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 So he became quite withdrawn from Calcutta literary life—in many ways he was alienated from it.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.
Tagore is often perceived in the West as a romantic poet, or as the great mystic from the East. Where does this image of Tagore come from?
I would say it's a mistake to think that he's perceived as a romantic poet in the West—I think he's just seen as a Khalil Gibran-like figure, or maybe as being a cut above Khalil Gibran, because Gibran is now accused of having plagiarised, and totally invented himself. But Tagore is looked at, if not as a Swedish invention—because of the Nobel—then certainly as a Bengali invention, or some sort of an invention.
Tagore doesn't even have the privilege of being a belated romantic figure, as sometimes W.B. Yeats is seen to be—especially the early Yeats—or D.H. Lawrence is seen to be. In Bengal people sometimes think of him as a romantic. But I personally think he's a modernist in the way he privileges certain aspects of writing and of the world, and in the way he privileges the moment. The Bengali word for "moment" keeps recurring in his songs and his writing. So he's very much a poet of whatever it is we can fleetingly intuit and grasp, but never wholly so, in the here and now. The roots of that lie in romanticism of course: one thinks of Wordsworth's "spots of time." But they're very powerfully relocated and explored again in modernism by people like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, who was always talking about the moment. Tagore is this poet of the momentary.
Tagore was born into an enormous family: he was the youngest of 13 surviving children. His family was immersed in the life of the mind, but was also culturally and politically engaged. Rabindranath's father Debendranath was a founding member of the Brahmo Samaj, a Hindu reformist movement. You've written that, "Tagore's poetry, especially his songs, are among the first and most profound utterances of a secular Indian sensibility, and they speak of an old world that is lost but is being transformed into something new." Tell me a bit about the moment in Indian history that Rabindranath Tagore was born into and occupied.
Well, this is a moment which takes place in Bengal, where it transitions from being this new arriviste metropolis, created to a large extent by colonial contact: a new metropolis in an ancient part of a world, suddenly full of a new, slightly rude energy—this is the early nineteenth century. Then it gradually segues into and transforms into this period of high culture, self-awareness, individualism (to a certain extent), enlightenment—they even used that word—from the 1860s onwards. Tagore was born in 1861, the year when lots of significant literary texts had emerged or were beginning to emerge. Now, social reform that would affect things like sati—widow remarriage—was already being pushed through by Bengalis in the early nineteenth century. So the domain of high culture that would emerge from the 1860s onwards, the groundwork for that was being laid in a sense, in the social sphere, in the early nineteenth century.
Tagore's grandfather was Prince Dwarkanath Tagore. Tagore's father, Debendranath Tagore, was a landowner and the son of a successful businessman who then died in debt, but the kind of businessman who was created, again, by colonial contact, who made his money by acting sometimes on behalf of the East India Company. Debendranath was a philosophical man and after encountering a page from the Upanishads—the ancient Indian, Hindu text, for want of a better adjective—he began to study it and saw in it an alternative to necessarily Christianising oneself. He saw in it a way of turning away from polytheistic Hinduism—the Hinduism of various gods and goddesses—towards a God who is nirakar or without form, and invisible, but whose presence can be felt in his works, let's say, if his works are the universe.
So we're looking at a kind of ideological, spiritual, but also aesthetic shift, and this is what affects Tagore, because in Tagore's work God isn't directly mentioned, nor are the gods and goddesses. But the sense of the sacred in the emergence of this new world remains, so that he's giving particular significance to certain aspects of the world. Light is given great significance in Tagore's work. So is space. So are frameworks through which you see light and space: that is, the window. Everyday aspects of the world are suddenly being looked at anew, as if they were significant or even sacred in some way, but religion is not being mentioned. So in his work Tagore presents a world predicted or presaged by the Brahmo Samaj's view, borrowing from the Upanishads, that God is perhaps present in his works, but nowhere visible in them—to slightly paraphrase Flaubert.
In your essay "The Flute of Modernity" you call Tagore "a poet of uncertainties and absences," saying, "few poets in their work have devoted so much of their gift to describing what is half understood, partially grasped, unclear, or ambiguous. But that is the temperament of Tagore's songs and his lyricism." Could you elaborate on this aspect of Tagore's verse?
So much of the verse, and so much especially of the songs, is about people who make fleeting appearances and then disappear. A lot of the songs are about chance encounters and transitory encounters, or transient intuitions of something. But then immediately the poet will say, "What was the significance of that? Who was that person? Don't quite know." And the refrain, "don't know"—"jāni nē, jāni nē, jāni nē"—keeps recurring through the songs. If you look at the work in Bengali, it's a person who is constantly declaring that they're either ignorant about something important, or unable to express something important. There's a whole song, which I've translated actually, which is about a man sitting before a woman—or it could be the other way 'round, because the pronouns are not gender-specific—during a rainy day, unable to say something very important to that person. And the whole song is a kind of elaboration and improvisation on that riff, as is so much of Tagore's poetry. So it's not the poetry of a man with a definite message, but a man who is uncertain.
Can you describe Tagore's household, after he was married? I think he suffered quite a few personal tragedies. I wonder what imprint those tragedies might have left on his poetry, or on his body of work as a whole.
Well, some of his dearest children died: he had five children, and two died in childhood. The one tragedy that keeps getting mentioned in relationship to his life is the death of his sister-in-law, Kadambari Devi, his older brother Jyotirindranath's wife, who was close to Tagore's age. Given that she was married to Jyotirindranath quite early in her life, she came into that household as a young girl, but a very personable one. Tagore noticed that as a boy and they became friends. They weren't lovers, but they might have been in some way in love with each other. Tagore was in love, certainly, yet they were also in competition with each other.
This relationship affected Tagore's writing, especially his prose, dwelling as it does on the role of the new woman in Bengal and in Calcutta. I see this in novels like The Home and the World. But also in many of the stories he wrote: some of them are known to us from Satyajit Ray's films, like Charulata—also The Home and the World, but Charulata is the great Tagorean film that Ray made, based on Tagore's novella Nashtanir (The Broken Nest). In Charulata there's this woman who is slightly infatuated with her brother-in-law, but is also in competition with him. The brother-in-law is portrayed and satirised as being a bit full of himself; he has literary aspirations. And then one day out of nowhere Charulata writes a story that has a kind of naturalness and flow that the brother-in-law's output doesn't. And he's totally taken aback by this amazing occurrence of a woman actually being creative in that way. Writing about this was amazing for that time, but Tagore is putting it out there. And the roots of that idea of the woman as somebody who brings down the man a peg or two, and is also in competition with him creatively, goes back to his relationship with Kadambari.
And the subject of a love that is taboo, and cannot be spoken, that too likely goes back to Kadambari and his relationship to her. And therefore, this whole aspect of obliqueness, of not saying things straight out, which is so much a part of Tagore's aesthetic, was in some way a result of Tagore's personal relationship with his sister-in-law—who committed suicide. And that was the first tragic bereavement in his life.
I know that you've called the English Gitanjali, which won Tagore the Nobel Prize, "a shadowy approximation of the marvellous original." But from what I can read—the translations—there seems to me to be quite a difference between the outpouring of religious feeling in Gitanjali and some of his other verse. And I just wondered how you might account for such difference within his body of work.
Actually the poems in Gitanjali are not necessarily religious. Some of them are secular, some of them are meditations on creativity, and some of them are meditations on things like infinity and the sacred, which is not necessarily a religious preoccupation—it's also a philosophical preoccupation. Many of these songs bring in philosophical preoccupations in interesting ways without sounding bombastic and overblown. But the language they're translated into, and the kind of prose poetry that they're translated into, immediately reminds us of the Bible. This religiosity has to be given a very broad interpretation, and a radical interpretation, such as Michael Madhusudan Dutt did when he was rewriting an episode from the Ramayana. He said, "I hate Rama, and all his rabble, but the religion of my ancestors is full of poetry." The word "poetry" is being used in a secular way there. And Matthew Arnold some years later is doing the same when he says the Bible is literature. Yes of course there's an overlap, and it's a very powerful and interesting overlap, when what could be understood to be religion becomes literature, and the other way 'round, when the literary has a kind of sacredness about it. Even Joyce's term "epiphany" gives sacredness to his vision of shabby urban life in Dublin. But it isn't religion in any kind of traditional sense.
Can you give a sense of the range and magnitude of Tagore's artistic output across various forms—because he did much more than write poetry, didn't he?
Yes. As a songwriter he comes into his own very early, and is making these leaps into creating short songs. The context for that is already there in his family, because his older brother Jyotirindranath was also a brilliantly experimental person, artistically speaking. But Tagore's achievement as a songwriter is the achievement of a bricoleur: somebody who works with a variety of materials and reworks it in any way that his artistic impulse tells him to. So you have Tagore reworking Irish drinking songs, Scottish love songs, compositional structures from the Dhrupad in Indian classical music, and songs sung by wandering Baul minstrels in Bengal. All of this—all of these sources, tunes and melodies and structures of composition are being collected by the family at the time. And he's putting them all in unexpected contexts. I mean, one way to think about it is the way that the young Bob Dylan used folk music, doing something very different with it from his contemporaries, partly because he made the folk music political in completely different contexts.
Tagore started writing the short stories around the age of thirty. When he has nothing better to do than to fulfil this responsibility his father has given him, to oversee the estates and lands they own, while going down the river on a houseboat, he encounters face-to-face the people who work for them and live on their lands. Out of those encounters, which have a huge impact on him, come these narrative frames in which he puts these stories about ordinary people. Again, that's a huge departure in literary history not only in Bengal, but anywhere: the way, in 1891, these ordinary Indian people begin to make their appearance in these short stories. With his novels, you have him looking at wider themes which always interested him, but which he puts in a rich novelistic framework, like in Ghare Baire (The Home and the World) and Gora. Some of these have to do with nationalism, or the role of the woman.
As an essayist, some of the things he wrote about [fifth century Sanskrit poet and dramatist] Kalidasa, for example, are amazing in the way he reassesses ancient Indian culture or literary tradition, in a radical way. Seeing Kalidasa almost as a realist and a modernist, attacking Shakespeare for overwriting, while praising Kalidasa for being precise—the very terms with which English commentators like James Mill had attacked Indian writing. James Mill said that the Mahabharata was a monstrous midden full of overwriting; Kipling said the same thing; Macaulay said that Indian writing was overblown, that a bookshelf of English writing contained more that was important than all of Indian writing. In his essays on Kalidasa, Tagore very brilliantly turns this around, as he attacks Shakespeare and praises Kalidasa for those very qualities of compression and obliqueness. So he's reinventing Kalidasa. And he does this kind of thing with both the Western and the Indian past when he's making music and his songs. He views the past not reverentially, but opportunistically, and playfully.
Finally, one should mention his paintings, which emerged out of doodles and manuscript corrections. The paintings came about from chance deletions that then began to take a shape of their own on the page. And in that, Tagore was also very contemporary, interested in painters like Klee and Kandinsky, in shapes rather than in true photographic representations. He becomes a traveller between ways of seeing, and between genres. He very literally travels between a sentence or a line on the page, having deleted those lines, into the pictorial.
And of all this artistic and intellectual output, what is he best known for in India? And I mean not just among the intelligentsia, but among the public.
He's best known in India—since you say India rather than Bengal—he's best known in India as being a national figure, on par with the great political figures like Gandhi. So he's the only cultural icon in that sense. But no one is very clear anymore why he's a great cultural icon. There's one particular poem which, in the English translation, begins with the line, "Where the mind is without fear"—which, again, he is very famous for, and the poem is recited in schools. It's seen to be a great nationalistic poem. Tagore is seen to be a great nationalist icon: ironic for a man who was always ambivalent about nationalism and what it meant. And the continuing reverence for Tagore in India and elsewhere is a disservice to him. Because it misreads him, misunderstands him, and doesn't even begin to get to the kind of evolving and provocative and radical and interesting artist he really was. In Bengal he's known foremost as a composer of songs, and as a poet. And people know his poems, inasmuch as they know anybody's poetry. And they of course know his songs, which have also been turned into very static things, rendered in very reverential and worshipful and lifeless ways. And again I think that's a pity. Tagore is ripe for a radical reassessment.