“Where The Mind is Without Fear: Celebrating the life and works of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)

Recently on May 7th, 2011, as a proud nation (and even comity of nations) we celebrated the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore. Our newspapers and magazines were full of coverage on Gurudev’s life, contributions and implications for the coming generations.

For me the immediate challenge was how does one pay tribute to a great man whose corpus of work is like that of an ocean? One can probably only catch up on a small fraction of that corpus in our entire lifetime.

The phenomenal character of works authored by Tagore and subsequently those written on him in Bengali, English and other Indian and world languages would constitute today miles of shelf length in any major library. He enjoys the distinction of having composed the national anthems adopted both by India (Jana Gana Mana) and Bangladesh (Amar Sonar Bangla).

In an interesting way, early on during my under-graduation itself, as a result of too much time spent indoors in school and college classrooms, it is the Santiniketan / Visva Bharati legacy that got me excited about Tagore’s contributions. The idea of a learning institution pursuing the fine arts and humanities in idyllic, sylvan settings in an informal environment reminiscent of the age-old Gurukul system to me sounded like a Eureka-moment, a unique achievement in modern education.

Tagore was critical of rote schooling. The move away from typical classroom structure and his abandoning conventional approaches to education has led later-day observers to rightly call him the ‘Father of Informal Learning in India.’ I had the pleasure of staying at Visva Bharati for a while where I could sense the spirit in which Tagore had gone about his lifetime’s work. It was a poignant experience indeed for me being in Tagore land.

Apart from his contributions to literature, arts, painting, music, education and much else, here are a few unique achievements that we are beholden to Tagore for in modern India:

Bridging the East and the West: In another blow to the Rudyard Kipling’s philosophy of the East and West not meeting each other, Tagore travelled far and wide from the America’s to Europe and East Asia. Between 1878 and 1932, Tagore visited more than 30 countries on five continents. Not only was his literary work recognized leading to the Nobel Prize in literature, but several of the acquaintances he made not only shared his interest in literature, arts and painting but also travelled to visit Santiniketan. A China Studies Bhavan was formally opened as a research department at Visva Bharati by Rabindranath Tagore on April 14, 1937 with lofty ideals of strengthening the age old cultural ties between India and China. The sheer geo-cultural breadth of Tagore’s travels has no parallel among the icons of his time.

Cosmopolitanism : Tagore had a cosmopolitan vision for India and the world respecting the plural and diverse cultures. Through all his writings, artistic works and even the statement of objectives in the founding of Visva Bharati, Tagore always worked for an amalgam of civilizations, castes, religions and gender. In a sense, he was probably the earliest in the 20th century to treat the world as a ‘global village’ and himself as a ‘global citizen’ much before technology changed the way media, communication and transport impacted how people across the globe related to one another.

Patriotism and Anti-colonialism: Tagore wrote extensively on the perils of imperialism and narrow-minded nationalism. For Gurudev, to combat such evils India required ‘moral warfare’, a great ideal that Mahatma Gandhi represented. Among the founding fathers, both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru considered him as a guide if not their sage in their leadership of the freedom struggle. It was Gandhi who was known to have given him the title of ‘Gurudev.’

A famous instance of his rejection of colonial repression was a firm “thanks, but no thanks” statement to the British empire through the return of the knighthood given to him as a mark of protest against the 1919 Jalianwala Bagh Massacre. Tagore’s compositions such as ‘Where the mind is without fear’ and ‘If they answer not to thy call, walk alone’(the famous Ekla Chalo Re) won mass appeal. Yet as the great mind that Tagore was, it was not as if he was uncritical of some of the politics of his compatriots including aspects of the national movement that came under his scrutiny.

It would be most fitting to conclude with an excerpt from one of Tagore’s most inspiring poems:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake

Global citizens need the above verse NOW more than ever before. Few leave behind their mark on eternity and Tagore is one among them.

[Thanks to my colleague Ms. Chandra G, for terming Tagore, the‘Father of Informal Learning in India’ ]
R. Tagore, ‘The Centre of Indian Culture’ (Kolkata : ViswaBharati, 1919)
R. Tagore, ‘A vision of India’s history’ (Kolkata : ViswaBharati, 1951)
R. Tagore, ‘On Gandhi’ (New Delhi : Rupa, 2008)
Mala Bridges, ‘Santiniketan’ (Santiniketan : Subarnarekha, 1997)


  1. Quote
    Supriya Garikipati said July 27, 2011, 8:03 pm:

    This is a real inspirational post. Truly, in this day and age – we so do need to remember the legacy of Tagore. I am glad I took time to read this.

  2. Quote
    VA Ramesh said July 28, 2011, 11:17 am:


    There are no words to express ‘The writing on the wall’ for all of us today from Tagore and the way you have brought it out to be ‘the need of the hour’. This is fantastic expression of a great man and a mind.

    VA Ramesh

  3. Quote

    Excellent Post Abdul..Tagore’s works are truly one of the Best in the world…I really like the way he articulates things in a manner that sends across a clear message to the intended audience.

  4. Quote
    Chandra Goswami said August 4, 2011, 12:06 pm:


    A great post indeed. Tagore was truely one of the notable “global” citizens India has ever produced. In these days and times of unstability and tension, we need to read and re-read his creations and apply the learning in our lives. Very nice post and the narration style is great. Loved it!
    Thanks for mentioning my name..:-)

  5. Quote
    senthil (subscribed) said August 6, 2011, 8:52 pm:

    Celebrating personalities and paying tributes to them – Can we look beyond that? As i often point out here, indians are often satisfied with personification, and emotional outburst..

    What is the use in just labelling Tagore as Father of informal education? There is no mention of its outcome, or why such informal education (assumed to be saviour from this present rote education system) is not replicated elsewhere.. after glorifying, our business is over.. and is this what the scientific temper as espoused by Abdul in one of earlier post?

    Can we ever be able to have pragmatic view of our leaders and their policies?

    Where the mind is without fear? I am asking, Is there any mind in this sastwingees community without fear? Without fear of being labelled for expressing truth? Without fear, for calling the spade, a spade?

  6. Quote
    Abdul Fakhri said August 14, 2011, 9:43 am:

    Thanks Supriya. It is these legacies [like that of Tagore] which perform, to say the least, the lighthouse function / enabling navigation to bring the ship of society safely back to port.

    One looks to the Masters and Founding Fathers both in turbulent times as well as if in the case of a current intellectual vacuum we need the ‘benefit of precedence’ or simply put rich old experience and wisdom.

  7. Quote
    Abdul Fakhri said August 14, 2011, 10:04 am:

    Thanks Ramesh.

    I recall Dr. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, astrophysicist [Nobel Winner (Physics) – 1983] once remarking on Doordarshan that the recognition posterity gives an achiever is more important and a true index of recognition than one given by his/her contemporaries.

    In Tagore’s case, not only was he revered during his lifetime but that extended in posterity as well. The voices celebrating his work only became much louder.

  8. Quote
    Abdul Fakhri said August 14, 2011, 10:08 am:

    Thanks Deepak.

    Tagore was a genius who symbolized an aesthetics having elegance, simplicity and clarity as some of the core values. That also probably explains the everlasting appeal of his work.

  9. Quote
    Abdul Fakhri said August 14, 2011, 10:38 am:


    Once agan, thank you very much for the ever-so perceptive catch-all title given to Tagore in his avatar as an educationist. Acknowledging such brilliant captioning was my duty and pleasure indeed ! 🙂

    The notion of global citizen / global village is something that goes beyond geographical boundaries because the ‘human condition’ or ‘human predicament’ in the run of the mill of existence is similar across the world. In this sense, Tagore represented continuity with the Enlightenment heritage of the idea of a ‘common humanity.’

  10. Quote
    Arun Kumar (subscribed) said August 15, 2011, 11:38 pm:

    Good one Abdul. Very well writted.

    I haven’t read Tagore, primarly because it just didn’t strike me to read one. Such reminders as these, celebrating the occasions can help us remember those greats and draw inspiration from them.


  11. Quote

    Abdul – Thank you for inviting me to read the post. Really impressed once again by your depth in reading and understanding Tagore’s works. Informal Learning is becoming a very common term now in the Future of Learning space.. very aptly linked with Tagore’s way of learning. Never thought of it before. Enjoyed reading this.

  12. Quote
    Abdul Fakhri said November 13, 2011, 7:56 pm:

    You are welcome Mahua. Thank you very much for your kind words. Glad that you enjoyed reading this post.

    I thought your reading this post would be a fitting continuity of my age-old conversation with you on the heritage of Bengal.

    I would think that informal learning is basically discovering the ‘agency’ of the learner in the educational process.

    Often folk in the L and D domain thought that their job was over in mere fiddling with nomenclatures i.e. the substitution of the term ‘learning’ in the place of ‘training’ – the ‘deep dive’ implications of this substitution may I submit we are still unpacking.

  13. Quote
    Abdul Fakhri said November 13, 2011, 7:57 pm:

    Thank you very much Arun.

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