The 2011 Rabindranath Tagore festivities are under way, and those that I have already taken part in, or am rehearsing for now, give me a new answer to that perpetual question: what makes him relevant today?
I've often reacted to that question irritably, because those who ask it seem to know the answer already. They want me to say that Tagore's universalism is relevant to our unfair and embattled world, that his ideas about education, religion, nationalism, development and more address many of our contemporary anxieties and problems, and point to solutions. ‘Yes,' I say testily, ‘all that is important, but we don't need to go to Tagore for ideas. Many people have those ideas already. He was a great, infinitely varied and complex creative artist. His works — whether poems, songs, stories, novels, plays or paintings — were not just vehicles for ideas and ideals. Like those of all truly great artists, they say many things at once. They contain paradoxes and counter-currents. They are great because every generation can find new things in them. They have immense potential for use and adaptation by artists and performers in many different media. With Asian cultural traditions catching up with the European and American in terms of global influence, we will see Tagore's works being used more and more, all over the world.'
Putting Tagore the thinker above Tagore the writer has set up a barrier to the full appreciation of his creative achievements, ever since Gitanjali in 1912 launched his international career. His Nobel Prize of 1913 was given to him for his literature (though not for his Bengali writings), but the audiences who flocked to hear him on his extensive foreign tours wanted his message rather than his poetry. He gave them what they wanted, and lived up to his role as a sage by his long beard and unique, ‘pan-Asian' style of dress. But he often felt constricted by that role. In 1930, he wrote to his close friend, William Rothenstein:
The rich luxury of leisure is not for me while I am in Europe — I am doomed to be unrelentingly good to humanity and remain harnessed to a cause. The artist in me ever urges me to be naughty and natural — but it requires a good deal of courage to be what I truly am. Then again I do not really know myself and dare not play tricks with my nature. So the good for nothing artist must have for his bed-fellow the man of a hundred good intentions.
Revealing words that all organisers of the 150th anniversary events and publications would do well to remember!
The Tagore Festival
But my experiences this week at the Tagore Festival at Dartington Hall in Devon make me inclined to answer the ‘relevance' question more flexibly and tolerantly. A writer is relevant if anything by or about or inspired by that writer engages and moves readers and audiences — for any reason, whether aesthetic, emotional, spiritual, ideological or political. This may sound like a truism. A writer is relevant by being relevant, moves by being moving. But the capaciousness of this answer is a way of bringing together Tagore's appeal both as a thinker and as an artist.
Can one point to any other figure in world history with such power to bring idealists and artists and scholars together? The Dartington Festival was masterminded by Satish Kumar, the Gandhian founder of Schumacher College and The Small School at Dartington, and editor of Resurgence magazine. His passionate interest in Tagore is primarily ideological, and the galaxy of distinguished speakers he assembled for the conference shared his commitment to peace, ecology and progressive education. In the two days I was there, I was privileged to hear brilliant lectures by Dame Jane Goodall (the primate scientist, conservationist and UN Ambassador for Peace who, at the age of 77, spends 300 days of the year travelling and speaking), the brain scientist Iain McGilchrist, and the educationist Anthony Seldon. I suspect that 90 per cent of the audience are similarly committed to these values, given that Totnes, Dartington's local town, is — as a taxi-driver once said to me — the ‘New Age capital of England.'
But the really impressive thing about the festival was the scope it also gave to artists, musicians and dancers directly or indirectly inspired by Tagore, or to a translator of Tagore's literature such as myself. In many of my articles and lectures during this anniversary year, I am emphasising Tagore's adaptability, the many and often surprising uses to which his works have been put by composers and musicians and dancers, the potential he offers for opera, theatre and film. Many of these adaptations — whether by Alexander Zemlinsky in his massive Lyrische Symphonie of 1922 (which incorporates seven poems from The Gardener in German translation), or by Param Vir in his highly acclaimed and widely performed opera Snatched by the Gods with a libretto by me based on my translation of Debatar Gras), or in the programme I am doing with the jazz musicians Zoe and Idris Rahman at the British Library on May 17 (‘Flying Man/Pakshi-Manab: poems for the 21st century' by Rabindranath Tagore, directed by Mukul Ahmed), or Valerie Doulton's superb new production of The Post Office premiered at the Nehru Centre in London on May 4 (‘set in India in London in 2011'), or the new dance production based on songs by Tagore currently being developed by Akademi in London (choreographed by Ash Mukherjee) — take Tagore in directions that he could never have imagined. But that is as it should be, that is what makes him great. Future generations come along in the Golden Boat, take his works away and make new, creative use of them, leaving Tagore the Gurudev behind on the river-bank.
This year may bring many surprises and rewards, but I am certain that the joint programme I did on May 4 at Dartington with Debashish and Rohini Raychaudhuri will remain in my mind as a high spot. I have known Debashish since before Rohini was born, and we have collaborated on several projects. I suggested to Satish Kumar that we could try out at Dartington a programme on Rabindrasangit we had been thinking about for some time. We've called it ‘How Magically You Sing' (a quotation from my new translation of Gitanjali). Through conversation and examples, we describe and explore the universe of Tagore's songs. It worked brilliantly well: the audience was enraptured, rising to their feet at the end. It was an utterly unifying experience, because it brought idealists and aesthetes and scholars together. I persuaded Debashish and Rohini to sing the songs without accompaniment — just with tanpura. The effect was astounding: gone were the barriers that have been set up not only by putting ideology before art but also by a leaden and mindless way of performing Rabindrasangit (with harmonium, tabla, guitars, synthesisers and heaven knows what) that has — frankly — brought Bengali culture into disrepute. Strip all that away, explain what the songs are about and how they are structured, and at once you have an experience that can touch and inspire any audience — young, old, mainstream, New Age, Asian, Western. This is Tagore's relevance. Pious speeches and reflections on his ideas and ideals are all very well, but what ultimately makes him relevant is the power of his art to move audiences to tears.
(The author teaches Bengali Language and Literature at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and is a poet, writer and translator. His new translation of Rabindranath Tagore's Gitanjali is being published this month by Penguin India.)
This article was edited on June 8, 2011.