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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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‘Nothing but a Poet’

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171 On the Mount Rushmore of Indian nationalist iconography, we can expect to see, as we pass by in an aeroplane, Gandhi’s and Nehru’s faces carved into the stone. The third face is a blur—but the myopic likeness is of course Ambedkar’s. The fourth visage just may be Tagore’s. And this, you feel, is largely the company Tagore will keep in the days leading to his 150th birth anniversary: Nehru, Gandhi, Ambedkar. I repeat this litany verbatim from an article by Ramachandra Guha, who, reassessing Tagore, considers him eligible for a place in the constellation of India’s founding fathers. ‘If Tagore had merely been a “creative artist”,’ Guha says, ‘perhaps one 172 On Tago re would not have found him fit to rank alongside those other builders of modern India.’ Of course, Tagore was much more, as famous poets of colonised nations were especially doomed to be. Yeats, in ‘Among School Children’, describes his public role thus: ‘The children learn to cipher and to sing, / To study reading – books and histories, / To cut and sew, be neat in everything / In the best modern way – the children’s eyes / In momentary wonder stare upon / A sixty-year-old smiling public man.’ The children are learning to be citizens; they are perhaps also being civilised ‘in the best modern way’ (if anything, the Irish, as a subject race, had worse opprobrium heaped upon them by the English than the Indians did). But Yeats’s sparse diction and his unobtrusive...

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