The author bristles at Ashokamitran’s suggestion that there might have been rivalry between the two great poets.
Ashokamitran, in an otherwise unexceptionable article (‘Tagore and Tamils’, The Hindu Literary Review August 4, 013), writes that ‘There was a spell of artistic rivalry between Tagore and … Subramania Bharati’; he goes further and speculates on why this may have been so: ‘Bharati may have felt that circumstances conspired to restrict his luminosity to his own region.’ Ashokamitran is here repeating an old story; and like most old stories, this has little basis in fact. Smallness is not what one associates with Bharati. On the contrary, we can piece together a narrative that testifies to Bharati’s unqualified admiration for Tagore.
Bharati’s first reference to Tagore comes a few years after the latter was awarded the Nobel Prize. Writing to The Hindu (July 11, 1914), from his exile in Pondicherry, in response to F.T. Brooke’s criticism of nationalists accepting Annie Besant’s interventions in politics, Bharati wrote that this was fine so long as she did not expect to become a leader of Indians in anything. ‘Intellectually and morally we have men in our land and women, too, who cannot in the nature of things be dominated by her personality.’ And what was the evidence on which Bharati made this statement? ‘We produce men like Tagore and Bose nowadays.’
A correspondent of The Hindu who met Bharati in Pondicherry, two years later, ‘remember[ed] nothing out of all his tirade, except his classification of Tilak as the first Indian statesman of the ages, of Prof. J.C. Bose as the first scientist, and Rabindranath Tagore as the first Indian poet.’
Bharati’s first extended reference to Tagore comes in November 1915. Narrating the now-familiar tale of ancient glory and medieval decline, he observed, ‘We now see the signs of resurgence in everything. The Indian nation has been born anew. The whole world now acknowledges that Ravindranath is one of the mahakavis of our times.’ The global acknowledgement of Tagore is a recurrent theme of Bharati’s comments on Tagore.
In January 1917, Bharati translated extracts from Tagore’s The Crescent Moon — ‘The Beginning’ and ‘Playthings’ — and made references to ‘The Champak Flower’ and ‘Hero’. Bharati’s joy in translating The Crescent Moon is apparent. While these translations are in prose, a year later (April 1918), he translated in four stanzas, a Tagore poem on the glory of national education.
Further Bharati commented at length on Tagore’s talk at the Imperial University of Tokyo in June 1916 and quoted extensively from this. He saw Tagore’s message as the awakening of a sleeping Asia by Japan, and added: ‘Vivekananda only revealed the exercise of the spirit. Tagore has now been sent by Mother India to show to the world that worldly life, true poetry and spiritual knowledge are rooted in the same dharma.’ Assessing Tagore’s credentials for this task, Bharati continued: ‘Gitanjali and other books that he has translated and published in English are small. Not extended epics. Not big plays. He revealed only a few lyrics. But the world was amazed. Will not lakhs of rupees be collected if only a dozen are so brilliant diamonds are sold! If ten pages of divine poetry are shown will not the world’s poets be enthralled!’ In commenting on Tagore’s global reception Bharati always returned to the literary genius of Tagore.
Bharati expressed his dissatisfaction with the way Indian journals had covered Tagore’s Japanese visit. Writing in New India, he asked: ‘The Indian press does not appear to be doing full justice… to the activities of Tagore in Japan. Does it happen every day that an Indian goes to Japan and there receives the highest honour from all classes of people, from Prime Minister Okuma as well as from the simple monk of the Buddhist shrine?’
Bharati produced two books of Tagore translations. In August 1918 he published Pancha Vyasangal, a translation of five essays drawn from The Modern Review: ‘The Small and the Great’, ‘Thou Shalt Obey’, ‘The Nation’, ‘The Spirit of Japan’, and ‘The Medium of Education’. Shortly afterwards, Bharati’s translations of Tagore’s stories were published: ‘False Hope’, ‘The Lost Jewels’, ‘Giribala’, ‘In the Middle of the Night’, ‘The Editor’, ‘Subha’, ‘The Homecoming’, and ‘The Conclusion’.
Considering that Bharati rarely did translate any writer, the fact that he translated so much of Tagore in itself is a worthy tribute. There is little doubt that Bharati put heart and soul into this task. In many places Bharati glosses and adds substantive footnotes.
Sometime after April 1919, Bharati wrote a celebrated poem, ‘Bharata Mata Navaratna Mala’ — essentially a panegyric to Gandhi. Here he makes reference to ‘Hark unto Ravindranath, world-renowned composer of songs, the Kavindranath, who said, “The first among the men of this world, the embodiment of Dharma, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi”’. This is but a poetic translation of Tagore calling Gandhi ‘a great leader of men [who] have stood among us to proclaim your faith in the ideal which you know to be that of India.’
Bharati keenly followed both Tagore’s writings and activities. He commented on the staging of Tagore’s King of the Dark Chamber at Frankfurt in November 1920.
In a fitting poetic coincidence, Bharati’s last published piece was on Tagore’s European tour of 1921. Appropriately titled ‘Sri Ravindra Digvijayam’, this essay was written barely three weeks prior to his premature death in September 1921. The burden of the essay is how Tagore was received in Europe — in Germany, in Austria, and in France.
More fulsome and unconditional praise is yet to be heaped on one poet by another. For Bharati, Tagore’s greatest achievement was fame, especially a fame that redounded to a fallen nation. A fame that he never experienced in his own lifetime. A fame he would not know would be his posthumously.
(This rejoinder draws from an earlier article published by the author in Seminar, July 2011.)