Tagore, History and Cultural Studies

There was a time when in Europe, shattered by the torment of the First World War, the name Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) could evoke an enthusiasm bordering on idolatry. This is no longer the case. Today many people have perhaps heard the name but few will associate it with a famous Bengali poet on whom the Nobel prize for literature was conferred in 1913. The basis for foreign recognition has been fragile as the non-Bengali-reading public only knew Tagore's work either from the few clipped paraphrases in English made by himself, or from some later, fairly weak, translations done by others in the forties and the fifties. It seems that until recently the personality cult of Tagore prevented a more sober and critical assessment of his Bengali works, while the available English texts do not do him full justice. After all, the original Bengali works run into thousands of pages and cover almost every literary genre. However, to date they are known only to the Bengali-reading public both in India and Bangladesh.

By Victor A. van Bijlert

A new impulse to produce better translations of and to encourage a less mawkish involvement with Tagore arose in the mid-eighties. The first fruits of this new preoccupation can be seen in the recent works published by such people as William Radice (1987; 1991), Martin Kämpchen (1989; 1990), and Ketaki Kushari Dyson (1991). As Tagore was and still is known mainly as a poet, these translations are for the most part (on the whole rather well executed) renderings of poetry.
But Tagore wrote more than poems and songs, more than short stories, novels, travelogues, plays and letters. As a perceptive intellectual of his times he also commented on politics, social questions and religious and cultural matters in numerous essays and lectures. This body of religious, cultural and political writings has been little studied so far, in spite of the fact that it made an important contribution to the canon of Bengali nationalist literature of the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century, a truth to which Tapan Raychaudhuri in his book Europe Reconsidered, Perceptions of the West in Nineteenth Century Bengal, (1988) frankly testifies (Preface, p xii).

Subaltern Studies
Also in the two recent books by Partha Chatterjee (1993 2nd ed.; 1993) on Bengali and Indian nationalism in the colonial nineteenth century we find only scant reference to Tagore. Chatterjee, belonging to the prestigious historiographical school of the Subaltern Studies and now one of the editors of the volumes bearing the same name, prefers to analyse the conceptualizations of Indian nationalism by the earlier great Bengali writer Bankimchandra (1838-1894). In this Chatterjee follows the current postmodern, text-based trend of writing cultural history within the Subaltern Studies. The latter's founder, Ranajit Guha, frequently refers to Bankimchandra, while Sudipta Kaviraj, also belonging to the Subaltern Studies group, has devoted a fresh study to this writer. The above-mentioned niche of Subaltern Studies seems to be meandering along slowly to join the field of Cultural Studies proper. The latter is a multidisciplinary attempt at writing and interpreting human culture. After it sprang up formally in Birmingham at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies and gained importance in the seventies, it is now rising to prominence in the North American, and Australian human sciences. Largely an outcome of the postmodern experience, it seems to hold out credible but heavily contested promises to build novel and creative passages towards a more refined, if fragmented, understanding of how cultural production comes about and what forces make it 'work' in human societies.
Its early theoretical 'canon' of Cultural Studies embraces among other schools Marxism, the Frankfurter Schule, English literary theory and a bit of classical Anarchist thought, as well as authors like Clifford Geertz, Bourdieu, and Stuart Hall. This canon is now expanding in various directions and incorporates many new fields of sociological and historical study such as women's and minority studies. The most recent unfolding of Cultural Studies can be grasped from a number of anthologies, among which the ones edited by Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, Paula Treichler (1992); Simon During (1993); and Valda Blundell, John Shepherd, Ian Taylor (1993), are the more prominent. The monographs by Norman K. Denzin (1992) and Fred Inglis (1993) offer vigorously critical and historical surveys of the entire field.

The Leiden Tagore Projects
The Leiden projects on Tagore, which are conducted by myself, draw critically upon the theoretical frameworks and possibilities offered by both the Subaltern Studies and Cultural Studies. Thus the present Tagore projects will be drawn into the orbits of these fields. This will widen the horizons of the study of Bengali culture as well as those of Cultural Studies as a whole. Fragments of Tagore's poetry, nationalist and religious thought will be presented in this light as instances of Bengali cultural studies.
The first result, to appear in the course of 1995, is a translation from Bengali into Dutch of the Gitali (1914), a volume of Tagore's poetry which has hitherto been translated into English only once, and that somewhat poorly. The Gitali is the last of three consecutive volumes of which the first, Gitanjali (1910), partly paraphrased into English by Tagore himself in 1912, brought his fame to the attention of the Western world. My translation of the Gitali will appear in the series 'Kern Institute Miscellenea'.
This literary presentation will soon be followed by two studies in English. The first one (with translations from various Bengali sources) will deal with the constructions of nineteenth century Indian nationalism, understood by its protagonists as being of a predominantly Hindu-cultural character, and its diverse ideological and political perspectives within the context of the British Raj. This volume will bring to light certain aspects of the (cultural) nationalism of this period, which neither Tapan Raychaudhuri, Partha Chatterjee, nor Sudipta Kaviraj have treated in detail in their respective explorations.
Around the turn of the century Tagore wrote with penetrating insight about European nationalism and its relevance to the Indian reality. Tagore wrote in a period in which what Benedict Anderson (1993) calls 'print capitalism' was already well established in India. The printed word had become a major vehicle for spreading ideology among the educated middle class, using not only English, but also the vernaculars. By means of the printed word Tagore tried to disseminate a distinctive brand of nationalism in which cultural theories, (mainly liberal Hindu) religious inspiration, historical imagination as well as invention and humanist ethos blended almost inseparably.
This blend with its shifting accents forms the subject of the second publication. It will contain a full English translation from Bengali with annotations of Dharma, a volume of Tagore's early religious essays, published in book form in 1908. In these essays Tagore construes a national religious ideology with different strands, ranging from utterly individualistic religious experience to broad concepts of a unitary Indian nation whose predominant flavour is humanist religious and spiritual. The exercise of translation and annotation (a rather traditional performance) is refined by commentatorial readings of the texts themselves. These readings will highlight some disturbing problems of the original texts and pose some disagreeable questions about the texts. It will be underscored that these problems and questions have not lost much of their historical and social pertinence.
Among the more agonizing problems is the present rise of religious political discourse, commonly labelled fundamentalism and communalism. But also nationalism with its seeming pretensions to secular religiosity shakes the (post)modern worldview down to its very roots. Within the context of modern Indian political and cultural history, I will extract the genealogy of these phenomena right back to the period in which Tagore was active. This will to some extent enable us to gain a better understanding of the way in which Indian cultural productions exerted their influence in colonial society and in whose interest, and how various politically motivated readings of the same cultural product evokes different responses and different re-readings.

Anderson, Benedict 1993 2nd ed: Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London - New York: Verso.
Chatterjee, Partha 1993 2nd ed: Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse. London: Zed Books.
Denzin, Norman K. 1992: Symbolic Interactionism and Cultural Studies: The Politics of Interpretation. Oxford UK and Cambridge USA: Blackwell.
During, Simon ed 1993: The Cultural Studies Reader. London, New York: Routledge.
Dyson, Ketaki Kushari 1991: Rabindranath Tagore: I Won't Let You Go, Selected Poems. Bloodaxe Books.
Grossberg, Lawrence; Nelson, Cary; Treichler, Paula eds. 1992: Cultural Studies. London, New York: Routledge.
Inglis, Fred 1993: Cultural Studies. Oxford UK and Cambridge USA: Blackwell.
Kämpchen, Martin 1989: Auf des Funkens Spitzen, Weisheiten für das Leben. Kösel Verlag.
Radice, William 1987: Selected Poems, Rabindranath Tagore. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
1991: Rabindranath Tagore, Selected Short Stories. Translated with Introduction by William Radice. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.



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