If many people were taken aback – and then voiced their unhappiness – at the Nobel Prize for Literature going to a songwriter, others were quick to argue that Bob Dylan was not the first: that India’s own Rabindranath Tagore had beaten him to it 103 years ago, in 1913. But did Tagore actually win the Nobel for song-writing?

Scroll.in threw this question to Tagore expert Radha Chakravarty. A writer, critic, academic and translator, she has co-edited The Essential Tagore (Harvard and Visva Bharati), nominated Book of the Year 2011 by Martha Nussbaum, and edited Shades of Difference: Selected Writings of Rabindranath Tagore. Her translations of Tagore’s works include Boyhood Days, Chokher Bali, Gora, Farewell Song: Shesher Kabita and The Land of Cards: Stories, Poems and Plays for Children. She is Professor of Comparative Literature & Translation Studies at Ambedkar University Delhi. Excerpts from the conversation:

Would it be accurate to describe Rabindranath Tagore as the first songwriter/lyricist to win the Nobel? Are the poems of Gitanjali songs to be sung?
The media furore over Bob Dylan’s winning the Nobel Prize for literature has spawned a debate over the relationship between poetry and song. People seem to have forgotten that Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize, had captured the Western imagination with the lyrics of the English Gitanjali, a string of poems that are also songs in the Bengali version.

The English translations, though, are prose poems. Admirers in the West would have responded to the lyrical cadences of Tagore’s verse, but generally without direct access to the music of the Bengali originals. It was for poetry, rather than song, that Tagore was awarded the Nobel. And as a poet, he was much more than a lyricist, for he composed verse in multiple forms.

Dylan’s lyrics are inseparable from his music. They form a composite whole, with which his very image has come to be identified. Nor have his compositions primarily travelled in translation: the world has adapted to his music and learned to understand it, because in spite of the Nobel citation that lauds his quintessentially American sensibility, his songs actually have a wider humanist appeal that accounts for his global popularity.

True, he wrote about American social issues such as the civil rights movement in the 1960s and the collapse of romance and marriage in the 1970s, but he is also remembered in Bangladesh, for instance, for his support to the cause of the Liberation War.

The Nobel is generally awarded for a large body of work, but Tagore won the prize on the basis of a single book – Gitanjali. Is that right?
The Nobel citation says that Tagore was awarded the prize for 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”. It is interesting that the citation locates Tagore’s oeuvre within the tradition of English literature – an act of appropriation that locates his work within Western tradition, when in fact his major literary output was in Bengali. In the process, the citation also elides the element of translation and suggests that these works were originally written in English.

Where does Tagore really belong? To India, to the West, or to the world? We need to reappraise his work in order to understand his true stature as a literary figure of significance to the world at large.

Was there outrage after Tagore’s Nobel too?
In England, Europe and America, Tagore’s Nobel generated mixed responses. His admirers were ecstatic, but articles appeared in the press expressing disbelief that the award had gone to a non-white person whose name was hard to pronounce. In India, especially Bengal, the Nobel generated a wave of adulation that disturbed Tagore greatly. He admonished his followers, declaring that “no literary work can have its quality or appeal enhanced by the Nobel Prize”. He also became depressed at the thought that the award might make him complacent and compromise the quality of his future work.

By the time he won the Nobel, Tagore had a body of work across genres. Why the tag “poet”? Was it because the West considered him a mystic from the East? Did Tagore himself invite the label?
Tagore was a prolific writer. His versatility was incredible. Yet he continues to be labelled as a poet – “kobi” in Bengali. In part this had to do with the one-dimensional image of Tagore popularised by the Western critical establishment. When Gitanjali appeared, the European world, on the brink of war, hailed Rabindranath as a sage and mystic from the East, who brought a message of spiritual solace to their trouble-torn shores.

The image persisted, and Tagore himself did much to perpetuate it. In Bengal, he was idolised as “Gurudev”, the poet-philosopher-saint. Time and again he would declare that poetry was his true vocation, irrespective of all his other pursuits. It is time for us to explode this hagiographical myth, to look beyond the stereotype in search of the true complexity of Tagore’s achievement.

Tagore was much more than a poet. Could you shed some light on Tagore’s contributions as a polymath?
The scope of Rabindranath’s achievement is dazzling He wrote not only poetry but also novels, stories, plays, essays, memoirs, travelogues, satire, letters and songs. He was also a musician and a talented painter. Although he did not have a systematic political philosophy, he had a keen awareness of political affairs. He withdrew from direct involvement in politics when he felt alienated from the Swadeshi movement, but continued to express his political views through his writings. In 1919, he returned his knighthood in protest against the massacre at Jalianwallah Bagh.

He wrote on a range of non-literary subjects, including science, religion, social issues, ethics, philosophy, education and language. He was a pioneer in the field of education. Visva-Bharati, the university he founded in Santiniketan, was conceived as a confluence of multiple cultures from across the world, a place where education would be imparted in a natural setting, in harmony with the environment, and the approach would be tolerant, creative and eclectic.

He also founded Sriniketan, an initiative for the social uplift of the local community at Santiniketan. In the field of economics, he experimented, among other things, with the idea of micro-finance and self-help schemes for the poor.

Tagore often moved between different genres. How did this work?
Tagore worked in multiple genres, but he did not always keep these different forms separate. Often he would combine different genres, and bend the rules to create new, experimental forms. ShesherKabita (translated as Farewell Song) is a novel full of poems. The poems of the English Gitanjali combine prose with poetry. Many of Tagore’s plays incorporate song and dance, and poems like Karna Kunti Samvad are dialogues cast in a dramatic mould.

Some of his poems later became plays (take the poem Pujarini, which led to the play Natir Puja), while stories sometimes became plays (Ekta Ashare Galpa, for instance, provided the storyline for Tasher Desh). Like a chameleon, Tagore’s genius found expression in ever-changing forms.

His most creative experiment with mixed forms may be seen in his doodles, pages of manuscript where erasures are transformed into pictorial images, so that literary and visual arts coexist on the same page, in dynamic relationship with each other. The process of transformation was clearly not always easy or predictable, for it was while revising a written text via erasures and cancellations that a pictorial image would begin to take shape.

Did both Tagore and Dylan contribute something new to literature?
It seems incongruous to compare Tagore and Dylan, the Nobel notwithstanding.

They do have a few things in common, of course. Each in his own way has contributed to the democratisation of literature: Tagore through the use of colloquial (“chalitbhasha”) rather than formal Bengali (“sadhubhasha”) and Dylan through the language of popular music with mass appeal. Both worked with mixed genres, combined the written and the performative, and broke the rules of classical composition by frequently drawing upon the oral traditions of the people.

Both remained strongly rooted in their local ethos, and responded with deep anguish to the social and political upheavals of the times in which they lived, yet the spirit of humanism in their works reached out to the wider world beyond, and struck a chord in the hearts of successive generations of readers and listeners across the planet.

There remains, though, the question of the “literary”. After all, we are speaking of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Despite the dramatic fluctuations in his reputation, Tagore’s works have stood the test of time, and his place in the history of world literature seems assured. Can we say the same of Bob Dylan?

Shorn of the music, separate from the song and the singer, can Dylan’s lyrics stand on their own as literary texts? Debates around this question have been raging on the internet, with some celebrating the end of elitism in literary taste, and others bemoaning the demise of the very idea of what constitutes literature. Some assert that the Dylan would be a better candidate for the Nobel Prize for Peace, rather than Literature. The debate really boils down to changing trends in literary criteria.

In principle, the Nobel Prize awarded to Dylan represents a welcome move to break the dominance of the mainstream and the highbrow in the world of writing, and an acceptance of the hybridity of creative forms. In practical terms, though, this year’s choice also dilutes the distinctiveness of the Prize itself. For the transition from Tagore to Dylan leaves us feeling that somewhere along the way, something vital has been lost, or at least diminished.

That “something”, notoriously hard to define, is the quality of the creative imagination that brings a text to life: a profundity beyond angst, a vision beyond the social crisis of a particular historical moment, and a way with words that stirs the spirit beyond the human heartstrings.