Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was portrayed in cartoon since he had become the first Nobel Laureate of India. Tagore’s cartoon could be initially found in a number of foreign magazines and newspapers. In India, though people often used to mock and ridicule the poet publicly, we cannot find any of his cartoons at that time, perhaps also because, the very art of drawing cartoons was not so popular in contemporary India. Then people used to ridicule somebody only through composing satirical poems or songs or simply by writing lampoons. The mockery of Tagore could be best found evident in India in the writings of Dwijendralal Ray and his contemporaries. But the entire credit to introduce the practice of caricaturing somebody by drawing his or her cartoon goes to Gaganendranath Tagore, the nephew of the Poet, who first made this art form popular in India.
After receiving the Nobel Prize, Tagore had got a kind of mixed response from the people, both in India as well as in abroad. This was a sort of admixture of both admiration and mockery. In some contemporary foreign magazines, we can trace many writings, ridiculing the Poet’s apparel or his long hair and beard. Here it must be pointed out that, Tagore himself too perhaps had been always very conscious regarding his prophet-like image. Either through his conscious food habits or some other dietary practices he might have toiled hard to maintain that saintly image all through out his life. It was even suggested in these cartoons that for his glamour and physical beauty, there often occurred competitions amongst women to stay close with the Poet at his lectures and public assemblies during his foreign tours.
After Tagore won the Nobel Prize in 1913, many satirical and comical writings and portraits about the Poet came out in a number of magazines and newspapers of Germany, demeaning the Poet’s genius. This resentment of the Germans towards Tagore was mostly because of the Austrian poet, Peter Rosegger’s failure to claim the Nobel. Rosseger had been the favourite of the Germans and one of the nominees of the prize, a strong competitor of Rabindranath. But unfortunately, the Germans were completely ignorant of the fact that, if Tagore had not won the Nobel of 1913, it would have been claimed by the French writer, Emile Faguet, not by Peter Rosegger. In order to mock and ridicule Tagore, the Germans had published a cartoon of Rabindranath, portraying him as an Eskimo poet, being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature of 1913.
Since Tagore had refused to accept the honour of Knighthood, he was accorded a cold welcome from America, Germany and other European Nations. It is known that, Tagore even refused to deliver his lecture in Austria where he was vehemently criticized and opposed. Though Germany did always welcome Tagore cordially, there too he had to experience much dishonour and disrespect, especially from the young emerging literary scholars and writers, including, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Frantz Kafka and others. They regarded Rabindranath less as a poet and more as a religious preacher, a spiritual leader and sometimes even designated him as a ‘savage aristocrat’ (Abhijata Banmanush). This debased status of Tagore in Germany was due to the absolute ignorance of the people regarding the Poet’s genius as well as the lack of adequate circulation of his translated works in the country. Among these new literary German writers, Thomas Mann was most disrespectful to Tagore. Mann was an admirer of Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche. In 1921, during Rabindranath’s visit to Germany, Keyserling invited Mann to a programme on Tagore, called, Rabindra Saptaha, at Darmstadt, which he outrightly refused. In his personal diary too, Mann had criticized Tagore very harshly. Commenting upon the Poet’s long hair, his descent attire and his polite behaviour, Mann mocked Tagore by calling him, a pretty old English woman.
In this period, many Rabindranath’s cartoons were published, the most of which came out in Simplicissimus magazine. In these cartoons, somewhere Tagore is ridiculed for his typical
Indianness; somewhere he appears to be ice-skating with a beautiful actress ; somewhere appears a bulky, semi-naked, middle-aged woman, getting fainted looking at the eyes of
Tagore; while elsewhere people are portrayed to be collecting subscriptions, placing Tagore at the centre of the stage, just like a clown in a circus.
All these cartoons aimed at making fun of the Poet and simultaneously demeaning his genius and eminence.
It is during this time, that Gaganendranath, first portrayed the cartoon of his uncle in India, that features Tagore as flying in the sky, sitting on his chair, as if boarding on a chariot. Tagore is seen flying his silvery beard, his spectacles, the end of his gown, his diary and pen, books, manuscripts and the scattered pages of the English newspapers--- Englishman, Daily Hindu, and The Statesman; in his hand there is a little tambourine; while a small Doyel Bird, sitting upon his shoulder, as if singing something in his ear. Unlike the previous cartoons, where Tagore had been projected as an object of mockery and ridicule, here the portrait of Rabindranath, soaring high in the sky, proclaims his superiority and genius, who, with his red hat, perhaps symbolizes the birth of a new dawn.
In the 1930s, when Tagore went abroad for the exhibitions of his paintings, a number of his cartoons were published in some foreign magazines. In such a cartoon, published in a German magazine, Tagore appears to be saying - “ I shall not stay here for an hour, as no one is taking care of my long hair”. At another such cartoon, Tagore, in an art exhibition, is portrayed as standing in a particular posture, while a group of women, just next to him and lifting their necks high are anxious to kiss the hand of the Poet. In some other cartoons, somewhere Tagore is seen to be running fast, carefully managing his bag and his umbrella;
while at elsewhere he is portrayed to be delivering some lectures to someone, who is curiously taking note of it.
Beside these aforesaid cartoons, there must have been many other cartoons of Tagore, which I could not mention in this article. But here it must be pointed out that, in this article I have referred to only those of Tagore’s cartoons that had been published during his life-time, that is, up to the year, 1941. While we read about Rabindranath’s fame and warm reception in the west, such cartoons also sensitise us to the hostility and ridicule that he often had to face. These cartoons also refer to a deep mistrust and ignorance about the range of Rabindranath’s poetry, choosing to create a stereotype of Rabindranath as a mystic poet. They are thus key in any study of Rabindranath’s reception in Europe.