Literature Special Feature Tribute

Rabindranath Tagore Edged Out Thomas Hardy to Win the Nobel in Literature

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Tagore was nominated just once for Nobel and this was successful. The nomination came from the English poet, Thomas Sturge Moore. The stiffest competition came from Thomas Hardy who was the candidate put forward by the Royal Society of Literature. More than 90 of its Fellows had put forward Hardy’s name. For the record, he was nominated on more than twenty occasions and never succeeded. Prof. Ashoka lambasts another myth that the Bard won the Nobel for Geetanjali, in the Special Feature, exclusively for Different Truths.

Rabindranath Tagore had led a truly remarkable life. A polymath in a real sense of the word, his range of interests were breath-taking. Much has already been written about “Gurdev” and there is always a risk of tedious repetition when one attempts to adumbrate his accomplishments. 

He is the only person to have composed National Anthems of two different countries and set to music anthem of a third (Sri Lanka). He had a profound influence on the leaders of the freedom movement and they frequently sought his counsel on different matters. We are all aware of his visionary zeal which leads to the establishment of a remarkable university where one could acquire knowledge and experience personal growth in perfect communion with nature. 

Next, to Mahatma Gandhi, the most number of statues of an Indian figure to be found outside India are those of Tagore. And I was thrilled to witness his plays being enacted in places as distant from India as Latvia and Estonia. 

For Tagore enthusiasts, I would very strongly recommend works by Martin Kampchen. Martin is a German scholar of repute who has spent several decades studying Tagore at the Santiniketan. I frequently interacted with him when he was a Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla during my tenure as a member of the Governing Society. To the best of my knowledge, he is still based at the Santiniketan. I vividly remember his interaction with Professor Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, former Vice Chancellor of Santiniketan on the points of convergence and differences between Gandhi and Tagore.

Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, in 1913. It was unquestionably a landmark achievement! This was the first Nobel in literature to be awarded to an Asian. It also needs to be pointed out that the United States had to wait for another 17 years before it procured its literature Nobel; Sinclair Lewis got it in 1930. Tagore was actually the third person born in India to be conferred a Nobel; Ronald Ross had won it in medicine, in 1902, and Rudyard Kipling had won it, in 1907.

There are many people, myself included, who believe that it was not Tagore who was elevated by the Nobel but the gesture by the Nobel Foundation actually elevated the Nobel instead. The following year i.e. 1914 was one of the few years that no Nobel in literature was awarded as none of those nominated were found to carry sufficient merit.

Notwithstanding Tagore’s superlative merit, there are individuals who tend to believe that Tagore’s background and extensive international contacts did help in bringing his qualities to the fore before an international audience. This does not in any way detract his merit though but it is certainly true that many other superb literary figures who made a comparable impact on the Indian society were never even brought to the attention of the Nobel Foundation.

I would include Munshi Premchard and Saratchandra Chattopadhyay in this category. They were never even nominated once for the Award. Another great novelist Tarasankar Bandhyopadhyay, who enthralled us with Dak HarkaraGanna BegumGana Devata and Arogya Niketan deserved the honour more than many who succeeded in obtaining it. He was not a contemporary of Tagore but the point here is that he was the victim of the same apathy from the authorities in India who never nominated him even once.

During my tenure as a member of the Governing Society of IIAS Shimla. I did put forward a suggestion that the Institute should set up a Committee to make nominations each year for the literature Nobels to ensure that out stalwarts were given the recognition they deserve. It was approved at the time but I am not sure if it was put into practice.

A myth that has gained validity because it was never challenged is that Tagore was awarded the Nobel for Geetanjali.  The Nobel citation reads: because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West.” 

It does not mention Geetanjali although it most certainly must have played a part in influencing the Committee members.

And here is the copy of the telegram he sent to the British diplomat, who read it out on his behalf at the Nobel banquet: “I beg to convey to the Swedish Academy my grateful appreciation of the breadth of understanding which has brought the distant near and has made a stranger a brother.” 

Tagore was nominated just once for this award and this was successful. The nomination came from the English poet, Thomas Sturge Moore.

And it is also worthwhile pointing out that Tagore himself made one nomination in 1935 for the Irish writer James Cousin, who also occasionally used the Indian nom de plume Jayaram!

It would be instructive to learn of the candidates Tagore had to contend with for this honour.

The stiffest competition came from Thomas Hardy who was the candidate put forward by the Royal Society of Literature. More than 90 of its Fellows had put forward Hardy’s name. Hardy again remains a paramount figure in English literature and I do not feel his reputation depended upon procuring this award. For the record, he was nominated on more than twenty occasions and never succeeded.

The French philosopher Henri Bergson also received two nominations that year. Bergson eventually won the Award in 1927.

The very great Spanish writer Benito Perez Galdos was also in the race being put forward by the Spanish Academy. He never won the award but is rightfully regarded the foremost Spanish literary figure of the last few centuries.

The Swiss poet Carl Spiteller was also put forward by the Nobel Prize Committee of authors. He had to wait for another six years before he was awarded the prize in 1919.

The Italian humorist Salvatore Farina was also in the running as was the exotic French naval officer turned novelist Pierre Loti.

The Spanish novelist Salvador Rueda did make the list as did the French journalist Anatole France and Francis Welles! I must confess I was completely unaware of the latter’s works.

Tagore’s Finnish contemporary Juhani Aho, a literary giant was also in the running as was the Austrian literary genius Peter Rosegger.  Polymath Lord Avebury was nominated by his German friend but was never taken as a serious contender. The Danish Academy was very keen on Ernst von der Recke and did make the nomination. French historian Ernest Lavisse was also a nominee as was the Swiss writer Adolf Frey. 

The Danish literary giant Jacob Knudsen was nominated but surprisingly not so by the Danish Academy. Lord Avebury ended up nominating the liberal politician John Morley but he was never taken seriously as was the Irish critic Edward Dowden. The theologian Harald Hoffding was the Danish Academy’s other nomination. 

Swedish explorer, Sven Hedin who located sources of Brahmaputra and the Indus and wrote about his own travels was a surprise nominee. The great Swedish poet Verner von Heidenstam although not successful that year won the prize in 1916. The Danish giants Karl Gjellerup and Henrik Pontopiddan were on the list and actually won a rare joint Nobel in Literature in 1917. 

The great Belgian jurist Edmond Picard had also earned a nomination. Grazia Delleda, the great Italian writer was the only woman on the list. She won the Nobel in 1926. French literary critic Emile Faguet was also on the list. The members of the Royal Academy of Fine Letters were very keen on Catalan writer, Angel Guimera who completed the list. 

All in all, it was a pretty impressive list and one would note that many who were unsuccessful on this occasion did end up being conferred with the honour on subsequent occasions. 

©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Photos from the Internet

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1 Comment
  1. Manas chakrabarti 10 months ago

    Thanks for a brilliant uploading. His creation can be matched with epics only..the Biswa Bharati has has published that the legend had almost created 28000 write ups that include short stories to so many songs, poems etc. He is perhaps the proper mix of extreme sense of spiritualism combined with supreme sense of creative instinct.

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