Imagining Tagore: Rabindranath and the British Press (1912-1941)

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Item Code: IDE955
Author: Compiled and Edited By: Kalyan Kundu, Sakti Bhattacharya & Kalyan Sircar
Publisher: Shishu Sahitya Samsad Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2000
ISBN: 8186806784
Pages: 685 (Figures: 55)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 11.0" X 8.7"
Weight 2.35 kg
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Book Description

From the Jacket :

The British press, dailies and weeklies, wrote extensively on the Indian poet-activist Rabindranath Tagore from 1912-when on 12 July The Times, the best known newspaper, reported that-'On Wednesday last at the Trocadero Restaurant there was a large gathering in honour of Rabindranath Tagore'-to 1941, the year he died. The present Volume is a comprehensive collection of this writing-news, reports, views, comments, letters and editorials with reproduction of photos, sketches, and cartoons relating tot he subject. The newspapers also published a number of poems and prose pieces, and these are also included here. The entire text is thoroughly annotated, referenced and indexed for reader's easy access.

The importance of this archival material to students of Rabindranath and his time needs no elaboration. There is a need for a fresh reappraisal of Rabindranath Tagore's reception by the contemporary intelligentsia of Great Britain. How was he introduced to the reading public of the time? How was he assessed as a creative writer and social and educational reformer? What place was he assigned as a poet-writer in the scale of European aesthetic sensibility? And did the media's perception of him develop and change over time? The rich details of newspaper cuttings collected here tell a story which is both fascinating and important to Tagore researchers and the general reading public.

The Introduction provides a framework for engaging with this text. The media representation of the poet-humanist reflects the Western knowledge about the Orient, a knowledge aimed at servicing the purpose of colonial relationship between India and Britain. In the early excess of interest and enthusiasm the press and the intelligentsia sought to imagine a man who was the ideal product of Christianity and English education in India. They wanted to secure and manage a sanitised Rabindranath purged of eastern irrationality and superstitious religiosity who would be a timely reminder to the West of the latter's ingrained spirituality presently lost in materialist modernism. When the constructed Rabindranath turned a transgressor, and refused to follow the path laid down for him, the media disenchantment was quick, and its criticism of him was harsh and sometimes cruel. The present work charts this story how the British press encountered Rabindranath and constructed him ideologically and imaginatively. The encounter reveals how cultural, economic and political factors shaped the media power relation which prevailed, and the discursive regime within which Tagore was constituted and represented.

About the Authors:

Kalyan Kundu, founder-Executive-Director of the Tagore Centre UK obtained his post-graduate degrees in Botany from the universities of Calcutta and London. For a time he worked as a biochemist in a medical research project in a London hospital. His interest in Tagore studies and research contributed greatly to the work of the Centre. He has written on Tagore and allied subjects in well-known journals.

Sakti Bhattacharya, the founder-Chairperson of the Tagore Centre studied in Tagore's university of Visva-Bharati. He is a poet and playwright. His special interest is the history of development of Bengali theatre.

Kalyan Sircar, studied Applied Economics and Economic History in Calcutta and London. He taught in polytechnics, college of higher education and The Open University, UK. Sircar was Chairperson of the Tagore Centre from 1985 to 1991. He has written on diverse subjects of migration, labour history, orientalism and Tagore. Kundu, Bhattacharya and Sircar co-edited This World is Beautiful-An Anthology of Tagore for Younger Readers, and Rabindranath and the British Press, 1912-1941, both published by the Tagore Centre UK.


The present book is a compilation of writings in the British Press, dailies and weeklies, on Rabindranath Tagore which appeared in 1912-41. The Press also published some works of Tagore, and these are included in this volume. The purpose of this Introduc- tion is to provide the context of the British print media's presentation of an Indian poet and activist to readers in Britain, and to offer a critical reading of the material produced and propagated by it.

In May 1912 Rabindranath Tagore completed his fifty-first birthday. Until then, his literary work was virtually unknown outside his native Bengal. He wrote in his own Bengali language, and only a handful of his poems and short stories were translated into English. As far as his travel to the West was concerned, this was limited to two earlier visits to England in 1878 and 1890 when he went there at the instigation of his family to study for some professional qualifications-this being a common aspiration of upper middle class male Indians of the time. However, he showed little interest in formal studies and returned home without any formal qualification. The third visit to England in 1912 was different, a momentous event, which proved to be a great turning point in Tagore's life.

The 1912 journey to England and beyond was inspired by a variety of motives and interests. ' ... the eternal humanity had its fullest expression in its heart [of Europe] .... to see that great and awakened humanity I went to Europe in 19l2'-he wrote later in one of his travelogues. More specifically, according to one of his travel companions, a stu- dent from his Bolpur school: 'Most of the time throughout the voyage he discussed what methods and ideas he could observe and bring back with him from Europe for the development of his educational ideas. More immediately, perhaps, he felt he needed a break. In the preceding ten years he had lost his wife (1902), one daughter (1903), his father (1905) and his youngest and most gifted son (1907). It seemed death had become his cruel and constant companion. These were also the early years of his school, and the work, although exhilarating, proved to be hard and streneous. The series of meetings, long hours of teaching and frequent travels drained him out both physically and men- tally. 'I want to restore my health and for that I need a long voyage,' he wrote to a friend on 2 September 1912.

Tagore was to leave India on 19 March, but had to postpone the departure because of a sudden illness. In order to rest he went to Selaidaha on the river Padma (now in Bangladesh), an area of peaceful green villages by the water. While convalescing, he began to translate some of his Bengali songs into English. 'I began to make the trans- lations just when I was recovering from illness, and had no strength to do any original work. They began as a kind of experiment, but I found that I had the same experiences in translating the songs as I had when writing them first,' he once explained to an English interviewer. In a similar vein he wrote to his niece, Indira, 'I did not undertake this task in a spirit of reckless bravado. I simply felt an urge to recapture through the medium of another language the feelings and sentiments which had created such a feast of joy within me in the days gone by.

A different connection has also been made. In 1910 'the Russo-German philosopher Herman Keyserling came to India and met Tagore in his Calcutta residence. In 1911 Prince William of Sweden, while visiting India, met Tagore and his illustrious -family, The distinguished visitors were impressed with Tagore's personality and freshness of mind but had no means of appreciating his literary work so far not translated into any European language. It is possible this absence gave Tagore the idea to translate his works into English.

When translating his own work, Rabindranath Tagore was not consciously motivated by any practical consideration, suggests Marian Maddern. According to Maddern, the English Gitanjali was 'far from being strict translations of their Bengali originals. Often they seem rather to be paraphrases, or restatements, or condensations, or even combi- nations of Bengali poems.' 'Tagore,' opines Maddern, 'was not in fact acting primarily as a translator, in the sense of one who approaches a fixed body of material with the idea of getting it into another language. Instead, he seems to have been playing with his material-trying, for a whim, to see if bits of it could be recast or reexpressed in a language [English] ... it seems unlikely that Tagore was moved by any desire to commu- nicate the nature and qualities of his Bengali poetry to a non-Bengali speaking audience. Or rather, he seems not to have considered it feasible to do' so.

Nirad Chaudhuri, writing on the subject, expressed the view: 'It is impossible to think that this psychological situation with its sense of isolation as well as injury did not prompt the translations, with which Tagore only toyed at first. The idea of obtaining from the English literary world what he had not secured in Bengal must have been vaguely present in his mind.

Meanwhile, in 1910, the India Society was founded in London with the objective of promoting the study and appreciation of Indian art, music and literature in Britain. William Rothenstein, the principal promoter of the organization, was aware of Tagore's writings. English translations of a number of his poems were published in Echoes from East and West, and a few others in the Calcutta periodical, Modern Review. Rothenstein's own interest in Tagore, and the propagation of the poet's work by the India Society to further its activities coincided. It is possible some of these events in London might have added to Rabindranath's own interest in rendering his works in English. Thus a constellation of factors, complex and apparently contradictory, and not merely 'a recapturing of sen- timents in another medium' prompted Tagore to express himself in English. Indeed this journey can be described as intellectual, educational and restorational.

Tagore finally set sail for England on 27 May 1912, and arrived in London on 16 June. On the previous day The Nation had published one of his poems. From then on events moved fast. Tagore, at one stage, handed over the notebook of self-translations to Rothenstein who promptly passed the manuscript to W.B.Yeats for his comments. Poet Yeats found these free verses 'exquisite in style as in thoughts.' An ecstatic Yeats read some of these poems at a dinner-reception held on 10 July by the India Society to honour Tagore. The invited guests included a number of well-known poets, artists and intellec- tuals. On .12 July a brief account of the reception was published in the The Times--the first report about Tagore to appear in a British newspaper. Soon after, the India Society published a collection of one hundred and three of these poems under the title Gitanjali- The Song Offerings, in a limited edition of seven hundred and fifty copies of which two hundred and fifty copies were for sale. The slim volume caused a sensation in Britain: merely a handful of intellectuals and artists in the metropolis were rapturous in praise, soon a select but significant reading public became familiar with Gitanjali. More interest- ingly, the British Press, the dailies and weeklies throughout the country, began to show an unprecedented curiosity about Rabindranath the poet and Rabindranath the man. The media interest in Tagore continued in the early years-the amount of writing was vast and varied; but by the time of his death in 1941 it had trailed off to virtual silence. It is with the print media's interest in Rabindranath that we are engaged in this Intro- duction.

The facts about Gitanjali are well known. The India Society's edition lasted only three months. Subsequently, the publication was taken ovet by Macmillan and the fame of Tagore and the fortune of Macmillan both rose rapidly. Within one year Gitanjali had gone through thirteen impressions. A year after the publication of Gitanjali, the poet was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, the first Asian to be thus acclaimed. In his report submitted to the Nobel Committee for consideration of the award in favour of Tagore, Per Hallstrom wrote:

'the small collection of poems ... creates such a surprisingly rich and genuinely poetic impres- sion that there is nothing odd and absurd in the proposal to reward it even with such a distinction as it is a question here ... It is certain, however, that no poet in Europe since the death of Goethe in 1882 can rival Tagore in noble humanity, in unaffected greatness, in classical tranquility.

Immediately after the award, the book, through translation into many European lan- guages, became accessible to thousands in Europe. In Britain a knighthood was con- ferred on him in 1915. Tagore's tour of 1912-13 thus turned out to be an event of great consequence in his life, and for that of his country.

How did the British Press view the man Rabindranath and his book Gitanjali? The Times wrote on Tagore's poems even before their publication. The paper's comments were based on Yeats' reading from manuscripts at the Trocadero Restaurant on 10 July. In its issue of 16 July it commented that true art was universal, and Tagore by the moving power of his poems had confirmed 'the truth of that saying of his, that in spite of all difference of language and habits, at the bottom the hearts of men are one.' The Times' writer emphasized that it was not the exotic or strangeness of Tagore's art but its ability to convey feelings which were common to all men that had won admiration of English poets and readers. It is to be noted, however that The Times, as a newspaper of records, which published the account of the Tagore reception of 10 July, his recitation of poems and the performance of his play at the Royal Albert Hall on 30 July, did not review Gitanjali as such. In a lengthy essay The Times Literary Supplement (7 November 1912), using Gitanjali as a mirror for reflecting the self, lamented the contemporary decadence in British poetry, its inability to express emotions stirred by ideas, its often mechanical and jargon- ridden language, and its coldness to God, values and nature. By contrast Tagore's poems in simple prose, often half-rhythmical, achieved a balance of harmony of emotion and ideas. To the writer in the TLS the ideas expressed in Tagore's poems, although universal in thought and sentiments, contained 'more of Eastern subtlety in his song of illusion and that separation which the creator imposes upon himself when he creates.' The TLS found that Tagore's poems were a timely reminder to the English poets: ' ... in reading them one feels, not that they are the curiosities of an alien mind, but they are prophetic of the poetry that might be written in England if our poets could attain to the same harmony of emotion and idea.' When reviewing or assessing Tagore's work it became a practice and convention to compare him with old European religious writers. The objective, it seems, is to evaluate him on a European scale to show affinity and similarity, as well as to foreground the fact that the new Tagore writing was really an old European genre, now lamentably forgotten. Yeats had already compared the poems of Gitanjali with the writings of Thomas a Kempis. Tagore's style was familiar in Europe several hundred years ago, the Irish poet had suggested. The Times, when reporting William Rothenstein's introduction 0 Tagore did not agree with the former's comment-that Tagore's mysticism, in contrast with Western mystics, did not exclude the material world and its delights-and reminded the paper's readers of Western mystics like Traherne and Crashaw who belonged to a similar tradition. Tagore and the East as the 'Other' or opposite of Europe, became a tenet, almost a doctrine of faith from the early days of Tagore's entry in the European consciousness. It was to be used to discover and restore the lost self, the European self. The best artistic endeavour of the East is best, not because of its uniqueness or strangeness, but for its familiarity and similarity with its Western counterpart. A poem in Gitanjali reminded the critique of the TLS of painters such as Chardin, and inspired him to comment : ' ... all true art is for ever discovering such connections and likenesses, finding the same signifi- cance in all things and making them all seem friendly to the spirit.'

In the year of its publication Gitanjali was reviewed by three other papers: The Ath- enaeum, The Nation and The Westminster Gazette. The Athenaeum ( 16 November, 1912) thought that Yeats' introduction to Gitanjali was 'impetuous' and his comparison of Tagore with Blake or St. Francis was off the mark. The Indian poet reminded the reviewer of the Psalms or Solomon's song. Yet, The Athenaeum found that 'his [Tagore's] normal tone is not the tone of warmth and passivity; and in spite of sustained beauty and spiritual accomplishment, his work exercises, upon a Western mind at any rate, a somewhat numbing effect, and one must doubt whether it is really consonant with the deepest meanings of the life of which it offers a key.'

In a long and erudite essay The Nation reviewed Gitanjali in its issue of 16 November, 1912. The crown of literature is the poetry of mysticism. Poets of mysticism are not easily encountered because it is rare to find one who has the genius to be 'an artist, a lover, and a seer' all at the same time and' 'in a supreme degree.' Both the East and the West have produced a few of such 'highest class' of writers like Sufi Jelalud'Din Rumi, Franciscan Jaopone da Todi, Carmelite St. John of the Cross. Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet, is the latest addition to these luminaries. Tagore's mystical poems stood in total 'inde- pendence of time,' 'almost complete independence of place' and in an 'exalted passion for reality.'

The Westminster Gazette showed a strong disapproval of Yeats' assessment of Tagore in the review of Gitanjali published on 7 December 1912. The reading of Tagore's poems 'as an antidote against Western folly and vanity' was incorrect because such writing was neither unknown in the West in the distant or near past. In Tagore can be heard the voice not only of Thomas a Kempis, St. John of the Cross and Blake, but coming nearer our time that of Wordsworth and Walt Whitman. Indeed, 'over and over again this book echoes with Traherne, with Herbert, and with Vaughan. Tagore belonged to the com- pany of writers whose writing is 'pure', 'full of 'spiritual vision,' and 'beautiful being simple and direct.' 'We need no esoteric knowledge to understand him. Peace is for the asking, is the burden of his message, if only heart and mind will give it welcome,' the reviewer noted with confidence.

In 1912 the British press read Gitanjali and commended it to its readers for its essential traditional Christian message then unfortunately lost to Europe. What was highlighted was that this message was universal, and obliterated the superficial separation of East from the West. In Tagore Europe found its lost soul, its own ancient and pure voice and for this reawakening of Europe the poet was thanked. In such reading one detects a certain po- litical, moral and literary pre-conceptions where Europe and Christianity take the centre stage. This interpretation of Gitanjali denies the existence of a separate history and culture different from their own, something new, something they do not have.



Introduction ix
The British Press: a profile liii
Period 1912-1915


     1912 5
     1913 16
     1914 134
     1915 185
Period 1916-1919 215-322
     1916 217
     1917 233
     1918 303
     1919 315
Period 1920-1924 323-389
     1920 325
     1921 328
     1922 354
     1923 375
     1924 379
Period 1925-1928 391-459
     1925 393
     1926 405
     1927 454
     1928 459
Period 1929-1935 461-518
     1929 463
     1930 465
     1931 502
     1932 510
     1933 515
     1934 516
     1935 518
Period 1936-1941 519-585
     1936 521
     1937 544
     1938 555
     1939 563
     1940 573
     1941 577
Notes 587
Subject Index 611
Appendix 1 625
Appendix 2 627
Appendix 3 628

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