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…