Tagore and France I india and France

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Tagore and France

I - India and France

The relations between India and France started at least in the seventeenth century when several French travellers went to India and even stayed at the court of the Great Moghuls. After visiting several places in the country, they wrote interesting travelogues on their return. The philosopher-physician François Bernier (1620- 1688) was a most cultured man, and the narration of his stay in India between 1659 and 1669 is a remarkable book still appreciated to-day by historians. His Voyage dans les Etats du Grand Mogol was published from 1670 in several parts. Its first English translation appeared remarkably early in 1671-72 in London and was constantly reprinted. The last French edition came out in 1981. The second important traveller is Jean-BaptisteTavernier, a trader in precious stones (1606- 1689), whose travelogue Les six voyages de Jean-Baptiste Tavernier was published in 1677. The next batch of travellers in India who wrote accounts of their stays were the catholic missionaries, mostly in South India. The Lettres édifiantes, written all along the eighteenth century by a number of Jesuits, added to the knowledge of India. Father Coeurdoux écrivit an important text which appeared under the name of Abbé Dubois. Between the two sets of travellers, France had lost all her possessions in India, except the five « comptoirs » with Pondichery, and also Chandernagore in present day West Bengal.

Anquétil-Duperron (1731-1805) translated from the Persian edition made for Dara Shekoh, fifty Upanishads under the title Oupnekhat. in 1801-02. The teaching of Sanskrit started in Paris in 1803, thanks to the presence of A. Hamilton, back from India, and of Antoine-Léonard de Chézy. F. Schlegel began learning the language in Paris. En 1815, the Chair of Sanskrit was created in Paris at the College de France, the first in Europe. Léonard de Chézy (1774-1832) was the first to occupy it. The Asiatic Society of Paris was established in1821, the first after that of Calcutta. Eugène Bournouf, who succeeded in 1833 to Chézy at College de France, published the first Dictionnaire classique sanscrit-français in 1866, after his Grammaire sanscrite in 1859. A second Chair of Sanscrit was introduced in 1968. Bergaigne became its first professor.

Rammohun Roy (1772-1833) whose works and pubblications were known to the French through several publications in Revue encyclopédique and in Journal Asiatique was made Associate Member of the French Société Asiatique  in 1824. In Calcutta, he met the very gifted young traveller Victor Jacquemont who wrote movingly about the great Bengali. When he came to Paris in 1832, Rammohun Roy met Garcin de Tassy who was teaching hindustani at the Ecole des Langues Orientales, and also Chézy, translator of Sacountalâ. Rammohun Roy was introduced to King Louis-Philippe with great honour. Garcin de Tassy wrote his famous Histoire de la littérature hindoue et hindoustanie en 1839. In 1833, the year of Rammohun’s death, Loiseleur-Deslongchamps published his translation of Manusmriti. The translation of the Bhâgavata-purâna by Eugène Burnouf appeared in several volumes from 1840 till 1884. In 1844, he published his seminal Introduction à l’histoire du Bouddhisme.

In the literary circles also, during the last years of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth, there is a great interest for the Orient, in general, and India, in particuler : Victor Hugo published Les Orientales, Bernardin de Saint- Pierre wrote  La chaumière indienne, and Paul et Virginie. Balzac published his esoteric novel Louis Lambert, Théophile Gautier wrote L’avatar. Gérard de Nerval made a French adaptation of Mricchakatika which was put on the stage in 1850. Chateaubriand and the major Romantic poets such as Vigny, and Lamartine, and later Baudelaire and Mallarmé, had all read about India, and added this dimension most of the time with wonder.

II – Tagore and France

Before the Nobel

Tagore’s acquaintance with French literature was possibly through his elder brother Jyotirindranath, the translator of Molière in Bengali. At the age of seventeen, when Rabindranath was going to England to study in the British capital, he disembarked at Brindisi and, from there, by train, went to Paris. His first reaction was positive, and he wrote: « What a wonderful city!» He could only stay one day. Yet he had a memorable Turkish bath and got a glimpse of the International Exhibition that was taking place that year. His Yurop-prabasir Patra bears witness to his discovery of the West. In 1890 he went again to London by the same route. At the time of his second visit, he was already a mature poet. Besides he was married and the father of two children. He wrote this time his Yurop-Yatrir Dayary from the day he left Bombay. On his way to England from Italy, he appreciated the French countryside. From the window of his train, the sight of a mountain stream evoked in him an interesting judgment on the French mentality, about which he knew very little, if at all, at that time: « This mountain stream is like the French: quick, restless, enthusiastic, fond of fun and sweet-tongued. But it is much purer and child natured than them.» i ( Rabindra Racanavali, vol. 10, pp. 392-93) He had something to say about the relationship of the French with their countryside, particularly in the mountains. He wrote: « Each patch is a witness to the efforts of man. There is nothing surprising in the love that these people have for their country. By their care they have made their country theirs. Here, since a long time, men have an understanding with nature, there is constantly an exchange between them, and they are bound in an intimate relationship.» (2) (Ibid. p.393) He stopped for one day in Paris and went to see the newly built Eiffel Tower. Taking the lift he went up to the top floor. The view of the city from above impressed him and he wrote to his wife about his visit.

These two very short stays in Paris gave him an idea of the place and of some of its inhabitants, but it was much later, in 1920, that he really discovered the city and made friends.

The Nobel Prize and after

In April 1913, a journalist, J.H. de Rosen, was the first to write an article on the Bengali poet in the literary review called La Revue. He added his own translation into French of fifteen poems taken from the English Gitanjali (3). Rosen showered praises on Tagore who, according to him, was the hero of a new era in literature. “Rabindranath, he wrote, is candid like a child, profound like a sage and humble as a saint.” In December 1913, the same La Revue announced the attribution of the Nobel Prize to the poet and, happy to have been the first in France to praise the author of Gitanjali, wrote: “ The Hindu poet, Rabindranath Tagore… is a mystic of an unparalleled elevation of thought and a wonderful wealth of images.” (4) The first literary critics, totally ignorant of Bengali and, more generally, Indian literary traditions, found it easier to call him a second Saint Francis of Assisi than to speak of him and his work in literary terms as a poet.

One year before the attribution of the Nobel, Saint-John Perse (1887-1975) who was to become a major poet and a senior diplomat, happened to be in London at the time when Tagore showed his own translation of Gitanjali to a small number of British intellectuals and artists. The Frenchman read in a newspaper two poems by Rabindranath that W.B. Yeats had quoted in an article. Later, he read a few more “on proofs”, so he said, as he was slightly acquainted with Mr. Fox-Strangways, a musicologist whom Tagore trusted and who was instrumental in getting Gitanjali published by the India Society of which he was the Secretary. Saint-John Perse became very eager to meet the Bengali poet and wrote to him a letter in his rather poor English asking if he could go to see him and “bow to him”. The letter is kept in Rabindra Bhavan. Fox-Strangways had given him a letter of introduction for the Bengali poet. Rabindranath welcomed Saint-John Perse “in a charming way”. The conversation between the 25 year-old Frenchman and the mature poet must have been pleasant and might have touched the subject of the Gitanjali’s translation into French. After the meeting, Saint-John Perse wrote to André Gide (1859-1951), already an established prose writer, on October 23, 1912: “ The Nouvelle Revue Française, instead of serving Arnold Bennett, would do better to be the first in Europe to serve the work of Rabindranath Tagore. An English translation, prepared by himself, which will appear in a fortnight is the only poetical work written in English for a long time.” (5) Saint-John Perse Oeuvres completes, p. 781) In another letter to Gide, in December 1912, he wrote again: “ As for Rabindranath Tagore, whom a very great glory awaits in England, I shall bring him to you, this summer, or I shall take the liberty of sending you this living person (ce vivant): a great old man on a pilgrimage, of a delicate charm and of a very solid distinction.” (6 ) (Ibid.) In January 1913, he writes again: “Tagore’s work is beautiful… You are probably the only person in France to know, at this moment, this little book, and I will write for you to Tagore: when we parted in London he had not given his rights to any one.” (7) (Ibid. p. 782) Probably in July 1913, Perse wrote to Tagore another letter, from Paris this time and in French, to ask if the rights for translating Gitanjali into French could be given to André Gide who “ on his own, gave expression to his strong desire to do the translation”. Perse had given to Gide his personal copy of the India Society edition and he informed Tagore that the great novelist had already started to translate it. The Frenchman took great pain to impress upon Tagore the importance of Gide as a writer and as the editor of the Nouvelle Revue Française. He wrote:” His intention would be to publish it at first in a (literary) review to reach a greater number of readers, then, immediately afterwards, in a book, at the most advantageous conditions for you, as André Gide has no financial interest at stake.” (Letter kept in Rabindra Bhavan). The French, as well as Tagore himself, can thank Saint-John Perse for his convincing plea. The Bengali poet had no idea of the French literary scene and was ready to give the rights of translation to unknown and much inferior candidates. In his letter, Perse, underlined the importance of a good translator for the success of a literary work. He put forward the example of Baudelaire, translating Poe.

At that time, in Paris, there was a stiff competition for publishing “good literature” between two literary reviews: the Nouvelle Revue Française and the Mercure de France. Gide and Saint-John Perse were on the side of the first. During the years 1912-13, the Mercure de France was better placed as far as English literature was concerned because of the presence of Henry-D. Davray, who was H.G. Wells’s translator. He was regularly writing a chronique in this periodical. In fact, in August 1913, Davray published in Mercure de France, under the title “A Hindu Mystic Rabindranath Tagore”, a long article accompanied with the translation from the English Gitanjali of 54 poems or excerpts of poems due to one Miss Weithermer. Davray who quoted a long passage from W.B. Yeast’s foreword to the Macmillan edition, introduced Tagore as a mystic and ended by saying: “ Whatever may be the literary quality of these poems, their value is mainly due to the reach and the depth of their thought, to the strange purity of their meaning, to the infinite power of their lyricism.” (8 ) (p. 698)

André Gide was very displeased by this publication without copyright. On the whole, the story of the attribution to Gide of the translation rights for Gitanjali was not as simple as Saint-John Perse had thought. After Gide finally obtained the exclusive rights for the French translation of the Gitanjali, he worked on the text with eagerness. In November 1913, in his Journal (Diary), he wrote that a secretary came to him every morning to take down in stenography what he dictated, and then, in the afternoon, typed what she had taken down.

On December 4, 1913, Gide gave a lecture on Tagore and the Gitanjali at the Théâtre du Vieux Colombier. He used the text of this speech as the introduction to L’Offrande lyrique, as he called Gitantali. In 1914, Gide obtained the rights for translating The Post Office, and he did the translation during the month of July of the same year. Gide was eager to obtain from Macmillan the rights to translate all the future books by Tagore, and, precisely, The Gardener and The Crescent Moon. Marie Sturge Moore, the wife of Sturge Moore, the poet who was Tagore’s friend, was already doing the work for The Crescent Moon but she had not found a publisher. After the war, Gallimard wanted to publish Mrs Sturge Moore’s translation that Gide found mediocre. She accepted a few corrections as suggested by Gide. The book came out in 1924 only.

In his lecture, printed as the introduction to L’Offrande lyrique, Gide, after a few critical notes (it is a small book, made of bits and pieces without a structure) presented the subject of the book as a mystical journey. He writes: “What I admire here, what fills me with tears and laughters, it is the passionate animation of this poetry, which makes of the brahmanical teaching – that one could have thought so intellectual, so abstract – something so quivering, so rustling, like a sentence of Pascal’s Mystery of Jesus- but here trembling with joy.” (9) (pp. 17-18) He appreciated the pantheistic feeling of universal life. “The joy that Tagore teaches, it is precisely beyond Maya that he finds it.” (10) (p.19) He gave much importance to the philosopher behind the poet. He quoted several passages from Sadhana to elucidate the meaning of particular poems. He ended by his greatest compliment: “ All the last poems of the Gitanjali are in praise of death. I do not think that I know, in any literature, a more solemn and more beautiful accent.” Yet, though a few articles mentioning the publication appeared, in 1914, in la Critique indépendante, la Phalange and l’Art moderne, nothing more came out later.

On January 9, 1914, Gide informed Macmillan that he was starting to translate Tagore’s lectures, delivered in 1912 at Harvard, that appeared in English as Sadhana. At first, he wrote that he would like to publish only some portions of it in a literary review, but added:” I feel that I may be drawn to translate the whole volume, because I am greatly interested by this work.” Surprisingly, he did not do any of it. Three months only after this letter, he wrote again to Macmillan to inform them that he was too busy with other works and so gave up his rights on the other French translations of Tagore’s books, with the sole exception of The Post Office of which he finished the translation in 1916 only. When he received Nationalism he wrote to Macmillan that he had partly read it and found it “ very interesting”, but he did not wish to translate it nor did he want the NRF to publish it. André Gide, in his Journal (Diary), rarely mentions the poet. When he does, it is just to say that he is working on the translation, either of the Gitanjali or of the Post Office, but nothing more than that. After the First World War, it seems that Gide lost interest in Tagore’s writings. In his Journal, in 1918, he wrote: “ Read the Reminiscences by Tagore. But this Indian Orient (Orient des Indes) is not made to suit me.” (11) (Journal, p. 644) He met Tagore in 1921 and, after the visit, he told a lady friend of his “He is exquisite!”

After the Nobel Prize, a number of French translations were published. The poet, himself, translated quite a few of his poems into English. It is on the basis of these that the French books appeared.

  • L’Offrande lyrique, NRF 1913 ; Poésie Gallimard 1979. avec La corbeille de fruits.

  • Le jardinier d’amourLa jeune lune, NRF, 1920 ; Poésie Gallimard, 1980.

  • Amal et la lettre du roi, NRF, 1922 ; 1962.

  • La maison et le monde, 1921 ; Payot poche 1986.

  • La fugitive – Poèmes de Kabir, NRF, 1922 ; 1986.

  • Souvenirs, 1924, NRF. 1986, 1991.

  • Cygne, 1923, Stock.

  • Nationalisme, Editions Delpeuch, 1924.

  • La religion du poète, Payot, 1924.

Ten years after the Nobel, of all these publications, including collections of poems, plays, novels and essays, only one Cygne (Balaka) was translated from Bengali by Kalidas Nag and the poet Pierre-Jean Jouve. The poems are rendered in prose. In the following years, from 1925 to 1930, the pattern is about the same. The translations include one volume of short stories, two novels , two plays and one collection of poems. All, except La Machine are translated from English. The translation of A quatre voix is the work of Madeleine Rolland, Romain Rolland’s sister, and the volume contains an introduction by Romain Rolland himself.

- Mashi, NRF, 1925.

  • A quatre voix, Edition du Sagittaire, 1925.

  • Le cycle du printemps, Stock, 1926.

  • Le naufrage, NRF, 1929.

  • La Machine, 1929, Rieder .

  • Lucioles, Feuilles de l’Inde.Ophrys , 1930.

From 1931 onwards, the number of new publications is somewhat reduced. One notices also the absence of collections of poems. The translations are all from English :

- Lettres à un ami, Rieder, 1931.

  • La religion de l’homme, Rieder, 1933.

  • Kacha et Devayani, Editions : Ophrys, 1950.

  • Sadhana, Maisonneuve, 1940 ; Albin Michel, 1956.

  • Chitra, Ophrys, 1945.

  • En ce temps-là, Ophrys, 1950.

  • Souvenirs d’enfance et de jeunesse, Ophrys, 1950.

In 1961 was celebrated all over the world the centenary of the poet. Both governments, Indian and French, were keen to see that much was done to rekindle the public interest for Tagore’s works. New translations were made :

- Gora, Robert Laffont, 1961.

  • Oeuvres poétiques, Club du meilleur livre, 1961.

  • Vers l’homme universel, Gallimard, 1964, 1986.

  • Le vagabond et autres histoires, Gallimard, 1962, 1983, 2002.

  • Souvenirs d’enfance, NRF, 1964 ; 1985.

Gora was translated from English but revised by a Bengali knowing Jesuit father. The last two were translated from Bengali by two persons knowing both languages. Most of the earlier publications were not allowed to disappear from the bookshops, and new impressions, if not new editions, were brought out.

Later, and to date, new French translations came out : from English :

  • La demeure de la paix (Santiniketan). Paris, Stock, 1998.

and from the original Bengali :

  • Epousailles et autres histoires, Editions Le Félin, 1989.

  • L’esquif d’or, Connaissance de l’Orient, Gallimard, 1997.

  • La petite mariée (Suivi de) Nuage et soleil. Paris, Gallimard, 2004.

  • Quatre chapitres, Zulma, 2005.

  • Histoires de fantômes indiens. Paris, Editions Cartouche, 2006 ; Arléa, 2008

  • L’écrin vert. Paris, Gallimard, 2008.

  • Charulata (Nastanidh). Paris, Zulma, 2009.

  • Trois Générations (Yogayog), Paris, ?

The collection of Tagore writings in French is impressive but, since some major works were published long ago from English, it is difficult to get them translated anew from the original Bengali. The publishers would not be interested to cast aside their previous publications for new ones.

Centenary Celebrations

In 1961, a great number of cultural programmes were organized by the National Committee for the the Celebration of the Centenary of the Birth of the Poet, under the patronage of the Minister of Cultural Affairs, the well-known André Malraux, the Minister of External Affairs and the Minister of Education, and with the cooperation of the Indian Government, its Embassy in Paris and the Unesco. A volume was published, Hommage de la France à Rabindranath Tagore, with the contributions of, among others : Saint-John Perse, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature, Buddhadeva Bose, Louis Renou and Jean Filliozat, both famous Indologists, Alain Daniélou, and Philippe Stern, Director of Musée Guimet. Many programmes were organized in Paris and in the other major cities : Tagore plays, films, songs and lectures.

Songs by Rabindranath

Rabindranath ‘s songs received a first attention with a transcription of twenty-six songs done by Arnold A. Bake accompanied with a litteral translation of the texts. The volume, entitled Chansons de Rabindranath Tagore, was published in Paris by P. Geuthner in 1935. Alain Daniélou transcribed several melodies of the poet for voice and piano. Another volume, called Poèmes chantés, with transcription, translation and adaptation for voice and piano, by M. de Maule, came out Paris, in 2005.


A number of musical pieces were composed on Rabindranath’s poems. The Department of Music in the Bibliothèque nationale gives a list of fourteen. Darius Milhaud, in 1916, composed the music on four poems. Three melodies by Rabindranath Tagore with texts in French and English, transcripted by Alain Daniélou, were published in 1961 by Ricordi. In 2005, a number of poems by Rabindranath, transcripted, translated and adapted for voice and piano by Alain Daniélou, were also published in Paris by M.de Maule.


In 1919, Sacrifice in a French version by Henri Odier was played at Geneva under the direction of George Pitoëff. Pitoëff played the part of Raghupati. Georges Pitoëff also directed Amal et la lettre du roi in André Gide’s translation, with the music by Darius Milhaud in Paris, in 1936, at the Théâtre des Mathurins. In 1961 and 1962, The Post Office was on the stage of Théâtre de l’œuvre and of Théâtre Hébertot. The play Chitra et Arjuna was put up at Centre Mandapa in Paris in 1987, under the direction of Gérard Rougier.


In 1966, at the 20th Festival d’Avignon, Cygne with a choreography by Maurice Béjart was put up by the famous Ballet du XXe siècle.


The first ever exhibiition of Tagore’s paintings took place in Paris at Galerie Pigalle in May 1931. On this occasion a catalogue was printed with a foreward written by Comtesse de Noailles. A few very positive reviews appeared in the press. In 1961, on the occasion of the poet’s centenary, an exhition of photographs took place at Bibliothèque nationale in Paris and a catalogue was printed with an introduction by Professor Jean Filliozat. Besides, in 1962, came out an hommage to Rabindranath Tagore, entitled Hommage de la France à Rabindranath Tagore pour le centenaire de sa naissance, 1961. In 2012, an exhibition of paintings by Rabindranath took place at Petit Palais, in Paris, on the occasion of the hundred-fiftieth birth anniversary of the poet.

Studies on Rabindranath Tagore

Two studies devoted to Tagore were aimed at introducing the man and his works to school children. Both were entitled  : Introduction à Tagore. They were written by Marie-Louise Gommès and were published respectively in 1942 and 1947. With the same objective, François Chan presented a Rabindranath Tagore, 1861-1941. Textes et documents pour les enseignements du 2è degré, Paris, 1965. In 1921, Léandre Vaillat wrote Le poète hindou, Rabindranath Tagore and published it in Paris. P. Chaize-Borel wrote an article Sur le mysticisme oriental de Rabindranath Tagore. Interestingly, it was published in Paris by « la Famille théosophique » in 1923.

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