Tagore's Oriental Postmodernity

Critique from the South

European imperial governance and education created in her colonies a class of modern elite. A small section of the 'enlightened' elite comprised powerful thinkers in the colonies. In India, these exceptional intellectuals articulated in their writings a forceful critique of the Euro-centric model of development in a period when British rule evoked awe, reverence and admiration among the country's élite. They discerned the exploitative motive behind the civilizing agenda of colonial governance and what Foucault has called 'governmentality.' [1] A wealth of such critical prose can be found amidst the early twentieth century writings of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore, Ramendrasundar Trivedi and Binoy Kumar Sircar in a language that is no less profound than those gleaned in any modern 'postmodernist' writings. Unfortunately, such pieces of critical indigenous literature have hardly ever been cited in any scholarly work related to development and postmodernist discourse. The absence of any allusion to, and translation of, this body of literature may reflect that acceptance of a non-Western critique, expressed in an allophonic language, appears to be problematic even amongst Southern academic critics within the Western/ Northern hegemony. This fact however reflects the current ideological dominance of the standard development dialogue -- an heir to the Euro-centric discourse of the past century.

The critical writings of Rabindranath Tagore pose an additional problem. Keenly aware of global political movements, Tagore published a plethora of essays and sketches in Bengali to criticize Western and Japanese imperialism. In spite of the attention, acclaim and accolades (including a Nobel Prize in 1914) that Tagore's poetry and fiction have received from India and abroad, his critique of a Euro-centric view of civilization has remained largely ignored. After his death, his image as a great Oriental mystic poet has become magnified in the official discourse of Tagorean philosophy. This mystic poet talks about peace, inner truth and spiritual freedom, but seems to have little concern for mundane politics. His image as a lofty resident of the ivory tower of abstract lyrics devoted to the Supreme Being has enjoyed considerable appreciation in the West, as evidenced by the numerous translations of a particular genre of his poems. However, the fact that he relinquished his Knighthood after the Jalianwallabag massacre in 1929, or that he wrote influential essays on the contemporary nationalist movement does not receive much attention. It is likely that his posthumous market value as an Oriental mystic sage has prevented translation into European languages of some of his highly critical prose pieces.

One of Tagore's sarcastic articles is reproduced here to indicate the relevance and poignancy of a Southern, non-Europhonic critique of the development doctrine. Here is the first translation of Tagore's "Deyé Pimprér Mantabya," which was first published in 1907 as the second article in his text, Byanga-Koutuk (Ridicule and Jest).


[1] Foucault, Michel. "Governmentality." Translated by Rosi Braidotti. Ideology and Consciousness 6 (Autumn): 5-21. 1979.

Thus Spake Myrmica

Rabindranath Tagore

translated by

Lo and behold -- the ants! Those wee thin red creatures are the ants, called Formica in Latin. I am a Myrmica, descendent of the great family of Myrmicinae; I feel much amused to watch those ants.

Look at them -- ha ha ha, just watch their gait: they crawl as though they are one with the dust. My head, on the other hand, scrapes the sky when I stand up. If the sun were a piece of candy, I suppose I could pinch off its pieces with my claws and store them in my nest. Gosh, what a large piece of straw I have dragged such a long way, and look at those ants -- three of them pulling and pushing on a single dead grasshopper. We're so different! Sincerely speaking, I am much amused.

Look at my leg, and theirs! My legs are so enormously lengthy that I cannot really fathom the end of them! What higher stead could one expect than on these legs? But those ants are so blissfully content with their own tiny legs. Amazing! Ants they are, after all!

They are so tiny, and moreover, I watch them from a considerable height -- so I cannot fully comprehend their ways. However, a glance upon them from the corner of my eye, standing on my enormous legs, and only a little guesswork sufficed me to have understood everything about them. For the ants are too small to require any prolonged observation. I will write a treatise on them in Myrmicine language, and will give seminars, too.

I have much experience indeed, derived from assumptions, about the ant society. For instance, we the Myrmica have the faculty of filial affection, and therefore, ants cannot have the same faculty, for they are ants, nothing but ants. They say ants can build their nests underground. Clearly, they must have learnt the construction engineering from Myrmica -- because they are ants, creatures named Formica in Latin.

I feel great pity for the ants though, when I see them. And I do feel a great urge to do them some good. I even would if I could, for some time abandon the civilized Myrmicine society and live, along with flocks of Myrmica brethren, among the ants in their colony, and bring about some reformation in their society -- heck, to that extent am I prepared to sacrifice! We intend to thrive on their bits of sugar, and to live somehow in their mud holes, spreading our appendages -- merely for the sake of their development.

But they don't want development -- they only want to eat their own humble sugar and live in their own mud holes -- ants, mere ants as they are. But Myrmica as we are, we shall most certainly give them development , and shall eat their sugar and shall live in their mud holes -- we, and our nephews and nieces and all in-laws!

To the question as to why we should eat their sugar and occupy their mud holes, we may give the principal reason that they are ants, and we are Myrmica. Secondly, we have a selfless interest in bringing about development for the ants, and therefore, we shall eat their sugar and occupy their mud holes. Thirdly, we'll have to leave our homeland. Hence, to make good for this loss, it is imperative that we consume a bit more sugar. Fourth, we'll have to live among alien creatures in an alien land, and we may contract diseases, -- so we may not live long -- oh poor us, dear us! Hence we must eat sugar; and whatever space is there to occupy in the ants' holes must be shared amongst us, our kins and affines!

If the ants are disgruntled, we shall flatly call them ungrateful. If they want to eat sugar and to demand accommodation in the mud holes, we shall tell them in their face, in Mymicine language, "You are ants, small creatures, you are Formica!" That'll be sufficiently forceful logic, won't it?

But then what will the ants eat? We don't know. They may suffer from scarcity of food and lodging, but they ought to be patient and consider the possibility that contact with our long legs will eventually lengthen their legs to stand them in a better stead. There will be no dearth of discipline, and peace. They develop more and more, we eat more and more sugar -- only such an arrangement can maintain peace, law and order. Or else, there are chances of hell breaking loose. We are so careful, because we bear an immense onus of responsibility, you see.

What if the whole race of ants become extinct due to want of sugar and an excess of law and order? Then of course we shall have to go elsewhere to spread development. For we, Myrmicines, are highly developed, by virtue of our elongated legs.

For Further Reference

Links to sites with poems by Ravindranath Tagore:

Ravindranath Tagore: Biography

Ravindranath Tagore in Conversation with Albert Einstein:

Ravindranath Tagore in Conversation with H. G. Wells:

Debal Deb (Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies, Barrakpore, India) has a Ph.D. in Ecology. He is a freelance environmentalist, engaged in research in ecological economics, conservation of folk crop genetic diversity and sustainable agriculture. He has interests in folk traditions of sustainable natural resource management and development theory. His book, Development? Oh, Please Tell Me Another Story, is forthcoming.