Rabindranath Tagore and the Aesthetics of Political Engagement


Possibly excepting Dante, no poet of the stature of Rabindranath Tagore grappled so deeply with political and social issues. His international image is unduly shaped by the spiritual bent and quasi-biblical language of the English Gitanjali. The very differently constituted Bengali Gitanjali treats a wider and more robust range of themes including history, politics and social criticism. The first seminar will make a contrastive study of the two volumes to understand these two Tagores, with the many concerns addressed by the latter.

Tagore involved himself closely and prominently with the turbulent history of his times. But his one spell of direct activism was in 1905, during the protests against the proposed partition of Bengal. His patriotic and anti-colonial songs were a guiding force of the movement. This will be the focus of the second seminar.

Tagore’s romantic and idealist poetry mingled with anguish at the iniquities of his society. The third session will trace this line. One of its high points is the play Raktakarabi (Red Oleanders), where mystical allegory melds with unsparing exposure of an exploitative industrial society. This will be the subject of the fourth session.

Tagore gradually passes to a broader engagement with a global order compounded of colonialism, capitalism and nationalist militancy. This is treated in a variety of veins from direct attack to haunting symbolism. The fifth seminar will survey this range. The sixth will consider the culmination of this vision in his last major public address, Sabhyatar sankat (Crisis in Civilization).

The seminars will aim to convey how this lifelong concern with society and politics is not merely a matter of discursive analysis but an imaginative force that shapes Tagore’s art. It gives a new meaning to the aesthetization of experience. At the same time, it is a crucial factor in the development of his distinctive ‘religion of man’.


  • Prof. Sukanta Chaudhuri, Professor Emeritus, Jadavpur University (Kolkata), Tagore Program at UC Berkeley Visiting Scholar


All sessions (from 6-7:30 pm PST via Zoom)
Mon. Feb 7 The two Gitanjalis  
Thu, Feb 10 Songs of the partition of Bengal, 1905  
Mon, Feb 14 The condition of the people: Tagore’s poetry of the middle years  
Thu, Feb 17 Raktakarabi (Red Oleanders) as a social document  
Tue, Feb 22 Interrogating society  
Thu, Feb 24 Civilization in crisis  
Tagore Program Visiting Scholar Lecture
Thu, Mar 3 Rabindranath Tagore and the Synergy of the Arts
by Prof. Sukanta Chaudhuri


  • Dates: Feb 7 - Mar 3, 2022
  • Location: Institute for South Asia Studies, UC Berkeley (via Zoom) 
  • Application Deadline: January 15, 2022
  • Participants: Graduate and advanced undergraduate students. Capped at 30.
  • Primary Audience: UC Berkeley students will be prioritized
  • The course is free for participants.
  • The final lecture is free and open to the public. 


  • This program will be an intensive dive into Rabindranath Tagore Studies. In order to foster a rich, engaging, accessible program, participants will be expected to attend all sessions, complete all program readings in a timely manner, and actively participate in the discussions
  • At the conclusion of the program, each participant will be expected to complete a program evaluation.
  • A Certificate of Completion will be issued by the Institute for South Asia Studies upon successful completion of the Spring Institute.

Click HERE to apply

The Spring Institute has been made possible in part by a major gift by Drs. Maya and Sakti Das. 

Please email Puneeta Kala at pkala@berkeley.edu if you have any questions. 

Sukanta Chaudhuri is an Indian literary scholar, now Professor Emeritus at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. He was educated at Presidency College, Kolkata and the University of Oxford. He taught at Presidency College from January 1973 to December 1991 and at Jadavpur University thereafter till his retirement in June 2010. At Jadavpur, he was founding Director of the School of Cultural Texts and Records, a pioneering centre of digital humanities in India. His chief fields of study are the English and European Renaissance, translation, textual studies and digital humanities. He has held visiting appointments at many places including All Souls College, Oxford; St John’s College, Cambridge; the School of Advanced Study, London; the University of Virginia; and Loyola University, Chicago. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Asiatic Society, Kolkata and till 2021 was a member of the Executive Committee of the International Shakespeare Association. In July 2021, he was elected a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy.

Renaissance scholarship: His first major monograph Infirm Glory: Shakespeare and the Renaissance Image of Man (Oxford, 1981) was followed by Renaissance Pastoral and Its English Developments (Oxford, 1989). More recently, he has edited Pastoral Poetry of the English Renaissance (2 vols, Manchester, 2016-17) and the Third Arden edition of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2017). He has also edited selections of Francis Bacon's Essays and of Elizabethan poetry for Oxford University Press, and edited or co-edited several collections of essays on the Renaissance. He has studied the links and parallels between the European and the Bengal Renaissances, and the possibility of a common model of a 'Renaissance'.

Translation: Chaudhuri has translated extensively from Rabindranath Tagore, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Sukumar Ray, Rajshekhar Bose and other classic Bengali writers, and many modern Bengali poets. His Select Nonsense of Sukumar Ray (New Delhi: OUP, 1998) is an acclaimed recreation in English of Sukumar Ray's whimsical nonsense poems. He was General Editor of the Oxford Tagore Translations (five volumes between 2000 and 2006). He has also translated the complete limericks of Edward Lear into Bengali, and selections from the Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci from Italian into Bengali. He is the author of Translation and Understanding (New Delhi: OUP, 1999).

Textual studies and digital humanities: For many years now, he has worked extensively on textual studies and editorial theory. His book The Metaphysics of Text combines the insights of traditional bibliography and textual criticism with recent editorial theory and theories of language. Besides his editions of Shakespeare and Early Modern texts cited above, his textual inquiries have led him to the field of digital humanities, as centred in the School of Cultural Texts and Records at Jadavpur University. His work covers digital archiving, database creation and computational analysis of texts. He was Principal Investigator of two major projects under the British Library's Endangered Archives Programme. Most importantly, he was chief co-ordinator of Bichitra, the comprehensive online variorum of the works of Rabindranath Tagore.

Urban studies: Chaudhuri is interested in urban studies. He edited the authoritative two-volume reference work Calcutta: The Living City (OUP Delhi, 1990). For many years, he wrote a fortnightly column "View from Calcutta" for the newspaper The Asian Age. He writes and campaigns extensively on urban issues, especially as concerning his native city, Kolkata.

Drama: Chaudhuri's Bengali play Jaha Chai ('What We Desire') was performed in 2007 by the theatre group Nandikar. It was part of a worldwide project on "cultural mobility", built around the idea of Shakespeare's lost play Cardenio and co-ordinated by the scholar Stephen Greenblatt and the Off-Broadway dramatist Charles L. Mee. Chaudhuri set the story in modern Bengal, the lost play metamorphosing into a (fictional) hitherto unknown Tagore text.

He is married to Supriya Chaudhuri, a former teacher at the Department of English and Professor Emerita at Jadavpur University