Czechoslovakia and successors Czech imagination of India before Tagore The Czechoslovak republic, located in Central Europe, derived its continuity from the medieval Czech kingdom which was freely associated to the spiritual concept of the Holy Roman Empire. Czechoslovakia was formed in 1918 out of the territory of the original Czech kingdom and the Slav dominated northern part of Hungary which became Slovakia. Czechoslovakia split peacefully into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. This article examines primarily the Czech reception of Tagore with an insight into the Slovak reception and into the personal contacts with the Germans of Prague.
The social, cultural and literary context of Tagore’s reception in Czechoslovakia did not merely derive from Western-European discourses on the author but rather was located in the discourse of Czech national revival and the role that imagination of and knowledge about India had to play in it. The nineteenth century, in Bohemia as in Bengal, was a time of fervent nationalist activity. The Czech national revival within the framework of the Austrian (from 1867 Austro-Hungarian) Empire ran, in many ways, parallel to Bengal Renaissance.
Czechs, as well as other nascent Slav nations in Central Europe, built their national consciousness in opposition to the German cultural hegemony and to the Austro-Hungarian state. As I have argued elsewhere,1 Czech imagination about India did not derive from British or French discourses on the Orient but from and in opposition to German constructions of India. While the British and the French produced a hegemonic discourse about the other and inferior Orientals they actually dominated over,2 the German India scholars, writing in the context of German national resurgence, combined the notion of affinity between Germans and ancient Indians with that of cultural superiority over what was left of India’s past glory, positing Germany as the inheritor of that ancient civilisation.3
The fact that India played an important role in Germany’s claim for a national future did not go unnoticed by Czech revivalists whose effort reflected and countered that of German India scholars. Turning to philology and the newly discovered similarity of Slav languages with Sanskrit they argued that the Slavs’ affinity with India is much closer than that of Germans. This argument developed into an extensive exploration and construction of links between Slav and Indian cultures in the field of language, mythology, and religion and even stimulated such curious experiments as Czech poetry in old Indian metres.4
However, our revivalists were not interested exclusively in India’s past. From an early stage, they were aware of the Bengal Renaissance and the reformist effort of the Brahmo Samaj and related it directly to the struggle of Czechs against German cultural hegemony.5 This situational identification6 based on parallel and coeval struggles of two peoples against foreign oppression ensued in a sense of equality and common destiny.
Tagore was thus received by Czechs not only as purveyor of Oriental wisdom and celebrated writer but also as a cultural ambassador of a brotherly nation. This affinity thesis, consistent with the dominant nationalist discourse about a small nation struggling for, and finally attaining statehood (1918), had remained for long the dominant framework for Tagore’s reception in Czechoslovakia. There were, indeed, other interpretive frameworks with lesser influence, such as that of revolutionary Left or the discourse of occultism and the second Oriental Renaissance, which entered Czech public debate in 1870’s via the reading of Schopenhauer and first Czech treatises on Indian philosophy thereof.7
No less important for reception of Tagore was the early establishment of Indological studies in Prague. Regular courses in Sanskrit started in 1850 and by the end of the century, full-fledged classical Indology departments were already firmly established at both Czech and German Universities. In the first decades of the twentieth century, the scope of research extended to modern Indian languages and literatures.
A periodisation of Tagore’s reception in Czechoslovakia would best follow major ruptures of her modern history. The first period of early responses roughly corresponds with the WWI, that is from the first reactions to the Nobel Prize to the creation of Czechoslovakia (1913-1918). The second period spans the democratic Czechoslovakia from the birth of the country to the beginning of the communist rule (1918-1948), with an intermezzo during the Nazi occupation (1939-1945) when Tagore was banned from the book market due to his anti-fascist position. The third period covers the communist rule (1948-1989) and the fourth lasts since its breakdown in 1989 onwards.
At the time of writing, there were 39 Czech and 7 Slovak translations of Tagore in book form excluding reprints and new editions, large part of them from Bengali originals, and many more individual poems, stories, and thoughts are scattered in various journals. In general, the translations in the first two periods of reception were characterised by an emphasis on reflexive poetry, spiritual aspects, and on humanism vis-à-vis the national sentiment. During the period of communist rule the emphasis shifted to prose, realism, social criticism, and Tagore’s progressive thought. The fourth period revaluated Tagore as a religious thinker.
Early reception (1913-1918)
The news about the Nobel Prize for literature awarded to Rabindranath Tagore were widely publicised in the Czech press, often in connection with the fact that his closest competitor was the Austrian author Peter Rosegger.8 One of the first reports from November 1913, full of factual errors about Tagore, confidently concludes that he “undoubtedly deserved the Nobel Prize (187 000 francs) more than Rosegger.”9 A footnote to the first Czech translation of two Gitanjali poems from December 1913 states that Tagore “as an author and a humanist surely stands much higher than the German writer Rosegger.”10 This fact was again mentioned in first reviews of Czech translations of Gitanjali: “We still vividly remember all that helpless rage of the German press when Rabindranath Tagore drove out the German candidate Peter Rosegger. How many crude jokes they showered on the head of a poet they did not even know.”11 The Rosegger issue was alive even after the WWI in news about Tagore’s prospective visit to Germany or his plays being staged there.
A more knowledgeable report from November 1913 (based on a biography of Tagore by A. C. Bhattacharyya published in Berliner Tageblatt) describes Tagore as “Maharshi, or great saint” and as “Indian national poet,” not “Anglo-Indian poet” as the British press would have had him. The report mentions some of his original Bengali works and praises his educational efforts in Santiniketan. It further states that “Tagore has never been interested in politics at all,” and that his works are “philosophico-religious.” However, he “substantially contributed to boosting of national sentiment of his compatriots.” Tagore is “an Oriental poet with purely Oriental ideas and views, which often differ from European views, in particular regarding the relationship between an individual and the nation.”12 In rare cases Tagore would be labelled as theosophist or neo-Buddhist. Further articles throughout 1914 kept on bringing out news about Tagore’s past and present literary feats. The archives also bear evidence of amateur translations of individual poems by Tagore’s Czech admirers.
The very first published Czech translation of Tagore (Gitanjali 61 and 62, The Gardener 7) came out in a local newspaper in December 1913.13 It was followed by a full book translation of Gitanjali from English in early 1914 by a philosopher, translator, and author of two treatises on Czech nationhood František Balej (1873-1918). The demand was such that it had to be reprinted five times till 1921. Balej also wrote an introduction to his translation and framed it with the theme of Euro-Asian relations emphasising, interestingly for our times, the notion of young Asia rising. Tagore was to him one of the signs of that process: “It is an exciting spectacle. India, exploited by Europe for centuries, pays back in evangelical coin; she sends us a poet, a preacher of love, freedom, joy of life, of unity and equality of all creation,”14 Balej notes. Then he presents translated excerpts of Sadhana, namely on soul, death, and personality, in order to outline Tagore’s worldview without which, he believed, Gitanjali would be less accessible to Czech reader. Finally, he reflects in the form of open-ended questions on the reasons for Tagore’s impact on readers in Europe: Could Tagore have drunk from a source of poetic and spiritual inspiration which is beyond culture and history? Does he remind us of what we have lost in the rush of our technical civilisation? Or is it an effect of underlying unity of humankind?15
A review of this translation16 compared Tagore to Francis of Assisi and his poetry to two Czech symbolist poets, Otokar Březina and Antonín Sova. Especially Březina, influenced by the second Oriental Renaissance, remained the single Czech author deemed closest in spirit and form to Tagore. Importantly, closeness of the two poets, the reviewer argued, proved that “exotic” and “timeless” Tagore was, in fact, very near to our (Czech) heart, that he had a special meaning for us, as if “we” had a privileged access to his thought. This presumption is a leitmotif of Czech discourse on Tagore in the first two periods of reception.
The second book Ukázky poesie i prosy (Examples of Poetry and Prose) was translated directly from Bengali by Vincenc Lesný (1882–1953), an Indologist and founding figure of Bengali studies in Prague. Lesný originally studied languages of ancient India, namely Sanskrit and Pali, but later he became interested also in Hindi, Marathi and Bengali and wrote extensively about social and political affairs in India in the two decades before her independence.17 Lesný exchanged correspondence with Tagore from 1913 and has to his credit that he was the first European translator of Tagore directly from the Bengali originals. Examples of Poetry and Prose were published few months after Balej’s translation. This short book contains 10 poems from the Bengali Gitanjali in verse, a short story The In-Between Woman from Galpaguccha and four excerpts from Sadhana translated from English.
In his introduction written in March 1914, Lesný mentions the reformist and literary activities of the Tagore family including the short story writing of Swarnakumari Debi and locates Tagore’s work in the context of modern Bengali literature, summarising his efforts in various genres. Clearly, Lesný’s goal was to present Tagore as a versatile author of world literature first, and a philosopher second. No mention of a seer or a prophet. Lesný’s academic authority indeed contributed to the fact, that Tagore was interpreted in the Czech discourse largely as a poet and a philosopher and only marginally as a prophet or a seer.18 In fact he systematically countered orientalising interpretations of Tagore and India in general in favour of the affinity thesis.
Nevertheless, his translation came out in an Oriental Library series as number five, being preceded by Parables of Christ, Quran, Talmud, and "Dharm" (Teachings of Buddha). Interestingly, the graphic design of the front cover has the name of the author “Shri Rabindranath Tagore” in a Bengali font. It was reprinted once in 1916 but it did not reach the popularity of the complete Gitanjali. A reviewer of Lesný’s translation who also knew that of Balej concluded on the basis of both that Tagore’s poetry is more prominent by the intensity rather then by the scope of ideas or emotions expressed. The short story was naïve to him.19
The third Czech translator of Tagore, albeit again from English, was Věra Stephanová, “a girl 20 years of age” who asked Tagore to grant her permission to translate his works into “Russian and Bohemian” (i.e., Czech) in a passionate letter dated December 2, 1913.20 Věra Stephanová’s Czech translation of TheGardener appeared in 1914 and five songs were immediately set to music by Josef Bohuslav Foerster (1859-1951) as Milostné písně (Love Songs) op.96. Her translation of TheCrescent Moon was published in 1915 (again in 1920 and 1936). A review of The Crescent Moon compares it to Gitanjali with a gendered metaphor. In the former Tagore “addresses God like a man would speak to man, sometimes longing for him as a friend, sometimes submitting to him as a subject submits to a sovereign wise ruler,” while the latter is a “typical work of a youthful female heart.”21
In 1916 translations of Sadhana and The Gardener by F. Balej further enlarged the access of Czech readers to Tagore. Balej was more precise and rendered The Gardener in what we might call a Biblical style. While Stephanová is less truthful to the original, missing or twisting words at times, she definitely makes Tagore sound more passionate than Balej. Balej’s translation gained immense popularity with seven reprints, the 1930 edition being a bibliophilic one with a print run of only 200 copies.
The initial reception of Tagore was thus based largely on those five collections. The emphasis on contemplative poetry clearly related to the horrors of the WWI. The major Czech publisher of Tagore recollects in late 1930’s: “I cannot miss to mention the great consolation that Gitanjali and Sadhana provided to our Czech soldiers during the World War in their most trying moments when they were leaving for the battlefield. Before the departure of every new contingent of recruits our sales soared.”22 Unlike in the following periods the implicit notions of crisis of European modernity and the rise of Asia influenced Tagore’s reception.23 Nevertheless this period built on the framework set in the nineteenth century and despite possible diversions into an orientalist discourse, the nationalistic interpretation of Tagore prevailed and realised fully once independent Czechoslovakia was established.
Tagore on the national front (1918-1948) This period is the most intensive in terms of direct engagement of Czech public with Tagore and his work. He visited Czechoslovakia twice, in 1921 and 1926, and invited numerous responses from Czech academia and art-world alike. Before his fist arrival, more translations and reviews made him closer to Czech readers. A collection of short stories translated from English by Josef Trumpus appeared in 1919. The next year, The Home and the World,was rendered from English into Czech by Antonín Klášterský (1866-1938), a popular poet and translator of, e.g., William Shakespeare’s Sonnets. One review of The Home and the World termed the novel a “political and national credo of Tagore,” which can also be expressed as an opposition of “nationality versus cosmopolitism” or “Nietzsche versus Jesus.”24 This observation, as I will show later, points to a crucial aspect of Czech reception of Tagore.
Still in 1920 appeared The King of the Dark Chamber, for a larger part translated from English by then already deceased F. Balej, corrected and completed by V. Lesný with regard to the Bengali original. An important theatre critic Václav Tille (1867-1937) published an analysis of the play where he compared Tagore’s efforts in the field of drama to works of another Nobel Prize laureate, a Belgian symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck. Tille appreciated the play as “the latest and the most truthful attempt” to personify on stage “the Mysterious in hands of which Man is a mere doll”. He further credits Tagore for “a more realistic” representation of “the Mysterious” on stage in the form of a character, an attempt going beyond Maeterlinck.25 For Tille, it was the direct engagement with “the Mysterious” and realism of its representation which made Tagore a cutting edge modern dramatist.
Another play, The Post Office, was translated from English in 1921 by Jarmil Krecar (1884-1959), a significant personality of Czech literary decadence movement who was active as a writer, poet, playwright and literary critic.26 It was also the first Tagore play staged in Prague albeit in Russian production by the Moscow Art Theatre in June 4, 1923.27
Still in 1921 a separate translation of Nationalism in the West by L. Haut as well as a complete translation of Nationalism by Vasil Kaprálek Škrach invited many responses.Škrach (1891–1943) was a philosopher, sociologist, and translator, a close associate of the first Czechoslovak president Thomas Garrigue Masaryk. Škrach himself felt compelled to comment upon Tagore’s notion of nationalism in his afterword: “Rabindranath Tagore uses the terms nation and nationalism in a different sense than we usually do. Tagore understands nation to be chiefly an instrument of political, economic and technological civilisation. […] For us, on the other hand, a nation is a natural collective individuality whose members feel the bond of blood, love for the soil and understand fully their cultural community. […] As we can see, Tagore’s opposition to Western nationalism is, in fact, very close to our humanistic nationalism. […] What he actually means by nationalism is Western etatism and imperialism.” The translator struggles to identify Czech nationalism with Tagore’s humanism in order to establish a common front of Czechs and Indians against imperialisms of which the Pan-germanic one he considers the worst of all. Finally, Škrach believes that had Tagore been acquainted with the Czech case “he could have raised many of his arguments with still more justification precisely against Pan-germanic nationalism.” 28
This forced attempt at forging the affinity thesis, however, was not shared, unsurprisingly, by the revolutionary Left. Thus Josef Hora (1891-1945) a notable poet and critic of the interwar period referred to Tagore in his essay Kulturní smysl doby (The Cultural Meaning of our Times). Hora glorifies successes of the revolution in Russia and calls for destruction of bourgeois cultural values and tastes and of the bourgeois notion of nationalism. He further discusses Tagore’s Nationalism and fervently criticises him as a representative of the retrograde religious-minded East as opposed to the progressive East of Russia: “The misery of passivity, the misery of religion that destroys spirit survives today only in the East. Even today there exists a genius preaching to Indians joy of subjugation.” Tagore who “condemned the hydra of nationalism” and “aptly depicted the spiral of poverty encircling the world,” finally,
Writes on behalf of his compatriots suffering under the British whip […] ‘We shall thank God that we were made to wait in silence through the night of despair, had to bear the insult of the proud and the strong man’s burden, yet all through it, though our hearts quaked with doubt and fear, never could we blindly believe in the salvation which machinery offered to man, but we held fast to our trust in God and the truth of the human soul.’29 […] How beautiful human being is this Indian poet! And how bad a citizen! Was blood spilled just for us to pray and wait in mystical ecstasy for future truths? Thanks god not. European blood is more revolutionary than that. There is another East apart from India. There is Russia and the example it gave us.30 The affinity thesis, however, remained the most influential framework for reception of Tagore.
The 1921 also marked the first visit of Tagore to Prague. The poet came on the invitation by Vincenc Lesný whom he met in October 1920 in London31 and Mauriz Winternitz (1863-1937)32 who corresponded with Tagore prior to his visit. Both Indologists were instrumental in presenting Tagore to the Czechoslovak public, Czech and German respectively, and both in turn, accepted Tagore’s invitation to become visiting professors in Santiniketan.33 Another friend who Tagore knew from London and who was going to become an art teacher in Santiniketan was the painter Jaroslav Hněvkovský (1884-1956).34
Tagore arrived to Prague on the morning of June, 18 from Vienna by train and stayed for three days. The poet was felicitated by university dignitaries, scientists and Lord Mayor of Prague. At 11am he already listened to a welcome address by the Rector of Charles University in the convocation hall after which he held a lecture on the religion of Bauls of Bengal and Buddha’s teachings.35 Although general reports say his performance met with great applause, one highly satirical article by a noted literary critic Arne Novák (1880-1939) points to the shock waves that Tagore sent through the more rigid section of the academic audience:
In fact, it was not a lecture, it was a holy ceremony. Great sacrificial and benedictory gestures, chants, none of that was missing. […] If he [Tagore] could observe his surroundings, he would have felt at home: Brahmins and Hanumans sit still on elevated benches of the professorial guild and strike strange poses. They are not amazed, they are not happy. At first, they do not know themselves why, but one thing they know for sure: that the sacred university soil has been abused. A scripture which mortifies will always hate spirit which enlivens. Alas, there is no method here, only intuition; there is no guild, no rank, not even the academic distance, just the monster of personality. The bureaucratic order was taken over, albeit for one hour, by the flash of a genius. Mr. Tagore of India is perhaps wise but for sure he is possessed: he drank the nectar of holy waters, not the content of an inkpot, that’s why he ignores so arrogantly everything – a clear-cut framework, logical procedures, and, what worse, even the university officials and deans. And then the most horrific thing happens: Rabindranath starts singing in the convocation hall.36 Besides the lecture at the Charles University, Tagore also spoke on forest ashrams as centres of learning at the German university in Prague on the invitation of Winternitz. His most successful public appearance, however, was in the largest auditorium in Prague, the Lucerna Hall. The lectures were attended by many eminent personalities including the composer Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) who wrote a passionate article for a local newspaper which included a noted record of the speech melody of Tagore reciting his poems in Bengali. Janáček described it in the following words:
It was not a speech - it sounded like a song of a nightingale, smooth, simple, void of any harshness of the diphthongs. It occurred to me to fall in with a gay chord with the initial sounds of the poem he read out I heard soft harmonious voices or sounds, but it was incoherent to me. The melody kept on falling down in a torrent of tones.37 Janáček wrote his famous male chorus with boy soprano Wandering Madman on the words of The Gardener 66 in 1922. The character of the boy who reveals to the madman that he had found and lost the touchstone struck Janáček deeply; there are even indications that this motif returns in his opera The Cunning Little Vixen (1924). The last lines of the poem are engraved in Janáček’s tombstone. The students of Foerster and Janáček further enlarged the collection of Tagore inspired Czech musical compositions, a collection that has been growing ever since.38
Other personalities who remained deeply impressed by Tagore’s lecture included the most prominent Czech photographer, practitioner of Vajrayana meditation and collaborator of the Theosophical Society, František Drtikol (1883-1961,) who made studio portraits of Tagore during his second visit in 1926, the founder of modern Czech sculpture Josef Václav Myslbek (1848-1922) and painter Max Švabinský (1873-1962) who both were inspired to portray the poet.39 And also Karel Čapek (1890-1938), the most prominent Czechoslovak author of the interwar period, who was instrumental in organising Tagore’s second visit to Prague. Čapek met Tagore privately and observed him with a sympathetic, yet distanced and highly inquisitive eye, as evident from his description of the meeting:
In his grey attire of rough silk this delicate old man looks like Correggio’s God the Father or Moses, or an apostle by an artist from Nazareth. […] His speech is soft and sweet, his silence still sweeter. […] His slightly grey-haired secretary, in keeping with ritual promise, stays away from meat but gulps down open sandwiches with ham. Does he believe it is fish or what? Rabindranath Tagore with hands cupped on his chest seems to pray. One expects a miracle will happen. Instead of a miracle the beautiful old man rises, floats around the room and says his Good Bye in a thin voice. Tomorrow he has a lecture or rather, he sings his poems. When he recites his drama, he utters the female part with a childish high pitch. His whole presence radiates not just an oriental culture of poetry and thought but, and perhaps still more forcefully, a strangely refined culture of aristocratic physical perfection and lived aesthetism which is self-conscious in every movement.40 In the years following Tagore’s first visit further translations appeared. Glimpses of Bengal in 1922, Lover’s Gift and Fruit Gathering in 1923, The Wreck translated from English by Lesný’s wife Milada Lesná-Krausová and The Waterfall translated by V. Lesný from Bengali in 1924. Chitra was translated from English the same year.
In the first Czech production, Tagore’s plays The Post Office and Chitra were staged jointly as The Evening of Rabindranath Tagore (Drama) at the two most prestigious venues in Prague, the National Theatre and the Theatre of Estates. The opening night took place on January 31, 1924 in the latter; however the production invited critical reviews.41 Another five joint performances followed in February the same year. In 1925 Chitra was four times presented along with short plays other than Tagore’s until the last show on March 5, 1925. The last separate performance of the The Post Office was attended by Tagore himself on October 12, 1926.42The Post Office was also staged in 1935 in the Moravian town of Břeclav.
In the meantime Lesný published The Parrot’s Tale as a private print with illustrations of Abanindranath Tagore in 1925 and the next year Lipika, both translated from Bengali. The latter included most of the original stories except those that Lesný thought Tagore himself would have excluded if he presented Lipika to the Western readers.43 The translation of Gora from English by Lesný’s wife, Milada Lesná Krausová, appeared also in 1926. It was the year of Tagore’s second visit to Czechoslovakia, this time on invitation of the Czechoslovak P.E.N. club and its president Karel Čapek.
Tagore came from Berlin on October, 9 and stayed for a week. On the night of his arrival he attended a dinner reception hosted by PEN club in the Municipal House in presence of the Lord Mayor of Prague, government officials, foreign diplomats, literati and the art world. The next day at 10:30am Tagore held a public lecture in the Lucerna Hall. As a newspaper report goes, Tagore, “dressed in a bright red robe,” was introduced by Lesný. Then he was interchangeably reading out his ideas on art and dramatically reciting his poems in a melodious high-pitched voice in Bengali. Both were simultaneously translated into Czech by Lesný. A huge applause called for several more poems and finally Tagore was “besieged by autograph hunting ladies.”44
On October, 11 Tagore lectured and recited for German audience at the Commodity Exchange in Prague where he was introduced and simultaneously translated by Moritz Winternitz. In the evening of October 12 Tagore appeared on the stage of the National Theatre where after an introduction by Lesný he again recited his poems. The second part of the evening was marked by the last show of The Post Office. The following day Tagore accompanied by Lesný, Winternitz and Čapek made a trip to the central Bohemian countryside. In the evening Tagore was paid homage in the New German Theatre by a music programme which included the Lyric Symphony by Alexander von Zemlinsky on the words of The Gardener and by a German production of The Post Office. In the evening of 14 October Tagore delivered his last public speech in Prague on Civilisation and Progress. Before departure to Vienna the next day he bid his farewell to Czechoslovak public on the waves of the national radio.45
The two visits of Tagore marked the peak of interest in the poet. Although news about his travels, successes and health appeared regularly and some of his earlier published works were reprinted, it was not until the late 1930’s that the call for Tagore emerged with new intensity. In 1938 Lesný sent to print a collection of Tagore’s short stories,46 most of which he translated earlier for various periodicals. More important, however are two original books on Tagore which appeared in close sequence. Winternitz published a monograph Rabindranath Tagore: Religion und Weltanschauung des Dichters (The Poet’s Religion and World Vision)47 in 1936 on the occasion of poet’s 75th birthday. In 1937 Lesný published a monograph Rabíndranáth Thákur (Tagore): Osobnost a dílo, which was translated into English under the same title, Rabindranath Tagore: His Personality and Work, with an enthusiastic foreword by C.F. Andrews and published in London in 1939. Czech reviews of Lesný’s monograph were positive, if not laudatory,48 in as much as Lesný was laudatory about Tagore. The poet in turn praised Lesný in a letter written in Bengali on August 5, 1936, reprinted in the monograph, for he “grasped the essence of Bengali language and his works in such a short time” and displayed “a level of comprehension and strength of judgement” that Tagore did not see in any other foreigner.49
However, there are indications that when the English version was being prepared for print Tagore was not so enthusiastic. In a letter to C.F. Andrews dated September 8, 1938, he wrote: “Lesný’s book about me has not been a happy one. I wish he had not allowed it to be translated and published in England.”50 The book did not attract much critical discussion after its publication as nearly the whole print-run burnt down in the bombardment of London. Tagore for his part has never levelled any criticism on Lesný directly. The events in Europe, approaching fast to the conflagration of the WWII, dominated their correspondence in late 1930’s.
Before Czechoslovakia became a victim of Hitler’s expansion, the Czech-German divide escalated and with it resurfaced the idea of Czech-Indian affinity. Tagore expressed solidarity with Czechoslovakia on number of occasions. The most memorable was his response to a peace appeal broadcast on all channels of Czechoslovak Radio on the Christmas Eve of 1937. Karel Čapek read out the message in Czech and Prof. Lesný in English with a few Bengali words at the end. Tagore responded by a cable expressing goodwill and by a poem.51 In response to the Munich agreement Tagore wrote another poem, Prayashcitta, and expressed his condolences to Lesný as well to the President of Czechoslovakia Edvard Beneš. This exchange and Tagore’s strongly anti-fascist position were important for his reception in the following period.
In the WWII years Tagore’s works were proscribed.52 The only Tagore’s translation known to have been published is a samizdat print of the Creative Unity. It was translated from English by O. Jelínek and Luboš Perek, then 25 years of age, who much later became a noted astronomer and a chief of the Outer Space Affairs Division with the UN, it came out just in four copies. Despite the ban, however, the news of Tagore’s death appeared in the Czech press. The short period in between the end of the war and the communist takeover (1945-1948) saw numerous reprints of Tagore’s works. The only new translation was Vasanta by Lesný published serially in 1945-1946 and the very first translation into Slovak of The Home and the World from English appeared in 1946.
Tagore on the cultural front (1948-1989) In the third period of reception, Tagore was presented predominantly as a religious and social reformer, a progressivist and a fighter against superstitious practices, an anti-imperialist yet, at the same time, a critic of those fellow runners who placed the national sentiment over social emancipation of the people. In post-WWII prefaces and afterwords to his translations, his anti-fascist position is often emphasised, including his condemnation of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia.
The years around the birth centenary of Rabindranath Tagore brought extensive editions of his works translated from Bengali originals almost singlehandedly by our greatest scholar in the field of Bengali studies Dušan Zbavitel (1925-2012).53 The first collection, Pouť za člověkem (The Pilgrimage towards Man), published in 1954 contains a selection of poems, Red Oleanders, Kaler Yatra, several short stories, Letters from Russia, several articles and letters. Some were reprinted in the collected works of Rabindranath Tagore in three volumes published in 1958, 1959, and 1960 respectively.
The first volume Básně a veršovaná dramata (Poems and Dramas in Verses) presents a chronologically ordered selection of 162 Tagore poems from 36 original Bengali collections54 and two dramas in verses – Chitrangada and Kaler Yatra. It aimed at demonstrating the development of Tagore’s poetry with emphasis on worldly subjects including social and political issues. The translator kept verses of the original in contrast to earlier translations from English which were invariably in prose. The second volume includes two novels, Gora and Two Sisters. Zbavitel’s Czech translation of Gora was also published separately in a Slovak version in 1960. The third volume under the title Povídky, essaye a projevy (Short stories, Essays and Discourses) consists of 33 short stories selected from Galpaguccha55 followed by My Boyhood Days, Letters from Russia, articles and open letters.56
Reviews of those volumes testify to the fact that perception of Tagore has changed. A reviewer of the first one notes that the interwar period readers appreciated most the philosophical consequences of the idea of internal liberation, which to him was an easy escape route from engagement in a collective action. However, he was confident that “had this been the only aspect of Tagore’s work, the Soviet book market could hardly be stuffed with translations of Tagore’s novels and the volume under review could make it to press either.”57 A 1960 essay reacting to the publication of Gora interprets Tagore as a progressive writer who was nevertheless limited in his “enlightened humanism” and could not see through the ultimate class nature of the conflict depicted in the novel.58 A review of the last volume, albeit sympathetic both to Tagore and his translator, contends with respect to Letters from Russia that Tagore “did not fully understand the complex dialectics of humanism and revolutionary violence.”59
In 1961 Zbavitel published a second Czech monograph on the poet entitled Rabíndranáth Thákur: vývoj básníka (Rabindranath Tagore: The Evolution of a Poet). His appreciation of Tagore is more critical and distanced than was that of Lesný. Zbavitel puts the evolution of Tagore’s poetry and prose systematically in the context of social developments India was undergoing in his lifetime. Zbavitel places highest the aspect of critical realism in his work and presents a transformation of a self-centred lyricist from a privileged background into a socially conscious and politically engaged personality of world literature. He emphasises the impression that the visit to Soviet Russia had on Tagore and its possible influence on the last and most mature decade of the poet’s work. The monograph formed a basis of the two chapters on Rabindranath Tagore in his comprehensive Bengali Literature.60
Still in 1961 Zbavitel translated The Last Poem (which also was recorded as an audiobook in 1979), and The Land of Cards in 1962. In the afterword to the latter Zbavitel emphasises Tagore’s struggle with Brahmanic orthodoxy and casteism, his evolutionary view of history, belief in social progress and the call of youth. The same year a collection of stories for children, from nine years of age as the cover page states, appeared under the title A Garland of Stories. It was a joint translation of Zbavitel and a batch of his students of Bengali from Galpaguccha, Lipika, and Galpasalpa.61
An interesting contribution which fostered and in fact embodied the Czech link with Tagore was an ethnographic memoir Obrázky z Bengálska (Pictures of Bengal) published in 1963 by Milada Ganguli (1913-2000), a Czech lady who married into the Tagore family. She met Mohanlal Ganguli, a grandson of Abanindranath, during her studies in England and joined him as his wife in Jorasanko before the beginning of WWII. Her book is thus an insider’s account and contains memories of Tagore’s last Vasantotsava in Santiniketan.
In the following years Zbavitel provided Czech readership with new translations of The Gardener (1966) and Gitanjali (1973). The form of the latter, the order of poems and their prosaic style, follow the English version but the content is based on Bengali originals of the English Gitanjali. The new translations enjoyed immense popularity and were dramatised in numerous poetry evenings and radio programmes and inspired several composers to set the poems into music. To many those two collections were antidote to the pressures of omnipresent materialist ideology.
The second new translation of The Waterfall from English was published in 1973; however, it did not leave much of a trace. In 1976 Zbavitel translated seven short stories and novellas and published them in a volume Muž a Žena: Sedm novel o lásce a manželství (Manand Woman: Seven novellas on love and marriage).62 With respect to them Zbavitel acknowledges that, “In Tagore’s literary work, especially in prose, his social activism and social critique comes forward,” and “the artistic elements are secondary”.63
This collection has become probably the widest read book of Tagore’s prose in Czechoslovakia. In 1994 it was turned into an audiobook. For nearly twenty years it was the last Czech translation of Tagore. To complete the picture Slovak translations should also be mentioned – Hungry Stones (1961), The Wreck, under this title including The Post Office, Gitanjali, The Gardener (1971) all from English, and, most notably, the only collection of short stories translated from Bengali by Anna Rácová as Osamelý pútnik (Lonely Wayfarer) in 1981. As Czech and Slovak are mutually intelligible, the more numerous Czech translations served the Slovak market as well.
Tagore after the fall of grand narratives (since 1989) The period after the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and the ensuing change of discourse allowed for broader contextualisation of Tagore’s literary and intellectual endeavours. The readers were keen to absorb all what was prohibited and suppressed during the communist regime and in that context a renewed interest in things religious and spiritual emerged. While the nationalist interpretation of Tagore largely fell into oblivion and his progressivist interpretation lost ground with the fall of the regime that produced it, he remains a known figure of world literature and a representative of Eastern philosophical thought, somewhat as if his reception made a full circle.
The first new translation of this period was a collection of Tagore’s non-fiction Duch svobody: Myšlenky, úvahy, vzpomínky (The Spirit of Freedom: Thoughts, Essays, Memories)64 by Zbavitel in 1995. The texts are collected from both English and Bengali originals and their translation reflects the difference in style – vague and sometimes mysterious in the former and precise and rich in the latter.65 In the introduction Zbavitel postulates two major pillars of Tagore’s worldview. First, his rootedness in and creative reinterpretation of the Upanishadic philosophy and second, his dialectic view of life and openness to changes it brings.66 In 1997 the first translation of Fireflies from English appeared, two years later a second edition of The Gardener along with a new translation of The Lover’sgift. Both were recorded as audiobooks in 2002. Gitanjali and The Gardener in Zbavitel’s translation were also turned into Brail books in 2003.
Zbavitel’s successor in the field of Bengali studies Hana Preinhaelterová brought out a collection of two lectures out of the original Sadhana: The Realisation of Life, namely The Problem of Evil and Realisation in Love. In her afterword Preinhaelterová terms him a “practicing philosopher” as opposed to a theorist of philosophy or science. She further emphasises that it was his family ambience where he imbibed the tenets of Upanishads and Buddhism which he later creatively transformed into his own literary works.”67 The last translation so far published is a collection of love poems from the last period of Tagore’s life entitled Na břehu řeky Zapomnění (The River of Oblivion) by Zbavitel which came out in 2005.
Although the structural change of the book market from state-operated to commercial one reduced print-runs of Tagore’s translations and, perhaps, made him less visible among other authors, he does remain as a figure of world literature a part of grammar school curricula. Occasional recitals take place both in the Czech Republic and Slovakia and performances of his poems occur at recitation competitions. Prague has also a street and a neighbouring tram stop named after Tagore (Thákurova). As a curious consequence of the tram stop being located on a frequented route, Tagore’s name got firmly engraved in the minds of countless Prague commuters who would otherwise remain ignorant of the great Bengali poet’s existence.
Tagore also remains a source of inspiration for Czech music composers. Apart from serious music, two recent attempts exemplify well Tagore’s reception in this period. A folk-rock band Kacu! set Tagore’s Gitanjali 69 into tune in their 2009 album O ženských a chlapech, slimákovi a cibuli (On men and women, a snail and an onion).68 Other songs of the album use lyrics by Reiner Maria Rilke or Wisława Szymborska. In a more extravagant example, a Czech world beat band A.D.E. (After Death Experiences), turned one of Haiku poems from the Fireflies collection into a nearly four minutes long song with a video clip which would have surely left Tagore astounded. The song Kéž má láska (Let my Love) is the biggest hit of their 1997 album Babylon:69 “Let my love, like sunlight, surround you and yet give you illumined freedom“, goes the poet. Yet in the hands of rather punkish, Maori-style tattooed performers his idea of non-binding love turns into a Freudian drama, where the words “illumined freedom” are punctuated with a scene of little girl’s doll being snatched and destroyed as in a voodoo ritual.70
Once again, Tagore is interpreted within the context of Eastern mysticism. Both the bands draw from Asian philosophies but this time, instead of juxtaposing East and West, they synthesise a collage where elements of jazz, reggae, Czech folk music, Tagore’s and Rilke’s lyrics and visuals of Maori tattoos fuse, in quite a Rabindric fashion, into a stream of world beat.
Conclusion Each period of reception can be understood in terms of dominant questions which Tagore’s work was invoked to answer. In the period of early reactions his contemplative poetry and interpretation of Indian philosophy were sources of consolation in time of war and presented an alternative to European modernity. In the second period Tagore was entangled into the construction of imagined affinity between a particular Czech national project and his, by nature, cosmopolitan humanist project. Building on Czech perceptions of India in the nineteenth century, such a construction served to confirm that the struggle of an ethnic minority within the Austro-Hungarian Empire against German cultural domination, which resulted in independent statehood, is indeed, an expression and embodiment of greater and global humanist project. In other words, Tagore was sought to bridge our Home with the World. The third period encompassed the affinity thesis to the extent that the communist regime, brought to power in the wake of WWII, encompassed the national agenda. However, the Marxist grand narrative of social progress replaced the nationalist narrative and Tagore was invoked as the torchbearer of that progress. In the last period Tagore is primarily a source of a non-materialist world view. The affinity thesis melted away and Tagore has become one of many such sources beyond our cultural horizon out of which we can draw individual elements to patch the collage of our contemporary existence.