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Rabindranath Tagore on poverty and development

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Talking about creativity of Tagore gave special emphasis to creation of beauty, calling this \'the greatest nature of the human being\' (Bandopadhyay 1995: 277). He gave one example of a woman clinging to her creation of beauty in preference to income she

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11th-May-2018       
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Md Anisur Rahman :
Tagore did not discuss the question of poverty and employment as a separate treatise. But his passing observations bearing on these questions reveal his unique thinking on these questions. And he reflected on the poverty question from direct interaction with the people unlike economists working with statistics collected without such interaction.
Basically, Tagore viewed the poverty question as lack of opportunity of people for creative self-expression rather than as a question of income poverty. As he wrote:
“The ‘income’ poverty problem is not so important It is the problem of unhappiness that is the great problem. Happiness may not compete with wealth in its list of needed materials, but it is creative, therefore it has its own source of richness within itself. Our object is to flood the choked bed of village life with streams of happiness.” (Bose & Bondopadhyay: 106)
In this statement Tagore enunciated the foundation of an altogether different paradigm of poverty discourse, asserting that one can be happy even if materially poor if one is engaged in creative tasks. The question of alleviation of poverty becomes then a question of finding opportunities for creative engagements of disadvantaged people which would keep them fulfilled in life irrespective of their material dispositions. This is not to deny them the fruits of development in terms of higher standards of living, which Tagore also claimed as their right (as quoted subsequently), but to highlight the creative urge as a primary urge of humans.
Tagore's writings contain innumerable allusions to the human urge for creativity. As he said in Satyer Ahban (The Call of Truth: Tagore 1923: 981):
“In his experiments with creating life the Creator suddenly becomes quite daring when he comes to creating human beings. He does not restrict the freedom of its soul. Outwardly the species is thrown naked, armourless and weak in all respects while its soul is freed to fly. Elated by the joy of this freedom it cries out: ‘I shall do the impossible’, meaning I shall not accept that what has been happening all the time will continue to happen - what does not happen will also happen.” And talking about creativity Tagore gave special emphasis to creation of beauty, calling this ‘the greatest nature of the human being’ (Bandopadhyay 1995: 277). He gave one example of a woman clinging to her creation of beauty in preference to income she could obtain by selling it, as follows:
“In a nearby village our girls had introduced artwork with the needle (in making clothing). One of their students did beautiful artwork on a piece of clothing. Her teachers thought that the girl would be encouraged and would be benefited if they purchased the dress with a good price. Hearing the proposal for its purchase the girl said ‘I shall not sell it’: Shall we ignore as worthless this joy of creation of one's own mind whose value is higher than any other price?”
(Bandopadyay 1995: 277)
To engage in such creativity one of course requires the minimum needs for immediate physical survival, but to meet such minimum survival needs is not the purpose of life - this does not alleviate one's poverty if one does not have the means to fulfill oneself with creative acts. This Tagorian holistic view of poverty stands in sharp contrast with modern economic discourse which takes a linear view of the relation between such different wants of human beings, considering physical subsistence needs as the need to be satisfied first. Such view is not consistent with actual human behaviour as evidenced in the supremely beautiful artwork of ancient, economically very ‘poor,’ cave dwellers who braved odds for physical survival while at the same time keeping engaging in such artwork thus seeking to satisfy the need for physical subsistence and for artistic self-expression simultaneously.
This view of Tagore giving primacy to creativity of human beings and considering economic poverty as such not to be their primary concern is akin to the view of Marx wanting the revolution so that the working class may create its own history. Marx never talked of wanting the revolution to solve the problem of poverty of the working class. He did envisage that the revolution would eventually raise productivity so much that everyone would have enough to consume; but certainly in the period of transition to such a state members of the working class would continue to die in poverty while leaving behind them their unfettered contributions in the history of human creativity. This to overcome poverty in terms of lack of creative freedom and opportunities and not material poverty alleviation as it is seen in modern economic discourse - was the primary motive for Marx wanting the revolution. The similarity of Tagore's explicit view of the poverty question with the implicit view of Marx is immediate. This view was implicit also in the thinking of the most outstanding practical Marxist as a social builder, Mao ze dong.
There is another dimension of poverty that comes out in an outstanding short story of Tagore - Postmaster. In this story the poverty of the orphan girl Ratan is not merely economic - she direly lacked a mental home which the Postmaster had provided, that was even more important to her than a gainful income. This is why when the Postmaster was leaving and offered to ensure her job with the next Postmaster she turned this down, bursting into tears and running away. The Postmaster did not quite understand this outburst, nor do economists admit this lack of mental home as one of the basic human needs. Tagore takes this theme of the need for a mental home of the disadvantaged, rather than compassion and charity from the fortunate ones, to its depth in a song of his - momo dukher shadhon - which says that the great moment that had come for the two to unite through the former's pain slipped away as she saw pity rather than love, sharing the pain, in the latter's eyes.
And on charity Tagore said, "There is only one God-given right to do good to people - it is the right of love. There is no dishonour in a gift of love.      Contd on page 9

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