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On Tagore

Reading the Poet Today

Amit Chaudhuri

Infosys Prize for outstanding contribution to the Humanities in Literary Studies

Rabindranath Tagore is widely regarded as a romantic poet, speaking of beauty and truth; as a transcendentalist; a believer in the absolute; a propagandist for universal man; and as a national icon. But, as Amit Chaudhuri shows in these remarkable and widely admired essays about the poet and his milieu, his secret concern was really with life, play, and contingency, with the momentary as much as it was with the eternal. It is this strain of unacknowledged modernism, as well as a revolutionary life-affirming vision, that gives his work, Chaudhuri argues, its immense power.
Acute, challenging, and path-breaking, Amit Chaudhuri’s collection will become a classic reading of Rabindranath Tagore and the way he is perceived today.
On Tagore was awarded the Rabindra Puraskar, the West Bengal government’s highest literary honour, in 2012 in recognition of the ‘significance, in the English language, of its critical analysis of Tagore’s works’.


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The Anniversary Begins


3The celebrations for the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary began in early May 2011, leading up to the actual birthday, 7 May, and they promise to continue till around the same time next year. The event passed without serious comment in Britain, but was noted by two writers I particularly admire, Ian Jack (writing, in this instance, in the Guardian), and J.C., in his notebook in the TLS. They enquired, pertinently, whether Tagore was worth making a fuss about. In fact, J.C. wanted to know: ‘Who reads Rabindranath Tagore now?’ Any man dressed in a loose robe- like garment, and whose poetry, at least in English translation, comprises lines like the 4On Tago re one Jack quotes (‘Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark’), is up, in Britain, for a laugh. Jack reminds us of Philip Larkin’s opinion, expressed vividly in a letter: ‘An Indian has written to ask what I think of Rabindrum Tagore. Feel like sending him a telegram: “Fuck all. Larkin.”’ This could be Larkin the epistolary racist. Or it could be Larkin the poet who deployed expletives to arraign the polite, the poet who, in a poem called ‘Sunny Prestatyn’, records with satisfaction how the original poster (‘Come to Sunny Prestatyn’) is gradually defaced by one ‘Titch Thomas’ with a drawing of a ‘tuberous cock and balls’. One can feel some of the liberating electricity Larkin feels in placing ‘fuck all’ in close proximity to...

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