A hundred years ago, a slender book — the English Gitanjali of Tagore — caught the world unawares. Wearing a deceptively frail look, the book has ever since arched over temporal and spatial distances to enthral hearts and incite critical responses. It was for this English Gitanjali that Rabindranath Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in November 1913.
That was a historic moment. The award at once catapulted Tagore — first Asian to receive it — to international centre stage. Concurrently, it aroused an otherwise complacent West into taking a formal and serious note of the importance and opulence of a culture, philosophy and literature that were ‘different’ from their own. The award undeniably attracted western acclaim; and, the prized work comprised the complexities of Tagore translating in British India his own Bengali compositions into the colonisers’ tongue.
Per Hallstrom, Member-Secretary of the Nobel Committee, acceded that “… no poet in Europe since the death of Goethe in 1882 can rival Tagore in noble humanity, in unaffected greatness, in classical tranquillity.” W.B. Yeats, in his ‘Introduction’ to the English Gitanjali, hailed the collection as the “…work of a supreme culture …” The press too abounded in news about Rabindranath as recipient of the Nobel Award. The Daily Chronicle, November 14, 1913, regarded it as “a remarkable event in the history of the World’s literature. … He [Rabindranath] has built a bridge between East and West …” Pall Mall Gazette, 14 November 1913, lauded the decision thus, “The Nobel Trustees have never fulfilled their trust more thoroughly…”
However, not all quarters were equally liberal and cosmopolitan in their appreciation. The Globe, Toronto, Canada, on June 16, 1914, commented: “It is the first time that the Nobel Prize has gone to any one who is not what we call ‘white’…” Earlier, The New York Times, November 14, 1913, bore a similar remark and even misspelt the poet’s name as ‘Babindranath’; eager to restore its liberal stance, the next day, the paper fumbled further: “Babindranath Tagore, if not exactly one of us, is, as an Aryan, a distant relation of all white folk.”
The eulogies so ebulliently showered upon Tagore and his rising fame also seemed to disturb the composure of the West.
Apprehensive of the overwhelming versatility of his creative personality, of his keen socio-political awareness and intellectual fibre, the West opportunely stressed the strains of piety and devotion in the English Gitanjali in a desperate attempt to stereotype the multifaceted laureate as a ‘mystic’.
The captivating power of Tagore’s English Gitanjali, however, lies in its life-affirming voice and nobility of thought. Not surprisingly, it endeared itself to a World War-ravaged European psyche. Tagore’s son Rathindranath recounts that Clemenceau had sent the Comtesse de Noailles to read out to him poems from Gitanjali on the evening the armistice was declared after the First World War. Tagore also received a letter dated, August 1, 1920, from Wilfred Owen’s mother, after the poet’s death in World War I; it read: “… It is nearly two years ago that my dear eldest son went out to the War for the last time … — when he, my poet son, said those wonderful words of yours — beginning at ‘When I go from hence, let this be my parting word’ — and when his pocket book came back to me — I found these words written in his dear writing — with your name beneath …”
The English Gitanjali, which literally means ‘Song Offerings’, is indeed a celebration of the infinite potential of the human spirit: “Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure. … Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these very small hands of mine. Ages pass, and still thou pourest, and still there is room to fill.” The book nurtures the quintessence of Tagore’s unswerving zest for a World Community: “…Thou hast brought the distant near and made a brother of the stranger …” It earnestly envisions an undauntedly upright and enlightened future society: “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; … Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”
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