Tagore, Gitanjali and the Nobel

BanglaPress Desk
May 13, 2018

It is perhaps redundant today to analyse the remark quoted above from the Introduction of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali or Song Offerings by the renowned Irish poet William Butler Yeats. But many admirers of Tagore have commented over the years that he was awarded the Nobel for the wrong book, and that there were other works of the poet that were better and greater. The comment has been repeated in the recent times when Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize in literature. I have heard a number of Dylan fans saying that he received it in the wrong category. While both comments may have some validity, it is not unusual when it comes to appreciation of such work. Sometimes even the poets and writers themselves express dissatisfaction over the critical appreciation of one of their work over another.

But rather than judging one work over the other, why can’t we think that it’s the poetic or literary consciousness of an author that attracts the body of judges? The Nobel Committee was moved and mesmerized by what they saw in Tagore’s Gitanjali. In the words of Haraid Hjäme, the Chairman of the Nobel Committee in 1913: “Quite independently of any knowledge of his Bengali poetry, irrespective, too, of differences of religious faiths, literary schools, or party aims, Tagore has been hailed from various quarters as a new and admirable master of that poetic art which has been a never failing concomitant of the expansion of British civilization ever since the days of Queen Elizabeth.” Furthermore, contrary to the belief that Gitanjali was the only translated work available to the western reader when Tagore was awarded the Nobel, Hjäme notes that they had also come across English translation of Tagore’s prose and a second cycle of poems. The Nobel committee chose Gitanjali due to the perfection with which the poet had combined together a “feminine grace of poetry with the virile power of prose” and bore the stamp of original work. Therefore, even though Tagore was awarded for Gitanjali, more than anything else, it is the universal appeal of humanism in his works that drew the attention of the Nobel committee. He was phenomenal in his time. Apart from writing in many forms of genres, Tagore also modernized Bengali literature by repudiating the existing rigid linguistic structure of the Bengali language.

Many of the readers today are not aware that the Gitanjali for which Rabindranath Tagore received the Nobel is quite different from the original collection of Gitanjali. As noted by Prof. Rafiqul Islam in Centenary of Rabindranath’s Nobel Prize for Gitanjali, the Bengali Gitanjali published in 1910 had an offering of 157 songs and poems. Tagore was supposed to go to Europe in 1912, but he fell ill and decided to stay in Shilaidaha, his family estate in Kushtia, to recuperate. And it was during this time that he started to translate poems from Gitanjali. His work continued during his journey to England and he completed his translation in London. However, he did not restrict himself to translating only the poems from Gitanjali, but as Professor Islam notes that he “included translations from his other books as well.” Using the author’s license, Tagore’s English Gitanjali turned out to be a collection of 53 songs from the original Gitanjali, 16 from Geetimalya, 15 from Naibedya, 11 from Kheya, 3 from Shishu, and one each from Kalpana, Achalayatan, Chaitali, Smaran and Utsharga.

Tagore did not travel to Europe to receive his award, probably because of the First World War. But the Swedish Academy sent the medal to Lord Carmichael, the Governor General of India. At a special ceremony at the Governor House in Calcutta, the bard of Bengal was presented with the medal by the Governor General himself. Years later, in 1921, Tagore did go to Stockholm to deliver his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. He expressed gratitude as the first Asian as well as the first Indian to have received the Nobel Prize, but he also invited the members of the Swedish Academy to visit India, to visit Shantiniketan, where he was preparing to set up Visva Bharati, a residential university which he believed would bring together the teachings and philosophy of the east and the west.

Over the years, many have translated Tagore’s works. Gitanjali. It has been translated in other languages beside English as well. Here I have chosen two song offerings from Gitanjali, translated by the poet himself, evoking a spirit that believe in life that flows incessantly, joy that is boundless, and a cadence that binds the whole of humanity.

1. (Amaray tumi oshesh korechho)

Thou hast made me endless, such is thy

pleasure. This frail vessel thou emptiest again

and again, and fillest it ever with fresh life.

This little flute of a reed thou hast carried over

hills and dales, and hast breathed through it

melodies eternally new.

At the immortal touch of thy hands my little heart

loses its limits in joy and gives birth to utterance


Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these very

small hands of mine. Ages pass, and still thou

pourest, and still there is room to fill.

39. (Jeebon jokhon shukaye jaye)

When the heart is hard and parched up,

come upon me with a shower of mercy.

When grace is lost from life, come with a burst of


When tumultuous work raises its din on all sides

shutting me out from beyond, come to me, my

lord of silence, with thy peace and rest.

When my beggarly heart sits crouched, shut up in

a corner, break open the door, my king, and come

with the ceremony of a king.

When desire blinds the mind with delusion and

dust, O thou holy one, thou wakeful, come with

thy light and thy thunder.