Universalism of Tagore: The Specificities of Portuguese Reception

Sovon Sanyal

Translation of Chitrangada published by Nova Goa, in 1914

History of Tagore studies in Europe is about to turn hundred years old. The English urge of reception of Rabindranath Tagore became  a fever like phenomenon a little before he was awarded the Nobel Prize. English translation of Gitanjali was published in March 1913 and was reprinted ten times before Tagore was awarded the prize in November, in the same year. It was India Society’s learned members who introduced the Asian poet-vate to the English readers. Tagore’s appearance on the British literary scene in 1912 was an event of great importance as it gave the first worldwide recognition of a living Indian writer. British newspapers then continuously focussed with great enthusiasm on several aspects Tagore’s philosophy and his versatile literary talents. A steady stream of translations of the poet’s works appeared in English satisfying the urge of reception of this modern Asian poet in Europe. The English and the French translations were the source-texts for translations in many other European languages. One can clearly observe that this interest in Tagore among the Europeans flagged towards the Second World War. But in a few countries, like in Portugal because of certain existing socio-political circumstances Tagore continued to attract the intellectuals and also the general readers of the country, resulting in a number of translations of his works and several polemical writings on his message of peace, harmony, patriotism and also his philosophy of education, the sole objective of which is freedom--- freedom from ignorance and prejudices in our human world.

In Lusophone (Portuguese speaking) countries, the urge of reception of Tagore turns out to be slightly complex and multi-dimensional in nature. Each Portuguese speaking space initiated Tagore studies through translation with its own socio-literary agenda. In this context, we can delve into the Portuguese translations of Tagore in Portuguese Goa. A Portuguese translation of Chitrangada was published from Nova Goa in 1914, which is, in my opinion, the first Portuguese translation of any Tagore’s work. In the same year a Portuguese translation of Gitanjali appeared in São Paulo, in Brazil. But the translator of Chitrangada, José Ferreira Martins had already published the work in a local newspaper.

A general study reveals that translating Tagore  as a literary agenda (whether collectively taken or not) is uniquely nationalistic and decidedly a dual process of cultural self-discovery and self-assertion of a colonised people. If we consider that translation results inevitably in establishing contacts between cultures, obviously it went against the culture policies of the colonial government of Portugal. Hence translating Tagore into Portuguese by Goans may be seen as passive resistance to the imperial design of denationalising the people of Goa by the colonial administration.  

The reasons for reception of Tagore among Goans may lie deep in the unique process of culture-grafting adopted under the colonial rule. Inquisition (started in the sixteenth century and continued to early nineteenth century) in Goa not only helped in this grafting process, but also in sanitising the Hindu cultural elements and creating a clinical insulation between the Catholics (or Neo-cristãos) and the Hindus in the colony. Under this oppressive cultural condition, the Catholics made themselves assimilado, that is, those who adopted Portuguese way of living in terms of dress, language, food habit, to live in their ancestral land of Goa.

Portugal having been declared a Republic (1910), Goans took up the questions of civil rights in their land. This contributed to the Portuguese writings in Goa a new élan. A new phenomenon of translating modern Indian writings made literary sphere more vibrant and enriched.

Two Goan writer-intellectuals Adeodato Barreto (1904-1936) and Telo de Mascarenhas (1899–1979) can be seen as the two most important figures in this passive cultural resistance, while the former wrote on and spread the message of peace and universal brotherhood of Tagore in Portugal with his writings and lectures, the latter translated some of his major works into Portuguese. Thus Portuguese translations of Tagore’s works by Goans between 1910 and 1961 assumed a very special significance here. The process of translation is not independent of the cultural and the political systems, and so of history. If we enquire into the process of reception in Portuguese, it would definitely show that the process is an ideological act than aesthetic one. Thus a reverse trend starts, the East enlightens the West.

India Institute and its journal India Nova founded by Adeodato Barreto in Coimbra University in Portugal after the First World War certainly helped to initiate Tagore studies among the Portuguese intellectuals and writers during the  politically most critical state of their country. Many writers of the Seara Nova which was a literary circle with a magazine of the same name and Renascença Portuguesa, a literary movement, were attracted by Tagore’s liberalism in thoughts and his universal brotherhood when their motherland came under the dictatorial regime of Salazar where a militant form of patriotism was imposed upon the people by the authoritarian state. In the background of loud Salazarist jingoism, Rabindranath’s words of warnings sounded and resounded then ------ “… nations who sedulously cultivate moral blindness as the cult of patriotism will end their existence in a sudden and violent death.” Patriotism of Tagore’s kind was, for the Portuguese intellectuals, truly unique, all-embracing and so “soul-liberating”.

Placido Barbosa's 1915
translation of
Another Portuguese speaking country Brazil does not show any specific socio-political reasons for reception of Tagore, though the poets of Festa (a literary group) were influenced by his writings with a strong universal appeal. In fact, with the reception of Rabindranath, Brazilians discovered Modern India, replacing the vague “legendary Orient” of rajas and riches. It was Braúlio Prego who first translated Gitanjali into Portuguese in Brazil. The work was published in 1914 from São Paulo. Next year appeared Placido Barbosa’s Portuguese translation of Shishu. I think it would be worth mentioning how the translator was inspired to render this work of Tagore. Placido Barbosa read French translation of two poems of Shishu, after the loss of his child, at a time of great suffering. Moved by the poems, he decided to translate this work of Tagore for personal solace. In fact this translation was very popular among the Brazilian readers. The famous poetess of Brazilian Modernist Movement (1922) Cecília Meireles was aficionado of India and translated several works of Tagore into Portuguese. It would not be exaggeration to say that through Tagore and Gandhi this South American nation discovered the modern India.

Rabindranath thus remained for the colonised Goan community as well as a section of the Portuguese as a bridge between nations and a living figure against all divisive forces that weaken the unity of Man.  

Published in Parabaas May 9, 2009.

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