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Poetry and Reason

Why Rabindranath Tagore still matters.

The Essential Tagore

By Rabindranath Tagore
Edited by Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty
(Harvard University Press, 819 pp., $39.95)

In his book Raga Mala, Ravi Shankar, the great musician, argues that had Rabindranath Tagore “been born in the West he would now be [as] revered as Shakespeare and Goethe.” This is a strong claim, and it calls attention to some greatness in this quintessentially Bengali writer—identified by a fellow Bengali—that might not be readily echoed in the wider world today, especially in the West. For the Bengali public, Tagore has been, and remains, an altogether exceptional literary figure, towering over all others. His poems, songs, novels, short stories, critical essays, and other writings have vastly enriched the cultural environment in which hundreds of millions of people live in the Bengali-speaking world, whether in Bangladesh or in India. Something of that glory is acknowledged in India outside Bengal as well, and even in some other parts of Asia, including China and Japan, but in the rest of the world, especially in Europe and America, Tagore is clearly not a household name.

And yet the enthusiasm and excitement that Tagore’s writings created in Europe and America in the early years of the twentieth century were quite remarkable. Gitanjali, a selection of his poems for which Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, was published in English translation in London in March 1913 and was reprinted ten times by the time the award was announced in November. For many years Tagore was the rage in many European countries. His public appearances were always packed with people wanting to hear him. But then the Tagore tide ebbed, and by the 1930s the huge excitement was all over. Indeed, by 1937, Graham Greene was able to remark, “As for Rabindranath Tagore, I cannot believe that anyone but Mr. Yeats can still take his poems very seriously.”

The one hundred fiftieth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore’s birth, which we mark this year, is a good occasion to ask what happened.

The occasion has also generated some new books on Tagore, in addition to the distinguished ones that already exist. A very fine selection of Tagore’s writings, The Essential Tagore, with translations by leading scholars from Bangladesh, India, Britain, and America, along with insightful editorial comments by the two editors, Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty, has just been published by Harvard University Press. The book has an imaginative and original foreword by the excellent writer Amit Chaudhuri, with a very engaging analysis of “poetry as polemic.”

The title of the book presumes that some of Tagore must be essential. But given the fairly comprehensive neglect of this writer in the contemporary English literary world, it could well be asked whether Tagore is indeed essential at all. We must also ask why a writer who evokes comparison with Shakespeare and Goethe tends to generate so little enthusiasm in Western countries today. There is surely some mystery here.

At one level it is not particularly hard to see that his native readers can get something from Tagore’s writings, especially his poems and songs, that would be missed by those who do not read Bengali. Even Yeats, his biggest promoter in the English-speaking world, did not like Tagore’s own English translations. “Tagore does not know English,” Yeats declared, adding a little theory to his diagnosis, as he often did: “No Indian knows English.”

Yeats was very willing to work with Tagore to overcome that handicap in the production of the English version of Gitanjali, though there are some serious problems with the Yeats-assisted translations as well. The more general obstacle to the appreciation of Tagore in English surely comes from the fact that poetry is notoriously difficult to translate. Even with the best effort and talent, it can be hard—if not impossible—to preserve the magic of poetry as it is transplanted from one language to another. Anyone who knows Tagore’s poems in Bengali would typically find it difficult to be really satisfied with any translation, no matter how good. To this impediment must be added the fact that Tagore’s poetry, which often takes the form of songs in an innovative style of lyrical singing, called Rabindrasangeet, has transformed popular Bengali music with its particular combination of reflective language and compatible tunes.

There is, in addition, the problem that Tagore’s influence on Bengali writing is so gigantic and epoch-making that his innovative language itself has profound importance to the Bengali reading public. Kazi Nazrul Islam, almost certainly the most successful Bengali poet with the exception of Tagore, who was constantly expressing his admiration for the person whom he called, uniquely, “the world poet,” has testified that Tagore had altogether transformed the Bengali language. In many different ways, Tagore’s writings reshaped and reconstructed modern Bengali in a way that only a handful of innovative Bengali writers had done before him, going back all the way, a thousand years earlier, to the authors of Charyapad, the Buddhist literary classics that first established the distinctive features of early modern Bengali.

Not only is language a part of the story in the contrast between Tagore’s appreciation at home and the indifference to him abroad, but a related component of the story lies in the extraordinary importance and unusual place of language in Bengali culture in general. The Bengali language has had an amazingly powerful influence on the identity of Bengalis as a group, on both sides of the political boundary between Bangladesh and India. In fact, the politically separatist campaign in what was East Pakistan that led to the war for independence, and eventually to the formation of the new secular state of Bangladesh in 1971, was pioneered by the bhasha andolon, the “language movement” in defense of the Bengali language.

The movement started on February 21, 1952, only a few years after the partition of the subcontinent, with a large demonstration at Dhaka University in what was then the capital of East Pakistan (and now of Bangladesh), when the police gunned down a number of demonstrators. This turned out to be a decisive moment in the history of what would later become Bangladesh. February 21 is celebrated each year in Bangladesh as the Language Movement Day, and this has resonance across the world, since that day has been declared by UNESCO as the International Mother Language Day for the world as a whole. Language has served as a very powerful uniting identity for Muslims and Hindus in Bengal, and this sense of shared belonging has had a profound impact on the politics of Bengal, including its commitment to secularism on both sides of the border in the post-partition world.

The extraordinary combination of Tagore’s language and themes has had a captivating influence on his Bengali readers. Many Bengalis express their astonishment at the fact that people outside Bengal could fail to appreciate and enjoy Tagore’s writings; and that incomprehension is at least partly due to underestimating the difference that language can make. E.M. Forster noted the barrier of language, as early as 1919, when Tagore was still in vogue, in reviewing the translation of one of Tagore’s great Bengali novels, Ghare Baire, translated in English as The Home and the World. (It would be later made into a fine film by Satyajit Ray.) Forster confessed that he could not make himself like the English version of the novel that he read. “The theme is so beautiful,” he remarked, but the charms have “vanished in translation.”

So the importance of language provides a clue to the eclipse of Tagore in the West, but it cannot be the whole story. For one thing, Tagore’s nonfictional prose writings also have a gripping hold on the attention of Bengalis and also of other Indians, but they are not seen abroad in a similarly admiring way at all. This is so despite the fact that these writings are much easier to translate: indeed, Tagore himself often presented these essays in very effective English about which it would be hard to grumble. In his essays and his lectures, Tagore developed ideas on a remarkably wide variety of subjects—on politics, on culture, on society, on education; and while they are regularly quoted in his homeland, they are very rarely invoked now outside Bangladesh and India. There has to be something other than the barrier of language in the lack of world attention to Tagore. And this raises the larger question: how relevant, how important are Tagore’s general ideas?

Perhaps the central issues that moved Tagore most are the importance of open-minded reasoning and the celebration of human freedom. This placed him in a somewhat distinct category from some of his great compatriots. Tagore admired Gandhi immensely, and expressed his admiration of his leadership time and again, and did more than perhaps anyone else in insisting that he be described as “Mahatma”—the great soul. And yet Tagore frequently disagreed with Gandhi whenever he thought that the latter’s reasoning did not go far enough. They would often argue with each other quite emphatically. When, for example, Gandhi used the catastrophic Bihar earthquake of 1934 that killed a huge number of people as further ammunition in his fight against untouchability—he identified the earthquake as “a divine chastisement sent by God for our sins,” in particular the sin of untouchability—Tagore protested vehemently, insisting that “it is all the more unfortunate because this kind of unscientific view of phenomena is too readily accepted by a large section of our countrymen.”

Similarly, when Gandhi advocated that everyone should use the charka—the primitive spinning wheel—thirty minutes a day, Tagore expressed his disagreement sharply. He thought little of Gandhi’s alternative economics, and found reason to celebrate, with a few qualifications, the liberating role of modern technology in reducing human drudgery as well as poverty. He also was deeply skeptical of the spiritual argument for the spinning wheel: “The charka does not require anyone to think; one simply turns the wheel of the antiquated invention endlessly, using the minimum of judgment and stamina.” In contrast with Gandhi’s advocacy of abstinence as the right method of birth control, Tagore championed family planning through preventive methods. He was also concerned that Gandhi had “a horror of sex as great as that of the author of The Kreutzer Sonata.” And the two differed sharply on the role of modern medicine, to which Gandhi was not friendly at all.

Many of these issues remain deeply relevant today, but what is important to note here are not the particular views that Tagore advanced in these—and other such—areas, but the organizing principles that moved him. The poet who was famous in the West only as a romantic and a spiritualist was in fact persistently guided in his writings by the necessity of critical reasoning and the importance of human freedom. Also, those were the philosophical priorities that influenced Tagore’s ideas on education, including his insistence that education is the most important element in the development of a country. In his assessment of Japan’s economic development, Tagore separated out the role that the advancement of school education had played in Japan’s remarkable development—an analysis that would be echoed much later in the literature on development. He may have been exaggerating the role of education somewhat when he remarked that “the imposing tower of misery which today rests on the heart of India has its sole foundation in the absence of education,” but it is not hard to see why he saw the transformative role of education as the central story in the development process.

Tagore devoted much of his life to advancing education in India and advocating it everywhere. Nothing absorbed as much of his time as the school in Santiniketan that he established. He was constantly raising money for this unusually progressive co-educational school. I have to declare a bias here, since I was educated at this school, and my mother was schooled there decades earlier, in what was one of the early co-educational institutions in India. After learning that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, Tagore told others about it, or so the story goes, in a meeting of a school committee discussing how to fund a new set of drains that the school needed. His announcement of the recognition apparently took the eccentric form of his saying that “money for the drains has probably been found.”

In his distinctive view of education, Tagore particularly emphasized the need for gathering knowledge from everywhere in the world, and assessing it only by reasoned scrutiny. As a student at the Santiniketan school, I felt very privileged that the geographical boundaries of our education were not confined only to India and imperial Britain (as was common in Indian schools then). We learned a great deal about Europe, Africa, the USA, and Latin America, and even more extensively about other countries in Asia. Santiniketan had the first institute of Chinese studies in India; my mother learned judo in the school nearly a century ago; and there were excellent training facilities in arts, crafts, and music from other countries, such as Indonesia.

Tagore also worked hard to break out of the religious and communal thinking that was beginning to be championed in India during his lifetime—it would peak in the years following his death in 1941, when the Hindu-Muslim riots erupted in the subcontinent, making the partitioning of the country hard to avoid. Tagore was extremely shocked by the violence that was provoked by the championing of a singular identity of people as members of one religion or another, and he felt convinced that this disaffection was being foisted on common people by determined extremists: “interested groups led by ambition and outside instigation are today using the communal motive for destructive political ends.”

Tagore became more and more anxious and disappointed about India and about the world in the years before his death, and he did not live to see the emergence of a secular Bangladesh, which drew a part of its inspiration from his reasoned rejection of communal separatism. With its independence, Bangladesh chose one of Tagore’s songs (“Amar Sonar Bangla”) as its national anthem, making Tagore possibly the only person in human history who authored the national anthems of two independent countries: India had already adopted another one of his songs as its national anthem.

All this must be very confusing to those who see the contemporary world as a “clash of civilizations”—with “Muslim civilization,” “Hindu civilization,” and “Western civilization,” defined largely on religious grounds, vehemently confronting each other. They would also be confused by Tagore’s own description of his own cultural background: “a confluence of three cultures, Hindu, Mohammedan, and British.” Rabindranath Tagore’s grandfather, Dwarkanath, was well known for his command of Arabic and Persian, and Rabindranath grew up in a family atmosphere in which a deep knowledge of Sanskrit and ancient Hindu texts was combined with the study of Islamic traditions as well as Persian literature. It is not so much that Tagore tried to produce a “synthesis” of the different religions (as the great Mughal emperor Akbar had attempted for a time), but his reliance on reasoning and his emphasis on human freedom militated against a separatist and parochial understanding of social divisions.

If Tagore’s voice was strong against communalism and religious sectarianism, he was no less outspoken in his rejection of nationalism. He was critical of the display of excessive nationalism in India, despite his persistent criticism of British imperialism. And notwithstanding his great admiration for Japanese culture and history, he would chastise Japan late in his life for its extreme nationalism and its mistreatment of China and east and southeast Asia.

Tagore also went out of his way to dissociate the criticism of the Raj from any denunciation of British people and British culture. Consider Gandhi’s famous witticism in reply to the question, asked in England, about what he thought of British civilization: “It would be a good idea.” There are some doubts about the authenticity of the story, but whether or not it is exactly accurate, the purported remark did fit with Gandhi’s amused skepticism about claims of British greatness. Those words could not have come from Tagore’s lips, even in jest. While he denied altogether the legitimacy of the Raj, Tagore was vocal in pointing out what Indians had gained from “discussions centered upon Shakespeare’s drama and Byron’s poetry and above all.... the large-hearted liberalism of nineteenth-century English politics.” The tragedy, as Tagore saw it, came from the fact that what “was truly best in their own civilization, the upholding of dignity of human relationships, has no place in the British administration of this country.”

Tagore saw the world as a vast give-and-take of ideas and innovations. He insisted that “whatever we understand and enjoy in human products instantly becomes ours, wherever they might have their origin.” He went on to proclaim, “I am proud of my humanity when I can acknowledge the poets and artists of other countries as my own. Let me feel with unalloyed gladness that all the great glories of man are mine.” The importance of such ideas has not diminished in the divisive world in which we now live. If that gives at least a part of the answer to the question of why Tagore still matters, it also puts into sharper focus the strangeness of the eclipse of Tagore in the West after an initial outburst of enthusiasm.

In explaining what happened to Tagore in the West, it is important to see the one-sided way in which his Western admirers presented him. This was partly related to the priorities of Tagore’s principal sponsors in Europe, such as Yeats and Pound. They were dedicated to placing Tagore in the light of a mystical religiosity that went sharply against the overall balance of Tagore’s work. In Yeats’s case, his single-minded presentation included adding explanatory remarks to the translation of Tagore’s poems to make sure that the reader got the religious point, eliminating altogether the rich ambiguity of meaning in Tagore’s language between love of human beings and love of God.

However, a part of the answer to the puzzle of the Western misunderstanding of Tagore can be found, I think, in the peculiar position in which Europe was placed when Tagore’s poems became such a rage in the West. Tagore received his Nobel Prize only a year before the start in Europe of World War I, which was fought with unbelievable brutality. The slaughter in that war made many intellectuals and literary figures in Europe turn to insights coming from elsewhere, and Tagore’s voice seemed to many, at the time, to fit the need splendidly. When, for example, the pocket book of Wilfred Owen, the great anti-war poet, was recovered from the battlefield in which he had died, his mother, Susan Owen, found in it a prominent display of Tagore’s poetry. The poem of Tagore with which Wilfred said good-bye before leaving for the battlefield (it began, “When I go from hence, let this be my parting word”) was very much there, as Susan wrote to Tagore, with those words “written in his dear writing—with your name beneath.”

Tagore soon became identified in Europe as a sage with a teaching—a teaching that could, quite possibly, save Europe from the dire predicament of war and disaffection in which it recurrently found itself in the early twentieth century. This was a far cry from the many-sided creative artist and emphatically reasoned thinker that people at home found in Tagore. Even as Tagore urged his countrymen to wake up from blind belief and turn to reason, Yeats was describing Tagore’s voice in thoroughly mystical terms: “we have met our own image ... or heard, perhaps for the first time in literature, our voice as in a dream.” There is a huge gulf there.

Tagore argued for the courage to depart from traditional beliefs whenever reason demanded it. There is a nice little story by Tagore called “Kartar Bhoot,” or “The Ghost of the Leader,” illustrating this point. A wise and highly respected leader who received unquestioned admiration from a community had become, in effect, a kind of tyrant when he lived, and enormously more so after he died. The story describes how ridiculously restrained people’s lives became when the dead leader’s recommendations get frozen into inflexible commands. In their impossibly difficult lives, when the members of the community pray to the dead leader to liberate them from their bondage, the leader reminds them that he exists only in their minds—that they are free to liberate themselves whenever they so decide. Tagore had a real horror of being bound by the past, beyond the reach of present reasoning.

Yet Tagore himself did not do much to resist the wrongly conceived reputation as a mystical sage that was being thrust upon him. Even though he wrote to his friend C.F. Andrews in 1920, at the height of his adulation as an Eastern messiah, that “these people ... are like drunkards who are afraid of their lucid intervals,” he played along without much public protest. There was perhaps some tension within Tagore’s self-perception that allowed him to entertain the belief that the East had a real message to give to the West, and this conviction fitted rather badly with the rest of his reasoned commitments and convictions. There was also a serious mismatch between the kind of religiosity that the Western intellectuals came to attribute to Tagore (Graham Greene thought that he had seen in Tagore “what Chesterton calls ‘the bright pebbly eyes’ of the Theosophists”) and the form that Tagore’s religious beliefs actually took. His religious inclinations are perhaps best represented by one of his poems (I am taking the liberty of translating the lines into simple English, away from the biblical English that Tagore had been persuaded to use):

Leave this chanting and singing and
   telling of beads!
Whom do you worship in this lonely
   dark corner of a temple with doors
   all shut?
Open your eyes and see your God
   is not before you!
He is there where the tiller is tilling
   the hard ground and where the
   path maker is breaking stones.
He is with them in sun and in shower,
   and his garment is covered with dust.

Even though an affectionate God, who inspires not fear but love, has a big role in Tagore’s thinking, he is guided on all worldly questions not by any variety of mysticism but by explicit and discernible reasoning. This Tagore, the real Tagore, got very little attention from his Western audience—neither from his sponsors nor from his detractors. Bertrand Russell wrote (in letters to Nimai Chatterji in the 1960s) that he did not like Tagore’s “mystic air,” with an inclination to spout “vague nonsense,” adding that the “sort of language that is admired by many Indians unfortunately does not, in fact, mean anything at all.” When an otherwise sympathetic writer, George Bernard Shaw, transformed Rabindranath Tagore into a fictional character called “Stupendranath Beggor,” there was no longer much hope that Tagore’s reasoned ideas would receive the careful and serious attention that they deserved.

In Tagore’s vision of the future of his country, and of the world, there was in fact much emphasis on reason and much celebration of freedom—precisely the subjects on which more discussion can have an enormously constructive role today. In a rousing poem, he outlined his vision of what he so strongly desired for his own country and for the whole world:

Where the mind is without fear and
   the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been
   broken up into fragments by
   narrow domestic walls.

The difficulty in Tagore’s reception in the West itself can perhaps be seen as a particular illustration of a world “broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.”

The fragmentary distortions take distinct forms in different societies and different contexts. In arguing for a world in which “the mind is without fear and the head is held high,” Tagore wanted to overcome all those barriers. He did not quite succeed; but the engagement in open-minded and fearless reasoning that Tagore championed so eloquently is no less important today than it was in his own time.

Amartya Sen teaches economics and philosophy at Harvard University and received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998. A version of this essay was delivered as a lecture at the British Museum in May. This article originally ran in the June 30, 2011, issue of the magazine.