Rabindranath Tagore's work topical again with opening of new research centre
Arts on Sunday
By Al Creighton
December 3, 2006
The work of Tagore became topical in Guyana again recently when the newest research facility at the University of Guyana was established in the main Library at Turkeyen. It is called the Rabindranath Tagore Resource Centre and was officially inaugurated by Vice-President of the Republic of India Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and University Vice-Chancellor James Rose. It is a project that also involved India's High Commissioner Avinash Gupta, and the grand opening ceremony included new Minister of Education Shaik Baksh in his first official event on campus, and President of the UG Students Hindu Society Jadesh Sukhu as well. The state-of-the-art centre is now one of the best outfitted research facilities on the campus offering a range of electronic, book and non-book resources. But it is the second of its kind opened at Turkeyen in the past year, following the new learning resource centre in the Faculty of Health Sciences.
While that one relates specially to the medical sciences, this latest facility is multi-disciplinary and was named after India's greatest and most famous international poet, Nobel Laureate Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). It is a university study centre arising out of cooperation between the nation of India and Guyana's national institution of higher learning; a symbolic expression of the poet's lifelong dedication to universal learning and enlightened consciousness. He was not primarily a university man, but his contribution dignifies any institution. He founded the Vishwa Bharathi University whose mission was the deliberate promotion of both western and eastern philosophies. Tagore advocated "unity consciousness", a new world order based on "transnational consciousness" and intellectual liberation, which drove his writings to challenge the social and political status quo and provoke progressive change.
Yet, this is a revisit when there is once again an interest in Tagore. It was the writer's perceived 'Indianness' that was largely responsible for his immense popularity in Guyana in a previous era. The first period of interest was in the early part of the twentieth century when a class of intellectuals was rising out of Indian indentured workers seeking improvement and a place in an emerging nation. The second cycle in this saw a deliberate turn to Tagore as a representative of India. The rise of this new class and Indian intellectualism was accompanied by an increasing interest in ethnic consciousness. There was a concerted movement to cultural refuelling which resulted in adoration and promotion of the culture of 'Mother' India. An initiative emerged called the British Guiana Dramatic Society which reached its peak in the 1940s in Georgetown as a middle class club of strictly East Indian membership. Their pastime was the reading, promotion and performance of the works of Rabindranath Tagore, who must have represented to them the quintessential Indian playwright and poet, that nation's most famous writer who was associated with and was a spokesman for the great Sub-Continent in many ways.
He was born in Calcutta in 1861 in a well-off, educated and talented family, accomplished in the arts with wide involvement in literature and music. He became a prolific writer and although best known as a poet, he was equally proficient in drama and fiction. His identity with the sub-continent was partly defined by his extensive travels through the region, his promotion of it in his writings which often reflected those travels, his contributions to Indian nationhood and the fact that he was the author of the national anthem of two nations. He wrote both words and music for a song called "Jana Gana Mana" which was first used as an anthem for the 'Free State of India' from 1943 to 1945, and was then adopted as India's national anthem when the country became a Republic in 1950.
"Jana Gana Mana" (which means thou art the ruler of the minds of all people) exalts the spirit of India as a unifying force for all the country's ethnic groups which are honoured in the song. It is a well appointed articulation of statehood.
The National Anthem
Jana Gana Mana
Thou art the ruler of the minds of all people
Dispenser of India's destiny.
Thy name rouses the hearts of Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat and Maratha
Of the Dravida and Orissa and Bengal;
It echoes in the hills of the Vindhyas and Himalayas
Mingles in the music of Yamuna and Ganga and is chanted by
The waves of the Indian Sea.
They pray for thy blessings and sing thy praise.
The saving of all people waits in thy hand,
Thou dispenser of India's destiny,
Victory, victory, victory to thee.
Tagore's journeys also took him to East Bengal where he lived from 1890 to 1900 in what is described as a highly productive period of his life. He wrote in Bengali and earned the reputation of writing in the common language of the people. When East Bengal became the nation of Bangladesh, Tagore's composition "My Golden Bengal (Amar Sonar Bangla)" for which he wrote both words and music, was first adopted by the provincial government in 1971 and officially approved after independence as the national anthem on January 13, 1972.
The National Anthem
Amar Sonar Bangla
My Bengal of gold I love you
Forever your skies, your air set my heart in tune
As if it were a flute
In spring. O mother mine, the fragrance from your mango groves
Makes me wild with joy -
Ah, what a thrill!
In autumn, O mother mine
In the full-blossomed paddy fields,
I have seen spread all over - sweet smiles!
Ah! what a beauty, what shades, what an affection
And what a tenderness!
What a quilt have you spread at the feet of banyan trees
And along the bank of rivers
Oh mother mine, words from your lips
Are like nectar to my ears!
Ah, what a thrill!
If sadness, Oh mother mine, casts a gloom on your face,
My eyes are filled with tears.
The worshipful glorification of nation and state in the lyrics along with the praise crafted in musical verses after both the Romantic and the Pastoral traditions express the writer's love and loyalty for the land in which he lived. In turn, the official elevation of these poems is an emphatic demonstration of the very high esteem in which the Indians held the memory of the poet. It is also recognised that he was a patriot willing to resist colonial excesses. He supported Mahatma Gandhi and following the Jhullianwallah Bagh massacre by the British in 1919, Sir Rabindranath protested by rejecting the knighthood that had been bestowed upon him by the King in 1915.
He was equally ready to challenge indigenous injustice and to seek change at home, which is evident in his fiction. For example, the short story Punishment with the strong irony in the title is about a low-caste woman's surprising and self-sacrificing response to the usual acts of male oppression of women and of persons regarded as "low caste". A farm labourer strikes down his wife because "his food was not ready". His brother decides to pin the murder on his own wife Chandara. Her response to this double scandal of cruel injustice is a sacrificial, yet contemptuous defiance of their act, and although they are moved to repent and confess, it turns around to punish them in a way they never expected.
Great volumes of Tagore's poetry, however, are about love and music, as in the national anthems and in what is regarded as his most outstanding book of verse. This is Gitanjali (1910), which means "song offerings" and whose English translation was introduced by WB Yeats, highly praised by Ezra Pound and influenced the Swedish academy to award him the Nobel Prize in 1913. It is to be noted that Tagore engaged in a good deal of poetic experimentation in his own languages and then translated them into English. We are told that much of it was untranslatable and is lost in the English versions. Below is a brief extract from Gitanjali:
WHEN THE HEART is hard and parched up, come
upon me with a shower of mercy.
When grace is lost from life, come with a burst of song.
When tumultuous work raises its din on all sides
shutting me out from beyond, come to me, my lord
of silence with thy peace and rest.
When my beggarly hear sits crouched, shut up in a
corner, break open the door, my king, and come
with the ceremony of a king.
When desire blinds the mind with delusion and dust, O
thou holy one, thou wakeful, come with thy light
and thy thunder.
Yeats wrote in 1912 that "these lyrics . . . display in their thought a world I have dreamed of all my life long" and Pound wrote in 1913 that Tagore's poems reveal "a stillness of nature" that shows "the normal habit of his mind." He is "at one with nature, and finds no contradictions. And this is in sharp contrast with the western mode, where man must be shown attempting to master nature if we are to have 'great drama'.