Ten things you should know about poet Rabindranath Tagore
From an an interview with Amit Chaudhuri on Rabindranath Tagore by Prithvi Varatharajan in Asymptote
- Rabindranath Tagore was India’s most famous modern poet and is one of its greatest cultural icons. Born in 1861, Tagore was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1913, which brought him international fame.
- Tagore was very precocious and began to write early on. He produced a very interesting work by the time he was fifteen, pretending to be a poet from medieval times. And by the time he was seventeen or eighteen he was quite acknowledged within Bengal as a poet to watch, and was in fact singled out for praise by the first great Indian novelist in Bengal, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay.
- The painter William Rothenstein was actually a friend of the Tagore family and ran into Rabindranath in 1910. He was speaking to Abanindranath Tagore [Rabindranath’s nephew] when he noticed this person in the room who wasn’t saying very much, and he asked Abanindranath who this very quiet man was and found out it was Rabindranath, who had this high reputation as a poet. Tagore gave Rothenstein his translations of his own songs—translations that would comprise the Gitanjali—when he travelled to London in 1912.For whatever reason, Rothenstein was completely won over by Tagore’s poems, and introduced Tagore to people like Ezra Pound and W.B. Yeats.
- At Pound’s insistence Harriet Monroe published some of the poems in Poetry (Chicago). And there we see Tagore’s transition to international fame and celebrity.
- Tagore then received the Nobel Prize in 1913 and soon after that Pound and Yeats began to look at the poems and Tagore in a different way.
- Pound lost interest in him and thought that something had gone wrong with the writing after the Nobel Prize, the writing that was then being disseminated. Yeats said things like, “Tagore does not know English, no Indian knows English. Nobody can write with music and style in a language not learned in childhood and ever since the language of his thought.”
- So there was this kind of disenchantment, and then disenchantment leading to a gradual apathy, a lack of interest—although Tagore continued to be in circulation as a public figure, as somebody who represented India, and somebody who in his long, loose robe and with his beard, began to appeal to a constituency where there was an overlap between serious culture and popular culture, and an interest within that overlap for mysticism, exotic India, and so forth. So that led to the busting of Tagore.
- It’s a mistake to think that Tagore has been perceived as a romantic poet in the West—I think he’s just seen as a Khalil Gibran-like figure, or maybe as being a cut above Khalil Gibran, because Gibran is now accused of having plagiarised, and totally invented himself. But Tagore is looked at, if not as a Swedish invention—because of the Nobel—then certainly as a Bengali invention, or some sort of an invention.
- Tagore doesn’t even have the privilege of being a belated romantic figure, as sometimes W.B. Yeats is seen to be—especially the early Yeats—or D.H. Lawrence is seen to be. In Bengal people sometimes think of him as a romantic. But I personally think he’s a modernist in the way he privileges certain aspects of writing and of the world, and in the way he privileges the moment.
- Tagore started writing the short stories around the age of thirty. When he has nothing better to do than to fulfil this responsibility his father has given him, to oversee the estates and lands they own, while going down the river on a houseboat, he encounters face-to-face the people who work for them and live on their lands. Out of those encounters, which have a huge impact on him, come these narrative frames in which he puts these stories about ordinary people.