Rabindranath Tagore’s Legacy Seventy-five Years after his Demise

Rabindranath Tagore’s Legacy Seventy-five Years after his Demise

Martin Kämpchen

Zum 75. Todestag von Rabindranath Tagore am 7. August 2016 gehalten an der Universität Colombo (Sri Lanka) am 4. August 2016.

It is not a habit on the Indian subcontinent to commemorate great men and women on their death anniversaries. Birthdays are great occasions for celebration and re-dedication – but not deathdays. In Santiniketan from where I have arrived a few days ago, as well, there are no events to mark the 75th death anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore except that touching little ceremony briksha ropan, the planting of a tree sapling. This of course happens every year in early August.

In Europe we witness the reverse. For example the “feastdays” of all great Christian saints fall on the date they expired. It is not, of course, their death that is being “celebrated”, but it is their entry into heaven, or their salvation, their liberation. But great statesmen and writers and artists, too, are being remembered in Europe on their death-anniversaries. Here the reason is simply that after a personality retreats more and more into history after he or she has died, it is important to take stock: What has been the influence of that person in our lives and on the cultural or political scenario? Do we have to revive the memory of that person, revive his/her values and ideas, revive the appreciation of his/her works? Here the emphasis is on making the influence of the person live on beyond his or her terrestrial existence. Death anniversaries are good occasions to give new energy and content to the cultural survival of such a personality.

This is exactly what we are about to do today here at the University of Colombo. With this seminar we wish to give a new impetus to the pervading influence of Rabindranath Tagore in our own life and in our society. We want to revive Rabindranath’s presence beyond his death.

Seventy-five years is not just three quarters of a century which is the reason why normally that number is being singled out for celebration. Seventy-five years is the average life-span of a person. That means that Rabindranath’s life is now a man’s full life far removed from our present time. It means that we no longer have contemporaries who witnessed Rabindranath alive. The immediate connection with him is snapped. The charisma, the life-force, the spirit of Rabindranath that worked miracles in those who were directly exposed to it, has faded away because there is no one anymore who has received it and can bear witness to it. There is that idea in Indian thought that the guru transmits his spiritual power to his disciples by touch or by a mere meeting of the eyes. This directness of relationship with Rabindranath Tagore no longer exists seventy-five years after his death.

I remember the last person in Santiniketan who was still intimately connected with Rabindranath. She was Amita Sen who died a few years ago at a very old age. I visited her house in Santiniketan quite regularly and rarely would the conversation not converge towards Tagore and her days as a student at the Santiniketan ashram. She called herself an ashram kanyā, an Ashram Daughter, and in her simplicity she did not want to be anything more but that: a daughter of the Ashram. This simplicity and moral authority were, I felt, not merely due to her old age, but they were shaped during her youth in Rabindranath’s school and then became the hallmark of her personality. Her famous son, the economist Amartya Sen, who still received his name from Rabindranath and spent the first few years of his life in his benign light, is noticeably shaped by quite different influences. His cosmopolitanism is derived from long years in the cities and abroad as a student and later as a professor. His appreciation of Tagore is clearly the result of the diligent study of Tagore’s books in the context of his experience of “high” world culture. The typical “Santiniketan culture” with its subtle habits is less shared by him.

So we are at a crucial juncture of time right now: While the exposure to his charismatic personality and the immediate memories of Rabindranath have become history, we have to reflect on how to perpetuate the cultural presence of Rabindranath for the benefit of future generations. While Tagore was alive, his personality often made a deeper impact than his writing, especially in Europe and America. In the West, his works were known in inadequate English translations. His poetry in English was peculiar and had an exotic flair, but as poetry their literary merit was limited and certainly not on a par with his Bengali originals. Since these English versions of his poetry had been done by Rabindranath himself, they survived for many years because they were considered authentic. Therefore new translations from the Bengali into English and into other languages that could be considered congenial translations started much later, perhaps from the 1980s.

I am a translator of Rabindranath’s poetry from Bengali to German, my mother-tongue. The initial impetus to launch into the translation of his poetry was exactly that discovery: How deficient Rabindranath’s own English translation into lyrical prose was compared to the vigour and charm of the originals. The original German translations were made from the English versions. I felt the call to attempt direct translations and fashion an actual German poem from the Bengali poem. The difficulties are considerable and it would need another lecture to articulate them. But after a twenty-five year effort and several volumes of translation ranging from his early poetry up to the lines he dictated on his death-bed, I can now say that Tagore has “arrived” in German-speaking countries. On the occasion of his 75th death-anniversary the third popular selection from my translation of his poems has appeared. It is meant for the general reader. This means that the interest in Tagore is not purely historical and academic: Poetry is meant for everybody as nourishment for the soul. This development in German-speaking countries justifies me to proclaim that the first and foremost duty of those who uphold Tagore’s legacy is to initiate new translations from Bengali. I have learnt from Professor Sandagomi Coperahewa’s writing that – as of now – Rabindranath’s poetry has not yet been translated from Bengali into Sinhala. Only two novels have been rendered from Bengali, Gora and Chaturanga. May I suggest that this Centre which has very kindly invited me to Colombo initiate a programme to hone a translator capable of rendering Bengali poetry into Sinhala. I am unsure about the situation with translations into Tamil.[1]

Those of us who may wonder why Rabindranath Tagore is still being read and admired 75 years after his death, the simple answer is: A poet’s importance is never exhausted. Novels, stories and plays may become dated because their context no longer conforms to reality, their message becomes historically irrelevant. Thus they become fodder for books on literary history. But genuine poetry retains its relevance, its sap, its actuality because there is something eternal about them. Genuine poetry becomes a window into the soul of the poet and into the soul of humankind. Here we have the most relevant justification why Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry still needs to be read – and why good translations from Bengali are still worth attempting.

Are there other reasons why Tagore’s legacy needs to be nourished and kept alive? Here we should discuss whether the attraction which he exerted for decades does continue for our modern concerns and problems. The seventy-five years that elapsed since Tagore’s demise have seen major transformations. The Second World War came to a traumatic end with 50 million people killed. India became divided. India became independent. The Communist Block crumbled and left Communism in shambles. After that a multitude of new nationalisms evolved particularly in Asia and in Europe. Is this world still akin to the world that Rabindranath spoke to? Can his voice have any meaning in 2016?

My view is: Yes, his voice, his work has meaning especially today. A major writer like him is always what is called a démoralisateur. He challenged conventional values, he questioned clichéed ideas during his life-time and continues to do so even in the time after him. He dares us to rise from our dearly held views and look at them with stricter honesty, with a more penetrating mind, with creativity.

In this context I focus on Rabindranath’s Cosmic Consciousness. Reading his poems, reading his essays we realize that from his adolescence onwards he was immersed in a consciousness which was capable of viewing what is small and seemingly insignificant as part of a greater Whole, and conversely, he was capable of viewing the Whole as made up of a multitude of interconnected smaller parts. This consciousness of continuously moving to larger generalities and back to the small and particular, this constant shift of perspectives, is a characteristic feature of his poems and songs. One song begins:

My freedom lives in all the lights across the heavens,

Every speck of dust, every blade of grass celebrates my freedom. (pūjā 339)

Further, the integration of human action and the action of nature, the total porousness of human life which moves into nature’s life is noteworthy. In one of his sisu-poems a child imagines that he will meet his mother as a fresh gust of wind, or as a star, or in the melodies of his flute (bidāy). In another poem, the child meets his mother in the form of waves and then as a cloud (mātrībatsal). In a gītāñjali-poem, the poet feels that God’s songs make the forest flowers bloom (gītāñjali 71). Here the circle widens taking in, not just the human element and nature, but it integrates the divine as well. God visits humans in their plight and sorrow –

He has gone where the farmer

breaks the hard soil.

Where the stone-cutters build the road

In sweat all year. (gītāñjali 119)

This inclusiveness which combines the human, the natural world and the divine into one Cosmic Consciousness made Rabindranath look at our human life, its difficulties and its aspirations, in surprising freshness and originality. This inclusiveness is capable of challenging our views and ideas. I do not claim that Rabindranath had a “modern” outlook or a “conservative” one, it transcended these categories to formulate a spirituality which is akin to certain precepts of Hinduism and Buddhism. But Rabindranath translated these precepts imaginatively into a spirituality which touches all spheres of life – the intellectual, the emotional and the every-day practical life.

As a natural consequence Rabindranath applied this Cosmic Consciousness to the fields in every-day life which are particular precious to him. He developed his attitude to nature into an eco-spirituality. Long before ecology and the protection of the environment became a trendy and urgent subject, he wrote the poem briksha-bandanā (“In Praise of Trees”) eulogizing the utility but also the spiritual dominance of trees as “the friend of men” and the dynamic energy which provides constant renewal. It is, we would term it today, a hymn to “Green Power”. Rabindranath fostered the vision of an ecologically sound ashram-life. In his Ashram of Santiniketan he wanted to emulate a “Forest University” and later lectured in Europe on “The Message of the Forest”.

This Cosmic Consciousness made itself equally felt in his educational ideal. Not the book-learning of the British colonial schools (which he himself had to endure in his youth) was his model of education in Santiniketan, not the heartless “by-hearting” practiced in those schools as a method of acquiring knowledge – no, Tagore’s method of education was through songs and theatre, art and instrumental music, through dance and games. What courage he had to confront a petrified education system and proclaim the diametrically opposite to the standard practice! For him Intuition was a teacher, Leisure was a Teacher, Melody and Rhythm were teaching his children more than human instructors with a book in his hand.

His Cosmic Consciousness made him develop his eco-spirituality, his pedagogy, but also his political credo. His wholesale rejection of nationalism made many people turn against him, both in India and abroad. The intellectuals of several countries asserted that nationalism alone can hold their country together, not ideas and neither ethical values. Rabindranath, in contrast, never tired of proposing an internationalism based on ideas and values. To read his book Nationalism, is useful particularly nowadays while nationalisms again spring up in Asia, in Europe and also in the USA.

We have so far touched upon the content of Rabindranath’s legacy and why it must be kept alive. Let as briefly ask how this legacy was received globally in the decades after his death. Tagore’s grand project was to bring the ‘East’ and the ‘West’ together and make them jointly work for world peace and for a more just, more humane, more spiritual society. His lectures, conversations and letters build upon this theme with untiring constancy. At the present time, we may no longer appreciate such a neat division of ‘East’ and ‘West’, for we prefer to see the countries subsumed under these tags as a more complex reality. Asia has never been a uniform culture – with India, Japan and China, for instance, being widely different. But in Tagore’s time, this broad division was a political instrument for identifying what he felt should be together and fight together – the ‘East’.

From Egypt to Japan, this sense of a pan-oriental solidarity evolved in many peoples due to Tagore’s influence. This solidarity was more spiritual and emotional than depending on social and political realities. It was only the intellectuals who tended to opt for ‘Westernisation’ and therefore opposed Tagore’s view of a pan-Asian spiritual East.

In Europe, Tagore’s philosophy connected well with traditions and world views of Romanticism and Idealism. In Germany, for example, Tagore integrated well with its tradition of Romanticism which was then a hundred years old. In the USA, he inspired nostalgic associations with the spiritual back-to-nature tradition created by the American authors Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. Many of the political and socio-cultural movements of the early twentieth century can be seen in the light of inclusiveness. Hence several movements could claim to be inspired by Tagore’s idealism, even though, at the core, they did not share Rabindranath’s moral and spiritual outlook. This influence of inclusiveness extended into the post-colonial and post-imperialist era when Tagore’s work was projected as an example of the anti-imperialist struggle and of the cultural wealth which had emerged from the former colonies. This happened particularly in the former Soviet Union.

Such inclusiveness was also at work in countries of the Middle East such as Turkey Iran, and the Arab world which demonstrate the rich reception of Tagore in Islamic cultures. They present a hitherto unknown perspective, namely that an attempt was made to ‘Islamicize’ Tagore’s spirituality, for example in Turkey. Muslim cultures searched for the Sufi in him. Countries with a Buddhist majority also claimed Tagore. As his interest in the Buddha is well documented, Korea, Sri Lanka and Thailand feel a special closeness to Tagore. Christian minorities within the Arab world or in Japan, as well as in Latin American countries with their mostly Christian populations easily found a common ground with Tagore in the Christian ideals of love and service. These examples elucidate that Tagore was able to integrate into the cultural fabric of countries of different religious and cultural backgrounds, encouraging and guiding national movements towards greater inclusiveness and humanity.

However, there were dissenting voices as well. In a few countries, Tagore was deliberately censured and not published or publicized. This happened, for example, after the 1917 Revolution in Russia, during the Second World War in Germany and during Franco’s regime in Spain. Criticism and a partial rejection of Tagore also occurred in societies which strained to rebuild themselves materially after a period of war and strife. Critics in Europe after the First World War deemed that Tagore’s ‘pacifistic’ attitude and his ‘Asian mildness’ were detrimental to the dynamic reconstruction of a country.

In the USA, after the Second World War, the socio-political climate was unfavourable to Tagore’s anti-war and anti-nationalistic sentiments. Similarly, Tagore’s stand against nationalism was rejected in Yugoslavia, Poland, Turkey and in Japan because, as mentioned, nationalism was believed to keep these countries united in their difficult time of political and cultural transition.

The cultural élite in a few countries doubted how well Tagore understood the socio-cultural environment to which he was subjected and urged to respond in each country. For example, in Russia, some roundly refused to listen to him as he had not lived through the First World War and the sufferings of the Revolution and hence could not gauge the pain Russians had felt. However, contrary examples have been related as well. A British soldier was known to carry Gitanjali with him to the battlefield; and in the Warsaw Ghetto, Jewish children enacted Tagore’s play The Post Office to prepare themselves for death in the concentration camp.

It cannot escape our attention that in our times Tagore is only at the periphery of global cultural discourses. The success of modern postcolonial authors overshadows Tagore’s legacy. Nevertheless, his works keep being reprinted and translated which indicates that he continues to speak to modern readers even seventy-five years after his death.


[1] Sandagomi Coperahewa, Sri Lanka. In: Rabindranath Tagore: One Hundred Years of Global Reception. Ed. by Martin Kämpchen and Imre Bangha. Orient BlackSwan, New Delhi 2014, p. 109.

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