Tagore and Einstein – A Conversation

First published on SAWF on March 19, 2001

Introduction by Rajan P. Parrikar

Namashkar.

The summer of 1930 occasioned a meeting of two extraordinary minds – Rabindranath Tagore and Albert Einstein – in Caputh, Germany.  Einstein reserved the highest admiration for Tagore as well as Mahatma Gandhi, and they, in turn, recognized in him a kindred spirit.  Despite the disparate life-focus of the three, their ecumenical thinking lavished its warmth and wisdom on humanity as a whole.  They were profoundly united in their concern for the world’s indigent, the state of the human condition a continual presence to their imagination.  Of the values that fuelled his rich life Einstein famously wrote: “The ideals which have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully have been Kindness, Beauty and Truth.”  Gandhi and Tagore, too, took the road illuminated by these very values.

The Tagore-Einstein dialogues of 1930 have been reprinted in a delightful book, Einstein Lived Here, by Professor Abraham Pais (Oxford University Press, 1994) in Chapter 9, “The Indian Connection: Tagore and Gandhi.”  The warm, humane Tagore-Einstein interchange on music is particularly engaging and is reproduced below with permission of the publisher.

Cartoon by Herblock in Washington Post after Einstein

Cartoon by Herblock in Washington Post
after Einstein's death

But first, let us survey some quotes from the Chapter, words which cast a flavour of the regard these great sages held one another in:

Tagore on Einstein:

Einstein has often been called a lonely man. Insofar as the realm of the mathematical vision helps to liberate the mind from the crowded trivialities of daily life, I suppose he is a lonely man. His is what might be called transcendental materialism, which reaches the frontiers of metaphysics, where there can be utter detachment from the entangling world of self. To me both science and art are expressions of our spiritual nature, above our biological necessities and possessed of an ultimate value. Einstein is an excellent interrogator. We talked long and earnestly about my “religion of man.” He punctuated my thoughts with terse remarks of his own, and by his questions I could measure the trend of his own thinking.

Einstein to Tagore:

You are aware of the struggle of creatures that spring forth out of need and dark desires. You seek salvation in quiet contemplation and in the workings of beauty. Nursing these you have served mankind by a long fruitful life, spreading a mild spirit, as has been proclaimed by the wise men of your people.

Einstein on Tagore, co-written with Gandhi and Rolland:

He has been for us the living symbol of the Spirit, of Light, and of Harmony – the great free bird which soars in the midst of tempests – the song of Eternity which Ariel strikes on his golden harp, rising above the sea of unloosened passions. But his art never remained indifferent to human misery and struggles. He is the ‘Great Sentinel.’ For all that we are and we have created have had their roots and their branches in that Great Ganges of Poetry and Love.

Warm regards,
Rajan P. Parrikar

 
 
From: Einstein Lived Here by Abraham Pais.

T: Rabindranath Tagore; E: Albert Einstein
(Year: 1930)
pp 105-107

The second Einstein-Tagore dialogue, the one held in Caputh, ‘was taken down by a friend who was present’. This time they began with a discussion of the nature of causality. On this subject the two men talked past each other without any understanding as to what the other was driving at. I do not consider it worthwhile reproducing here any of this. On the other hand, their next theme, on music is quite appealing.

T: The musical system in India…is not so rigidly fixed as is the western music. Our composers give a certain definite outline, a system of melody and rhythmic arrangement, and within a certain limit the player can improvise upon it. He must be one with the law of that particular melody, and then he can give spontaneous expression to his musical feeling with the prescribed regulation. We praise the composer for his genius in creating a foundation along with a superstructure of melodies, but we expect from the player his own skill in the creation of variations of melodic flourish and ornamentation. In creation we follow the central law of existence, but, if we do not cut ourselves adrift from it, we can have sufficient freedom within the limits of our personality for the fullest self-expression.

E: That is only possible where there is a strong artistic tradition in music to guide the people’s mind. In Europe, music has come too far away from popular art and popular feeling and has become something like a secret art with conventions and traditions of its own.

Tagore and Einstein in Caputh, Germany (July 14, 1930)

Tagore and Einstein in Caputh, Germany (July 14, 1930)

T: So you have to be absolutely obedient to this too complicated music. In India the measure of a singer’s freedom is in his own creative personality. He can sing the composer’s song as his own, if he has the power creatively to assert himself in his interpretation of the general law of melody which he is given to interpret.

E: It requires a very high standard of art fully to realize the great idea in the original music, so that one can make variations upon it. In our country the variations are often prescribed.

T: If in our conduct we can follow the law of goodness, we can have real liberty of self-expression. The principle of conduct is there, but the character which makes it true and individual is our own creation. In our music there is a duality of freedom and prescribed order.

E: Are the words of a song also free? I mean to say, is the singer at liberty to add his own words to the song which he is singing?

T: In Bengal we have a kind of song – Kirtan, we call it – which gives freedom to the singer to introduce parenthetical comments, phrases not in the original song. This occasions great enthusiasm, since the audience is constantly thrilled by some beautiful, spontaneous sentiment freshly added by the singer.

E: Is the metrical form quite severe?

T: Yes, quite. You cannot exceed the limits of versification; the singer in all his variations must keep the rhythm and the time, which is fixed. In European music you have a comparative liberty about time, but not about melody. But in India we have freedom of melody with no freedom of time.

E: Can the Indian music be sung without words? Can one understand a song without words?

T: Yes, we have songs with unmeaning words, sounds which just help to act as carriers of the notes. In North India music is an independent art, not the interpretation of words and thoughts, as in Bengal. The music is very intricate and subtle and is a complete world of melody by itself.

E: It is not polyphonic?

T: Instruments are used, not for harmony, but for keeping time and for adding to the volume and depth. Has melody suffered in your music by the imposition of harmony?

E: Sometimes it does suffer very much. Sometimes the harmony swallows up the melody altogether.

T: Melody and harmony are like lines and colors in pictures. A simple linear picture may be completely beautiful; the introduction of color may make it vague and insignificant. Yet color may, by combination with lines, create great pictures, so long as it does not smother and destroy their value.

E: It is a beautiful comparison; line is also much older than color. It seems that your melody is much richer in structure than ours. Japanese music seems to be so.

T: It is difficult to analyze the effect of eastern and western music on our minds. I am deeply moved by the western music – I feel that it is great, that it is vast in its structure and grand in its composition. Our own music touches me more deeply by its fundamental lyrical appeal. European music is epic in character; it has a broad background and is Gothic in its structure.

E: Yes, yes, that is very true. When did you first hear European music?

T: At seventeen, when I first came to Europe. I came to know it intimately, but even before that time I had heard European music in our own household. I had heard the music of Chopin and others at an early age.

E: There is a question we Europeans cannot properly answer, we are so used to our own music. We want to know whether our own music is a conventional or a fundamental human feeling, whether to feel consonance and dissonance is natural or a convention which we accept.

T: Somehow the piano confounds me. The violin pleases me much more.

E: It would be interesting to study the effects of European music on an Indian who had never heard it when he was young.

T: Once I asked an English musician to analyze for me some classical music and explain to me what are the elements that make for the beauty of a piece.

E: The difficulty is that really good music, whether of the East or of the West, cannot be analyzed.

T: Yes, and what deeply affects the hearer is beyond himself.

E: The same uncertainty will always be there about everything fundamental in our experience, in our reaction to art, whether in Europe or Asia. Even the red flower I see before me on your table may not be the same to you and me.

T: And yet there is always going on the process of reconciliation between them, the individual taste conforming to the universal standard.

Reproduced with permission of the publisher.

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