‘Tagore and Iqbal: Views’ by Aamir Butt

Iqbal and Tagore

A friend complained that I have written Tagore was the greatest poet India has produced, he was unhappy as he thinks this title belongs to Iqbal. Well actually I never wrote this in the first place, what I had written is that Tagore is acknowledged as the greatest poet India (and here I meant Indian Sub-Continent) has produced in the last 200 years. Well there is little doubt about this, is there? Tagore was the first non-White to win a Nobel prize, his poems form the national anthem of two countries and if there is a poll across the Sub-Continent asking the question who is the greater poet among them I have no doubt Tagore will win. So the fact remains that Tagore is acknowledged as the greatest poet India has produced in the last 200 years, but is he the greatest poet India has produced in the last 200 years? This is an entirely different question as here we are asking a personal opinion and everyone will have their own opinion, some I am sure will think that neither of them deserve this title. We will therefore leave this for now though at some stage it would be interesting to compare their works and ideas.

As such there is a lot of overlap between their philosophy and poetry. Both seem to be heavily influenced by Rumi and Shirazi and though Iqbal at times writes in terms of Islamic specific poetry Tagore remained by an large a pantheistic/mystic poet throughout his life.
 I was curious if they ever met each other or exchanged letters for they both lived in the same country at the same time, Tagore was 16 years older than Iqbal but outlived him by 3 years.
To my astonishment I found out that the two never ever met, not only that, they never exchanged any letters and curiously Iqbal never even acknowledged Tagore in any way!
As for Tagore the story is slightly different. Tagore admired Iqbal and this is apparent from the message he sent to  Inter-collegiate Muslim Brotherhood of Lahore which celebrated Iqbal Day in January 1937, in this message he openly acknowledged Iqbal’s greatness and  the universal quality of his poetry. 
I have been unable to find the dates but it has been recorded that once when Tagore was in Lahore he went to see Iqbal at his Mayo Road residence. Iqbal at that time had gone to Bhawalpur so no meeting took place. When Iqbal came back he was informed of Tagore’s visit and his desire to meet him, he never tried to contact Tagore, never wrote to him or anything, how strange! Why?! No one knows for sure though many have often wondered why. A few years ago one of Pakistan’s leading Iqbal scholar M Ikram Chughtai who was Director of the Urdu Science Board published a research based article on this subject. Mr Chughtai claims that the reason Iqbal gave a cold shoulder to Tagore was envy, or perhaps even jealousy. Chughtai calls it ‘The Award Complex’ and claims that the reason was Iqbal’s resentment on Tagore being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1912 and the fact that Iqbal was never considered for this prize (another anti-Muslim conspiracy perhaps). Chughtai says “Tagore’s award had been hovering on Iqbal’s mind throughout his life and he, directly or indirectly, could not free himself from this ‘award complex’.

 Soon another development was to take place which was to further sadden Iqbal: King Raza Shah Pahlavi of Iran extended an invitation to Tagore to visit his country. He went there in 1932. As a royal guest, he was given tremendous welcome in many cities of Iran. While in Tehran, he received a similar invitation from the King of Iraq. In Baghdad, Tagore was received by King Faisal himself. Tagore had also been invited by Einstein to his Berlin home in January 1930.

Chughtai assures us that Iqbal was greatly ‘shocked’ by these invitations and warm welcomes extended to a poet who he considered to be his rival, especially by fellow Muslim leaders as in one of his recently discovered letters, he wrote to Ghulam Abbas Akram, the then foreign minister of Iran, that Tagore was a non-Muslim and that “Tagore did an injustice to the Indian Muslims. He told the Muslims of Mesopotamia to persuade the Indian Muslims to cooperate with the Hindus for the freedom of India.”
Chughtai has also made a detailed mention of the abortive efforts made by Iqbal and his well-wishers to get a Nobel for him. Even to this day the fact that Iqbal was not given a Nobel prize and perhaps for some of greater irk Tagore was is not forgotten, as an article I came across from a 2012 addition of the Millie Gazette shows, titled, ”Why wasn’t Iqbal awarded a Nobel? The writer tells us,” It’s one of the biggest mysteries that Dr Muhammad Iqbal didn’t get Nobel despite his profound poetry and the corpus of literary work of the highest calibre. Iqbal and Tagore were simultaneously writing poetry in the sub-continent and if the level of poetry of both the masters is assessed dispassionately, Iqbal has an edge over Tagore. Both were mystics and they were heavily influenced by Persian mysticism of Attar, Jami, Hafiz, Sanai, Khaqani and the most sublime of all, the redoubtable Jalaluddin Rumi. Iqbal called Rumi, his ‘ruhani ustaad’ (spiritual master), whereas Tagore was influenced by Hafiz Shirazi. While Tagore almost plagiarized Hafiz in his 103 poems in Gitanjali, that won him 1913’s Nobel, Iqbal’s inspiration was devoid of pilfering.”

I found it interesting and a bit ironic that the Millie Gazette claims to be the leading newspaper of Indian Muslims while as I mentioned above Chughtai sahib is from Pakistan and one would expect things to be the other way around! Also as far as I can tell Shirazi’s influence on Iqbal’s poetry is well known and has been acknowledged by Javed Iqbal.

So there we are, these two great men, philosophers and poets,  the best that India produced in the last 200 years never met and never put their heads together to produce any work and mankind is all the poorer for this.

So while I am not saying who is the greater poet among the two but one thing can be said, if (and please before anyone gets upset please note the IF), if what Mr Chughtai has claimed is true, then there can be little doubt who was the greater man.