Vol. 4 Num 70 Tue. August 05, 2003  

Tagore and some Nobel laureates

In 1912 only seven hundred fifty copies of Gitanjali -- Song Offerings -- were printed at the initiative of the India Society for private circulation among its members. In March 1913 McMillan took it up for publication and distribution. The book was reprinted ten times before the award of the Nobel prize on 13 November.

In his telegram thanking the Swedish Academy for the Nobel prize Tagore quoted from Gitanjali the following lines from verse sixty-three: "Thou hast made me known to friends whom I knew not. Thou hast given me seats in houses not my own. Thou hast brought the distant near and made a brother of the stranger."

Alfred Nobel's will stipulated that prize-winners must have an 'idealistic tendency'. The selection committee had already considered and passed over Tolstoy, Ibsen, Zola, Strindberg, Shaw and Yeats. In 1913 they preferred Tagore to Thomas Hardy.

Gitanjali's idealism could not be doubted. Several members of the selection committee fell for it. The decisive opinion appears to be of Verner non Heidenstam, a Swedish poet who won the Nobel prize three years later in 1916.

Yeats commented on Gitanjali: 'we are not moved because of its strangeness, but because we have met our own image'.

Charles Darwin's granddaughter Frances Cornford, on meeting Tagore in Cambridge in July 1912 told Rothenstein: ' I can now imagine a powerful and gentle Christ, which I never could before',

Paul Nash, the great war artist, said," I would read Gitanjali as I would read the Bible for comfort and for strength "

Yeats, Pound, Bridges, Sturge Moore, Rhys and Saint-Jhon Perse were all moved by the work and touched by the man.

Rudyard Kipling won the Nobel prize in 1907, six years before Tagore. There is 'nothing in print, nothing in any one's recollections of what Kipling thought and said' of Tagore..

As early as 1917 there were several Russian translations of Gitanjali from English. One of them was edited by Ivan Bunin, the first Russian Nobel laureate in literature. Besides Ivan Bunin, Romain Rolland (France), Hermann Hesse (Germany), Andre Jide (France), Halldor Laxness (Iceland), Boris Psternak (Russia), Saint-John Perse (France), Yasunari Kawabata (Japan), Pablo Neruda (Chile), and Octavio Paz (Mexico) are some non-English-speaking Nobel laureates in literature who had a published interest in Tagore.

In the early 1920s after twenty-two books his Spanish translator Jime'nez gave a go by to Tagore. He was rather sensitive to some suggestions that Tagore had influenced his poetry. However, in later life, while walking one day on a beach in Puerto Rico, his self-exiled home, Jimenez was reported to have bent down and took up the foam from a wave. "These are Tagore's ashes," he said. "Why could they not have come here from the Ganges flowing along the waters of the world? For it was my hand that helped to give our Spanish form to the rhythm of the immense heart."

There is a marked ambivalence amongst some of the subsequent Nobel laureates who translated Tagore -- Andre Gide, Juan Romo'n Jime'nez and Boris Pasternak.

The same work of Tagore had different reactions on different persons. For Yeats, Tagore's autobiography My Reminiscences was 'most valuable and rich'-- an opinion he held on till his death. While reading that book Gide noted in his journal: 'But that Indian Orient is not made for me.'.

Tagore's western reputation as a writer had taken a down-turn in the thirties of the last century. In 1937 Graham Greene wrote about Tagore, "I cannot believe that anyone but Mr. Yeats can still take his poems very seriously".

George Bernard Shaw regarded Tagore with both respect and ridicule. He named an off-stage character in a playlet, a poet, 'Stupendranath Beggor'. But when Tagore died it was Shaw who asked Sir Kenneth Clark, then director of the National Gallery, to hang portraits of Tagore.

Bertrand Russell said of Tagore: "I confess that his mystic air did not attract me and I recall wishing he could be more direct. He had a soft, rather elusive, manner which led one to feel that straightforward exchange or communication was something from which he would shy away. His intensity was impaired by his self-absorption. Naturally, his mystic views were by way of dicta and it was not possible to reason about them.

In1931 Russell wrote of Tagore: Of what he has done for Europe and America in the way of softening of prejudices and the removal of misconceptions I can speak, and I know that on this account he is worthy of the highest honour." But he also said: "I regret I cannot agree with him. His talk about the infinite is vague nonsense. The sort of language that is admired by many Indians unfortunately does not, in fact, mean anything at all".

In 1968 Yasunari Kawabata. became the second Asian to win the Nobel prize for literature. Immediately after the award, while lecturing on 'The existence and discovery of beauty,' he said of Tagore. "I remember even now the features and appearance of this sage-like poet, with his long, bushy hair, long moustache and beard, standing tall in loose-flowing Indian garments, and with deep, piercing eyes. His white hair flowed softly down both sides of his forehead; the tufts of hair under the temples also were like two beards, linking up with the hair on his cheeks, continued into his beard, so that gave an impression, to the boy that I was then, of some ancient Oriental wizard."

While speaking in 1969 Kawabata quoted from Tagore the following remark: "It is the responsibility which every nation is to reveal itself before the world...

[Japan] has given rise to civilization which is perfect in its form, and has evolved a sense of sight which clearly sees truth in beauty and beauty is truth."

Kawabata said, "We may rejoice, and yet at the same time be saddened, by the thought that [our] very ancient The Tale of the Genji fulfils the 'responsibility of a nation' to which Tagore referred, much more brilliantly than any of us can do today, and will be very much likely to continue to so in the future.'

Let me conclude by a brief reference to Einstein who got the prize for physics in 1921. The poet and the scientist developed a personal relationship through their correspondence even before they met in Germany in 1930. On 22 December, 1929 Tagore wrote in a postcard to Einstein: "My salutation is to him who knows me imperfect and loves me.

Dimitri Marianoff, a relative of Einstein, described the poet as the poet with the head of the thinker", and the scientist as the thinker with the head of a poet." He said, "Neither sought to press his opinion. They simply exchanged ideas. But it seemed to an observer as though two planets were engaged in a chat." This is an excerpt from the published account:

Einstein: There are two different conceptions about the nature of the universe -- the world as the unity dependent on humanity.... and the world as reality independent of the human factor...

Tagore: This world is a human world -- the scientific view of it is also that of the scientific man. Therefore, the world apart from us does not exist; it is a relative world, depending for its reality upon our consciousness.

Einstein: Truth, or beauty, is not independent of man.

Tagore: No.

Einstein: If there were no human beings any more, the Apollo Belvedere no longer would be beautiful?

Tagore: No.

Einstein: I agree with regard to this conception of beauty, but not with regard to truth. Einstein asserted, "I cannot prove, but I believe in the Pythagorean argument, that the truth is independent of human beings".

Tagore: In any case, if there be any truth unrelated to humanity, then for us it is absolutely non-exiting.

Einstein: Then I am more religious than you are.

It has been suggested by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson that Einstein's basic view of sub-atomic nature has been abandoned by most quantum physicists, who have adopted a position that bears considerable resemblances to the one taken by Tagore. In 1992, the Brian David Josephson, who got Nobel prize for his work on superconductivity, remarked that 'Tagore is, I think, saying that truth is a subtler concept than Einstein realises.'

Both Tagore and Einstein agreed that the beauty of a price of music is beyond analysis: "It is so difficult to analyse the effect of Eastern and Western music on our minds. ...

Our own music touches me more deeply by its fundamental lyrical appeal. European music is epic in character; it has a broad background and is gothic in its structure". Einstein responded, "We want to know whether our music is as conventional or fundamental human feeling, whether to feel consonance and dissonance is natural or is it a convention which we accept".

He continued: "The same uncertainty will always be there about everything fundamental in our experience, in our reaction to art, whether in Europe or Asia. Even the red flower I see before me on your table may not be the same to you and me."

Tagore tried, without agreeing or disagreeing, to strike a position of compromise between East and West, "And yet, there is always going on the process of reconciliation between them, the individual taste conforming to the universal standard."

Muhammad Habibur Rahman is former Chief Justice and head of caretaker government

Tomorrow, 22 Shraban, is Tagore's anniversary of death.