A Nobel Tradition: Rabindranath Tagore — the First Songwriter to Win the Prize

Caroline Eden appreciates the work of Rabindranath Tagore, a songwriter who won the Nobel Prize decades before Bob Dylan was born.

A Nobel Tradition: Rabindranath Tagore — the First Songwriter to Win the Prize

THE FRACAS surrounding Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature shows no sign of cooling off. Writers and musicians are still coming out, picking sides and posturing. Stephen King showed his support in Rolling Stone magazine, writing: “People complaining about his Nobel either don’t understand or it’s just a plain old case of sour grapes.” Irvine Welsh, on the other hand, took to Twitter with a hard-hitting assessment befitting the author of Trainspotting: “I’m a Dylan fan, but this is an ill conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”

But some of the most amusing — not to mention dry and astute — comments came from the letters sections of newspapers. Harry Watson, of Edinburgh, Scotland, wrote to the Guardian, saying the Nobel Committee could have predicted Dylan’s silence around the award by examining his behavior back in 2004 when Scotland’s St Andrews University awarded the singer-songwriter a doctorate for “his outstanding contribution to musical and literary culture.” Watson writes that Dylan arrived late with his entourage, “sat glassy-eyed on the stage, yawning occasionally,” and then, after appearing utterly unmoved by the university choir’s rendition of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” left abruptly without a farewell.

Dylan’s apparently frigid disinterest — and whether he is worthy of the award at all — has been analyzed thoroughly, but what caught my attention in the media melee was an interesting sideline debate that quietly bubbled away. Some people — including the novelist and singer Amit Chaudhuri (writing in the Guardian) — began to question whether or not this win really represented the first time the prize has gone to a songwriter, as many newspaper headlines claimed. This sounds like a straightforward enough question, but when you get into it, it isn’t.

Calcutta-born poet Rabindranath Tagore was awarded the prize in 1913. The Nobel website states that it was given to him “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.”

Tagore was a true multi-disciplinarian. He was a performer, essayist, artist, poet, as well as a lover of music and a fine, prolific writer of songs. He wrote in both Bengali and English and translated his own work. The title of his most famous creation, a collection of 103 lyric poems published in English in 1912, is Gitanjali: Song Offerings. Tagore had translated the work on his sick bed in Bengal, feeling too ill to work on new material. As the title suggests, much of the material contained therein are songs, albeit songs that Tagore converted into compositions that are meant to work as poetry without music. This collection — a small slice of his oeuvre, which includes 60 books of verse — almost certainly secured Tagore the prize. It throws into question the claim that Dylan is the first songwriter to win the Nobel in Literature. If this really was a collection of songs, then that’s it — Tagore had Dylan beat by over a century. And yet.

Gitanjali was first published by the India Society in London in 1912, but it found fame when the publishing house Macmillan put it out a year later. W. B. Yeats heard about the songs collected in Gitanjali. He read them out at glamorous parties in north London. He also wrote the introduction to the Macmillan edition. Gitanjali then rode on a wave of favorable reviews. It caught the eye of British poet Thomas Sturge Moore, who then successfully proposed the work to the Nobel Committee of Literature at the Swedish Academy. In the letter he wrote: “Sir, as a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature of the United Kingdom, I have the honour to propose the name of Rabindranath Tagore as a person qualified, in my opinion, to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.”

One of Tagore’s modern-day translators, the brilliant poet and scholar William Radice, claims in the Penguin edition of Tagore’s Selected Poems that while the Bengali poet was a prolific songsmith, his songs cannot be adequately translated, not even by Tagore himself. In fact, Radice appeals to a general principle: “Let me say simply here that I do not believe you can translate songs.” Here, then, we hit a snag. Radice chooses not to include any of the works he considers to be songs in his translated collection, because their tune and melody cannot be translated into printed poems. You have to hear them. They should be sung and performed, as they so often are in India and Bangladesh. This is necessary in order to feel them.

And yet early translations of the songs, made by Tagore himself, affected other discerning critics on the page, not on the air. Writing in The Fortnightly Review in 1913, Ezra Pound told of how enraptured Yeats was with Tagore: “I went to Mr. Yeats’ rooms and found him much excited over the advent of a great poet, someone ‘greater than any of us.’” He continues: “The hundred poems in the present volume are all songs to sing. The tunes and the words are knit together, are made together, and Oriental music would seem to fit this purpose better than our own.”

Reading Gitanjali, it isn’t hard to appreciate its melodic qualities. In one of the most famous poem-songs, “Where the Mind Is Without Fear,” you can see — and almost hear — just how this lyrical poem-song could be sung to melody.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Tagore is deeply and widely loved in his home country of India. People sing his songs in villages, in cities, and on YouTube, just as they do over the border in Bangladesh. As Radice writes, it is Tagore’s voice, his melody and music, that “keeps him ever near” to his loyal followers. On a train in Bangladesh a few years ago, I remember hearing the country’s national anthem, “An Ode to Mother Bengal,” filter out from crackly speakers. The anthem was adapted in 1972 from the first ten lines of “Amar Shonar Bangla (My Golden Bengal),” a 1906 song written and composed by Tagore. It begins:

My golden Bengal, I love you.
Forever your skies, your air set my heart in tune as if it were a flute.
O mother! the aroma of the mango orchard in the spring time drives me crazy,
Ah, what a thrill!

Tagore is no longer the only songwriter to have won the Nobel, but he is the only person to have written and composed the national anthems for two different countries. His hymn “Jana Gana Mana” (1911) was chosen as India’s national anthem in 1950.

Like Dylan, who is to many the most important songwriter of the last 50 years, Tagore continues to be a major cultural force, even posthumously, in Bangladesh and India. Of the 200 million or so Bengali speakers worldwide, you would be hard pressed to find anyone, be they literate or illiterate, who couldn’t quote a line of Tagore on demand — or without prompting.

The universally important and recurring themes that appear in both Tagore’s work and Dylan’s explain, to some degree, why their influence lives on: nonviolent social change, idealism, the self and its place in the universal whole, morality, a respect for nature. Their gifts for storytelling and drive to move beyond national and class distinctions defines them both, as does a certain flow of spirituality. This spirituality, in Tagore’s case, was one of the qualities that so moved, and influenced, Yeats. In his introduction to Gitanjali, he wrote that Tagore’s work inhabits a world “where poetry and religion are the same thing.” Yeats was impacted not only by Tagore, but also by two other Indian thinkers: Purohit Swami (with whom Yeats collaborated to translate sacred Sanskrit texts) and the theosophist Mohini Mohun Chatterjee. Yeats was just 21, an impressionable age, when he met Chatterjee in Dublin and literally sat at his feet. Later, Yeats wrote a poem, called “Mohini Chatterjee,” which includes the lines:

Old lovers yet may have
All that time denied —
Grave is heaped on grave
That they be satisfied —
Over the blackened earth
The old troops parade,
Birth is heaped on Birth
That such cannonade
May thunder time away,
Birth-hour and death-hour meet,
Or, as great sages say,
Men dance on deathless feet.

The poem was published in 1933, in the middle of the interwar period, and the battlefield does not refer either to World War I or II, but rather to the constant condition of mankind, to the Hindu belief in samsara, the continuous cycle of life, death, and reincarnation — grave upon grave, birth after birth. These lines remind me of any number of Dylan’s lyrics, from the joy of “Mr. Tambourine Man” to the resignation of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”

Dylan’s work too influenced a generation of listeners, songwriters, and poets, and it continues to do so. Yet, while Dylan’s influence holds strong, interest in Tagore has diminished in Europe and the United States. One unforeseen benefit of Dylan’s Nobel win is that it reminds us, if somewhat obliquely, of Tagore, a great man of letters, whose artistry should not be forgotten in the West.


Caroline Eden is a UK-based writer contributing to the Guardian, BBC Radio 4, and The Telegraph. She is the author of Samarkand: Recipes and Stories from Central Asia and the Caucasus.

LARB Contributor

Caroline Eden is a regular contributor to the travel, culture, and food pages of the Guardian, The Telegraph, Financial Times, and other publications. She specializes in emerging destinations, has reported on events in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Haiti, and Bangladesh for BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent, and has spoken to audiences about her adventures at London’s Royal Geographical Society. Her first book, Samarkand, won the Guild of Food Writers Award for best food and travel book in 2017. Her second book is Black Sea: Dispatches and Recipes, Through Darkness and Light (2019). She lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!