Rabindranath Tagore: Western Introduction and Influence

Rabindranath Tagore’s name is synonymous with Bengali culture. His prolific outpouring of poems, songs, novels, plays, short stories and essays are golden threads woven into the very fabric of his country. The power of his presence endures even in the exquisitely poetic and soulful national anthem of modern Bangladesh: “Amar Sonar Bangla” (My Golden Bengal). In 1950, 8 years after his death, his “Jana-Gana-Mana” (Thou Art the Ruler of All Minds) was adopted as the anthem of all India.

His poetic genius was recognised further afield long before he left the world though. Tagore’s was an open, cosmopolitan mind. He described his own family as “a confluence of three cultures: Hindu, Mohammedan, and British” (1). The sincerity and depth of his works, based on a sweet and joyful devotion to God, blossomed at just the right time for England. His expressions and experiences survived translation and preserved their lustre for the eager western audience. The post-Victorian thirst for truth and simplicity welcomed his words with open arms and a glad heart.

Tagore’s wealthy and educated background prompted him to seek a career as a barrister. His quest brought him on a brief visit to England in 1878, which did not bear the fruit he desired. He instead went back to his home in Calcutta where he started to make a name for himself locally through his writing. He returned to England at the age of 51, and began translating his latest work: a garland of devotional poetry called Gitanjali.

English painter William Rothenstein heard of this translation and asked to see it, but Tagore kept his modest hold on it until pressed much further. Rothenstein was transfixed by the beauty of the poems when they were at last released, and insisted they be shown to his friend, the Irish poet, W.B. Yeats.

Yeats was overwhelmed by the subtlety and depth of the Gitanjali, and had it printed in 1912, with his own lengthy and sensitive introduction:

“I have carried the manuscript 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.” (2)

Within a year Tagore had received the Nobel Prize for Literature – the first person from the east to receive the honour – which launched a series of international lectures. He was knighted in 1915 by King George V, but he renounced the title 4 years later, following the British massacre of 400 Indian civilians in Amritsar.

Tagore’s work was treasured in Europe by those suffering the hardships and losses of the First World War. Wilfred Owen was among those who found solace in the spirituality of Tagore’s words. After his death his mother wrote to Tagore to express her gratitude. His parting words to her on his final journey were:

“those wonderful words of yours – beginning at ‘When I go from hence, let this be my parting word.'”

When his pocket book was returned to her she saw:

“these words written in his dear writing – with your name beneath.” (3)

The Western perception of Tagore’s work has been dubbed as narrow by Indian scholars and devotees. Western interest in his work has also seemed to dwindle in recent years. He is seen simply as a mystical poet rather than the great cultural figure known in the east, as that aspect was most marketable in his lifetime. This could be perceived as a great loss, but even if the west only knows him for his Gitanjali, that bounty has fed many hearts, albeit a fraction of his total genius.


    1. Sen on Tagore
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Article by: Sumanagali Morhall

Sumangali Morhall is a member of the Sri Chinmoy Meditation Centre She enjoys combining spirituality with the arts, especially through writing poetry. She also edits Sumangali.org, dedicated to the spirit of serendipity.

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