Rabindranath Tagore was one of the earliest Indian writers in colonial times to try and locate himself in history, and to claim and create pan-Indian lineages with certain Indian poets and texts, with Kalidasa or the Upanishads. By seeking to trace a lineage from antiquity to modernity, from Kalidasa to, specifically, himself, and to use that lineage to rebuff the coloniser, his project was radically revisionist - not only to insert the Orient into Western humanism, but to subsume the more true, the more humane, tradition of humanism under the Orient. An appraisal on his 145th birth anniversary. This essay also appears in a slightly different version in the London Review of Books.
Edward Said’s Orientalism, published in 1978, gave intellectuals and writers (themselves, like Said, often migrants) from once-colonised nations a language that liberated and shackled in almost equal measure. The liberations that Said’s critical perspective provided, which gave both Europeans and non-Europeans a shrewder and more unillusioned sense of the subterranean ways in which power operated through the cultures of Empire, are now so familiar that we might make the mistake of taking them for granted: which would be foolish, as Eurocentrism is alive and well, and takes new and unexpected forms with every political epoch. Besides, as Said himself knew, the force of his critique has diminished and ossified over the years into professional interests and job profiles: this was something he was clearly troubled by.
The limitations of Said’s seminal study have to do with the idea it’s given us about how the post-colonial might engage with the coloniser’s (that is, European, or Western) culture, and with history; and, explicitly, how the European engages with non-European antiquity. And so we’re left with a somewhat monochromatic type where both the post-colonial and the European are concerned: a type whose relationship to European or Oriental culture, as may be the case, is defined almost exclusively by questions of power and appropriation, and whose own culture and past are at once static and strangely blurred. Orientalism, at least at first glance, doesn’t seem to tell us or explain where its author, in all his many-sidedness, comes from - Western metropolitan intellectual; radical political activist; post-colonial critic; champion of canonical European literature; classical pianist. What is it about the long histories of colonisation and modernity that produced these intriguingly separate, even contrary, selves in Said? Orientalism, at least the way we read it now, doesn’t seem to give us an explanation; and for Marxist critics like Aijaz Ahmed, the contradictions are a sign of bad faith.
Yet it’s this book that contains a celebration of the author of La Renaissance Orientale, Raymond Schwab, and gives us, in Schwab, an outline of another idea of, and way of responding to, the Orient, and, by extension, to a culture other than one’s own. Schwab, Said notes, himself looks back to another figure while describing the startling penetration of European culture by the Orient, or their interpenetration by one another: the figure is Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron (1731-1805), ‘an eccentric theoretician of egalitarianism, a man who managed in his head to reconcile Jansenism with orthodox Catholicism and Brahmanism,’ and who, journeying to Asia, ‘travelled as far east as Surat’ in India, ‘there to find a cache of Avestan texts, there also to complete his translation of the Avesta.’ Here, Said quotes Schwab on what the latter saw to be Anquetil-Duperron’s legacy; it is one of the most affirmative and exuberant passages on cultural contact ever written, though its rhetoric needs to be distinguished somewhat from declamations on hybridity that are common today: ‘In 1759, Anquetil finished his translation of the Avesta at Surat; in 1786 that of the Upanishads in Paris - he had dug a channel between the hemispheres of human genius, correcting and expanding the old humanism of the Mediterranean basin… Before him, one looked for information at the remote past of our planet exclusively among the great Latin, Greek, Jewish, and Arabic writers… A universe in writing was unavailable, but scarcely anyone seemed to suspect the immensity of those unknown lands. The realisation began with his translation of the Avesta, and reached dizzying heights owing to the exploration in Central Asia of the languages that multiplied after Babel. Into our schools… he interjected a vision of innumerable civilisations from ages past, of an infinity of literatures…’
According to Said, the fact that certain Europeans opened themselves, in the late 18th and the 19th centuries, to the cultural store of the Orient resulted, in those individuals, in a ‘new, triumphant eclecticism.’ Among the figures he mentions are, of course, Anquetil-Duperron, and Sir William Jones, the founder of Indology, whose researches on the Orient, Hinduism, and the Sanskrit language include translations from - and, in effect, a recovery of - the great 4th century Sanskrit poet Kalidasa. Yet Said is hard on the latter - ‘[w]hereas Anquetil opened large vistas, Jones closed them down, codifying, tabulating, comparing’ - as if Jones somehow embodied more of the colonial project and less of the ‘triumphant eclecticism’ than Anquetuil-Duperron did. This is borne out, for Said, by Jones’s personal itinerary, and, for us, by the way Said describes it: ‘In due course he was appointed to "an honourable and profitable place in the Indies", and immediately upon his arrival there to take up a post with the East India Company began his course of personal study that was to gather in, to rope off, to domesticate the Orient and thereby to turn it into a province of European learning.’
This reservation about Jones or what he represents - Jones as a symbol of 19th-century European scholarship’s ‘domestication’ of the Orient - has been echoed by others. The historian, Dipesh Chakrabarty, says something similar while enquiring into why he finds it possible to engage in a form of serious intellectual commerce with European philosophers, but not with the many Indian ones going back to antiquity: ‘Sad though it is, one result of European colonial rule in South Asia is that the intellectual traditions once unbroken and alive in Sanskrit or Persian or Arabic are now only matters of historical research for most - perhaps all - modern social scientists in the region.’ But were intellectual traditions in South Asia ‘once unbroken and alive’ - ‘once’ referring to the hazy and golden period before colonisation? This speculation is all the more surprising because it comes only a few sentences after Chakrabarty admits, pertinently, that the idea of an ‘unbroken’ European intellectual tradition going back to the Greeks is a relatively recent construct. The idea of an unbroken Indian tradition is itself probably an Orientalist invention, and Jones one of its early architects.
The ‘Orient’ itself comes into being in the early period of colonialism, and with Orientalist scholarship, as it never had before; and one of the earliest writers to perceive its great cultural, emotional, philosophical, and political potential is Tagore. Certainly, a hundred years prior to Tagore (and to Jones and his researches), no poet in Bengal beheld the Orient and its unbroken past as a foundation, a point of origin, and a parameter for the self and for creativity; there is no ‘Orient’, or ‘East’, for the medieval poets Chandidas, Vidyapati, or Jayadeva, as there is, so profoundly, for Tagore. Nor would it have occurred to Chandidas to locate himself in history, and to claim and create pan-Indian lineages with certain Indian poets and texts, with Kalidasa or the Upanishads, as Tagore does. And, for Chandidas, naturally, there is no Europe; for Europe was born, for the Indian, at about the time the Orient was - twins, though not identical ones, that had, in the Indian’s mind, a momentous and painfully coeval birth. The researches of the likes of Anquetil-Duperron and even Jones brought to certain Europeans a ‘new, triumphant eclecticism’, says Said; but that eclecticism had a relatively brief legacy in the West: by the early twentieth century, it had narrowed itself to an almost exclusively European definition, so that words like ‘cosmopolitan’ were more or less interchangeable with ‘European’. Said doesn’t mention - maybe it doesn’t occur to him - that the true and most significant inheritors of Anquetil-Duperron’s ‘triumphant eclecticism’ weren’t Europeans, but Orientals; that it was they who took fullest intellectual and artistic advantage not only of the advent of Europe in their consciousness, as they did, but of the fact of the ‘Orient’, the ‘correction’ and ‘expansion’ of ‘the old humanism of the Mediterranean basin.’ It’s in this context that we must situate the importance of Tagore, born roughly eighty years after Anquetil-Duperron’s translation of the Upanishads, in 1861; and, indeed, that of Said, as one of the latest in that line of Orientals appropriating and complicating Anquetil-Duperron’s inheritance.
‘A nineteenth-century Orientalist was therefore either a scholar… or a gifted enthusiast… or both,’ says Said, after pointing out that ‘there was a virtual epidemic of Orientalia affecting every major poet, essayist, and philosopher of the period… this is a later transposition eastwards of a similar enthusiasm in Europe for Greek and Latin antiquity during the High Renaissance.’ But the resemblance with the Renaissance ends there. The Orient, in Europe, continued to remain the province of arcane scholars and gifted enthusiasts; in the realm of culture, it retained, and still does, the ethos of ‘Orientalia’. Unlike Greek and Latin antiquity, which becomes an indispensable resource and even a romantic myth for modernism, the Orient, with a handful of exceptions, such as the final lines of The Waste Land, is never inserted into modernist self-consciousness. Its domain becomes, in Europe, largely the domain of popular culture, of kitsch and the exotic. Even in 19th-century Indian art, the Orient occupies the soft, hazy space of ‘Orientalia’ in popular artists like Ravi Varma; indeed, the Oriental paintings - the faux Mughal miniatures - of Tagore’s nephew Abanindranath, often seen to be the father of modern Indian painting, have their life-blood, partly, in the kitschy, the popular. This is not to make a value-judgement about one sort of artist, or art, and another, but to try to map the moment and to be as true as possible to its impetus. It would have been easy enough for Tagore to turn, as a poet and writer, to the Orient as a magical and occult resource, as Yeats did, in some of his writings, with Ireland. Instead, radically, he inscribed it, in his vast oeuvre, into the trajectory of humanism and the ‘high’ modern; Easternness, in his work, is no longer incompatible with individualism, with the self-consciousness about the powers and limits of language, or the awareness of the transformative role of the secular artist. In fashioning these paradigms, modes of consciousness, and roles for himself, Tagore seems to be addressing, instructing, and even rebutting not a Brahmin, but a bourgeois, orthodoxy in Calcutta; and, unprecedentedly, conflating his identity as an Oriental and his vocation as a secular artist in doing so.
By the time Tagore was born in 1861, the first wave of Orientalist enthusiasm and the most significant phase of Orientalist scholarship were over. In 1813, Byron had advised Thomas Moore, ‘Stick to the East … it [is] the only poetical policy’. The ‘policy’ had impelled him, Southey, and Moore to write about the gul-e-bulbul (the stock Persian metaphor for the nightingale in the garden), and probably also stimulated Edward Fitzgerald’s ‘translation’ of the Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayam. By the second half of the nineteenth century, the excitement, despite the appearance of Max Mueller, had largely passed. (TS Eliot’s misgivings about Fitzgerald’s poem, despite his not being immune to its appeal, is representative of modernism’s distrust of ‘Orientalia’. How Tagore escaped, albeit briefly, this distrust, with the help of Pound, of all people, isn’t easy to understand, and I’ll return to it later.)
In 1879, ‘Oriental’ poetry received a final fillip with the publication of Light of Asia, Edwin Arnold’s life of the Buddha in narrative verse. As early as 1817, Thomas Moore had received the unheard-of sum of 3000 guineas as an advance for his poem Lalla Rookh; now, once more, Light of Asia became an immense success on both sides of the Atlantic, and was reprinted eighty times. When Matthew Arnold visited America, he found he was confused by many with Edwin. Of course, the notion of ‘high seriousness’ that Matthew Arnold had himself formulated would prevail upon the culture of the time, guaranteeing that his reputation would outlast the frenetic but essentially light efflorescence of the ‘Oriental’ poem; here, too, in the contrast between the two Arnolds, we’re reminded that ‘seriousness’ in literature remained a European or Anglo-Saxon province, and the ‘Oriental’ was marked by lightness, colour, and momentary success. The matter of success in the marketplace (one of the first things we associate with a certain kind of Indian writing today) and its relationship to the Orient has a lineage, then, stretching back to the early nineteenth century.
The example of the Tagore family shows us that, in Calcutta itself, the creation of a space for culture had everything to do with a humanistic embracing of ‘high seriousness’, and a turning away from commerce and material reward: the same turn that marks the emergence of modernism in the bourgeois cultures of Europe. Tagore’s grandfather, ‘Prince’ Dwarkanath, was a man who made his fortune out of the opportunity the colonial moment presented him with, as a middleman for the Company in Calcutta. He travelled to London and threw lavish parties; he died with his financial affairs in disarray. The disarray - not to speak of the vast estates - was inherited by his son Debendranath, who paid off his father’s debts and made his family financially secure again. But the turn away from commerce and entrepreneurship (if not from inherited land) that would come to characterise middle-class or bhadralok Bengali culture already marks Debendranath, who, besides being a man of property, became a philosopher-mystic - ‘maharshi’ or ‘maha rishi’, the ‘great sage’. What facilitated Debendranath’s increasing philosophical leanings was his discovery of the Upanishads - a text that his father’s friend, the scholar, reformer, and thinker Rammohun Roy had translated into English in the early 19th century, and which Anquetil-Duperron, too, had brought to the world’s attention in the 18th century in his French translation. The Upanishads, then, became, for both Roy and Debendranath Tagore, a prism through which they recovered not only their own spiritual inheritance, but the lineage of a humanism to be found outside the Mediterranean basin.
The break with commerce that Debendranath represented was deepened emphatically and with finality in the next generation, especially by two of his fourteen children: Jyotirindranath, his fifth son, and Rabindranath, the youngest. (Tagore’s biographers, Andrew Robinson and Krishna Dutta, have noted shrewdly that, although the poet speaks constantly of his father in his memoirs and elsewhere, he elides the subject of his grandfather Dwarkanath.) Jyotirindranath, with his experimentations in theatre, literature, and especially musical composition (in the 1870s and 1880s he was composing Bengali songs on the piano), was a great influence on Rabindranath, as was Jyotirindranath’s young wife, with whom he had an ambiguous relationship: part filial, part romantic, the sort of semi-articulate bond that animates many of his fictions and especially his songs, a bond that almost thrives on the permanent impossibility of consummation -
‘I could speak to her on a day like this,
on a day when it rains as heavily.
You can open your heart on a day like this -
when you hear the clouds as the rain pours down
in gloom unbroken by light.
… Those words won’t be heard by anyone else;
there’s not a soul around.
Just us, face to face, in each other’s sorrow
sorrowing, as water streams without interruption;
it’s as if there’s no one else in the world.’
These, the first two verses of a song, echo, with their promise of secrecy and revelation, what Tagore wrote to Kadambari in the concluding piece in a collection of jottings and musings published not long before her death: ‘I offer something more with these thoughts, which only you will notice.
Do you remember that moment by the banks of the Ganga? That silent dark? Those wanderings in imagined worlds? Those deep discussions in low, serious voices? The two of us sitting silently, saying nothing? That breeze at sunrise, that evening shadow! And, once, those rain-bearing clouds, Sravan’s downpour, the songs of Vidyapati?…I have concealed a handful of contentment and grief in these thoughts; open these pages once in a while and look upon them with affection, no one but you will be able to see what’s in them! The message inscribed into these words is - there’s one writing that you and I shall read. And there’s another writing for everyone else.’
These three - Jyotirindranath, Kadambari, and Rabindranath - formed, along with certain gifted members of a subsequent generation, the core of what was probably India’s first ‘artistic’ family: ‘artistic’ in the sense of self-consciously pursuing the arts as a vocation, with a quasi-religious Victorian fervour, while moving away from, as self-consciously, the pre-ordained responsibilities defined by caste, class, property, and even gender. This salon - at once embarrassing, silly, and deeply creative and original - and Tagore’s part in it were permanently shadowed by Kadambari’s suicide in 1884. The reasons for it are unclear; though speculations range from her attachment to Rabindranath, who was married a few months before she took her life by consuming opium, to her husband Jyotirindranath’s flirtation, possibly liaison, with an actress he came into contact with during his forays into theatre, and whose letters Kadambari discovered in his pocket; again, a scene retold in the novel Chokher Bali.
Part of the immediate legacy bestowed on Tagore by his father Debendranath was that of the Brahmo Samaj, the reformist sect within Hinduism founded by Rammohun Roy. The sect developed a curious but compelling mixture of Protestant high-mindedness and Hindu metaphysics; its prayers and meetings were conducted in a ‘church’; its central text was the Upanishads. In rejecting the idolatrous practises and the deities of ordinary Hinduism and replacing them with the niraakar (formless) One of the Upanishads, Brahmoism supplied Tagore not so much with a religion - he was never entirely convinced by, or interested in, its claims to being one - as an aesthetic. It was an aesthetic that corresponds closely with the Flaubertian dictum that would define a substantial part of the modernist enterprise: ‘The author, like God in the universe, is everywhere present but nowhere visible in his works.’ This is a notion of God, and his relationship to creation, that goes to the heart of Brahmoism’s vision of the world. Indeed, you have to wonder if Flaubert had been reading Anquetil-Duperron, and had aestheticised an Upanishadic idea. Certainly, Tagore did perform that aestheticisation in his own work, introducing to Bengali literature a new sort of self-reflexivity as he did so; seldom referring to God in his writings, but speaking of the ‘kabi’ or ‘poet’ while referring to both author and divinity, and punning on the word ‘rachana’, or ‘composition’, to mean both text and creation.
Tagore’s education was an unusual one. Admitted to the Normal School at a ‘tender age’, he was deeply unhappy there, and was mainly educated at home by tutors. His least favourite lesson was English, and he pokes fun at the language in Jiban Smriti, his memoirs: ‘Providence, out of pity of mankind, has instilled a soporific charm into all tedious things. No sooner did our English lessons begin than our heads began to nod.’ Later, in 1878, when his first book of songs appeared, he would go to England to study law, attend lectures for a few months at University College London, travel through the country and observe English culture (his remarks on Western music are particularly interesting) with a mixture of empathy and resistance, and finally return to Calcutta in 1880, without a degree. Tagore, like Kipling, his younger contemporary, was secretly traumatised by what Foucault called the ‘disciplinarian’ society: the cluster of institutions comprising schools, universities, hospitals, prisons. The trauma, strangely, ended up making Kipling an official spokesman for the disciplinarian society; but Tagore always remained ill-at-ease in it. Not just his opposition to imperial England, but his suspicion of nationalism and the nation-state seem to derive from it; as does his fanciful experiment in a more open and relaxed form of learning in a place he wistfully chose to name ‘Shantiniketan’. From childhood onward, Tagore had been looking out of windows and partitions; the word ‘khancha’, or ‘cage’, recurs in the songs and poems, as do the possibilities and avenues of egress that victims of a disciplinarian society fantasise about - ‘batayan’ or window; ‘kholo dwar’, the exhortation to open doors; the famous speculation at the end of a poem about the flight of wild geese, ‘hethha noi, hethha noi, onno kothhay’, ‘not here, not here, but elsewhere’.
When Tagore published his first book of songs at the age of 16, he was praised by the foremost writer of the time, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. But his relationship with Bengali literary culture was no means easy. Although he was probably Bengal’s foremost poet by the end of the nineteenth century, he had several vociferous detractors (among them contemporaries like the poet DL Roy), whose comments on his work ranged from the snidely witty to the piously outraged.
Even after the Nobel, which he got in 1913, the passages in which Tagore had begun to write a new colloquial Bengali prose were included by Calcutta University in the MA paper in Bengali as specimens to be rendered by examinees into ‘chaste Bengali’. The Nobel itself was the climax of a series of meetings and accidents. On board a ship to England in 1912, Tagore had completed his translations of the metrically strict but delicately agile Bengali songs of his Gitanjali into loose English prose-poems with a hint of Biblical sonority: ‘The pages of a small exercise-book came gradually to be filled, and with it in my pocket I boarded the ship.’ Once in London, Tagore lost the attaché case in which he was carrying the manuscripts on the Underground, but rediscovered it in the Left Luggage Office: a tribute to British civic sense, and possibly a reminder that the case contained nothing that would be of use to anyone. He gave the translations to the painter William Rothenstein, a friend of his nephew Abanindranath’s, who had met Tagore in the winter of 1910-11 in the house in Jorasanko, Calcutta. Rothenstein had then been intrigued by both Tagore’s presence and his silence during conversations; not knowing of his reputation as a writer, his curiosity grew when he happened to read a story by Tagore in Calcutta’s Modern Review. Rothenstein was astonished and immensely moved by the translations in the Gitanjali (the English Gitanjali doesn’t quite correspond to its Bengali counterpart, but also contains a selection from two other books of songs); he showed them to Yeats. The Irish poet seems to have responded to them as business executives are reported to respond to Paul Coelho: ‘I have carried the manuscripts of these translations about with me for days, reading it in railway trains, or on the top of omnibuses and in restaurants, and I have often had to close it lest some stranger would see how much it moved me.’
Why Tagore translated the songs into a language he’d once found so tedious, and which he used with a degree of insecurity (‘That I cannot write English is such a patent fact that I never had even the vanity to feel ashamed of it,’ he confessed to his niece Indira), is mysterious. Also mysterious is how they excited and even instructed, albeit for a relatively short while, the most exacting figures of literary London, Ezra Pound included. The English Gitanjali is a shadowy approximation of the marvellous original; if it continues to be of interest, it’s for cultural and even psychological, not literary, reasons - and the same is true, as it happens, of the ‘Orient’. The writers who’d once promoted Tagore went off him not long after he got the Nobel in 1913; in 1917, Pound wrote in a letter: ‘Tagore got the Nobel Prize because, after the cleverest boom of our times, after the fiat of the omnipotent literati of distinction, he lapsed into religion and was boomed by the pious non-conformists.’ The word ‘boom’ is striking; the economist Amartya Sen, in his recent book The Argumentative Indian, seems to pick up that word and both recall and refute Pound when, speaking of Tagore’s reputation, he places it within the logic of capital and the free market by saying it was a victim of the ‘boom and bust’ cycle that most Oriental enthusiasms constitute in the West. Tagore’s star waned irrevocably in the Occident; or at least the Oriental Tagore’s did - the humanist Tagore’s star had never appeared in that firmament.
The Oxford Tagore Translations, whose general editor is Sukanta Chaudhuri, gives us pause, and a renewed opportunity to take stock of the achievement and its historical moment. The series gives us not only an overview of the vast range of the work - there are separate volumes of poetry, critical essays, writings for children, short stories, and one novel (that leaves the paintings and plays) - but is a fresh attempt to assuage the anxiety that Tagore has seldom been well-translated, least of all by himself, and to allay the fear that he cannot be. But the nature of the ‘bad’ Tagore translation has not only to do with insufficient fidelity to the original, or inadequate mastery of the target language; it’s do with a naïve and specious spirituality or Easternness in the English version that’s present in the original in complex and oblique ways. The ‘bad’ translations, including Tagore’s own, insert Tagore into ‘Orientalia’. The Oxford Tagore Translations, then, is itself a late instance of the sort of humanist project that Tagore, in large measure, began in Bengal in the late 19th century; his emphatic rejection of Orientalia in Bengali, despite his slipping dangerously close to it in English; his situating of the Oriental in the human and universal, and vice versa. The Oxford Tagore series is an attempt to capture and be true to this process; of the way in which Easternness, in Tagore’s oeuvre (and, implicitly, in those of us - his editors, translators, readers - for whom Tagore is a formative inheritance), becomes so integrally a part of the narrative of the human: till then largely the domain of the West. That the editors and translators don’t always seem fully conscious of the process they embody reminds us how quickly and deeply that conflation of the Oriental with the universal was internalised amongst Indian moderns, while its features remain only sketchily delineated in critical language.
How, in creating his oeuvre and opening up the possibilities of a new tradition - a modern literature in India - did Tagore position himself as a modern? His view of himself, expressed in and across his essays, is that he is an Oriental, bringing to bear upon the modern world the special insight of the Oriental; that he is a Bengali, having recourse to the emotional terrain of Bengal; and that, as a poet, he is a ‘universal’ human being, with access to a humanity that is deeper than civilisational borders, or conflicts, or even the fact of colonisation. Each one of these personae (for the want of a better word) is assumed by Tagore at different points of time, and developed and pursued according to the appropriateness of the moment or the argument, without any sense of self-contradiction or confusion or embarrassment. By European modernism itself, represented to him mainly by the early TS Eliot and his urban despair in poems such as ‘Preludes’, he was deeply distressed, but nevertheless studied it dutifully, if balefully. Here he positioned himself as an Oriental who, implicitly, brought a far more profound response to life than Eliot’s shallow (as Tagore saw it) urban angst. Tagore’s rejection of Eliot and the decaying industrialised city of modernism led younger poets and admirers like Buddhadev Bose (who had a long, eloquent debate with him on the subject not long before his death in 1941) to classify Tagore as probably something of a late romantic - as someone not quite modern. It’s an impression that persists even today; as if a rejection of modernity as subject-matter - tenement housing, electric lights, offices, scenes of urban dereliction - were itself an infallible sign of a distance from modernism; as if the fact that Tagore claimed Indian antiquity as a great part of his intellectual inheritance, and invoked nature repeatedly in songs and poems, marked him simply and uncomplicatedly as a romantic.
In listening to these criticisms, Tagore was exceptionally patient; and yet, while officially stating his reservations about the modernists and about Eliot (with the exception of ‘Journey of the Magi’, which he was greatly moved by), and his disagreements with Bose, he was also studying and taking cues from them. Tagore was an astonishingly shrewd and gifted learner; and the topoi and characteristics of much of his work of his middle and late periods - the experiments in fragmentary and free verse; the appearance of the lower-middle-class city in a poems like ‘Banshi’ or ‘Flute’ (translated in this series by the novelist Sunetra Gupta, who also gives us some very striking renditions of some of the prose poems); the unfinished and provisional quality of much of the late poems and especially the paintings - are partly the irresolvable marks of what Edward Said called ‘late style’, and partly a working out of Tagore’s problematic relationship with stimuli he felt compelled to reject, and yet couldn’t ignore. Very few modern poets, except Yeats, have aged as intriguingly as Tagore; very few, in age, continued to be such gifted, if often recalcitrant students, while appearing to the world as a master.
Yet it would be a mistake to impose a dichotomy on Tagore’s work, between the modern, the political, the ‘critical’, on the one hand, and the romantic, the ahistorical, the organic on the other, as two of the most intelligent critics of Bengali culture, Buddhadev Bose in the Forties, and, more recently, Dipesh Chakrabarty have done. It’s a dichotomy that Tagore seems to invite and to confirm in his own pronouncements, but which his work dismantles profoundly. For Bose, and others after him, Tagore’s turning away from the crises of modernity - urban squalor, man’s alienation from the industrialised landscape - distinguishes him decisively from the modernists. Bose’s idea of the modern, as of Bengali critics after him who’ve written about Tagore and modernity, seems to have its source in Eliot’s essay on Baudelaire. Tagore’s late poem ‘Banshi’, about a clerk (modernism’s ‘little man’) who lives in a squalid tenement in Calcutta, is seen, then, to be an attempt by the poet to come to terms with the Baudelarian inheritance and milieu of modernism. But this is to identify modernism by theme alone, and ignore the radical revisions in forms of perception that it constitutes. Two of the fundamental preoccupations of the modernist imagination, the moment in time as a means of accessing the transformed present, and the image, which can’t be entirely broken down or reduced, are both integral to Tagorean poetics and his view of the world - the moment, in his work, is ‘kshan’, and the image ‘chhabi’, or ‘picture’, and they recur in his poems, especially in his songs, in an infinity of contexts. ‘Banshi’, as it happens, is a romantic poem about modernity; but the so-called romantic songs about the weather, the beloved, and nature, are replete with the modernist’s fragmentary apprehension of the real, and of the irreducible image.
Chakrabarty, in an essay on Tagore, distinguishes the poet’s ‘critical eye’, which he finds in his stories, and which, for Chakrabarty, negotiates history and society, from the sensibility, or gaze, found in the poetry, which he describes as the ‘adoring eye’: romantic, transcendent, bucolic. A ‘division of labour’ is at work here, and this is how Chakrabarty puts it: ‘At the same time…as he employed his prosaic writings to document social problems, Tagore put his poetic compositions (not always in verse), and songs to a completely different use. These created and deployed images of the same category - the Bengali village - but this time as a land of arcadian and pastoral beauty overflowing with the sentiments that defined what Tagore would increasingly - from the 1880s on - call "the Bengali heart."’
This is true; and yet, to get a fuller sense of the impact nature had on Tagore, and the one it has on us through his writing, we have to take into account the long and intriguing itinerary it had in his intellectual development. In fact, Tagore’s natural world, in the songs and poems, has little of the finished repose of arcadia, but is beset by continual physical agitation, either subtle - tremors, tricks of light - or violent and Shelleyan, as in the famous poem about the flight of the wild geese in the collection Balaka. But the conception of nature Tagore theorised in his essays all his mature life is arcadian, and that arcadian conception is not incompatible with Tagore’s politics, but is actually indispensable to it. That arcadia is India, or ancient India, and its source and mediator is Kalidasa.
That notional arcadia has a deceptive tranquillity; for Tagore, nature is as much a political metaphor, an instrument for national contestation, as it is for John Clare and Ted Hughes. Critics like Tom Paulin and Mina Gorji have drawn our attention to the ways in which nature becomes a metaphor for an embattled ‘Englishness’ in Clare and Hughes; the unfinished ‘naturalness’ of nature is conflated with the ‘rude’ qualities of Northern speech or English dialect, and set, implicitly, against the refined and false graces of Southern England, and of the court and the city. So, as Paulin points out, the thistles in Hughes’s poem of the same name become ‘a grasped fistful/ Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up/ From the underground stain of a decayed Viking.’ The thistles, in the poem, enact the contestation over what Englishness, and English speech, constitute: ‘They are like… the gutturals of dialect’; mown down, their ‘sons appear, / Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground.’
Tagore’s deployment of nature in his politics and aesthetics is as ideological as Hughes’s, and has equally to do with nationality; but it moves in the opposite direction, critiquing imperialism while overturning the verities that we’ve now come to associate with post-colonial writing and identity. If Tagore were to fit in with our stock idea of the post-colonial writer, he would have enlisted the wildness of nature, of the indigenous landscape, as a trope of resistance against European civilisation and the Enlightenment. Instead, for Tagore, nature is the site of civilisation, refinement, and of certain ideals of the secular enlightenment, such as the ideal of living in harmony with the world: and it’s a specifically Indian location for these things. Tagore, audaciously, not so much critiques the Western enlightenment and humanism, and the idea of ‘civilisation’ itself, but snatches them away from their expected location and gives to them another source and lineage in India and its antiquity; cheekily, he implies this lineage might be the more authentic one. Here, both nature and Kalidasa - for him, the ur-poet of the physical world - are crucial to his purposes. Tagore’s engagement with Kalidasa is all the more astonishing when we think of Chakrabarty’s honest, if remorseful, admission that modern Indian intellectuals are unable to enter into a fruitful dialogue with their forbears; for the dialogue Tagore has with Kalidasa is not just instinctive and emotional, but pressing and contemporary. We begin to understand, as we read him theorising about nature and the Sanskrit poet, the radically revisionist nature of his project - not only to insert the Orient into Western humanism, but to subsume the more true, the more humane, tradition of humanism under the Orient.
Towards the end of an essay, ‘The Religion of the Forest’ (not included in the OUP translations), Tagore reflects on two broad, and conflicting, civilisational impulses: ‘When, in my recent voyage to Europe, our ship left Aden and sailed along the sea which lay between the two continents, we passed by the red and barren rocks of Arabia on our right side and the gleaming sands of Egypt on our left. They seemed to me like two giant brothers exchanging with each other burning glances of hatred, kept apart by the tearful entreaty of the sea from whose womb they had their birth.’
For Tagore, ‘the two shores spoke to me of two different historical dramas enacted.’ In Egypt, he sees a civilisation that grew around a ‘noble river, which spread the festivities of life on its banks across the heart of the land. There man never raised the barrier of alienation between himself and the rest of the world.’ On the other hand, on ‘the opposite shore of the Red Sea the civilisation which grew up in the inhospitable soil of Arabia had a contrary character to that of Egypt. There man felt himself isolated in hostile and bare surroundings.’ And so, his mind ‘naturally dwelt upon the principle of separateness. It roused in him the spirit of fight, and this spirit was a force that drove him far and wide.’ For Tagore, these ‘two civilisations represented two fundamental divisions of human nature. The one contained in it the spirit of conquest and the other the spirit of harmony.’ Tagore concludes that ‘both of these have their truth and purpose in human nature.’
It’s clear, however, which side Tagore is on, and what the purpose of this elaborate meditation is. ‘Egypt’ is a trope for the Orient, ‘Arabia’ for the coloniser, and, therefore, by extension, of the West. (Tagore is not the first Indian poet to view the Arab as a ‘conqueror’; Henry Vivian Derozio, an important but comparatively minor figure of the early nineteenth century, does the same. It’s something they inherited from the work of the early British Orientalists; but since both Derozio and, here, Tagore turned the Arab into a covert trope for the English coloniser, it’s something they also turn against the people they inherited it from.) That Tagore means the English coloniser is left in no doubt if one looks at the textual analysis that he undertakes in most of this essay, a comparison between literary responses to nature in English and in Sanskrit. The English works mainly comprise Shakespeare, who is found wanting: ‘In the Tempest, through Prospero’s treatment of Ariel and Caliban we realise man’s struggle with Nature and his longing to sever connection with her.’ In Macbeth, all we evidently get of the non-human world is a ‘barren heath where the three witches appear as personifications of Nature’s malignant forces’; in King Lear, ‘the storm on the heath’ is a symbol of the human tumult enacted in the play. Moreover, the ‘tragic intensity of Hamlet and Othello is unrelieved by any touch of Nature’s eternity’. Tagore glances at play after play, before judiciously washing his hands of both the English poet and the culture he belongs to: ‘I hope it is needless for me to say that these observations are not intended to minimise Shakespeare’s great power as a dramatic poet but to show in his works the gulf between Nature and human nature owing to the tradition of his race and time.’ Not even Milton is exempt; although the ‘very subject’ of Paradise Lost ‘- Man dwelling in the garden of Paradise - seems to afford a special opportunity for bringing out the true greatness of man’s relationship with Nature’, Tagore detects a disturbing element of mastery in Milton’s account of that relationship: ‘Bird, beast, insect or worm / Durst enter none, such was their awe of man.’
As Tagore reads these poets, he seems to argue that Western humanism - and its idea of ‘civilisation’ - is complicated, and compromised, by its compulsion to dominate and colonise nature. It’s a conclusion remarkably similar to D.H. Lawrence’s Etruscan Places; Lawrence’s metaphors for coloniser and colonised are the Romans and the Etruscans respectively, where the former’s civilisation is marked by territorial conquest and the domination of nature, the latter’s by its investment in agricultural and spiritual regeneration. Extraordinarily, in his essay, Tagore notes a particular break in the English imagination after the Renaissance with the advent of Romanticism; the break is characterised by a new relationship to nature, a new definition of the human, and its source, Tagore claims, is the Orient: ‘We observe a completely different attitude of mind in the later English poets like Wordsworth and Shelley, which can be attributed in the main to the great mental change in Europe, at that particular period through the influence of the newly discovered philosophy of India which stirred the soul of Germany and aroused the attention of other Western countries.’
Tagore, in spite of his use of the word ‘philosophy’, is not so much thinking of Max Mueller, Schiller, Schelling, and German Indology here, but of nature and poetry, of Kalidasa, and of Goethe’s enthusiasm for the Shakuntala. This is more than Tagore’s version of what Schwab called the ‘correction and expansion of the old humanism of the Mediterranean basin’; it’s a wresting of the humanist and civilisational initiative from the West. Tagore, then, is not as interested in critiquing the Western Enlightenment in the now-familiar post-colonial manner, as he is in relocating its original impetus in the Orient and in India. This relocation, of course, was an obsession with a branch of Orientalist scholarship, and with figures like William Jones; but, while the Orientalists were content to discern certain features of the Enlightenment in Indian antiquity, Tagore wants to trace a lineage from antiquity to modernity, from Kalidasa to, specifically, himself, and to use that lineage to rebuff the coloniser. For these purposes, Kalidasa and Shakespeare and their imaginative relationships with nature continue to be contrasted strategically by Tagore; his own advocacy of Kalidasa is also shrewd and strategic, besides being passionate.
At the time Tagore was writing, traditional Indian literature was seen (as it still is sometimes) to be almost indistinguishable from mythology and religion; Tagore himself, although his own poetry and imagination were radically secular, was translated as a public figure into the realm of mythology and mysticism, partly because of this reason, and partly through his own connivance. Yet the nature of his engagement with Kalidasa tells us of a very different concern, a different agenda, which also brings him much closer to the modernist preoccupation (prevalent in Europe at the time) with exactness, concreteness, and sensory perception than one would ordinarily think. The reasons for Tagore more or less ignoring, as a practising poet, the influence of his immediate as well as not-too-distant precursors in Bengal, such as the devotional poets Chandidas and Vidyapati (except in a youthful pastiche he did of the latter’s work), and turning to a North Indian Sanskrit poet of antiquity are manifold. In claiming Kalidasa as a precursor, Tagore is seeing him as a proto-modern, as someone whose primary subject was the physical universe, unmediated by religion, and whose primary concern was language itself, and its ability to convey and enrich ways of seeing. The devotional poets of India referred to the physical world - to the landscape and to the weather - in stock images that circulated in their work; one would expect, then, that Tagore learnt to ‘look’ at the real world from the English Romantics he admired. Tagore is aware of this, and is at pains to tell us that he learnt it from Kalidasa, from whom, too, according to Tagore, the Romantics inherited, consciously or indirectly, the habit of looking at the world. It’s no accident, surely, that the lines Tagore quotes from Kalidasa in his essay, ‘The Meghadutam’, about Kalidasa’s great poem-sequence, not so much invoke tradition as much as contemporariness: they’re lines in which perception, memory, and immediate physical sensation have come together in a single moment and image, and are quite unlike anything in Chandidas or Vidyapati: ‘The breezes from the snowy peaks have just burst open the leaf-buds of deodar trees and, redolent of their oozing resin, blow southward. I embrace those breezes, fondly imagining they have lately touched your form, O perfect one!’
Kalidasa is crucial to Tagore’s revisionist notion that a fundamental strain of enlightenment humanism - the idea that the individual fashions and reorders his relationship to the physical universe through language - is more authentically Indian, or Oriental, than European. As a colonial subject, Tagore would have known that, ever since James Mill wrote his contemptuous diatribe on the Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata , the common English view of Indian writing was that it was overblown, grotesquely overwritten, and excessively romantic. In Mill’s words: ‘These fictions are not only extravagant, and unnatural, less correspondent with the physical and moral laws of the universe, but are less ingenious, more monstrous and have less of any thing that can engage the affection, or excite admiration… Of the style in which they are composed it is far from too much to say, that all the vices which characterise the style of rude nations… they exhibit in perfection. Inflation; metaphors perpetual, and these the most violent and strained… repetition; verbosity; confusion, incoherence; distinguished the Mahabharat and the Ramayan.’
Through Kalidasa, Tagore wishes to show his readers that classicism - refinement and obliqueness in language; impersonality in perception - is not only native to India, but has older roots there than in Europe. In another, brilliant essay on Kalidasa, in which he compares Shakuntala to the Tempest, Tagore turns Mill’s rhetoric upon Shakespeare, claiming, in effect, Hellenic classicism as an essentially Oriental literary characteristic, and Orientalising, in Said’s sense of the word, Shakespeare and the European poets: ‘Universal nature is outwardly serene, but a tremendous force works continually within it. In Shakuntala we can see an image of this state. No other drama exhibits such remarkable restraint. European poets seem to grow wild at the least chance of displaying the force of nature and impulse. They love to bring out, through hyperbolic utterance, how far our impulses can lead us. Examples aplenty can be found in plays like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Among all Shakespeare’s dramatic works, there is no play as serenely profound, as restrainedly complete and perfect as Shakuntala. Such love dialogue as passes between Dushyanta and Shakuntala is very brief, and chiefly conveyed through hints and signs.... Precisely where another poet would have looked for a chance to let the pen race, [Kalidasa] quells it.’
Reading the essays on Kalidasa in the Oxford Tagore Translations, one feels that Tagore is trying, in recuperating the Sanskrit court poet, to do in the realm of literature what Rammohun Roy and his own father Debendranath had done not very much earlier in the realm of religion and philosophy. Faced with the charge that the Hindu religion was incorrigibly polytheistic, these figures, instead of rejecting the European humanism from which that charge emanated, turned to ancient texts like the Upanishads to claim that, in a sense, the Enlightenment had an older lineage in India than it did in Europe. The story of that Indian rewriting of humanism wouldn’t be complete without an acknowledgement of how Tagore enlarged it in the field of literature; for him, and for the narrative of Indian literature in the context of humanism, Kalidasa and his arcadia is as significant and loaded with meaning as the discovery of the Upanishads was to the Brahmo Samaj, the reformist sect that Roy and Debendranath founded. ‘Universal nature is outwardly serene, but a tremendous force works continually within it’: it’s as if, in speaking of nature, Tagore actually means literature, and the politics of literature, as it appears to a man living in a momentous and turbulent time.