‘Tagore Studies’ in English

Yesterday (11 June 2013) I passed my viva voce examination with no revisions, so now (pending minor formalities) I am Dr Christine Marsh. It has been a long haul, and one thing I can now – officially – put behind me is the view that one cannot study Tagore at this level without knowing ‘his language’, i.e. Bengali. English was Tagore’s language too, and one of the aims of my thesis was to justify making ‘Tagore Studies’ a legitimate specialism within the academic discipline of English. Tagore lectured and wrote in English to reach out to the world. He did not want to be hoarded as a special treasure for Bengalis alone to appreciate. Having said this, I would say – and put in my thesis – that ‘There will always be a Rabindranath which only Bengalis can know. The way the Poet used his language with music in his songs is a non-trivial case in point’.[1]

My thesis abstract reads:

‘Tagore is viewed through the medium of five books of essays which he wrote in English. Most of the essays are the texts of lectures Tagore delivered to audiences in England and America. They are important because they constitute what Tagore actually communicated to audiences and readers in the West during his tours outside India. The five books are taken chronologically in the chapters of this thesis, each one being a stage on Tagore’s journey. They are read in conjunction with information about his activities in India prior to each particular tour, his encounters during the trip, and any relevant correspondence, in order better to understand the ideas he expresses. A key finding from close study of the essays is the extent to which Tagore draws on his understanding of the evolution and special capabilities of the human species. This philosophical anthropology, or ‘deep anthropology’, is used to describe what mankind ought to be, as well as what we are. Tagore was critical of what he considered the dehumanising economic systems of the West, which were supported by educational methods that focussed narrowly on training people to participate in such systems. The ideal behind the design of Tagore’s own practical projects was a modernised and less restrictive form of traditional society, comprising networks of self sustaining villages or small communities, where children and young people are encouraged to develop their natural curiosity and creativity, and to express themselves freely with body and mind. Tagore’s approach to education and rural reconstruction, if implemented widely as he intended, could lead to a radical redesign of society, a turning of the world upside down. The aim of my dissertation is to help encourage a wider appreciation of Tagore’s pioneering work in this field.’

[1] Tagore’s translator William Radice explains that ‘Bengali is an inherently rhythmic language’, producing ‘subtleties of timbre and tone-colour’. Rhyme and assonance come more naturally to Bengali than to English. Radice comments that Tagore ‘seems to give us the rhythms of Nature herself’, and yet every poem that Tagore wrote ‘had cogency of structure’, and this is something which ‘was not conveyed by his own translations into English’, hence ‘the fragility of Tagore’s reputation abroad’. (William Radice, ‘Tagore’s Poetic Power’, in Rabindranath Tagore: A Celebration of his Life and Work, ed. by Ray Monk and Andrew Robinson (Oxford: Rabindranath Tagore Festival Committee and Museum of Modern Art, 1986), pp. 39-41.)

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