Rabindranath Tagore was India's most famous modern poet and is one of its greatest cultural icons. Born in 1861, Tagore was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1913, which brought him international fame. But while the Western world forgot Tagore soon after the Nobel, his reputation continued to grow in India and in Bangladesh, which was once part of his native state of Bengal.
Tagore was born into a large, unorthodox Hindu Bengali family composed of entrepreneurs, intellectuals, and artists—he was the youngest of 13 surviving children. Rabindranath's father, Debendranath, was a religious reformer, and one of the founding members of the Hindu reformist movement the Brahmo Samaj. Rabindranath Tagore was a polymath, prolific across many artistic and intellectual forms: a poet, composer of songs, essayist, playwright, short story writer, novelist, and, later in his life, a painter. He travelled widely and met and corresponded with artists, intellectuals, and political figures such as Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats, Bertrand Russell, Woodrow Wilson, Benito Mussolini, Albert Einstein, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Gandhi. He established a university with a new educational system in the small town of Santiniketan in West Bengal, which produced such renowned alumni as the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen and the Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray. Tagore is best known in Bengal as a poet and a composer of songs—having contributed more than two thousand songs to the Bengali canon—and in India, more broadly, as a nationalist figure; he wrote both the Indian and the Bangladeshi national anthems. He died in 1941.
I spoke to Amit Chaudhuri, novelist, critic, and musician, in London. Chaudhuri's book On Tagore: Reading the Poet Today was published by Peter Lang in 2013.
Tagore was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature and this led to widespread but fleeting international fame. Tell me the story of the boom and bust of Tagore's reputation in the West.
Tagore was very precocious and began to write early on. He produced a very interesting work by the time he was fifteen, pretending to be a poet from medieval times. And by the time he was seventeen or eighteen he was quite acknowledged within Bengal as a poet to watch, and was in fact singled out for praise by the first great Indian novelist in Bengal, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay. But he was also reviled and criticised by Bengalis because of the change of tone that his work represented. So he became quite withdrawn from Calcutta literary life—in many ways he was alienated from it.
The painter William Rothenstein was actually a friend of the Tagore family and ran into Rabindranath about twenty years later—it must have been in 1910. He was speaking to Abanindranath Tagore [Rabindranath's nephew] when he noticed this person in the room who wasn't saying very much, and he asked Abanindranath who this very quiet man was and found out it was Rabindranath, who had this high reputation as a poet. Tagore gave Rothenstein his translations of his own songs—translations that would comprise the Gitanjali—when he travelled to London in 1912. For whatever reason, Rothenstein was completely won over by them, and introduced Tagore to people like Ezra Pound and W.B. Yeats, who themselves occupied a cusp in their particular literary history. So they projected many of the things they wanted from a poem or a poet onto Tagore and his work, and he and his poems became very famous because of Pound and Yeats's championing.
At Pound's insistence Harriet Monroe published some of the poems in Poetry (Chicago). And there we see Tagore's transition to international fame and celebrity such as, I think, no poet had had before. I mean there were celebrated poets before like Byron and others, who were known to a wider public than poets usually are, but Tagore became well-known not just in the English-speaking world and in India: he became a celebrated figure in Japan, China, and in Europe. He then received the Nobel Prize in 1913 and soon after that Pound and Yeats began to look at the poems and Tagore in a different way.
Pound lost interest in him and thought that something had gone wrong with the writing after the Nobel Prize, the writing that was then being disseminated. And you know, Yeats said things like, "Tagore does not know English, no Indian knows English. Nobody can write with music and style in a language not learned in childhood and ever since the language of his thought." So there was this kind of disenchantment, and then disenchantment leading to a gradual apathy, a lack of interest—although Tagore continued to be in circulation as a public figure, as somebody who represented India, and somebody who in his long, loose robe and with his beard, began to appeal to a constituency where there was an overlap between serious culture and popular culture, and an interest within that overlap for mysticism, exotic India, and so forth. So that led to the bust, I think, that you were speaking of.
And I think the disenchantment was quite absolute—I mean, Jorge Luis Borges remarked that Tagore was "above all, a hoaxer of good faith, or, if you prefer, a Swedish invention," in reference to the Nobel, and Yeats later on called the translated work he was reading in English "sentimental rubbish." So there were some really nasty things being said. It was a complete reversal.
Yes, it was as if there had been a period of enchantment, as in A Midsummer Night's Dream. You know, Titania had fallen in love with the ass, and then had woken up horrified. But very little of it was based on actual critical knowledge, either of the work or where it had emerged from.
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