With the advent of the 20th century, 1913 to be precise, Rabindranath Tagore might not have drawn the attention of the Nobel Committee members. Thanks to an auspicious position of his stars, he was at that time in England surrounded by his British and Irish poet-admirers and critics and spellbound readers. At the lead was the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats. Yeats became so moved by the poems of 'Geetanjali', translated into English by the poet himself, he wrote the preface of the book. Somebody suggested the anthology be referred to the Nobel Committee in 1913, and cited the reasons why the Indian Bengali poet should be awarded the coveted Nobel prize. The Nobel Committee's attention was drawn to the message of 'Eastern mysticism' in Tagore's poetry. The subject had still been a strange one to the Western world. It didn't take time for the Nobel Committee members to reach unanimity in awarding Tagore the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.
Over a century after that event, a few questions perturb both of Tagore's admirers and detractors. A number of them continue to ask if Tagore would have received the Nobel had Yeats not written his impassioned preface to 'Geetanjali'. Others put forward the view that a poet of Tagore's stature didn't need the recognition of the Nobel Prize Committee. These geniuses normally outlive the requirement of any institutional backing. Another group is of the view that despite Tagore's not belonging to the digital communication age, he was lucky to find himself in the early 20th century within a broader camaraderie of fellow overseas poets. They were not too far from the Nobel Prize circles. The irony was Tagore had never got carried away by the award. As he had dreamt of many projects centring round his Shantiniketan, it was the fabulous prize money which had greatly delighted him. At the age of 52, Tagore was firmly able to acquire the self-confidence of a major poet. In 1913, he was not far from stepping into the exclusive group of poets who stole the world's limelight. The literary landscape as it prevailed then shows it was the Nobel Committee which felt being enriched by awarding Tagore with the prize. Not the other way round.
As he aged, Rabindranath Tagore continued to transcend the need for fame and recognition. Except the short-lived uproar and excitement over his Nobel Prize, the recognition didn't add much to his creative richness and volume of output. Tagore would have emerged as the same literary genius without a global prize as he emerged in his late years until he breathed his last.
In spite of the minor impact of prizes on the creativity of a writer, a painter or a performer, they do matter. At times institutional recognitions work magic in the moribund career of an author. Upon being neglected for long years, a prestigious award can prompt many a writer to get engaged in a flurry of activities. Instances are many. On the other hand, honouring a creative person who is now considered a spent force may prove depriving a young person of a boost which he or she deserves rightfully. Lots of national, regional or world-level recognitions have eventually emerged as biased or lopsided. Instead of enriching a branch of the arts, they invite confusions or overrating --- leading, finally, to misjudgement. Due to their hypersensitivity, artistes in general are badly bruised by the misuse of awards by bestowing them on wrong persons. Many awards are introduced with honest intent. Unfortunately, they finally end up being an ideal front plagued with invisible pockets and lobbying. They throw their weight behind their own candidates.
Whims, narrow factionalism, personal vendetta or a particular jury member's liking or disliking are common these days. Few awards are completely free of these disincentives. Moreover, incompetent and unqualified jury boards can tarnish an otherwise long reputed award. Coming to the Nobel Prizes again, the judging quality of committees deciding awards for their respective fields is increasingly being brought into question. Many blame this deterioration on the time's increasing dependence on digital exchanges of information. Human touches and feelings are fast becoming elusive. The impersonal mechanism of long and short listing of the Nobel Prize aspirants has made the job hassle-free and uncannily accurate. The problem is the whole process has become one run by automation. The process goes against the universal rule of judging the qualities of a creative work.
Be they award-worthy literary works, excellently made movies, or extraordinarily rendered songs, all creative works finally await wise human intervention. In the 21st century, when the ICT calls the shots until the run-up to the announcement of the winners, leaving little space for well conceived human judgement, an artist cannot expect fair treatment of his or her creative output. Behavioural scientists have long observed, it is the humans on which rests the responsibility of carrying out the whole operation of picking the best talent in specific fields. Unfortunately, the dearth of qualified persons capable of judging artistic works, literature being the main, has led to a situation stuck in complete disarray.
Alongside picking extraordinarily qualified persons, scores of establishments which deal with honouring geniuses with prestigious awards are nowadays found mired in a raft of irregularities. They result in choices which are atrociously wrong. Gross omissions also begin haunting them. Many blame their hired nomination or selection boards for these irregularities. This is how many award authorities invite the process of rot in many countries.
It is, however, amazing to see how marvellously a few award authorities in different parts of the world have kept their image unspoiled. They include the Academy Awards or the Oscars for the best US movies and also a foreign one, the Grammy Awards, the yearly award for music in the USA. Besides, there are the highly prestigious Prix Goncourt literary award in France, the Casa de las Americas Prize, one of the most coveted literary prizes in Latin America and a dozen prizes for literature in Africa, the continent that produced all-time great poets and novelists Leopold Senghor, Ole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. Writers and readers in both English speaking and non-English speaking countries eagerly look forward to the announcement of the Man Booker and the International Booker Prizes every year. Previously, the British origin Booker Prize was confined to Commonwealth countries' authors writing in English. Since 2004, it has opened to all English-language writers around the world.
Several major novelists and short story writers from non-English-speaking countries have been honoured with the Booker Prize. The name belonging to this group which has created quite a sensation in the recent times is Arundhati Roy from India. Her second book 'The Ministry of Utmost Happiness' has been widely acclaimed for its portrayal of the armed hostilities and the fraught situation in the Indian part of Kashmir. The seemingly nonstop violence in the strife-torn territory has been juxtaposed in the fiction against the tale of some Delhi-based transgender adults and children. As for the story's theme, its gleeful leaning to cold-blooded brutality involving many rival parties intersperses marvellously with the humane and compassionate attitude of the transgender characters to life. Arundhati's second book after a gap of twenty years from the first --- The God of Small Things (1997), can claim a place among the modern fictions both for its sombre-cum- emotion-choked story which the author spins with the skill of a master stylist.
Perhaps it is her non-Indian English language for which the major Indian literary awards have bypassed Roy. Those include the Jnanpith Award (Gyanpith Puraskar), the most prestigious literary award in India now. It, however, hasn't detracted from Arundhati's creative lustre. Despite being deprived of the love and admiration of the common readers not knowing English, the author has won millions of English-knowing readers in South Asia and the other parts of the world. Here lies Arundhati's triumph as an emissary of her country's culture and heritage. Although Bangladesh still lags behind many other Third World countries in nurturing the culture of well-judged domestic awards, and spectacular participation in overseas literary celebrations, it should not find itself in a stasis. Optimists can see better days.