Selected Poems 
by Rabindranath Tagore, edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri.
Oxford India, 449 pp., £23.99, April 2004, 0 19 566867 7
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Edward Said’s Orientalism, published in 1978, gave intellectuals and writers from once colonised nations (themselves often migrants, like Said) a language that liberated and shackled in almost equal measure. Said’s critical perspective gave both Europeans and non-Europeans a shrewder and more unillusioned sense of the subterranean ways in which power operated through the cultures of empire, and is now so familiar that it’s easily taken for granted. This would be foolish – Eurocentrism is alive and well, and takes new and unexpected forms in every political epoch.

The limitations of Said’s seminal study have to do with the ideas it’s given us about ways the postcolonial might engage with the coloniser’s culture, and with history; and, explicitly, the way the European engages with non-European antiquity. We’re left with somewhat monochromatic types, defined almost exclusively by questions of power and appropriation, whose culture and past are at once static and strangely blurred. Orientalism, at first glance at least, doesn’t seem to explain where its author, in his many-sidedness, comes from: Western metropolitan intellectual; radical political activist; postcolonial critic; champion of canonical European literature; classical pianist.

Yet the book contains a celebration of Raymond Schwab, the author of La Renaissance Orientale, and gives us, in Schwab, an outline of another idea of, and way of responding to, the Orient, and, by extension, to a culture other than one’s own. Schwab himself, Said notes, looked back to another figure: Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron (1731-1805), ‘an eccentric theoretician of egalitarianism, a man who managed in his head to reconcile Jansenism with orthodox Catholicism and Brahmanism’, and who ‘travelled as far east as Surat’ in India, ‘there to find a cache of Avestan texts, there also to complete his translation of the Avesta’. Said quotes Schwab on what the latter saw as Anquetil-Duperron’s legacy; it is one of the most affirmative and exuberant passages on cultural contact ever written:

In 1759, Anquetil finished his translation of the Avesta at Surat; in 1786 that of the Upanishads in Paris – he had dug a channel between the hemispheres of human genius, correcting and expanding the old humanism of the Mediterranean basin … Before him, one looked for information on the remote past of our planet exclusively among the great Latin, Greek, Jewish and Arabic writers … A universe in writing was available, but scarcely anyone seemed to suspect the immensity of those unknown lands. The realisation began with his translation of the Avesta, and reached dizzying heights owing to the exploration in Central Asia of the languages that multiplied after Babel. Into our schools … he interjected a vision of innumerable civilisations from ages past, of an infinity of literatures.

According to Said, the fact that certain Europeans opened themselves to the cultural store of the Orient in the late 18th and 19th century, produced, in those individuals, a ‘new, triumphant eclecticism’. Among the figures he mentions are, of course, Anquetil-Duperron and Sir William Jones, the founder of Indology, whose researches on the Orient, Hinduism and the Sanskrit language include translations from – and, in effect, the recovery of – the great fourth-century Sanskrit poet Kalidasa. Yet Said is hard on Jones – ‘whereas Anquetil opened large vistas, Jones closed them down, codifying, tabulating, comparing’ – as if he somehow embodied the colonial project rather than the ‘new, triumphant eclecticism’. This is borne out, for Said, by Jones’s personal itinerary, and, for us, by the way Said describes it:

In due course he was appointed to ‘an honourable and profitable place in the Indies’, and immediately on his arrival there to take up a post with the East India Company began the course of personal study that was to gather in, to rope off, to domesticate the Orient and thereby turn it into a province of European learning.

This reservation has been echoed by others. Dipesh Chakrabarty, the author of Provincialising Europe, says something similar while enquiring into the reasons he finds it possible to engage in serious intellectual commerce with European philosophers, but not with Indian ones going back to antiquity: ‘Sad though it is, one result of European colonial rule in South Asia is that the intellectual traditions once unbroken and alive in Sanskrit or Persian or Arabic are now only matters of historical research for most – perhaps all – modern social scientists in the region.’ But were intellectual traditions in South Asia ‘once unbroken and alive’ – ‘once’ referring to the hazy and golden period before colonisation? This speculation is all the more surprising because it comes only a few sentences after Chakrabarty has admitted, pertinently, that the idea of an ‘unbroken’ European intellectual tradition going back to the Greeks is a relatively recent construct. The idea of an unbroken Indian tradition is itself probably an Orientalist invention, and Jones one of its early architects.

One of the earliest writers to perceive the great cultural, emotional, philosophical and political potential of the notion of the ‘Orient’ was Tagore. A hundred years before Tagore, no Bengal poet saw the Orient and its unbroken past as a foundation, a point of origin, and a parameter for the self and for creativity; there is no ‘Orient’, or ‘East’, for the medieval poets Chandidas, Vidyapati or Jayadeva, as there is, so profoundly, for Tagore. Nor would it have occurred to Chandidas to locate himself in history, and to claim and create pan-Indian lineages by using certain Indian poets and texts – such as Kalidasa or the Upanishads – as Tagore does. And, for Chandidas, naturally, there is no Europe. Europe was born, for the Indian, at about the time the Orient was: they are twins, though not identical ones, who had, in the Indian’s mind, a momentous and painfully coeval birth. The researches of the likes of Anquetil-Duperron and even Jones brought to Europeans a ‘new, triumphant eclecticism’, Said says; but that eclecticism had a relatively brief legacy in the West: by the early 20th century, it had narrowed itself to an almost exclusively European definition, so that words such as ‘cosmopolitan’ were more or less interchangeable with ‘European’. Said doesn’t mention that the true and most significant inheritors of Anquetil-Duperron’s ‘triumphant eclecticism’ weren’t Europeans, but Orientals; they were the ones who took the fullest intellectual and artistic advantage not only of the advent of Europe but of the fact of the ‘Orient’, the ‘correction’ and ‘expansion’ of ‘the old humanism of the Mediterranean basin’. It’s in this context that I want to situate Tagore, born in 1861, roughly eighty years after Anquetil-Duperron’s translation of the Upanishads, and, indeed, Said, one of the latest in the line of Orientals who have appropriated and complicated Anquetil-Duperron’s inheritance.

‘A 19th-century Orientalist was … either a scholar … or a gifted enthusiast … or both,’ Said says, after pointing out that ‘there was a virtual epidemic of Orientalia affecting every major poet, essayist and philosopher of the period … this is a later transposition eastwards of a similar enthusiasm in Europe for Greek and Latin antiquity during the High Renaissance.’ But the resemblance with the Renaissance ends there. The Orient, in Europe, continued to remain the province of arcane scholars and gifted enthusiasts; in the realm of culture, it retained, and still does, the ethos of ‘Orientalia’. Unlike Greek and Latin antiquity, which became an indispensable resource and even a romantic myth for Modernism, the Orient, with a handful of exceptions, such as the final lines of The Waste Land, was never inserted into Modernist self-consciousness. Its domain became, in Europe, largely that of popular culture, of kitsch and the exotic. (Even in popular 19th-century Indian art, the Orient occupies the soft, hazy space of ‘Orientalia’.) It would have been easy for Tagore to treat the Orient as a magical and occult resource, as Yeats did Ireland. Instead, radically, he inscribed it, in his vast oeuvre, into the trajectory of humanism and the ‘high’ modern: Easternness, in his work, is no longer incompatible with individualism, with self-consciousness about the powers and limits of language, or awareness of the transformative role of the secular artist. In fashioning these paradigms, modes of consciousness and roles for himself, Tagore seems to be addressing, instructing and even rebutting not a Brahmin, but a bourgeois orthodoxy in Calcutta; in doing so, he, unprecedentedly, conflates his identity as an Oriental and his vocation as a secular artist.

By the time Tagore was born, both the first wave of Orientalist enthusiasm and the most significant phase of Orientalist scholarship were over. In 1813, Byron had advised Thomas Moore: ‘Stick to the East … it [is] the only poetical policy.’ The ‘policy’ had impelled Byron, Southey and Moore to write about the gul-e-bulbul (the stock Persian metaphor for the nightingale in the garden), and probably also stimulated Edward FitzGerald’s ‘translation’ of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. (T.S. Eliot’s misgivings about FitzGerald’s poem, although he wasn’t immune to its appeal, are representative of Modernism’s distrust of ‘Orientalia’.) In the second half of the 19th century, the excitement waned, despite the work of Max Müller, the editor of the Rigveda, the sacred hymns of the Hindus.

In 1879, ‘Oriental’ poetry received a final fillip with the publication of Light of Asia, Edwin Arnold’s life of the Buddha, told in narrative verse. As early as 1817, Moore had received the unheard-of sum of 3000 guineas as an advance for his poem Lalla Rookh; now, Light of Asia became an immense success on both sides of the Atlantic, and was reprinted eighty times. When Matthew Arnold visited America, he found that many people confused him with Edwin. Of course, the notion of ‘high seriousness’ that Matthew Arnold had himself formulated would prevail, guaranteeing that his reputation would outlast the frenetic but essentially light efflorescence of the ‘Oriental’ poem. In the contrast between the two Arnolds, we’re reminded that ‘seriousness’ in literature remained a European or Anglo-Saxon province, and that the ‘Oriental’ was marked by lightness, colour and momentary success. The matter of success in the marketplace (one of the first things we associate with a certain kind of Indian writing today) and its relationship to the Orient has a lineage, then, stretching back to the early 19th century.

The example of the Tagore family shows us that, in Calcutta, the creation of a space for culture had everything to do with an embracing of ‘high seriousness’, and a turning away from commerce and material reward: the same turn that marks the emergence of Modernism in the bourgeois cultures of Europe. Tagore’s grandfather, ‘Prince’ Dwarkanath, made his fortune as a middleman for the Company in Calcutta. He travelled to London and threw lavish parties; he died with his financial affairs in disarray. The disarray – not to speak of the vast estates – was inherited by his son Debendranath, who paid off his father’s debts and made his family financially secure again. But the turn away from commerce and entrepreneurship (if not from inherited land) that would come to characterise middle-class or bhadralok Bengali culture already marked Debendranath, who, besides being a man of property, became a philosopher-mystic – a maharshi or maha rishi, meaning ‘great sage’ – following his discovery of the Upanishads, a text that his father’s friend, the scholar, reformer and thinker Rammohun Roy, had translated into English in the early 19th century, and which Anquetil-Duperron, too, had played his part in bringing to the world’s attention. The Upanishads became, for both Roy and Debendranath Tagore, a prism through which they recovered not only their own spiritual inheritance, but the lineage of a humanism to be found outside the Mediterranean basin.

The break with commerce was made more emphatic in the next generation, especially by two of Debendranath’s 14 children: Jyotirindranath, his fifth son, and Rabindranath, the youngest. Jyotirindranath, with his experiments in theatre, literature and especially musical composition (in the 1870s and 1880s he composed Bengali songs on the piano), was a great influence on Rabindranath, as was Jyotirindranath’s young wife, Kadambari, with whom he had an ambiguous relationship, part filial, part romantic: the sort of semi-articulate bond that animates much of his fiction and especially his songs – a bond that almost thrives on the impossibility of consummation:

I could speak to her on a day like this,
on a day when it rains as heavily.
You can open your heart on a day like this –
when you hear the clouds as the rain pours down
in gloom unbroken by light.

Those words won’t be heard by anyone else;
there’s not a soul around.
Just us, face to face, in each other’s sorrow
sorrowing, as water streams without
it’s as if there’s no one else in the world.

The lines – they are the first two verses of a song and are given here in my translation – echo something Tagore wrote to Kadambari that was published in a collection of jottings and musings not long before her death:

I offer something more with these thoughts, which only you will notice. Do you remember that moment by the banks of the Ganga? That silent dark? Those wanderings in imagined worlds? Those deep discussions in low, serious voices? The two of us sitting silently, saying nothing? That breeze at sunrise, that evening shadow! And, once, those rain-bearing clouds, Sravan’s downpour, the songs of Vidyapati? … I have concealed a handful of contentment and grief in these thoughts; open these pages once in a while and look upon them with affection, no one but you will be able to see what’s in them! The message inscribed into these words is – there’s one writing that you and I shall read. And there’s another writing for everyone else.

Along with a few gifted members of a later generation, Jyotirindranath, Kadambari and Rabindranath formed the core of what was probably India’s first ‘artistic’ family: ‘artistic’ in the sense of pursuing the arts with quasi-religious Victorian fervour, while just as self-consciously moving away from the preordained responsibilities of caste, class, property and even gender. This salon – at once silly and deeply creative and original – and Tagore’s part in it were permanently put in shadow by Kadambari’s suicide in 1884. Her reasons are unclear: though speculation ranges from her attachment to Rabindranath, who got married a few months before she took her life (with an overdose of opium), to her husband’s flirtation, possibly liaison, with an actress whose letters she discovered in his pocket – a scene retold in one of Tagore’s novels.

Part of the legacy that Tagore’s father left him was an attachment to the Brahmo Samaj, a reformist Hindu sect founded by Rammohun Roy. The sect developed a curious but compelling mixture of Protestant high-mindedness and Hindu metaphysics; its prayers and meetings were conducted in a ‘church’; its central text was the Upanishads. In rejecting the idolatrous practices and the deities of ordinary Hinduism and replacing them with the niraakar (‘formless’) One of the Upanishads, Brahmoism supplied Tagore not so much with a religion – he was never that interested in its claims to being one – as an aesthetic. It was an aesthetic aligned to the Flaubertian dictum that would define a substantial part of the Modernist enterprise: ‘The author, like God in the universe, is everywhere present but nowhere visible in his works.’ This is a notion of God, and his relationship to creation, that goes to the heart of Brahmoism’s vision of the world. Indeed, it’s possible that Flaubert had been reading Anquetil-Duperron, and had aestheticised an Upanishadic idea. Certainly, Tagore performed that aestheticisation in his own work, introducing to Bengali literature a new sort of self-reflexivity; he seldom named God in his writings, but spoke of the kabi or ‘poet’ while referring to both author and divinity, and punned on the word rachana, or ‘composition’, to mean both text and creation.

Tagore’s education was unusual. Admitted to the Normal School at a ‘tender age’, he was deeply unhappy, and was subsequently mainly educated by tutors. His least favourite lesson was English. ‘Providence,’ he wrote in his memoirs, ‘out of pity of mankind, has instilled a soporific charm into all tedious things. No sooner did our English lessons begin than our heads began to nod.’ In 1878, when his first book of songs appeared, he went to England to study law at University College London, attended lectures for a few months, travelled through the country and observed English culture with a mixture of empathy and resistance. He returned to Calcutta in 1880, without a degree. Like Kipling, he was secretly traumatised by what Foucault called the ‘disciplinary’ society – the cluster of institutions comprising schools, universities, hospitals, prisons – but unlike Kipling he remained ill at ease in it. Not just his opposition to imperial England, but his suspicion of nationalism and the nation-state seems to derive from this unease, as does his fanciful experiment in a more open and relaxed form of learning at a school he called ‘Shantiniketan’ or ‘Abode of Peace’. From childhood onwards, Tagore had been looking out of windows and partitions; the word khancha, or ‘cage’, recurs in the songs and poems, and there is a concern with the possibilities and avenues of egress which is common in victims of a disciplinary society.

When Tagore published his first book of songs at the age of 16, he was praised by the foremost writer of the time, the first major Bengali novelist, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. But his relationship with Bengali literary culture was not easy. He had several vociferous detractors, whose comments ranged from the snidely witty to the piously outraged. Even after he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, the passages in which he had first tried out a new colloquial Bengali prose were included by Calcutta University in the MA paper in Bengali as specimens to be rendered by examinees into ‘chaste Bengali’.

The Nobel Prize itself was the climax of a series of meetings and accidents. On board a ship to England in 1912, Tagore completed his translations of the metrically strict but delicately agile Bengali songs of his Gitanjali into loose English prose poems with a hint of biblical sonority: ‘The pages of a small exercise-book came gradually to be filled, and with it in my pocket I boarded the ship.’ In London he gave the translations to the painter William Rothenstein, a friend of his nephew’s whom he had met in the winter of 1910-11 in Calcutta. Rothenstein had then been intrigued by both Tagore’s presence and his silence during conversations; not knowing of his reputation as a writer, his curiosity grew when he happened to read a story by him in Calcutta’s Modern Review. Astonished and moved by the translations in the Gitanjali, Rothenstein showed them to Yeats. ‘I have carried the manuscript of these translations about with me for days, reading it in railway trains, or on the top of omnibuses and in restaurants, and I have often had to close it lest some stranger would see how much it moved me,’ Yeats wrote.

Why Tagore translated the songs into a language he’d once found so tedious, and which he used with a degree of insecurity (‘That I cannot write English is such a patent fact that I never had even the vanity to feel ashamed of it,’ he confessed to his niece Indira), is mysterious. Also mysterious is why they excited and even instructed – for a relatively short while – the most exacting figures of literary London, including Ezra Pound. The English Gitanjali is a shadowy approximation of the marvellous original; if it continues to be of interest, it’s for cultural and even psychological reasons, not literary ones – and the same is true, as it happens, of the ‘Orient’. The writers who’d once promoted Tagore went off him not long after he was awarded the Nobel Prize; in 1917, Pound wrote in a letter that Tagore had got the prize ‘because, after the cleverest boom of our times, after the fiat of the omnipotent literati of distinction, he lapsed into religion and was boomed by the pious nonconformists.’ The word ‘boom’ is striking; in The Argumentative Indian, Amartya Sen seems to pick up that word and both recall and refute Pound when, speaking of Tagore’s reputation, he places it within the logic of capital and the free market by saying it was a victim of the ‘boom and bust’ cycle that most Oriental enthusiasms constitute in the West. Tagore’s star waned irrevocably in the Occident; or at least the Oriental Tagore’s did – the humanist Tagore’s star had never appeared in that firmament.

The Oxford translations present an opportunity to take stock of Tagore’s achievement and its historical moment. The series not only gives us an overview of the vast range of his work 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. ‘Bad’ Tagore translation is not only a matter of insufficient fidelity to the original, or inadequate mastery of the target language: it has to do with a naive and specious spirituality or Easternness in the English version that in the original is present in more complex and oblique ways. The ‘bad’ translations, including Tagore’s own, insert Tagore into Orientalia. The Oxford translations are themselves a late expression of the sort of humanist project that Tagore began in Bengal in the late 19th century: his emphatic rejection of Orientalia in Bengali, despite slipping dangerously close to it in English; his situating of the Oriental in the human and universal, and vice versa. The Oxford series is an attempt to capture the way in which Easternness, in Tagore’s oeuvre, becomes integrally a part of the narrative of the human – until then largely the domain of the West.

Tagore’s view of himself, expressed in and across his essays, is that he is an Oriental, bringing to bear on the modern world the special insight of the Oriental; that he is a Bengali, who has 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 larger than nations, or conflicts, or even the fact of colonisation. Each one of these personae (for the want of a better word) is assumed by Tagore at different times, and developed and pursued according to the appropriateness of the moment or the argument, without any sense of self-contradiction or confusion or embarrassment. He was distressed by European Modernism, represented to him mainly by the early Eliot and his urban despair, but nevertheless studied it dutifully, if balefully. In doing so, 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 industrialised city of Modernism led younger poets and admirers like Buddhadev Bose to classify him as a late romantic, 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 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 repeatedly invoked nature in his songs and poems, marked him simply and uncomplicatedly as a romantic.

While officially stating his reservations about the Modernists and about Eliot, and his disagreements with Bose, he was also studying and taking cues from them. The topoi and characteristics of much of the work of his middle and late periods – the experiments in fragmentary and free verse; the appearance of the lower-middle-class city in poems like ‘Banshi’ or ‘Flute-Music’ (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 many of the late poems and 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, with the exception of Yeats, have aged as intriguingly as Tagore; very few have continued to be such gifted, if often recalcitrant, students, while appearing to the world as masters.

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, Bose in the 1940s and, more recently, Chakrabarty have done. It’s a dichotomy that Tagore seems to invite and to confirm in his own pronouncements, but one which his work dismantles. For Bose, and others after him, Tagore’s turning away from the crises of modernity – urban squalor, man’s alienation from the industrialised landscape – distinguishes him decisively from the Modernists. Bose’s idea of the modern 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 as an attempt by the poet to come to terms with the Baudelairean 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 Tagore’s 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 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 impact it has on us through his writing, we have to take into account its long-lasting and intriguing influence on 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 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. In contrast, the conception of nature Tagore theorised in his essays is arcadian – and indispensable to his politics.

The arcadia is India, or ancient India, and its source and mediator is Kalidasa. It has a deceptive tranquillity; for Tagore, nature is as much a political metaphor, an instrument for national contestation, as it is for John Clare and Ted Hughes. Critics such as Tom Paulin and Mina Gorji have drawn our attention to the ways in which nature becomes a metaphor for an embattled Englishness in Clare and Hughes; the unfinished ‘naturalness’ of nature is conflated with the ‘rude’ qualities of English dialect or Northern speech, and set, implicitly, against the refined and false graces of the court and the city. Tagore’s deployment of nature in his politics and aesthetics is equally ideological, equally to do with nationality, but it moves in the opposite direction, critiquing imperialism while overturning the verities that we’ve come to associate with postcolonial writing and identity. If Tagore were to fit in with our stock idea of the postcolonial writer, he would have enlisted the wildness of nature, of the indigenous landscape, as a trope of resistance against European civilisation and the Enlightenment. Instead, for Tagore, nature is the site of civilisation, refinement and certain ideals of the Enlightenment, such as living in harmony with the world: and it’s a specifically Indian location for these things. Tagore, audaciously, does not so much present a critique of the Western Enlightenment and humanism, and the idea of ‘civilisation’ itself, as snatch them away from their expected location and give them another source and lineage, in India and its antiquity; cheekily, he implies this lineage might be the more authentic one. Here, both nature and Kalidasa – for him, the ur-poet of the physical world – are crucial. Tagore’s engagement with Kalidasa is all the more astonishing when we think of Chakrabarty’s honest, if remorseful admission that modern Indian intellectuals are unable to enter into a fruitful dialogue with their forbears: the dialogue Tagore has with Kalidasa is not just instinctive and emotional, but pressing and contemporary. We begin to understand, as we read him theorising about nature and the Sanskrit poet, the radically revisionist nature of his project: not only to insert the Orient into Western humanism, but to subsume the more true, the more humane tradition of humanism under the Orient.

Towards the end of ‘The Religion of the Forest’ (an essay that isn’t included in any of the Oxford volumes), Tagore reflects on two broad, and conflicting, civilisational impulses:

When, on my recent voyage to Europe, our ship left Aden and sailed along the sea which lay between the two continents, we passed by the red and barren rocks of Arabia on our right side and the gleaming sands of Egypt on our left. They seemed to me like two giant brothers exchanging with each other burning glances of hatred, kept apart by the tearful entreaty of the sea from whose womb they had their birth.

‘The two shores,’ he says, ‘spoke to me of two different historical dramas enacted.’ In Egypt, he sees a civilisation that grew around a ‘noble river, which spread the festivities of life on its banks across the heart of the land. There man never raised the barrier of alienation between himself and the rest of the world.’ But on the opposite shore of the Red Sea, ‘the civilisation which grew up in the inhospitable soil of Arabia had a contrary character … There man felt himself isolated in hostile and bare surroundings.’ For Tagore, these ‘two civilisations represented two fundamental divisions of human nature. The one contained in it the spirit of conquest and the other the spirit of harmony.’ He concludes that ‘both of these have their truth and purpose in human nature.’

It’s clear, however, which side Tagore is on, and what the purpose of this elaborate meditation is. ‘Egypt’ is a trope for the Orient, ‘Arabia’ for the coloniser, and, by extension, the West. This is evident from the textual analysis he undertakes in the essay, a comparison between literary responses to nature in English and in Sanskrit. The English works he looks at are mainly by Shakespeare, who is found wanting: ‘In The Tempest, through Prospero’s treatment of Ariel and Caliban we realise man’s struggle with nature and his longing to sever connection with her.’ In Macbeth, all we evidently get of the non-human world is a ‘barren heath where the three witches appear as personifications of Nature’s malignant forces’; in King Lear, ‘the storm on the heath’ is a symbol of the human tumult enacted in the play. And the ‘tragic intensity of Hamlet and Othello is unrelieved by any touch of Nature’s eternity’. Tagore glances at play after play, before washing his hands of both the English poet and the culture he belongs to: ‘I hope it is needless for me to say that these observations are not intended to minimise Shakespeare’s great power as a dramatic poet but to show in his works the gulf between nature and human nature owing to the tradition of his race and time.’ Milton, too, is implicated: even though the ‘very subject’ of Paradise Lost ‘seems to afford a special opportunity for bringing out the true greatness of man’s relationship with nature’, Tagore detects a disturbing element of mastery in Milton’s account of that relationship – ‘Bird, beast, insect or worm, durst enter none,/Such was their awe of Man.’

As Tagore reads these poets, he seems to argue that Western humanism – and its idea of ‘civilisation’ – is complicated, and compromised, by its compulsion to dominate and colonise nature. It’s a conclusion remarkably similar to the one D.H. Lawrence reaches in Etruscan Places. Lawrence’s metaphors for coloniser and colonised are the Romans and the Etruscans respectively: the former’s civilisation is marked by territorial conquest and the domination of nature, the latter’s by its investment in agricultural and spiritual regeneration. Tagore notes the break in the English imagination with the advent of Romanticism; and, extraordinarily, he finds the source of the new relationship to nature, and the new definition of the human, in the Orient:

We observe a completely different attitude of mind in the later English poets like Wordsworth and Shelley, which can be attributed in the main to the great mental change in Europe at that particular period through the influence of the newly discovered philosophy of India which stirred the soul of Germany and aroused the attention of other Western countries.

In spite of his use of the word ‘philosophy’, he is not so much thinking of Max Müller, Schiller, Schelling and German Indology, but of nature and poetry, of Kalidasa, and of Goethe’s enthusiasm for the Shakuntala. This is more than Tagore’s version of what Schwab called the ‘correction and expansion of the old humanism of the Mediterranean basin’: it’s a wresting of the humanist and civilisational initiative from the West. Tagore, then, is not so much interested in providing a critique of the Western Enlightenment in the now familiar postcolonial manner as in relocating its original impetus in the Orient and in India. This relocation, of course, was an obsession with a branch of Orientalist scholarship but, while the Orientalists were content to discern certain features of the Enlightenment in Indian antiquity, Tagore wants to trace a lineage from antiquity to modernity, from Kalidasa to himself, and to use that lineage to rebuff the coloniser.

At the time Tagore was writing, traditional Indian literature was seen (as it sometimes still is) to be almost indistinguishable from mythology and religion; and although his own poetry and imagination were radically secular, he himself was translated as a public figure into the realm of mythology and mysticism, partly by his own connivance. Yet the nature of his engagement with Kalidasa has to do with a very different concern, which also brings him closer than one might expect to the Modernist preoccupation with exactness, concreteness and sensory perception. The reasons for Tagore’s more or less ignoring, as a practising poet, the influence of his immediate as well as not-too-distant precursors in Bengal, such as the devotional poets Chandidas and Vidyapati (except in a youthful pastiche he did of the latter’s work), and turning to a North Indian Sanskrit poet of antiquity are manifold. Tagore saw Kalidasa as a proto-modern, someone whose primary subject was the physical universe, unmediated by religion, and whose primary concern was language itself, and its ability to convey and enrich ways of seeing. And, according to Tagore, the English Romantics inherited, consciously or indirectly, their habit of looking at the world from Kalidasa. The lines he quotes in his essay, ‘The Meghadutam’, about Kalidasa’s great poem sequence, invoke not so much tradition as contemporariness; they’re lines in which perception, memory and immediate physical sensation come together in a single moment and image, and are quite unlike anything in Chandidas or Vidyapati: ‘The breezes from the snowy peaks have just burst open the leaf-buds of deodar trees and, redolent of their oozing resin, blow southward. I embrace those breezes, fondly imagining they have lately touched your form, O perfect one!’

Kalidasa is crucial to Tagore’s revisionist notion that a fundamental strain of Enlightenment humanism – the idea that the individual fashions and reorders his relationship to the physical universe through language – is more authentically Indian, or Oriental, than European. As a colonial subject, Tagore would have known that, ever since James Mill wrote his contemptuous diatribe on the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the common English view of Indian writing had been that it was overblown, grotesquely overwritten and excessively romantic. In Mill’s words,

These fictions are not only extravagant, and unnatural, less correspondent with the physical and moral laws of the universe, but are less ingenious, more monstrous and have less of any thing that can engage the affection, or excite admiration … Of the style in which they are composed it is far from too much to say, that all the vices which characterise the style of rude nations … they exhibit in perfection. Inflation; metaphors perpetual, and these the most violent and strained … repetition; verbosity; confusion, incoherence; distinguished the Mahabharat and the Ramayan.

Through Kalidasa, Tagore wishes to show his readers that classicism – refinement and obliqueness in language; impersonality in perception – is not only native to India, but has older roots there than in Europe. In another, brilliant essay on Kalidasa, in which he compares Shakuntala to The Tempest, Tagore turns Mill’s rhetoric on Shakespeare, claiming, in effect, Hellenic classicism as an essentially Oriental literary characteristic, and Orientalising, in Said’s sense of the word, Shakespeare and the European poets:

Universal nature is outwardly serene, but a tremendous force works continually within it. In Shakuntala we see an image of this state. No other drama exhibits such remarkable restraint. European poets seem to grow wild at the least chance of displaying the force of nature and impulse. They love to bring out, through hyperbolic utterance, how far our impulses can lead us. Examples aplenty can be found in plays like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Among all Shakespeare’s dramatic works, there is no play as serenely profound, as restrainedly complete and perfect as Shakuntala. Such love dialogue as passes between Dushyanta and Shakuntala is very brief, and chiefly conveyed through hints and signs … Precisely where another poet would have looked for a chance to let the pen race, [Kalidasa] quells it.

Reading the essays on Kalidasa, I sensed that Tagore was trying to do for literature what Rammohun Roy and his own father had done a few years before him for religion and philosophy. Faced with the charge that the Hindu religion was incorrigibly polytheistic, they didn’t reject the European humanism from which that charge emanated, but turned to ancient texts like the Upanishads to claim that, in a sense, the Enlightenment had an older lineage in India than it did in Europe. For Tagore, Kalidasa’s arcadia is as significant and loaded with meaning as the discovery of the Upanishads was to the Brahmo Samaj sect. ‘Universal nature is outwardly serene, but a tremendous force works continually within it’: it’s as if, in speaking of nature, Tagore actually has literature in mind, and the politics of literature, as it appears to a man living in a momentous and turbulent time.

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