The Tagorean impulse


Rabindranath Tagore. | Wikimedia Commons

Too long ignored, Rabindranath Tagore’s writings offer a meaningful alternative in an era of nativist ressentiment

In his autobiography Raga Mala, sitar-virtuoso Ravi Shankar declared that if Rabindranath Tagore “had been born in the West he would now be [as] revered as Shakespeare and Goethe.” Principally a poet, Tagore was also a novelist, a playwright, an essayist, a lyricist, a composer, an artist, and a social reformer. He sparred with Gandhi and meditated on metaphysics with Einstein. Like Goethe, his ideas reverberated beyond Weltliteratur, seeping into politics and social life.

For someone who dialogued with some of the most influential figures of the past century, Tagore curiously failed to generate a lasting impact beyond the Indian subcontinent. It is reasonable to believe that a linguistic parochialism shackled his reputation from being sustained beyond the Bengali-speaking realm. Much was lost in insipid English translations (particularly of his poetry and songs), a handicap Tagore’s promoters in the West, among them W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound, could not overcome. Furthermore, the Tagore marketed in the occident was that of a spiritual talisman, an oriental wizard replete with a wistful visage uttering mystical platitudes. All too simply classified as a romantic modernist and cosmopolitan, he was an anodyne image of cultural genius—universally recognized as being the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in 1913, largely on the reputation of his poetry collection Gitanjali.

The peculiar eclipse of Tagore in the West after an initial gust of enthusiasm saw his ideas buried from wider and protracted engagement. In rehabilitating his fragments then, there remains much to be gained. The question to ask becomes: How relevant is Tagore in the twenty-first century? Can he instruct us in an age of political fracture, social sadism, and techno-dislocation?

Born in 1861, Tagore lived and operated during a period of crucial social and political transformation in India, regularly responding to its most intense permutations. Liberal humanist thought, along with the confluence of religious reformist, literary, and nationalist movements active in India during the time, had a profound impact on him. As with all modern nationalisms, the quest for an Indian “self” tethered the search for political sovereignty to a cultural project that attempted to secure the unity and identity of the incipient nation. And like the leading intellectuals of the era—Swami Vivekananda and Gandhi in particular—Tagore sought to create, restore, and give substance to an Indian self in the wake of its traumatic encounter with British colonialism.

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(Thanks to Robin Khundkar)

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