Today we focus on one of PEN’s most famous early members. Rabindranath Tagore was the first non-European writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature with his collection of poems Gitanjali in 1913.
The Prize, which had only been running for twelve years, had already succeeded in becoming globally prestigious, and an editorial of The Indian PEN in 1936 actually credits the Nobel prize to Tagore for having made India a “sovereign literary state”. His poems, which were presented to the Nobel Prize committee in his own translation, with a supportive preface by W. B. Yeats, were lauded for their transnational appeal.
Six months after the creation of PEN, in April 1922, Tagore was one of the first writers to be asked by John Galsworthy to become an honorary member of the London PEN centre. His name, and the cultural capital associated with it, was used by PEN to promote the organisation during its early years when it attempted to create as many global centres as possible. As Dawson Scott put it, the ‘countries to which’ the honorary members belonged ‘felt a thrill of interest which presently showed itself in a willingness to form centres’, with Tagore telling her that he ‘hoped to found a centre in India’.
He also participated in PEN activities throughout the 1920s and 1930s, delivering dinner speeches at London PEN in 1924 and in New York, and spending a week as the guest of Prague PEN in 1927.
When the Indian Centre was founded in 1933 by the Colombian-born Theosophist Sophia Wadia in Bombay, Rabindranath Tagore enthusiastically accepted to be the first national president of the All-India Centre. And the first ever issue of The Indian PEN (7th March 1934) carried his message: ‘I wish all success to this venture and hope that it will quickly lead to the creation of other centres throughout the country, where literary men will meet in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and goodwill, and raise the voice of the spirit above all the confused din of warring ‘schools’ and coteries that so often mars the harmony of the world of letters.’
In the years following the founding of the Indian centre and until Tagore’s death in 1941, the Indian PEN regularly carried his messages and his texts. In 1940 for instance, the journal carried ‘Great Indians’ Messages’ to the International Congress scheduled in Stockholm (subsequently cancelled due to the outbreak of the war), in which Tagore urged writers to transcend national barriers and realise that the ‘problems of human freedom… which stir in all our lands are at bottom the same’.
At the death of Tagore, The Indian PEN carried a long tribute by Sophia Wadia.
In Tagore, in whom, she argued, the three letters of the PEN ‘the Poet, the Essayist, the Novelist’ were wonderfully combined, she recognized a Nationalist insofar as he was first and foremost a ‘citizen of the world’ and Internationalist whose patriotism could be encapsulated in the following words: ‘No community, no nation, no race can grow in harmony and in truth if it injures a single limb of the body of humanity’.
Rabindranath Tagore also presided over the first All India Progressive Writers Conference in Calcutta held in 1938. That year he had an impassioned debate with Yone Noguchi about the Sino-Japanese conflict, with Tagore criticizing Noguchi’s nationalism: ‘It is sad to think that the passion of collective militarism may on occasion helplessly overwhelm even the creative artist, that genuine intellectual power should be led to offer its dignity and truth to be sacrificed at the shrine of the dark gods of war.’