Like many Indian parents, my parents introduced a few of Tagore’s poems as an example of great poetry. I vaguely recall that the poems I read were about nature; there was a reference to a moon and perhaps trees or flowers. They were beautiful poems, which registered in a spiritual way. To a palate accustomed to contemporary American poetry, the verses might seem overly religious, abstract and sentimental, but as a child I wasn’t yet absorbed into the skein of irony with which literature today concerns itself.
In his introduction to Gitanjali, the poet W.B. Yeats wrote, “Rabindranath Tagore, like Chaucer’s forerunners, writes music for his words, and one understands at every moment that he is so abundant, so spontaneous, so daring in his passion, so full of surprise, because he is doing something which has never seemed strange, unnatural, or in need of defense.” In the first flush of excitement after he won the Nobel, Tagore attracted much attention in the West, particularly the attention of those who were eager to cast him as a mystical Eastern sage.
Later on, Yeats changed his mind about Tagore’s genius and uttered less kind words, as did numerous other Westerners who smarted under Tagore’s critique of Western aggression and relied on poor translations of his work for their judgment. Today, non-Indian writers are largely unfamiliar with Tagore.
Tagore’s writing touched Pablo Neruda, Andre Gide, Yasanuri Kawabata, Robert Frost and Octavio Paz and the poet Hart Crane. I have read and loved some of the poets Tagore has influenced, like Hart Crane and Pablo Neruda. Tagore’s influence over the last century has been far-reaching and global, though the emotion and beauty of his work may be lost on some members of a contemporary Western reading public.
Last year, I discovered that most of Tagore’s writings are actually available for free as Kindle ebooks. I downloaded Tagore’s Gitanjali (as it was originally translated by Yeats—a mistake), for a plane flight. It took a few minutes to push past the archaic pronouns and the strong emotions and I found myself thinking that the culture that produced Tagore is far more than a continent away from the culture in which I find myself. There were moments in Gitanjali where I was blown away, but I could tell the musicality that Bengalis rave about was lost in that translation.
Gitanjali is a collection of 157 poems or “Song Offerings,” many of which are spiritual in tone or rapturous about the natural world. These poems were far more mystical than any of his other plays, essays, or songs written to that point. When Tagore met Yeats through a mutual friend in England in 1912, Yeats was enthusiastic about Gitanjali.
It was through Yeats that Tagore met the poet Ezra Pound. Pound engaged with Gitanjali, too, though he believed readers might find it too “pious.” Anyone who has read Pound might find it amusing that a poet that wrote in such an obscure and esoteric manner would give consideration to what readers’ opinions of another person’s poetry might be.
Of Gitanjali, the Times Literary Supplement v wrote, “As a poet should be, [Tagore] is so simple that anyone can understand him; yet this does not mean that there is little to understand.” Those who appreciate the verse saw in Tagore’s work a clear and earnest mysticism and spirituality that was not common in British, Continental or American literature of the same time.
When presenting the Nobel to Tagore, the Chairman of the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy, Harald Hjarne, explained the motivation for bestowing the Nobel and it was not the reason the Nobel for Literature is given today. He said: “In awarding the Nobel prize in Literature to the Anglo-Indian [sic] poet, Rabindranath Tagore, the academy has found itself in the happy position of being able to accord this recognition to an author who in conformity with the express wording of Alfred Nobel’s last will and testament, had during the current year, written the finest poems “of an idealistic tendency.”
Most people have assumed that Tagore’s receiving the Nobel was a sign that the Nobel Committee saw it as a work of great literary genius. But in the first half of the 20th century, the Nobel Prize for Literature was not given so much on the basis of literary merit, as it was on the basis of a strict interpretation of Nobel’s wishes: that idealistic literature be rewarded. Accordingly, canonical authors like James Joyce or Leo Tolstoy were never awarded a Nobel. Nowadays the prize is awarded for literary merit as well as idealism with a political, rather than spiritual agenda.
If Tagore’s genius lies not in the translation of Gitanjali that led to the Nobel, does it exist at all? While there are those readers who might disagree, I think Tagore’s genius lies in the cross-genre application of talent for which he received no award, for which almost nobody receives applause nowadays.
Tagore was a formidable polymath: a poet, playwright, essayist, composer, and painter who spoke about certain subjects long before it became fashionable to do so. He was among the earliest Indian thinkers to see that Western science should be applied to “Third World development.” And his writings about violence and nationalism, death, nature, and many more topics that at first blush seem unrelated are brilliant.
Before the Nobel Prize
He was born on May 7, 1861 in a mansion in Calcutta, the youngest Tagore son. The poet grew up mostly within the walls of his house, later claiming he was not allowed to leave except for school. However he loved the outdoors and was invigorated by physical pursuits: he could walk 25 miles at a stretch and years after a childhood spent wrestling, introduced judo to India.
Although the Tagore family was Brahmo and Tagore would at one point refer to an office clerk’s clothes drenched by a monsoon as “oozing and lachrymose” like “the thoughts of a pious Vaishnava,” he was clearly influenced by the intense imagery and musicality of Vaishnava poetry, which was at its peak in Tagore’s early life.
Tagore was close to his brother Jyotirindranath’s wife, Kadambari, who he later described in his novella Nashtanirh. The acclaimed director Satyajit Ray adapted the novella into Charulatha, a profound film that explores the passionate, but nonsexual relationship between a younger brother and his brother’s wife. Readers who live in the San Francisco Bay Area can view Charulatha at the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto; the theater’s owner, David Packard, screens it periodically. On occasion it is screened by university theaters in the Los Angeles area, too.
Around the age of eight, Tagore started writing poetry in Bengali. His first poem was published anonymously. English was Tagore’s least favorite subject in school. He wrote in it infrequently (until he translated Gitanjali in 1912). Tagore left his fourth school in 1875, finding school “a hideously cruel combination of hospital and jail.”
He had started publishing several pieces of literary criticism when his father shipped him off to England to study law. Tagore arrived in England in the fall of 1878. He was critical of the young women who were interested in him. If you look at photographs you can see the source of the attraction: he looks like a sensitive, dreamy man before that kind of man became popular to admire. He was even more critical of his fellow countrymen who he believed were overly deferential to Englishmen.
He enrolled at University College in London and studied there until 1880 when he decided to return to India.
Tagore’s diverse creative work started with renewed energy after his return. He penned poems, musical dramas, songs, and a novel. He resumed his friendship with Kadambari, his brother’s wife, and wrote poems dedicated to her, one of which was called “The Love of Rahu” about a demon or planet in love with the moon. When Tagore was twenty-two, he married a ten-year-old girl his father chose.
Two months after “The Love of Rahu” was published, Kadambari committed suicide. It was a shattering moment for Tagore. His writing on grief then and subsequently is unusual and powerful stuff:
“Emptiness is a thing man cannot bring himself to believe in: that which is not, is untrue, that which is untrue is not. So our efforts to find something where we see nothing are unceasing … Yet amid unbearable grief, flashes of joy sparkled in my mind on and off in a way which quite surprised me. The idea that life is not a fixture came as tidings that helped to lighten my mind. That we are not forever prisoners behind a wall of stony-hearted facts was the thought that kept unconsciously rising uppermost in rushes of gladness.”
Around 1886, after his first child was born, Tagore wrote some powerful essays that included criticism of the Indian education system and attacks against the arrogance of the British. He faced harsh criticism from his own Bengali community.
Years later Tagore sent his son, not to England as so many did, but to the United States to study agricultural science. And when Tagore visited him in Urbana, Illinois, he became a popular lecturer there. A festival in his honor is still held in Illinois every year.
Winning the Nobel
Neither the Nobel Committee nor other non-Indians could know just how polemical and unorthodox Tagore’s brilliant essays were. The West would later buy into other sacred and profane ideas, siphoning from Indian culture yoga, bindis, and Slumdog Millionaire. In this same spirit, they bought into Tagore solely as a mystic. Tagore’s much less mystical essays arguably stand the test of time better than the translation of the Gitanjali has.
Tagore learned that he’d won the Nobel Prize by cable from Calcutta. He won it over the novelist Thomas Hardy, who was nominated by the Royal Society of Literature in London. The Bengalis who had insulted and criticized him earlier showed up to hail him once the West placed its stamp of approval. His speech in response was understandably contemptuous:
“The calumnies and insult from the hands of countrymen which have fallen to my lot have not been trifling … Today Europe has placed its garland of honour on me. If that has any value it lies only in the artistic discrimination of the arbiters of taste there. There is no genuine link between that and our country.”
Public response to Tagore after the Nobel was not all good. One popular rumor floated that Yeats had rewritten Gitanjali. This rumor was rebutted in the memoirs of the friend who had introduced Tagore and Yeats. Tagore’s win was described in the New York Times with “It is the first time that this prize has been given to anybody but a white person.” And the next day, the New York Times published this odd, relieved explanation: “Babindranath [sic] Tagore if not exactly one of us, is, as an Aryan, a distant relation of all white folk.”
Tagore died at age 80 frustrated with India, particularly the violence between Hindus and Muslims.
Throughout his life he wondered how he would be read in the future, who he would be to future readers. When he was 35 he wrote, “A hundred years from now/Who are you reading this poem of mine?” And an excerpt from his second to last poem decades later reads,
“The last sun of the last day
Uttered the question on the shore of the
In the hush of the evening—
Who are you!
No answer came.”
In 2011 Adam Kirsch wrote a somewhat intellectually muddled piece in The New Yorker called “Modern Magus: What Did the West See in Rabindranath Tagore?” The essay tries to present a fair case until about three-quarters of the way through when it not only dismisses a new translation of Tagore’s work, but also seems to dismiss Tagore as a writer.
Kirsch acknowledged the West’s orientalism, noting that for writers outside India Tagore merely stood for the idea that there was saintliness in the world. He explains that Yeats never made any effort to know Tagore as a real person, but Tagore knew very well that he was misrepresenting himself to the Anglo world, so Yeats’ (and other poets’) lack of inquiry did not matter. Kirsch reasons at the end of the piece, “The fall in Tagore’s English reputation is not hard to explain. The margin of difference between sublime poetry and sentimental “rubbish” has to do entirely with the power and subtlety of the language, and this, of course, is what is hardest to convey in translation.”
While there are significant difficulties with translation, Kirsch’s criticism is simultaneously unable to probe his own biases and pompously certain that what he wants from poetry is what it should offer. With Tagore, Kirsch started at the wrong place. He assumed that the West was right to forget him and therefore proceeded to prove his point with only one close reading of a couple of lines from a volume that is 864 pages long. The subtext is that if East and West meet, as Tagore had hoped, the West gets to have the last word. Tagore’s influence on so many writers, inside and outside Indian culture, surely called for more nuance and depth than Kirsch brought.
To the extent The New Yorker represents America’s literary establishment, Kirsch’s review represents some of the worst aspects of America’s obliviousness about Eastern cultures and artists.
When asked his opinion about Tagore, the author Amit Majmudar (The Abundance, 2013) said, “You would have to go back to Victor Hugo in French and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in German—and William Shakespeare in English—to get a sense of what Tagore represents. We know him, now, through his writings, but his contemporaries—including the Nobel Committee—recognized him as a figure greater than the sum of his writings. They recognized him as someone who transcended national and linguistic boundaries by being, so comprehensively, of one nation and one language: Ours.”
Majmudar seemed to see Tagore’s worth today more in what he represents than the literary merit of any particular piece of writing.
In a similar, but more critical comment, a character in Jeet Thayil’s novel Narcopolis says, “The point about Tagore is that the whole was far greater than the sum of the parts. It is the composite figure that matters. But Tagore the mystic and poet? Tagore the painter? Tagore the composer? Not one of those Tagores is worth very much.”
But poetry is an intensely subjective enterprise. My husband, a non-Indian writer with a Masters in Literature and poetry, loves Tagore’s poetry. So have numerous poets from many different cultures who were comfortable thinking about life and death as two halves of one whole. It seems then, that the disagreements exist only when we look at Tagore’s work with the expectation that it meets today’s literary tastes as set forth by New York’s contemporary publishing scene.
When we look at Tagore’s work through the lens of American culture, perhaps we lose an understanding of how profoundly original he was for the time and place in which he wrote. Literature of any language should grapple with the bigger questions of life and death. Not all or even most of the books published in New York today do this. Tagore does this in spades.
Kirsch acknowledged that the East held the promise of ancient wisdom for the West back in 1913. But he didn’t make enough of the reality that Tagore’s style of idealism remains rare in the West outside of academia to this day.
The decline in interest in Tagore in the West was representative of the United States’ rising interest in efficiency (automation and computerization and specialization), and its drift away from the natural world. The decline in interest could be attributed to mainstream America’s mistrust of an intellectual life that has no immediate practical value, that spreads itself too thin, that thinks about death as a part of life.
While some have suggested that the early Nobel Prize ruined Tagore’s literary work by giving him too much quick recognition, Indians were more inclined to take Tagore’s idealism seriously as a result of this award. The award bestowed upon him the kind of credibility that was necessary to create change in India. Arguably India’s attempts to make progress in certain areas are partly the result of its veneration of Tagore, who acted as a galvanizing force on the whole country. It is hard to imagine an American poet today who could have as much influence on America (or the world) today as Tagore had on India.
In March 1994, India Currents ran a feature on Tagore by Gautam Sengupta that discussed Tagore’s relationship to the United States in reverential terms. According to the feature, Tagore saw the United States as the only nation engaged in solving the problems of race intimacy.
Tagore’s basic question of how significantly different kinds of people can live in harmony within a nation or the world does continue to be important to America. There has been incredible progress in this area. But it’s not clear how Tagore would have perceived American’s continuing challenges in the areas of racial and cultural equality and tolerance. While the sixties in America were a time of great idealism and reform, the decades since have shown how challenging this project really is. Martin Luther King, Jr. may be the closest America has come to producing a thinker with the same level of influence over a nation that Tagore had in India.
In a consumer culture where idealism outside of universities is often met with a dispassion akin to Kirsch’s (or else outright scorn), I wonder if we would even recognize a Tagore today in our literary arts if we saw him or her. As Amartya Sen outlines in his brilliant essay in The Argumentative Indian, Tagore valued objectivity and skepticism as much as anyone. But he was never willing to abandon his zest for the world, his humanity.
Rabindranath Tagore, The Myriad-Minded Man by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson
Rabindranath Tagore, An Interpretation by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya
Tagore and his India, Amartya Sen (essay)
Anita Felicelli is a writer and attorney who lives in the Bay Area. She is the author of the novel “Sparks Off You” and other books.