There’s been a great deal of excitement over Bob Dylan winning the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s rare for artists who have achieved widespread, mainstream popularity to win.
According to The New York Times: “It is the first time the honour has gone to a musician.”
But as Bob Dylan might croon: “the Times they are mistaken.”
Rabindranath Tagore, the lyricist and composer of Bangladesh’s national anthem, was the first lyricist to win the prize in 1913.
He was also the first musician (and first non-European) to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Tagore possessed an artistry – and lasting influence – that mirrored Dylan’s.
Like Dylan, Tagore was largely self-taught. And both were associated with nonviolent social change. Tagore was a supporter of Indian independence and a friend of Mahatma Gandhi, while Dylan penned much of the soundtrack for the 1960s protest movement. Each was a multi-talented artist: writer, musician, visual artist and film composer. (Dylan is also a filmmaker.)
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In this May 22, 1966, file photo, Bob Dylan gestures during a news conference in Paris AP
The Nobel website states that Tagore, though he wrote in many genres, was principally a poet who published more than 50 volumes of verse, as well as plays, short stories and novels. Tagore’s music isn’t mentioned until the last sentence, which says that the artist “also left … songs for which he wrote the music himself,” as if this much-loved body of work was no more than an afterthought.
But with over 2,000 songs to his name, Tagore’s output of music alone is extremely impressive. Many continue to be used in films, while three of his songs were chosen as national anthems by India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, an unparalleled achievement.
Today, Tagore’s significance as a songwriter is undisputed. A YouTube search for Tagore’s songs, using the search term “Rabindra Sangeet” (Bengali for “Tagore songs”), yields about 234,000 hits.
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Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi. Tagore was the one came up with the title 'Mahatma', means 'Great Soul' Collected
Although Tagore was – and remains – a musical icon in India, this aspect of his work hasn’t been recognised in the West. Perhaps for this reason, music seems not to have had much or any influence on the 1913 Nobel committee, as judged by the presentation speech by committee chair Harald Hjärne. In fact, the word “music” is never used in the prize announcement. It is notable, however, that Hjärne says the work of Tagore’s that “especially arrested the attention of the selecting critics is the 1912 poetry collection ‘Gitanjali: Song Offerings.’”
It may be that the Nobel organisation’s downplaying of Tagore’s significance as a musician is part and parcel of the same thinking that has long delayed Dylan’s receiving the prize: uneasiness over subsuming song into the category of literature.
Tagore’s “Gitanjali,” his most famous collection of poems, is available in the poet’s own English translation, with an introduction by William Butler Yeats (who won his own Nobel in literature in 1923). And YouTube is a great repository for some of Tagore’s most celebrated songs (search for “Rabindra Sangeet”).
A version of this article was first published in The Conversation