Presented at the 150 Years of Tagore celebrations organized by World Poetry, City of Richmond and Vancouver Tagore Society on September 10, 2011.
As in any traditional gathering especially a family reunion, we normally greet everyone either with a kiss or an embrace or both as a sign of our 1ove, respect, unity, and solidarity with one another. So, in the spirit of this celebration, and camaraderie in the name of Tagore, may I request you to please rise up to shake hand with your seatmate, your spouse-partner, friends or strangers around your seat?
Now, to submerge ourselves into the celebrations, kindly embrace each other and reach out to others in a warm, tender, and loving way. And to top up such feelings of affection for each other, I ask you to clap your hands and deliver resounding rounds of applause to Tagore.
I am going to make you walk with me and become a traveller along with me as I tell you about Tagore’s trips around the world.
Popularly known as “Gurudev”, Tagore was a Poet, Philosopher, playwright, novelist, essayist, painter, composer, dramatist, choreographer, educator, social reformer and Nobel Laureate.
Rabindranath Tagore was born 150 years ago on May 7, 1861. He was the youngest son of Debendranath Tagore, a leader of the Brahmo Samaj – a new religious sect in nineteenth-century Bengal which attempted to revive monistic basis of Hinduism as laid down in the Upanishads. He was educated at home; and at an age of seventeen he was sent to England for formal schooling, he did not finish his studies there.
During the first 51 years of his life he was a relatively unknown artist. He had some success and recognition in Calcutta and surrounding areas of where he was born and raised. His short stories were published monthly in a friend’s magazine, and he played the lead roles in some of his plays. Other than that, he was little known outside of Calcutta, and not known at all outside of India.
His destiny changed in 1912 when he returned to England for the first time since his failed attempt at law school as a teenager. Now a man of 51, he was accompanied by his son. On the way over to England he began translating into English his latest selections of poems called Gitanjali. He decided to do this just to have something to do, with no expectation that his first time translation efforts would be any good. He made the handwritten translations in a little notebook he carried around with him and worked on during the long sea voyage from India. Upon arrival, his son left his father’s brief case with this notebook in the London subway. Fortunately, an honest person turned in the briefcase and it was recovered the next day.
Tagore’s friend in England, Mr. Rothenstein, a famous painter whom he had met in India, learned of the translation, and asked to see it. Reluctantly, with much persuasion, Tagore let him have the notebook. His friend was amazed at the beauty and intricacies of his poems. He found Tagore’s poetry simply incredible. He called his friend, W.B. Yeats, and talked him into looking at the hand scrawled notebook.
Yeats was captivated. He later wrote the introduction to Gitanjali when it was published in September 1912 in a limited edition by the India Society in London. Thereafter, both the poetry and the man were an instant sensation, first in London literary circles, and soon thereafter in the entire world. His spiritual presence was awesome. His words evoked great beauty. Nobody had ever read anything like it. A glimpse of the mysticism and sentimental beauty of Indian culture were revealed to the West for the first time. Less than a year later, in 1913, Tagore received the Nobel Prize for literature. He was the first Asian and the first non-westerner to be so honoured.
In 1915 he was knighted by King George V of Britain.
His fame took him across continents on lecture tours promoting inter-cultural harmony and understanding. For the world he became the voice of India’s spiritual heritage; and for India, especially for Bengal, he became a great living institution.
In 1919, following the Amritsar massacre of almost 400 innocent Indian demonstrators by British troops, Sir Tagore renounced his Knighthood. From time to time he participated in the Indian nationalist movement, though in his own non-sentimental and visionary way but most of the time he stayed out of politics. He was opposed to nationalism and militarism as a matter of principle, and instead promoted spiritual values and the creation of a new world culture founded in multiculturalism, diversity and tolerance.
Although Tagore wrote successfully in all literary genres, he was first of all a poet. Among his fifty and odd volumes of poetry are Manasi (1890) [The Ideal One], Sonar Tari (1894) [The Golden Boat], Gitanjali (1910) [Song Offerings], Gitimalya (1914) [Wreath of Songs], and Balaka (1916) [The Flight of Cranes]. The English renderings of his poetry, which include The Gardener (1913), Fruit-Gathering (1916), and The Fugitive (1921), do not generally correspond to particular volumes in the original Bengali; and in spite of its title, Gitanjali: Song Offerings (1912), the most acclaimed of them, contains poems from other works besides its namesake.
Tagore’s major plays are Raja (1910) [The King of the Dark Chamber], Dakghar (1912) [The Post Office], Achalayatan (1912) [The Immovable], Muktadhara (1922) [The Waterfall], and Raktakaravi (1926) [Red Oleanders].
He is the author of several volumes of short stories and a number of novels, among them Gora (1910), Ghare-Baire (1916) [The Home and the World], and Yogayog (1929) [Crosscurrents]. Besides these, he wrote musical dramas, and dance dramas of all types.
Tagore was a creative genius and a renaissance man. He wrote over one thousand poems; eight volumes of short stories; almost two dozen plays and play-lets; eight novels; and many books and essays on philosophy, religion, education and social issues. Aside from words and drama, his other great love was music, Bengali style. He composed more than two thousand songs, both the music and lyrics.
Two of them became the national anthems of India and Bangladesh.
In 1929 he even began painting. Many of his paintings can be found in museums today.
He authored travel diaries and two autobiographies, one in his middle years and the other shortly before his death in 1941.
Tagore inspired such leaders as Mahatma Gandhi, his contemporary and later Aung San Suu Kyi. As Myanmar’s Peace laureate wrote in 2001, her “most precious lesson” had been from Tagore: “If no one answers your call, walk alone.”
If no one answers your call
Make a stride and walk alone.
When you see everyone closed
Open your mind and speak alone.
If they turn away and desert
And the wild path obstacles exert
Trample thorns no matter the hurt
Alone on the blood-stained track you traverse.
If no one holds up the light
And a fierce storm shakes the night
With its thunderbolt flame ignite
Your heart, alone, and let it burn bright.
Few Canadians know of Tagore today but thousands of Canadians did 80 years ago, turning out in droves to see and hear him. He visited Vancouver in 1929 after having declined several invitations in protest against the Komagata Maru incident of 1914, when 376 Indian immigrants were denied entry to Canada.
Tagore arrived Vancouver on the afternoon of April 7, 1929 by a steamer. He was a guest of the National Council of Education to address its triennial conference, the Vancouver Sun reported: “On Monday night thousands sought to see and hear Tagore . . . They stood in long lines for hours outside to gain admission . . . Before 8.30 PM line of those who waited for admission extended up Granville Street, down Georgia, past the Hotel Vancouver so far as the Court house … even after he had commenced speaking, they were reluctant to leave. More than any other delegate he had seized their imagination.”
On April 11, 1929, Tagore visited the local Sikh temple on 2nd Avenue. The Vancouver Sun reported that, “the welcome ceremony was impressive and enthusiastic. Tagore was accompanied by his companions – Major Fred Ney and Reverend C.F. Andrews”. Before departing for Los Angles by train, Tagore met Governor General of Canada Lord Willingdon at the Canadian National Railway Depot on Main Street on April 16, 1929.
Tagore drew a huge following wherever he went: China, Japan, Latin America, Europe and the United States. In China, Tagore remains the most widely translated foreign author after Shakespeare.
Tagore was one of the strongest critics of war and colonialism, fascism, and the dangers of narrow-minded nationalism. To inspire Koreans to get rid of Japanese colonial rulers, he wrote the following verses:
In the golden age of Asia
Korea was one of its lamp-bearers
And that lamp is waiting to be lighted again
For the illumination of the East.
To the West, however, Tagore remained the “Eastern mystic,” acclaimed during his lifetime and then forgotten. But more than a mystic, Tagore was a visionary who articulated ideals of humanism, equality and freedom long before the League of Nations or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. Disproving the claim that such ideas must necessarily come from the “West,” Tagore showed how the ideas of democracy, freedom, co-existence, equality and human rights existed in the folk philosophies of the East and in different religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. This was the theme of his Oxford University lectures in 1930.
Tagore rejected the notion that knowledge (and civilization) must flow from the West to the East. The West and the East had much to learn from each other, he contended.
In 1921 Tagore established the “world university,” called Visva Bharati to bring East and West together as equals. Its opening ceremony was attended by scholars, artists and students from Europe, China, Japan, Java, Burma, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Palestine. Today a true exchange of ideas, knowledge and cultures prospers at Visva Bharati where Tagore’s poem “Mind Without Fear” has a special meaning:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
The world has yet to fully appreciate Tagore’s vision. Our youth, if they knew him, would deeply value his message of freeing creativity from every form of domination. This year’s celebrations offer wonderful opportunities to know Tagore.
Ashok K. Bhargava is a Vancouver based author, poet and a cultural activist.
Contact Ashok at email@example.com
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