I write these words just after addressing the world’s largest literary festival, at Hay-on-Wye in Wales, on the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore.

The audience was modest — perhaps one attendee for each year since his birth — but even that was more than the organisers had expected. It is safe to say that most of the thousands thronging the Welsh village in quest of literary pleasures had no idea who Tagore was, nor indeed did 90 per cent of those who bothered to turn up to hear me on the subject.

One of the striking things about Rabindranath Tagore that never fails to bewilder educated Indians is the extent to which his reputation has plummeted in the West even as it has grown into immortality in India. When Amartya Sen published his brilliant book The Argumentative Indian, few if any Western reviewers paid attention to his essay in it about Tagore.

And yet, while the book was rightly lauded for Mr Sen’s superb marshalling of arguments for the existence of the liberal tradition in India, this masterly essay was a much-needed effort to reclaim Tagore’s international reputation.

The reason it was necessary is, of course, that whereas Tagore’s greatness seems self-evident to most Indians (and all Bengalis), Tagore is now unjustly misjudged in the West (by the very few who know enough to judge him at all) as a mediocre mystic poet, rather than as the remarkable rationalist and humanist genius Mr Sen convincingly depicts.

And yet, as we all know, Tagore’s accomplishments as poet, dramatist, novelist, lyricist, composer, painter, educationist and philosopher were beyond extraordinary, representing a level of achievement so towering that it is difficult to imagine an individual in any other culture who comes close. Tagore was, in fact, recognised as such in his own time; he was, in fact, India’s first global superstar, before the era of globalisation. Even today’s Indians may have difficulty imagining Tagore’s huge worldwide impact at his peak.

When he was to speak at New York’s 4,000-seat Carnegie Hall in 1930 (itself a rare enough honour, since the hall is usually reserved for concerts, not orations), more than 20,000 people were turned away from the sold-out event, creating a mass of humanity on the streets outside that blocked traffic for miles. No living writer on the planet had ever had something comparable happen. And what’s more, Tagore was handsomely paid for his speeches.

One American critic, not without a tinge of jealousy, wrote acerbically that the Indian “scolds Americans at $700 per scold”. (That would be more like $700,000 in today’s purchasing power terms.)

Tagore himself was modestly dismissive of his fame and the attention it got him. “The perfect whirlwind of public excitement it (the Nobel prize) has given rise to is frightful”, he wrote to his friend the artist William Rothenstein in 1913. “It is almost as bad as tying a tin can to a dog’s tail, making it impossible for him to move without creating noise and collecting crowds all along.”

Eight years later he confided to Edward Thompson: “What an immense amount of unreality there is in literary reputation, and I am longing — even while appreciating it like a buffalo the luxury of a mud bath — to come out of it as a sanyasi, naked and aloof”.

The Hindu sage image was apposite, for it was a vital part of his worldwide appeal. With his long beard and his flowing white robe, Rabindranath Tagore epitomised for many the archetype of the Indian sage, the precursor of so many godmen and gurus who have followed his footsteps to the West.

There is little doubt that his magisterial mind and his authoritative presence did a great deal to inspire admiration for India across the world, and to spark a revival of interest in Hindu mysticism and in the teachings of Indian spirituality. Today, 70 years after his death, there are very few left to remember his impact, and he has been supplanted in the popular imagination by many a lesser light.

Tagore was a global giant, and so were Gandhi and Nehru at the same time — three Indian superstars in the global firmament, whose names would have been recognised by thinking (and newspaper-reading) people almost anywhere in the world in the 1930s. Is there an equivalent today? Perhaps it is a reflection of the degree of celebrity-overload in our information-saturated world that it is hard to speak of anyone in the same breath.

Who might the candidates be today? A sporting hero might be a contender, but we have no equivalent of a Muhammad Ali or a Tiger Woods.

Sachin Tendulkar is India’s best-known sportsman, but he is unknown to the billions who understand nothing of cricket. A cinema superstar — an Amitabh Bachchan or a Shah Rukh Khan — would fare better in global recognition, but again only amongst that international minority that follows Bollywood.

There are no Indians of comparable stature in any of Tagore’s own fields. The world of literature has yet to produce a writer of his reach and impact; no Indian dramatist has written plays that have taken the West End by storm, as Tagore’s did; no Indian poet is as widely read and quoted as he was.

Where he invented an entire school of music in Rabindra Sangeet (and authored or inspired three national anthems), we can only offer an A.R. Rahman — an Oscar and Grammy winning genius, no doubt, but not yet a household name in Vietnam and Venezuela, as Tagore was.

In the world of ideas, the Nobel Prize-winning polymath Amartya Sen stands tall, and arguably, M.F. Husain was a greater painter than Tagore; but both have instant recognition only amongst those who are aware of their excellence in their chosen fields. Probably Deepak Chopra would have a better chance of selling out Carnegie Hall than either.

In short, we have no globally-recognised Indian superstar today to match Tagore’s standing in the world in his own lifetime. And yet, such is the transience of fame that even such a giant of a man is largely forgotten today outside his native land.


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