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What Did Rabindranath Tagore Do with the Nobel Prize?

(Source: YouTube/Reuters)

(Source: YouTube/Reuters)

Recently, Tripura CM Biplab Deb courted controversy after he claimed Tagore had returned the Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded to him at 1913, in protest against the colonial British.

New Delhi: Tripura CM Biplab Deb has been mired in flak ever since his errant comment about imminent Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore returning his Nobel Prize to protest against British oppression became viral.

“Rabindranath Tagore had given away his Nobel prize in protest against the British,” Deb said during the 157th birth anniversary event of Nobel laureate and poet Rabindranath Tagore in Tripura.

This, however, is not true.

In 1913, Tagore became the first non-European, non-white person to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, which includes a medal, a citation and a cash prize of 8,000 pounds.

According to the website of the Swedish Academy, the body that organises the annual honours, the award was given to Tagore for his collection of poems titled ‘Geetanjali’, which he himself translated into English. The Academy acknowledged Tagore for "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”.

But he never returned it.

In fact, the Nobel was a source of great joy to the literary community in India as this was the first time an Indian had won the award.

In a book titled ‘Daughters of Jorashankho’, the author Aruna Chakravarti writes that Tagore had been travelling in his motor car with some friends to Chaupahari Forest to see the Sal and Deodhar trees in Birbhum when he received news of the Nobel.

Though many in the European academic set of the time cried foul at an unknown, vernacular author from a colony winning the award over authors like Thomas Hardy and Anatole France, Tagore’s friends and family celebrated the win.

In a letter written to his dear friend William Rothenstein, Tagore later said that though he had been greatly joyed by the award that the British had conferred on him, he was tired of the ‘trial’ it had caused in terms of the barrage of attention that he started receiving from across India.

He wrote that he was flooded with an overwhelming deluge of telegrams and letters of congratulation and adulation but worried that the attention was perhaps only to ‘honour his honour and not his person’. The letters can be read in the book titled ‘Imperfect Encounter’.

What did Tagore do with his Nobel?

According to records, Tagore used the money he received as part of the Nobel prize to set up the Vishwa Bharti University, often touted as Tagore ‘s dream project, a university town sprawled across Shantiniketan, a town initially developed by his father Devendra Nath Tagore who bought the plot of land from then owner Bhuban Mohan Sinha, a zamindar, and developed it into a spiritual centre.

Rabindranath was of the belief that studying in open spaces, close to nature and free of restrictive boundaries and walls, aids in better learning and understanding of subjects rather than cramming the same inside industrial classrooms that are meant only to stifle.

It was with this vision that Tagore started a school called ‘Patha Bhavan’. In 1921, the school was expanded to take the shape of what is today known as the Vishwa Bharti University. Tagore reportedly used the Nobel money to develop the university and also contributed to the expansion of the Brahmo Samaj Ashram in Shantiniketan that his father had built.

The Nobel medal, along with the Nobel citation and some other valuable personal possessions of the author and his wife were stolen from ‘Uttarayan’, last of the many homes that Tagore lived in, in 2004. In 2016, the CID made a breakthrough in the investigations and arrested a folk Baul musician, Pradip Bauri, in connection to the theft. Many others have been arrested and detained with respect to the theft since.

The Swedish Academy provided the Vishwa Bharati Chancellor with a replacement medal made of gold and a replica made of bronze to be housed in Shantiniketan. These can be seen on display in the Rabindra Bhawan museum of Tagore memorabilia today.

Tagore had also been given Knighthood by the British Crown in 1915 for ‘service to literature’ literature which he renounced in 1919 in protest of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in India.

In a letter repudiating the knighthood, written to the then Viceroy of India Lord Chelmsworth, Tagore wrote,

“the very least that I can do for my country is to take all consequences upon myself in giving voice to the protest of the millions of my countrymen, surprised into a dumb anguish of terror”.

Did the Tripura CM, known for his outrageous comments, confuse the Nobel Prize with the Knighthood?