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.