Stories behind 1913 Nobel Literature Award
Subrata Kumar Das
In 1913, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was the first non-European to receive it. His coming by the Nobel created much excitement not only in India but outside it as well. Rabindranath, not at all known outside India before the publication of his Gitanjali in its English version in November 1912 from London, made millions of people sit up and take notice of him through the prize. William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), a reputed Irish poet even before 1913 and eventually a Nobel laureate himself, in 1923, was a great admirer of Rabindranath during his Gitanjalidays, though he did not rejoice at the declaration of the Nobel Committee on November 13, 1913. A study of Nobel nominations will perhaps give us an idea of the process involved. On 10 December every year the year’s laureate has to receive the prize and deliver a lecture. Very recently the web site of the Nobel Committee released a wealth of information that gives us a fresh perspective on the Nobel process itself.
Let us take a look at the nominations for Nobel Literature Prizes from India and Bangladesh from 1901 to 1950. A name that was sent up five times, the highest in our perspective, was that of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975), the noted philosopher. He was nominated in the five years between 1933 and 1937 by Hjalmar Hammarskjold, a member of the Swedish Academy. Additionally, between those years there were some more nominations — for Devadatta R Bhandarkar, a professor of History and Sanskrit at Calcutta University by Hari Mohan Banerjee in 1936, for instance. In the following year the name of Satyendranath Sen, a professor of Literature, was put forth by Bensadhar Majumdar. In 1938, Sanjib Chaudhuri was nominated by Professor Mahmoud Hasan of Dhaka University. Sanjib Chaudhuri obtained a second nomination in 1939 from Professor K R Danungo of the Department of History, Dhaka University. Mukundadeb Chatterjee nominated Bensador Mazumder in 1939 for the second time. In 1939, Sri Aurobindo was proposed by Francis Younghusband, member of the Royal Society of Literature, London. But before all these nominations came the name of Roby Datta (1883-1917) from two individuals, Raya Yatindra N Choudhury of the Bengal Academy of Literature and Mano M Gangedy of Indian Royal Asiatic Society of London. It may be mentioned here that Roby Datta’s Echoes from East and West, published from Cambridge University in 1909, included eleven poems and songs of Rabindranath. It is interesting that Rabindranath never proposed a name for the Nobel from India or from any other country, though he obtained the right to nominate after winning the prize in 1913.
It is a well-known fact that among the eighteen members of the Nobel Literature Committee, only the Orientalist Esaias Henrik Vilhelm Tegner (1843-1928) knew Bangla. Save for him, Gitanjalicould make no impression on the other members. But one person who was most impressed was Verner von Heidenstam (1859-1940), a well known poet of Sweden later awarded the Nobel in 1916. It is generally less known that Heidenstam also was nominated in the year 1913 beside Rabindranath. It is noteworthy that his name had earlier been proposed in 1909, 1911 and 1912 and afterwards in 1915 too. In 1913, Heidenstam’s name was proposed by Fredrik Wulff, a reputed professor and linguist of Sweden. Wulff proposed the name of another Swedish writer, Sven Hedin, (1865-1952) as well. Heidenstam, a poet senior to Rabindranath, was deeply impressed by Gitanjali.
Now let us take a look at the case of W. B Yeats, who attained the Nobel in Literature for 1923. Many people, with and without hesitation, easily suggest that it was Yeats who polished the text of Gitanjali as a result of which the work was able to draw the attention of the Nobel Committee. Yeats’ name was first proposed for the Nobel in 1902. He was subsequently nominated in 1914, 1915, 1918 and 1921. In 1922, the Nobel Committee itself proposed his name, to no avail. In the following year, 1923, again the committee made the proposal. This time Yeats triumphed.
Noted individuals and organisations propose nominations to the Nobel Committee. Among the latter, one has been the Royal Society of Literature in England. In 1913, the Society proposed the name of the noted British poet and fiction writer Thomas Hardy (1840-1924). As an individual member of the society, T. Sturge Moore proposed the name of Rabindranath Tagore. He wrote to the Secretary of the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm:
As a Fellow of the Royal Society of the United Kingdom, I have the honour to propose the name of Rabindra Nath Tagore as a person, qualified, in my opinion, to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
T Sturge Moore.’
Moore’s letter was the only document on the basis of which a judgment on Rabindranath could be made. The work before the committee was Gitanjali. The other books that were taken into consideration included Glimpses of Bengali Life, an anthology of the stories of the poet done by Rajaniranjan Sen, a teacher and advocate from Chittagong. The other books were The Gardenerand The Crescent Moon.
Ninety-seven members of the Royal Society proposed the name of Hardy. To evaluate this from a non-partial point of view, we have to browse the case of Hardy in the Nobel context. Indeed, Hardy’s name was put up in nomination the highest number of times – in 1910, 1911, 1912, 1913, 1922, 1923, 1924, 1925, 1926 and 1927. Regrettably, though, he could not bag the Nobel.
In 1912, an important name that came up was of George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950). In the same year another writer, James G. Frazer (1854-1941), was suggested as a probable winner. In 1913 the littérateurs who got nominations from the United Kingdom included John Morley (1838-1923), John L Lord Avebury (1834-1913) and Francis C Welles. The name of Welles was proposed by a professor and writer of his own Carveth Read. Frazer’s name was proposed by George A Macmillan, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. It is a proof that an individual member did have the right to propose a name as was in the case of T. Sturge Moore who sent the name of Rabindranath.
The twenty-eight names proposed in 1913 included those of Grazia Deledda (1875-1936) and Anatole France (1844-1924), who are known figures to Bengali readers. Though Deledda got the prize in 1926, except for 1916, her name was proposed every year between 1913 and 1925. On the other hand, Anatole France got the prize in 1921 though his name was nominated in 1904, 1909, 1910, 1911, 1912, 1915 and 1916. Beginning in 1902, Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) was nominated five times. The Nobel was never to be his, though.
The competitors during Rabindranath’s time who got double nominations: one was Carl Spitteler (1845-1924) of Switzerland, Deledda of Italy, Pierre Loti (1850-1923) and Ernest Lavisse (1842-1922) of France. Spitteler won the prize in 1919 after getting nominations in 1912 to 1918. Karl A Gjellerup (1857-1919) from Denmark is one of the most noted ones whose name was nominated in 1913. Gjellerup got nominations six times from 1911 to 1916 and got the prize in 1917.
Henri Bergson (1859-1941) of France got the prize in 1927 after getting nominations in 1912, 1913, 1914, 1915, 1918 and 1921. It may sound very interesting that his name was nominated for a second Nobel the next year. On the other hand Hens Hillerbrand of the Swedish Academy proposed the name of Lord Avebury (1834-1913) along with Lavisse’s name. To note with interest that Avebury himself proposed that name of the English writer John Morley (1838-1923). Karl A Melin, a member of the Swedish Academy proposed the names of Peter Rosegger (1843-1918) of Austria and Juhani Aho (1861-1921) of Finland. The other member of the Academy, Per Hallström, made a proposal for Jakob Knudsen (1858-1917) of Denmark. Along with those the people who got nominations in 1913 for Nobel Literature Award were Salvatore Farina (1846-1918) of Italy, Henrik Pontoppidan (1857-1943), Harald Hoffding (1843-1931) and Ernst von der Recke (1848-1933) of Denmark, Edmond Pacard (1836-1924) of Belgium, Emile Faguet (1847-1916) of France, Angel Guimerà y Jorge (1847-1924) of Spain, Edward Dowden (1843-1913) of Ireland and Adolf Frey (1855-1920) of Switzerland.
All the talks and stories concerning the Nobel Prize have been diminished when the authority has published a list of the nominations for Literature Award from 1901 to 1950. For example, it could be pointed that the name of Lev Tolstoy (1828-1910) was nominated for five times starting in 1902 though the prize remained far from him. The harsh critics who often talk ill of Rabindranath in relation to the Nobel Prize will be satiated by the huge information recently published.
Rabindranath was sent the following telegram on 14 November 1913: ‘SWEDISH ACADEMY AWARDED YOU NOBEL PRIZE LITERATURE PLEASE WIRE ACCEPTATION SWEDISH MINISTER’. The message reached Rabindranath on 15 November. On 17 November the ‘ACCEPTATION’ was sent. A reply from the Secretary of the Swedish Academy came on 20 November: ‘Nobel Prize will be solemnly handed over Stockholm 10th of December Invite you heartily though fear time will not allow your coming’. On behalf of the poet, the British ambassador in Stockholm was invited to receive the award. The ambassador contacted Lord Carmichael, then Governor of Bengal, for a note of thanks from the poet. The note of thanks from Rabindranath read, ‘I beg to convey to the Swedish Academy my grateful appreciation of the breadth of understanding which has brought the distant near and has made a stranger a brother’. On 10 December, Ambassador Clive received the Gold Medal and the Diploma. He read out the note from Rabindranath. On the diploma was inscribed in Swedish, ‘Awarded to Rabindranath Tagore, because of 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’. On 29 January 1914, Lord Carmichael handed over the medal and diploma to the poet at Governor’s House, Calcutta, before a distinguished gathering.
Every laureate is supposed to deliver a lecture but what was the case of Rabindranath in this regard? During the poet’s America tour in 1920, when the Secretary of the Swedish Academy Dr. Erik Axel Karfeldt (1864-1931) came to know about the possibility of the poet’s visit, he sent a telegram on 9 November saying, ‘If you intend going Sweden Swedish Academy bids you welcome to Nobel Feast December 10’. Sadly, however, the poet could not reach Sweden in time. When he did, it was 24 May 1921. He was warmly received at the Stockholm railway station.
On 26 May the poet delivered his Nobel Lecture. A sixteen-page typed lecture commenced thus: ‘I am glad that I have been able to come at last to your country and that I may use this opportunity for expressing my gratitude to you for the honour you have done to me by acknowledging my work and rewarding me by giving me the Nobel prize’.
Subrata Kumar Das, the author of www.bangladeshinovels.com, can be reached at