A tin can tied to a dog’s tail: Tagore’s post-Nobel experience

A tin can tied to a dog’s tail. An overwhelmed Rabindranath Tagore thus described the euphoria surrounding his Nobel Prize in Literature 103 years ago.

“The perfect whirlwind of public excitement it has given rise to is frightful,” he wrote in a letter to close friend William Rothenstein, the English painter and intellectual who played a major role in introducing Tagore to the west and to whom the English version of Gitanjali, or Song Offerings, is dedicated.

“It is almost as bad as tying a tin can at a dog’s tail making it impossible for him to move about without creating noise and collecting crowds all along. I am being smothered with telegrams and letters for the last few days and the people who never had any friendly feelings towards me nor ever read a line of my work are loudest in their protestations of joy.”

A living person who can be expected to best understand Tagore’s predicament is perhaps Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, the Indian-born American-British who won the Chemistry Nobel Prize in 2009. “All sorts of people from India have been writing to me, clogging up my email box. It takes me an hour or two to just remove their mails,” he was quoted as saying in the media. “Do these people have no consideration? It is OK to take pride in the event, but why bother me?…. There are also people who have never bothered to be in touch with me for decades who suddenly feel the urge to connect. I find this strange.”

Ramakrishnan was vexed by the sudden surge of emotions the Nobel caused, just like Tagore was in 1913. “I cannot tell you how tired I am of all this shouting, the stupendous amount of its unreality being something appalling,” Tagore told Rothenstein in the letter he wrote from Shantiniketan on November 18, 1913. “Really these people honour the honour in me and not myself.”

A scan of Tagore’s letter is among the displays at the newly-inaugurated Gitanjali Hall of the Tagore museum at Rabindra-Bhavana, Visva-Bharati University in Shantiniketan. Spread over 3,700 square-foot area, the exclusive gallery, opened last month, is dedicated to the English Gitanjali, the book that got Tagore the Nobel Prize.

I visited the museum soon after its inauguration last autumn and also met its director, Tapati Mukherjee, who headed the team that put together the new collection. “The museum is unique in that it is dedicated to just one book,” Mukherjee, who is the Director of Culture and Cultural relations and Adhyaksha of Rabindra-Bhavana, Visva-Bharati, said.

Gitanjali Song Offerings was published on November 1, 1912, by the India Society of London. Altough a slim volume in Tagore’s wide-ranging body of work, it rates high in terms of significance, Mukherjee said explaining why it merited an exclusive museum space. “Tagore won the Nobel when India was nothing but a British colony,” she said. “It (Gitanjali) is extremely relevant in contemporary scenario too.”

The Hall display panels take visitors through Gitanjali’s journey from its conception to the winning of the Prize and thereafter—the poet’s mental and emotional state while writing the poems; his coming in contact with Rothenstein and the Irish poet W. B. Yeats, both of whom helped Tagore to get published in English; British poet Thomas Sturge Moore’s recommending it for the Nobel Prize, and so on.

On display are the first edition of Song Offerings and its many translations—Czech (1921), Dutch (1914) and Georgian (1956) being some of them. Some objects used by Tagore, such as a pair of spectacles and a telephone receiver, are also showcased. On the 14 display panels are digitised copies of Tagore’s Nobel acceptance speech, letters, manuscripts and photographs. The originals, which are not displayed at the museum, are in the archives at Rabindra-Bhavana, which, Mukherjee says, is the largest repository of Tagore-related articles.

A panel exhibits the scanned copy of the letter from Susan Owen, the mother of the anti-war poet Wilfred Owen, to Tagore. In the 1920 letter that Tagore received while he was in London, the mother tells the poet of the influence his words had on her “poet-son” who died in the war. She says her son’s final words before departing for war were also found scribbled in his pocket diary that was recovered and sent to his family; it was a line from Tagore’s Gitanjali:

When I leave, let these be my parting words: what my eyes have seen, what my life received, are unsurpassable.

However, the Nobel Prize medallion, or, more correctly, the replica of the original which was stolen in 2004, is not exhibited at the Gitanjali Hall. Mukherjee said it was because of security reasons given that the Gitanjali gallery is on the ground floor. The medallion replica will continue being displayed at the Tagore museum one floor above.

Also missing from the Gitanjali-special museum is the incredible story of how the manuscript of Song Offerings had got lost in London’s underground railway system in May 1912. Tagore, his son Rathindranath and daughter-in-law Pratima Devi had gone to London to show the manuscript to Rothenstein, who was supposed to get Yeats to write an introduction. Awestruck by the “modern marvels of the tube”, they forgot the attaché case carrying the manuscript at one of the stations. The manuscript was recovered later at the lost property office. After several rounds of corrections and revisions, it was published on November 1, 1912. It won Tagore the Nobel the next year.

The manuscript is preserved at the Houghton Library, Harvard.

What would have happened if it had not been retrieved? The answer is not to be found at the Gitanjali gallery. What can, however, be said without doubt is that Tagore would not have had felt “like a dog with a tin tied to its tail”.

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