LAST year, 13 November marked the centenary of Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel Prize in Literature. Almost 100 years back, the writer, educationist and philosopher was informed of being conferred with the prestigious award. Stating the reasons, the Swedish Academy said that “because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West”. In his presentation speech on 10 December 1913, Harald Hjarne, chairman of the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy, commenting on Tagore’s Gitanjali, affirmed that rarely in “the realm of imaginative literature are attained so great a range and diversity of note and colour, capable of expressing with equal harmony and grace the emotions of every mood from the longing of the soul after eternity to the joyous merriment prompted by the innocent child at play”. Eight years on, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech at Stockholm, Tagore himself described the circumstances under which he had come to learn about the award:
I remember the afternoon when I received the cable graph from my publisher in England that the prize had been awarded to me. I was staying then at the school Shantiniketan, about which I suppose you know. At that moment we were taking a party over to a forest nearby then school, and when I was passing by the telegram office and the post office, a man came running to us and held up the telegraphic message. I had also an English visitor with me in the same carriage. I did not think that the message was of any importance, and I just put it into my pocket thinking that I would read it when I reached my destination. But my visitor supposed he knew the contents and he urged me to read it, saying that it contained an important message. And I opened and read the message, which I could hardly believe. I first thought that possibly the telegraphic language was not quite correct and that I might misread the meaning, but at last I felt certain about it. And you can well understand how rejoicing it was for my boys at the school and for the teachers. What touched me more deeply than anything else was that these boys who loved me and for whom I had the deepest love felt proud of the honour that had been awarded to him for whom they had feelings of reverence, and I realised that my countrymen would share with me the honour which had been awarded to myself.
Tagore’s official response in the form of a telegram was read out by Mr Clive, British Charge d’Affaires at the Nobel Banquet at the Grand Hotel, Stockholm, on 10 December 1913. In his acceptance message, he conveyed his “grateful appreciation” — I beg to convey to the Swedish Academy my grateful appreciation of the breadth of understanding which has brought the distant near, and has made a stranger a brother. But how did the reclusive poet react to his sudden international acclaim? Following his initial surprise, as revealed in the cited extract, he continued to brood on the recognition. As he mentioned further in his acceptance speech, “The rest of the afternoon passed away in this manner, and when the night came I sat upon the terrace alone, and I asked myself the question what the reason could be of my poems being accepted and honoured by the West — in spite of my belonging to a different race, parted and separated by seas and mountains from the children of the West.”
Responses to the news of Tagore being a recipient of the Noble Prize were wide ranging, both at home and abroad. Earlier, his edition of Gitanjali, which had been published in London in November 1912, had received good reviews from the British press. In its review, the Times Literary Supplement (7 November 1912, page 492) observed that “in reading these poems one feels not that they are the curiosities of an alien mind, but that 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. That divorce of religion and philosophy which prevails among us is a sign of our failure in both...”
While some of his close friends and acquaintances based in England (like painter William Rothenstein) were ecstatic, there was, however, a great deal of scepticism and even hostility in certain English literary circles, largely as Tagore was chosen for an award that was still elusive for a writer like Thomas Hardy. The reactions of the American press were no less critical. As one of the papers reported, “The awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to a Hindu has occasioned much chagrin and no little surprise among writers of the Caucasian race. They cannot understand why this distinction was bestowed upon one who is not white.” The Los Angeles-based Times mentioned that the prize had gone “to a Hindu poet whose name few people can pronounce, with whose work fewer in America are familiar, and whose claim for that high distinction still fewer will recognise”. The Toronto-based Globe observed, “It is the first time that the Nobel Prize has gone to anyone who is not what we call ‘white’. It will take time, of course, for us to accommodate ourselves to the idea that anyone called Rabindranath Tagore should receive a world prize for literature... The name has a curious sound. The first time we saw it in print it did not seem real.” In this context, it is also interesting to note that the New York Times had first erroneously announced the name as “Babindranath Tagore”! But what was the reaction back home?
A close reading of Tagore’s correspondence and various other miscellaneous reactions during this time span reveal the shroud of ambivalence that had engulfed the poet’s mind following the international limelight and glory.
Not only in Bengal but also in several other parts of India, the prize, quite justifiably and naturally, heralded a cause for national celebration though very few among them were supposedly acquainted with Tagore’s works. As Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson observe in Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore that “even among Bengalis; indeed many of the celebrators in Bengal were detractors of Rabindranath”. But what was Tagore’s own personal reaction following his initial surprise? His biographer, Edward Thompson, then also a Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford University, recollecting in his biography Rabindranath Tagore: Poet and Dramatist, strikes a somewhat contradictory note, “Rabindranath told me the award was not altogether a surprise.
When in England, he had been asked to send copies of his books and press cuttings to the Nobel Prize Committee. Now his success depressed him.” However, the reclusive poet did not cherish or look forward to the sudden unprecedented attention he received.
As Tagore narrated to Thompson, “I shall never get any peace again. I shall be worried with appeals, all kinds of people will be writing to me. My heart sank when I saw those people at Bombay and realised that they were going to make a public show of me there.”
Interestingly, a few days later, in his letter to English painter Sir William Rothenstein, written on 18 November 1913, Tagore confided his ambivalent feelings, “The very first moment I received the message of the great honour conferred on me by the award of the Nobel Prize my heart turned towards you with love and gratitude... all the same, it is (a) very great trial for me. The perfect whirlwind of public excitement it has given rise to is frightful... I am being smothered with telegrams and letters for the last few days and the people who have never had any friendly feelings towards me nor ever read a line of my works are loudest in their protestations of joy. I cannot tell you how tired I am of all this shouting, the stupendous amount of its unreality being something appalling. Really, these people honour the honour in me and not myself. The only thing that compensates for this is the unfeigned joy and pride that the boys of my school feel at this occasion. They are having festivities and making the most of me.”
Incidentally, Rothenstein had been instrumental in introducing Tagore to the various literary personalities in Britain, including Irish poet WB Yeats. The first formal suggestion of Tagore’s name for the Noble Prize, however, was made by Sturge Moore, whose original letter, as Tagore’s biographer Krishna Kripalani affirms, is still preserved today in the archives of the Royal Library at Stockholm. Yeats, who wrote the introduction for the limited edition of Gitanjali, was deeply impressed by Tagore’s verse. So much so that he carried the manuscript of Tagore’s translations with him for days, “reading it in railway trains, or on the top of omnibuses and in restaurants”.
More interestingly, he also candidly admitted to the fact that “I have often had to close it lest some stranger would see how much it moved me”.
This warm reception encouraged Rothenstein to arrange a reading of Tagore’s poems at his residence by Yeats on 30 June 1912 before an august assembly of May Sinclair, Ernest Rhys, Alice Meynell, George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells, John Galsworthy, Robert Bridges, Thomas Sturge Moore Henry Nevinson, Charles Trevelyan and several others, winning ecstatic responses from all of them. May Sinclair expressed her appreciation in a letter written to Tagore, “May I say now that as long as I live, even if I were never to hear them again, I shall never forget the impression that they made. It is not only that they have an absolute beauty, a perfection as poetry, but that they have made present for me forever the divine thing that I can only find by flashes and with an agonising uncertainty… you have put into English which is absolutely transparent in its perfection, things it is despaired of ever seeing written in English at all or in any Western language.” Comparing Tagore’s verse with that of Charles Baudelaire and Remy de Gourmont, Ezra Pound observed, “Briefly I find in these poems a sort of ultimate common sense, a reminder of one thing and of forty things of which we are even likely to lose sight of in the confusion of our Western life, in the racket of our cities, in the jabber of manufactured literature, in the vortex of advertisement...”
William Butler Yeats even occasionally discussed and helped Tagore out with his translations of Gitanjali, an issue that was exploited by a notorious imperialist reactionary like Sir Valentine Chirol (who also happened to be the Calcutta-based correspondent of Times) following the conferment of the award. At a public assembly in Bengal, he told the audience that “the English Gitanjali was practically a production of Yeats”. Writing to Sturge Moore from Shelidah in Khulna, Bangladesh, in his letter (17 February1914), Tagore mentioned the incident but he addressed the issue more directly in his letter to William Rothenstein almost a year later on 4 April, 1915, “And if it be true that Yeats’s touches have made it possible for Gitanjali to occupy the place it does then that must be confessed.”
Tagore’s diffidence was cleared by Rothenstein’s unequivocal support, “I know that it was said in India that the success of Gitanjali was largely owing to Yeats’s rewriting of Tagore’s English. That this is false can be proved. The original of Gitanjali in English and Bengali is in my possession. Yeats did here and there suggest changes that the main text was printed as it came from Tagore’s hands.”
A great number of letters written by the poet just following the award recurrently harps on the issue of Tagore’s discontentment and resentment with the sudden publicity and attention showered upon him following the award. Besides, as Krishna Kripalani observes in Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography, “The thought rankled in his mind and the patriot in him found it humiliating that the majority of his countrymen had needed the stimulus of foreign recognition to turn their grudging appreciation of his service to their language and literature into adulation.” Ten days following the announcement of the award, on 23 November 1913, around 500 Calcuttans travelling by a special train gathered at Shantiniketan to honour and felicitate the poet. Though Tagore was acquainted with some members of this group, most were unfamiliar to the poet, with some among them, ironically, being critical of him earlier. Besides this, as Andrew Robinson and Krishna Dutta recall, even the “conversation on the train turned around the financial, rather than the literary value of the Nobel Prize”.
Quite justifiably, Rabindranath was candid in his uncompromising rebuff. In his disapproving response, he sternly reminded that “no literary work can have its quality or appeal enhanced by the Nobel Prize”. The local press in Calcutta did react, but Tagore’s unyielding response ensured future peace for him, warding off unwarranted repetition of similar delegations from Kolkata. Praising Tagore for his justified reaction, politician Bipinchandra Pal commented in Hindu Review, “No man of Rabindranath’s position and sensibilities could have been less bitter under similar circumstances... the rebuke of his reply was neither undeserved nor undignified.”
Tagore also complained about this incident to Rothenstein in a letter (dated 10 December 1913) written from Shelidah in Khulna. He wrote, “My friend, my days are riddled all over with interruptions, they are becoming perfectly useless to me. I am worn out writing letters, distributing thanks by handfuls and receiving visitors. I cannot tell you how unsuitable this sudden eruption of honour is to a man of my temperament. The winter sun is sweet, the green is luxuriant all around me — I want to gloriously idle and let my thoughts melt and mingle in the blue of the space… but my mind is invaded and my time is wasted with things that are of the least significance to the inner life. Perhaps you will smile and think this mood of mine absurdly oriental — but still it has the truth which must not be overlooked.”
A week later he again renewed his complaint to his friend, this time writing from Calcutta (in a letter dated 16 December 1913), “My ordeal is not yet over. I still have dinners to attend to, and listen to speeches in praise of my genius, and to answer them in a becoming spirit of modesty. This has brought me to Calcutta and kept me in our Jorasanko lane, while the mustard fields are in bloom in Shelidah and wild ducks have set up their noisy households in the sandbanks of (the) Padma. I have already raised a howl of protests and vilifications in our papers by saying in plain words what was in my mind to a deputation who had come to Bolpur to offer me congratulations.
This has been a relief to me — for honour is a heavy enough burden even when it is real but intolerable when meaningless and devoid of sincerity. However, I must not complain. Let me patiently wait for the time when all this tumult will be a thing of the past and truth will shine and peace will come even to a man whom the West has thought fit to honour.”
The Nobel Prize drew a number of foreign visitors to Shantiniketan, but Tagore’s grudge against the uncalled for intrusions in his privacy tended to continue unabated. Writing to Harriet Moody on 22 January 1914, he referred to his loss of peace following the award and the public glare as “Nobel Prize notoriety” — “I am still suffering from Nobel Prize notoriety and I do not know what nursing home there is where I can go and get rid of this my latest and greatest trouble. To deprive me of my seclusion is like shelling an oyster — the rude touch of the curious world is all over me — I am pining for the shade of obscurity. I hope you have not already tired of my name being discussed in every newspaper and you do not despise me who has been dragged from his nest of dreams into the most crowded market of public applause. Why do I not have a word of sympathy from you in my time of distress?”
The mention of “Noble Prize notoriety” also recurs in Tagore’s letter to poet Robert Bridges (8 July 1914) where he points out that “the reputation I earned in the West was sudden, as well as great — but being brought up in a different atmosphere my mind was not trained to imbibe it and be filled with it to a saturation point”. In the same letter he mentions, “Next time I go to England I should like nothing better than to take shelter in your home for a while and be protected from the whirlwind of the Nobel Prize notoriety.”
Tagore’s apathy towards public gaze also found reference in his acceptance speech of the award in 1921, “The acknowledgement I got from Sweden has brought me and my work before the Western public, though I can assure you that it has also given me some trouble. It has broken through the seclusion, which I have been accustomed to. It has brought me out before the great public to which I have never been accustomed. And the adjustment has not been yet made. I shrink in my heart when I stand before the great concourse of Humanity in the West. I have not yet been accustomed to accept the great gift of your praise and your admiration in the manner in which you have given it to me… I am thankful to God that he has given me this great opportunity, that I have been an instrument to bring together to unite the hearts of the East and the West. And I must to the end of my life carry on that mission. I must do all that I can.”
These reactions on the part of the self-effacing poet are very interesting in the sense that they underline his intense reclusive temperament and deep aversion towards the public and media glare. Tagore perhaps resisted the post-award celebrations and eulogies, as the accolades encroached upon his fiercely guarded private space, a space exclusively reserved for lifelong worship of a devotee offering his pilgrimage through immortal creations of art in myriad forms, across various genres. The private space of worship, with its sacramental mystical dimension and profound pantheistic communion with the world of nature, justifiably called for meditative peace and seclusion. The recurrent annoyance in the form of public and media attention, in all probability, seemed like an unholy intervention on his “bliss of solitude”.
To sum up in his words from an epistolary extract from a letter written to Robert Bridges on 8 July 1914, “My religion is my life — it is growing with my growth — it has never been grafted on me from outside. I had denied God when I was younger just as the flower in its pride of blossoming youth completely ignores the fruit which is its perfection.” A hundred years on, his prophetic message rings true even today.
A Commonwealth Research Scholar to Sussex University, UK, the writer is currently Dean of Arts and on the faculty of the Department of English, St Xavier’s College (Autonomous) Kolkata