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Timeless Tagore

Print edition : Jan 13, 2012 T+T-

There is hope that the new appreciation of Tagore as a thinker will in the long run enhance the understanding of his creative achievements.

Kolkata, Santiniketan, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Delhi and Ahmedabad; Marbach, Copenhagen, Lund, Zagreb and Rijeka; London, Dartington, Cambridge, Birmingham and Hull; Stockholm, Leiden, Salamanca, Barcelona and Valladolid; Washington and Chicago; Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.Who would have thought when I started learning Bengali in 1972 that Bengali and Rabindranath Tagore would take me all over the world? The 150th anniversary of his birth has kept me and other Tagore specialists exceptionally busy in 2011, and the celebrations seem likely to continue, culminating with the centenary in 2013 of his Nobel Prize.

This interest worldwide is both unsurprising and surprising. It is unsurprising, given that after winning the Nobel Prize Tagore became, in the 1920s and 30s, the most famous poet in the world. Fame brought him many opportunities to travel, and he seized them eagerly, globetrotting in a way that was unprecedented before the age of air travel. Through his English translations and their secondary translations, through his lectures and his extraordinary dress and charisma, he left pieces of his legacy wherever he went, and it is not surprising that many of the events I have attended have been linked to his own visits and travels. But the enthusiasm and commitment of the organisers of these events is quite surprising, given that Tagore except in Bengal is hardly a household name. Many people have never heard of him, and some of the events have had tiny audiences. Tagore alone is not now a crowdpuller, and organisers have had to be ingenious in finding ways of filling halls or seminar-rooms.

What has been gained? Perhaps it is too early to say. But I think it is possible to draw some initial conclusions about Tagore's standing compared to what it was 40 years ago, and what trends relating to it can be expected in the future.

Tagore has attracted a good number of quips and sneers over the years, which are routinely trotted out by those who wish to make fun of him. One such quip is Jorge Luis Borges' comment referring to the Nobel Prize that Tagore was a hoaxer of good faith, or, if you prefer, a Swedish invention. Another is less well known:

Quoted to me many years ago by an uncle who had been in the Indian Civil Service, these lines will be useful to those who wish to pour scorn on the roving exhibition of Tagore's paintings (December 12 to March 4) in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. I myself enjoy these quips when I am in the mood, and I suspect that Tagore would himself have found them amusing. They also carry the bleak truth that for many non-Bengalis there is, with Tagore, a credibility gap. Contributors to commemorative events or volumes are convinced of his greatness, but there is a cold, harsh world outside full of people who are not so convinced.

Maybe as an Englishman I have been more acutely aware of this gap than admirers of Tagore from other cultures and countries. The British literary establishment has always been resistant to Tagore. Read Bikash Chakravarty's introduction to his collection of letters to Tagore from literary figures ( Poets to a Poet , 1912-1940), and you will learn that even at the height of his success with Gitanjali, his circle of friends and admirers in Britain was small and eccentric. Mainstream figures such as W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound who were enthusiastic to begin with quite rapidly lost interest. Despite all the work done since the 1980s to put Tagore's reputation on a new footing, there are in Britain entrenched views that have proved extremely hard to shift. Tagore is vaguely remembered for Gitanjali and other English translations that enjoyed an initial vogue, but which failed in the end to convince most mainstream writers and critics that he was a great and significant poet.

The resilience of this attitude was demonstrated by an article in The Guardian on May 7 by the veteran journalist Ian Jack (who has a longstanding interest in India). It asked: Is his poetry any good? The answer for anyone who can't read Bengali must be: don't know. No translation is up to the job. The article concluded that perhaps the time has come for us to forget Tagore was ever a poet, and think of his more intelligible achievements. No doubt Jack was being deliberately provocative, and the flurry of comment and protest that his article provoked was not a bad thing: it did at least get Tagore into the pages of one of our major newspapers. It appeared the day after Jack had chaired a lecture by Amartya Sen at the British Museum, which essentially argued the same: that Tagore the poet was inaccessible to non-Bengalis and the best thing to do was to learn from his valuable ideas about nationalism, universalism and history.

Unity, internationalism and freedom

Amartya Sen's authority as a Nobel laureate himself may have pushed Tagore's reputation as a thinker up a few notches. This will not, of course, satisfy those who care passionately about his poetry, his songs, his plays, his fiction, or his paintings. I myself have argued in lectures and articles that to focus on Tagore's ideas and ideals can not only be a distraction from his profound achievements as a creative artist but can also be misleading. Take any of his creative works, from a single song to a magnificent poem such as Tapobhanga (The Wakening of Siva'), or a full-scale novel like Gora, and you will find that they cannot be reduced to a philosophy': they have the complexity, many-sidedness, paradox and ambiguity that we expect to find in any great work of art.

Nevertheless, a number of publications and conference papers in 2011 have given me hope that this new-found appreciation of Tagore as a thinker will in the long run enhance the understanding of his creative achievements. Particularly significant is Michael Collins' new book for Routledge: Empire, Nationalism and the Postcolonial World: Rabindranath Tagore's Writings on History, Politics and Society. Dr Collins is a historian teaching at University College London and his book derives from his Oxford D.Phil thesis. It is a highly academic work and will not be read much outside academic circles. But works of scholarship can spread ripples, and I foresee a considerable ripple effect from Dr Collins' painstaking pursuit of unity amidst the often baffling contradictions of Tagore's discursive writings. Was Tagore pro- or anti-West? Was he pro- or anti-modern? Scholars at Tagore conferences argue endlessly about such issues.

Through carefully reading Tagore's English lectures and essays, Dr Collins has arrived at a conception similar to my own, that in everything he did he strove for purnata, wholeness or completeness. He could be deeply critical of imperialism or the nation-state or the dehumanising effects of capitalism and industrial production. But his belief in history as an unfolding revelation and in his own creative work as an expression of a unifying jivan-devata made him also see the spirit of the age that spawned imperialist expansion or scientific advance as tending towards unity, internationalism and freedom. He believed this because, in Dr Collins' words, his monistic spiritual perspective derived largely from the Upanishadic insistence on the essential oneness of the universe provided the basis for his philosophy of history.

The marginalisation of Tagore is the fragmentation of Tagore. If we can move even one aspect of him to the centre, as Dr Collins has successfully done with Tagore's discursive writings in English, then his diverse achievements as a poet, composer, novelist, playwright and painter will cohere, make sense, join forces at the centre of the stage. This will not in any way diminish their radicalism, their subversive challenge to orthodoxy, whether in education, economic development, or man-woman relations. When really great writers or thinkers become central, as Shakespeare has done for so long, they have a tendency to seem more and more radical, not tame or respectable.

Shifts in perception

Let me now consider some other shifts that have started to occur during this anniversary year, in the perception and use of several aspects of Tagore's creativity. They are shifts to a position that is both more central, but also more radical, and have real potential for the future. The first is an the awareness of the activist Tagore. One of the biggest triumphs of the anniversary year was the Tagore festival held in Dartington in Devon, May 1-7, inspired and masterminded by Satish Kumar. Three different venues at Dartington Hall (founded by Leonard K. Elmhurst with money from his American wife Dorothy, after he had worked with Tagore at Sriniketan) were filled from morning to night with very well attended events: lectures, recitals, dance performances and poetry readings. Satish Kumar commands a considerable following in Britain through his editorship of the ecological magazine Resurgence. He is also the guiding light behind Schumacher College at Dartington and the Small School at Hartland, and he acknowledges Tagore as a major influence on his life and work. Through his wide network of international contacts, he was able to attract as speakers big names such as the conservationist Jane Goodall, the new age guru Deepak Chopra, the environmentalist Jonathan Porrit, the educationist Anthony Seldon, and many prominent poets, dancers and musicians. Many who attended or spoke at the festival did not know much about Tagore, but all were committed to his values. With our world now facing unprecedented challenges from overpopulation, global warming and environmental degradation, Tagore is likely to seem an increasingly compelling voice.

I thought of Dartington at the Indian Council for Cultural Relations' (ICCR) conference on Tagore's vision of the contemporary world at Azad Bhavan, in New Delhi, October 10-12, especially when I heard Ananda Lal saying dryly about the exploitative dam in Muktadhara or the digging for gold in Raktakarabi, If that is not topical, what is? I also thought of Dartington when I heard, at the same conference, Eiko Ohira speaking so movingly about the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan on April 21 telling us how cherry blossoms continued to bloom amidst the rubble. She quoted Eliot April is the cruellest month but took strength and comfort from Tagore. Listening to my friend Dr Martin Kmpchen, speaking both in Delhi and at the seminar My Tagore; why Tagore in Ahmedabad on October 15, and hearing about his Tagore-inspired work as a community activist in Santali villages close to Santiniketan, I again reflected on how vital it is always to keep this aspect of Tagore's vision in mind. It is a major reason for remembering him, and it attracts many people worldwide.

Rabindrasangeet

A second major area where there has been a shift one that is particularly close to my heart is in Rabindrasangeet, the unique and marvellous songs of Tagore. For Bengalis, and for Tagore himself, the songs are absolutely central, but for non-Bengalis worldwide, his songs have remained the least known, least understood aspect of his creative genius. The reasons for this have nothing to do with the songs themselves or the fact that they are composed in a language that very few non-Bengalis know. The main obstacle has been in their domestication, their dare I say it ghettoisation'. The conventional way of performing them, with harmonium and other instruments, metronomic tabla-rhythm, and excessive amplification; the ubiquity of Rabindrasangeet at every kind of Bengali celebration or social occasion; have made them as alien to non-Bengalis as British Christmas pantomime is to non-Britons, or Spanish bullfights are to non-Spaniards (or were before the recent Catalan bullfighting ban). In my experience, even in India outside Bengal, Rabindrasangeet has had the effect of separating Tagore from others, not bringing him closer to them.

It has long been a dream of mine to persuade singers of Rabindrasangeet to perform without the clutter of harmonium, tabla and other instruments. At Dartington, my friend Debashish Raychaudhuri and his daughter Rohini gave a wonderful performance of Rabindrasangeet, set free, so to speak, from performance conventions. Sung khali golay (with naked voice'), and combined with an explanatory conversation, they were immediately made as moving to a foreign audience as the songs of Schubert are to audiences who may not know a word of German. In Ahmedabad, we repeated the experiment, to a Gujarati audience who, because of a well-established interest in Gujarat in Tagore and his songs, are normally quite happy to listen to Rabindrasangeet sung in the conventional way. But for them, too, when they heard the songs sung with this new directness and simplicity, the experience was revelatory. The ovations that Debashish and Rohini received in both Dartington and Ahmedabad will remain with me as high spots of the anniversary year.

I believe that this new way of performing Rabindrasangeet, which is largely a matter of bringing it up to global standards of performance, will have an increasingly powerful effect. Another manifestation of this sea change is the recent recording by Swagatalakshmi Dasgupta of the complete Gitabitan (collected songs of Tagore) with only tanpura as accompaniment. Hearing Rabindrasangeet sung in this way is like seeing an old master painting after layers of grime and varnish have been removed. Alongside this revolution in performance comes scholarly work by musicologists, especially Dr Lars Koch in Berlin, who gave a fascinating presentation at the The Many Worlds of Rabindranath Tagore', an international conference at the University of Chicago, October 27-28. Dr Koch has completed a major study in German of the songs of Tagore, published by LIT Verlag, and his presentation implied that in this book he argues that corruption in the performance of Rabindrasangeet set in very early on because the writing down of the songs in akarmatrik notation, and the control of their performance by the Visva-Bharati Music Board, led to a rhythmic rigidity that was absent in recordings of the songs by Tagore himself, or by disciples such as Sahana Devi.

Quality, insight and feeling

Once it is understood what Tagore's songs actually are, then the door is wide open for all sorts of imaginative fusion experiments. When I hear the best of these experiments, I feel that they take us closer to the spirit of the songs than the conventional way of performing them. In Ahmedabad, Professor Partha Ghose, whose knowledge of Tagore's songs is as deep as his appreciation of Tagore's scientific interests, played us beautiful arrangements of Rabindrasangeet that he has recorded in Kolkata with a string quartet. Recently, in the town in Hexham near where I live in Northumberland, two fine local musicians performed arrangements of Tagore songs by the French musicologist Alain Danilou (1907-1994), who translated the words into French and English so that they fitted the melody, and added subtle piano accompaniments that bring out the latent harmonies as perceptively as Partha Ghose's string quartet versions. What matters above all in Rabindrasangeet, as in any great music, is quality, insight and feeling. This can be achieved in any number of ways so long as one's starting point is the song as conceived and imagined by Tagore himself.

Rabindrasangeet brings me to the third area where I feel exciting changes are afoot and where there is real potential for the future. Many of the best events in 2011 have been performances involving actors, dancers and musicians. Flying Man ( pakshi-manab): Poems for the 21st century by Rabindranath Tagore at the British Library on May 17 was one of them. Some of the greatest poems of Tagore, with a special relevance to the anxieties and concerns of the 21st century, were read by me and two Bengali readers, in translation and in the original Bengali. Music was provided by Zoe Rahman (piano) and her brother Idris Rahman (clarinet), two of Britain's finest young jazz musicians. They showed that deeply felt jazz improvisations, combined with recitation, can give amazing new life and meaning to Tagore's poetry. On August 5-6, Akademi, the Centre for South Asian Dance, produced Song of the City, a radically innovative dance production based on Tagore. The dank and mysterious Southwark Playhouse Vaults in London were the venue, the choreographer was Ash Mukherjee, who is trained in both Bharatanatyam and Western ballet, and the part-live, part-recorded soundtrack combined Rabindrasangeet, recitation, and improvisations by another outstanding British jazz clarinettist, Arun Ghosh.

In Valladolid in Spain on October 4, the three city Tagore en Espaa festival coordinated by Indranil Chakravarty reached a stunning climax with a performance that combined Rabindrasangeet from Paramita Biswas, dance from Ananya Chatterjea, and flamenco from Jos Salinas and Ral Olivar. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life: to stand and compre a complex programme in Spanish, to a large and rapturous audience, in a spirit of freedom, creativity and international cooperation that went right to the heart of what Rabindranath Tagore was all about.

Remember me'

Let me end with Tagore's own voice. I cannot do that physically in a magazine article, but it is not difficult now to find on the Internet Tagore's own rendering of his song Tobu mone rekho. The recording was played at a number of the events this year: in Rijeka in Croatia on May 21, in Chicago on October 28, and in Hexham, Northumberland, on November 27. Everyone absolutely everyone is moved by this recording as soon as they understand the words.

Among the things that I hope my own work in this anniversary year has given, especially in my translation of Gitanjali for Penguin India, has been a new and transferable way of translating Tagore's songs. In Spain, my translation of Tobu mone rekho was readily translated into Spanish, and I think it will not be long before Spanish musicians turn this into a song of their own. Tagore wrote the song in 1887, and may not have been thinking of himself or his future legacy at all. But it is impossible to hear it now without thinking of the song as prophetic, and when I hear Tagore sing it himself, with the rhythmic flexibility that is such a feature of his poetry, prose and paintings, and with a heartrending catch in his voice in the last line, which suggests that he had a lump in his throat and was scarcely able to get through it, I know in the core of my being that Tagore was one of those creative geniuses who make one feel privileged to be human. For as long as we walk this planet, and maybe one day other planets too, he will be remembered, and those who have participated in the commemorations in 2011, and have travelled so far in his globetrotting footsteps, can take pride in what we have done to ensure that he will be remembered.

William Radice is a British poet, writer, and translator. His translations of Tagore's poems and stories are widely acclaimed. In August 2011, he retired from SOAS, London University, where he used to teach Bengali language and literature. His latest book is a new English translation of Gitanjali for Penguin India.