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When Rabindranath received the Nobel Prize it was the high noon of European Imperialism. The renaissance and the industrial revolution had made the European nations technologically more advanced than the rest of the world which was more or less stagnant. Their higher technology and organization enabled them to expand overseas and build extensive empires. By the close of the 19th century they had divided almost the entire globe among themselves. In their arrogance they treated the native populations of their empires as racially inferior and sub-human. The greatest victims of this imperialism were the Afro-Asian countries and their inhabitants. And the greatest imperial power was Great Britain. Its empire was so vast that the sun never set in it!
The foundations of the British Indian Empire were laid by a band of merchant adventurers and not by some military conquerors. They were attracted by stories told by European travelers about the fabulous wealth of India. Taking advantage of the distracted political conditions of the time they acquired an empire and ruled it for a century from 1757 to 1858 when, after the great Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the British Crown took over the administration from their hands. Even after becoming rulers the main objective of these traders remained the maximum possible economic exploitation of this country and earning of maximum profits. They shook the Indian pagoda tree as vigorously as possible to amass huge material wealth and dreamt of returning home at the end each one ‘a little Nabob’. But all of them were not thieves and thugs. A few among them discovered a different kind of wealth – our ancient cultural heritage. In time their explorations gave birth to what came to be known as Indology which made the western world aware of our glorious past. For the loss of their freedom the Indians were considered as ‘a fallen race’ no doubt but their past civilization gave them some respect in the eyes of the westerners. Many of them became their admirers and active benefactors. Throughout his life Rabindranath always differentiated between the two classes of Englishmen – one ‘big’ and the other petty and ‘small’. E.B. Havell and William Rothenstein belonged to this select group of admirers of our culture. They however differed from their predecessors in one respect. Earlier the interest was restricted mainly to our past while the attention of people like Havell and Rothenstein became focused also on our contemporary cultural achievements.
When the British ruling class replaced the commercial class as our political masters the attitude of the British towards the Indians underwent a significant change. In the class-ridden British society class prejudices are very strong. Even in their own country the ruling aristocracy regarded the common people much less than their equals – to acquire voting rights the poor and the un-propertied British masses had to wait till the 1932 Reform bill. In India the commercial classes - the people who had actually acquired the empire -themselves were regarded very grudgingly as their kind but not exactly as their kin. The ruling class seldom socially mixed with them. From this we can easily imagine the attitude of such people towards the Indians. Their arrogance and jingoism knew no bounds. The color prejudice was always there. Now it further hardened. They reminded us always - it is ‘the white man’s burden’ to civilize us - the uncultured black niggers.
In the middle of the 19th century Macaulay had predicted that through English education the Indians would imbibe western values and demand western institutions. By the closing decades of the century it had come true. In 1885 the English educated Indians established their first political party – the Indian National Congress – and soon began to demand self-rule. The British rulers refused to admit that they had become fit for it. In the field of culture they also refused to believe that the contact with the western civilization had awakened the mind of the culturally inferior Indian from its long slumber. Sometimes they even tried to prove that all of their past cultural achievements were not entirely their own. For example, according to Vincent Smith, the Taj was designed by an Italian architect! We have already seen how this general attitude is reflected in the remarks of George Birdwood. It was Havell who in his Handbook to Agra and the Taj conclusively disproved this baseless claim of Smith. He had also succeeded in convincing the arrogant westerners not only about the greatness of our past artistic achievements but also about the emergence of native artistic movements and masters like the Tagore brothers. In fact many western art connoisseurs had become their admirers and sought their friendship, some of whom belonged even to the ruling class.
Now quite unwittingly it fell to the lot of Rothenstein to prove that the modern Indians were not lagging behind in other cultural fields. As an artist he came to India primarily to acquaint himself with Indian art and the achievements of contemporary Indian artists like Abanindranath and Gaganendranath. It was a sheer accident that he came to know about the literary activities of their uncle Rabindranath. Rabindranath wrote exclusively in his mother tongue Bengali. He had become famous as the leading literary figure in Bengal but his fame had also begun to travel beyond its borders. This was largely due to the efforts of some people who had begun to translate his works into English in an attempt to show that the native writers were in no way inferior to their masters in the field of literature. Rothenstein did not know Bengali. He must have read some of those translations. Even in translations their beauty did not escape the discerning eyes of this artist. Before leaving India he expressed his eagerness to read more of the poet’s works. Returning home he continued to pursue his new interest and began enquiring from the Indians in England about more translations from Rabindranath. But by the time of Rothenstein’s visit in November, 1910, very little of the poet’s works was translated and published.
The initial translations of the poet’s works were sporadic and it started in a very queer manner. According to his biographer Rabindranath himself does not appear to have ever attempted the translation of his own Bengali works excepting one poem Nisphal kamana which however remained unpublished for long. Throughout his life he was apologetic about his English. But as a translator he had already proved his competence when he was still in his teens. To learn English in his childhood he had to translate from English into Bengali and vice versa. His translation of the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Macbeth done during this time survives. It earned him praises from competent people of the time. Those who are interested may read this translation to see how richly he deserved that praise. But strangely the English translation of one of his songs was published for the first time in a newspaper called The Bengalee by a reporter whose name has been lost. And the impetus came not from the world of letters but from an unexpected quarter – the world of politics! This lead was followed soon by people from the world of letters. We propose to relate in our next blog how it all began and ultimately led the poet himself to undertake the translation of his own works. It is a fascinating story and therefore needs to be told in some detail.
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