Walking the Tightrope

Tagore’s Negotiation of Identity and Image

by Aurogeeta Das 

This post highlights some key points in Rustom Bharucha’s lecture at InIVA London on the relationship between the Indian Nobel Laureate in Literature Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and the Japanese curator Okakura Tenshin (born Okakura Kakuzō, 1862-1913).

A video of that talk in its entirety is available here.

I have chosen to look at those aspects of the talk that underline the need to approach the multi-faceted Tagore with a methodological openness. I would like to argue that given his Renaissance spirit, his phenomenal output, and the extraordinary legacy he created in Bengal, a single method would not do justice to a study of this somewhat neglected figure.


I began to prepare for my proposed Tagore-inspired artist book project (see the introduction in my previous blogpost) by immersing myself in Rabindranath Tagore’s work. The first event in this immersion process, it turned out, was a talk by self-avowed performance theorist Rustom Bharucha titled Performing Asia: The Affective Affinities between Rabindranath Tagore and Okakura Tenshin at InIVA, London (7 June 2014). This talk was part of a wider critical re-appraisal of Tagore organised by Iniva, Goldsmith’s College and the Tagore Centre, Tagore, Pedagogy and Contemporary Visual Cultures.

Rabindranath TagoreMany consider Tagore (1861-1941) to be a somewhat neglected figure now, outside his native Bengal, despite being the first non-European Nobel Laureate in Literature. Tagore is remembered variously as a poet, lyricist, short story writer, novelist, playwright, educator, social reformer, painter, philosopher, mystical figure and aristocratic landlord.


Okakura TenshinIt is possible that Tenshin (born Okakura Kakuzō, 1862-1913), is even less known outside museum circles in Japan and the US, where he eventually became the head of the Asian department at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He is remembered mostly as an educator, curator and author of the Book of Tea. What drew these two figures to each other? This was the underlying question driving Bharucha’s lecture.

I had read a little of Bharucha’s work before, so I was curious to see what his particular brand of associative thinking might bring to the study of Tagore. Bharucha’s ideas were refreshing in that they frequently made connections that might not at first appear evident. Such correlations can work as a series of provocations that jog theorists out of their comfort zones, or they might prompt methodological questions about whether a narrow focus is always the best academic approach. Scholars sometimes cannot see the wood for the trees. Bharucha’s strength lay in his approach, which is enriched by an interdisciplinary artistic openness; he often voices what ivory tower academics either miss or do not venture to state without further investigation. While some lines of Bharucha’s exploration of Tagore and Tenshin’s relationship could lead to further avenues of research, others served merely as interesting footnotes. I shall not comprehensively recap Bharucha’s key points nor even review his lecture’s merits or demerits. Given the extraordinary breadth and sheer volume of Tagore’s professional output and my own limited knowledge of his many achievements, an introduction to Tagore’s work would be unwise and unfeasible, as indeed would a review of Tenshin’s work. I should like to instead convey my own impressions of those aspects of Bharucha’s lecture that I feel highlight the need to remain receptive to multiple modes of investigation when studying a complex, multifaceted figure such as Tagore. This essay is thus primarily a comment on critical methodologies.

Even the most cursory consideration of Bharucha’s above-mentioned question demands a closer examination of the period of Tagore and Tenshin’s first encounter in 1902 and their subsequent correspondence. One might wonder why Bharucha chose to focus his theoretical lens on this particular connection between an Indian poet-philosopher and a Japanese curator, but in fact, it might not be so surprising if one considers that this relationship unfolded during a period when Europe’s adoption of Japonisme (the study and love of Japan and its culture) was still having ripple effects in the US and elsewhere. More importantly, in India, this was a time when the idea of pan-Asianism was adopted, fine-tuned, questioned and ultimately rejected against the backdrop of lively debates on nationalism by — among more politically active others — cultural figures such as Rabindranath Tagore, Vivekananda (born Narendranath Datta, 1963-1902), Sister Nivedita (born Elizabeth Margaret Noble) and, according to Bharucha, Okakura Tenshin. So rather than being a whimsical, peripheral choice, Bharucha’s consideration of this relationship shifts much-needed attention onto a previously neglected subject. Such a spotlight is not without its methodological concerns, such as for example, the relative lack of documentation on Tagore and Tenshin’s friendship. However, as Bharucha pointed out, this worked in his favour as it allowed him room for exploration, unlike other aspects of Tagore’s life, which have ostensibly been researched so thoroughly that the proprietorial Bengali intelligentsia discourages any fresh viewpoints.

The following question at the lecture, raised by Andrea Philips from Goldsmiths, was perhaps prompted by an awareness of this proprietorial zeal: How should key figures be studied in academia when they have enjoyed a certain status in the popular imaginary due to the mushrooming of what might even be described as cult followings? This is a pertinent query. Should they be canonised, should they be brought down from the pedestals they have been placed upon by a more critical examination of their oeuvres and personalities? Should one institute a special programme of study dedicated to such examinations and call it Tagore Studies for example; or merely commission a plaque in a hall and move on to contemporary thinkers? It may not be irrelevant to point out here that the intense political and cultural climate of Tagore’s time, especially in Bengal, nurtured the multifaceted talents of several ‘greats’ like him. Admittedly, they were privileged with access to education, connections and funds and this access certainly helped contribute to their success, but their greatness was undoubtedly also forged in the anvil of the times. Although Tagore himself eventually became the most famous member of his family, in fact, several of his relatives had already distinguished themselves in cultural and other arenas and others continued to do so during and after his lifetime. Thus the family name ‘Tagore’ could just as easily refer to — among others — to Rabindranath’s nephews and contemporaries, the artists Abanindranath and Gagendranath. While it might therefore be less confusing to use Rabindranath here, in this essay, ‘Tagore’ refers exclusively to Rabindranath.

Swami VivekanandaAt any rate, even a brief overview of Tagore’s contemporaries Vivekanda and Aurobindo (born Aurobindo Ackroyd Ghose, 1872-1950) would reveal startling similarities, and yet there were significant differences too, including in the manner that they were venerated both during their lifetime and posthumously.Sri Aurobindo

That all three figures were venerated in some manner is suggested by the titles conferred upon them: ‘Sri’ in Aurobindo’s case (a form of respect), comparable to Vivekananda’s title ‘Swami’ (which translates literally to ‘lord’) and Tagore’s sobriquet ‘Gurudeb’ meaning literally ‘spiritual guide’. Tagore also famously gave Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) his title of ‘Mahatma’ (literally ‘great soul’).

Questions such as Andrea Philips’ are habitually raised with reference to seminal figures, as for example, not so long ago, when Columbia University Press published American-born Indian historian Peter Heehs’ The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, a biography of author and philosopher Aurobindo. This publication caused considerable furore among a segment of Aurobindo’s followers, leading to an injunction of its sale in India. Eschewing the hagiographic (the complimentary, almost sycophantic tone used for biographies of saints written by those who are their devotees or followers) tenor that some Aurobindonians might have preferred, Heehs chose to present a critical and rigorously researched account. Although more moderate factions of the Aurobindonian community also found fault with Heehs’ approach (which is admittedly problematic in some instances), their appreciation of his research and recognition of his respect for Sri Aurobindo meant that the right-wing reactions of others was unwelcome. An extract of Heehs’ response to the trenchant criticism he received could be relevant here: “What distinguishes the hagiographic from the critical approach is not that hagiographers are sympathetic to their subjects, but that they base their accounts on unverifiable assumptions that are likely to be accepted only by members of the discursive community that they belong to.” [1] Yet Heehs accepted that when writing about Sri Aurobindo, it would have been negligent not to incorporate in some way that which may be unverifiable in a humanistic discourse. During an interview with me, the newspaper editor M J Akbar critiqued Tariq Ali’s The Clash of Fundamentalisms on the basis that Ali’s otherwise excellently researched and elegantly written account of the births of Christianity, Islam and Judaism did not sufficiently factor in the part played by the phenomenon of faith in the early development of these religions.

I do not mean to suggest that the study of Tagore has been muddied by questions of faith and religion, even if Tagore’s sobriquet suggests his status as philosopher, mystic and even spiritual advisor.This is because there is a marked difference between the spirituality of Aurobindo and Vivekananda and that of Tagore’s. Given the scope of this essay, it would be difficult to explain the significant distinctions between Aurobindo’s, Vivekananda’s and Tagore’s spiritualism. Suffice it to say that their very approach to spirituality differed. For example, while Vivekananda believed in and practised celibacy and renunciation of the world in order to dedicate himself to spiritual goals, Aurobindo attempted a conventional householder’s path and engaged in a more active political role before choosing a spiritual life over both marriage and politics. Tagore’s spiritualism, by contrast, appeared to be rooted primarily in creative expression. It is this straddling of multiple roles that makes Tagore a particularly intriguing figure. While Tagore’s poetry was admittedly mystical, he was after all a married householder and a landlord, very much a part of the world. This possibly had ramifications for the manner in which he negotiated his career. That is, unlike Vivekananda, whose activities — when they required fund-raising — were oftentimes supported by others who gathered funds on his behalf, and Aurobindo, whose philosophy was propagated by the Ashram founded by his spiritual partner and organiser extraordinaire, The Mother (born Blanche Rachel Mirra Alfassa, 1878-1973), with Tagore, much of the fund-raising is likely to have been planned and initiated by himself. In other words, he was forced to be worldlier, not least because of his position as aristocratic landlord, a role that he was not necessarily comfortable with. As one audience member reminded us at Bharucha’s talk, during a lecture in Iran, Tagore apparently mentioned feeling the dual burden of being a ‘landlord poet’. At any rate, it is important to recognise that while factoring in the possible effects that taking on the role of spiritual philosopher-guide might have had on Tagore’s other activities, one must assess his creative expression on its own merits. Similarly, for a more comprehensive understanding of his life, his work and his legacy, one has to take into account his character and personal preferences. Yet, the phenomenon of veneration threatens to cloud our evaluation of both Tagore’s personal and professional lives, which are necessarily intertwined. How then, does one even begin to analyse his ‘image’, which obviously has repercussions for how we engage with his legacy?

Rustom on Okakura

Of the many analytical methods that Bharucha borrows from for his exploration of Tagore and Tenshin’s relationship and their respective professional achievements (or lack thereof) was a semiotic analysis of press images and photographic portraits of both men. Tagore’s preference was for posed studio portraits, with arranged light conditions, ordered settings and a controlled body posture; this preference, along with his dislike of candid camera shots suggests to me a desire to exercise control over his public image and thereby to perhaps ultimately contribute to his own hagiography, even if unconsciously. This might be read as a sign of vanity, or alternately as a latent uneasiness with his status as celebrity performer on the international public lecture circuit. Bharucha’s mention however, of Tagore’s habit of donning ankle-length, full-sleeved robes indicates an attempt to cover up his body. This was in stark contrast to Gandhi’s (1869-1948) relative nakedness or “disrobing”, to use Bharucha’s term.

Rustom on Rabindranath

Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi’s rebellious loincloth was in effect a subversive political tactic against the British. With Tagore, as Bharucha put it, “If you’re looking for flesh, you’re not going to find it.” This suggests not only a possibility that Tagore’s clothing lent (deliberately or otherwise) further credence to his image as mystical figure from the Orient, but perhaps a more difficult relationship with his physicality. Bharucha pointed out the irony that his corpse, when paraded around the streets of Calcutta in the run-up to his cremation, was tugged at by thousands of fans; this was sad because during his lifetime, Tagore reportedly expressed discomfort at being touched.

A curious comment by Bharucha — “one of the hardest things to theorise in academia is fun; getting a kick out of something — we don’t theorise that” might at first seem to bear no relation to the above-mentioned question by Andrea Philips. It nevertheless underlines the importance of making room in academia, for the more personal aspects of key figures, traits that can influence professional decisions and determine courses of action that we might ordinarily consider without reference to intimate preferences. Allowing for the effects of such preferences does not exclude theoretical rigour; indeed, it nuances a study, thus lending it further accuracy. How is one to conjecture on such preferences, which may have scant available documentation? Not by deifying such figures, but by observing their multifaceted dimensions as best as possible when assessing their contributions to their respective fields and more importantly, by allowing for the possible effects these facets had on the many people they interacted with, including professional colleagues, family and fans. Interestingly, Bharucha took great pains at the lecture to reflect on the term ‘affect’, in relation to colonialism, claiming that while Edward Said’s seminal work Orientalism theorised the effects of colonialism on former colonies, it had not sufficiently considered its affects. One might do well to think of how people are affected by personal likes and dislikes when studying figures such as Tagore. Surely the best way to study them is to properly assess their contribution not only to society more generally and to particular historical junctures but also to the specific fields they operated in — be it literature, music, theatre, the visual arts and/or to philosophy? Such an assessment cannot be complete without allowing for the effects of fan followings, in terms of, for example, the distortions in reading him that apocryphal stories could cause or due to the avoidance of his frailties and foibles in authoritative biographical accounts; it is equally crucial to recognise what the element of faith and reverence add to his life and to his veneration posthumously.

Although celebrity studies have been around for a while now, and the behaviour of fans must necessarily be included in celebrity studies, this stream of study more often focuses on the mediated images of celebrities and the celebrities’ and other vested parties’ purposeful use of the media to further their own agendas. The relatively recent sub-stream of fan studies considers the complementary phenomenon of celebrity from what one might call the audience perspective. In Tagore’s case, this audience includes admirers in the form of the ordinary public (especially the legion of Bengalis who hail him as Gurudeb), creative practitioners, and scholars (whose own vanity might cause them to discourage others from further study). Although Tagore’s following in Bengal during and since his lifetime may not constitute celebrity-hood as experienced by today’s film, sports or music superstars, it may be worth bearing in mind that fan followings all too frequently take on an independent life, which can sometimes be in danger of clouding the integrity of the work as first conceived and executed. This appears to have occurred to a certain extent with admirers and proponents of Rabindra Sangeet (literally Rabindra’s music), with the result that Tagore’s musical style is oftentimes inadequately interpreted or worse, watered down to the Bengali version of what I like to call lobby music.

Tagore’s work as a lyricist and songwriter (famously resulting in his compositions being adopted as national anthems by both India and Bangladesh) was known to me but I had in fact never heard recordings of either his lectures or his own singing. During his talk, Bharucha played one of the rare recordings of a public lecture by Tagore, and what seems immediately apparent is that his voice and delivery (both show the results of training) undoubtedly contributed to his persona. Without a break or a false note, Tagore delivers his lecture in what can only be described as a performance — partly soliloquy, partly mesmerising chant. As Bharucha pointed out, today, no academic or philosopher would dare deliver a lecture in such a manner — with a cadence that is akin to a dramatic monologue rather than the accepted modes of a lecturer imparting knowledge and information. It is interesting to note too, that Tagore’s delivery in English closely follows the rhythm of Bengali chanting and monologue. Many authors, including Willam Radice, have pointed out the challenges of translating Tagore’s poetry into English. The context-specific nuances of words, not to mention the rhythm and poetic accents of the original no doubt suffer in translation. While the difficulties of translating Tagore’s work in Bengali for global audiences seem to have contributed to his neglect in the West (especially since his death), Bharucha spoke of other factors that may have caused a decline in Tagore’s popularity.

Bharucha critiqued Tagore for being relatively naïve and/or ill-informed about what was occurring in world politics, especially with reference to Asia and India. In comparison to Tenshin, who was seemingly an astute observer and negotiator of trends of political and intellectual activity, Tagore appeared to not know as much of public sentiment or if he did, seemed not to care sufficiently to cater to audiences’ political or cultural sensitivities (this was in the context of Tagore’s and Tenshin’s public lectures in Asia and the West). Tenshin, Bharucha suggested, was a savvy curator capable of making strategic decisions in his efforts to represent Asia to the West and vice-versa. Tagore’s penchant for philosophy — as is evident in his lectures and the highly reflective quality of his writing (both in prose and poetry) — make me wonder whether there were not more complex reasons for his behaviour. Was it lack of awareness or a reluctance to engage with activities that he felt were ultimately limited in political agency? Was he perhaps ahead of his time in this respect? Whatever be the state of his political awareness and engagement, it seems safe to assume that Tenshin’s activities were more focussed than Tagore’s, perhaps allowing him greater freedom to engage politically, or at the very least to remain informed of the political currents of the time and to voice this awareness to audiences. Tagore, if one considers his extraordinary range of activities, may have simply not had the time or the energy to succeed as a careerist in all the fields he contributed to. Without descending into the uncritical hagiography I referred to at the beginning, I do feel it may be necessary to cut Tagore some slack to properly understand his apparent socio-political naïveté. After all, in addition to contributing to philosophy, social reform, theatre, music, literature and the visual arts, his vision in the field of education demanded considerable energy to materialise in concrete form. Founding the Visva Bharati in Shantiniketan required fund-raising, planning and organisation. To be highly creative and active in creative pursuits, to the extent that one’s philosophy and spiritualism is rooted in creation expression; to carry the dual burden of being a landlord-poet and a householder and furthermore, to contribute to notions of Nationalism and pan-Asianism is a tall order, even for a man who seemed to embrace the Renaissance spirit.

Tagore had, in addition to all the roles already mentioned, also been invested with the role of mediator between the East and the West, sometimes winning praise and at other times, receiving a great deal of flak at what is perceived as his pro-West stance. Bharucha mentioned Tagore’s “anti-nationalist lectures” in Japan, delivered in 1916, and also to Tagore’s controversial statement that India was a “no-nation”. Surely these need to be studied in the context of Tagore’s humanistic view of Nationalism as something that lent cultural unity and cohesiveness rather than as something that defined national identity, in a manner that becomes geographically, socio-politically and culturally exclusive of other cultures. My knowledge of Tagore’s views on Nationalism and the controversial reception of his views is somewhat limited but I get the impression that Tagore was not particularly keen to dabble in politics and I cannot help feeling that this role of East-West mediator is also one that he did not necessarily ask for, as he seemed to view himself primarily as a creative person, not as a political activist. Consequently, the criticism of his views on Nationalism needs to be viewed in the context of the period’s nationalistic fervour. What is as pertinent to discuss here is an observation made by an audience member at Bharucha’s lecture: the need for anyone on an international public lecture circuit to negotiate their identity and image when catering to diverse audiences. This negotiation is especially fraught with challenges when the identities cross various boundaries: East and West, visual/performing arts and literature, abstract philosophy and socio-political pragmatism. For example, even at the most basic level, should one self-orientalise to add value to one’s image globally (i.e. wear oriental garbs, quote from eastern philosophy and literature, etc)? Should one meet the West mid-way by wearing Western clothes to put Westerners at ease? Should one make the East more palatable by presenting one’s ideas in a format that is more easily recognisable by — and acceptable to —the West? Should one even dare to suggest an amalgam of Eastern and Western thought at a time when racial and cultural differences were being cited as a basis for colonial rule, itself causing nationalist rebellion? The requirement to ascertain the audience’s level of knowledge of India and Asia, to gauge audience sentiment and to then perform accordingly is something that requires energy (the effective colloquial term ‘mental space’ springs to mind). It goes without saying that the more complex one’s role and the more diverse one’s range of activities, the harder it becomes to negotiate public audiences. Perhaps such an exercise even begins to seem more futile and certainly less compelling in the context of one’s long-term objectives? Placing figures such as Tagore on a pedestal, or distancing ourselves from their personal lives in our efforts to maintain scholarly objectivity might preclude recognition of simple factors such as the possibility that he did not have the energy to go that extra mile to ‘perform’ to audiences. Then again perhaps, unlike Tenshin, Tagore did not recognise the long-term benefits of developing shorter-term strategies.

It is fitting then that rather than carrying out a comprehensive comparison of Tenshin’s and Tagore’s myriad interests, to end his lecture, Bharucha reflected on one shared source of pleasure. Quoting an extract from a letter that Tenshin wrote to Tagore, in which the Japanese curator admires an ordinary clay bowl, Bharucha concluded that the basis for their friendship was perhaps — quite simply — their mutual enjoyment of, and instinctive aesthetic appreciation for beauty. This observation underlines the personal, even the intimate moments in a life that has been eulogised by some and neglected by others; it is a timely reminder to scholars interested in Tagore to view his many facets to arrive at a composite understanding of his nature and work.


[1] Heehs, Peter, “Getting beyond the Conventions of Biography – and Hagiography Too: A Post by Peter Heehs”, Columbia University Press blog, posted 4 August 2008

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