Man The Artist

Rabindranath Tagore 

[Full text of the lecture delivered by Dr. Tagore at Baroda ]

[This lecture, delivered by Rabindranath Tagore in 1930 at Baroda, was published in 1932 under the title "Man the Artist" as "Kirti Mandir Lectures Series No. I" by the Department of Education, Baroda State, and printed at The Baroda State Press, Baroda [Price Re.0-2-0].

While most of Tagore's lectures (in English) have been later collected in "The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore", Vol. 3, Edited by Sisir Kumar Das (Sahitya Akademi), this lecture has not been included in this or in any other "standard" volumes to our knowledge, and so has been effectively forgotten. See the accompanying article, A Poet's dream: Discovery of Tagore's Texts by Mr. Shailesh Parekh on the "discovery" of this and another lecture, delivered in 1920 also in Gujarat and later published as "Dr. Tagore's Reply". A revised version of this has however been included as "Construction Versus Creation" in "The English Writings of Tagore".

We have kept the original spellings, punctuations and formatting in what has been reproduced below.]

Cover page of the article
At a certain bend in the path of evolution man refused to remain a four-footed creature, and the position, which he made his body to assume, carried in it a permanent gesture of insubordination. For there could be no question that it was nature's own plan to provide us with two pairs of legs evenly distributed along our lengthy trunk, heavily weighted with a head at the end. This was the amicable compromise made with the earth, when threatened by its conservative downward force, which forbids all movements. The fact that man gave up such an obviously sensible arrangement proves his inborn mania for repeated reforms of constitution, for pelting amend­ments at every resolution proposed by Providence.

If we found a four-legged table stalking upright upon two of its stumps, the remaining two foolishly dangling by its sides, we would be afraid it was either a nightmare of ours or some supernormal caprice of that piece of furniture, indulging in a practical joke upon the builder's idea of fitness. The like absurd behaviour of man's anatomy encourages us to guess that he was born under the influence of some comet of contradiction, that forces its eccentric path against orbits regulated by nature. And it is significant that man should persist in his foolhardiness, in spite of the penalty he pays for opposing the orthodox rule of animal locomotion. He reduces by half the help of an easy balance of his muscles, and is ready to pass his infancy tottering through perilous experiments in making progress upon insufficient support, and is followed all through his life by the liability to sudden down-falls, resulting in tragic or ludicrous consequences from which law-abiding quadrupeds are free. This was his first great venture, the relinquishment of a secure position of his limbs, which he could have comfortably retained in return for humbly salaming the all-powerful dust at every step.

This change of attitude in his body from the horizontal to the perpendicular brought about a new era in man's bodily and mental character. In the first place, he won through it a great freedom for his eyesight. I do not mean any enhancement of its physical power, which in many animals is much keener and more efficient. But from the higher vantage of our physical watch-tower, we have gained our view which is not merely information about objects. This view presents the unity, the inter-relation of things, which may not be of vital necessity to us, but is nevertheless of great impor­tance for our power of imagination. The view which is more of an idea than a mere location of things, constitutes a rich asset in our mental resources, to which our eyes contributed when they became worthy allies of our mind through the attainment of their freedom.

Imagination which is creative is the most valuable of our faculties, owing to the fact that of all living creatures man has been left unfinished by his designer, his sensitive skin undraped and undecorated, his soft body, with the exception to its brains - which have their skull, unarmoured and without weapons. Not only does he lack the sharp sight of a lynx, the keen smell of a dog, the fleet-footed speed of a deer, the elephant's ponderous mass of muscles that can trample and crush, but, what is worse, he is ridden by a mind, whose energies for the most part are not tamed and tempered into reliable instincts, and therefore in constant disagreement with each other. In fact he is a problem, which he only may solve, he is material for himself to be fashioned by himself into some difficult ideal of completeness, and that process has been going on for ages, through desperate struggles and vicissitudes of failure and success.

Another great physical achievement of man is the emancipation of his hands, which of all his limbs have attained the highest dignity, for their skill, and their grace, for their useful activities, as well as their activities that are above all uses. The monkey has gone to an extreme length, having developed four hands, all of which he has subjected to nearly the same duties, with a democratic disregard of class distinction. But class distinction generates in the honoured members a sense of responsibility, encouraging special capabilities, which have a higher value. This is what has happened to our hands the aristocratic limbs of our body made free in a great measure from uses that are urgent for all animals. The facility for handling things gained from them, strengthened our power of observation, but that is a power which animals also possess, though in a lesser degree. What is special to us is not merely the apprehension of facts, but also of the relationship of things, through experiment in countless combinations. This has stimulated our constructive imagination. We know that some animals also possess the faculty of constructiveness, in a more limited sense. But what is unique in us, finding in our hands its best vehicle, is our imagination, which creates. Once these limbs had their menial vocation as our carriers, but raised from their position as Shudras, they at once attained responsible status as our helpers when instead of keeping them underneath us, we offered them their places at our side, they revealed capacities that helped us to cross the boundaries of animal nature. Mind has found in them the best medium for its active will, only because they are the most detached members of our body. They are free, and freedom is Godly; it is the freedom of the divine spirit that finds its expression in creation.

Freedom is the very essence of life, the life which has broken out from the dungeon of the Giant Inert, and is ever creating innumerable forms in line, and colour, sound, and movement, in our inner thoughts, in our outer actions and our physical environments. Life is the artist that ceaselessly works the miracle of beauty upon this rude, rugged, stone-fettered planet of ours, whose prison warders were the blind spirits of storm, fire and earthquake, the tyrants that goaded her to build, story upon story, the dark tower dedicated to the titan of the desert. Freedom's message was brought to the world by life, when it gained its detachment from the stupendous pressure of things, which leave no other meaning than that of mere existence. Life is the organised power of an active will which proves itself by its creations, and the best representatives of this will in our body are our hands.

And again I emphasise, that it is freedom that had allowed our hands to perform works having their harmony with the workings of our imagination, which is the life of our mind. All other powers that we possess are more closely tied to the necessities of living than our power of imagination. It is free from the bondage of the biological servitude, and this freedom gives it the privilege to create. Our cave-dwelling ancestor had his intelligence constantly occupied in hunting animals, but his imagination, because of its detachment from the compulsory purposes of life, urged him to waste his time in dreams uselessly and to decorate his walls with the pictures of animals, about which he had an eager interest. Out of the innumerable objects of his experience, certain things were more real to him than others, producing images in his mind, with an impulse to have them translated into objective repre­sentations. Indeed the keenest delight for our mind is in the vivid visions coloured by feelings, accompanying all intense experiences, and in giving them adequate forms. It is a work, which is free, through which man realises his independent self in its pure activity of joy. And the faculty of imagina­tion, which affords us such opportunity, is strengthened through the dexterous manipulations of materials guided by our image-making will.

It is an insult to his humanity, if man fails to invoke in his mind a definite image of his own ideal self, of his ideal en­vironment, which it is his mission to reproduce externally. It is the highest privilege of man to be able to live in his own creation. The animal has its birthplace but no country, because country is a creation. It is not ours by the mere accident of birth, we must richly and intimately transform it into our own, make it a communal reality. And what is more, man is not truly himself if his personality has not been fashioned by him according to some mental picture of perfection, which he has within. His piled-up wealth, his puffed-up power can never save him from innate insignificance, if he has not been able to blend all his elements into a dynamic unity of presentation. It is for him inwardly to see himself as an idea, and outwardly to show himself as a person according to that idea. The individual, who is able to do this strongly and clearly, is considered to be a character. He is an artist, whose medium of expression is his own psychology. Like all other artists, he has perpetually to struggle hard with his materials, to overcome obstructions, inner and outer, in order to make definite his manifestation.

All great men known in history have bequeathed to us the picture of their life, which is cherished by generations of men far and wide, because, as an objectively realised idea, it offers to us a vision that satisfies our imagination. Such pictures are not dim, not amorphous. We may not admire some of them from a moral point of view; nay even condemn them,-as we may condemn Aurangzeb or Benvenuto Cellini, but we must acknowledge them as an accomplishment. They are pyramids, which unavoidably attract our attention from afar, dominating an illimitable back-ground of monotonous commonplaceness, pallid and vague.

The ideal of picture which a savage imagines of himself, requires glaring paints and gorgeous fineries, a rowdiness in ornaments, even grotesque deformities of over-wrought extra­vagance. It is the image of an idea which he must present, in order to impress the imagination of onlookers, according to the stage of their culture. He tries to offer a representation of power in conspicuous colors, tortured shapes, in acts of re­lentless cruelty and intemperate orgies of self-indulgence. We must keep in mind that such an apparition of rude grandiosity is not repellent to the members of his community. No doubt it causes fear in them, but this very fear has its thrill of pleasure, making the chief intensely visible to their mind. They feel they do not completely see him unless overwhelmed by his physical extravagance, and dominated by a will fearfully evident, owing to its unscrupulous power to inflict injuries. The chief's power becomes all the more impressive by its capriciousness, for law is impersonal and arbitrariness personal; and also because caprice keeps the people's minds constantly aroused by the incalculable surprises of its irresponsibility. For a similar reason, they ascribe to their gods physical and moral enormities, anatomical idiosyncrasies, a virulent vindictiveness crying for the blood of victims, and personal pre­ferences indiscriminate in the choice of recipients and methods of reward and punishment; if it were otherwise, then these gods through their indistinctness would disappoint their crude imagination. I have known tenants of a tyrannical landlord somewhat deprecatingly describing a neighboring one, who was humane and law-abiding, as like a coin whose face had been rubbed away. It was their picturesque way of saying that he was undistinguished, having failed to offer a strongly defined picture to their mind. In fact, he deprived them of aesthetic satisfaction, as does a too habitable building, utterly safe and recommendable, compared to a ghost-haunted ruin forbiddingly grim and desolate.

It is remarkable that while the animals have settled down to their original limitations of mind, the primitive bar­barism in man has not continued stationary that individuals and nations are aspiring for inspirations of far-reaching influ­ences, for greater activities of a wider range and of inner mental quality. The animal mind fragmentarily gathers its limited experience in its dealings with circumstances. But man, having imagination, is ever at work blending all his acquisitions into a unity of creation, into that universe of personality named civilisation, which has a living growth and which always seeks a larger freedom in more and more comprehensive truth. With the expansion of their sphere, our visions of perfection develop new valuations new depths and delicacies of delight, and a sober dignity of expression through elimination of tawdriness, of frenzied emotions, of all violence in shape, colour, words or behavior; of the mentality of Klu-Klux-Klanism.

The development of civilization is not a gradual growth. On his path of experience man comes to sudden altitudes, that startle his imagination with a wider view of things, claiming a larger synthesis. We find its parallel in the growth of science, when the theory of evolution or radioactivity bursts open a vista of knowledge which demands from us new adjustments of scientific vision, new groupings in the creative composition of our thoughts. When any addition or modification of human growth, which is not for information but realisation, comes to us as a mere pronouncement, it has very little effect upon our life, even if accepted by our intellect. It waits for our imagination to receive it, to harmonize it with our earlier visions which are not made up of mere thoughts, but are ideals, complete bodies of thought, alive with a dynamic force, like the food that has in it life-giving energy concentrated in organic form. Our imagination incarnates ideas into ideals, by which we not merely know them, but see them, feel them, have an intimate consciousness of their reality. The truth which we acknowledge and yet cannot assimilate, often seeks for the help of some personal voice, some living presence. And when it is transformed for us into an image identified with the person himself who has made it one with his life, it is admitted without question by our imagination, to its own vivid world of reality. And such also is the function of literature and the other arts; for they help in building perfect images of ideas, even as the crustaceans, which with the lime captured from the water, fashion their shells of wondrous designs.

I have already suggested that the growth of civilization has its abrupt chapters of spasmodic divergences. Nearly every new venture of its career begins with a cataclysm for its changes are not mere seasonal changes of ideas, naturally gliding through varied eras of flowers and fruits. They are changes provoking revolutionary adjustments, changes in the dynasty of living ideals, active in consolidating their possessions with strongholds of physical and mental habits, of symbols, ceremonials and adornments, that arouse loyalty in our aesthetic mind. When archaeologists unearth the records of a past civilization from the closed pages of dust, we find one epoch establishing its dominion upon the devastation of another. Each of them shows signs of an endeavor to evolve its own special type, to create its individuality through some fundamental unity of expressions, some central motive dominating its features, and leaving its relics in pottery and ornaments, in temples, in pictures or inscriptions on bricks, stones and metals - pathetic efforts to make its memories continuous through the ages, like the effort of a child who sets adrift on a paper-boat, his dream of reaching the distant unknown. Wordsworth says :-

We live by admiration, hope, and love;
And even as these are well and widely fixed,
In dignity of being we ascend.

There are countless facts of existence, which we pass by without heeding. Though dealt with by our intellect or the instinct of self-interest in some capacity or other, they slip off our attention, or hang loosely on some superficial recognition of our mind. But that which we admire and love and hope, we long to give to it permanent acknowledgment in the world which is our own; and as the poet has said, "even as these are well and widely fixed, in dignity of being we ascend". For our very being is dwarfed and shrunken when we are dragged by the mechanical routine of repetitions over colourless days, when we merely grow old in age but not in clarity of thought and maturity of wisdom, when we have no object of profound interest, for which the utmost sacrifice may not be counted as loss; when we have no prospect of heightened life, demanding heroic attention to maintain it; or when we make fire works of our animal passions for the enjoyment of our animal passions for the enjoyment of their meteoric flashes of sensations, recklessly reducing to ashes all that could have been saved for permanent illumination. And this happens not only to mediocre individuals, hungering for lurid unrealities, but to generations of insipid races that have lost all emphasis of significance in themselves. For their imagination flags either through dissipation or lethargy, finding no urgent incentive for the highest purpose of man, his purpose of self-creation.

Rabindranath in Gujarat
during an earlier visit in 1920.
When I use the word self-creation, I do not mean to restrict its sense to any positive modification or achievement within our nature itself. It includes our outer world, and also all that is represented in half-uttered suggestion, in the cry of our unfulfilled desires, thwarted by the rude contradiction of actuality. In fact, the unattained gives character to what is attained by us. Its wail of refusal to remain illegible, its clamour for a body which carries its credentials in its perfection, rises above the contented hum of our success. These ideas unborn, these unformed spirits tease our imagina­tion with an insistence, which makes them more real to our mind than things around us, that shout their identity with too plausible proofs. Poets and artists fondly build for these guests awaiting their welcome, pavilions in precious materials, to invoke them from out of the deep in a manifestation of unfading effulgence, in an indubitable self-corroboration, in a finality of form. These preparations represent the abiding reality of the people, something, which they aimed at, which they considered as worthy of their self-respect. While they themselves pass away one after another, like dreams of Time, unloading the innumerable facts of their life into the jaws of the hungry dark, they make magnificent efforts to leave behind them their claims to permanent recognition as dreamers, not so much as the conquerors of an earthly kingdom, but as the designers of Paradise.

Where are the ancient generations of India, less real to us to-day than the passing shadows of clouds upon the passing waves of a river? But there remains the Mahabharata! Strictly speaking, this great epic is not a repository of facts, but a record of the ideal reality cherished by those ages in admiration, love and hope, the portions of history which it contains, having grown into symbols of what the people desired to believe, of what they were unable fully to realise in their own life. And these bygone ages, still active in these visions in verses, form alliances with the creative life of to-day, helping us to dream great dreams and heroically to carry out perilous projects. As the greater part of this earth consists in the fluid element that surrounds it, carrying light, breathing life, maintaining the rhythm of movements, so is our civiliza­tion mostly made of ideals that are not yet crystallised in the substance of accomplished facts. These are its potent atmos­pheric forces, that either quicken or break to pieces great epochs of human history; this atmosphere is the arena of our dreams, the dreams that seek their voice in stone, in lines, in tunes, in words, in actions which are aflame with a luminous life. The poet gives us the best definition of man when he says :-

We are the music-makers
We are the dreamers of dreams.

Each age reveals its personality as dreamer, in its great expressions that carry it across surging centuries to the continental plateau of permanent human history. These expressions are in plays, and poems, in the lives of heroes and saints, in the noble towns like Benares and Agra, Athens and Rome. In them peoples have manifested their dignity of being, through majesty in ideals and beauty in performance. Do we not realise this in the ruins of ancient Rome, in its relics of human aspiration for the immense, the sight of which teases our mind out of thought? Does it not prove that the vision of a great Roman Empire had become intensely real to the imagination of the people, which sought its expression not only in military enterprises, but in magnanimous adven­tures of art. It was the idea of an empire which was not merely for opening an outlet to the pent-up pressure of over population, or widening its field of commercial profit and monstrous multiplication of products, but as a concrete representation of the majesty of Roman personality, the souls of the people which dreamed of a world-wide creation of its own, for its fit habitation. And this vivid consciousness of its titanic strength as a world-builder of human history, roused up the artist in the people to make manifest his dignity of being in an eternal present.

"With wonderful deathless ditties
 We build up the world's great cities,
 And out of a fabulous story
 We fashion an empire's glory."

There are two disastrous enemies which tend to rob civilization of its creative personality. The first one is the incubus of petrified tradition, separated from the moving mind and growing life. Seated rigid in the centre of stagna­tion, it firmly ties the human spirit to the revolving wheels of habit, till faintness overwhelms her. Like a sluggish stream chocked by rotting weeds, it is divided into shallow slimy pools that shroud their dumbness in an arcotic mist of stupor. This mechanical spirit of tradition is essentially materialistic, it drugs the soul of man into a dull drowsiness, it gives rise to phantoms of unreason, that haunt feeble minds in the ghastly disguise of religion. Civilization in such a state of inertia, allows its foolish days to weave unmeaning meshes of bondage round all departments of life; while its past inheritance, hoarded in a dark cellar, grows rusty, crumbles away, and loses its original significance.

Another powerful enemy of our creative life, is the too analytical tendency of mind, the superstitious faith in laboratory method, as the only means of solving the mysteries of existence, in all the variety of its aspects. One engaged in prying into the secrets of things by tearing them to shreds, easily loses his faith in wholeness as the ultimate meaning of reality. No doubt it is wonderful that music contains a fact which has been analyzed and measured by science, and which music has in common with the braying of an ass or of a motor-car horn. But it is still more wonderful that music has a truth, which cannot be analysed into fractions; and there the difference between it and the bellowing impertinence of a motor-car horn is infinite. They have analyzed the human mind, its dreams, its spiritual aspirations, and found to their satisfaction that these are composed of elemental animalities, tangled into various knots. This may be an important dis­covery, but what is still more important to realise, is the fact that man infinitely transcends the component parts of his own character. Supposing that some psychological explorer suspects that man's devotion to his beloved has at bottom our primitive stomach's hankering for human flesh, we need not contradict him; for whatever may be its genealogy, its secret composition; the complete character of our love, in its perfect mingling of physical, mental and spiritual associations, is unique in its utter difference from cannibalism. A lotus has in common with a piece of rotten flesh the elements of carbon and hydrogen; in a state of dissolution there is no difference between them, but in a state of creation the difference is immense; and it is that very difference which really matters. We are told that some of our most sacred sentiments hold hidden in them instincts that are contrary to what these sentiments pretend to be. Such disclosures have the effect upon certain persons of the relief of a tension, even like the relaxation in death of the incessant strenuousness of life.

An analogy with this may be found in those students in our country, who once used to strain their utmost to attain a standard of culture, which they believed to be valuable. But directly it came to be preached in the name of patriotism that culture was superfluous, that it had an impure foreign taint, a large number of these same students felt relieved, and renounced their devotion to education that had taken long patient years for its growth. When their faith in the value of cultural perfection was taken away from them, their vision of an educated mentality was enfeebled, and along with it their ardour for intellectual self-creation.

We find in modern literature that something like a chuckle of an exultant disillusionment is becoming contagious, and the knights-errant of the cult of arson are abroad, setting fire to our time honored altars of worship, proclaiming that the images enshrined on them, even if beautiful, are made of mud. They say, that it has been found out that the appear­ances in human idealism are deceptive, that the underlying mud is real. From such a point of view, the whole of creation may be said to be a gigantic illusion, and the billions of revolv­ing electric specks that appear like a piece of lead or gold, like you or me, should be condemned as bearers of false evidence,-But whom do they seek to delude?--If it be beings like ourselves, who possess some inborn criterion of the real, then to them these appearances in their integrity must represent reality, and not their component electric specks;-for them the rose must be more satisfactory as an object, than its constituent gases which can be tortured to speak against the evident identity of the rose. The rose, even like the human sentiment of goodness, or ideal of beauty, belongs to the realm of creation, in which all its rebellious elements are reconciled in a perfect harmony. Because these elements yield them­selves to our scrutiny, we are inclined to give them the best prizes as actors in that mystery-play,-the rose,-which is really only giving a prize to our own detective cleverness.

I repeat again, that the sentiments and ideals which man in his process of self-creation has built up, should be recognis­ed in their wholeness. The animal, the savage, have been transformed into higher stages in civilized man, not through any elimination of the original materials, but through a magical grouping of them,-through the severe discipline of art, the discipline of curbing and stressing in proper places, establishing a balance of lights and shadows in the back­ground and fore-ground, and thus imparting a unique value to our personality in its completeness. So long as we have faith in this value, our energy is steadily sustained in its creative activity. This faith is helped on all sides by religion, literature, the arts, legends, symbols, ceremonials and the remembrance of heroic souls, who have personified it in themselves. To keep alive our faith in the reality of the ideal perfection, is the function of civilization, which is mainly formed of sentiments and ideals, and the images that represent them. In other words, civilization is a creation of art, created for the objective realization of our vision of the socially perfect; it is the work of an imagination, which constantly builds the personality of the people, as well as its habitation. Imagination is the flow of our mind towards the unseen, the unrealised, setting up banks along its forward path, by which it continually goes on defining the infinite. We stop its course of conquest when we accept the cult of realism, and forget that realism is the worst form of untruth, because it contains a minimum of truth. It is like preaching that only in the morgue can we comprehend the reality of the human body, the body, which has its perfect truth when seen in life. This life is transcendental, it includes what is yet to come, the best aspect of which is in its ceaseless aspiration for strength, health and beauty. All great human facts are surrounded by an immense atmosphere of expec­tation. They are never complete if we leave out from them what might be, what should be, what is not yet proved but profoundly felt, what points towards the immortal. All human facts that are significant, are for revealing the eternal, the universal spirit of Man in the lives of men. It dwells in a perpetual surplus in the individual, that transcends all the facts about him. His physiological contents are mere fractions, but when his personality, which is in the unity of his self-expression, is revealed, then he is a complete image.

There is an immense strength of the surplus, the "ucchishte bale" in man, says the Atharva Veda, which is the source of his righteousness and truth, beauty and heroism; in this surplus are held in unity his past and his future. In this superfluity ever grows his wealth of existence, which is not limited to the immediate facts of his individual self. It gives us beauty in its rhythm of activity, which is true freedom,-greatness in its suggestion of the infinite. Ugliness dwells in death, which is a dead stop with nothing beyond it; and the revellers in realism of our modern literature are right when they prove by their writings, that what they take pride in, is ugly and rude. The realism in man is the animal in him, whose life is in a mere duration of time; the human in him is his reality, with his life ever lasting for its background. Rocks and crystals, being complete in what they are, can keep a kind of dumb dignity in their stolidly-limited realism; while human facts grow unseemly and diseased, breeding germs of death, when divested of their ideal truth. And therefore let the poet remind us :

"We are the music-makers
 We are the dreamers of dreams."

Published May 7, 2003

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