Rethinking Tagore

Dr. Rashid Askari
Wednesday, August 9th, 2017


 

The greatest literary icon whom we, as the Bengali, take pride in; share joys and sorrows with; seek solace in; draw inspiration from; and recollect in all the seasons of the year, all the stages of life, and all the feelings we have—in our well and woe, pleasure and pain, sense and sensibility, and love and war—is none other than Tagore—Rabindranath Tagore, the most distinguished literary personality of the Bengali across the globe. As Shakespeare is in English, Victor Hugo in French, Goethe in German, Dante in Italian, Tolstoy in Russian, Galib in Urdu, Ferdowsi in Persian, Kalidasa in Sanskrit—so is Rabindranath in Bengali and in Bangladesh.

 

It is a generally acknowledged fact that Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) is the greatest Bengali writer ever born. He is irrefutably our literary icon, the quintessence of our national artistic merit. He was a poet, philosopher, playwright, novelist, essayist, artist, biographer, correspondent, editor, humorist, polemicist, travel writer and storyteller whose complete works in Bengali reached 20,000 pages. But this Bengali literary giant was not much confident of the quality of his English language. He made a clear confession of this to Ezra Pound, William Rothenstein, Ramananda Chatterjee, and his daughter Bella and niece Indira. He thought his English was not good enough to suit him fine. But the success of the English versions of his Gitanjali poems and that of his speeches in the American lecture circuit even before he had risen to prominence by winning the Nobel Prize must have proved that his fears were groundless. Researchers have explored many qualities of permanence in his English writing. He is being discovered and rediscovered in different dimensions, and found preeminent among the writers of the globe. With the growing cultural awareness in these postcolonial days, the Bengali-speaking people, especially the younger generation have explored Tagore’s great artistic talent for English writing, and developed a tremendous interest in him. As a writer in English he wrote far more and better than many of the Indian writers in English. The world attention is being more focused on this literary cornucopia. So is increasing the study of his English writing.

 

Rabindranath was not a writer in English as such. He took to writing in English for the pressure from his admirers at home and abroad. Nevertheless, the corpus of his writings in English is pretty large and manifold. They generally fall into two major categories—originals and translations. Although he began this part of his career at his early fifties as a translator of his own writings, he did a considerable amount of original writing and translation of others’ works. In addition, he used the language to write scores of letters, and to give numerous lectures, talks, speeches, and addresses across the globe.

 

The fullest corpus of Rabindranath’s works in English has yet to be explored and evaluated. Many of his published and unpublished writings are still untraceable. As a matter of fact, the process of exploration of the wealth of Tagore’s immeasurable world of creation is an eternal process. Scholars should come up with fresh investigations into the vast world of Tagore’s complete writing in English to discover and rediscover intriguing windows into Tagore study. This should be the main focus of our literary-cultural quest. Because, Tagore deserves to be treated best in Bangladesh than anywhere else. The latest move by Sheikh Hasina Government to establish the long awaited Rabindra University in Bangladesh is sure a milestone on the road towards cultural preservation through higher education, which is now at the top of the postcolonial agenda. The premier herself has laid the foundation stone of the university in Shahjadpur. It is expected to be erected after the fashion of the Santiniketan Visva –Bharati University and to grow as a centre of excellence in teaching and research on the multifarious aspects of this literary genius’ life and work. This will lead to fresh discoveries and rediscoveries, which must help us map our cultural heritage and consolidate our position in the globe. In addition, study of Tagore and Bangladesh will motivate younger generations to blend our past conviction with future promise.  Rabindranath, for the Bengali, is not one to escape notice. He is well worth something to feel with the heart, to put into the head, and to translate into reality; something to write and to read– in private and in public—in the academia and out of the academia! And to rediscover Tagore is to explore his genius in the whole gamut of his literary creation in English– traceable and untraceable.

 

Dr. Rashid Askari is a writer, columnist, fictionist and vice-chancellor of Islamic University, Kushtia, Bangladesh.

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