The Forgotten Stone:
On Rabindranath Tagore and Latin America
Alfonso Chacon R.
After all, Latin America and India are worlds apart, one may say. And prompted by this separation, it may be important for Bengali readers to retrace the origin of the ripples, to see where does Tagore stand today in Latin America and what were the effects of his powerful mind on Latin American intellectuals. This is the idea of this article, and of several to come: to recreate the ties between Tagore and the New World. This implies, of course, the need for an introduction: How did Rabindranath Tagore come to be so well known and beloved in Latin America, a continent so different from India? Well, maybe because they are not so different. After all, not so long ago - due to the confusion of an Italian sailor sailing under the Spanish flag - our continent was still being called the West Indies, and though today this name has come to identify only a portion of the isles situated on the Caribbean sea, many a resemblance can still be found between that India Columbus was looking for, and the one he did really find: two huge continents, with landscapes ranging from humid tropic to frozen heights, and a large population composed of hundreds of ethnic groups.
For some, these affinities can explain the long love affair the
Latin Americans have had with Tagore's poetry and thinking. In a lecture on
Tagore's manuscripts, given at the University of Delhi by Octavio Paz, the
Mexican poet (Nobel Prize of Literature in 1990, and for some time a
resident in India) mentions the existence of an essay by Nirad C., in which
the Indian scholar points out the similarities between Bengal and Latin
America. Paz extends these affinities to Kerala and Goa, saying that, same
as the cultural syncretism which resulted from the clash between Spaniards,
Portuguese, African and Native Americans in what was called the New World
- syncretism that was to adopt the name of Baroque - something similar
happened in these three regions of India, where the Western influence was
not to neutralize but to be fused into the huge Indian tradition. Yet, says
Paz, this would not completely explain the attraction exerted by a poet who
only visited Latin America once, who never learned Spanish, and whose work
cannot be said to have received any remarkable influence from Spanish or
Latin American literature. And not only would this utterly fail to justify
the powerful effect Tagore had and continues to have on Latin American
readers, writers and intellectuals, as Paz claims, but in my opinion would
especially shadow the one and only real reason behind his lingering
popularity: the magic of his poetry.
In fact, Tagore's poetry arrived at Latin America long before himself, and by 1920 Tagore was already a figure among writers and intellectuals. And one can say that, in a way, his poetry came when it was most needed, mainly through the expert hands of another great poet, the Spanish Juan Ramon Jimenez. In 1913, he and his wife-to-be, the American Zenobia Camprubi, had begun translating Gitanjali, recently awarded the Nobel Prize. Along with this traslation, Jimenez was producing what was later to become one of the most important books in Spanish literature: Platero and I , second in Spanish editions only to Cervantes's Don Quixote. The book - the story of a man and his donkey - is deeply influenced by Tagore's lyric prose, and it is an effort to transgress the classical boundaries between novel and poetry, something the Bengali author had successfully achieved in his own prosework and plays. But why did Latin American writers react so enthusiastically to Jimenez and Tagore's art? A little depiction of the Latin American literary context during the two first decades of the twentieth century may be in order here, to try to better understand this phenomenon.
By the time the First World War was over, Latin American intellectual life had been cast into a deep struggle to find its own voice. Seeing the collapse of "civilized" Europe - beacon of human progress and achievement - which had not hesitated in throwing itself to a wild carnage was a deep shock for many in the New World, particularly to those who had always preached the need for Latin America to follow Europe's example. Even though most of the continent was independent by 1825, a strong European influence kept dictating not only the fashion and economic models of the Latin American countries, but acted as kind of an ideal civilization, which prompted many intellectuals to emulate the European models of education and politics, while despising their own land which was seen as the epitome of savagery and barbarism. This was a dark period of dictatorships and cruelty. Intellectuals like the Argentinean Domingo Sarmiento proclaimed the need for the extermination of the Native Americans, so to populate the new continent with pure, European blood, while in Mexico some members of the ancient colonial aristocracy acquiesced with the European powers to form a vast, Catholic empire based on the model provide by Napoleon III's France, which resulted in the adoption of an Austrian prince: Maximilian of Hasburg, as Mexican emperor. The situation was very similar all around Latin America: Huge, magnificent courts were built in the old colonial capitals, while the masses were submitted to an accelerated process of "European assimilation" which included the erasure of ancient customs and languages, something not even the former Spanish rulers attempted. This pro-Europe vision, which on the other hand promoted a massive immigration from Europe and Asia, had a deep impact in the population conformation of the continent - more Native Americans died or were mudered during the last eighty years of the nineteenth century, than during the 400 years of Spanish conquest and ruling, including the independence wars. This impact was also strongly felt in our literature and intellectual ideals, when most of the writers tried to follow the European schools, abhorring their roots. Even in Ruben Dario, the greatest Nicaraguan poet, and the major figure of Spanish Modernism, is hard to find any reference to the land that gave him life, and only the Cuban poet Jose Marti stood against this pro-European position, proclaiming the need for a new, real American man.
Nonetheless, by the turn of the century, Latin Americans felt the need for something new, that their countries would never be European, and needed not be, and a their true identity, not based on imitation, was still to be found.
Among the many trends and ideas that were explored during this period, Rabindranath Tagore's philosophy and prestige were to give a clue to young writers and poets: One did not have to write like an European, or think like one, to be a great writer. Besides, Tagore's mystical, human poetry dispelled the "exotic" view of non-European literature, allowing young Latin American writers to write not about Paris, Rome or ancient Greece, but about their own land, their own people, using their own voice.
and the birth of a new literature
Yet, the impact of Tagore's genius cannot be measured only in terms of the moral and intellectual support it provided to a young generation of writers, but also, and maybe in a more important way, as the origin of a compound of new visions and literary opportunities, exemplified by what his work had to offer to the young generations of Latin American artists. When in 1937, Juan Ramon Jimenez visited Cuba, he was received by a hungry throng of young poets, searching for some guide. As a result of this visit Jose Lezama Lima wrote the essay "Colloquy with Juan Ramon Jimenez", a conversation in which many of the foundations that will characterize Latin American literature for the rest of the century are put in place. When the young Lezama talks about the limitations imposed on poetry by the classic metric, the Spanish poet calls for the need to break away from the limits that prevent poetry from achieving its maximum expression. This is what he had done in Platero and I, erasing the boundaries between poetry and prose; this is what Tagore had done before. In a Chilean compilation of some of Tagore's poems and works, published in the 1920's, the editor argues about Tagore's inability to handle some of the features of classic drama, including the "lack of dramatic action" that constrains The Post-office to an "interesting play," never a masterpiece. What the editor - still influenced by the ancient Greek separation of genres - does not understand, is precisely that, with his plays, the poet is bringing together drama and poetry, a movement that many years later will prompt the very Lezama Lima to announce: "The novel must go to the poetry," the way he does in Paradiso (1967), his most acclaimed novel. This movement will be followed by many others, like another Cuban, Dulce Marma Loynaz, whose lyrical novel The Garden (1948) rides astride on both Jimenez's and Tagore's influence (the reference is obvious in its title), and which is considered by many, like the Cuban writer and critic Froilan Escobar, as the point of departure for what was later to be known as the "Latin American literary boom." It seems funny then to hear some literary critics browbeat some current Indian writers, accusing them of imitating Latin American styles like Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "magic realism", without realizing that, to a certain extent, they are just returning to India's greatest literary figure.
Now, not only did prose and narrative drink from Tagore's source. One Chilean, Pablo Neruda, fell in love with the Bengali's poetry during his youth, and for critics like Octavio Paz Neruda's first works are deeply impregnated by its essence. Actually, in what was to be his first major piece, Twenty Love Poems and a Desperate Song (1924), the young Neruda - who was to win the Literature Nobel prize in 1971 - included a paraphrase in his 16th love poem, some critics even say a direct translation, of Tagore's 30th poem from The Gardener : "Tumi Sandhyara Meghamala." And another Chilean poet, also Nobel prize in 1945, Gabriela Mistral, collaborated in a compilation of the best poetry by Tagore, adding several glosses of her own, in response to the "anxiety of the gardener."
All these of course do not explain why Tagore continues to have the respect of Latin American readers. Certainly, his poetry and prose is nowadays harder to find, and in some cases has been left behind as new literary movements and fashions have made their way to the top. Yet, there is at least one reason why, from Mexico to Chile, Argentina and Brazil, many still feel, directly or indirectly, the influence of Tagore. His ideas on education play a major role in the educational system of some Latin American countries, while the curiosity for India that was first aroused by his figure, keeps inhabiting many Latin Americans. Example of the first case is my own country, Costa Rica, where two of its major philosophers and thinkers, Emma Gamboa and Roberto Brenes M., according to Sol Arguello (Sanskrit scholar, who has given a seminar on Tagore for ten years at the University of Costa Rica), applied much of Tagore's thinking to the foundations on which our educational systems stands, nowadays one of the most recognized in Latin America. And the Mexican writer Jose Vasconcelos, central figure of Mexican modern education, favored the teaching of Tagore's literature along with the Western classics as early as 1920, while using his ideas for the layout of Mexico's schooling system.
On the other hand, readers are still attracted to Tagore and India, like Elena Chavez, a Costa Rican lawyer, whose love for Tagore sprang from her wish to know more about the poet and his thinking. And the same reason kept Sol Arguello's seminar on Tagore full to the limit for twenty semesters, in which the students no only read and analyzed the Bengali poet, but staged some of his plays, giving readings and presentations not only at the university, but in secondary schools all around the country.
Nowadays, one may say that the ripples on the pond are not the same. But the effect keeps on, and the stone that created them has not been forgotten. Thus, I can surely reply to Dr. Chanda: the links are not weak at all.
© 2000, Parabaas, Inc.