In the centenary year of Tagore’s Nobel Prize, the Gitanjali continues to strike a chord in the reader.
“(T)his book fathoms all.”
The book that eminent modern British poet W.B. Yeats referred to when it was published in 1912 went on to win for its author Rabindranath Tagore (then 51) the Nobel Prize in literature the next year. Gitanjali: Song Offerings thus became the first and, as it happens, the only literary work by an Indian to have won the revered prize. Significantly, this was also the first instance of the Swedish Academy awarding the prize to an Asian.
The Presentation Speech on December 10, 1913 — by the chairperson of the Academy Harald Hjarne — had an unmistakable tendency towards what would now be called the imperialist appropriation of an indigenous achievement. While analysing the growth and the nature of Tagore’s genius, Hjarne spoke glowingly of the influence of the Christian mission in India as a “rejuvenating force” that led to the revival of a vein of “living and natural poetry” in the vernaculars. Alluding with admiration to Tagore’s access to a “many-sided culture, European as well as Indian”, he stopped just short of ascribing it wholly to the influence of Christianity exerted on the poet’s forming mind through the Brahmo Samaj that his illustrious father founded in Bengal.
To be fair to Hjarne, he was equally unstinting in his praise of Tagore’s rich poetic endowments and his “profoundly sensitive verse” wrought with “consummate skill” was heralded — rightly — as “a part of the literature of the West”. Appropriation at its generous best? Indeed, the book had an enormous impact on the reading public across the Western World, for whom he became the voice of India’s spiritual heritage. The first instance of this tremendous impact is seen in Yeats’ reaction. He was among the earliest European admirers of Tagore and also wrote an excellent ‘Introduction’ to Gitanjali. The reason why this ‘Introduction’ became famous in literary history is the book’s powerful impression on Yeats and the candour with which he expressed it: “I have carried the manuscript of this translation about with me for days, reading it in railway trains or on the top of omnibuses, and in restaurants, and I had often had to close it, lest some stranger would see how much it moved me”. It is a measure of the emotional potency of the verses that they could, even in translation, produce such a profound affect on a mind already acquainted with fine literature.
Gitanjali remains to this day among the most popular books in modern India. What explains either the book’s staggering impact on its first readers in the West or its abiding popularity? Is not the highest excellence in art supposed to be inimical to wide currency? Is not a book of “religious” poems of a decidedly “idealistic” inclination not likely to find favour with the masses? Yes, but Gitanjali is a glorious exception. For, this book illustrates those rare instances when the highest excellence in art reside in matter that is also the simplest and the most profoundly human. Tagore’s admirer Yeats, the Nobel jury of 1913, and his readers across Europe were all struck by this genuine greatness that was simple and sublime at the same time.
A consummate artistry of form that seems effortless is here integrated with substance that speaks powerfully to most fundamental and the loftiest elements in human nature. With equal grace the book expresses the emotions of life’s every mood through poems that render, for example, the joys of children at play, the serenity of the boatman playing a lute on a boat in the river, the longings of the heart, the moods of the seasons and the agony of grief. The book partakes of the universally and essentially human and touches all that is above the worldly and the ephemeral in us. Reading these poems, we feel like saying with the poet: “When I go from hence, let this be my parting word/that what I have seen is unsurpassable” (Gitanjali, 96).
All the myriad notes struck by the book resonate with a devoted love for the Creator, the poems being images of the poet’s heart turning to God with “praise, prayer and profound devotion”. But such is its elemental power that even a non-believer is moved by the pure love of life embodied in them: the reverence, the simplicity, and the naturalness expressed in the appreciation of life in all its moods breaks the barrier of scepticism and fills us with what Yeats identifies as an “insidious sweetness”.
Yeats likens the poet’s voice to St. Francis and to William Blake. It is akin also, we may note, to that of G.M. Hopkins, who resembles Tagore in his fervent admiration in life of God’s “grandeur” and “glory” (cf. God’s Grandeur and Pied Beauty by Hopkins). Yet while the English poet professed the austerity of a Christian saint and was ridden with guilt for being a lover of God’s world, Gitanjali gives no inkling of any such feeling. It is instinct only with innocence and spontaneity that co-exist easily with profound thought and devotion.
As we “fight and make money and fill our head with politics”, and die a little each day Gitanjali promises to renew life in us and to give us the quiet peace of the soul that modern living has made difficult to attain.