The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Tagore's work displays two typically modernist preoccupations

The Oxford Tagore Translations, whose general editor is Sukanta Chaudhuri, gives us pause, and a renewed opportunity to take stock of the achievement and its historical moment. The series gives us not only an overview of the vast range of the work ' there are separate volumes of poetry, critical essays, writings for children, short stories, and one novel (that leaves the paintings and plays) ' but is a fresh attempt to assuage the anxiety that Tagore has seldom been well-translated, least of all by himself, and to allay the fear that he cannot be. But the nature of the 'bad' Tagore translation has not only to do with insufficient fidelity to the original, or inadequate mastery of the target language; it's to do with a na've and specious spirituality or Easternness in the English version that's present in the original in complex and oblique ways. The 'bad' translations, including Tagore's own, insert Tagore into 'Orientalia'. The Oxford Tagore Translations, then, is itself a late instance of the sort of humanist project that Tagore, in large measure, began in Bengal in the late 19th century; his emphatic rejection of Orientalia in Bengali, despite his slipping dangerously close to it in English; his situating of the Oriental in the human and universal, and vice versa. The Oxford Tagore series is an attempt to capture and be true to this process; of the way in which Easternness, in Tagore's oeuvre (and, implicitly, in those of us ' his editors, translators, readers ' for whom Tagore is a formative inheritance), becomes so integrally a part of the narrative of the human: till then largely the domain of the West.

How, in creating his oeuvre and opening up the possibilities of a new tradition ' a modern literature in India ' did Tagore position himself as a modern' His view of himself, expressed in and across his essays, is that he is an Oriental, bringing to bear upon the modern world the special insight of the Oriental; that he is a Bengali, having recourse to the emotional terrain of Bengal; and that, as a poet, he is a 'universal' human being, with access to a humanity that is deeper than civilizational borders, or conflicts, or even the fact of colonization. Each one of these personae (for the want of a better word) is assumed by Tagore at different points of time, and developed and pursued according to the appropriateness of the moment or the argument, without any sense of self-contradiction or confusion or embarrassment. By European modernism itself, represented to him mainly by the early T.S. Eliot and his urban despair in poems such as 'Preludes', he was deeply distressed, but nevertheless studied it dutifully, if balefully. Here he positioned himself as an Oriental who, implicitly, brought a far more profound response to life than Eliot's shallow (as Tagore saw it) urban angst. Tagore's rejection of Eliot and the decaying industrialized city of modernism led younger poets and admirers like Buddhadev Bose (who had a long, eloquent debate with him on the subject not long before his death in 1941) to classify Tagore as probably something of a late romantic ' as someone not quite modern. It's an impression that persists even today; as if a rejection of modernity as subject-matter ' tenement housing, electric lights, offices, scenes of urban dereliction ' were itself an infallible sign of a distance from modernism; as if the fact that Tagore claimed Indian antiquity as a great part of his intellectual inheritance, and invoked nature repeatedly in songs and poems, marked him simply and uncomplicatedly as a romantic.

In listening to these criticisms, Tagore was exceptionally patient; and yet, while officially stating his reservations about the modernists and about Eliot (with the exception of 'Journey of the Magi', which he was greatly moved by), and his disagreements with Bose, he was also studying and taking cues from them. Tagore was an astonishingly shrewd and gifted learner, and the topoi and characteristics of much of his work of his middle and late periods ' the experiments in fragmentary and free verse, the appearance of the lower-middle-class city in a poem like 'Banshi' or 'Flute' (translated in this series by the novelist Sunetra Gupta, who also gives us some very striking renditions of some of the prose poems), the unfinished and provisional quality of much of the late poems and especially the paintings ' are partly the irresolvable marks of what Edward Said called 'late style', and partly a working out of Tagore's problematic relationship with stimuli he felt compelled to reject, and yet couldn't ignore. Very few modern poets, except Yeats, have aged as intriguingly as Tagore; very few, in age, continued to be such gifted, if often recalcitrant students, while appearing to the world as a master.

Yet it would be a mistake to impose a dichotomy on Tagore's work, between the modern, the political, the 'critical', on the one hand, and the romantic, the ahistorical, the organic on the other, as two of the most intelligent critics of Bengali culture, Buddhadev Bose in the Forties, and, more recently, Dipesh Chakrabarty have done. It's a dichotomy that Tagore seems to invite and to confirm in his own pronouncements, but which his work dismantles profoundly. For Bose, and others after him, Tagore's turning away from the crises of modernity ' urban squalor, man's alienation from the industrialized landscape ' distinguishes him decisively from the modernists. Bose's idea of the modern, as of Bengali critics after him who've written about Tagore and modernity, seems to have its source in Eliot's essay on Baudelaire. Tagore's late poem 'Banshi', about a clerk (modernism's 'little man') who lives in a squalid tenement in Calcutta, is seen, then, to be an attempt by the poet to come to terms with the Baudelarian inheritance and milieu of modernism. But this is to identify modernism by theme alone, and ignore the radical revisions in forms of perception that it constitutes. Two of the fundamental preoccupations of the modernist imagination, the moment in time as a means of accessing the transformed present, and the image, which can't be entirely broken down or reduced, are both integral to Tagorean poetics and his view of the world ' the moment, in his work, is 'kshan', and the image 'chhabi', or 'picture', and they recur in his poems, especially in his songs, in an infinity of contexts. 'Banshi', as it happens, is a romantic poem about modernity; but the so-called romantic songs about the weather, the beloved, and nature, are replete with the modernist's fragmentary apprehension of the real, and of the irreducible image.

Chakrabarty, in an essay on Tagore, distinguishes the poet's 'critical eye', which he finds in his stories, and which, for Chakrabarty, negotiates history and society, from the sensibility, or gaze, found in the poetry, which he describes as the 'adoring eye': romantic, transcendent, bucolic. A 'division of labour' is at work here, and this is how Chakrabarty puts it: 'At the same time'as he employed his prosaic writings to document social problems, Tagore put his poetic compositions (not always in verse), and songs to a completely different use... These created and deployed images of the same category ' the Bengali village ' but this time as a land of arcadian and pastoral beauty overflowing with the sentiments that defined what Tagore would increasingly ' from the 1880s on ' call 'the Bengali heart'.'

This is true; and yet, to get a fuller sense of the impact nature had on Tagore, and the one it has on us through his writing, we have to take into account the long and intriguing itinerary it had in his intellectual development. In fact, Tagore's natural world, in the songs and poems, has little of the finished repose of arcadia, but is beset by continual physical agitation, either subtle ' tremors, tricks of light ' or violent and Shelleyan, as in the famous poem about the flight of the wild geese in the collection Balaka. But the conception of nature Tagore theorized in his essays all his mature life is arcadian, and that arcadian conception is not incompatible with Tagore's politics, but is actually indispensable to it. That arcadia is India, or ancient India, and its source and mediator is Kalidasa. That notional arcadia has a deceptive tranquillity; for Tagore, nature is a political metaphor, an instrument for national contestation.

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