Asian Music and Dance

Tagore – The Visionary

William Radice, translator of Rabindranath Tagore’s Selected Poems (Penguin Publishers), gives a social and historical perspective of the Nobel laureate in the year of his 150th birth anniversary. 

The internet is full of references to Tagore’s poems on themes of love, the natural world and man’s place within it. Radice examines the universal appeal of this poet-philosopher who sought to harmonise religion, science and the arts into a unifying whole.

What came first for you: the work of Rabindranath Tagore or the Bengali language? 

Definitely the Bengali language. I became interested in the language partly because of family connections with India, but also because I went to India between leaving school and going to Oxford. Of all the cities I visited, Calcutta made the strongest impression. I was fascinated by its British imperial heritage, and I wanted to learn more about the complex hybrid culture that developed in nineteenth-century Bengal. So when I finished my degree in English, I went to SOAS in London to study Bengali. 

What drew you to the literary output of Tagore? 

I certainly wasn’t attracted to Tagore by his own English translations – by Gitanjali and his subsequent books. Indeed, so put off was I by them, that I have sometimes said that I started to learn Bengali despite Tagore, not because of Tagore. But when I started to read his words in the original, I found a huge difference. There was an energy in the rhythm of the poem which captivated me. Ever since then I have detected in all of Tagore’s writings – and in his music and even his paintings – a unifying quality of rhythm which has made me want to dance, so to speak, in my translations. Rhythm is what distinguishes a major writer from those who are less great. Take any line by Shakespeare, and it has to be by Shakespeare. Take any line by Milton, Wordsworth or T.S. Eliot, and it has to be by them. The same is true of Tagore. 

“…rhythm which has made me want to dance… in my translations.”

What can Tagore offer to a 16-year-old living in the UK and what in your opinion would be the best way for young people to approach his work?

There are so many aspects to Tagore, that if I were teaching his work to a class of 16-year-olds I think I would put the emphasis on his characters. Not only his stories but his poems too are full of wonderfully vivid characters: male, female, young, old, rich, poor. The feelings and experiences of these characters are vividly conveyed, and many of them face agonising dilemmas. Young readers of whatever background will find much to identify with in these characters, and much to discuss. 

Could you tell us briefly about the family background and early life of the poet?

The Tagores were one of the foremost families of Bengal. They were aristocrats. They had an enormous house in Calcutta and large estates in various parts of rural Bengal and Orissa. Tagore’s grandfather Dwarkanath was a pioneering businessman, and built up the family fortune. Tagore’s father Debendranath was for many years the leader of the Brahmo Samaj, a very important movement in nineteenth-century Bengal for social, religious, and educational reform. So the Tagores were in the vanguard of social and political progress, and many of them were highly cultured and talented. Rabindranath’s upbringing was stimulating in many ways: he learned a lot from his talented elder brothers and from his beloved sister-in-law Kadambari. But as the youngest child in a very large family, his upbringing was left largely to servants and tutors, and he often felt lonely. That sense of isolation, and a longing to break out of a large and confining house, is a mood that runs through much of Tagore’s writing.

“…the Tagores were in the vanguard of social and political progress.” 

How did his two early visits to England influence Tagore?

We know a lot about Tagore’s first visit to England in 1878, when he was 18, from the very amusing letters he wrote describing his time there. It was Victorian England that he described, with its parlour games and parties and eccentric characters and squalid crowded streets as in the novels of Dickens. He visited Parliament and was impressed to see British democracy at work, but there was a lot that he found wrong and absurd. The ignorance about India that he encountered amazed him, and I think the experience turned him into something of a revolutionary. Imperialism, British-style education, and later the nationalist aggression that led to the horrors of the First World War convinced him that everything had to change. Throughout his life Tagore was committed to change: he was always attempting new things, in his educational and social experiments as well as in the writing. 

Did Tagore play a significant role in the Indian national movement and can you comment on his relationship with Gandhi?

Tagore was never a politician, and only played an active part in one political campaign: the Swadeshi or boycott campaign against the Viceroy Lord Curzon’s decision to partition Bengal in 1905. But when that movement turned violent, and the boycott of foreign goods started to badly affect traders and farmers and in particular the Muslims of Bengal, he withdrew from active involvement. He preferred to concentrate on reform ‘from below’ – his progressive school and university, and his efforts in the field of rural reconstruction. Gandhi was a politician as well as a social and religious reformer, so their careers were very different. But their mutual respect was profound, and it is as impossible to imagine the growth of Indian nationalism and the end of British power in India without Tagore as it is to imagine it without Gandhi. 

 “He preferred to concentrate on reform ‘from below’.”

You have referred to Tagore as a ‘feminist’ in your introduction to Selected Poems, yet Tagore married off his own daughters aged 12 and 14. Can you explain the contradiction?

I would still maintain that Tagore was a feminist: his empathy for the feelings and aspirations of women runs all the way through his output. But he was not the sort of feminist who wanted women to become like men. He really wanted men to become more like women (Gandhi too held that view). There are qualities of sensitivity, loyalty, devotion etc. that we associate with the feminine and which he felt should influence society as a whole. Nearly all his stories portray a clash between sensitive and insensitive characters. The sensitive characters are often women or children, but in many stories it is the other way round. As regards marrying off his daughters at such a young age, I don’t think this can be excused or explained away. He certainly believed in the education of women, and the Brahmo Samaj, the reform movement that his family were associated with, had always campaigned against early marriage. But somehow he wasn’t able to carry those principles into his personal family life. However, it is worth remembering that his daughters were married a year before his wife died in 1902, so maybe her wishes took precedence.

How did Tagore’s educational experiment come about and what influence has the establishment of Santiniketan had beyond its own boundaries?

Tagore started his revolutionary new school because he was so dissatisfied with conventional systems of education, whether Indian or Western. Rote learning, harsh discipline and the thwarting of the child’s imagination were found in traditional Indian schools just as much as in schools set up under British influence. British-type education had further led to the imposition of an alien language. Tagore believed passionately in education through the mother tongue; he wanted education to be brought closer to the natural world, and he also wanted it to develop the imagination through music, drama and the arts. His school did not, of course, have a radical influence on the education system in India as a whole, but it remains to this day a challenge to conventional ways of doing things. Visva-Bharati – the University as well as the school – continues to this day to wrestle with its identity, and many would say that the compromises it has had to make have eroded its original spirit and purpose. But the sheer fact that when you visit Santiniketan you find yourself thinking hard about the role of education in today’s world, and about whether schools and universities should serve society or challenge it, shows that Tagore’s experiment is by no means dead, and still has a great deal to offer. 

“…he also wanted it (education) to develop the imagination through music, drama and the arts.” 

Was Tagore equally committed to all the art forms as shown by his contributions in the fields of literature, poetry, drama, music, dance and painting?

Yes, he was undoubtedly equally interested in all these fields, and throughout his long life continued to juggle many balls at once. He had such relentless energy and curiosity: he was like a gardener wanting to fill his garden with every kind of tree and flower. 

What is Tagore’s lasting legacy to Bengal, India and the world?

Like all truly great artists, Tagore had a breathtaking virtuosity. There was nothing that he couldn’t do with words, and even in his paintings – in which he was a self-confessed amateur – there is extraordinary virtuosity and sophistication of technique. Great artists can do things with their art that lesser mortals simply cannot attempt. That is a major part of their legacy. But amidst all the brilliance and technical complexity, there is in Tagore a fundamental quality of simplicity. In my study of his works over many years, I have often encountered tremendous complexity and difficulty, but never obscurity. There is always a clear meaning that he wants to convey, and he always appeals to the heart. I think this is why he speaks to many people today. Go on to the internet, and you will find that certain poems of Tagore appear on thousands of websites. His poem Ananta prem (Unending Love), for example, has become immensely popular at weddings and even at funerals. It’s gratifying for me to see that the translation that circulates is my own (though often my name is not mentioned), but the real achievement is Tagore’s, not mine. He managed to say in that poem and in many other poems things that all types of people can feel, whatever their age or background. 

“…amidst all the brilliance… there is in Tagore a fundamental quality of simplicity.” 

How do you think Tagore would have liked to be remembered?

I think he would have liked to be remembered as someone who always tried his hardest to achieve balance, harmony and comprehensiveness. The world has become so complicated that no one human mind can encompass it, but Tagore never ceased to try to achieve purnata or wholeness – a vision in which art, religion, science, politics and education could all be harmonised and reconciled. 

“…Tagore never ceased to try to achieve purnata or wholeness.” 

Please quote us some lines of Tagore that are important to you.

There are so many, of course, but perhaps because I now have three grandchildren I find myself thinking often of his late poem New Birth, which you can find in my Penguin Selected Poems of Tagore. In this poem he longs for a ‘new deliverer’, a saviour, who will bring a new message to the world. But he concludes that every newborn baby is in a way that saviour: 

Today we search for your unwritten name:
You seem to be just off the stage,
Like an imminent star of morning.
Infants bring again and again
A message of reassurance – 
They seem to promise deliverance, light, dawn. 

I look at my two young grandsons and my baby granddaughter and find myself thinking of those beautiful lines.



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