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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

February 18, 1996|CHRIS GOODRICH

RABINDRANATH TAGORE: The Myriad-Minded Man by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson (St. Martin's Press: $35; 493 pp.). Two observations by Tagore, 1913 winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, in a memoir: "I do not know who has painted the pictures of my life imprinted on my memory. But whoever he is, he is an artist." And, "That is the great advantage of a first vision: The mind is not aware that there are many more to come. . . . Only when it believes something to be rare does the mind cease to be miserly." Why is a writer of such acute intelligence, and of once-great reputation, nearly forgotten today? Dutta and Robinson have the answer, though they don't make it explicit: Because Tagore, in his lifelong, self-conscious attempt to wed "the imagination of the Eastern countries and the practical intelligence of the West," satisfied neither. Tagore remains a hero in his native Bengal, as much for putting Calcutta on the literary map as for his multifarious writings, but in the West he's largely a footnote to other lives--for Yeats and Pound a quasi-mystic "discovery," to Gandhi a friend and rival, to the cultural elite the world over an exotic party draw. Tagore, as this detailed biography illustrates, deserves a better fate: Besides looking, and sometimes acting, like a latter-day Christ, Tagore was not only a fine writer but stayed true to his Bengali roots despite seductive, global acclaim. Dutta and Robinson downplay Tagore's less attractive side--despite an initial dislike of fascism, for example, in 1926 he allowed himself to be used by Mussolini for propaganda purposes--but demonstrate overall that Tagore aided India greatly in that country's attempts to distinguish helpful Western influences from the harmful.

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