Celebration as polymath comes out of shadows

Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore
Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore
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World renowned scholar Dr William Radice is in Bradford tonight. Nick Ahad spoke to him.

If you have even the vaguest interest in South East Asian arts, the only place to be tonight is Bradford.

The reason this can be said so confidently is because not only is there a performance of a dance piece based on the work of perhaps the greatest Bengali writer in history, but the world’s leading scholar of his work will be in town to talk about his life and writing.

Rabindranath Tagore is a name that may not trip off the tongue, nor be widely recognised, but back in 1913 he became the first non-European Nobel laureate by earning that year’s Prize in Literature.

Dr William Radice is a renowned poet and writer, who also happens to be the world’s leading translator of Tagore. Tonight Dr Radice is in Bradford, at the invitation of arts organisation Kala Sangam, to talk about the significance of the Tagore canon.

“There are those who are aware of and admire his work, mainly as a result of the Nobel Prize, but the British literary establishment doesn’t have the respect for him an author of his stature deserves,” says Dr Radice. “It’s mainly because the translations of his work have not stood the test of time. Early translations showed him to be a mystical poet, which isn’t really the case when you read the original Bengali, unfortunately that view has remained entrenched. It is slowly beginning to change with new translations.”

What Dr Radice modestly neglects to mention is that he is the man responsible for “the battle against the literati’s view of his work”, as the scholar who has been, for some years, the leading translator of Tagore’s work. As a teenager, Dr Radice had seen the movies of the great Bengali director Satyajit Ray and before going to read English at Oxford spent a year in India. While at university, he became interested in the politics of the Asian subcontinent during Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971 and after finishing his degree went on to study Bengali at the University of London.

In learning the language he began to read the work of Tagore, untranslated and realised his reputation had not been best preserved.

“People may be familiar with Tagore’s most recited work, Unending Love, which tends to be read at weddings, but it is partly because of that he is accused of lacking intellectual backbone,” says Dr Radice.

“At his best, his virtuosity, technique and intellectual rigour jump off the page.”

An evening of poetry and dance at Kala Sangam, St Peter’s House, Bradford, 7pm tonight. Tickets are free, but can be booked on 01274 303340.

Poet, novelist, playwright

Rabindranath Tagore was born in Calcutta, in 1861. He travelled to England in 1878 to study law, but returned home to pursue a career as a writer.

His first book in English, Gitanjali, was published in 1912. It was highly regarded and led to him being awarded the Nobel Prize. His work includes poetry, plays and prose.