Rabindranath Tagore: Universality and Tradition

Rabindranath Tagore: Universality and Tradition

Rabindranath Tagore: Universality and Tradition

Rabindranath Tagore: Universality and Tradition


Rabindranath Tagore is considered the greatest modern writer of India. He is also one of the great social and political figures in modern Indian history. After he received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, Tagore's reputation in the west has been based primarily on his mystical poetry. But that is only one small part of Tagore's work. Tagore wrote novels of social realism, treating such issues as nationalism, religious intolerance and violence. He wrote analytic works on social reform, education and science - even engaging in a brief dialogue with Albert Einstein.


Patrick Colm Hogan

Someone picking up a volume on Tagore might well expect the introduction to take as its theme Tagore and Poetry, Tagore and Mysticism, or something else aesthetic or religious. Particularly in the West, Tagore is known as a devotional poet and Hindu sage. He is not known as a “committed writer.” That was Sartre or Marquez—not Tagore. Yet Tagore was a committed writer. Indian readers are perhaps more aware that deeply felt social, ethical, and political attitudes pervade Tagore's works, providing much of their initial impetus, animating their characterization and voice, even guiding their form, genre, and outlet.

On the other hand, even readers who fully acknowledge the depth of Tagore's feelings in these areas might still balk at taking them as a starting point for a study of Tagore. After all, at least at first glance, Tagore's commitments appear rather a mess—beautifully expressed, perhaps, but still a mess. He seems to shift continually between opposites, especially between opposites that are linked (not always accurately) with the great colonial dichotomy between East and West, India and Europe. Thus, he was the champion of the national movement, a composer of patriotic songs, and an inspiring anticolonial activist. But he was also the staunchest enemy of nationalism, one of the harshest critics of the independence movement, the author of narratives that represent anticolonial activists as corrupt and cruel. He was a patriarch and a critic of feminism. But he was also relentless in his attacks on the mistreatment of women in Indian society and is often seen as a sort of protofeminist himself. He was well known for advocating the incorporation of European learning into Indian education. At the same time, he vociferously denounced what he viewed as the carceral structures and routines of European schools. When discussing Gandhi, he was energetic in advocating scientific rationality and objectivity. Against Einstein, he defended a sort of epistemological subjectivism.

The mix is even more obvious in his relation to and appropriation of literary tradition. Few modern Indian authors were as deeply immersed . . .

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