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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 24, June 5, 2010

Rabindranath versus Tagore

Thursday 10 June 2010, by Amiya Dev


Are Rabindranath and Tagore the same phenomenon? It may sound absurd, but it is not always that when we talk of Tagore we are also talking of Rabindranath, and vice versa. Years ago an eminent professor of English from another part of India asked me in confidence: is Tagore really that great? This was a decade after his birth centenary. When I answered him, I wasn’t telling him of Tagore, but Rabindranath. Maybe it was from around that time that a non-Bengali Indian friend of mine, not sworn to the excellence of English literature alone like the doubting English professor, began saying that Tagore is a closely guarded Bengali secret. Is he? That is, when Bengalis talk of Tagore, do they only talk among themselves? In other words, do Bengalis normally not admit of Tagore independent of Rabindranath? That is a question that has been bothering me for some time. But there is also a murmur in my mind, is there a Tagore independent of Rabindranath?

The hundred and fifty years of Rabindranath’s birth are already upon us and we are trying to be worthy of that historic event. Plans are being laid. More are in the offing, even perhaps with a touch of extravagance. How much of Rabindranath all this is going to give us back as live experience, will have to be seen. Embalming is one thing, revivification another. Now, this being the enterprise around Rabindranath 150, there is also preparation for Tagore 150 elsewhere, especially overseas including that by the UNESCO. Are these two 150s going to converge? I was fortunate enough to meet a representative of Dartington Hall last year (no inkling then of the twelve Tagore paintings to be given to Sotheby’s for auction) and learnt the broad thrusts of their celebration. I know of a conference in China which had been preceded by one in Singapore, which again by one at Harvard. Hampstead and Paris have been in the news, but there is sure to be more since the UNESCO is taking a major lead. But the moot question is that of relative exclusiveness of Rabindranath 150 and Tagore 150. Our only hope is that the latter does not follow the example of Macmillan’s Collected Poems and Plays of Rabindranath Tagore brought out in 1936 without saying that these were translations.

TAKING ‘Tagore’ not to be an unloaded rendering of Rabindranath [Thakur] by a Bengali writing in English, that is, taking Tagore to be a signature by itself, what does it primarily consist in? His translations of course which, when of poetry, hardly give an idea of his phenomenal dexterity of rhyme and rhythm, his infinite variety in every sense of the term, his holding in other words a few hundred years of Bengal verse history in himself. Connoisseurs all over the world attach as much value to form as content, whether or not take them as inseparable (Kâlidâsa’s vâgartha). Now, with the form not being manifest in these translations, their readers may fall back upon their content alone and take Tagore to be saying things, often profound, often even amounting to a system of thoughts. Of course, being writing, translations too may attain a form of their own and this was certainly the case with a great many of his initial translations collected in the English Gitanjali. (Let me not quote those oft-quoted words of Yeats and Pound, but we are told that part of China’s ‘Tagore fever’ in those miraculous years was motivated by her own search for freedom from traditional rules of versification.) But then again, that may not be always the case.

What else does this non-Rabindranath Tagore contain? Of course his essays and lectures, his conversations, his overseas letters, his response to a great many of the world events taking place in the later half of his life—four volumes of the English writings brought out by the Sahitya Akademi. All this may throw up the image of a veritable colossus, religious and yet secular, traditional yet modern, looking upon history as a process, coming down heavily on colonialism and war, on nationalism, professing an un-alienating and unfettered view of education in harmony with nature, holding forth on art as worship of beauty, truth and good—in brief, a truly universal man seeking unity in all his experience. Surely this Tagore also contains the translations of his fiction and non-fiction as well as poetry, even lyrics he had set to music, done by others at various times, and in progress.

Yet Tagore lovers are not necessary lovers of Rabindranath. Perhaps the reverse too is true, even though the Tagore image is a matter of pride to the latter. It is somewhat like the bronze bust installed at Stratford’s Shakespeare garden. Busts won’t do; it is time the lovers of Rabindranath sat down with Tagore lovers and started talking about Rabindranath, no matter how incompetently, how incoherently, maybe first things last and last things first, but kept talking, kept talking. The perfect translation, if there is one, may then arise.

The author is a former Vice-Chancellor, Vidyasagar University, West Bengal.

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