The Tagore Dilemma

Modern Indian Poetry in English has had a rather blemished appearance since the 1900s. If any speculations at all were made of this prolonged scenario, you would obviously sense the connection. When Buddhadeva Bose, a European literary scholar of Bengali origin held the opinion that ‘Indo-Anglian poetry is a blind alley, lined with curio-shops, leading nowhere,’ not many retaliated with a response. That was a good 60 years ago. Perhaps you could see the kind of effect this leaves on the English poetry canon itself up till now – a fierce debate of diversity and representation. But where do we allocate the reasoning behind this sneering remark? Or can we just dismiss it as mere ribbing?

What cannot be easily repudiated here is the Oriental aspect that occupies this body of poetry. It has been perpetually malleable in its identity, both by representing an array of cultures with fusion of native Indian languages. As a result, it is often overlooked by the West because of it. The veiled idea here is that, a colonised nation adopting an English tongue will surely lack the authenticity of poets like William Wordsworth and Wilfred Owen. Thus, even if it becomes a milestone, it is therefore limited to a local audience, bounded by the Occidental vision.

Jawaharlal Nehru and Rabindranath Tagore

So naturally, the question turns to, why write? Apart from the poetic license that comes together with writing poetry, what else could be the purpose? Casting aside the imaginative expression fuelled from poetry writing, is there a serious, collective literary pursuit of Indian poets? Amalendu Bose in his article addressed this ambiguity. For many poets, it is almost like a battleground. A constant oscillation between using their native language and the coloniser’s language. A sense of powerlessness that rises from being unable to let go of either language while at the same time, finding creative comfort in interpreting the cultural compositions through English. Precisely, this multi-layered conflict is what demonstrates the difficulty of the poetry canon in diversifying its body.

A biography of Rabindranath Tagore

At this juncture, it is important to recall a preceding incident that may have laid the foundation for Modern Indian Poetry. About a hundred years ago, a certain Rabindranath Tagore, a man of Bengali origin left a memorable imprint on India when the British still ruled. During this time of social and religious reformation, Tagore’s influence on his culture and traditions proved to be a turning point. Not being able to reproduce the conventional religious odes and ballads to Lord Krishna, Radha or Kali Devi like his predecessors, Tagore’s alignment moved towards a more secular view of Hinduism and spirituality. As such, the demand to reconstruct the poetic structure in English to suit this change, fell on Tagore’s shoulders. Fast forward to a hundred and fifty years later, Tagore’s poetic achievements are still a controversy to the mainstream audience, especially regarded in Britain as laughable.

In the many voyages Tagore undertook in his lifetime, particularly one visit created the reputation he has today. When the demise of his wife and children left him to grieve, he turned this mourning into a collection of ‘song offerings’ called Gitanjali. Originally written in Bengali, Tagore translated part of this collection to English in prose poetry format and sailed to England in 1912. It is during this visit that he was acquainted with William Butler Yeats who began to passionately advocate his poetry after reading it. In the following year 1913, Rabindranath Tagore became the first non-European, Asian and Indian to have received the Nobel Prize for Literature award. His prized Gitanjali earned him this wholesome reputation as he was acknowledged for ‘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.’

The ripple effect of this success was immediate. Gitanjali became a global phenomenon and so did Tagore. A huge audience garnered around his work that was already being published in many editions. The inevitable loss accrued from the First World War found itself savouring the veneration of natural world that Tagore’s lines contained. As profoundly as Gitanjali was written on nature’s spirituality, this became the emblem of how the West viewed the East. Tagore fitted the scope of an Oriental in possibly every way. His appearance, his poetic vision, his origin all rooted back to the mysticism, dreamy and sagelike qualities that the West wanted to see. Above all, exotic. This highly problematic view no doubt, compromised the true, inherent goal of Tagore’s literary ventures.

Rabindranath Tagore Jayanti 2015

Apart from just urging mankind to harmonise with nature, Tagore’s poetry held a stronger vision. Tagore used his inherited fortunes into developing an existing ashram to a fully-fledged university. Vishva Bharati University was a way for Tagore to manifest an ideal education that paired wisdom and spirituality for better a social cohesion in India. As much as he admired the European standards of intellect, he wished to synthesise the outstanding components of East and the West – an ambitious synergizing effort. This was the reason he undertook the process of translating his Bengali poems to English, an attempt at bridging the gulf that very much gripped his mind. Only after his Nobel award, was this effort commended, but not for very long either.

Tagore was a prolific writer as long as he lived. Aside from huge poetry collections, he had written plays and novels and thousands of songs in Bengali. All of them collected for him steadfast praise and admiration from his Bengali audience. The real trouble began when these works of his intrigued a handful of translators for English translation. High levels of abstraction was a prominent feature in Tagore’s poems, something which became increasingly tough to be translated. Through this process, the subtler meanings were lost in translation, which in English only sounded above average. Thus, his works became an object of scrutiny that even a 150 years later, Tagore’s artistic merits are called into question. However, this treatment has only carefully happened to Tagore and poets like him, while the writers and poets of English canon are not subjected to this condition. What should we make of this leeway? Or is this purely a Tagore’s dilemma?

Written by Abhiraamee Ayadurai


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Jack, I. (2011) ‘Rabindranath Tagore was a global phenomenon, so why is he neglected?’ The Guardian. 7 May. Retrieved from

Naqvi, Z. (2010) ‘Nature Worship: Wordsworth and Tagore’

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