Rabindranath Tagore observed that when Bengalis go to a concert to hear their classical music they go to hear the song while Europeans go to their concerts to hear the performers. He also observed that European composers would try to capture the sound of a bird singing while a Bengali composer would try to capture the essence of the experience of hearing the song of the bird.
Rabindranath Tagore is one of the most important poets of the 20th Century of whom most 21st Century Americans have never heard. Tagore, who was a Bengali from India, had several tours of the USA in the 1920’s as the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize of Literature (1913.) These tours were front page news all across America. But American’s paid more attention to poets in those days than they do today.
Rabindranath Tagore is also the next installment on My Bucket List. The only thing left on My Bucket List is to read as many biographies of poets as I can before I die. (Climbing the highest mountain and swimming the deepest sea were vastly overrated compared to the lives of the great poets.) The book is “Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad Minded Man,” by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, a scholarly and monumental work about a monumental man. Tagore, born in 1861, was what we in the West would call a Renaissance Man. Scholar, businessman, dramatist, novelist, poet, educator, philosophe, artist, statesman…. It would be as if Shakespeare had been born into the Royal Family.
The Tagore’s go back for 300 years. Aristocratic, wealthy, Brahmins and huge landowners in Northern India and Bengal. And justice loving people. When Rabindranath was managing the family estates, he made the point of providing for the villages and peasants for whom he was responsible. And out of these years come some of the most poignant characters in his novels, short stories and poems.
Tagore’s dream was to bring the great minds of Europe and India together where the best of both worlds might meet and he worked for this all his life even establishing a school on one of his estates where this could happen. He was immensely popular both in Europe and Asia. But like many great minds he had his contradictions. He spoke out against the tradition of child brides and arranged marriages but he married off one of his daughters when she was only ten. He found himself in conflict with the populist Gandhi who taught non-cooperation with the West. Tagore favored taking the best from both worlds. Gandhi’s ideas won the day and independence for India but Tagore’s philosophy became the road map for modern India. The main difference between Gandhi and Tagore was Tagore favored education and cultural progress over political action but they both worked to end the caste system and unify all the people of India. Tagore warned that if Muslims and Hindus did not learn to respect each other it would lead to disaster. He got that one right.
His gentle poet soul caused him to fall short in his mission. His love of humanity and the abundance of his poetry failed to fully engage the reality of the world. Although he was very critical of fascism, he was slow to condemn its leaders. He did not live long enough to see how fascism and communism would destroy the heart of Europe. Later in his life, he came to fully understand the complicated relationship between ideals of the heart and the reality of the world. He sought a synthesis of Western pragmatism and the Asian spirit. Something poets the world over are still working for today.
Should you read this book? Only if you’re a serious reader of scholarly literary texts. I found myself going to the dictionary every few pages and the encyclopedia in every chapter. But worth it.
I close with one of the poems from “Gitanjali,” the collection of poems for which he won the Nobel prize. I think you can see why Europe in 1913 listened to this man. Maybe we should too.
“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow…walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way in the sand...;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought…
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake”
Thanks for reading.....
“Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad Minded Man,” by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson. St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1995