Tagore and Iqbal: Comparison and Contrast: Aamir Butt

Tagore and Iqbal: Comparison and Contrast

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and Mohammad Iqbal (1877-1938) are arguably two of the greatest intellectuals Indian subcontinent has produced during the 20th century. Among their respective followers there have been attempts to compare them with each other. Such attempts are always difficult as they wrote in different languages and generally had somewhat different attitudes to the events of their times. The two never met and never corresponded with each other which is rather strange and unfortunate. There is the story of Tagore calling on Iqbal in Lahore but Iqbal was out of town. Later on due to the welcome extended to Tagore by monarchs of Persia and Iraq as well as Saudi Arabia there looks to be some sourness on Iqbal’s part.
Following this Iqbal who has never commented on Tagore in literary or other topics wrote to an Iranian diplomat Ghulam Abbas Aram and warned him that Tagore’s visit was an attempt to forge Aryan affiliations between Hindus and Persians and suggested that perhaps this might lead Iranians to revert to Zoroastrianism!! In his letters Iqbal also accused Tagore of misleading the Muslims of India into accepting the British rule or purposing freedom as a change of masters.
Some also think that Iqbal had resentment about Tagore receiving the Nobel prize but it seems that it was Iqbal’s admirers who were more unhappy about this than Iqbal.
On his part Tagore mentioned Iqbal on several occasions and always said good words about him. Once talking to one of Iqbal’s friends he asked if Iqbal wrote in Punjabi, when he was told no and that Punjabi was not a language but a dialect Tagore remarked this was most unfortunate for if someone of Iqbal’s calibre had written in his native language this would have established Punjabi as a major literary language. This may well be true as we can see men like Pushkin and Tagore were responsible for the literary birth of Russian and Bengali languages. I doubt Tagore was aware of Iqbal’s letters to Aram for in a letter to Iqbal’s friend Dr Abbas Ali Khan dated February 7 1933 he writes, ” Your letter and poem have touched my heart. It has given me deep pleasure to know that you have found an inner affinity between my poems and those of your great poet Sir Mohammad Iqbal. Not knowing the languages in which he writes his original poems I am not in a position to reach the depths of his creative production or to properly evaluate them but I am assured through the wide fame they have won that they carry the majesty of eternal literature. It has pained me often to find a certain class of critics trying to create misunderstanding by ranging my literary works against those of Sir Mohammad Iqbal on a competitive basis. This is an entirely erroneous attitude to take towards literature which deals with the universal. I am sure both myself and Sir Mohammad Iqbal are comrades working for the cause of truth and beauty in literature and meet in a realm where the human mind offers its best gifts to the shrine of Eternal Man”
Tagore also paid glowing tributes to Iqbal in his message on first Iqbal day in 1937 and his condolence message of 1938 calling him a person whose work is not limited to few but is universal.

As I said above Iqbal more or less ignores the existence of Tagore, at least publicly for his letters to Aram was private correspondence till late. However he once remarked to CV Raman, the renowned physicist and Nobel Laureate that, ”Tagore preaches rest but practices action; Iqbal practices rest, preaches action.” And certainly looking at the lives and works of these two great men this appears to be a very apt analysis.
It should be noted that when Iqbal’s collection of books was catalogued, six English translations of Tagore’s works were part of it.

So what can make out of the conflicting attitudes of these giants towards life and towards each other? Well I think we need to analyze and evaluate them in light of what these two were in personal terms.
Tagore was born in a well off household, his family had land and money. He did not need to struggle to make ends meet. Tagore did not even complete his formal education knowing he is not dependent on a job for income and devoting his life to literary pursuits early in his life.
Iqbal had no such luck, he had no family fortune, he struggled all his life to provide for himself and his family. Iqbal had to complete formal education and skills of a solicitor to find work.
Tagore was born in a reformist Hindu household while Iqbal was born in a conservative Sunni household.
The above factors seem to have influenced the works and attitudes of Tagore and Iqbal. Not having to face the harsh realities of life as far as putting food on the table is concerned Tagore retains his gentle, generous and magnanimous soul. Iqbal on the other hand, frustrated with the needs to balance time for income generating work with his literary passion perhaps developed the hardness and even some bitterness which spills over in his work and attitude towards Tagore. Added to this was that Iqbal was part of the minority Muslim community of India and had the defensive attitude minorities tend to develop, especially if they believe they are being threatened.
As Rafiq Zakria sums up, ”Tagore brought out the romantic in man; Iqbal the heroic. Tagore exulted in feminine beauty; Iqbal in masculine strength. There was music in Tagore’s poetry; there was fire in Iqbal’s. Tagore was humble; Iqbal was proud. Tagore was always active; Iqbal easy going and lazy.”

Dr Aamir Butt first posted this on his Facebook page on the 27th of December, 2014.
I am very grateful for his permission to share the article here.