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Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)
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)