Today is the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore(1861-1941). In 1913 he received the Nobel Prize for literature, the first ever Asian to do so, for his Gitanjali or the Song Offerings – the English renderings done by the poet himself of his103 Bengali lyrics and songs. Today how many of us know what was the real significance of this event at that time? In my childhood when I first came to know about the poet, long after he was dead, I simply thought that the award of this prize made one famous. It also meant a lot of money like winning a lottery. When Tagore was born India was reeling under the yoke of foreign rule. In their arrogance the rulers treated the Indians as an inferior race. The winning of this prize by Tagore therefore signified, first and foremost, the recovery of our self-respect in the cultural field. He did it not for India alone but also for the whole continent of Asia, the major part of which was also under foreign rule. More than seventy years after the poet died in 1941, things have completely changed, India today has completely revolutionized. At long last she has found her rightful place in the assembly of nations. Various historical factors and forces have wrought this revolution, but among the host of exceptional individuals who gave constructive directions to those forces two great souls stand out as pre-eminent – Mahatma Gandhi and Tagore. Gandhi’s contribution has no parallel – none else has done as he did in making the history of India. None can mistake it because it is so obvious. But the contribution of Tagore is not so obvious – it is very subtle and deep. He is popularly known chiefly as a poet. But he was much more than that. He was a versatile genius.
For about a decade now Boloji and Bolokids have been publishing Tagore’s writings in translation. Now to celebrate his 150th birth anniversary Boloji has introduced this blog page to explore the various aspects of his genius. All are cordially invited to join in this exploration.
Is Tagore outdated today?
At least that is what some young writers in Bengal thought and started a kind of movement during the closing decade of the poet’s life. Some of them were students and teachers of English literature who drew heavily on foreign sources not only by imitating but also by stealing from them without acknowledgement. The anguished reply of the ageing poet to these people, in the poem Agantuk written on 11th July, 1932 and included in the collection Parishesh, may serve as a reply to those who may similarly question the poet’s relevance not only in literature but also in other fields. But the correct reply to this cannot be found until and unless we explore him as closely as possible. In the meantime here is the poet’s reply in my translation.
I have come from a time that is far.
When I came to your time I found
Companions I have none
Along the way
At various disembarkation points
One by one
They must have got down.
Somewhere far behind
I also exhausted the morsels
I received as gifts from life -
Those small habitual comforts,
Things I needed to remain alive.
When I first set my feet on this life’s way
In my friendly exchanges with my fellow beings
Through what I said or meant
Through what I actually did
Or what I wanted to do
My right on that time became firmer each day.
In fun and merriment with others
It was enough to survive somehow –
By my mere presence in the pageant of life
To give some speed to the flow of life
To add to the crowd.
But today in your time
I find I am an alien
I am unknown.
In your speech
The nuances of our words
Have assumed new meanings.
The seasons have changed
In changing whirlwinds
The landscape has changed colours too
Small factious groups, elbowing each other
Tastes, hopes and expectations
All that give life its relish
Have themselves lost their taste.
By my presence
Whatever I gave to our times
However little be its value
Bringing men closer in a thread
It gave a shape to that age–
By your mundane measure
Today it doesn’t fit.
In my garden do not grow
The modish flowers that are needed
To welcome these passing times.
For the corner of your house now I occupy
I have nothing to pay as its rent.
So in a daring act of giving
I’ll have to give you something big.
It will not be something
To satisfy the demands of the present
And if you find
My gift is not to your taste
Leave it for your judgment at a later date.
Yet with what little I have
I want to repay my debt of this life
And leave you indebted.
May I give you to my last
Whatever I have
Beyond my profits and losses
Beyond my joys and sorrows
Whether I am abused or praised.
What are his ‘gifts’? Are they ‘big’? Do you feel in any way ‘indebted’ to the poet? Or has he really become an ‘alien’ to us? What do you think? Please let us know.