A Foreign Shine and Assumed Gestures: The Ersatz Tagore of the West

Somjit Dutt

"In my translations I timidly avoid all difficulties, which has the effect of making them smooth and thin. I know I am misrepresenting myself as a poet to the western readers. But when I began this career of falsifying my own coins I did it in play. Now I am becoming frightened of its enormity and I am willing to make a confession of my misdeeds and withdraw into my original vocation as a mere Bengali poet."

  • Tagore, Letter to Edward Thompson, 1921

"... I ought never to have intruded into your realm of glory with my offerings hastily giving them a foreign shine and certain assumed gestures familiar to you. I have done thereby injustice to myself and the shrine of Muse which proudly claims flowers from its own climate and culture."

  • Tagore, Letter to Sturge Moore, 1935

An informed and candid survey of the oeuvre of Rabindranath Tagore reveals that a profound difference exists between what Rabindranath is or was in Bengali society and what he has been viewed as in the West. But the literature on Tagore, vast though it is, does not seem to contain any prominent account of this topic; some minor speculations have appeared, mostly in scholarly monographs of limited circulation. Few appraisals of Tagore by Bengalis being free from the mire of purblind hagiography, the idle speculations published in Bengali journals are unlikely to have been balanced and convincing in their exposition.

The careful reader of the widely publicised views of Western intellectuals on Tagore's work will observe that they differ fundamentally in spirit from those of the average educated Bengali: indeed, I have observed that Tagore's image in the West created, in the main, by English speaking intellectuals is not entirely an authentic one, when compared with his true identity as expressed through his Bengali compositions, especially his songs, which are necessarily inaccessible to the West in the original.

Unfortunately, it was Tagore himself who sought to create this dubious Western identity with the fervour of a schoolboy trying to win the favour of a newly appointed headmaster who knows nothing about his students' background and abilities. This necessarily complicates any discussion of the topic.

Tagore's image in the West initially depended in the main, on his Gitanjali ('Song Offerings') and towards the end of his life, it was consolidated or eroded by other volumes of poetry, a few of his plays and his lectures. In between, a considerable number of translations of his works appeared in the West, whose contemporary impact was enhanced by his lecture tours.



Of the 157 items in the Bengali Gitanjali, only 53 have been included in the English Gitanjali. The covers show the Viswabharati (1973) and the Scribbner (1997) editions respectively.

The English Gitanjali consists of translations of poems contained in three books - Naivedya, Kheya and Gitanjali. Of the 103 items of the English Gitanjali, only 53 are translations of songs from the Bengali Gitanjali. Actually, the Bengali Gitanjali is a collection of miscellaneous songs, of which many are seasonal; it is not a religious collection.

Indira Devi
The genesis of the English translation of a collection of songs and poems into prose poems is lucidly narrated by Tagore in a letter to Indira Devi dated May 6, 1913: "You have alluded to the English translation of Gitanjali. To this day I have not been able to imagine how I came to do it and how people came to like it so much. That I cannot write English is such a patent fact, that I never had even the vanity to feel ashamed of it. If anybody wrote an English note asking me to tea, I never felt equal to answering it. Perhaps you think that by now I have gotten over that delusion, but in no way am I deluded that I have composed in English.

... I took up the poems of Gitanjali and set myself to translate them one by one ... Believe me, I did not undertake this task in a spirit of reckless bravery; I simply felt an urge to recapture, through the medium of another language, the feelings and sentiments which had created such a feast of joy within me in past days. The pages of a small exercise-book came gradually to be filled ... I handed him [Rothenstein] my manuscript, with some reluctance. I could hardly believe the opinion he expressed after reading it. He then gave my book to Yeats."[2]

The use of the words 'exercise book', 'manuscript', 'book', in that order is significant; they suggest that Tagore probably did have eventual publication in mind.

Incidentally, when Ezra Pound remarked that he had detected a trace of didacticism in some of the items of The Gardner, the book which followed Gitanjali, Tagore replied:

"I had my misgivings ... But I must say they [the poems] have not been purposely made moral, they are not to guide people to [the] right path .... I am sure in the original there is nothing that savours of pulpit. Perhaps you miss that sense of enjoyment in the English rendering and bereft of their music and suggestiveness of language they appear as merely didactic." (My italics)[3]

The same remarks apply to the English Gitanjali.



As a prelude to what we would have to deal with later, let us fix our attention upon what Rothenstein's (and thereafter Yeats's ) eyes met with; I shall here discuss only one typical and representative lyric from Gitanjali, leaving for later discussion other significant ones.

The 26th lyric of the book, as published, is: "He came and sat by my side but I woke not. What a cursed sleep it was, O miserable me! ... "

As I write these lines, the strains of the melody ring in my ears and I deem it necessary to cite the original Bengali lyric before setting forth the complete English version. Rothenstein, of course, is unlikely to have ever listened to a rendition of the Bengali song.

"se ye paashe ese basechhila tobu jaagini / kI ghum tore peyechhila hatabhaaginI // esechhila nIrab raate bInaakhaani chhila haate -- swapan maajhe baajiye gela gabhIr raaginI // jege dekhi dakhin-haoyaa paagal kariya gandha taahaar bhese be.Daya a.Ndhaar bhariya/ kena aamaar rajanI yaaY, kaachhe peyey kaachhe naa paya-- kena go taar maalaar parash buke laageni//"

The English version runs thus :

"He came and sat by my side but I woke not. What a cursed sleep it was, O miserable me! He came when the night was still; he had his harp in his hands, and my dreams became resonant with its melodies. Alas, why are my nights all lost ? Ah, why do I ever miss his sight whose breath touches my sleep ?"

The original Bengali is clearly seen to be imbued with a subtle sensuality: whereas the English version appeals far less to the senses, since much of the mood of passionate and partially corporeal yearning for communion has been deleted for the sake of bringing in a spiritual mood. Amazingly, or perhaps not at all amazingly, the unmistakably sensuous lines

"jege dekhi dakhin haoyaa, paagal kariyaa gandha taahaar bhese be. Daya a. Ndhaar bharia"

(I wake and a south wind is madly
    making free.
Its fragrance drifts and fills the darkness
    all around me.)[4]

have been expunged !

The last line "kena go taar maalaar parash buke laageni//"[5] was one which Tagore could not bring himself faithfully to translate, given his need to please Rothenstein initially and the West finally.

It will be noticed that the expression "O miserable me" is actually self-addressed by an "unlucky girl/ill-fated or miserable woman" (hatabhaaginI) and the word taar in the last line refers to a male lover or at least his remembered or yearned-for image.

Rothenstein, reading the English version, could not have guessed how deeply the senses and bodily sensations pervaded the original Bengali songs, precisely because Tagore had expunged the crucial lines and taken refuge in a diffuse and ambiguous spirituality.

We shall later see, repeatedly, this same alteration of mood and meaning in the translations; extremes of this ambiguity lie at the very foundation of the translations.



A reader conversant with the high points of ancient Sanskrit literature and medieval Bengali literature as well as English literature from Spenser to Swinburne on the one hand, and the monotheistic Upanishadic Hinduism and Christianity as practised in the 19th century (with its concomitant Puritanism) on the other, will realise that Tagore's poetic and lyrical imagination had three major aspects: devotion to the Upanishadic Brahman - formless, attributeless, yet all-pervasive; an abiding enchantment with nature, specifically the natural scenes of the lower Gangetic plains, richly varying through the cycle of the seasons; and last, but perhaps the most powerful - an intense yearning for romantic love. The informed Bengali reader can, with a little effort, trace the roots of the poetic style which he developed to the emotional need to express these and the influence of the literary sources cited above. Those who, like Rothenstein and Yeats did not have a close acquaintance with Classical Sanskrit literature and Bengali poetic literature from Kalidasa to Michael Madhusudan Dutt, inclusive of the Vaishnava poets, and the prose of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee are and were unlikely to be in a position to appreciate, even to a modest extent, the nuances of word, idiom and imagery which constitute the characteristic style of Tagore.



Translated by E. Dimock and D. Levertov
The role that Vaishnava poetry played in Tagore's artistic development was formidable; one cannot do better than to quote him in this context: "If you ask what gave me boldness when I was young I should say that one thing was my early acquaintance with the old 'Vaishnava' poems of Bengal, full of freedom in meter and expression. I think I was only twelve when these poems first began to be reprinted. I surreptitiously obtained copies from the desks of my elders. . . I must. . . admit that the greater part of these lyrics was erotic and not quite suited to a boy just about to reach his teens, but my imagination was completely occupied with the beauty of their forms and the music of their words and their breath, heavily laden with voluptuousness, passed over my mind without distracting it."[6] To Yeats, Rothenstein, Pound and their associates, these origins of Tagore's poetic imagination and emotional life were largely unknown; it was, therefore, possible, and perhaps imperative, for them to accept him as a quasi-saint whose spiritual quests were aided rather than retarded by a tamely sentimental view of romantic love, in line with Christian morality.

Yet Vaishnava verses like their ancient Sanskrit predecessors, in their spirit, were the most un-Christian literary compositions conceivable. Amiya Chakravarty, himself a competent poet and Tagore's one-time literary secretary felt obliged to add the following words, in a note, with reference to the passage quoted above: "The erotic tendency of some Vaishnava poetry, especially in connection with degenerate forms of the cult of Radha and Krishna had aroused opposition among the more sober-minded Hindus."[7] This must not be treated as an insignificant footnote; it refers, in fact to a problem which plagued Tagore throughout his life, which I shall now have to address.

Imbued as he was with the densely sensual spirit and imageries of Vaishnava poetry, yet embedded in the Puritanical educated elite of 19th century Bengal, the daunting dilemma that Tagore faced was that of creating a style for himself through which passionate romantic love could be portrayed in a sensitive, appealing and varied manner without offending the moral sensibilities of the age, which were formed in the main, by the general mood of the Bengal renaissance.

In the English romantic poets, Tagore found a world in which love and emotions directly or indirectly connected to it, were expressed in an entirely different idiom; one which in its exquisite poignancy and delight was in consonance with a more spiritual, and less corporeal conception of amorous relations than was to be met with in the ancient Sanskritic and the medieval Vaishnavite literature.

It has been affirmed or conjectured by Tagorean writers that Tagore created for himself a personal deity, whom he addressed by the second person singular. Yet his religious beliefs and indeed that of his father were based fundamentally on the Upanishadic Brahman who, being non-anthropomorphic, could not be addressed directly by human beings. But the Christian Almighty cast his influence on the monotheism of Brahmoism and being anthropomorphic could be addressed freely in song and poetry. The synthesis or intermixture of these two entities resulted in a deity who was formless and not susceptible of idol worship, yet could be the object of devotional songs and poetry making liberal use of the crucial second person singular. In Tagore's imagination, a female beloved and a male deity often merged with each other. He composed some songs in such a manner as to leave room for dual interpretations. An example of this device is: Tomaare-i kariaachhi jIbaner-o dhrubataaraa ("It is you whom I have chosen as the pole-star guiding my life. . . ") which appears in the section of Gitabitan titled Romantic Love (Prem), yet is included in the collection of monotheistic devotional songs Brahma-sangit. Significantly, the neo-Hindu celibate monk and missionary Swami Vivekaananda used to sing this song, one of his favourites. Though the second person singular was originally meant to represent an amorous beloved, in the Swami's conception, it certainly referred to the deity, for effusions of romantic love were strongly inimical to the ascetic spirit of the monastic order to which he belonged.

It is not difficult to find a typical example of the converse device -- romantic or even quasi-erotic imageries pervading a devotional song included in the section of the Gitabitan titled `Worship'(Puja): It appears as Item 20 in Gitanjali : "On the day when the lotus bloomed, alas, my mind was straying, and I knew it not". Perhaps few readers are able to sing this song which, to my knowledge, has been commercially recorded by only one senior artiste: "Yedin phuTlo kamal kichhu-i jaani naai". If the Bengali reader surveys this song in its entirety, recalls or listens to at least one faithful rendition of it and if possible hums the tune, he or she will intuitively grasp the mood and will recognise an element of indirect, subtle and tempered sensuality in it. It must be noticed that there is no mention of the deity whatsoever in this song: the poet speaks of himself, a lotus recently bloomed and the wistfulness that it evokes in his mind.

Numerous other examples may be located to this interchangeability and intermingling of religious and romantic devotion, of deity and beloved. However, for many songs such an interchangeability was not possible, and an indiscriminate oscillation between the two could only impair their mood and appeal.

But Tagore knew that sensuous imageries were likely to offend Euro-American moral sensibilities, and as we have seen in one example he scrupulously deleted all reference to the sense of touch and indeed, any allusion that might suggest or evoke unChristian shades of sensuous emotions. To this matter I shall have to return later in the essay.

The peculiar handling of the dilemma pervades the descriptions of the cycle of the seasons, too, which make their own contributions to the incomprehensibilty of Tagore's lyrics for Western readers.

The role played by climate in Tagore's songs, therefore, have now to be considered. Monsoon was Tagore's favourite; but this is a misleadingly simplistic statement. What permeated the majority of Tagore's songs on nature is specifically the monsoon in the lower Gangetic plains. I do not believe that inhabitants of, say, Punjab, Kashmir or Goa, not to speak of the Western world, could ever be able to appreciate the character of Tagore's musical treatment of the characteristic features of monsoon therein: the dense and lush foliage; the tumultuous thundershowers; the merging of forest, field, river and sky into a single continuum of watery mass; and the primordial drama of the rain-bearing clouds which, centuries ago, had provoked Kalidasa to compose some of the most bewitchingly beautiful verse in Sanskrit literature. Gitanjali offers several lyrics based on scenes of monsoon. It must be kept in mind that moods of monsoon pervade large stretches in the Gitabitan and is not limited to the section titled Monsoon (Barshhaa).

Item 22 of Gitanjali is as follows : 'In the deep shadows of the rainy July, with secret steps, thou walkest, silent as night, eluding all watchers.' This is the translation of song no. 94 of the section of the Gitabitan titled Monsoon ( p463 ): "aaji sraaban ghana gahan mohe, gopan taba charan phele/nishaar mata, nIrab ohe, sabaar diThi e.Daye ele //"

The Bengali reader, upon contrasting the original and the translation will discern a perceptible difference in mood and atmosphere: the original pertains to the natural scenes in the Bengal monsoon that we have discussed; the translation is constrained to deal with a rainy season that is geographically unspecified, for Tagore has to speak to an English-speaking readership that is widely dispersed over more than one continent. The Western reader is unable to fix his or her mind firmly to any specific set of experiences characteristic of some specific region: this inevitably impairs or hinders the imagination and blurs the impact of the lyric on the mind. The English romantic poets made allusions to natural scenes of England which, however, were better known to readers in the Westernized parts of the Orient, especially, educated Indians, since through a formidable literature read and assimilated in early life, an indirect familiarity with English scenes had been accomplished.

But a discrepancy that is far more serious is one that is so subtle as to almost elude notice : the second person singular in the original is, as usual, a beloved; or else, the song would have been placed in the section of the Gitabitan titled 'Worship' (Puja). The word helaa (neglect or indifference) has been repeatedly used in the love songs of Gitabitan to describe an attitude particularly excruciating for the forlorn yearner after love. The last line of the original is "samukh diye swapanasama jeyo naa more helaay Thele"; in the translation one finds "do not pass by like a dream". The last two words "helaay Thele" (neglectfully evade or dismiss) have been expunged. Why? In the English translation the beloved of the original had had to be transformed or transmuted into a rather vaguely delineated entity, formed perhaps partially upon a personification of the deity: and a benevolent godhead is not supposed to forsake or neglect human beings in the manner in which a beloved might his or her lover. The poignant yearning expressed in the last line of the original is therefore enfeebled in the semi-devotionalised translation. The confusion is repeated in the next item ( no. 23 ) of the Gitanjali :

"Art thou abroad on this stormy night on thy journey of love, my friend?"

"Aaji jha.Der raate tomaar abhisaar paraansakhaa bandhu he aamaar/"

The relatively innocent 'journey of love' represents abhisaara - the clandestine nocturnal prowl or jaunt of the lover who has a tryst with his beloved. Comparison of the last stanzas of the original and the translation shows a distinct alteration of the mood; for, though in the union of love there is uncertainty, in the communion with the deity, given sufficient devotion, there is none. Once again, Tagore had veered from his original mood, with the tastes of the West uppermost in his mind.

In his songs, Tagore often alluded to things more easily palpable, and when he set himself the task of translating them, he had to resort to devices even more disruptive than we have hitherto discussed, as the following citation illustrates: (Item 74, Gitanjali)

"The day is no more, the shadow is upon the earth. It is time I go to the stream to fill my pitcher." This is song No. 84, Gitabitan, p. 306 "Aar naa-i re belaa naamlo chhaayaa dharanite/ Ebaar chal re ghaaTe kalaskhaani bhare nite".

In the second stanza of the translation, we find "In the lonely lane there is no passerby, the wind is up, the ripples are rampant in the river."

The Bengali original: "Ekhan bijan pathe kare naa keu aasa-jaaoyaa, ore, premnadite uThechhe Dheu, utal haaoyaa."

Premnadi (literally, river of love) has been translated as merely 'river'. Unbeknownst to many this song is based upon an old feature of rural Bengali society (for these observations I am indebted to the late Nirad C. Chaudhuri).[8] When family women went to the adjoining river or pond to fill their pitchers, there often prowled by the wayside, and near the ghats, prospective or performing paramours waiting for a meeting with them. Few would fail to guess what such meetings resulted in. So irresistible was the appeal of such practices that folklore had received their imprint, social censure notwithstanding and Tagore had made a delicately nuanced and discreetly indirect reference to it in this song to create a pall of vague and languid amorousness hanging in the evening air. But in the English translation he had to alter the mood to make it suit Western moral demands; hence, river of love (figuratively, the emotion of love envisioned as a river, susceptible to ripples and waves) had to be curtailed to mere 'river'.

From the discussion above, there is no room for doubt as to who the last sentence of the song refers to : "There at the fording in the little boat the unknown man plays upon his lute." The Bengali original obviously belongs to the section of the Gitabitan titled Romantic Love (Prem).

Yet Yeats takes an unwarranted religious view of the item : ". . . a man sitting in a boat upon a river river playing upon a lute, . . . is God Himself!" And the misapprehension was not rectified by Tagore, perhaps understandingly.

Another curious contrast is also in line with our present theme: use of the word 'maayaa' in its Sanskrit form, untranslated into English, (in item #71, Gitanjali), yet the ommission of the word "leelaa" and substitution of the word "pleasure" in its place (item #1 "Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure" - "Aamaare tumi asheshh korechho, emani leelaa taba").

The word 'maayaa' is spiritual, or even mystical, and free of erotic connotations; therefore it was left unstranslated; but "leelaa", referring to the playful dalliance of Lord Krishna with the voluptuous cowherd girls, had to be sanitized by the disappointing and misleading translation "pleasure".

A similar analysis of several other songs of Gitanjali, on similar lines, can be carried out by any Bengali reader who is conversant with the Bengali originals. I believe I have given enough examples to show that Tagore's poetic and lyrical imagination had foundations which often bordered on the voluptuary, and in this his spirit was moved by ancient Sanskrit verse and especially Vaishnava poetry, in which his mind had been steeped from early adolescence onward. The songs of Gitabitan on love and nature have virtually nothing to do with the Christian model of piety and asceticism and Yeats's projection of Tagore as primarily a religious poet in the Christian mould was almost entirely erroneous. It is in vain that he alludes to the writing of European saints of the Renaissance in his discussion of Tagore's lyrics.

It is here that all the major shortcomings of Gitanjali lie, rather than in such faulty, and sometimes risible, translations such as "I sit like a beggar maid, drawing my skirt over my face, . . . ". An unnecessary and unfair amount of censure has been heaped on Tagore for literal faults in translations.

Unfortunately, so urgently eager was Tagore on entering the Western world of letters, that he made no effort to rectify Yeats's misconceptions; Tagore himself could have persuaded Yeats to be less sentimentally effusive and more realistic and true to the actual spirit of his songs in his Introduction to the Gitanjali; he did not. In this, intellectually if not morally, he was in error. Though Yeats's cloyingly laudatory introduction induced the West to take Gitanjali very seriously, at least initially, in the end it was this error which made an incurable confusion of ideas the basis of Tagore's image in the West.


Note the classification of Gitanjali (Collier Books, 1971) as POETRY/RELIGION


If there is one word that can describe Tagore's principal capital when he proceeded to the West, it is 'religion'. It is finally as a religious missionary that the West accepted him. Even his first patrons were struck by the religious spirit of his poetry : Sturge Moore wrote to a friend: "Yeats and Rothenstein had a Bengalee poet on view during the last days I was in London. I was first privileged to see him in Yeats's rooms and then to hear a translation of his poems made by himself and read by Yeats in Rothenstein's drawing room. His unique subject is 'the love of God'. When I told Yeats that I found his poetry preposterously optimistic he said "Ah, you see, he is absorbed in God. "[9]

But religion in Europe and America meant Christianity; and we have seen how Tagore had tailored and doctored the mood of his lyrics and poems to suit Christian expectations.

To be sure, Christianity was very much on his mind when he embarked upon his voyage to Europe in 1912. In his address to the inmates of his school at Santiniketan titled "On the Eve of Departure", he said,

"There is no dearth in Europe of heroic souls who stand firmly against th tyranny of the mighty. Such upright men do not hesitate to take sides with alien peoples in far-off lands and suffer in their account. Who indeed are the friends of the Indians seeking self-government for their country ?. . . They are the knights who have undertaken to defend the weak. They tread in the hard path of Christ, stained with the blood of the divine leader who took the sorrows of the world upon himself to save the soul of man and to lead him from darkness into light. Deep within the heart of Europe that light still shines."[10]

One can clearly notice that his interest in Christianity was intimately bound-up with nationalistic political considerations.

He wrote: `Many have asked me, "Why do you want to travel in Europe?" and he remarked in this address, "I have not known how to answer them."' The rest of the address is a long-winded justification of his voyage; but nowhere does he say that his interests were literary; poetry is not discussed.

One might begin to suspect that his journey to Europe and his publication of the English Gitanjali constituted the first deliberate step towards acquiring a Western image which would provide him with a political standing in the emerging nation. Without Western recognition, he realised, the whole of India would never take seriously the political views of one who was a mere poet confined to the cultural milieu of Bengal.

It was Yeats's fulsome Introduction to the English Gitanjali that set the stage for the emergence of Tagore as a religious prophet in the West, very much in the Christian mould. He observes, "Since the Renaissance the writing of European saints -- however familiar their metaphor and the general structure of their thought -- has ceased to hold our attention. He goes on to mention St. Bernard, the Book of Revelation, a Kempis, John of the Cross and St. Francis in his Introduction.

And very significantly, Yeats observes, ". . . yet we are not moved because of its strangeness, but because we have met our own image, . . . "

Gradually, a notion developed in the West that his verse demonstrates that Christianity had permeated the lives of millions in India, thus Westernizing it religiously; and that he was at the vanguard of this conversion. Harriet Monroe, in whose residence in Chicago Tagore spent a few weeks, in her memoirs described Gitanjali as "those sacred songs of praise which were chanted everywhere in his native India."[11]

That certain sections of the Christian establishment too held a similar view is shown by the following citation from the Baptist Times, February 2, 1914 :

"The poems of Rabindranath Tagore are valuable for their performance, but still more valuable for the promise they afford of a coming dawn. We have been waiting anxiously for some indication of the effect of Christian ideas on a truly representative Hindu mind. Here, surely, is the person we have been longing for -- one sent before the chariot of the Lord to make His path straight. And when we remember that this poet's every word is eagerly caught up by waiting millions, may we venture to assert that the new, the Christian India, is already at the door?"[12]

The Christian India, however, is yet to emerge.



I have now to deal with the later reactions to Tagore's work in the West. Ezra Pound, one of the coterie of poets who first championed Tagore in the West, later bitterly rejected Tagore's religious themes purveyed to the West through poetry. Romain Rolland, too, was critical of Tagore's preaching tours. Greene, the ruthless realist, remarked in 1937: "As for Rabindranath Tagore, I cannot believe that anyone but Mr. Yeats can still take his poems very seriously."[13] (He was, of course, referring to the West.) But already in 1935, even this last eminent admirer of Tagore had lost his patience with him: an irritated Yeats thundered in a letter to Rothenstein in 1935 : "Damn Tagore. We got out three good books, Sturge Moore and I, and then, because he thought it more important to see and know English than to be a great poet, he brought out sentimental rubbish and wrecked his reputation. 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."[14]

The works of Nirad C. Chaudhuri and R. K. Narayan have conclusively disproved the misguided verdict: ". . . no Indian knows English. "Yet Yeats's annoyance with Tagore has to be accorded the attention that it deserves. It is amusing to observe the contrast of this quotation and the fulsome introduction to the Gitanjali.

Unfortunately, the honest and starkly expressed observations of a fair number of eminent intellectuals of the West in respect of Tagore were made in private correspondences which have been published much after the initial Western ballyhoo about Tagore. D. H Lawrence saw the unreal nature of the prevailing Western attitude towards Tagore, based on ignorance of the East, and wrote to Russell's mistress Lady Ottoline Morrell in May 1916: ". . . this fraud of looking up to them -- this wretched worship-of-Tagore attitude -- is disgusting."[15]

Harsh words. But true, unfortunately.

Bertrand Russell was even more trenchant in his appraisal of Tagore the lecturing spiritualist. In a letter to Lady Ottoline, dated June 19, 1913, he wrote: "Here I am back from Tagore's lecture, after walking most of the way home. It was unmitigated rubbish - cut-and-dried conventional stuff about the river becoming one with the ocean and man becoming one with Brahma. . . "[16]

Later, when asked his opinion of a letter Tagore wrote him on the essence of religion, he curtly wrote; ". . . His talk about the infinite is vague nonsense. The sort of language that is admired by many Indians unfortunately does not, in fact, mean anything at all."[17]

My heart goes out to those disciples of Tagore who are hurt by these sincere yet strong words of Russell; but I know too much about Russell to be able to dismiss this assertion as one based on incomprehension.

* * * * * * *

It becomes evident, then, that quite a few Western intellectuals could see through the essential unreality of Tagore's Western image; yet the private expressions of their perceptions did not become known publicly during Tagore's lifetime, perhaps mercifully.

But the tragedy is that Tagore was at his highest in his songs, especially the descriptive ones, based on natural scenes and the cycle of the seasons, and it is precisely his music to which the West is necessarily deaf. It is in his songs of nature and love that Tagore expresses his true sensual self, which he felt compelled in the last decade of his life to express to a large extent in a rather unusual manner in his paintings.



Tagore's novels and other prose works enjoyed a transient reputation in the West. His play 'The Post Office' was widely appreciated; and surprisingly, the anthologies of his works that have been published so far contain more prose than poetry. His lectures and letters do not present the difficulties of translations that his poetry and songs do, and this is one reason they feature profusely in these collections. Tagore remarked in 1930, 'My poetry is for my countrymen, my paintings are my gift to the West. 'His latest biographers state, "The best of the paintings -- several hundred -- are powerfully appealing (and suggestive of the untranslatable delicacies in the poetry.)"[18]. Actually, his paintings were a rather belated outlet for feelings which he could never clearly express in his songs and poetry, given the limitations of the style which he assumed rather early in life. There is a pagan element in some of them, which set them apart from all his verbal creations. However, the greater part of Tagore's Western image is based on his poems and lyrics, and had become fixed within a decade of the publication of 'Gitanjali. '



Once Tagore acquired an image in the West, those in Bengal who were previously censorious of his work suddenly began to hold him in esteem, leaders such as Gandhi sought his comradeship. He had achieved his objective. Thereby he quickly acquired a nationalistic image which held sway all over India, and eventually he allowed himself to be viewed as a religio-political leader of a stature almost comparable to Gandhi. This image, which had its origins in his Western image, further reinforced the latter, through nationalistic propaganda. All major Indian political leaders felt called upon to comment on his life and work; of these judgments we examine only the most salient, made by the most eminent.

Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan who, being a Tamil, did not possess a knowledge of Tagore's work comparable to that possessed by any ordinary educated Bengali, summarised Tagore's oeuvre as follows:

"In all Rabindranath's work three features are striking : (1) The ultimateness of spiritual values to be obtained by inward honesty and cultivation of inner life; (2) the futility of mere negation or renunciation and the need for a holy or a whole development of life; and (3) the positive attitude of sympathy for all, even the lowly and the lost. It is a matter for satisfaction to find an Indian leader insisting on these real values of life at a time when so many old things are crumbling away and a thousand new ones are springing up."[19]

This verdict almost defies comment; so vast is its scope, and so vague is the sense in which the words have been used, that one might employ this very summary in characterising the work not of Tagore but of any one amongst Gandhi, Vivekananda and Aurobindo Ghose. No Westerner, who has not read Tagore, can guess from this statement that he was primarily a composer of Bengali songs and poetry.

Jawaharlal Nehru's judgment is, of course, frankly political, and he too was unable to read even a single page of Gitabitaan in the original Bengali : ". . . Rabindranath Tagore has given to our nationalism the outlook of internationalism and has enriched it with art and music and the magic of his words, so that it has become the full-blooded emblem of INDIA'S awakened spirit." (Emphasis mine)[20]

Perhaps Nehru the intellectual (as opposed to the politician) had the perspicacity to see, though he found it imprudent to state, that it was far easier for Tagore to reach out to the Bengali-speaking people of (the erstwhile) East Pakistan through his songs and thereby become an emblem, whether full-blooded or not, of its awakening spirit, which was to lead to the creation of Bangladesh merely seven years after his decease, than to enthrall entire populations of the speakers of Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Gujarati et al who, knowing no Bengali, had no access to his songs and poetry at all.

And Gandhi proclaimed, "I regard the poet as a sentinel warning us against the approach of enemies called Bigotry, Lethargy, Intolerance, Ignorance, Inertia and other memebers of that brood."[21]

From all this emerges an image of a religio-political leader, always on the road, addressing hortatory speeches and sermons to great masses of people; its superficiality can be seen by any educated Bengali.

But if such be the utterances of non-Bengali Indians who, on account of their exalted political positions, were naturally taken seriously in the West, one can hardly blame Westerners alone for creating a grandiosely false image of Tagore.



An author who has made bold to claim that the Western image of Tagore is ersatz will perhaps be expected to set forth an account of his true identity, undistorted and unaberrated.

The fact of the matter, unfortunately, is that Tagore's temperament was essentially unsuited to an active public or political life; he was fundamentally a loner whose creative energies found their ideal expression in solitude. Though he was aggressively litigious - he had been engaged in furious lawsuits over property with several of his siblings (inclusive of his once-beloved Jyotirindranath) and even when on his deathbed in 1941, was involved in a legal battle with his only surviving sibling Barnakumari (who was at that time about 90) - he was not emotionally equipped to withstand the wear and tear of public censure and ridicule to which every politician and active public person is inevitably subject; poets seldom are.

Here I must let the man speak for himself. When he was thirty-one, he wrote: "Intimacy with men is absolutley intolerable to me. Unless I have plenty of room around myself I cannot stretch my limbs, settle down and unpack my mind. I pray that mankind may prosper, but they should not jostle me. . . "[22]

Again, when he was thirty-two he wrote, speaking of his mind: "It is only when it gets a little solitude that it can muse to its heart's content, look round itself, and express its feelings in all their meanderings exactly as it pleases."[23]

Chaudhuri rightly states, "It is from this Tagore that his greatest literary achievement came out. He is at his greatest as a writer when he is speaking as a lone soul with a lone voice to lone souls."[24]

As for romantic love, the exultant eroticism of ancient and medieval Sanskrit literature provided him with imageries, but the mood of his songs of love are often, if not always, of sorrow and despair. Throughout his life he yearned in vain for an idealised form of romantic love, and this failure caused him intense anguish till his last days. His songs express it in a delicate manner with which many Bengalis, similarly deprived, can identify their feelings.

Out of a plethora of songs as examples, I choose only one:

"You are indeed my heart's desire,
     I have nothing and no one in this world
         except you.
I shall lose myself in my separation from you,
         and thereby live in you
     Through long days, long nights, long months, and long years.
If you love someone else, and never come back,
     May you get all that you seek,
And I bear all the sorrow that there may be. "[25]

But it was his profound love of nature that enabled him to save his soul. Once again, we must let the man speak for himself:

"I feel that once upon a time I was at one with the rest of the earth, that grass grew green upon me, that the autumn sun fell on me and under its rays the warm scent of youth wafted from every pore of my far-flung evergreen body. As my waters and mountains lay spread out through every land, dumbly soaking up the radiance of a cloudless sky, an elixir of life and joy was inarticulately secreted from the immensity of my being. So it is that my feelings seem to be those of our ancient planet, ever germinant and efflorescent, shuddering with sun-kissed delight. The current of my consciousness streams through each blade of grass, each sucking root, each sappy vein, and breaks out in the waving fields of corn and in the rustling leaves of the palms."[26]

One man, his solitude, his yearnings for love, and his love of nature -- all experienced and expressed through a highly sensuous musical and poetic intuition : this is the essential Tagore.



That his image in the West was a brittle fabric of appreciation based on incomprehension had of course become clear to him, if it had not been evident right from the beginning. But the very Bengalis whose harsh censure and ridicule had pained him and against whom he had hit out time and again were not susceptible to the misinterpretations to which the West was prone; the Bengalis sang his songs spontaneously and with genuine passion, in celebration of the seasons, of love and even of religion. Inasmuch as he had been at perfect harmony with Bengal, its rivers, verdant fields and villages, his songs, especially the seasonal ones, had an enduring character free from all temporary literary or religious fads and fashions, and consequently merged with the life of the Bengali mind completely. He remarked in his last days that the fate of his poems and stories was uncertain, but his songs had indeed found a lasting lodgment in the hearts of Bengalis. Bengal, in the end, was his true home, as it had been at the dawn of his life.

But what did the West gain from him? I shall have to quote Alex Aronson :

"A great scholar would expound the philosophy of Rabindranath in terms of metaphysics and mysticism; a politician would elucidate his position in European politics; litterateurs would establish comparisons and parallels; and priests of various denominations would exalt or debase his spiritual message. Everyone of them had his own axe to grind, and Rabindranath became a useful and innocent tool which they knew how to handle for their own ulterior purposes. So it came about that he was unknowingly made to represent certain tendencies in the party-politics of various nations, that his name was freely used for the sake of either appeasing or inflaming national hatred, and that the various religious or pseudo-racial denominations used him for their own ends. The litterateurs were often uncritical and outrageously condescending. In addition to all this an atmosphere of sensationalism was being created around him symptomatic of the loss of mental equilibrium, and perhaps also of the loss of all beliefs in the West."[27]

". . . . Rabindranaths's voice when it was heard in Europe evoked (in Mathew arnold's words about Shelley) "a vision of beauty and radiance, indeed, but availing nothing, effecting nothing."[28]

Indeed, now that we approach the centenary of Tagore's first encounter with the West, and find feeble voices still shrieking in order to continue projecting an ersatz Western image of the poet based on incomprehension and academic sensationalism, what profound religious faith, what luminous truth about humanity, is being upheld by his Western champions?

We might well wonder.



(AA) Aronson, Alex 'Rabindranath Through Western Eyes', Rddhi - India, 2nd ed. 1978

(AC) Chakravarty, Amiya, Ed. A Tagore Reader, Beacon Press, Boston, (The MacMillan Company) 1961

(NCCI)Chaudhuri, Nirad C. Thy Hand, Great Anarch! - India : 1921-1952, Chatto & Windus, London, 1987

(NCCII)Chaudhuri, Nirad Chandra 'Nirbaachita Prabandha', (Bengali) Ananda Publishers Pvt Ltd, Calcutta - 700 009, 1997

(KDAR)Dutta, Krishna & Robinson, Andrew Rabindranath Tagore - The Myriad-Minded Man, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1996

(JCG)Ghosh, J. C. 'Bengali Literature', Oxford University Press, London:Geoffrey Cumberlege, 1948

(RTI)Tagore, Rabindranath, 'Towards Universal Man', Asia Publishing House, India, 1961

(RTII)Tagore, Rabindranath, Gitabitana, Visva Bharati, India, 1999

(RTIII)Tagore, Rabindranath, Gitanjali, (Song Offerings), Macmillan and Co. , Ltd. London, 1914

(JW)Winter, Joe The Gitanjali of Rabindranath Tagore Transl. from Bengali; Writer's workshop, Calcutta; 1998

[1]'PrabaasI', Agrahayana, 1336 (Ref. Anandabazar Patrika, May 12, 2001)

[2] (AC), p. 20-21

[3](KDAR), p. 5



[6](AC), p. 83

[7](AC), p. 381

[8](NCCII), p. 205

[9](KDAR), p. 170

[10](RTI), p. 171

[11](KDAR), p. 172

[12](AA), p. 73

[13](KDAR), p. 349

[14](KDAR), p. 4

[15](NCCI), p. 629

[16](KDAR), p. 177

[17](KDAR), p. 178

[18](KDAR), p. 12

[19](AC), p. 390

[20](AC), p. 386

[21](KDAR), p. 13

[22](NCCI), p. 603

[23](NCCI), p. 604

[24](NCCI), p. 604

[25](NCCI), p. 613

[26](KDAR), p. 14

[27](AA), p. viii-ix

[28](AA), p. ix

The quotations at the beginning of the essay appear in (KDAR), p. 349-350

Pencil sketch by Amitabha Sen

Published July 15, 2001

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