Modern Asian Studies

Atheists, Gurus and Fanatics: Rabindranath Tagore's ‘Chaturanga’ (1916)

William  Radice 


Dr Kaiser Haq gives his fine new English translation of Tagore's novella Chaturanga the title ‘Quartet’. This elegantly preserves much of the meaning of the Bengali title, for not only does it imply the ‘four limbs’ or ‘four parts’ that make up the novella—the four chapters that were originally published separately in consecutive issues of Sabujpatra (November–February, 1915–16)—but also, as in a string quartet, the interplay between the four characters that the chapters are named after. Since Tagore was always alert to the full meaning or etymology of names, perhaps we should also remember that a chaturanga in epic India was a complete army comprising elephants, chariots, cavalry and infantry. This matches the grandeur of the novella, the vigour and precision of its prose, and the moral and spiritual battles that are its subject. Finally, chaturanga as a name for a chess game (technically a four-player version of the game) evokes both the intellectualism of the book and its concentrated passion.