Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, took the stage last week to introduce two of what he described as the museum’s “new acquisitions.” The first, a collection of paintings by Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali Renaissance man, born 150 years ago, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913; the second, Tagore’s compatriot, the Harvard economist Amartya Sen, a Nobel Laureate himself and lately a trustee of the museum. Speaking to an invited audience largely composed of Indian and Bangladeshi grandees, Sen had titled his lecture: “What difference does Tagore make?”
Sen’s identification with Tagore is deep. They are both Bengalis with a catalogue of achievement in a wide range of fields, well-travelled cosmopolitans of liberal sensibilities. But there is also a more direct connection. Sen spent his early years in Tagore’s experimental school at Santiniketan, and it was Tagore who suggested Sen’s unusual first name to his mother.
If Tagore, while a towering figure in modern Bengali culture, is virtually unknown in the west today, this was not always the case. The history of Tagore’s reception in Europe was among Sen’s primary themes. Tagore’s earliest and most prominent champion in Europe was WB Yeats, who managed to find in Tagore’s English translations of his own poems the “subtlety of rhythm,” the “untranslatable delicacies of colour… [and] metrical invention” of their Bengali originals. Ezra Pound saw “in him the stillness of nature.” Wilfred Owen died with a lyric of Tagore’s in his pocket notebook, one that began “When I go from hence let this be / my parting word, that what I have / seen is unsurpassable.”
The immediate backlash to Tagore, and his subsequent disappearance from the western canon, is perhaps explicable if we read the lines that follow the ones quoted above:
I have tasted of the hidden honey of this lotus that expands on the ocean of light, and thus am I blessed — let this be my parting word.
In this playhouse of infinite forms I have had my play and here have I caught sight of him that is formless.
And so on. The mystical strain in Tagore, Sen argued, might have been compelling in 1913, with the prevalent fondness for all things oriental, but the more sceptical thirties had no place for them. Bertrand Russell thought all the “talk about the infinite…vague nonsense. The sort of language that is admired by many Indians unfortunately does not, in fact, mean anything at all.” Bernard Shaw parodied Tagore as “Stupendranath Beggor,” and Graham Greene pronounced himself doubtful that “anyone but Mr. Yeats can still take [Tagore’s] poems very seriously.”
Clean-shaven in jacket and tie, and more given to talking of rational choice theory than the infinite, Sen’s affinities with his bearded, long-robed intellectual hero stop well short of an interest in the mystical. In any case, Sen argued, an exclusive focus on this element of Tagore’s religiosity would be a mistake. For one thing, Tagore’s corpus includes plays, novels, and short stories, that display a distinctly modern (if not modernist) sensibility. His political essays, unusually for their time, offered a proto-cosmopolitan critique of both British imperialism and Indian nationalism. What’s more, once we free them from their early translations, even his poems run counter to the view of their author as an irrationalist mystic. Sen invited his audience to consider the evidence of a poem such as this:
Leave this chanting and singing and telling of beads! Whom dost thou worship in this lonely dark corner of a temple with doors all shut? Open thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee! He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground…
As the critic Amit Chaudhuri has argued, Tagore’s was always a subversive project, “not so much…a critique of the western Enlightenment and humanism” as an attempt to “snatch them away from their expected location and give them another source and lineage, in India and its antiquity,” a project that does for literature what Sen has lately tried to do for deliberative democracy.
Sen has written with particular eloquence on Tagore before in a 1997 essay for the New York Review of Books. Those who regretted missing the lecture will find much to admire in this piece. Sen pointed out that this sesquicentennial offers the happy prospect of dozens of new editions and anthologies. If we are lucky, at least some of them will manage to salvage something of Tagore’s liberal humanism from the rubbish heap of Orientalist kitsch to which twentieth-century Europe consigned them.