Rediscovering Rabindranath Tagore

He was India's celebrated champion of East and West


| March/April 1998


Given the torrent of books and tapes and classes that draw on Asian wisdom (real or spurious) to help us meditate or levitate or find our lost Western selves, it's easy to forget that the coming together of East and West goes a lot deeper, and is a lot older, than the contemporary New Age.

Ever since greedy and energetic Europeans began to colonize, convert, and trade their way into Asia in the late Renaissance, Western values (from the sublime to the unspeakable) have been thrust into the faces of Asian people. Their responses have varied from angry rejection to ecstatic embrace to wary sifting. At the same time, the colonizers have interpreted Asia for the home market, in ways that have ranged from the starkest racism to the most conscientious scholarship.

While every Asian culture had its inspired leaders who faced the Western challenge in their own way, two figures were able to absorb the Western impact, find a living relationship to their own traditions, and then become world famous for bringing this mix to the West in the form of wisdom. They were the Indians M.K. Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore.

As Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson point out in the introduction to their splendid book, Rabindranath Tagore: An Anthology (St. Martin's), Gandhi is very much alive in the West today and Tagore is all but forgotten. That's a major shift of taste. Between winning the Nobel Prize for his poetry in 1913 and his death in 1941, Tagore was simply one of the most famous men on the planet. His poetry and prose, deeply colored by his reformist, highly philosophical Hinduism, had a serene weightiness that appealed to Westerners who were being hurtled from one World War toward another. Both cosmopolitan and deeply Indian, he seemed like the perfect bearer of Eastern wisdom into the modern world. He was received by kings and presidents, discoursed publicly with Albert Einstein on the nature of the world, and mixed with the West's literary elite: William Butler Yeats was a friend, and Ezra Pound not known for low self-esteem confessed that he felt inferior to Tagore.

Yet, by one of the ironic rules of our shrinking planet, the longevity of an Asian writer on the world scene depends on the quality of translations into English. Once the photogenic, prophet-bearded poet/philosopher was gone from the scene, his poetry in stiff English renderings from the Bengali made mostly by Tagore himself just couldn't stand the test of time. Dutta and Robinson are helping revive interest in Tagore by downplaying the poetry (which, as they point out, still awaits a great translator) and making fresh translations from the many other literary genres that Tagore mastered: theater, the short story, the polemical essay, memoir, travel writing, and especially the familiar letter, which he handles as powerfully as Keats.

In the process, the editors also reveal the power of a personality that transcends his specifically literary achievements. Tagore, scion of one of the richest and best connected families of 19th-century Calcutta, never suffered feelings of inferiority before the "sahibs" the English masters of India. He was a leader of the pre-Gandhi Swadeshi (self-rule) movement in Bengal at the turn of the century, but turned away from nationalist politics in disgust at the violence and bitterness that came with it. His wary friendship with Gandhi never prevented him from expressing grave doubts about the wisdom of Gandhi's advocacy of "nonparticipation" with British rule while the British still, in Tagore's view, had modern lessons to teach India.

Mike Finley
7/23/2009 5:21:54 PM

The Lord respects me when I labor, but he loves me when I dance. - Tagore







Pay Now Save $5!

Utne Summer 2016Want to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.

Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $5 and get 4 issues of Utne Reader for only $31.00 (USA only).

Or Bill Me Later and pay just $36 for 4 issues of Utne Reader!




Facebook Instagram Twitter flipboard


Copyright 2018, All Rights Reserved
Ogden Publications, Inc., 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, Kansas 66609-1265