Perhaps surprisingly, Tagore’s paintings and drawings mean the most to me personally. I published a book on them in 1989 and also organised an exhibition of them in the UK in the 1980s. Tagore was a totally untrained painter, who took to painting in his late sixties. He began by elaborating the doodles on his manuscripts into fantastic shapes, creatures and faces, and then began drawing and painting in earnest in his seventies after having some exhibitions in Europe in 1930. His paintings do not resemble the work of any other Indian artist. Many contemporary Indian artists regard Tagore as the most original painter of modern India—I agree. Among Tagore’s writings, I like his short stories the best: a particular favourite is ‘The Post Master’, written in 1891 and filmed, with exquisite sensitivity, by Satyajit Ray in 1961.
For Bengalis, the appeal of Tagore is in the unrivalled beauty and subtlety of his language, especially in his songs, which are probably the most popular part of Tagore’s oeuvre in Bengal. (Tagore also wrote the words for India’s national anthem.) For those who do not read Bengali as a native speaker (like me), I think his appeal is various, depending on whether one is speaking of Tagore’s poetry, or his stories and novels, or his essays, or his letters. The diversity of his work is amazing, even now, almost 70 years after his death—a bit like that of Leonardo da Vinci. Above everything, running through all his best work, is a current of humanity, always opposed to the dehumanisation introduced by industrialisation and technology. Tagore could show us the inner psychology of the poor villager, the urban middle class and the idle rich, without losing sympathy for anyone. And, unlike Gandhi, Tagore was highly receptive to culture, wherever he encountered it—in India, the West or in the Japan and China. Anyone who wants to understand Tagore for the first time should see the film adaptations of Tagore made by Satyajit Ray, his fellow Bengali and an equally great artist: Three Daughters (1961), Charulata (1964), The Home and the World (1984), and the documentary film Rabindranath Tagore (1961).
Andrew Robinson is a King’s Scholar of Eton College and holds degrees from Oxford University (in chemistry) and the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. He is currently a visiting fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge. He has received a number of academic grants for his research, notably a fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust, a research grant from the British Academy, and a major grant from the John Templeton Foundation to study creativity, genius and breakthroughs in the arts and sciences (2007-09). His works on Tagore include the following:
The Art of Rabindranath Tagore (Andre Deutsch, 1989)—with a foreword by Satyajit Ray, based on an exhibition at the Barbican Centre, London/Oxford Museum of Modern Art, organised by AR in 1986
Rabindranath Tagore, The Myriad-Minded Man (Bloomsbury/St Martin’s Press, 1995, pb edn 1996; new pb edn I. B. Tauris, 2009, with a foreword by Anita Desai)—with Krishna Dutta
“The entire book was a revelation to me.” (Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Nobel laureate in physics)
“One has waited a very long time for a biography of Tagore that did justice to a far more complex and curious mind and life than simply respectful and circumspect accounts allowed. Here it is: thorough, balanced, intelligent, and addressing every aspect of a truly astonishing artist, his life and times.” (Anita Desai)
“Excellent … admirably straightforward, readable, lively, informative” (Financial Times)
Rabindranath Tagore: An Anthology (Picador, 1997, pb edn 1999)—edited with Krishna Dutta
Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore (Cambridge University Press, 1997, pb edn 2005)—edited with Krishna Dutta; with a foreword by Amartya Sen, Nobel laureate in economics
“An indispensable trove for anyone interested in modern India’s intellectual and cultural history.” (Sunil Khilnani, Independent on Sunday)