story, travelogue, essays on literature, culture and socio-political problems; above all paintings when he was near seventy. He was a quality singer and actor too.

Besides, he was known as a great thinker, philosopher, educationist and at the same time an outstanding social reformer. In the West, this aspect of Tagore is least known. There, he was mostly known as a great poet and a mystic.

But this is not all. Considered ideologically and aesthetically, he was by far a great humanist. The sense of humanism was deeply embedded in his thinking-religious, social or even cultural, and his varied creativity or social activities.

The well-being of man particularly that of down-trodden class was his most concern. His religiousness (God-intoxicated ‘bhagtibad’) was of humane character where God, Nature and Man combine without any inherent contradiction. Here Tagore is an exceptional personality.

Fact is Rabindranath was born of metropolitan culture which exceptionally flourished in Tagore family (Thakurbadi) with different flavor of liberalism and modernity. His poetic genius absorbed these characteristics. As a poet he was thus different from his contemporaries.

Yet his first encounter with rural Bengal, particularly with rural life of greater East Bengal came to him as a surprise. The experience is a novel when he came to Shilaidaha (Kushtia) in November 1889 to look after their family estates as directed by his father Debendranath Tagore.

The spectacular natural beauty of rural Bengal, particularly of the mighty river Padma and its surrounding ‘Shilaidaha’ left a deep aesthetic impression on his poetic mind. At the same time he was shocked by unbelievable reality of extreme misery, poverty, health-hazard and exploitation of rural poor class by the higher strata of society, particularly by the moneylenders (mahajans) and landlords (zamindars). To be specific the poor peasantry, weavers class and similar working class people are the victims of such exploitation. It was a shocking experience for a romantic poet who was all through a city-dweller.

By nature Rabindranath was a poet of susceptible mind and a humanist in particular. His rural experience covering the distress of the ‘have-nots’ moved his inside and he was a changed man. He decided to work for betterment of the poor folks. This is in fact contrary to his class character. 

He thought and thought and finally drew-up a project-plan for rural development and village reconstruction based on socio-economic and cultural upliftment of the poor villagers. In one word, his mission was to change the life pattern of the exploited rural people. His intellectual aim was to make these people conscious of their situation. His first experiment of rural development started at ‘Shilaidaha’ with modernized cultivation system (1900).

The system consists of deep-ploughing, use of good quality seeds and fertilizers. Apart from paddy cultivation, he inspired the peasants to take up maize cultivation. He even imported quality maize seeds from America for the local peasants. The result was positive.

But for some reason or other he had to change the working site from ‘Shilaidaha’ to ‘Kaligram Pargana’ (Rajshahi), another estate of Tagore family. Its ‘sadar katchari’ was at Patisar. The inhabitants of this locality were mostly Muslims. But they participated in Tagore’s development work with great interest.

Here the poet started his rural development work with renewed interest. The project covered 600 poor villages. The basic working principle he adopted is cooperative system where ‘panchayeti mandala pratha’ was the dominant feature. It was neither imposed from above nor absolutely controlled by the zamindar-poet himself. Its fruitful feature was the free participation of the peasant members. Tagore was pleased to see interest of the participating peasants.

For realization of the project-plan, second important principle was to help the economically deprived people by lending money at simple and low rate interest (only 12% simple interest). He started ‘Kaligram Krishi Bank’ (1905)at Patisar to lend money to the poor villagers. The money was lent without any collateral support by the money-receivers. This system is nowadays known as ‘micro-credit system’ as described by the economists. Rabindranath is a pioneer in this field with its liberal features. But hardly we remember this fact.

The bank became very popular. The poor cultivators and weavers flocked to take loan avoiding the parasitic money-lenders (mahajans0. Finally, it happened that the ‘mahajanas’ had to leave Kaligram as described in Rajshahi Gazetteer by its editor Mr O’Malley. He depicted Rabindranath as a benevolent, liberal ‘poet-zamindar’.

To note, Rabindranath established this bank by borrowing money from some of his family members and friends at 8% interest. Finally to meet demand of the capital-money Tagore deposited his Nobel-Prize money amounting one lakh and twenty thousand to the ‘Krishi Bank’. This is no doubt a spectacular gesture by Tagore for the poor villagers. The bank survived for twenty years (1925).

Besides establishment of rural bank (grameen bank) Rabindranath set up good number of schools of different grades and small hospitals in Kaligram as part of his rural development programme. Apart from eradication of poverty and ignorance Tagore stressed on ideal education for cultural enlightenment of the village people so that they can be worthy of cultivating proper human values.

As part of his economic programme Tagore always emphasized on expansion of small-scale cottage industries in the villages with all its variety. The aim is to supply fresh blood to the rural economy depending on local resources. His earnestness in this respect is known from the letters he wrote to his son Rathindranath Tagore and related others.

Here in case of village reformation and reconstruction Rabindranath is not a romantic poet, but a full-fledged social-reformer. From the core of his heart and idealistic conviction Tagore wanted total economic and cultural changes of the villages he worked for. In this respect Kaligram produced good amount of crop as witnessed and written by his son Rathindranath (Pitri Smrity).

It is noteworthy in this connection that Tagore always spoke and worked for removal of inequality and differences existing between villages and cities. According to him, the darkness in the rural society is self-made as well as due to exploitation of the so-called ‘Bhadralok’ society living in luxury in the capital.

He declared that his effort of village development at Kaligram is to set up a model for whole country to follow. Despite his success in this effort, national leaders did not take up his development plan. He was dismayed.

Tagore believed that only a strong democratic and benevolent society can help to develop a welfare state beneficial to common people. SO Far the ideology is concerned he did not believe in bloodshed or similar revolution. Here one may differ as a matter of principle, but cannot deny Tagore’s success in limited sphere.

The writer is a language movement veteran and Tagore researcher

More about:

Want stories like this in your inbox?

Sign up to exclusive daily email