- Empire, Nationalism, and the Postcolonial World: Rabindranath Tagore’s writings on history, politics, and society by Michael Collins
Rabindranath Tagore, it would be fair to say, is a completely forgotten figure for the literate classes in Britain today. The poetry he wrote went out of fashion within a couple of years of his translations winning the Nobel Prize in 1913, and the writings in prose have never been adequately translated, although much work and effort have been put into the project in the recent past. His own writings in English, produced primarily after 1913, are not inconsiderable in number, as Michael Collins points out in the Introduction to the book under review, and were collected in slim volumes of which representative titles include Nationalism (1917), or The Centre of Indian Culture (1919), or The Religion of Man (1931). Treating these philosophical, political and social writings published in English as the primary references for his work, Collins sets out his period of study as 1912–41, the year of the publication of Gitanjali to the year of Tagore’s death, attempting to show “that Tagore was a more empowered, purposeful, provocative and transgressive figure than he has sometimes been given credit for.”
After an Introduction that locates Tagore within the history of imperialism and global intellectual history, Part One, titled “Ideas and Intentions,” explores “Religion and Reform: Tagore’s nineteenth-century inheritance,’ ‘England and the Nobel Prize: Tagore at home in the world’ and ‘On Nations and Empires: Tagore’s debates with M.K. Gandhi.’ The second part of the book, “Colonial and Postcolonial Encounters,” highlights his “politics of friendship” with W.B. Yeats, C.F. Andrews and E.J. Thompson—the chief among his Western interlocutors—and the book concludes with a chapter on Tagore and the postcolonial world. Each and every one of these issues is important, and they have individually been the subject of several studies by a number of scholars over the years, so that the range of secondary references that Collins has access to is an impressive one, stretching from the works of commentators contemporary with Tagore to the books by current postcolonialists and subaltern studies historians that dominate the field. The book’s attempt to present a new interpretation of Tagore’s English-language writings in the context of imperial and postcolonial historiography is, therefore, grounded in an ambition to widen the discussion in the wake of the 150th anniversary of Tagore’s birth.
While this volume makes many valuable contributions, whether its intention can be fully accomplished without recourse to the Bengali writing of Rabindranath will remain the sticking point in any discussion of such an enterprise. Can the intellectual history of a bilingual writer be constructed with access to only one half—the weaker half—of the writings in question? How does one map the development of “Ideas and Intentions” in such a writer over a particular period and on a particular theme if one does not bring in everything he wrote on those ideas? More worryingly, you suspect that the chance to complicate matters has been lost, and that a certain, important contradictoriness in the corpus may have been marginalised. Michael Collins has on the whole managed to avoid such charges being made against his book by concentrating, for the most part, on chapters that deal specifically with Tagore’s English friends or with England and the Nobel Prize, subject matter whose archival resources would be mostly available in English. He has also spent time at the Tagore archives in Santiniketan, working through unpublished materials, of which he has used a significant amount, and he has been helped by the publications in English of some very important collections of primary sources. The end result, despite its monolingual limitations, is a useful re-estimation, in the light of contemporary historiography, of Tagore’s writings in English on non-literary themes, bringing together disparate threads of scholarship on the Tagore corpus to make us think again on familiar topics, and to force us to revise older ways of...