Saturday, February 28, 2009

Encounters with Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)

From my earliest peregrinations into literature, apart from western works that were required reading, two Asian titles have remained fresh in my mind since my impressionable school days: Rabindranath Tagore’s ’s Gitanjali in the English version introduced by W.B. Yeats, and Khalil Gibran’s Tears and Laughter. I still hold these works dear, return to them often, and have since expanded my repertoire of readings into both Tagore and Gibran, in addition, needless to say, to dozens upon dozens of other writers, Asian, European, Russian, and a sprinkling of others from the rest of the world. My explorations into literature have continued apace, and, together with that, my collection of the world's greatest literary works.

My encounters with Tagore took me, beyond Gitanjali, into his other works, those in English and those translated from Bengali. The Gitanjali poems have been a profound, haunting presence, in terms of their ethereal beauty, themes as well as their eternal and universal values.

During my early days as a lecturer at the School of Humanities, University of Penang (later renamed Universiti Sains Malaysia) on its temporary, Malayan Teachers’ College, campus I directed and produced Visarjan (1890) or Sacrifice, possibly one of the first, if not the only, attempt ever in this country to stage Tagore; the production had a multi-racial cast. This powerful work has resurfaced several times in my life in various ways apart from the stage production, as a work taught and studied in class, but mostly as material for public readings followed by lively discussions. It became one of my ways to introduce Tagore to Malaysians—still generally unexposed to great literature--who had no inkling of the existence of this great Guru, prolific writer, and Asia’s first Nobel Prize winner for literature, the prize awarded to him in 1913 for Gitanjali. Sacrifice remains, for me, an important and essential work to demonstrate the conflict in the human soul between the principles of light and darkness.

Many other Tagore plays were included as the earliest examples of “modern” Indian drama in a course which covered selected plays of major playwrights between Tagore and contemporary dramatists, three of whom: Asif Currimbhoy, Girish Karnad and Pratap Sharma, I have had the good fortune to meet during visits to India. These plays were discussed, analyzed, written about. Besides Sacrifice, the other piece that became a favourite was Dakghar (1912) or Post Office. I also managed, with some help, to translate both Sacrifice and Post Office into Bahasa Melayu; these translations have remained unpublished.

In many ways Tagore’s dramatic works defy categorization. The groups or types into which modern Asian plays, including those from India, are usually divided, using western moulds, in keeping with western theatre history, literary or theatre movements, and aesthetics, have always remained unsatisfactory; and more so when it comes to Tagore. His plays, not exactly conventional, remain outside those moulds, as perhaps only adequate and sensitive productions can demonstrate, for, apart from their literary content, there are, in them, other elements such as dance and music, which must be taken into consideration. Such productions are non-existent in Malaysia. Thus, there has never come my way any opportunity to actually watch the plays on stage. The closest I could approach these works was through descriptions of productions, often brief, here and there in the literature, or an occasional film based on a Tagore play.

Writings on Tagore’s drama are also extremely limited in the English language and, since Bengali is not one of my languages, I have always felt a serious deficiency. Tagore the person came through to me adequately in other ways, through his own prolific books and essays, as well as writings on him by others. Tagore the poet, novelist and short story writer could be approached, through some extent, through his own works, Tagore the dramatist, however, remained a familiar but distant and fascinating figure, nebulous, unfathomable. .

These feelings were to be reinforced, and to some extent new possibilities were to open up, in February 2008, the critical point when it became possible for me to fulfill a long cherished dream to visit Shantineketan, the Abode of Peace. The opportunity came through an invitation to present a paper at the 3rd Indian Folklore Congress and International Folklore Congress from 18 to 21 February 2008.

I began to read about Tagore once again, and also to actually place him as well as his venerable institution, Visva Bharati in some kind of a tangible context. Now that, in some small way, I was to become part of the Tagorean landscape, such preparation seemed both appropriate and necessary. The university’s website afforded some assistance. The instructions received from the Conference Secretariat at the Oriya Studies Department of the university were amusing in their detail, essentially laying out what had to be done once I landed in Dum Dum airport so that, taking a train from rowdy Howrah in Calcutta, I could safely be met at the Bolpur station. That much was achieved without undue travail or mishap between the midnight landing and the midmorning arrival following several hours of waiting at the airport and a certain measure of harassment and anxiety typical of Howrah.

Bolpur came as a disappointment in its rustic and dusty simplicity. Perhaps I had expected something less rough, more cultured, associated, as it was, with the near-venerable name of Rabindranath Tagore. I was to realize, soon enough, that the association I had assumed was non-existent. Bolpur was merely the township with the closest station, the most convenient entry point, to the Abode of Bliss. Shantineketan lay some minutes away by road.

Visva Bharati University had its genesis in a school started by Tagore with merely four pupils in 1901 at the location of Brahmachariya Ashram, started by his father, Debendranath Tagore, in 1867.Visva Bharati properly came into being in 1921. To set it up, Tagore used part of the money he received from the Nobel Prize.Today the campus is still a stately sprawl of trees, with buildings from the thirties, mostly cream or yellow in colour, sitting here and there, almost cast as it were, upon open spaces, reminding one of the principle Tagore borrowed from the Upanishads, that education should be imparted in the open, literally under trees.Visva Bharati, continues the old practice of offering certain classes in that manner. But the campus is a compromise between the ancient and the new. It is obviously designed for those who enjoy the company of trees.

The flowers were blooming; one could smell Spring in the still chilly air. Walking between the seminar venue at the Oriya Studies Department and the guest house for meals each day, one could “experience” Shantiniketan, quiet at that time of the year, except for small groups of students, presumably, sitting here and there under trees or in open spaces, in discussion or writing, perhaps in the manner in which Tagore sat, surrounded by his four pioneering pupils, disciples one would more appropriately say, given Tagore’s title as Gurudev, perhaps little realizing the kind of graduates his institution would produce, including, besides him, another Nobel Prize winner in Amartya Sen, the cream of an impressive list of alumni..

And, as if to further enhance this feeling of quaintness, under a large tree every morning sang a Baul singer, Hindu or Muslim, I saw no reason to know, mystic in a tradition of art in which religious differences disappear, playing his single-stringed ektara, receiving a voluntary rupee or two from those who cared to stop. It was altogether a world distant in every way from the present. And everywhere, in Bolpur as well as in Shantineketan, one could sense the presence of Tagore. His portraits rather than those of local VIP’s or national leaders adorned the buildings, while his spirit filled the very air.

Following a visit there, Shantineketan becomes a permanent part of the memory, connecting tradition and modernity. In me the visit rekindled a desire to revisit Rabindranath Tagore, the poems, exquisite in their simplicity and profoundly alive, the novels fresh with the smells and sounds of the Bengali landscape and the plays, complex and diverse in style as well as content. I resolved that I must look for a Bengali-literate partner to explore his plays, perhaps, if time permits, to complete an appropriate study.

There is, thus, always the possibility of a return to Shantineketan.

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