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Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)

By Rigoberto González

During his lifetime he produced dozens of poetry collections, novels, plays, and countless essays on everything ranging from religion to literature. He wrote over 2,000 songs, which include the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh. In 1913 he received the Nobel Prize in literature. He was the first laureate in Asia. Have you read his work?

More vital stats: In 1901 he founded Santiniketan, a school on his private estate with instruction that merged both Eastern and Western philosophies. By 1921 the school expanded into a full university. In 1915 he was knighted by the King George V. In 1919 he renounced his knighthood in protest over the Amritsar Massacre of nearly 400 Indian nationalists demonstrating against British rule. In his later years he was also an accomplished painter and his work was exhibited internationally.
Sadly, in the English-reading world, Tagore’s work has not received the level of attention as other laureates for a number of reasons. Firstly, while he was alive he insisted on translating the work into various languages himself, and many of these efforts were considered weak. Secondly, he continues to be ill-regarded by Western critics who are dismissive of his work for being—among numerous aberrations—too political. Sound familiar? (There are also some Eastern critics who agree. Haters abound, people, even within the community.) And thirdly, up until recently, the very university he founded held the exclusive rights to his body of work, a foothold that expired in 2001 as per the stipulations of the Indian Copyright Act of 1957: sixty years after the death of the author, the works become public domain.
Interestingly enough, the translations in Spanish fared better among Latin American intellectuals, like another Nobel laureate, Octavio Paz. One of the more popular poems, “El Héroe,” is the touching story of a young man who expresses his love for his mother by postulating that if they should ever be traveling through the dangerous country and if suddenly they are pounced upon by rogues, he would defend her like a true hero. Therefore, perhaps, they should always stick together so if something like that should happen, people will be able to say how lucky she was to have had her son close by. (Somehow my summary is cumbersome. The poem itself displays better economy of language.)
On the opposite extreme, the poem “Question,” is about the atrocities of broken humanity (the following is from the William Radice translation of Tagore’s Selected Poems first published by Penguin in 1985):
And meanwhile I see secretive hatred murdering the helpless
Under cover of night;
And Justice weeping silently and furtively at power misused,
No hope of redress.
I see young men working themselves into a frenzy,
In agony dashing their heads against stone to no avail.
My voice is choked today; I have no music in my flute:
Black moonless night
Has imprisoned my world, plunged it into nightmare.
The beauty of Tagore is that his emotional spectrum is as varied as the many arts he practiced. There is hope of a Tagore revival, especially with the forthcoming publication of no less than five titles in January 2008, though I believe these texts are mostly prose. The verse, I’m sure, will have its due soon enough.
The day will come
When my poetry, silently falling like a ripened fruit
From the weight of its fullness of joy,
Shall be offered up to eternity.
(from “The Borderland,” translated by William Radice)

Comments (13)

  • On October 1, 2007 at 8:45 am Don Share wrote:

    Tagore was a frequent contributor to Poetry magazine – we’ll hope to link to some archival material relating to his work in the future – stay tuned! Meanwhile, you can see a list of his contributions to the magazine here.

  • On October 1, 2007 at 9:29 am Michael wrote:

    Don– You can find a selection from Poetry magazine here and a larger selection here.

  • On October 1, 2007 at 10:07 am Don Share wrote:

    Thank you Michael – this goes to show how valuable the Poetry Tool on this website is!!

  • On October 1, 2007 at 12:19 pm Vivek Narayanan wrote:

    Tagore was a major world poet and artist, whose sentimentalism is sometimes misunderstood, no doubt. But the unease and ambivalence that many (including, but not only, non-Bengalis) in the poetry community here in India voice when yet another outsider tells them that Tagore is her/his favourite Indian poet–indeed the only Indian poet of that era that they have ever heard of– is not so much about his politics (he criticised the Indian nationalists in the decades before independence, but this seems to have as much to do with his discomfort with nationalism in general) and more to do with the kind of poetry he has come to represent India through. He is best known, for instance, for the spiritual-type lyrics of Gitanjali, praised, initially, by Yeats and others– and there is a nagging sense that Tagore’s popularity in the west was based on this “spiritual” image, fitting in neatly with the idea of India passed down generations of orientalists, the Germans, the theosophists, absorbed by elite Indian nationalists themselves, through to today’s generation of yoga, drug or Goa trance tourists who find themselves on our beaches, clutching their wallets fearfully. Tagore, and other super upper class Indians of that time (he was sent to public school in England way back in 1878– not on scholarship, as far as I know!) seem to have played a very particular role at the salons, tea parties and soirees of Europe at that time: charming, spritual, gently proud, impeccably mannered and non-threatening Indians.
    I can’t help wondering if this kind of romance of the east was at work in the early Poetry magazine’s relationship with Tagore. This seems evident, for instance, in the selection provided on this website (I like many of these poems, but I wonder…)
    One way to think about this is to look at Tagore’s immense legacy is to see it through those in the next generations who have both absorbed and rebelled against his lessons– for instance, to check out in translation from Bengali the work the amazing Jibananda Das, who came after Tagore, whose poems Tagore didn’t like, who wrote a less sacharine and more urban poetry, who has been extremely influential since, and whose dark tones are much closer to the tones of a Lorca or a Vallejo.
    I don’t speak Bengali, but being based in India and surrounded by literary Bengali friends, and hearing his words in the original often, I get the sense that the difficulty of translating Tagore’s poetry goes beyond historical happenstance. I hear that Tagore is, for the most part, very much a pure lyric poet; much of the intensity comes from the music of the lines, as opposed to the themes, which, while intense, can sometimes also get cheesy (although he does seem to have re-invented, or at least refigured, the nature poem) and depends (like many earlier Indian poetries) on the circulation of a small set of symbols that, in empirical-minded English, often come off as cliches. Many of his poems are sung in Bengal, and he left a whole genre of music, “Rabindra Sangeet” that it is unique for its mid-position between classical and folk music. A similar situation exists with the great Tamil poet Subramania Bharathi, whose tightly interlocking chains of rhymes, assonance and metre make him essentially untranslatable.
    In fact, lyric poetry, that emerges from the very fabric of language, is exactly what doesn’t make it onto the global stage. The flatter poets travel better.
    So it begs the question (and this relates directly to Alicia Stallings’ recent post about Greek poets)– why, if Tagore is already at the very heart of institutional poetry in Bengal, too deeply embedded to be forgotten, does he need to be better known in the English language? Could the process of his translation and canonisation in English be doing a certain kind of damage, and also be susceptible to a certain kind of cultural politics? I ask these as earnest and not rhetorical questions. What we yearn for inescapably is some kind of world pantheon of major league poets, something like a shared legacy. But the primacy and limitations of English now stand at the very heart of this project.

  • On October 1, 2007 at 2:04 pm Don Share wrote:

    Vivek, Tagore’s poems came to Poetry magazine through, you guessed it, Ezra Pound. He wrote to Harriet Monroe in late September 1912 that they would be “THE sensation of the winter.” He went on to say that Yeats was doing an introduction to them, and that they were translated “by the author into very beautiful Eng. prose, with mastery of cadence.” In October he wrote again with even greater enthusiasm, saying “We’ll be the only American magazine to print him, or even to know… [h]e has sung Bengal into a nation…” He repeated that it would be the event of the winter, and reported that Yeats called Tagore “some one greater than any of us.”
    But EP’s faith in Tagore quickly faded. By the following June, he admitted to Monroe (having adjusted the texts of the poems without informing the poet) that “there’s a point where he stops being a poet and becomes priest and preacher… As mystic, Tagore is, what you like, but he must be judged as mystic not poet.”
    This and more is documented in the volume, Dear Editor, a History of Poetry in Letters, the First Fifty Years, 1912-1962, compiled and edited by Joseph Parisi and Stephen Young.

  • On October 3, 2007 at 1:37 pm Steve wrote:

    No discussion of Indian poetry in English should go without mention of A. K. Ramanujan, whose poetry I recommend– I’ll be teaching his work in a couple of weeks.
    The September issue of Poetry, the print mag, included a portfolio of Indian poets, in translation and in English… anyone else react to the work in there?

  • On October 3, 2007 at 1:52 pm Don Share wrote:

    Got a blog post about the Indian portfolio right here, which includes a link to some of the work included in it. Thanks, Steve!

  • On October 3, 2007 at 3:19 pm Vivek Narayanan wrote:

    Another brief, contrary, blog post on Parthasarathy’s Indian issue here, by a young Indian blogger now based in the US:
    I’ve been reading Parthasarathy’s translation of the Tamil epic, Cillapathikaram, that, by the way won the Ak Ramanujan translation prize shortly after AKR’s death. It’s an absolutely brilliant translation, I could write a poem called “On First Looking into Parthasarathy’s Cillapathikaram” about it.
    But somehow Parthasarathy’s portfolio for Poetry, at least his selection, doesn’t seem to meet the mark. Clearly, he’s aware of this himself, despite engaging in the usual empty polemics against English. The lack of great translators of poetry is one issue, Parthasarathy’s relative isolation from the current Indian scene another. Parthasarathy even ends up having to translate from the Punjabi himself, despite his language being Tamil; his Pritam doesn’t sound quite right and, worse, it’s not very compelling to me as poetry in English. The old-fashioned nature of the selection, as the blogger above points out, is a third. The difficulty of even trying to represent India’s vast constellation of poetries is a fourth: one wants to ask if there’s even a good reason, beyond nationalism, to try and select an “Indian” portfolio.
    Further, now that some good translations of contemporary poetry are starting to appear, there’s much better than what Parthasarathy shows in the portfolio. Try, for instance, Dilip Chitre’s near miraculous translations of the Dalit (ie., untouchable caste) modernist poet, Namdeo Dhasal, a great and troubled world poet influenced by translations of Baudelaire in Marathi, perhaps the best book of Indian poetry to come out this year: https://www.vedamsbooks.com/no50859.htm Or indeed, that sixties and seventies Marathi avant-garde poetry world that Namdeo Dhasal, Dilip Chitre, Arun Kolatkar ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arun_Kolatkar ) and, for that matter, Vinda Karandikar were all part of. That would take you to some less well-behaved, radical and experimental poetry!
    The reasons for the lack of good translations are varied and complex– partly it is that strong enough traditions of translation have not yet been established. Pound, despite his lack of knowledge, established a distinctive sound and presence of the Chinese language in English that, no matter how far it might be from the original, is distinctive and compelling and interestingly alien. This was the presence that then influenced Chinese poets and translators going right through to translations of contemporary Chinese poetry, Weinberger’s Bei Dao being an example, that are both convincingly un-English and compelling as poetry in English. There’s a long chain of translation there. Ramanujan’s translations, to my ear, also pick up from Pound, but establish the sound of an Indian language in a way that has been very influential since. The picture may change, and a portfolio prepared 10 or 15 years from may actually be able to draw on a number of excellent translations already published in book form, and translators dedicated to specific languages and poets.

  • On October 3, 2007 at 4:25 pm Don Share wrote:

    Thank you for all this, Vivek – lots to go on here, for which I am very grateful.
    As for Ramanujan, let me just add that The Collected Poems of A.K. Ramanujan, which had become difficult to find here for a while, is being reprinted this very month (and will cost about 10 USD) so interested readers will easily be able to discover his work. The Oxford India Ramanujan includes some of his translations of Tamil poetry, and his essays, harder to come by, are possible to track down with some diligence, as is The Oxford Anthology of Modern Indian Poetry which he co-edited.

  • On October 7, 2007 at 6:40 am sangeeta deogawanka wrote:

    It was a pleasure reading these archived Tagore poems.
    Don, Tagore’s being a “priest and preacher” may have been influenced by his larger than life presence in Bengal, or was an anachronism from the earlier repository of mystic poetry. His admiration of the 18th century spiritualist poetry is evident in his translation of selective Kabir’s works to English (2 volumes, Songs of Kabir, first published by The Macmillan Company, 1915, New York). That was a period weaned in the traditional repertoire of spiritualism, when India witnessed the birth of Bhakti poets like Tulsidas and Kabir Das, whose couplets are unparalleled in content.
    As for Tagore’s poetry, I think it is better known to the world than other Indian poetry, primarily because Tagore himself translated many of his poems, thus retaining the original flavour.
    I think, translation of much Indian poetry loses their vibrancy, because more than often the phraseology is itself the essence and cannot be reproduced in English. Take for instance the famous collection of children’s poetry in Bengali by Sukumar Ray (1887-1923). Ray is known for his original brand of self-illustrated baloney. His collection of poems ‘Aabol Taabol’(meaning gibberish/claptrap) and other works have been compared favourably to those of Lewis Caroll and Ogden Nash. Albeit, some of his poems have been translated by Satyajit Ray (1970) and Sukanta Chaudhuri (1987), none did justice.
    A Puffin Books commissioned translation of this amazing piece of work “Aabol Taabol” and others, has so far been the best, though I must say the stories fared better than the poetry. (Abol Tabol, The nonsense world of Sukumar Ray, 2004, Translated by Sampurna Chatterjee)
    “Come happy fool whimsical cool
    come dreaming dancing fancy-free,
    Come mad musician glad glusician
    beating your drum with glee.
    Come o come where mad songs are sung
    without any meaning or tune,
    Come to the place where without a trace
    your mind floats off like a loon.
    Come scatterbrain up tidy lane
    wake, shake and rattle and roll,
    Come lawless creatures with willful features
    each unbound and clueless soul,
    Nonsensical ways topsy-turvy gaze
    stay delirious all the time,
    Come you travelers to the world of babblers
    and the beat of impossible rhyme.
    This is an excellent translation, could not be bettered. Most of the others poems however do not make sense upon paraphrasing. Ray’s imagery is inextricably tied up with self-conjured phrases that simply have no equivalent to the original wacky humor. In translating this collection, Sampurna’s prowess as a wordsmith was more challenged I believe, than her poetic propensity.
    Sukumar Ray’s poetry is characterised by his use of multiple puns (more of puns within puns), and rarely do puns fare well upon translation. While Tagore’s poetry had more of a lyrical appeal, Ray’s poetry has more play of sound, it is indeed onomatopoeia at it most amazing.
    Though Sampurna is to be commended for taking up this awesome task, it is more to the credit of Ray that, to enjoy the essence of his poetry one had better learn the language Bengali itself!
    Some of his poetry, including the above in Bengali can be viewed at http://www.ethikana.com/poetry/sukumar.htm#suk01
    http://www.penguinbooksindia.com/FreeChapters/abol_tabol.htm contains a couple of selected poems from the book.

  • On October 11, 2007 at 9:17 am Don Share wrote:

    OK, one last fling with Tagore. Back when I was poetry editor at the now-defunct Partisan Review, we published a contemporary-sounding translation of him by by Wendy Barker and Saranindranath Tagore. It’s an odd little poem, buried here.
    That issue of the magazine came to mind because it also featured a poem by Doris Lessing, who has just won the Nobel Prize in Literature…

  • On October 11, 2007 at 12:41 pm Rigoberto wrote:

    I’d like to thank everyone who contributed to this discussion. As I read the number of insightful and informative comments, I’m pleased that this thread will provide a complex education to those unfamiliar with Tagore, to those who knew little and want to explore more, and to those who seek other essential voices from that part of the world. Sincerest gratitude.

  • On January 31, 2009 at 2:28 am Kamal Bhanja wrote:

    It may not be easy to translate an word from one language to another, particularly when the cultures of the users of two different languages are different, it is almost impossible to translate the feeling or mood of the poem. A Bengali poet KANTI CHANDRA GHOSH translated Rubaiyat-e-Omar Kahiyam and requested Rabindra Nath Tagore to write an introduction of the collection of those Rubaiyats in Bengali. Rabindra Nath obliged Kanti Chandra. In that introduction Tagore wrote, when we try to translate poetry from one language to another, the poetry may become something like a newly wedded bride coming to the house of her in-laws for the first time, becomes stiff with nervousness feeling lonely in the midst of her new acquaintances, tries to remain unemotional/ expressionless covering her face with a veil! Praising the work of Kanti Chandra, Tagore added that Kanti Chandra succeeded to make the newly wedded bride homely as the readers were indeed noticing through the veil of the newly wedded bride the jubilant smile on her face.

Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, October 1st, 2007 by Rigoberto González.