Nobel Laurel : The Centenary
Sisir K Majumdar
Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913-the first Asian and also the first non-white Nobel Laureate. He was 52 years old at the time. It was then the British colonial India-the second Nobel Laureate in Literature in the British empire. The first Nobel Laureate in Literature (1907) in Great Britain and also in the British empire was the India-born (Bombay) Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936).
Incidentally, the First British Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine (1902) Ronald Ross (1857-1932) was also born in India (Almora in the then United Province of colonial India).
Rabindranath first travelled to the West as an Eng
lish language writer in 1912. He gave the English manuscript of "Gitanjali" (Song Offerings) to his artist friend-William Rothenstein (1872-1945), who read it first and then passed it over to the Irish poet-William Butler Yeats to read. Yeats wrote in his introduction to the 1912 Macmillan edition of "Gitanjali" ...our own image ...our voice if in a dream." Rothenstein managed to assemble a host of London luminaries including George Bernard Shaw, H G Wells, John Galsworthy, Ernest Rhys, Thomas Sturge Moore, Robert Bridges, W B Yeats, C F Andrews and Ezra Pound, at his house on July 7, 1912 to a reading of "Gitanjali". It proved to be the seminal moment. A November, 1912 review of "Gitanjali" in the Times Literary Supplement saw Rabindranath's poetry as a positive influence upon a dcadent British poetic scene that 'lacked ideas' and 'effused coldness towards God, vlaues and nature ...harmony of emotion and idea represented welcome input in British poetry scene.'
Thomas Sturge Moore, a member of the Royal Society of Literature, Great Britian was responsible for Rabin-dranath's initial nomination to the Nobel Committee in Sweden. Three works of Rabindranath in Bengali—"Naivedya", "Kheya" and "Gitanjali"—were received by Nobel Library on July 18, 1913. Nobel Academy Committee included five members—Harald Hjarne (Chairman), Karl Alfred Melius, Erik Axel Karlfeldt (Secretary) Per Hallstrom and Esais Tegner—the younger. Tegner knew Bengali and read those books in original.
The original manuscript of the Gitanjali translations are now held at the Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachuselts, USA. The English "Gitanjali" was composed from the above-mentioned works—"Naivedya", "Kheya" and "Gitanjali".
A few other works of Rabindranath-"The Gardener", "Lyrics of Love and Life" and "Glimpes of Bengal Life" also reached the Nobel Library. English translations of these works were also made available to the members of the selection committee prior to its decision to award the Nobel Prize in Literature (1913) to Rabindranath.
The poems in the English Gitanjali were selected from two Bengali books of poems and songs : 'Gitanjali' and 'Gitimalya' : The poet started the English translations at his family estate at Shelidah (now in Bangladesh). He also included poems from "Naibedya" (Offerings, 1901) and "Kheya" (The Ferry, 1906). The intense creativity of the 'Gitanjali, Gitimalya and Gitali with intense introspection, idealism and spirituality of universal humanism formed the soul of Gitanjali and gave its ultimate title—"Gitanjali : Song Offerings."
The French literary historian Critic Eurile Faguet (1847-1916) toped the list of candidates till the committee meeting held on October 24, 1913. But strong recommendation of the respected Swedish Orientalist and poet Carl Gustaf Verner Von Heidenstam (1859-1940), Nobel Laureate in Literature, 1916 influenced the final decision. In a letter to the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy—Erik Axel Karl Feldt Heidenstam, also a member of the Swedish Academy wrote on October, 18, 1913 :
"...Just as a selection of Gaethe's poems could well convince us of Gaethe's greatness, even if we were unfamiliar with his other writings, some can say quite definitely of these poems by Tagore, which we have in our hands this summer that through them we have to know one of the very greatest poets of our age."
The news of the award of Nobel Prize to Rabindranath reached Santiniketan in a telegram (Cablegram) from the publisher of Gitanjali on Nov 13, 1913. At a special reception at Government House, the then Governor of Bengal, Lord Carmical, formally handed over the Nobel Prize Diploma and medal to the poet on behalf of the Swedish Academy.
In his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech to the Swedish Academy in Stockholm on May 26, 1921 Rabindranath invited the audience to visit his University at Santiniketan with these words :
"...help us to make this University a common institution for the East and the West. May they give the contribution of their lives and may we all together make it living and representative of the undivided humanity of the world.
"...For this I have come to you. I ask you this and I claim it of you in the name of the unity of men, and in the name of love, and in the name of God. I ask you to come. I invite you."
The first felicitation in Calcutta on his Nobel Award was accorded by Rammohan Library on Feb 1, 1914. It was there that he staged the ‘Bichitra’.
CENTENARY of GITANJALI
Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was primarily a lyricist. His "Gitanjali" in Bengali containing 157 poems was published on August 14th, 1910 by the Indian Publishing House of 22 Cornwallis Street, Calcutta. It may be mentioned here that one famous 'Tantric' Shibchandra Vidyarnab by name of Kumar Khali Village, Shilaidaha (now in Bangladesh) worte a book-'Gitanjali' in 1888. Some are of opinion that Rabindranath took that name for his book of poems.
The English "Gitanjali—Song Offerings" was published in London by the Indian Society, London on Nov. 1, 1912-a limited edition (750 copies) containing an English translation of 103 peoms by the poet himself. It was a selection of poems, principally from four of his Bengali works—'Gitanjali', 'Gitimalya', 'Naivedya' and 'Kheya' with an introduction by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), Nobel Laureate in Literature, 1923 and pencil sketch of Rabindranath by the British Artist William Rothenstein (1872-1945) on the front piece. 53 poems of the Bengali 'Gitanjali' and 50 poems from his drama 'Achalayatan' and eight other books of poem where included in the English-'Gitanjali' [Total 103-poems actually 104-this is because one English verse (verse 103) is a combined translation of two Bengali poems]. Out of 750 copies of "Gitanjali" only 250 copies were for sale. "Gitanjali" was dedicated to Rothenstein. After the Indian Society (London) edition of 'Gitanjali" the next edition was published by Macmillan and Company, London in March, 1913 with an Introduction by Yeats and reprinted ten times before the award of the Nobel Prize on Nov. 13, 1913.
Rabindranath was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913 (First Asian) for his English 'Gitanjali' and not as a poet of Bengali Literature.
The centenary of English 'Gitanjali' fell in 2011 and the same of Bengali Gitanjali in 2010.
In his "Introduction" to the English Gitanjali (September, 1912 R vii-xxii, Macmillan and Co, Ltd, London,. 1959), W B Yeats said : "....This prose translations from Rabindranath Tagore have stirred my blood as nothing has for years…."
Harald Hjarne, Chairman of the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy, in his Nobel Prize Presentation Speech on December 10th, 1913, said:
"In awarding the Nobel prize in Literature to the Anglo-Indian poet, Rabin-dranath Tagore, the academy has found itself in the happy position of being able to accord this recognition to an author who in conformity with the express wording of Alfred Nobel's last will and testament, had during the current year, written the finest poems of an idealistic tendency,"….
The chairman concluded his Nobel Award Speech with the poem no. 82 of 'Gitanjaii':
"Time is endless in thy hands, my lord.
There is none to count thy minutes.
At the end of the day I hasten in fear lest my gate is shut; but I find that yet there is time."
(Courtesy : Nobel Lectures, Literature, 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsavier Publishing Co. Amsterdam, 1969)
The Yeats controversy
It was William Rothenstein who first read Rabindranath's Gitanjaii manuscript. The poems delighted him. He contacted W B Yeats and introduced Rabindranath to authors, poets, painters and thinkers of the West. He also arranged for the publication of the book by the India Society, London on Nov. 1, 1912 and later by Macmillan. Most fittingly, "Gitanjaii" was dedicated to Rothenstein.
When Yeats got the manuscript from Rothenstein, he arranged the poems and made corrections for Rabindranath to consider. He sent the manuscript back to Rothenstein in early September, 1912 along with an Introduction where he commented: "…..we are not moved because of its strangeness but because we have met our own image….."
But unfortuneately, Yeats insisted all his life that he helped Rabindranath in translation work of "Gitanjaii" and even made changes to make the translated work acceptable to the readers of the West.
But fact says differently. Rothenstein cleared the whole mist created by Yeats' false claim. Rothenstein was unequai-vocal on the subject. He commented :
"I know that it was said in India that the success of Gitanjaii was largely owing to Yeats' re-writing of Tagore's English. That this is false can easily be proved. The original of Gitanjaii in English and Bengali is in my possession. Yeats did here and there suggest changes but the main text was printed as it came from Tagore's hand."
(Rothenstein, Men and Momories : Recollections of William Rothenstein. Part II. P-301, Montana : Kessinger, 2005)
This clear and unequivocal statement of Rothenstein threw Yeats' fanciful claims to the dustbin. The matter ended there.
A few brief excerpts from the Press are given below in order to have a feel of the day about the Nobel Literature Prize of 1913. Alfred Nobel's (1833-1896) will stipulated that prize winners must have an ‘idealistic tendency’. Gitanjali proved to be a living and vibrant fulfilment of that tendency.
1. Daily Chronicle, London : 13. 11. 1913. "Indian Poet Honoured. Nobel Prize for Bengal "Phophet." Stockholm, Nov. 13: The Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded to the Indian poet-Rabindranath Tagore-REUTER."
2. Interocean, Chicago : 17. 11. 1913
"A Hindu Winner of the Nobel Prize."
3. Evening Post,New York : 13. 11. 1913 "Nobel Prize To A Hindu. Award for Literature to British-Indian Poet, Rabindranath Tagore-Family Talented."
4. Tribune, Chicago : 14. 11. 1913 :
"Hindu Nobel Prize Poet—Known to Chicagoans"
5. Evening Standard, London, 14. 11. 1913 : "Enter the Orient. The award of the Nobel Prize for Literature for 1913 to Rabindranath Tagore, the great writer of Bengal, is one more reminder of how cosmopolitan we are all becoming."
6. Daily Mail, London, 14. 11. 1913:
Review : "…..Mr. W. B. Yeats, who presided saying : "I know of no man in my time who has done anything in the English Language to equal Mr. Tagore's Lyrics' :
"…..It is something new in our imperial history to get great literature in our own tongue from the East.
"…….And the poet, at the age of fifty two, will find his name shining in the West as it has long shone in the East."
In a revealing article in Fortnightly Review, March, 1913, the famous American poet Ezra Loomis Pound (1885-1972) praised Tagore's poetry for both its aesthetic and technical qualities. Even Rothenstein wrote in his memories :
"the young poets came to sit at Tagore's feet; Ezra found the most assiduously. (Rothenstein, Men and Memories : Recollections of William Rothenstein, Part-ll, R 264, Montana : Kessinger, 2005)
Rabindranath was an intellectual icon in the grail of universal culture, literature and philosophy in the first part of the 20th century. After the award of the Nobel Literature Prize in 1913 Rabindranath-the first Indian and also Asian Nobel Laureate became a world celebrity overnight.
In 1930, the French writer and pilosopher Romain Rolland (1866-1944), Nobel Lameate in Literature, 1915 issued an appeal to the savants of the world suggesting that a permanent token of their appreciation of Rabindranath Tagore should be presented to him on his seventieth brithday :
"In the name of thousands whom his melodious voice has nourished with hope, faith and beauty, we invite his friends, poets, artists, scholars to come forward and present to him on his seventieth birthday celebration, a bunch of their spiritual fruits and flowers. It need not be a personal homage to the poet (we know that he does not like it). But as a token of gratitude, everyone might offer him a twig from his own garden-a poem, an essay, a chapter of a book, a piece of scientific research, a drawing, a thought."
The idea was taken up in India and aborad and Albert Einstein, Romain Rolland (it was his idea), W B Yeats, Mohandas Karam Chand Gandhi, Yone Noguchi, Jagadish Chandra Bose, Praffulla Chandra Roy, Sarbapalli Radhakrishnan, K M Painkkar and many others from India and abroad associated themselves with the appeal. Responses came readily and eagerly from all corners and that is how "The Golden Book of Tagore" was edited by Ramnanda Chatterjee, Editor of Modern Review and published in 1931 with those contributions. Recently, "The Golden Book of Tagore" has been reprinted in 2010 in commemoration of Rabindranath's 150th birth anniversary, by the joint venture of Rammohan Library, Kolkata and Sangbad Pratidin, Kolkata.
However, it needs to be told that Western reaction to Rabindranath after he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913 was mixed—high praise punctuated by rabid criticism and biased, virulent-often tinged with racialism and denunciation. Alex Aronson rightly comments in his book 'Rabindranath Through Western Eyes' : "The average literary critism of Rabindranath's literature in the West is pathetic in its ignorance, pitiable in its condescension, but most remarkable in its utter lack of humility. "E P Thompson, the eminent historian of British working class made this perceptive comments on Tagore in 1993 :
"The West is still, after half a century, groping in the half-light to discern the features of Tagore's genius."
It is interesting that W B Yeats included several poems of Tagore in an anthology-"Modern English Verse" he edited.
To sum up, amidst the world's hundreds of poets, novelists, philosophers, their genius, prophecies, graciousness and serenities, the name of Rabindra-nath shines and shines, almost alone, a star. In the centenary year (1913-2012) of his Nobel Laurel, it is quite natural for all sensible persons to sentimentally, emotionally and humbly salute the great soul in the immortal words of William Shakespeare (1564-1616):
"Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them."
(TWELFTH NIGHT, Act-ll, Scene 5)
Rabindranath was born great; he still achieved greater in his life.
Vol. 45, No. 14 - 17, Oct 14 - Nov 10 2012
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