The Nobel Prize and Rabindranath - 1

Exactly one hundred years ago in 1913 when the Nobel Prize for literature was awarded to Rabindranath Tagore it came as a complete surprise. He was totally unknown to the outside world. Even in his own native country very few beyond the borders of Bengal knew him as a writer, because he wrote exclusively in his mother tongue Bengali. How did he come to the notice of the Swedish Academy which is responsible for the final selection? 

The award of this most prestigious prize in the world has often generated controversies. The Swedish Academy has never engaged in them and according to the procedure it follows all the data regarding the award cannot be made public within fifty years after it is made. Now that all the facts regarding the case of Rabindranath are known any speculation about his award should cease. But unfortunately it still goes on. 

A leftist Bengali politician, for example, recently said in a public meeting that Tagore got the award by lobbying! We do not want to discuss what kind of people Indian politicians are, especially of the leftist brand whom the Bengalis had the mortification to thoroughly know for more than three decades. Nor do we want to ask how these men, merely by winning an election, acquire the qualification and a legitimate right to give their learned opinions on anything and everything under the sun. But in the centenary year of the award it seems appropriate to know how Tagore got this prize.

The Swedish Academy is responsible for the selection of the Nobel Laureates in Literature, and has 18 members. The Nobel Committee for Literature is the working body that evaluates the nominations and presents its recommendations to the Swedish Academy, and comprises four to five members. The Nobel Committee sends invitation letters to persons who are qualified to nominate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Other persons who are qualified to nominate but who have not received invitations may also submit nominations. The names of the nominees and other information about the nominations cannot be revealed until 50 years later. Every year the Swedish Academy follows a time schedule.

Below is a brief description of the process involved in choosing the Nobel Laureates in Literature.

September – Nomination forms are sent out. The Nobel Committee sends out invitation letters to 600-700 individuals and organizations qualified to nominate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

February – Deadline for submission. The completed forms must reach the Nobel Committee not later than 31 January of the following year. The Committee then screens the nominations and submits a list for approval by the Academy.

April – Preliminary candidates. After further studies, the Committee selects 15–20 names for consideration as preliminary candidates by the Academy.

May – Final candidates. The Committee whittles down the list to five priority candidates to be considered by the Academy.

June-August – Reading of productions. The members of the Academy read and assess the work of the final candidates during the summer. The Nobel Committee also prepares individual reports.

September – Academy members confer. Having read the work of the final candidates, members of the Academy discuss the merits of the different candidates' contribution.

October – Nobel Laureates are chosen. In early October, the Academy chooses the Nobel Laureate in Literature. A candidate must receive more than half of the votes cast. The names of Nobel Laureates are then announced.

December – Nobel Laureates receive their prize. The Nobel Prize Award Ceremony takes place on 10 December in Stockholm, where the Nobel Laureates receive their Nobel Prize, which consists of a Nobel Medal and Diploma, and a document confirming the prize amount.

The statutes of the Nobel Foundation restrict disclosure of information about the nominations, whether publicly or privately, for 50 years. The restriction concerns the nominees and nominators, as well as investigations and opinions related to the award of a prize.

Qualified Nominators

The right to submit proposals for the Nobel Prize in Literature shall, by statute, be enjoyed by:

  1. Members of the Swedish Academy and of other academies, institutions and societies which are similar to it in construction and purpose;
  2. Professors of literature and of linguistics at universities and university colleges;
  3. Previous Nobel Laureates in Literature;
  4. Presidents of those societies of authors that are representative of the literary production in their respective countries.

For successful lobbying Tagore needed to have published at least one book in a language which was known to the selectors. Till 1912 he had no such publication to his credit. He also needed to have sufficient acquaintance with someone or some institution qualified to nominate a writer to the Swedish Academy and some member or members of that Academy as well. He knew none. And how one was to lobby with so many unknown people? A nominated author needed to have in his favor more than half of the votes cast by the members of the selection committee.

In a question paper in Bengali set by the Calcutta University once a few lines from Tagore’s writings were quoted and examinees were asked to rewrite them in ‘chaste’ Bengali. Could such a writer be nominated by that University? 

Now we know that his name was nominated by Thomas Sturge Moore who was an English poet and a member of the Royal Society of Literature of London. He came to know this gentleman during his short visit to Britain in 1912 only through the introduction of the English artist William Rothenstein. Tagore’s acquaintance with Rothenstein was again accidental and very short. In the year 1911 he had gone to the Tagore house at Jorasanko at Calcutta to meet the two artist brothers Abanindranath and Gaganendranath who were the nephews of Rabindranath. During these meetings he saw the poet whose personality and physical beauty charmed him so much so that he made a pencil sketch of his portrait. When he came to know that he was a famous Bengali writer Rothenstein expressed his desire to read some of his writings. 

Some people suspect that to show their rule in India in a good light the British government had something to do about Tagore’s selection. But for his role in the 1905 anti-partition movement in Bengal he was a persona non grata to the British government. It had asked its employees not to admit their children in Tagore’s school at Santiniketan. During the poet’s 1912 visit to Britain a friend of Rothenstein had proposed for the award of an honorary degree on Tagore by the Oxford University. It was turned down without any ceremony.

Interested readers may read my essay on Lord Curzon published in boloji. Rothenstein himself belonged to a German Jewish family. His father had immigrated to Britain only a few years ago in 1859. During the First World War (1914-18) he was to come under suspicion of the British for his German name.

Does what we have stated so far go to prove that Tagore got the Nobel Prize by lobbying? Then how did he get it? It was indeed a strange accident. Not the least surprised was the poet himself by this accident. We propose to tell the story in our next blog.

More By  :  Kumud Biswas

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Comments on this Blog

Comment Yes.. Tagore did not lobby for the Nobel Prize.

Was there element of contribution by Madam Andrea Butenschon. A swedish sanskrit scholar who translated Geetanjali in to swedish language

Santhe Narayana swamy
01-Apr-2020 11:52 AM

Comment Dear Shri Chatterji, Thanks for the compliments.

29-Jan-2013 07:22 AM

Comment Respected Kumud babu, Your maticulous compilation is a treasure of not only information but an adequate source of knowledge as well, adorable and valuable to me. yours faithfully, Teacher & Thinker of Management Studies.

jaideep chatterjee
28-Jan-2013 10:29 AM

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