New Emissary

Rabindranath Tagore

This popular literary figure was the first Asian to win a Nobel Literature prize.

‘Leave out my name from the gift if it be a burden, but keep my song.’

Rabindranath Tagore, Fireflies

It’s hard to believe it has been nearly a century since Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize for literature (in 1913), becoming the first Asian to receive a Nobel award. For even now, decades after his death in 1941, he remains exceedingly relevant.

Take, for example, the hundreds of news articles on him released this month, as celebrations around the world were held to commemorate the writer’s May 7th birthday. The Jakarta Post just today published a piece reporting on the Rabindra Jayanti celebration, held over the weekend in the Indonesian capital city in Tagore’s honour, which quoted the president of the Jakarta Bengali Association (JABA) on his enduring influence: ‘People cannot run out of things to say about Tagore. We can never speak enough about him.’

Born in 1861 in Bengal, Rabindranath Tagore, perhaps best known for his poetry, was a man who also successfully wore many other hats throughout his adulthood including author, playwright, visual artist and philosopher. Thus, it came as little surprise to me when author Andrew Robinson, who’s published several books on Indian history and culture, told me that his favourite works by Tagore remain his paintings.

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Robinson, who wrote The Art of Rabindranath Tagore and organised an exhibition of Tagore’s work in the UK back in the 1980s, went on to explain what makes Tagore stand out as a visual artist: ‘His paintings do not resemble the work of any other Indian artist. Many contemporary Indian artists regard Tagore as the most original painter of modern India—I agree.’

Robinson also took the time to share his insights into what it is about Tagore’s written work that continues to attract people both inside of India and outside. He told me:

‘For Bengalis, the appeal of Tagore is in the unrivalled beauty and subtlety of his language, especially in his songs, which are probably the most popular part of Tagore’s oeuvre in Bengal. (Tagore wrote the words for India’s national anthem.)

‘For those who don’t read Bengali as a native speaker (like me), I think his appeal is various, depending on whether one is speaking of his poetry, stories and novels, or his essays, or letters. The diversity of his work is amazing, even now, almost 70 years after his death—a bit like that of Leonardo da Vinci.’

But overall, it seems that what is most impressive about Tagore’s work is the humanity that’s reflected throughout. Robinson finished his thought by asserting, ‘Above everything, running through all of Tagore’s best work, is a current of humanity…always opposed to the dehumanization introduced by industrialisation and technology. Tagore could show us the inner psychology of the poor villager, the urban middle class and the idle rich, without losing sympathy for anyone.’

Perhaps this unique ability has to do with his personal story. Despite being born into a well-off family and having opportunities and experiences much greater than of others in India at the time, it was allegedly Tagore’s interactions with locals while managing his family’s estate in India after his father’s death that led to a dedicated interest in social reform and activism.

Nonetheless, it’s safe to assume that the legacy of this multi-talented and wide-perceiving figure will continue long into the future. Robinson certainly summed it up best, when he said in the conclusion of our conversation on the topic: ‘It’s hard to encapsulate Tagore. Many people think he’s a forgotten figure. Some of his work is best forgotten, but his gems still shine.’