Before Dylan, Tagore: on the erasure of Indian literature

A few months ago, my neighbour asked me, ‘Do you have beds in India?’ Last week, a white friend asked me, albeit jokingly and drunk, ‘Did you have some spicy curry for dinner before you came?’ Do these two examples, among many, reveal a symptomatic Western perception of India as defined by its extremities – poverty, spicy food, idolatry of cricket heroes? Is cultural India merely a frenzied collection of colours and Bollywood melodrama? Does there remain a colonial hangover demarcating India as an exotic populace of the enchanting and far-away East? Is this why in October 2016, a Bengali writer as significant to literature as Joyce, Eliot or Proust, was forgotten by the New York Times and the Guardian, when they described Bob Dylan as the ‘first songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for Literature’?

Rabindranath Tagore is the anti-colonialist in question, reverently coined by his devotees and by my Bengali family as the ‘Bard of Bengal’. He was the first non-European to win the prize in 1913, for his collection of poems in Gitanjali and, as such, he possesses an elevated status in my country. Walking down the bustling streets of Kolkata, you hear his poetry blaring from major traffic intersections and pandals which dot the metro landscape during the festive season. You can see his face and words printed on posters behind street-hawkers selling fake Nike clothes and in most Bengali households, where his portrait sits alongside statues of Ganesha and Shiva in the omnipresent puja room.

The title, Gitanjali, is composed from two Bengali words – geet (song) and anjali (offering), and thus is literally translated as ‘an offering of songs’. Tagore is credited with having written over two thousand songs, compared to a discography of around 500 for Dylan. Tagore’s geet’s range from devotional hymns to Bengali folk tunes and have influenced sarod musicians like Amjad Ali Khan, helped fashion the national anthems of India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and inspired Indian philosopher Swami Vivekananda, a key figure in the introduction of yoga to the West.

Tagore’s influence defines him as not only a literary figure but also as a national symbol, and like Lawson, Joyce or Whitman, he came to embody India’s idea of itself and its cultural and intellectual independence. Growing up in Australia, and despite having four different copies of Gitanjali in our bookshelf at home since I was a child, I only really found Tagore in my late teenage years. As such, I think I feel similarly to my non-Indian counterparts when it comes to the esoteric nature of Tagore’s spirituality, but his brilliance lies in the equivocal nature of his writing:

He whom I enclose with my name is weeping in this dungeon.

I am ever busy building this wall all around;

And as this wall goes up into the sky day by day I lose sight of my true being in its

dark shadow. [Poem 17]

The verse has obvious religious connotations, detailing the pangs of detachment from God through the harrowing imagery of enclosure and entrapment. Yet, from a non-religious perspective, the dark shadow represents my own nebulous feelings toward being an Indian within a contemporary Australian society and finding a balance between individualism and assimilation – a balance made difficult when your Facebook feed has photos from Sara’s Bollywood twenty-first: of attendees with painted on monobrows, of attendees kissing each other’s turbans, and everyone wearing bindis (aka ‘curry dots’) on their foreheads.

Experiences such as these emphasise the difficulties Tagore’s work would have faced in being accepted by a colonial audience, and also adds a coat of irony to the term ‘post-colonial’. Is it merely a specious marker of time that seeks to conceal a perpetuation of linguistic and cultural oppression? Is it why I become quiet when my parents speak Hindi in public, because I remember high school peers mocking the language in their most extreme Indian accent and their most neck-breaking head wobble.

Tagore’s achievements also reveal the potential for language and, more specifically, translation to dismantle this system of oppression and to portray Indian literature, culture and its people as possessing an important role in a globalised society. Tagore self-translated Gitanjali into English to facilitate a Western engagement with it and in doing so, presented an intriguing entrance into what Mary Louise Pratt calls the ‘contact zone; the space of colonial encounters’ of transculturalism. Although published while India was occupied by the British Raj, Gitanjali is an example of the linguistic and thematic balance Indian writers today seek to achieve in sharing their work with a Western audience. In Tagore’s case, the contact zone was one that sought to reconcile the disparities of the East and the West, the most significant of which was in theological perspectives.

At its core, the Gitanjali (written in the original Bangla) is a collection of poems evaluating the synthesis between materiality and spirituality. Tagore positions this association as a conversation, speaking in first person and utilising a confessional style to convey the intimacy of the relationship with tumi (the personal God in Bangla poems). His work is flooded with natural imagery, arranging birds, water, trees as ephemeral in their essence and as vehicles with which the I can find and bond with tumi:

I know not how thou singest, my master!

I ever listen in silent amazement. [Poem 3]

In 1913, May Sinclair published a piece in the North American Review, one of America’s earliest literary magazines, where she suggested the closeness of the bhakti (piety and attachment in Hinduism) relationship was starkly incongruent with ‘the gulf fixed between the common heart and Transcendent being’ of the Western affiliation between man and God. Tagore realised this and subtly replaced tumi with the Shakespearean and biblical thou, which arguably belittles the comforting propinquity of the bhakti relationship. But this element of colonial conformity is essential in unifying Pratt’s contact zone and presents an interesting perspective on the requirement of compliance among modern cultural interaction. Globalisation demands a cross-cultural – and accessible – exchange of ideas and information and Tagore exhibits this without completely diminishing the agency of his work and creativity.

His self-translation offers an interesting perspective on transculturalism, and, as Jeff Lewis observes, its role in ‘illuminating the various gradients of culture and the ways in which social groups create and distribute meaning’. I believe that in reworking the translation himself to cater to a colonial audience, Tagore rebels against colonial restrictions expectations, presenting a strong patriotic expression of his merits as an Indian writer. (I stress the importance of writer, free from the ethnic epithet attached to it because Tagore was celebrated for his treatment of the celestial and the material, issues that transcend ethnography and geography.)

This celebration of Tagore’s work and Tagore the man emerged as a rapid process. The Indian Society in London first published Gitanjali in 1912 and compounded with the venerable introduction by WB Yeats, Tagore received admiration from Ezra Pound, painter William Rothenstein and by British poet Thomas Sturge Moore, who proposed Gitanjali to the Nobel Committee. They revered the lyrical and comprehensible balance Tagore achieved between prose and poetry and the ‘profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse’ of his work; interestingly, this talent of innovation was also expressed in the committee’s justification for Dylan’s Nobel Prize, with the committee noting Dylan had ‘created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’. Tagore’s work, like Dylan’s is pioneering and universal in its themes and creativity and, although produced over a century ago, still relevant to any literary study, to any society seeking to integrate multitudinous identities and to any individual struggling with the pressures of assimilation and individualism. My favourite poem in Gitanjali expresses these issues:

But the memory that I could give water to thee to allay thy thirst will cling to my heart and enfold it in sweetness. The morning hour is late, the bird sings in weary notes, neem leaves rustle overhead and I sit and think and think. [Poem 54]

For someone like me, an Australian-Indian/Indian-Australian whose knowledge of Bengali is limited to apni kemon achen (how are you) and ashlam (bye) a constraint requiring the acuity of my grandmother to translate aspects of the English Gitanjali into Bengali, combined with the extent of my religious experience being to clap my hands in a pseudo-prayer before Ganesh every time I leave the house, the opening line’s reverence is relatively unrelatable. Nonetheless, this colonised and open translation retains some accessibility within its lyricism; I can associate with and appreciate the simplicity of the natural imagery of birds, neem leaves and the late morning. I can relate to the subsequent cyclical mundanity of vague contemplation provoked by Tagore’s syntactical disruption of replacing commas with the repetition of the conjunction and, and it is the use of first person singular pronoun that defines Gitanjali as an open text, where the relationship between I and the birds evokes memories of sitting with my grandparents in the backyard sipping chai, our conversation stilted by a flock of screeching Indian myna’s perched atop our palm tree.

The breadth and insight of Gitanjali is laced within the simple, the wonders of nature and the omnipotence of spirituality. However, within this sagacity rests a quiet allegorical and relatable sentiment, evoked by Tagore’s deliberate and meticulous translation. This multivalence instigated his Nobel Prize in 1913, establishing Gitanjali as a seminal transferral of art that encouraged the potential for transcultural interactions, presupposing the successes of writers such as Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh.

On 30 May 1919, however, Tagore revoked his Knighthood, two weeks after the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre where an estimated 20,000 Sikhs celebrating the Vaisakhi Religious Festival were surrounded and shot at for ten minutes by the British Indian Army. Figures suggest up to 1,500 were killed. General Dyer’s justification for this genocide was ‘to punish the Indians for disobedience.’ Herein rests the issue, something echoed by Pakistani-British author Aatish Taseer when he describes his feelings of ‘irrelevance and inauthenticity’ in being allowed to write about his country only in a way that ‘worked for the West’.

Tagore’s achievements have inspired me, as an Indian-Australian, to consider the potential to establish myself as an individual with my own agency free from the tokenistic admiration and peculiarity attached to my ethnicity.


Image: Rabindranath Tagore

Angad Roy

Angad Roy is studying arts and economics at the University of Sydney, with majors in English, Latin and Economics. He lives in the western suburbs of Sydney.

More by Angad Roy ›

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  1. Hi Angad, appreciate your love and respect for Tagore and his creations and pain and anguish at how world forgot him to be first noble winner.
    While it momentarily hurts to see people mocking at Indian language or diction but on a deeper thought one realises that those reactions are superficial and as we all know worth of a human being is in his ability to think, feel , communicate and contribute to the society at large and there are no boundaries of language or colour that ever impacts these abilities . So we must learn to ignore lesser mortals who judge others on things and aspects irrelevant and move on in life.
    All the best to you . And happy to relate to you and your thoughts , a world within you .

  2. Thanks for this piece on Rabindranath Tagore. Clearly anyone talking about Bob Dylan being awarded the Nobel Prize should have tipped their hat to the first non-European to win it too, even if it seems Tagore was honored for his poetry (and specifically “Gitanjali”) as opposed to his songs. That makes his accomplishment no less notable and it’s certainly worth acknowledging. I couldn’t quite gather from Wikipedia and elsewhere if his songwriting was concurrent with that major work, began later or what. Did he write music and lyrics? Did he record any? And can you recommend some notable albums devoted to his music? Finally, I’m not sure the friend who “jokingly” asked if you’d had spicy curry is actually a friend. Sincerely,

    Michael Giltz

    1. Michael,the original Bengali Gitanjali is a collection of songs. Most if not all of Tagore’s Bengali poems are also songs – they have been set to music by the poet himself.

      Tagore created a unique genre of poem- songs – Rabindrasangeet (“Rabindranath’s songs”). There are around 2500 of them. It is a flourishing genre with hundreds of exponents and thousands of recordings.

      A google search for Rabindrasangeet You tube will give you more than 150,000 results – most of them sung by the masters of the genre.



  3. Bengali literature , songs , poetry and philosophy shaped India. Its identity , its stands in the world stage is singular Bengali civilization give India profound identity. Colonial criminals knew that by heart, so they started in Bangla state , entered as East India Company and to divide and Conqueror India from Great Mughol Empire. At the end again Bangalis are the one played significantt contribution to get India back after 334 years British presence. Bangalis are heritage in the world. Derived by thousands of years cultural contribution to India and hindu culture religion and most of Bangali the most majestic race culture and race in India. and Tagore is finally presented in modern era to the world stage what a great race, culture in the world. It will take your lifetime to understand Bengali songs, poetry and litarature from Tagore and Nazrul ..

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