‘Being Bengali, of course, makes it natural for me to feel so moved by Tagore; but I do feel that if he had been born in the West he would now be [as] revered as Shakespeare and Goethe… He is not as popular or well-known worldwide as he should be. The Vishwa Bharati are guarding everything he did too jealously, and not doing enough to let the entire world know of his greatness’. -Pandit Ravi Shankar
Though this claim may find many takers in West Bengal and Bangladesh, Tagore’s name sadly is not spoken in the same breath as other writers like Tolstoy and Proust in the west. For Bengalis, Tagore remains an enigma, a polymath who towers over the rest. His poems, novels, songs and short stories have had a profound influence on the Bengali-speaking world, cutting across national boundaries. Though people in some other parts of Asia are familiar with his works, Tagore is not a familiar name in the western world. Like Goethe, Tagore was a versatile genius who excelled in art, novels, plays and lyrics.
Yet, a century earlier, Rabindranath was hailed as a literary icon across the world when he became the first won white to win the world has sunk into obscurity. Gitanjali, the collection of poems, was reprinted ten times prior to the announcement of the Nobel Prize that year. The euphoria surrounding his works continued for quite some time. But, by the 1930’s Tagore was a forgotten figure in the western world. So what was the reason for his eclipse in popularity despite the prolific volume of his works, from plays and novels to short stories and music to philosophy?
One of the major reasons could be the lack of good translations. This point was even highlighted by Yeats, who played an instrumental role in promoting Tagore as a writer of international repute didn’t like his translations into English. Moreover, Rabindranath’s influence on Bengali literature has been so strong that his unique writing style had a lasting influence on readers. Kazi Nazrul, who could come closest to Tagore in Bengali poetry, candidly expressed his admiration for the ”world poet”, stating that the Nobel-laureate had changed the face of Bengali literature.
The stories and milieus of Tagore’s stories revitalized and changed modern Bengali which only a number of Bengali authors had done ever since the language evolved. Unlike his poems and stories which have Bengal in the background, Tagore’s non-fiction in the form of letters and essays clearly depicts his attempts in forging ties with different countries across the world. The other reason could be the attempt of his promoter like Yeats to associate him with everything that typified the Orient-sagelike, mystical representative of a somewhat inferior culture. Tagore’s personality and appearance somehow matched with his flowing beard, hair and white robes.
Born to one of the most distinguished families of Kolkata, Rabindranath was deeply influenced by Hinduism, Islam and western culture. His grandfather, Dwarkanath, was proficient in Persian and owned steam tug companies and coal mines. A poet in his own right, he was a favourite of Queen Victoria. A prolific traveler, the younger Tagore heard folk songs as well as the ones sung in music songs which he assimilated to create a unique musical genre, Rabindra Sangeet.
Do his fictional works have any relevance today? The answer is unclear for readers who do not know Bengali. His tendency to discuss complicated questions, heart touching plots and sub-plots has often made Tagore prone to ” philistinism ” from his detractors. No translation, till date has succeeded to explain the actual meanings of his poetries.
But that doesn’t mar Tagore’s genius as an essayist, an opponent of radical nationalism that engulfed Bengal, an educationist who created a school and university for the downtrodden, a humanist surrounded by religious divisions and a rational nationalist. In his fiction, he voiced the concerns of women, their insecurities and dilemmas in a patriarchal society, which were visionary. As the world around us is broken down into ”fragments” by narrow divisions of race and religion, Tagore’s open-mindedness and his call for unity between the east and west find relevance in the modern world’s milieu.
By Shiladitya Gupta