The Sunday Statesman (Calcutta): The 8th Day
Tagore and the World
10 May, 2015
Rabindranath Tagore: One Hundred Years of Global Reception.
Edited by Martin Kämpchen and Imre Bangha.
Editorial Advisor Uma Das Gupta.
Orient BlackSwan, Delhi 2014; 692 pp.
The 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore in May 2011 generated so much of renewed interest in the writer and his work that every other day we now see the proliferation of Tagoreana in all possible literary and cultural forms. These range from anthologies of critical essays, new editions of old texts, translations, reappraisal of his fiction and non-fiction, facsimile editions, bilingual editions of the Nobel-winning Gitanjali et al. This volume is an exception. Though conceived in 2011 at a conference in London celebrating the sesquicentennial birth anniversary of the poet, the editors rightly felt that after the award of the Nobel Prize in 1913, when Tagore became visvakabi, the world poet, it was the right time to take stock of his work and see how he was many things to many people. They asked Tagore experts worldwide to narrate how the Bengali author was received from 1913 until our time and now after three years of painstaking work, the mindboggling findings are out. Leaving aside his reception in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, this book therefore aims to present a near-complete survey of Tagore’s worldwide impact a hundred years later as found in the rest of the world. It therefore avoids both an India-centric and a Eurocentric approach.
Divided into five sections with a total of 35 entries, the essays in this book are based on geographical entities rather than on languages. Circling the globe in an East to West sequence and then moving from South to North, the layout of the book is interesting. In part One, representing ‘East and South Asia’, we have entries from Japan, Korea (South, of course as the North is still inaccessible), China, Vietnam, Tibet, Thailand and Sri Lanka. ‘Middle East and Africa’ covers the Arab countries, Egypt, Turkey, Jewish Diaspora and the State of Israel (Yiddish and Hebrew Reception), and the Portuguese-speaking regions of Goa, Angola and Mozambique. In part Three, ‘Eastern and Central Europe’ is covered by Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and its successors, Latvia, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and its successors. ‘Northern and Western Europe’ is represented by countries like Finland, Scandinavia (Denmark, Sweden and Norway), Germany, Austria, Switzerland, The Netherlands and Belgium, Italy, France, Spain and Latin America, Portugal and Galicia and the United Kingdom. The last section entitled ‘The Americas’ covers Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Mexico, the United States of America and Canada.
In the Preface the editors make it clear that the selection of countries and/or regions depended on the availability of competent academics who were willing to contribute to their project. Thus some geographical areas which they felt were important could not be covered or were done inadequately due to unavailability of contributors. For instance, there are no entries from the Asian countries that Tagore visited — Iran, Burma, Singapore, Malaya and Indonesia. Among the erstwhile Soviet republics only one entry from Latvia was not desirable. Again due to the country or region-wise organisation of the material, we find that some articles have a slight overlap. Also since Tagore’s impact often transcended national boundaries and moved along linguistic lines, restricting his interest within the boundaries of a particular nation state is not possible.
The modus operandi of all these divergent essays is the same. They outline the cultural relations the country in question had with India first, and then, within that framework, delineate the immediate response to Tagore’s Nobel Prize. With a list of all works available by Tagore (albeit in translation) and all criticism on his works in each country or region, they reflect the present state of research on Tagore’s works and his impact. In some essays the bibliographical accounts of the material available is more detailed whereas in others the authors put more emphasis on analysing the cultural and literary influences these publications had and continue to have on the social fabric of that particular country. Whatever the thrust area might be, it becomes clear after going through the book that often Tagore’s popularity in a particular country was the result of one individual’s effort, be it Marino Rigon in Italy, Andre Gide in France, Juan Ramon Jimenez in Spain, Victoria Ocampo in Argentina, Frederik van Eeden in the Netherlands, Vincenz Lesny in Czech or Muhammad Shukri Ayyad in Arabic. All of these individuals pushed the Tagore legacy a giant step ahead before others took over.
While most of Tagore’s writings have been translated from English, they were occasionally translated from Russian, German, French, Italian, Chinese or other versions; hence they changed language three or more times before they reached their readers. The Arab world discovered Tagore early and read his works first in English and French and then in Arabic. Though problems of authenticity remain a constant factor whenever any material is translated from the source language to the target language, it is interesting to note that in the Arab countries the translators deliberately overlooked or evaded lines or words from Tagore, in fact whatever could embarrass or injure religious sensibilities.
Apart from the individual responses in different countries we also get many interesting information which are worth noting. For example, in a large number of countries Rabindranath Tagore had already been mentioned, reviewed and discussed before the Nobel Prize was awarded to him. Also, though Tagore arrived in many countries through the languages of Western colonial hegemony or through translations, many non-western cultures accommodated him in their own terms and presented him as close to the world-view of Buddhism or Sufism. It is also interesting to know that in many countries he simply remained a representative of Eastern philosophical thought and though American critics first encountered the poet through the writings of his British admirers, the United States has produced more doctoral dissertations on Tagore than any other nation except India and Bangladesh. Again, the lack of interest of the French elite for Tagore as a writer has been attributed to the arrival of Surrealism, whereas the romanticising of India has remained a leitmotif of the German reception of Indian culture as a whole until today.
From the responses garnered from the 35 entries in this volume it becomes clear that Tagore was able to deeply integrate into the cultural fabric of countries of different religious and cultural backgrounds, encouraging and guiding national movements towards greater inclusiveness and humanity, though there were dissenting voices in a few countries like Russia after the 1917 Revolution, Germany during the Second World War and during Franco’s regime in Spain where he was deliberately censured and not published or publicised. In the United States, after the Second World War, the socio-political climate was unfavourable to Tagore’s anti-war and anti-nationalistic sentiment. Similarly, his stand against nationalism was rejected in Yugoslavia, Poland, Turkey, and in Japan because nationalism, it was believed, was what kept these countries united in their difficult times of transition. Thus Tagore’s anti-nationalist and anti-war sentiments had different repercussions in different countries of the world depending on the political climate of that particular nation. Also it is seen that the adulatory reception of the poet in one country at one particular period of time occasionally underwent dramatic metamorphoses later due to social and political changes.
Rabindranath’s popularity waned in many nation-states post 1930s to get a sporadic revival in 1961 and again in 2011 and 2013 but as Kathleen M. O’Connell rightly observes the World Wide Web “has also become a major conduit to introduce his literary and artistic achievements to an entirely new generation worldwide.”(626) One may therefore rightly presume that Tagore’s popularity will spread in the years to come as the web grows to accommodate an ever-expanding number of new users. Towards the end of the Preface to this volume the editors have mentioned that since the current bibliographical data has been restricted to a Works Cited section at the end of each essay, they are always not all-comprehensive. So a website has been launched (http://tagore.orient.ox.ac.uk) which aims at building up a comprehensive bibliography of works by Tagore and on Tagore in each country or language. The readers are asked to refer to this website and perhaps also contribute to it. So all of us who are interested to see that the legacy of Tagore continues to remain unabated in all parts of the world in future should turn cultural ambassadors and spread the word around. In conclusion the editors need to be profusely thanked once again for such an invaluable addition to the realm of Tagore Studies.
The reviewer is Professor of English, Visva-Bharati University