Sheltered among the foliage of St Stephen’s Green stands a monument to a man often referred to as “the Bard of Bengal”.
The bust of Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore is bearded, with deep-set eyes and a cropped hairstyle typical of the time.
Though armless, he wears loose robes atop an engraved stone plinth that bears the dates of his birth and death.
The monument has stood near the Leeson Street entrance to the park since 2011, just a few paces from the James Joyce memorial.
Erected exactly 150 years after Tagore’s birth, and commissioned by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, the bronze bust acknowledges the poet’s literary influence – which was notable not only in Bengal but also in Ireland.
The Bard of Bengal
Rabindranath Tagore (in Bengali, রবীন্দ্রনাথ ঠাকুর) was born in Kolkata, India in 1861. Tagore was the youngest son of a religious leader and reformer, Debendranath Tagore, and began writing poetry at the age of 8.
It was during his third trip to England, in 1912, that Tagore met Irish poet William Butler Yeats. Yeats, already highly regarded himself, was besotted with Tagore’s writing.
“What we have at this meeting is really Yeats’ admiration, which is not spurred on so much by what he is reading […] but actually by what he is expecting even before he has met Tagore,” says Malcolm Sen, an assistant professor at the College of Humanities and Fine Arts at University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Yeats is “expecting what an Indian poet might be. Somebody who is highly spiritual, into the mystical arts,” says Sen. Yeats’ impressions of Tagore as a quintessential “mystical” Eastern poet were a touch overstated.
Nevertheless, Yeats passed on Tagore’s writing to others and even arranged to have his translated work The Post Office, about a boy with a vivid imagination and an incurable illness, performed live at The Abbey Theatre.
For the introduction of Tagore’s English-translated work Gitanjali (Song Offerings, 1912), Yeats wrote, “I have carried the manuscript of these translations about with me for days, reading it in railway trains, or on the top of omnibuses and in restaurants.”
The Irish poet wrote that he had become so overwhelmed by his contemporary’s work that he’d had to put away the manuscript, “lest some stranger see how much it moved” him.
There is a view that the translations Yeats read were imperfect and further fed into his mythologising of Eastern artistry.
“The translations cannot be read in the secular way that they can be read in the Bengali original. […] As soon as those poems are fit to the English language, they kind of fill in the blanks of Orientalism,” says Sen.
Derek Hand, head of the School of English at Dublin City University, says that “Yeats was always looking for inspiration beyond the metropolitan centres of London or Paris.”
“Certainly, a lot of modernist writers at this time were keen to make links between their work and the work of other cultures and places,” says Hand.
One year after the English translation of Gitanjali, Tagore became the first non-European to win a Nobel Prize.
After he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Tagore wrote Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1916), a novel that contextualised the independence movement in India and highlighted a chasm between the duties of home and the demands of external influences.
This can be seen as an expression of Tagore’s ambivalence regarding his success in the Western world and his duties to the changing political climate in his home country.
“To worship my country as a god is to bring a curse upon it,” he wrote in the novel, which would later inspire filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s 1984 film, Ghare Baire.
Tagore was knighted for his contributions to literature, but renounced the honour in 1919 in protest at the massacre of hundreds of people by the British Indian Army at Amritsar.
Less than a century later, in 2007, a street in Chanakyapuri, Delhi was named after Eamon de Valera, who’s nearly as central to Irish politics as Tagore is to Bengali literature. A reciprocal gesture was needed and Rabindranath Tagore wasn’t far from people’s minds.
Tagore “is equivalent to Shakespeare. He is equivalent to W.B. Yeats. He is highly regarded,” said Prashant Shukla, chief executive of the Ireland India Council, which among other things runs events that celebrate India’s place in Irish culture.
Shukla says that, after the street-naming in Delhi, the council brought up the idea of a statue of Tagore in 2009 and again in 2010.
In 2011, 150 years after Tagore’s birth, then Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and India’s Minister for External Affairs, Preneet Kaur, unveiled the statue of the poet in St Stephen’s Green.
A gift from the Indian government, the statue was the work of award-winning sculptor Gautam Pal.
Pal may actually be the foremost artist specialising in busts of Rabindranath Tagore. He created 29 foreign installations of Tagore statues between 1992 and 2010.
Born in December 1949 into a family of traditional artists in Krishnagar in West Bengal, Pal watched his grandfather make miniature clay models and his father make portrait sculptures.
“My interest in art developed from my childhood,” he said, by email.
Berlin has the most statues of Rabindranath Tagore created by Gautam Pal, with four original works commissioned over the course of four years (2003-7).
The only public figure that Pal has crafted more than Tagore is Mahatma Gandhi, who he sculpted for foreign consumption 47 times over two decades, from 1987 to 2009. His first Gandhi statue was installed in Moscow.
It takes about 100 days to make a bust, he says, from the clay modelling to the bronze casting.
“Delicacies of Colour”
Dublin isn’t the only city in Ireland to boast a statue of the polymath. For the 150th anniversary of W.B. Yeats’ birth, Sligo received its very own bust of Tagore.
Yeats spent many of his childhood holidays in Sligo and referenced it often in his work. In 2015, a statue similar to the one in St Stephen’s Green was unveiled as a gift from the ambassador of India to Ireland.
Yeats once wrote that Tagore’s work was full of “untranslatable delicacies of colour”. Perhaps that is why he championed Tagore’s writing so passionately and so wholeheartedly.
“Tagore also knew Ezra Pound and George Bernard Shaw, but none of them reacted the way Yeats did. It’s quite iconic,” says Sen.
[UPDATE: this article was updated on 13 October at 16:40 to include more details about the artist Gautam Pal.]