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Rabindranath in the Irish Imagination

Film adaptations of Tagore’s works have also made their mark on the Irish mind. A review of the film Charulata while applauding the heroine Madhavi
Tagore bust in Ireland
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Two years ago on a rainy Dublin afternoon, Declan Kiberd, the distinguished Irish scholar and critic, had affectionately given me a copy of the Handbook of the Irish Revival. As I was flipping through the book, I was astounded to find in it an excerpt from Tagore’s The Post Office. That an anthology of some of the seminal Irish writers and publicists should include an Indian writer was really a marvel. Seldom, if at all, has a poet or writer been a part of the literary canon of another, distant nation to which he never even travelled. Declan explained that it was not simply a question of making Tagore part of the Irish cultural baggage; Tagore’s influence could be pervasively felt in the Irish imagination.

Tagore’s iconic position in the English-speaking world in the early decades of the last century was that of the first Asian to win the Nobel prize, an image consciously promoted by W B Yeats, which played a significant role in giving the Irish a sense of shared glory in the triumph of a colonial ally. This impression is borne out in the reviews of Tagore books in the Irish press, as much in other spheres. Tagore was known to the Irish as a mystic poet and philosopher, who had a deep affinity with Ireland’s own ancient Gaelic tradition.

Translation of Tagore’s Gitanjali with an introduction by Yeats

This image percolated to the Irish imagination not so much through the wonderful introduction that Yeats wrote to the English Gitanjali but, through his public lecture in Dublin before the staging of The Post Office at the Abbey Theatre on 27 May 1913. In that speech Yeats drew a parallel between India and Ireland and between himself and Tagore as poets who did not make their poetry, a vehicle of nationalist propaganda.

Later still, he would identify Douglas Hyde’s Gaelic songs and Tagore’s songs as sung by the peasantry in both countries and as songs emanating from an analogous folk culture unravished by the materialism of modernity! Yeats’s appropriation of Tagore for a native Irish tradition was reiterated by Thomas MacDonagh, the Easter Rising martyr, in his book Literature in Ireland in which he compares the oral bardic poetry of Ireland with Tagore’s songs.

The image of Tagore as essentially a mystic has established itself in the popular Irish psyche. There are innumerable such instances, of which only one or two can, at most, be cited. A number of obituaries of common Irish citizens, for instance, quote Tagore’s lines: ‘Death is not extinguishing the light; it is putting out the lamp because dawn has come’. It is surprising that obituarists of a nation with a rich tradition of poetry and a number of distinguished poets should find Tagore’s words more consoling.

An article in The Irish Times while opposing the practice of playing loud music in shopping malls cites Stray Birds 110:  ‘Man goes into the noisy crowd to drown his own clamour of silence.’ The Irish radio (RTE) broadcasts programmes on Tagore songs; one of its favourites being the 1923 Lyric Symphony by the Viennese composer Alexander Zemlinsky, where the sung texts are German version of The Gardner, in soprano and baritone. Diwali celebrations in Ireland commence with reading of Tagore’s Irish translator, Gabriel Rosenstock and Tagore’s songs. Film adaptations of Tagore’s works have also made their mark on the Irish mind. A review of the film Charulata while applauding the heroine Madhavi Mukherjee, concludes, that it is ‘a drama that’s fit to burst with political and colonial discourse, class, protofeminist values, music, poetry, and most of all, love. All life is here.’

Alexander Zemlinsky’s version of Tagore’s The Gardener

In fact, for distinguished men like John Hutchinson, art historian, lecturer and a long-time director of the Douglas Hyde Gallery at Trinity College Dublin, Tagore has meant enrichment of life. John tells me that he collected Tagore’s first editions from Dublin’s used books shops in the 1960s. In Pearl Fishers (the title is derived from George Bizet’s famous opera, The Pearl Fishers),  John’s small collection of his reminiscences of his ‘formative aesthetic encounters’, Tagore figures as a part of his ‘lived and felt aesthetic’ experience. He shows a comprehensive understanding of Tagore as a poet, story-teller, writer of fiction, a nationalist, a painter, and above all, as a creative soul who fathomed the Bauls.

Tagore’s poetry, particularly, the staging of The Post Office, (at least four times in 1913 and again during the Tagore centenary in 1961), allegedly created a direct impact on the Irish imagination. Yeats also had The Post Office first published from the Cuala Press run by his sisters, probably the only non-Irish literary text to be published by the artistic press. Austin Clarke, the noted Irish poet, recalls that the first Abbey performance of The Post-Office was a ‘memorable experience’ and he found ‘religious intimation not with the familiar emotionalism’ but in ‘new images, clear and surprising’.

Tagore’s bust in Sligo, near W B Yeats’s home

The Irish Times carried a detailed review of the play on 19 May 1913, praising the Abbey players as exponents of Tagore. The performance was ‘realistic’ and the role of the child played by Lilian Jago is applauded as ‘an outstanding triumph’. Clarke had read Tagore quite deeply as evident from his review of Amiya Chakraborty’s A Tagore Reader where he comments that Chakraborty might well have included a passage dated 10 February 1893 from ‘Glimpses of Bengal’ which, Clarke thinks, is a fine criticism of British imperialism. The India-Ireland affinity is always in sight!

The Irish Times carried a detailed review of the play on 19 May 1913, praising the Abbey players as exponents of Tagore. The performance was ‘realistic’ and the role of the child played by Lilian Jago is applauded as ‘an outstanding triumph’.

Moreover, The Post Office was staged along with Patrick Pearse’s play An Ri (The King) and was meant to raise money for Pearse’s school, St Enda’s. Partick Pearse had founded St Enda’s to train young people in the native Irish tradition, thus having some seeming affinity with Tagore’s school in Santiniketan. Tagore does not mention Pearse anywhere, but in an autograph letter Pearse records that an English version of An Ri had been ‘performed in India by the pupils of the poet Rabindranath Tagore— “in the Indian moonlight”, Tagore’s secretary writes me, “with the audience seated on the ground around”.’ Apart from The Post Office, Chitra was also staged by the National Union of Women Workers in April 1917 in Dublin in which Elizabeth Young and W.Earle Gray had played impressively.

The Irish tribute to Tagore has also come officially. While a bust of Tagore was installed at the famous Stephens’ Green, another was installed, significantly, close to the Yeats Society in Sligo, Yeats’s ancestral home. Incidentally, India’s reciprocal tribute to the Irish poet, at least in the form of a bust at some significant location, is still waiting.

Sirshendu Majumdar teaches English at Bolpur College. His areas of interest are Irish Studies, Translations, Print Culture and Literary Modernism. He has written a book on Yeats and Tagore and has published in academic journals and the popular press both in English and Bengali. He lives in Bolpur with his wife and daughter.

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