Reading Rabindranath

Reading and Performing Rabindranath

Martin Kämpchen

The explosion of creativity around the 150th birth-anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore and the 100th year of Gitanjali has ebbed away; the last books celebrating these occasions have finally been published. Now we can take stock before the next explosion gets started by 2021 when one hundred years of Visva-Bharati will be remembered.

The number of books, special magazine numbers and articles, both in English and in Bengali, that have been published on Tagore since 2011 is truly astonishing. Cultural organizations, both government and non-government, publishers of books and magazines have been vying with each other to bring out the most attractive and reverential contributions on the poet. A great deal of genuine research was made possible as well with the funds available for these celebrations. However, has all this served a useful purpose? I am not equipped to venture an opinion about Bengal or India as a whole, but certainly in Germany and other European countries Rabindranath has been brought back into various socio-cultural discourses and his relevance for today’s world has been re-assessed. Proof of this is that cultural organizations which are not focused on India, as well as national newspapers and magazines have given generous coverage to the poet. Most importantly, a few new translations from Bengali have been published or re-published in several European countries.

All this is no mean achievement considering that the book market in Europe shrinks steadily, losing ground to the internet. My first book of translated Tagore poems in 1990, a paperback, had a sold-out print-run of 7,000. The last volume, published in 2016, has hit the 1,000-mark recently. I was told that books that sell 2,000 copies are considered best-sellers nowadays. This is how steeply general readership has declined. It would, however, be a mistake to conclude from this that interest in Rabindranath has declined equally. Over the last decade we have, in Germany at least, seen a general shift from reading books to participating in events. While less books are being bought, book reading sessions are on the increase and gain more attention than ever. It has become the rule that every author or translator has to go and present his or her book to the public. The public wishes to see authors read their books, to ask them questions, absorb impressions, enjoy interactive performances. Of all of this, a lot was on offer on Tagore in recent years.

Rabindranath himself was a great performer who created events on the stage and at the lectern. This should encourage Europe to present his creations afresh on stage. This has happened, but the more serious effort of, for example, transforming his plays and dance-dramas into successful stage productions on the European stage, has not been attempted on a wide scale. Four of my German poem-translations were set to music by a contemporary German composer, Matthias Bonitz, and performed in Münster. Several other translations were transformed into choral music. But this should be just a beginning.

In India, the spurt of Tagore scholarship in recent years obviously gladdens one’s heart. However, it leaves me somewhat skeptical as well. A few favourite themes have been discussed again and again, like feminism and Tagore, or nationalism and Tagore, like “Gitanjali”, like “The Home and the World”, and I wonder how much fresh thought can be added. Tagore scholarship, to my mind, has two aims. One, it should bring out the history of Tagore’s life and the historical context of his works. It must be a contribution to the history of literature. Two, it is meant to explain and interpret Tagore’s creations so that they are better understood and appreciated and made relevant in our contemporary context. Both these foci must lead to this crucial result: to the increase of readership and the increase of enjoyment of Tagore’s writing and to the deeper understanding and “absorption” of Tagore’s ethos and message. Reading on Tagore should lead to reading Rabindranath Tagore himself.

With this in mind, we need to evaluate the increase of Tagore scholarship. Every serious academician will introspect whether too much has been written on Tagore which has been said before or is superfluous, hence reduces the mental and material resources and the time available to read the works of Rabindranath themselves. We need to separate the wheat from the chaff which means to focus on those books on Tagore which are indeed important and present a new perspective.

I point to one book which, undeservedly, has received scant attention in the national press: “Tagore Beyond His Language”, edited by Imre Bangha (Primus Books, New Delhi 2017). Professor Bangha, a Hungarian by birth, studied Hindi at the Hindi Bhavan of Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, and wrote his doctoral thesis on medieval Hindi poets – in Hindi! From Santiniketan, he moved straight up to Oxford to become the university’s Hindi professor. He made a significant contribution to Tagore studies with his book “Hungry Tiger” (Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi 2007) in which he unfolds the history of Rabindranath’s reception in Hungary and its neighbouring countries. Unlike many other books on Tagore that appeared in the last few years, Imre Bangha’s “Tagore Beyond His Language” has a clear focus. It wants to situate the poet in a wider geographical and artistic context. Rabindranath is not only the poet of Bengal and of India, but he also speaks to the world. Essays on Tagore in France, in Russia, Hungary and in Romania demonstrate this. Bangha himself tries to establish the poet’s popularity in the Europe of the early 20th century using, for the first time, statistical material.

Three essays examine how far Tagore’s paintings were able to travel in terms of getting accepted and understood outside India. This has a special poignancy in as much Rabindranath’t paintings were first not at all appreciated in India, not even in his very own Santiniketan. They were seen as the whim of an old man. But the West spontaneously resonated with his half-abstract, sometimes bizarre, often melancholy paintings. Two known art historians, Sushobhan Adhikary of Santiniketan and Vijay Kowshik of Delhi, have probed into Tagore the “Global Artist”. They give a generous number of pictorial examples of how Rabindranath’s artistic imagination was akin to the Expressionist paintings in Europe during the early 20th century. In this book we touch new ground and begin to understand Tagore through the prism of different languages and cultural mentalities. Similarities with as well as contrasts to “the Other” teach us more about the peculiar genius of the Indian poet and artist. I don’t want this volume to get lost among the spate of books that have appeared.

The author, based in Santiniketan, can be reached at


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