The guru of bliss unending

Dermot Clinch on a biography that tries to capture the supreme virtues of Tagore, India's Renaissance man RABINDRANATH TAGORE Andrew Robinson and Krishna Dutta Bloomsbury £25
Philip Larkin was once asked for his considered opinion of the great poet Rabindranath Tagore. "An Indian has written to ask me", he wrote to a friend, "what I think of Rabindrum Tagore: feel like sending him a telegram, `FUCK ALL. LARKIN' ". There was always, of course, a savage edge to Larkin's indifference, but it seems likely that here he was stating the accepted, and still prevalent, view of Tagore. In Europe his reputation was once stratospheric, but now we rarely bother. In India, on the other hand, his stock still is extraordinarily high - so high, indeed, that one Bengali critic could recently write that "no man in the whole range of known history can rival Tagore's all- comprehending genius, equally splendid in thought, in creation, and in action."

The authors of this biography, one suspects, adhere privately to the Bengali view, however much they try not to let it show. Even their subtitle - "The Myriad-minded Man" - smacks of a pre-emptive strike, claiming admiration for their subject before he has earned it. Indeed, it turns out that the phrase itself derives from an official encomium, delivered on the awarding to Tagore of an honorary Oxford doctorate in 1940. "By the sanctity of his life and character", the Chief Justice of India announced, Tagore had "won for himself the praise of all mankind". His myriad-mindedness was evident: no mere poet, he was also a musician "famous in his art", an upholder of learning and doctrine, a defender of liberties and a philosopher.

He was, to cut it short, the Indian Renaissance man, a judgement amply borne out by this biography. It was his poems that won him the Nobel Prize, but they were barely even half the story. Oxford left off its list of achievements Tagore's paintings (something of a sensation in Paris in the Thirties), his plays, essays, political writings, even his experiments in agronomy. They also failed to mention that he turned his hand in later life to the explanation of scientific theory; and that he counted among his friends men as varied as Einstein, Gandhi and William Butler Yeats. It was not for any single quality, wrote Nehru the day Tagore died in 1941, but for the "tout ensemble of his virtues" that Tagore, along with Gandhi, would be reckoned supreme among the great men of the age.

Tagore's reputation will ultimately rest, at least in India, on his educational projects, his "rural reconstruction", his Bengali and Indian patriotism, his revivifying of Bengali language and literature, and his spiritual guidance for an entire country ("The Great Sentinel", Gandhi called him). Shantiniketan, Tagore's ashram-cum-spiritual university in Bengal, and the poet's home for most of his life, was one of India's great experiments in applied spirituality. There Tagore hoped to educate his country and a chosen few ambassadors from foreign lands in the wisdom of the East. For some time Shantiniketan was a place of high prestige, with even Indira Gandhi among its alumni. Now, however, its value is symbolic only and its educational institutions, we are told, of which Tagore was so proud, are nowhere taken seriously.

In the West, Tagore's fame rested on slimmer, though momentarily as firm, foundations. With the publication in 1913 of a small, unimposing book of verses called Gitanjali Tagore won almost instant celebrity, and the Nobel Prize. These days, the commotion surrounding the book seems almost ludicrous, but then it was heartfelt. Reading the manuscript of the poems "on trains and omnibuses", wrote Yeats in his introduction, he had had frequently to put the book down, "lest some stranger would see how much it moved me". He was not alone: the semi-biblical tone of the verses, their thees and thous and promise of bliss unending, caused an outbreak of love for both poetry and poet. Like some archetypal guru, his beauty is described as "radiant, almost incandescent". Tagore began to attract acolytes. One visited him in 1913 and reported back that at last she could imagine "a powerful and gentle Christ". When Wilfrid Owen went off to fight in 1918, never to return, Tagore's poems were lodged in his knapsack.

At such moments as these the story of Tagore's life - moving from the difficult and private into the open and public sphere - begins at last to hold our imagination. At other times, Dutta and Robinson's narrative is curiously unmoving: full of fact, unemotional, and worryingly keen to impress us with Tagore's human fallibility. Tagore spoke out against child marriage, yet he married his daughters young, we are properly told; or, he was a liberal at home but pro-Fascist abroad (Mussolini seemed "modelled body and soul by the chisel of a Michelangelo").

The cumulative effect of all this punctilio ought to be an expanded view of Tagore. In the event, it is the reverse. The more the authors insist on his humanity, the more we suspect that what they're selling, deep down, is just another saint.