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  • Introduction:Rabindranath Tagore as 'Cultural Icon'
  • Joseph T. O'Connell (bio) and Kathleen M. O'Connell (bio)

Rabindranath Tagore, Asia's first Nobel laureate, may well be characterized as a cultural icon, ambivalent as that term may be. We, the editors of this special issue of the University of Toronto Quarterly, use the expression cultural icon to mean a symbolic focal point or prism that points toward, sums up, and opens onto a much wider world of meaning.1 For millions of Indians and Bangladeshis, Rabindranath Tagore is, as he was in his lifetime, a cultural icon. Elsewhere, those who know him and his work well enough to find in it such a symbolic focal point opening onto a globally pertinent vision of human life are understandably fewer. There are, however, a number of converging factors propelling renewed awareness and appreciation of Tagore, his vision and his work that in his lifetime so moved audiences and readers from Japan to Canada, from the Baltic republics to Argentina.

Why, one might ask, do some individuals stand out as cultural icons, and should they? Ours is a world shaped by symbols and images. We are bound to select from and simplify the infinite complexity of what we perceive. Somehow we must choose and act, must decide what to value and strive for, what to fear and guard against. For what can be quantified, we may have recourse to computers and their algorithms to enable us to select, simplify and act. For what is humanly meaningful, individually and collectively, for what is imbued with feeling and integral to who and what we know – or imagine – ourselves to be, we resort to more open, multivalent, and suggestive symbolism, to images, to icons.

What makes some few historical individuals stand out radically from others and be accepted as archetypal figures or – the expression we use here – cultural icons is an intriguing question that has spawned [End Page 961] endless attempted answers. We do not intend to pursue this enticing question and its elusive answers here. What we do attempt in these pages is to look closely and from different angles at one remarkable man, Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), who has attained iconic status for millions who respect him and admire his achievements in many fields, though not without some dissenting critics.

Tagore is such a creative and engaging figure – by whatever facet of his work one approaches him – that he has the potential to grip the attention and deepen the awareness of those who encounter him. There is,moreover, a vital link between the person and his multi-faceted work, all of which is subtly interconnected. The work itself, whether in literature, music, visual art, religious or philosophic reflection, socio-political critique, education, rural development ('reconstruction' as he called it) or whatever else, commands attention and offers much food for thought, refinement of sensibilities, and inspiration for an engaged integrated way of living, private and public. Moreover, as those who saw him and heard him speak in colonial India and throughout his travels have testified, the man himself embodied and resonated the message that he gave, and still gives through his vivid expressive writing. It is this remarkable integration of diverse modes of creativity and productivity in one individual that makes him potentially so influential a cultural icon. The diversity-cum-coherence of his genius allows him to function not only as a paradigmatic figure in each of several fields of endeavour, but as an iconic exemplar of what it can mean to be integrally human in this complex world.

Even so, not everyone, not even all contributors to this issue of the Quarterly, may be comfortable with applying the notion of cultural icon to Tagore. There are, to be sure, pejorative senses of icon and iconic that we do not mean to endorse, such as dumbing down, uncritical homage, the imposition of caricatures and stereotypes that would distort and conceal the complex reality of the man and his message. No doubt, there are those who treat him in such ways, as more than one of our contributors observe and take exception to. Likewise, there have been and will continue to be misrepresentation and misuse...


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pp. 961-970
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