Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, Rabindranath Tagore: An Interpretation, first published in Viking by Penguin Books India, 2011. Pp. 306. ISBN: 9780670084555
Professor Sabyasachi Bhattacharya is a historian with a long and distinguished career in academia. As far as I know, this is his latest book, clearly intended to commemorate the Tagore season. In the Introduction he sets out his agenda thus:
But is he [Tagore] remembered just as a national icon, with only fading remnants of his fame in the public mind and steadily fading knowledge of his place in history? The Bengali-speaking community in India and elsewhere may like to believe that this is not true. But those who cannot access his works in Bengali – given the fact that only a small fraction of his works have been translated into English, and still less into Indian languages – may think otherwise. It seems worthwhile, therefore, to attempt a brief interpretative account of Tagore’s life and work. I think that there are many aspects of Tagore’s life which remain unexamined. These are ‘Frequently Unasked Questions’ about him. An inventory of them would show how they converge in particular on one aspect – the evolution of his intellectual life. This theme is addressed in the first chapter of this book and foregrounded in the narrative as a whole. (P. 2)
Professor Bhattacharya has begun with a rhetorical question, part of the answer to which lies within the question itself. But of course, as some of us have been saying for some twenty years now, Tagore is remembered as a national icon, and is bound to be remembered thus, not only in India, but also in Bangladesh, the two countries which have adopted two of his songs as their national anthems. Every act of commemoration takes place within a certain space, and if we are talking about the media-dominated space occupied by the general public, then yes, iconization is the inevitable consequence (some might say the curse) of fame, which might happen to a pop idol, a film star, a sports celebrity, a holy man, or a political leader. And again, as some of us have been pointing out for years, the danger, for a serious writer or thinker, of becoming such an icon is that he is then worshipped as a sacred symbol, with garlands round his photographs, but not much attention is paid to what he has said in his books. Within the designated space of what Bhattacharya calls ‘the public mind’, that mixture of ritual worship and practical oblivion happens all too frequently. But the fickleness of ‘fame’ is also proverbial, because it depends not just on the actual achievements of the person concerned, but also on the power and perseverance of the support group behind the hero. Depending on the fluctuating fortunes of the support group, fame waxes and wanes, as we have always known. As for a true understanding of Tagore’s ‘place in history’, that implies a great deal: a sound knowledge of his works, of what went before and came after him, also a comparative outlook, the ability to compare him with his peers in the field, and so on. It is a substantial package, and in consequence will always be the province of the cognoscenti and not of the general public – unless, in the latter case, it is bolstered by political power and in effect merges with the iconic dimension. ‘Place in history’ may understandably be a cherished phrase to a professional historian, but without further qualifiers, it is a grand – almost grandiose – concept and will therefore always run the risk of being manipulated by powerful individuals or groups. It immediately raises the question of who allocates that place. In practice, we have to sensibly settle for a place for our achievers within an agreed human space rather than in the starry heavens. Thus many of us have no hesitation in saying that if the Bengali language survives, there will always be a place for Tagore in the history of its literature. No one and no ‘conspiracy’ can take that away from him. There is really no need for any overwhelming Angst on that score. Tagore specialists in the Bengali-language discourse do understand the evolution of his intellectual life, and that is certainly not an area of ‘Frequently Unasked Questions’ for them.
The ‘public mind’, even in countries with a reasonable level of general education, is not usually geared to following the intricacies of the intellectual evolution of a great writer or thinker. In every culture, that kind of assessment is usually left to scholars who can closely study the texts. And it isn’t just a question of translations either. It is more a question of whether the general public in any human community is interested in the difficult choices that an intellectual maestro highlights before our eyes. Take the case of a text like the New Testament, which has been basic to Western Christian thinking and has been available in good translations into many mother tongues since the Reformation. If the general public of Western Christian countries were deeply interested in what the text has to say, the West would have been a haven of love and peace, but it is easier to iconize Jesus Christ and ignore the way he thought and what he said.
Bhattacharya has really positioned himself to address not the general public of India, but India’s Anglophone readership, which is only a small section of India’s vast general public. Even in that context it is really the elite end of that particular readership that he is addressing. This is not ‘light reading’, but an academic book. Those in India who read English-language newspapers and magazines on current affairs – or even some entertaining popular fiction or texts on IT or management – will not necessarily be interested in ploughing through an academic book in English purporting to interpret the hidden face of Tagore to them. We are in any case witnessing a general decline in the study of the humanities, including literature and philosophy and indeed history, which inevitably means that a book like this, on Tagore and written in English, is aimed at a well-educated readership in India and abroad. It is to them that Tagore has to be ‘interpreted’.
Everywhere the market for serious books is in decline. The situation of books by Tagore or on him is no different from the analogous situation affecting serious authors in any language. Native speakers of English may still fill theatres to watch performances of Shakespeare, but unless they have specialized in English Literature at university level, may not interpret correctly the subtle nuances of the ‘Elizabethan’ language, which is now four hundred years old. Languages recede – through the inexorable process of history. Great novels of the past are now surviving mainly through their reincarnations in film and television. Poetry, which cannot be transferred quite in that way, is losing its readership. As I have found again and again, even Bengalis who are in love with Tagore’s songs lose their powers of concentration when asked to focus their attention on poems which have more complex texts and have not been set to music. It is against such a backdrop that Prof. Bhattacharya has decided to interpret Tagore – and for an English-reading audience.
He elaborates his agenda further in the following long paragraph:
In pursuing that theme my method has been to draw from Tagore's own statements about the ideas and experiences which drove his creative and intellectual life. Tagore himself provides us the sources: in his autobiography, in his reminiscences and occasional self-analysis, and in over twenty-five hundred letters which have been archived. Read with his published literary works, these sources throw light on what the poet called his 'inner life'. I have deliberately avoided citing learned literary critics – the vast amount they have produced takes us to a different terrain altogether and I have preferred to depend upon Tagore's own testimonies and self-reflective observations. As such, I have depended on Tagore's own translations of his writings and, of course, what he wrote in English, given that few translations do justice to Tagore as a poet. The problem is not so great as far as prose works, particularly essays, are concerned. As regards his poetic works, even Tagore's own translations have been questioned on stylistic grounds; but translations by the original author are presumably more dependable, so far as authorial intention is concerned. Since there are not many translations by Tagore himself out of his vast corpus of writings, occasionally I have had to make do with renderings by others, or myself. To my mind that is acceptable so far as his prose works, particularly his essays, are concerned, but not his poetry. Moreover, to those without access to the original language of an author the mere description of the beauty of his or her writings – which abound in some literary biographies – makes little sense. I have, therefore, tried to avoid such long descriptions and the customary superlatives. I am deeply conscious of the fact that only fragments of all his published writings and only an impression of the range and quality of Tagore's writings can be conveyed in a biography of this kind. Finally, I have also avoided elaborating upon the details of day-to-day life which appear to be irrelevant to his inner life. (Pp. 2-3.)
The paragraph presents us with numerous problems. In dealing with a great writer born in special times, when important changes are taking place on all fronts – politically, socially, culturally – when cultures are meeting and interacting, can we really afford to ignore the exegeses of those whom the author somewhat disparagingly calls ‘learned literary critics’? Tagore re-shaped the literary expression of Bengalis. Surely, to interpret such a writer, the aid of literary critics is required? Can they be summarily dismissed? After all, the general public will never delve into the 2500+ letters which have been archived.
Bhattacharya is not the first historian who, I find, asserts that it is OK to make interpretations of Tagore on the basis of his own testimonies, especially those given in English. But as a historian, he surely knows that in any context our own testimonies go only part of the way and other corroborative data have to be brought in. Surely that is the historical method, isn’t it? We can sometimes be biased, or conceal important events, episodes, and developments in our lives. When working on the colour vision project, my colleagues and I found that Tagore did not openly acknowledge the steps in his development as a visual artist. We had to do a great deal of research to uncover them.
There are areas in Tagore’s life, such as his relationship with Kadambari Devi, or with his own wife, where Tagore maintains some reticence, which was characteristic of his generation. He does not broadcast all his thoughts and emotions to the world. To understand what is hidden, which nevertheless shaped him as a poet and creative artist, we surely have to read the illuminating analyses of perceptive critics like Jagadish Bhattacharya. However, such critics are not mentioned in this book.
Even authors born much later are understandably reticent about certain events in their lives, which can only be illuminated by biographical research and the analysis of themes, images, symbols in their work. Tagore, on the other hand, was not only born in the Victorian era of the British Empire, but also into an aristocratic family. He couldn’t afford to be totally frank about his private life. The family’s honour and status had to be guarded. We know that the Tagore family spent money to prevent the news of Kadambari Devi’s suicide appearing in the newspapers.
Let us look again at some sentences in Bhattacharya’s discussion of what is dependable and what is not in translation:
As regards his poetic works, even Tagore’s own translations have been questioned on stylistic grounds; but translations by the original author are presumably more dependable, so far as authorial intention is concerned.
I have highlighted the words which reveal the difficulties in this line of approach. Tagore’s own translations were part of the problem about the decline of his poetic reputation in the West, and the efforts of modern translators were needed to jack it up again. Recovering an author’s original intentions from his attempts at self-translation, when that author is not firmly embedded in the language of translation, is a task fraught with complications. Why take that circuitous route? Methodologically it is more sound to go straight to his original texts and interpret them with the help of astute literary critics.
I wonder why Bhattacharya says that he had to ‘make do’ with the renderings of others. That is not very complimentary to the good work that has been done by the new generation of translators. Why are the translations of Tagore’s poetry done in modern times, acclaimed by literary critics, not good enough for him to quote from? He does not really explain this or give us a proper discussion, just states it as a fact. If it is so awkward to quote Tagore in translation, why bother to write an interpretative book on him in English at all? Why not just write the book in Bengali, let it join the pile of all the other learned books on Tagore in that language, and leave the problem of access to be solved in course of time, by more non-Bengali scholars learning Tagore’s language?
Let us also consider this observation:
Moreover, to those without access to the original language of an author the mere description of the beauty of his or her writings – which abound in some literary biographies – makes little sense.
Coming from a historian, this is a curious comment. Surely such descriptions do fulfil the important cultural-anthropological function of indicating to outsiders how that particular author is valued within his linguistic community?
Bhattacharya is also avoiding ‘elaborating upon the details of day-to-day life which appear to be irrelevant to his [Tagore’s] inner life’. But this ‘inner life’ of Tagore – how is this area going to be explored and mapped, if a scholar does not have interest in, and respect for, either the details of daily life or the discourses of literary critics? Quite often we can catch glimpses of the inner lives of writers by looking precisely at the details of their day-to-day lives – which they also frequently incorporate into their writings. Such details may lead to passages of introspection and psychological analysis. I would say that details of daily life can indeed achieve a great deal in building up a credible portrait of an author. I sense an anxiety in Bhattacharya to distance himself from the literary discourse on Tagore, which bothers me.
At this point I should perhaps clarify my own position as a reviewer. In course of my life I have developed a strong allegiance to the interdisciplinary way of working. I have found it to be more reliable than one-dimensional approaches. In complex areas of research, the interdisciplinary method will take us to the heart of the matter in a more sure-footed manner and unlock previously inaccessible chambers.
For the benefit of those reading this review, especially those who may be interested in methodologies, let me insert a personal preamble. Life is immensely complex, and brief comments do not always open the doors of perception: often they leave us short-changed. Many issues are never adequately thrashed out in ‘public discourses’, so the reading public do not make enough intellectual progress. I was once accused, in the Letters section of this very forum, of using the pronoun ‘I’ too much, but the fact remains, and is not sufficiently appreciated, that we simply do not understand why a writer holds this or that opinion unless we take into account where he or she is coming from. Prof. Bhattacharya has clearly been shaped by his training in history within academia. Where am I coming from as I critique his book? I am a creative writer and also a literary translator and a researcher with a special slant. How does that affect me as I write a book review? What could be more public than an Internet forum like this? It is more accessible than a university seminar. So at the risk of irritating those who refer to their own selves as ‘the undersigned’, let me try and explain myself a little.
In the late 60s and early 70s, doing my doctoral work at Oxford on the journals and memoirs of British men and women in the Indian subcontinent in the period 1765-1856, I took pride in the fact that my work was pioneering ‘interdisciplinary’ research. In so far as I was a postgraduate student, I was based in the department of English, which eventually awarded me the degree, and I did the preliminary courses required of us, covering the art of deciphering handwriting in manuscripts and an understanding of how books were printed and bound in the olden days: fascinating courses that have left permanent marks on me. My supervisor was an English Literature don with a special knowledge of the 18th century. The discipline of history and the methodology it used were highly regarded at Oxford in those days. When we studied literature from any period we had to pay special attention to its ‘historical background’ and understand as best as we could the society within which those literary works had been produced. We were also expected to pay detailed attention to the state of the language at the time the texts were written, gaining an understanding of the interconnected evolutions of the language and the literature that was ‘made’ in it. With my supervisor’s blessing I had discussions with Indian historians and took suggestions from them on which books to read for an illumination of the British-Indian encounter which was the historical backdrop of the texts I was studying. Of course, they graciously suggested books to me, but even in those days I formed the impression that generally speaking, literary people were more open to the interdisciplinary method than historians.
When subsequently in the 80s I did my researches on Tagore’s Argentine adventure and the triangular friendship that sprang up between him and Leonard Elmhirst and Victoria Ocampo, I re-applied the lessons I had learnt earlier about interdisciplinary work and the historical method. I taught myself to read Spanish so that I could read Victoria Ocampo’s books, followed a Teach Yourself Spanish course on BBC radio and television so that I could follow Spanish-language conversations. I borrowed Ocampo’s books and the back issues of her magazine Sur from Oxford’s Taylorian Library. I contacted people specializing in Latin American Studies at Oxford, and took reading-lists from them, so that the Latin American backdrop of that extraordinary encounter, sketchy to most Indians who had touched that subject, could be better illuminated for my own eyes and the eyes of those who would eventually read my book. I consulted the Elmhirst archives at Dartington Hall. I struggled to get a passage to Argentina and got there in the end. Against all the odds and with the help of a few kind people, I stayed there for two months, reading in the Ocampo archives and speaking to many people who had known Ocampo closely. I visited both Villa Ocampo and Miralrío, the house overlooking the Río de la Plata where Ocampo had accommodated Tagore and Elmhirst, and I also visited Mar del Plata. I collected so much material that what was initially just a project to gather and edit the Tagore-Ocampo correspondence led to the publication of a full-scale academic book of 500+ pages, in which the letters were of course included.
My liking for interdisciplinary work stayed with me, and I applied it again in a big way when in the 90s I studied the effects of Tagore’s colour vision on his writings and art, collaborating with an artist and consulting with two scientists. I took the scientists to Santiniketan with me so that they could see Tagore’s paintings in Rabindra Bhavana and do some measurements of the use of colours in them, a process known as colorimetry. We needed to understand how Tagore managed to bypass his colour vision deficiency and develop himself as a visual artist. He did not go for training in naturalistic painting, but absorbed the contemporary influences of Primitivism and Expressionism. To collaborate with my artist colleague I studied many volumes of art history and went with him on a major tour of museums and art galleries – covering London, Paris, New York, and no less than 18 cities in Germany.
As some of my readers will also know, in my own literary work, in books like Rabindranath o Victoria Ocampor Sandhaney and Tisidore, I have also experimented substantially with mixing genres, a process very similar to working between different disciplines. I like the method: I feel it is closer to the way I experience the swirling complexity and multidimensionality of life. It goes with the fact that I write in two languages from the position of a writer of the Indian diaspora, firmly located and rooted in my new environment and at the same time connected for half a century to the Bengali literary and publishing world thousands of miles away, and with some links also to the publishing world of Delhi. In consequence, all my work is inevitably deeply intercultural, and I am hyper-sensitive to what happens in the cusp between cultures – in every context and sense.
In the late 80s and early 90s I was a member and Research Associate of a body then known as the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research on Women – CCCRW for short. It operated on the fringes of the academic establishment, with a loose affiliation to the University via Queen Elizabeth House, in which location it did remarkable work in organizing seminars and workshops which students, both undergraduates and postgraduates, attended, and in publishing a series of highly regarded scholarly books which were often the outcome of such meetings. During my membership there I co-edited, with social anthropologists, Bilingual Women: Anthropological Approaches to Second-Language Use. I found then, and I still find now, that anthropologists have a welcoming approach to interdisciplinary work. The old CCCRW has now been merged with the IGS, the International Centre for Gender Studies, which has a stronger affiliation to the University via Lady Margaret Hall. I am also made to feel welcome at ISCA, Oxford’s Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology. In 2000 we had a splendid workshop at ISCA in conjunction with the staging of my first play in my own English translation.
The 150th anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore’s birth, together with the years leading to it and following it, have resulted in a tsunami of books, articles, and conference papers, some of which have left me wondering about current attitudes to interdisciplinary work within modern academic establishments. In view of my personal experiences, I am very tempted to ask: are historians in particular prone to be somewhat uptight about interdisciplinary methods of working? And may this not generate problems for them when working in complex areas?
Bhattacharya refers to Tagore’s diary of his 1890 travels in Europe, mentioning that it “departed from tradition and his own practice earlier, in that it was not written in ‘chaste’ Bengali but in the Bengali that is spoken” (p. 9). But surely he knows that this is not the first instance of Tagore’s use of chalit bhasha? Tagore’s account of his sojourn in Europe as a teenager, published as a book in 1881 (and serialized in the magazine Bharati before that) was also in the demotic Bengali idiom. This earlier travel account, Europe-Prabasir Patra, is regarded as a classic book written in chalit bhasha. Here perhaps there is a lapse of attention which might have been averted if, with his undoubted wealth of knowledge in socio-economic and political history, Bhattacharya had collaborated with a literary person.
Earlier in 2011 Prof. Bhattacharya had published another book, entitled Talking Back: The Idea of Civilization in the Indian Nationalist Discourse (OUP Delhi), in which, discussing the ideas of James Mill, the author of the influential History of British India, he refers to some telling passages from that author. James Mill had helped to wrench the development of British ideas in India away from the Indophile tendencies of the early Orientalists and had tilted it towards a strong Utilitarianism, which eventually contributed to the shaping of a fully fledged imperialist ideology. James Mill did not like Sir William Jones’s appreciative portrayal of ancient Indian civilization on the basis of literary texts. He did not think much of poetry.
Poetry, admired by Jones and the like, could be produced by people relatively uncivilized. But ‘a degree of culture is needed’, Mill said, to produce works of history and in this the Hindus failed. ‘It is allowed on all hands that no historical composition existed in the literature of the Hindus; they had not reached that point of intellectual maturity at which the value of a record of the past for the guidance of the future begins to be understood.’ (Bhattacharya, Talking Back, p. 16.)
James Mill’s grotesque ideas were familiar to me from the days of my own doctoral researches – well before Edward Said had given Orientalist scholars an even worse reputation. I am now wondering if James Mill’s ghost still lives on in some fashion, inspiring a mistrust of poetry and the literary arts among professional historians. Some of my comments in this review may well be my own way of ‘talking back’.
Returning to the book I am reviewing, I notice that Bhattacharya’s assessment of the period 1909-19 in Tagore’s life (p. 13) is quite different from the thesis of Michael Collins, whose book I reviewed in Parabaas not so long ago. If I have understood him correctly, Bhattacharya does not seem to think that this period is all that significant in terms of Tagore’s intellectual life. Collins, on the other hand, thinks that Tagore’s 1912 voyage was a consciously planned trip to bring his work to the West and to communicate with Western intellectuals. I am also surprised that Bhattacharya does not, in this context, highlight 1917, the date of the publication of Nationalism. Surely those lectures were acts of daring vis-à-vis his foreign audiences? A little later he says that it was ‘very courageous but impolitic’ of Tagore to speak out against nationalism (p. 37). It was certainly courageous. But why was it ‘impolitic’? Why shouldn’t he have spoken the truth as he saw it?
Bhattacharya comments that ‘a characteristic of the last decade of Tagore’s life was the recurrent motif of death’ (p. 18). But surely this is very natural when a writer is actually approaching death? I would have said that what is far more fascinating is the recurrent, obsessive motif of death in the early works of Tagore.
Bhattacharya says that he has depended a great deal on Tagore’s letters to C. F. Andrews. He considers that these letters are of special value as Tagore confided in this friend ‘thoughts which he did not wish to put in any publicly available form’ (p. 25). Michael Collins shows that Andrews did edit some of Tagore’s letters before publishing them and made some significant omissions – especially when they concerned Tagore’s disagreements with Gandhi. So the edited documents may not be infallible guides to Tagore’s inner life or original intentions. Certainly, Andrews also had his own personal agenda of a religious nature. He was split between his love of Tagore and his love of Gandhi. It is known that he was very possessive of Tagore. Victoria Ocampo noticed it and shared a joke with Leonard Elmhirst about it. Were Andrews and Gandhi Tagore’s only companions for sharing his thoughts in his mature age, as Bhattacharya claims (p. 26)? Surely, Elmhirst was a very trusted companion too? Their letters show it, and there is also a fair amount of relevant material on the nuances of that particular friendship gathered in my two books on Tagore and Ocampo.
Though Prof. Bhattacharya has an entire chapter named ‘The Enchanted Garden’ (pp. 54-83), there is actually very little of life in an enchanted garden in the contents. There are also grim and gritty elements in the story: death, despair, loneliness. I wonder why the author did not give a little more coverage to the details of Tagore’s very first visit to England, when he acquired his love of Devonshire, lived in London with the Scott family, briefly attended classes at university, enjoying the classes on English Literature given by Henry Morley, and learnt so many important things about English family life, English girls, and the kind of music they listened to. These experiences arguably belong to what Bhattacharya calls the enchanted garden of Tagore’s early life, and including them would have provided a more rounded picture.
‘Debendranath paid for Rabindranath’s two trips to England when he was in his teens...’, says Bhattacharya (p. 56). But he must know that Tagore really made only one trip to England in his teens. Another trip was started just days before his twentieth birthday, but it was aborted. Tagore did not continue beyond Madras. He returned from there. Touching Madras can scarcely be called a trip to England. Even if his father had booked the voyage all the way to England, I would think that being an astute businessman, Debendranath made sure that he got a reasonable refund from the shipping company.
On p. 59 of the book Bhattacharya asserts that: Rabindranath’s mother gave birth to fourteen children. But we know that she actually gave birth to fifteen, not fourteen children. The fifteenth child, another son, Budhendra (1863-64), died in infancy, so Rabindranath grew up as the youngest child of the family.
Bhattacharya seems to think that in Tagore’s time his wife was the only girl in the family to go to school outside the home – to Loreto House (pp. 61-62). But his sister Saudamini Devi did go to Bethune school for a short time. As for Tagore’s own education, Bhattacharya says somewhat sternly at one point (p. 65), ‘As regards the regime of home education by tutors we have a lot of details in the poet’s memoirs which we might omit.’ Why those details, which most of us find very interesting, are so abruptly and summarily dismissed is not explained.
Speaking about the episode of Kadambari Devi’s suicide, Bhattacharya comments (p. 70): ‘... it almost seems that Kadambari dead had a greater impact upon him than Kadambari alive.’ But of course, it would be easier to express grief at her death than explain what she might have meant to him when she had been alive. Naturally, there are silences. On Jyotirindranath’s behaviour in his later life, Bhattacharya comments somewhat abruptly (p. 71): ‘That is not of much importance.’ He also says, rather like an angry schoolmaster (p. 71): ‘The sordid details of Kadambari Devi’s death are not of great significance.’ But really, when dealing with such issues, it helps if the trained historian can lean on the friendly arm of a collaborator with literary-psychological insights. The word sordid is loaded. Surely the details are tragic rather than sordid. ‘It is commonly believed that one cause of her unhappiness was that she was childless’ (p. 71). Bhattacharya understates the reality. Surely, her childlessness must have contributed to her unhappiness, her loneliness, her lack of self-esteem. It is known that she kind of ‘adopted’ a female child from within the large family and was distraught when this child died. Childlessness was definitely a disaster for a woman in the old days. She would have been made to feel inferior in the extended family. Motherhood was the ultimate fulfilment of a woman’s life. See, for instance, Mrinal’s comment on this in Tagore’s story ‘Strir Patra’ (The Wife’s Letter). Barrenness was a curse, the result of bad karma. It could be a valid ground for the husband taking another wife to produce sons. It is therefore difficult to agree with the view that the details of Kadambari’s death are of no great significance. On the contrary, I believe that Kadambari’s suicide provoked Tagore to explore, in his stories and novels, the theme of women’s unhappiness within the traditional family. Suicide usually indicates a level of what we nowadays call clinical depression. The tormented Rabindranath would have turned the question round and round in his mind, trying to understand why she had done it. In my book Rabindranath o Victoria Ocampor Sandhaney, a whole chapter is dedicated to exploring this very issue. If only Prof. Bhattacharya had not been so prejudiced against us literary people and had consulted that chapter! On p. 72 of his book he quotes a sentence from Kripalani’s biography of Tagore, suggesting that we should not dig too deep into the causes of Kadambari’s death. Well, the fact that Kripalani had married Tagore’s granddaughter makes him a member of the extended Tagore family, and that is precisely the reason why we cannot accept his advice as final. Kripalani is trying to suppress curiosity, but it is curiosity, the zeal for more knowledge, that fuels scholarly research. Why does a professional historian endorse Kripalani’s conservative view more than a century after the suicide?
The discussion of Tagore’s youthful poetical work (pp. 76-79) has left me wondering if the author had considered the real juvenilia. The inner life of the young poet cannot be interpreted without taking in the juvenilia. I found it fascinating when I read the stuff: it does help us to understand the adolescent poet’s psychology. The early verses gathered in the two volumes of the Achalita Sangraha reveal the inner turmoil of a romantically inclined boy growing into manhood in an environment where he cannot have interaction with girls of his own age unless they are members of his own extended family. Jealousy, aggression, violence, frenzy, death-wish – all such things sometimes come to an angry boil. In one poem a young woman actually kills herself by throwing herself from a mountain top to a swiftly flowing stream. Tagore might have felt guilty about such details in later life: that was perhaps why he was unwilling to admit these works into his Collected Works. In those wild early verses, what Kadambari might have meant to his fantasy life is told in metaphors and symbols. They are revealing. Are historians unable to make any sense of such indirect testimonies? Tagore in his later years blamed the emotional excesses on the influence of English literature. Bhattacharya accepts this self-analysis (p. 78): ‘Tagore realized later in life how different the historical contexts of Europe and Bengal were.’ But the fact remains that in poetry influences are more often carried over by means of words, the sheer power of language, than by the weight of ideas, and the process often overrides social contexts. Without literary analysis, one cannot ‘interpret’ the ‘inner life’ of a romantic young man who is a poet, for whom wild poetic fantasies are a safety valve of the emotions. Hence Bhattacharya’s perplexity in his comments on pp. 80-81, and on p. 83 there is a mismatch between what he is trying to say and his citations: better-quality, modern translations were needed to convey the intensity of the poetic emotions being discussed.
As regards the chapter entitled ‘Into the World/ Tagore in the Public Sphere/ 1891-1908’, it could be argued that Tagore did not really enter a ‘public sphere’ for the first time in 1891. As an author publishing book after book and writing in magazines, he was already in a special kind of public sphere, where he had a relationship with a ‘reading public’. Besides, significant things happened in his private life too during this period, including major bereavements.
One of our author’s favourite phrases in the book is a clutch of four words: ‘need not detain us’. He does not like being ‘detained’ by the uncomfortable details of life, some of which he finds ‘sordid’. We have already seen one instance of what he found sordid. Here is another, referring to the process by which Tagore’s ancestors had become Pirali Brahmins:
The sordid details of that degradation by a retrograde society and the consequent price to be paid in the form of high dowry need not detain us. Nor should we go into the question of how suitable the matches were or whether the daughters did have a happy married life. (P. 86)
Bhattacharya wants to talk about the grand tides of history, about Tagore entering politics. Yet whether Tagore’s daughters were happy or not in their married lives was not an irrelevant question. The unhappiness of his daughters did weigh on Tagore’s mind and contributed to the development of some of his literary themes.
In spite of his ambivalence about poetry, Bhattacharya offers his readers his own translation of the poem ‘Duhsamay’ from Kalpana, one of the most powerful poems in the Bengali language. One has to admire his courage. By way of apology, he gives us this explanation (p. 89): ‘my translation is vastly unequal to the original, needless to say, but the poet himself never attempted a translation.’ But Tagore did! I think it is in The Gardener. Sumita Chakraborty refers to it in an article in this very webzine!
On p. 100 of the book Bhattacharya again praises the colloquial style of Europe-Jatrir Diary, forgetting that the earlier Europe-Prabasir Patra, relating to Tagore’s first foreign travels, was also written in the same style. And on the same page he makes a curious comment on Chitrangada: ‘The first version which appeared in 1892 is one of the many revised versions of Chitrangada.’ But how can the first version of anything be a revised version of the same thing? It is a logical impossibility. On p. 101, he says of Tagore’s love songs: ‘and we can cite them for he translated them himself’. Again, on p. 102, he comments: ‘These again are worth quoting for he himself translated many of them into English.’ So if someone else translates Tagore’s poems and songs, we cannot cite them? Yet a central fact of Tagore’s international reputation is that after the initial period of enthusiasm over the English Gitanjali was over, many of Tagore’s subsequent translations of his poems and songs helped his reputation to sink in the English-speaking world.
On pp. 103-04 I notice a curious error. Bhattacharya is supposed to be discussing the collection Shishu, but the poem cited on p. 104. ‘Tell me mother ...’ is not from Shishu, but from a much later collection, also for children, entitled Shishu Bholanath. I should know, because I translated this poem myself! On p. 251 of his book, in the Notes section, Bhattacharya identifies the translation he quotes as ‘Sunday’, Shishu, translated by Sukhendu Ray, in Sukanta Chaudhuri’s edition of Tagore’s writings for children. There is some muddle here. The discussion of The Crescent Moon on pp. 104-05 has the potential to confuse readers who do not read Bengali. Why do we have to interpret Tagore through an untidy classification inherited from the old English discourse? In the twenty-first century it would surely be better to stick to the Bengali canon when identifying Tagore’s works.
The oscillation in Bhattacharya’s attitude to citations from poetry is remarkable. First, he says he can’t quote poems unless they are in Tagore’s own translation. Then he quotes plenty of other translations, including his own. But for some mysterious reason he never quotes from translations done by either William Radice or me, the two who began the new generation of translations from Tagore’s poetry into English. This is really intriguing! Plenty of the poems he quotes from have been translated by me, and a few by Radice also. But he never quotes from our versions! Yes, our books of translation are listed in the Bibliography, but is that just a gesture of diplomacy or political correctness? Has he considered the merits of our versions, and can they be so bad, so much worse than the versions he quotes? In so far as the readership of this book is concerned, we sink below the horizon and are effectively made invisible as Tagore translators.
Prof. Bhattacharya’s writing style wobbles when he has to deal with matters that are awkward for him to handle. He then leans on phrases like ‘these sordid details need not detain us’, or ‘I surmise’. The first thing I notice about Chapter Four (‘The Sage of Santiniketan’) is that his style is much surer when he is on a political track. But a poet’s involvement in politics is not his ‘inner life’, but his ‘outer life’.
The etymology Bhattacharya gives for Gitali – ‘from gital, i.e. lyrics for song’ (p. 113) – is not altogether correct. Gital is an adjective from git, meaning ‘song-like, lyrical’. But the word gitāli, a noun, is not derived from the adjective gital. It is derived from git itself: git + āli (row, series) = gitāli, a row or series of songs. The same suffix occurs in a word like chaitāli, which is the name of one collection of Tagore’s poems, and means ‘Chaitra harvest’, referring to the rows of crops sown in the winter and maturing in late spring. Am I making too much of linguistic issues in my ‘talking back’? But how can we ‘interpret’ a great poet without taking such issues on board?
And who will make a fuss about words, how they are used or spelt, if writers don’t? Bhattacharya always writes ‘Brahma’ when referring to the reformed Hindu sect. Wouldn’t ‘Brahmo’ be a better English spelling for the name of this sect than ‘Brahma’, which conjures up the name of a god and may well confuse some readers? On p. 25 two famous Tagore titles are written as Jiban Smriti and Chhele Bela, both plainly wrong. They are compound words and must never, never be broken up in this way. Was any copy editing done on this book at the publisher’s end? On p. 126, isn’t Gora’s ‘climacteric moment’ simply his ‘climactic moment’? Surely ‘climacteric’ signifies something else?
On p. 123 Prof. Bhattacharya makes an observation which is clearly important for him:
In this day and age of globalization, perhaps the Tagorean dilemma needs to be studied within a broader discourse on the possibilities and limits of cross-cultural communication in the literary idiom.
But what precisely is ‘the Tagorean dilemma’? And surely ‘a broader discourse’ can only be developed and sustained by people at home in more than one language, who can travel from one language to another, who can cross frontiers. The issues here are well understood by those who are actively engaged in translation and intercultural communication. A person who translates poetry has to have knowledge of two sides. Everybody can see that a translator needs to have a knowledge of the source language and its literary nuances, but only practising translators realize that the task requires a detailed understanding of the other side even more. The poetry translator must have a knowledge of the craft techniques of writing poetry prevailing in the target language at the time when the translation is being done. We have to know how poets in the target language are writing now. We have to know how phrases and clauses are strung together, how the rhythm goes up and down, how sound-clusters are shaped and managed. If we know such things, then the first stage of our battle is won. If I did not write some of my own poetry in English, which I have been doing since the 70s, I wouldn’t have dared to take on the challenge of translating Tagore’s poetry for speakers of English. Translating between languages which have evolved in widely separated geographical and cultural spaces will most certainly require some annotation to bridge the gaps.
So this is the battleground where Tagore did not have enough self-confidence. He chose a simple solution, a rhythmic paraphrastic style, pushing the language towards what he understood to be the language of religious devotion in English, with Thou/Thee for God. Yeats pushed it that way even further, as Radice has recently shown.
I have noted down some points relating to our author’s comments on Tagore’s fiction, which I would like to include at this point. In Ghare-Baire (The Home and the World) does Sandip win ‘all the way’ – ‘until the very end’ (p. 129)? That’s not how I read the end of this novel.
In the novel Yogayog Tagore broke away from the tradition of romantic novel and the mealy-mouthed treatment of gender relationships in Bengali literature since the late nineteenth century. (Pp. 132-33)
This comment would need more details to flesh it out. Who are the authors whose treatment of gender relationships is ‘mealy-mouthed’? Is the early Tagore himself one of them? Tagore had broken away from stereotypes even in an early novel like Chokher Bali (1903), and both Gora (1910) and Ghare-Baire (1916) present unconventional relationships. The writer and educational specialist from northern Spain, José Paz Rodriguez, would have vehemently disagreed with Bhattacharya’s evaluation of Naukadubi (The Wreck) as a ‘readable but trivial story of mistaken identities’ (p. 98). A Tagore enthusiast, José Paz Rodriguez maintains that The Wreck is a wonderful novel. I have heard him say so with my own ears. It moved him immensely when he first read it. Mistaken identities constitute an important theme in Shakespeare’s plays too. And Tagore knew his Shakespeare. Finally, here is how Bhattacharya deals with Sesher Kabita:
It was a sensation because it was perceived as Tagore’s response to the challenge of a ‘modernism’ which had pretensions to opening a post-Tagorean era. ...Superbly crafted, Sesher Kabita is a good read, but it is not a great novel. For an author to produce such a work at the age of sixty-seven was an achievement. (Pp. 167-68)
Pretensions is an unfortunate word in this context, as it does not do justice to the modernist movement which was brewing in the twenties and would make its full impact felt in the thirties. It was not a flash in the pan, but was going to stay and be part of history. As adults, many of us would learn how to write in a contemporary style from precisely this generation of post-Tagore writers. So where is the thread of history in this narration? We are looking for a narrator who can depict the whole flow – right up to our time. Bhattacharya doesn’t say what his idea of a great novel is. He has already indicated that he does not trust literary critics. We might therefore be unwilling to pay much attention to his literary evaluations – not even when he suddenly turns around and gives Tagore a pat on the back for having written such a book at the age of 67. Nor is it true, as he claims, that this is the first time Tagore is putting a novel in a contemporary setting. Ghare-Baire and Chaturanga, both published in 1916, were in contemporary settings too.
Curiously, Bhattacharya does not say much about Tagore’s international dimension. The following comment, on p. 141, has surprised me: ‘To chronicle his triumphal march in Europe and America will be pointless and boring.’ Why? European scholars like Martin Kämpchen or Imre Bangha have taken pains to document and narrate the stories of Tagore’s reception in their home countries. Won’t this ring like a dismissive and discouraging comment in their ears?
In another context, on p. 117 I notice that our author does not refer to the notorious letter of Yeats which begins ‘Damn Tagore....’, a letter of which I have been aware since it was quoted by Buddhadeva Bose in his Kabi Rabindranath in the sixties. If a foreign scholar does not know about such things, we do not make an issue of it, but it does help if a Bengali historian is more familiar with the tradition of Tagore studies in Bengali, because he can then display a surer sense of projection, knowing what to highlight in an overall sense.
Bhattacharya does seem somewhat more interested in Tagore’s Argentine adventure, dealing with it in a section entitled ‘A Significant Relationship’ (pp. 143-45). But his evaluation of this relationship follows the pattern he has established in this book. ‘The whiff of a probable romantic involvement , always of interest to external observers, has been often detected in this relationship. That remains a matter of speculation.’ I was disappointed to read this comment. I spent half a decade studying this relationship and have already referred to my work in this area earlier in this article. I actually have two books on this subject. The first book, Rabindranath o Victoria Ocampor Sandhaney (1985), won an award in 1986, has had two editions, been reprinted many times, and has enjoyed a wide readership. The second book, In Your Blossoming Flower-Garden: Rabindranath Tagore and Victoria Ocampo, was the direct outcome of a project sponsored by Visvabharati. It was published by Sahitya Akademi in 1988 and is in its third printing. I have given detailed accounts of what happened in Argentina in 1924 and in France in 1930, made connections between the events, the correspondence, and the poetry, separated the strands of reality from the mere ‘speculation’. But Bhattacharya does not make any use of my extensive contribution to this area of research. How can he successfully ‘interpret’ any aspect of Tagore’s life if he ignores relevant research work done by other scholars?
He does not seem to know that only a third of the poems in Purabi have a connection with the Argentine experience. He proceeds to quote two poems from Purabi, but in the wrong chronological sequence. The first poem, on p. 143, was written in Miralrío, but the second one (pp. 143-44) was written on the boat Andes, on 2 November 1924, before he reached Argentina. It is not a poem written for Victoria Ocampo at all. How come a historian has not been looking at the dates underneath the poems? This is a poem clearly referring to an intimate relationship, and I am pretty sure that it was in memory of his dead wife, whose death anniversary was approaching. She had died on 23 November 1902. The image of the smothered vermilion clinches it. This is a poem I have translated and to which I have given considerable thought – I quoted from it in our book on Tagore’s colours because I realized when doing that project that I had been unconsciously influenced by its colour language in one of my own poems written in the sixties, describing the arrival of autumn in Brighton. Bhattacharya, of course, quotes not from my translation, but from a different source. And though in his Notes, he briefly states (p. 257): ‘The best collection of the Tagore-Ocampo correspondence is Ketaki Kushari Dyson, In Your Blossoming Flower-garden... ’, he does not quote from my collection at all, but quotes exclusively from the Selected Letters gathered by Dutta and Robinson. Every letter of Tagore to Victoria in this book is quoted from Dutta and Robinson, and not from my definitive edition of the Tagore-Ocampo correspondence. Strange!
Another point, not at all trivial, has intrigued me. On p. 151 Bhattacharya refers very briefly and casually to Tagore’s colour vision deficiency: ‘Incidentally, Tagore seems to be aware of a certain defect in his colour vision.....’ And the reference, when one chases it in the Notes section (p. 258, note no. 62), states: ‘I owe to Dutta and Robinson, pp. 408-409, data on the scientific study of Tagore’s vision....’, giving a cross-reference to the short paper of Dr J. Bose and R. W. Pickford which triggered the substantial interdisciplinary inquiry which myself and my research colleagues conducted in the 90s. There is no mention of Ronger Rabindranath (1997) at all – that book of 800+ pages and 126 illustrations, that came out of our project, exploring in detail the colour world that Rabindranath Tagore inhabited in his literature and art. Our book kicks off with a reference precisely to this Bose-Pickford paper. The omission of any reference to our massive pioneering work beggars belief. We have demonstrated how deeply Tagore’s protanopic vision affected not only his visual art, but also his habits of thought and use of language – his images and symbols, the expression of his spirituality, and the tilt of his language towards musicality. Not only did our book win an award in the year of its publication and has been in the public domain for 15 years now, but it is also a work for which my research colleagues and I got an ovation from the Ophthalmological Society of West Bengal at their last annual conference. An article in English summarizing its research findings has been available in this very webzine since 2001, and I have spoken on the topic at several conferences. The omission of any reference to this work is the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ that is not being noticed or discussed, all the more amazing in view of the fact that when we began work on that project in the early 90s, Bhattacharya himself was the Vice-Chancellor of Visvabharati and gave us the necessary permissions. A little later, after I had returned to England, there was a cooked-up story in some special pockets of the West Bengal media, accusing us of smuggling out of India a video showing Tagore’s pictures and profiteering from selling copies of it in Europe. Prof. Bhattacharya had then ordered an official inquiry, which many of us jocularly referred to as an inquiry into his own signature. My research colleague Sushobhan Adhikary did have to give evidence ‘behind closed doors’, but the rest of us were not chased or summoned. The inquiry presumably showed that we had not been involved in any illegal activity whatsoever, that in fact we had done all our work in strict accordance with the rules, and with necessary permissions from the Vice-Chancellor himself. The hapless ‘story’ starved to death from a complete lack of sustaining evidence. Has Prof. Bhattacharya forgotten this incident also?
On p. 171 Bhattacharya quotes a fragment from the poem ‘Kalo Ghora’ in his own translation and tantalizes us by the following comment on it:
‘Kalo Ghora’ is an obscure poem, not easy to read, nor widely read. But probably it is one of the rare writings which hold the key to that unrest in Tagore’s mind which will probably ever remain tantalizing, unknowable.
He does love to emphasize the aspect of unknowability whenever possible, squashing the possibility that we might extract some knowledge out of this or that experience. Could he possibly have, by any remote chance, turned the pages of a book of mine entitled Tisidore, published in 2008, encompassing several styles of writing – fiction, documentary material, literary criticism – in which my fictional heroine, looking at certain literary texts in the light of the Jungian concept of ‘shadow’, comments on this very poem, ‘Kalo Ghora’, that it is a special vessel for holding Jungian imagery? Given his mistrust of literary critics, perhaps not. Such a book would probably fall into the category of an ‘obscure discourse’ in his world. But it is a tantalizing thought, especially as this book, Tisidore, won me a media trophy in 2009 and was definitely in the news that year. The image of a mysterious woman on a black horse is not new in Tagore; the same image can be found in the poem ‘Sindhuparey’ in Chitra (1896), where the poet is woken up by such a woman and made to go on a dream ride with her. She turns out to be his jibandebata, his life’s presiding deity.
This has been a long ‘talking back’. When I began working on this article, I had not anticipated it would turn out to be so long, but once I started making notes for writing the review, the points accumulated, and I realized that the book I was dealing with represented what in today’s jargon might be called ‘a different way of doing business’. I did not myself learn anything particularly new from this book, but then I am familiar with the field. Others may of course find useful things in it: the references to Tagore’s mid-life depression or to the British Indian Government’s surveillance of him for political reasons will no doubt be interesting to some readers. I worry that those not familiar with the field will not be able to spot the errors and omissions. I tend to live in the hope – an old-fashioned hope – that there is an interlinked community of scholars out there, genuinely interested in each other’s work, and keen on sharing ideas, information, and methods, so that knowledge is consolidated and misinformation does not proliferate. It is disappointing to see that others do not think that way. Even the 150th anniversary of Tagore’s birth cannot generate more fellow-feeling amongst Tagore scholars and encourage better dialogue and cooperation between disciplines, which could lead to a better understanding of our subject and a more nuanced interpretation thereof for the benefit of ‘lay’ readers. So to my mind the book represents a missed opportunity, in which the historian Prof. Bhattacharya could have teamed up with a literary expert and produced a more effective interpretative book for the intended non-specialist readership. And the editorial and publishing fraternity disappoint too, in that they seem incapable of spotting the potential problems in this kind of publication. Why did nobody at Viking Penguin notice the errors I have noticed? Why did nobody there alert Prof. Bhattacharya to the presence of what I have called the elephant in the room? Instead of real editorial scrutiny, the publishers of this book have inserted the following caveat on the reverse side of the title-page, which is both unhelpful and blatantly ungrammatical:
The views and opinions expressed in the book are the author’s own and the facts as reported by her [sic] which have been verified to the extent possible [sic], and the publishers are not in any way liable for the same.
Quite frankly, the machinery of the Anglophone discourse of India disappoints. It is fragmenting knowledge and not encouraging the growth of an integrated culture of scholarship. It is divisive, and is promoting the Balkanization of scholarship in India.
© Ketaki Kushari Dyson
Published in Parabaas September, 2012.