“After Rabindranath Tagore 150 – where to go from here?” (Lecture)

Lecture at Rabindra-Bhavan, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan

on 20th November 2012

After Tagore 150 – Where to go from here?

Some Personal Reflections

by Martin Kämpchen

Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary celebrations have had a resonance far beyond everybody’s expectation, both in India and internationally. This should fill with satisfaction whoever has been connected with these celebrations and all those who believe in the relevance of Tagore for today’s society. It is not incorrect to say that with the celebrations in 2011 and 2012, the appreciation of Rabindranath has entered a new phase not only in Bengal and India, but even more visibly so outside India. It is due in no small measure to the efforts of the government of India which had lavish funds ready, that this new phase could be initiated. The Ministry of Culture sponsored Tagore programmes not only in India but around the world through the country’s Embassies, and for once these funds were rather easy to get, at least for certain groups.

For me, the celebrations already began in December 2009 with a conference, “Tagore Beyond Frontiers”, at the newly established Tagore Centre of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations in Kolkata. The director, Reba Som, had put on a remarkable festival with a seminar, a book-exhibition, with several stage productions and even a Fashion Show. Most memorable for me was a dance performance by Tanushree Shankar and her troupe which interpreted Tagore’s English poem The Child through the idiom of modern dance. In 2010 and 2011, I had the opportunity to attend seminars on Tagore repeatedly in Bombay, Delhi and Kolkata, and once in Ahmedabad. These were mostly academic exercises which examined the poet in his various aspects of creativity and offered a cultural programme in the evening.

Most enjoyable were my visits to several small town Colleges in West-Bengal where I was invited to speak – in Bengali – before a restlessly appreciative audience of youngsters and their enthusiastic teachers. They all probably admired more my simple and strange Bengali than the subject of my talk, “Rabindranath Tagore and Germany” which seemed a bit far off their concerns. What I tried to bring home to them was the message that they are so very fortunate to have Bengali as their mother-tongue; that they should make the best of this gift by birth. While I had to acquire the Bengali language with much hardship over many years and am still far from perfect in speaking and reading it, they were given the instruments for understanding and appreciating the poet and thinker Rabindranath Tagore in their childhood. They were being reared on a solid diet of Tagore songs, poems and plays, of a man, that is, who lived and wrote in our modern time and reflected in his writing modern sentiments and problems. Rabindranath’s world continues to be our world, especially in India, and the world-view and life’s solutions he offers are still acceptable to us today. Look at other countries, I told to these College students: In Great Britain, its classic writer Shakespeare died 400 years ago, in Germany, Goethe died almost two hundred years ago, Dante, the Italian classic writer, lived in the European middle ages. And here is Rabindranath Tagore who was born 150 years ago and lived in this age for 80 years and helped to shape it.

In Bombay I spoke once at the Nehru Centre and on another occasion at the Asiatic Society. When I delivered the same lectures in Kolkata soon afterwards, I experienced a veritable “climate change”. While in Bombay these lectures on Rabindranath were welcomed with sober academic interest, the audience in Kolkata listened with warm appreciation bordering on enthusiasm. I was able to easily connect with my listeners. This demonstrated to me that the national poet Rabindranath Tagore may indeed be seen by all as a national symbol of unity, of dignity, of high culture, as the author of the National Anthem, but he only evokes a strong emotional response among those who know him in the Bengali original, whereas in other parts, that emotionality, that strong sense of ownership is lacking.

The degree of ownership is relevant. The 150th birth anniversary celebrations were all about bringing Rabindranath deeper and deeper into being owned, appropriated and integrated by the intellect, the emotions, our intuitions and existential impulses. The two key-words which lead to such a fuller and holistic ownership are translation and creativity.

To get a clearer understanding of what I mean by mentioning “translation” and “creativity”, let me briefly review the German celebrations in 2011-2012. They began in March 2011 in the Deutsche Literaturarchiv – the German (National) Literature Archive – in Marbach, near Stuttgart, a premier literary institute in Germany. This institute houses a library containing the entire range of modern German literature and a manuscript section with the manuscripts and correspondences of several thousand German-language writers, including Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann. Twenty years ago I had been instrumental in bringing the letters of Rabindranath to his German translator, Helene Meyer-Franck, to the Deutsche Literaturarchiv, as well as letters by Rabindranath which I had found in the literary assets left behind by Aurobindo Bose, a translator of Tagore’s poems and erstwhile his student in Santiniketan, who lived and died in Switzerland. One manuscript page of a Tagore poem, found with Aurobindo, is now on permanent view in the Archive’s ultra-modern museum. As Rabindranath already “owned” a nîche here, I could create an interest with the director of this prestigious institute to organise a two-day seminar on “Tagore and Germany”. This was the first time the German Literature Archive had looked east, beyond Europe, to Asia.

Four translators of Rabindranath attended as speakers – William Radice, Rahul Peter Das (University of Halle), Alokeranjan Dasgupta and myself – who spoke of their varied experiences in bringing Tagore to the attention of the reading public in German and English. I gave a reading from my new book of translation of Tagore’s poetry (which was published punctually in 2011). Aloke-da recited some poems in Bengali, William recited his English translation of the same poems from his Selected Poems of Rabindranath Tagore and I added my German translation. This gave the mixed audience of German and Indian listeners a panoramic impression of how Rabindranath can sound and reach out to his readers.

This was, by the way, the first-ever seminar on Rabindranath in German language. The Literature Archive published a 90-page book on “Tagore and Germany” which I authored, the first book on this subject in German language, and released it at the seminar. An exhibition was mounted with the manuscripts, photographs and books which the Literature Archive had already in its possession. In the evening, the Literature Archive hosted a musical event by students of the Music Academy in Stuttgart who presented songs by European composers; all the songs were based on Tagore texts. Some of the expenses were borne by the Indian government and the rest by the Archive. In the previous year, I had been given a two-month fellowship to prepare the book and the entire event.

This demonstrates my idea of how to employ translation and creativity to arrive at a fuller ownership of Tagore. What I had in mind was not a mere series of seminar lectures, but an attempt through various formats to approach the poet: through parallel recitations, through exhibitions, through interconnected lectures, prolonged interaction with the public, and music (and not only Rabindra Sangeet) – and thus break new ground at presenting Rabindranath to a non-Bengali public.

Here the term “translation” does not only mean a shift from one language to another, but something more total – the shift from one form of expression to another while interpreting the same content. By translation this content is seen in new and surprising shades of meaning and therefore opens itself to new groups of people who may not become interested in Tagore otherwise. Whenever we deal with two cultures, as we did in this instance with Bengali and German culture, sparks of creativity can fly by holding one culture against the other, by mirroring one culture in the other, by interpreting one through the other. These creative processes happen between two cultures or between two different idioms in one culture. Interpreting the poem The Child through modern dance, as Tanushree Shankar did in Kolkata with her troupe, is a case in point.

I felt that a Big Birth Anniversary like this one provides an opportunity for such kind of experimentation. Because funds are more readily available and quite naturally, the money will not be spent for conventional programmes alone, but also for experimental ones. The 150th birth anniversary did see such creative flourishes, although maybe not yet as extensively and not with the kind of abandon one would have hoped for. In the mind of the informed public in India as well as in Europe, Rabindranath is still too firmly encased in the musical norms and aesthetics of Rabindra Sangeet and in the particular dance style he created. But during the 150th birth anniversary a beginning has been made to transport Rabindranath more and more into the arena of performances and this has to be brought forward in future.

Why not experiment more and more with the conventions of performing his plays and dance dramas? Why not add European or Japanese styles of acting, novel dance idioms, pantomime, if you want even video installations. Have a dance performance while reciting Rabindranath’s poems, enact some of his ballads, allow different instruments to play his tunes, add modern experimental music to his dance dramas – and so on.

The results may, in many cases, become unconvincing, they may end up a failure and not be Rabindranath anymore. But in some successful productions, the mind and art of the Indian poet will reveal a surprising sparkle and impact that is capable of shaking and moving us more deeply than perhaps the original play did which we have watched a dozen times since childhood. Let us remind ourselves that tradition – including the traditions around Rabindranath – can be kept alive and relevant only when it is confronted by new ideas and styles. If these confrontations are being renounced, we soon will confront a museum, rather than a living tradition.

Many of these experiments have indeed already happened. The anniversary impetus has been felt in Kolkata and Delhi, even Mumbai, and also abroad. I remember the performance of Tasher Desh, done by a Bangladeshi team at Gaur Prangan with delight. Despite all its drawbacks, it had energy and vivacity. In Dartington, UK, Tagore’s music and plays have been associated and fused with various modern forms of music and art. A small Belgian orchestra, the Raj Hans Orchestra, goes round the world playing Rabindra Sangeet on instruments known in Western music.


We must be bold and infuse the natun haoa demanded and anticipated in Tasher Desh into Tagore’s works itself, rather than being guided by conventions, by niyam, for its own sake. But with all that enthusiasm for a novel approach, we must not neglect to consolidate for non-Bengali readers and viewers what Rabindranath has written. With this I return to reflect on translation. In his lecture at the Tagore Centre in Edinburgh in May this year, William Radice has spoken of the three phases of Tagore’s reception outside Bengal. The first phase he calls “the prophetic phase” in which nothing was known of the Poet’s works except what he had himself translated into English. These self-translations could not reveal and evoke the inner rhythms, the life-pulse of his poems, no matter how commendable they were. The second phase is the “literary phase” which began in the 1980s when literary translations into English of his poems started to appear. Especially three names come to mind: William Radice himself, Ketaki Kushari Dyson and Sukanta Chaudhuri with his team of Kolkata-based translators. Last year, another major attempt at translation was published, The Essential Tagore, edited by Fakrul Alam of Dhaka and Radha Chakravarty of Delhi, and published by Kumkum Bhattachatrya for Visva-Bharati Granthan Vibag.

In this literary phase the primary achievement was to translate a poem of Rabindranath into another, English, poem. A generation earlier the conviction had not yet grown that Rabindranath’s poems were at all translatable, just like, say, the French symbolists and German poet Rainer Maria Rilke had been competently translated into English. Or perhaps the Poet’s presence was still so near and overwhelming that nobody really dared to employ his or her poetic skills to attempt such a translation into another poem. Let us look at the opening lines of two poems to understand the remarkable progress that has been made in translation skills over the last two generations. Here is Shah Jahan in the translation taken from the book One Hundred and One Poems by Rabindranath Tagore, published in 1966, and the I read the same lines from Radices’s Selected Poems of Rabindranath Tagore (1985) to show the difference. The first translation (by Kshitish Roy) is in prose:

“You knew, Shah Jehan, life and youth, wealth and glory, they all drift away in the current of time. You strove, therefore, to perpetuate only the sorrows of your heart.”

The second translation, done a generation later, is in verse and has imbibed the hymnic rhythm of the original:

“You knew, Emperor of India, Shah.Jahan,

That life, youth, weakth, reknown

All float away down the stream of time.

Your only dream

Was to preserve your heart’s pain.”

From this second phase onwards it is no longer possible to translate a Tagore poem in prose sentences merely dealing with the surface meaning and not with what makes a poem “work”, namely verse, meter, rhythm, rhyme and semantics – the economy of sounds.… Now a translator needs the courage to look eye to eye with the Poet and either succeed gloriously or else fail.

Sukanta Chaudhuri’s Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Poems in the Oxford Tagore Translation Series (2004), with all its obvious weaknesses, has established an overall standard and normative style which cannot be surpassed easily. Let me give you two lines for comparison. First again from One Hundred and One Poems by Rabindranath Tagore, I quote the opening of subhaksan from kheyā (translated again by Kshitish Roy):

“O mother, how can I attend to humdrum household tasks today, when the Prince of my dreams will pass by our door this morning?”

The same lines in Sukanta Chaudhuri’s translation are:

“The king’s son will go riding out

Today before my doors:

How can I spend the morning

Among my household chores?”

In German language, the situation has similarly improved. The first translations from Bengali to German have been prepared already during the Poet’s life-time. Helene Meyer-Franck, a school-teacher in Hamburg, had learnt Bengali from Bengali University students and from text-books only in order to translate her “dear Master” from the original. This was in the 1930s, close to the advent of Nazism, when the political climate was no longer congenial to publish a poet like Tagore. Therefore, Helene Meyer-Franck’s slim book of verse came out immediately after the Second World War. A new initiative to translate Tagore from Bengali was started in erstwhile East-Germany, the German Democratic Republic, around Rabindranath’s birth centenary. But significantly, only prose was translated, not poetry. Gisela Leiste made beautiful translations of gora and nasta nid which are still available in print today in unified Germany. Surprisingly, Gisela Leiste, like Helene Meyer-Franck, never visited India to get a better feel of the language and of the people who speak it. India was out of bounds for Meyer-Franck because the British government barred her from entering; and for Leiste because communist Germany would not let her go outside its borders.

The government publisher in East-Germany (Verlag Volk und Welt, Berlin) brought together a four-volume selected works of Tagore, but a selection of poetry was not among these four books. Poetry translation from Bengali began in right earnest by Lothar Lutze and Alokeranjan Dasgupta with one volume in 1987, followed by my efforts from 1989 onwards until today. I have followed the example set by William Radice insofar as I too have added comprehensive notes and a line-by-line commentary to my poetry translations. I too have taken utmost care to create, from Rabindranath’s poem, a perfect German poem in the style of modern classics like Rainer Maria Rilke.

In a very gradual process the old German translations from English, published between 1914 and 1925, begin to lose importance and our new translations from Bengali begin to be quoted and mentioned. In the public mind, Tagore continues to be associated with his old translations from English. These books still have pride of place in the libraries of many German homes because these books were bought and appreciated by the parent-generation of today’s elderly people who have time for nostalgia. Obviously, these translations are easy to read, and easy to comprehend – they need no looking at notes and commentaries, need not deal with intricate sentence pattern and shades of meaning, with innuendos and cultural specifics – all of which I have tried to rescue from the original poetry and incorporate in my translations.

I already count it as a step in the right direction that for the 150th birth anniversary no re-edition of the old translations has been issued. And it seems impossible that such books will come out in future. And an equally big step is that the Frankfurter Allgemeine, Germany’s most prestigious daily newspaper with a famous cultural section, published two fairly wide-ranging essays on Rabindranath on the occasion of this birth anniversary.

This spells a remarkable progress considering other countries in Europe and elsewhere. Even a country which is as Indophile as France has not yet made that paradigm change from translations from the English Tagore to translations from the Bengali Tagore. Spain prides itself of having one of its principal writers of the 20th century take an interest in Rabindranath. This is Juan Ramón Jiménez who with his wife translated a fair number of Tagore’s works. But Jiménez translations are all from English. Only Italy is fortunate in having an Italian missionary, Marino Rigon, residing in Bangladesh, to have translated many works from Bengali to Italian. Looking at Latin America, neither the Spanish-speaking countries nor the Portuguese-speaking Brazil have been able to penetrate into the Bengali Tagore.

At present I am engaged in a new project on Rabindranath Tagore. I edit an anthology with two other experts, with Uma Das Gupta and Imre Bangha, the Hungarian scholar who did his Ph.D. from Hindi Bhavan of Visva-Bharati and now teaches at Oxford University. The reception of Tagore outside Bengal began in 1913 when he received the Nobel Prize and began to be translated and published all over the world. We three editors are collecting over 30 essays by contributors from all over the globe who examine One Hundred Years of Tagore Reception from 1913 to 2012 in their respective country or language. While studying these contributions I am struck by three discoveries. One, I am struck by the fact how deeply Tagore penetrated even into remote cultures which have had very limited cultural contact with India. Who would have thought that Tagore is being read for example in Finland, Costa Rica and Tibet? Two, I am struck by the fact that the English language and Anglo-Saxon culture have little currency in, for example, Latin America, so the English Tagore had a rather haphazard entry into these countries. Three, the fact disheartened me that – globally – the Bengali Tagore has penetrated still so insignificantly. The absence of original translations from Bengali is not being felt as a deficiency and scholars and readers seem content to enjoy and evaluate the second-hand “English Tagore”. And this is true even with countries or languages which enjoy a firm and long-standing cultural link with India and Bengal.

This brings us to the third and last phase in William Radice’s scheme. After the prophetic and the literary phase, the third phase he calls the “anniversary phase” when the Poet should be received on a wider scale – through performances and his paintings, through research and the study of his intellectual writings. This veritable paradigm shift is waiting to come. The cultural work most urgent in this phase is – not holding more seminars and not publishing more anthologies interpreting the life and work of Tagore – rather, the most urgent work to be done is to facilitate translations from Bengali world-wide. Rabindra-Bhavan could take a lead in this by establishing a Chair in Translation Studies which offers fellowships to serious Tagore translators and provides practical help towards making and publishing such translations.

Visva-Bharati has an appropriate instrument to promote this paradigm shift on a broad scale. How can this institution best reach out to the world with Tagore as a singular “brand”? During Rabindranath’s life-time it was the Visva-Bharati Quarterly which disseminated the universalist and idealist world-view while keeping deeply rooted in Bengal culture, that is in the “Bengali Tagore”. In a refurbished image of the Visva-Bharati Quarterly new areas of knowledge can be included – ecology, nuclear physics, the neuro-sciences, all of which have a universalist angle to them… With Rabindranath as its flagship, the Visva-Bharati Quarterly could become a premier cultural journal in India, possibly with editions in three or four languages. The winds of good will that the 150th birth anniversary celebrations have generated must be caught in the sails of this University and put to good use.


I have so far stressed on expanding the sense of ownership of the Tagore legacy in a variety of ways, especially through creative performances, through intercultural efforts and through translations.

In the final section of my talk I like to mention a few themes which I have highlighted during the various seminars I attended and in my lecture engagements in the last two years. In the span of two decades I have mainly spoken, in India as well as in Germany, on my research on Tagore’s visits to Germany and his relationship with German intellectuals and the impact he had in German society. I felt it was uncalled for to speak on Tagore in general terms as I can never compare my knowledge of Rabindranath with the many Tagore experts in this country. For the 150th birth anniversary I took courage and spoke for the first time on “my Tagore”, my experience of translating him and which facets of him had, over the years, become important to me. Here are three areas:

(1) The first area is Rabindranath’s fascinating synthesis of the sensual enjoyment of the world, his love for the pleasure of seeing and hearing and experiencing on the one hand, and on the other hand his love of God, of the unitary experience of the Divine. In this he renounced the broad Hindu tradition favouring ascetical living and the rejection of sense pleasure. To me, Rabindranath’s constant struggle was to see the Eternal – that is God – in the finite, that is in the World, and accept both of them as equally real and lovable. We all know these lines of his:


boirāgya sādhane mukti

se āmār nay |

asankhya bandhan-mājhe mahānandamay

labhiba mukhtir svād |


To find freedom in renouncing

is not my wont.

Entangled in countless bonds,

I taste freedom’s supreme delights.

(2) The second area is Tagore the activist. Living in West-Bengal I realised that Rabindranath is deeply revered; poems are being recited, his songs being sung, his plays performed. But why is his activist role in the field of rural reconstruction, of poverty alleviation, of rebuilding rural culture and rural crafts not followed more seriously by Tagore lovers? Why is his life’s example as a social activist not given its due importance in our own lives? Many of you know that I have taken up that challenge in two Santal villages at a few kilometre’s distance from Santiniketan over twenty-five years ago.

(3) In a series of essays I have begun to compare the personality and work of these two universal geniuses – Tagore and Goethe. I have discovered striking similarities between them across the centuries. Discussing them provides a sharp profile of these two personalities as well as of their age. This allows me to delve deeper into their work, mirroring the one with the other. I shall continue this effort over the next few years.

The first lecture I delivered on Tagore two decades ago was at the Netaji Bose Institute in Kolkata. I presented then my new research on Rabindranath’s reception in Germany. There, Tagore was greeted with open arms; but a small section of the press also criticised, even ridiculed and rejected him. After I had reported these varied reactions of the German public, an elderly gentleman in the first row stood up and told me in a sad voice: “I am sorry that you do not like Rabindranath.” I had to explain in detail that these were not my opinions I had recounted, but the opinions of some journalists and intellectuals in the Germany of the 1920s. I felt like the messenger who is being shot for the lost war he had reported. Times have changed indeed. I get the feeling that we are now able to look at Tagore more dispassionately and with sobriety, looking at him as a multi-facetted, full personality without much idolising him. With this as a base, we can break new ground among the people who have not yet heard of Rabindranath Tagore and should have an opportunity to know and “own” him.

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