Rabindranath Tagore: Celebrating the Bengali bard's 150th year
May 7, 2011 marks the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, one of India's most important cultural touchstones. To mark the occasion many notable events are taking place around the country, and even outside of it. Who knew Tagore influenced prominent Chinese and Irish poets? That he was buddies with the Bauhaus boys back in the day? Or that he might one day, 150 years later, find his entire life squashed into a five-coach train? Read on.
Born in Kolkata in 1861, Tagore became a novelist, playwright, poet, musician, artist, social reformer and a central figure in the Indian modernist movement. He was a revolutionary educationist who set up the concept of an open-air university in 1901 with the Visva-Bharati in Santiniketan, West Bengal. He also composed our national anthem. And it was also from his poem "Gitanjali," often cited as a key component of his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, that India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru quoted, to usher in independence in 1947. Tagore had died by then, in 1941.
When Tagore won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 he was the first non-European to win it and is still the only Indian with the honor. Praise for the man has come from far and wide. Yasunari Kawabata, the first Japanese Nobel Laureate in Literature, described Tagore as "this sage-like poet". And Irish poet WB Yeats wrote: "These prose translations from Rabindranath Tagore have stirred my blood as nothing has for years... These lyrics -- which are in the original, my Indians tell me, full of subtlety of rhythm, of untranslatable delicacies of color, of metrical invention -- display in their thought a world I have dreamed of all my life long. The work of a supreme culture, they yet appear as much the growth of the common soil as the grass and the rushes."
Rabindranath revivalism: Shantiniketan to Shanghai
Tagore enthusiasts hope the upcoming celebrations around the world will revive interest in Tagore's works, which is fading and restricted mainly to Bengal and Bengalis. The first major exhibition of his paintings outside West Bengal happened only in May this year when PM Manmohan Singh inaugurated "The Master's Strokes: Art of Rabindranath Tagore" in New Delhi.
A 35 member national committee, headed by the prime minister has been set up to supervise this year's celebrations.
From cultural voyeurs to stamp collectors, from art lovers to Indian patriots and feminists, the plan is to have something for everyone. "Tagore espoused the cause of women's empowerment in his works much before the bra-burning era began," says media consultant and event planner Sujoy Prosad Chakraborti. Chakraborti was in Mumbai in the last week of June, reading "Gitanjali" to a packed hall at Ravindra Natya Mandir. "I was delighted when two young fellows with tattoos and pierced ears thanked me and said they really enjoyed my reading."
Mumbai-based artist, writer and filmmaker Gautam Benegal believes the ideas of India's most famous bard are still relevant today. He made an animation film "Kalakalam" (literally meaning "The pen machine") based on Tagore's "Totakahini". "I was motivated to make Tagore's 'Totakahini' because I felt what he had to say about the education system then still holds true today," says Benegal who won a national award this year for his film "Prince and the Crown of Stones". "Only the players have changed."
Theater personality and singer Devajit Bandyopadhyay quotes Tagore's play "Raktakarabi" (Red Oleanders) as a perfect example of modernist writing. "The cruel king and his lust for power is symbolic of the present state of Indian politics and politicians."
In the build up to this year fans like Chakraborti have thought of innovative ways to make the larger-than-life, silver-haired Tagore more accessible to India's youth. He does readings and performances at places like cafes, nightclubs and bookstores. He has even held a fashion show -- which elicited several raised eyebrows in Kolkata -- called Tagoreana at The Park hotel, showcasing the prevalent clothing styles of that era. And he has more events planned for the year, such as Tagore@Unplugged, an integration of world music and Rabindrasangeet.
Sanskriti Express: Mobile museum
So that people outside the main metros won't all miss out on the festivities, the Indian government has commissioned the Sanskriti Express, a special five-coach train, to showcase Tagore’s works. Each coach is dedicated to a field of dance, music, literature and art, and this mobile museum will cover more than 70 stations during its year-long journey, stopping at each for a few days. It was flagged off from Kolkata in May and will journey to all of India's states over the course of the year.
Paris: Tagore's first international exhibition in 1930
From a one-man fan to a world body -- UNESCO will play a major part in the celebrations this year. A statement says that by observing his 150th birth anniversary globally, it hopes to "build up a conception of the universal reconciled with the particular, now that peace is being jeopardized nationally, regionally and internationally by identity-related and spiritual tension". International readings, seminars and performances of Tagore's works will culminate with a major event on May 7, 2011, which marks the actual birth anniversary of Tagore. UNESCO and the National Gallery of Modern Art will also put together an exhibition of Tagore's paintings which will travel to Paris, London, Berlin, Rome and New York.
The inaugural event "Waves of Joy" -- a presentation of music, dance and poetry in Bengali, English and French organized by UNESCO -- was held in Paris in May at Maison de L'Inde City University. A collection of rare iconography of Tagore was also on display including a photograph of Tagore with Mahatma Gandhi and another with Albert Einstein. It was perhaps fitting that the launch of the year-long commemorative celebrations took place here as the first international exhibition of Tagore’s paintings was held in Paris in May 1930.
Shanghai: Teens talking Tagore to their lovers
In China, a statue of Tagore now stands in Shanghai. On May 30 this year, President Pratibha Patil unveiled the sculpture. The poet visited China in the 1920s and his works have influenced a generation of Chinese intellectuals and writers. After Shakespeare, Tagore is said to be the most translated foreign writer in Chinese. He found admirers in 20th century Chinese writers and poets like Xu Zhimo. Now, for the first time, Tagore's complete works are being translated directly from Bengali into Chinese by Dong Youchen and his team. The first five volumes, to be published by Renmin Publishing House, are due out in May 2011.
According to a report in China Daily commemorating the anniversary, Tagore was translated by some of the best Chinese poets of the time. "Guo Moruo, Bin Xing and Xu Zhimo, excellent writers themselves, were able to appreciate the ethos, technique, emotion and nuanced use of language in Tagore’s writing". The article goes on to say that "Now in 2010, young people are quoting from Tagore in Valentine's Day messages."
London: Sotheby's and snobby collector stamps
Works by Tagore are rare to the auction market, so when a collection of 12 rare paintings by the Bengali poet came under the hammer at Sotheby's in the United Kingdom they sold for over £1.5m ($2.2m). "The rarity and distinguished provenance of the 12 Tagore paintings -- in addition to the fact that they have never appeared on the open market before -- made their auction debut a once-in-a-generation opportunity for collectors in the field," a Sotheby's statement said.
A limited edition A4 stamp sheet, designed in India, has been commissioned by the British Royal Mail. The 10 stamps feature images from Tagore’s life. Only 1,000 sheets have been released, making this a collectible item. The sheets will be on sale for Rs 1,000. For further details, call +91 (0) 33 2429 2967. The stamps are also available at Oxford Bookstore, 3, Dinshaw Vachha Road, Churchgate; tel. +91 (0) 22 6636 4477/88. While in India in May, Union Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee released a set of two special commemorative coins in the denominations of Rs 5 and Rs 150 issued by the Reserve Bank of India.
What not to miss: Tagore omnibus
First-ever compilation of all Tagore's paintings in a book: The university set up by Tagore in 1901 -- Visva-Bharati -- has planned several national and international collaborations. The most anticipated is an exhaustive collection and study of 1,800 of Tagore's paintings, doodles and notes, to be showcased in a four-volume anthology called "Rabindra Chitravali", and priced at Rs 20,000. The set will be published by Pratikshan Books in association with Visva-Bharati due out in 2011. The paintings will be sourced from Rabindra Bhavan, Kala Bhavan, National Gallery of Modern Art, Academy of Fine Arts and Rabindra Bharati University.
Did you know?
The brothers Bauhaus: Tagore and his brother Abanindranath Tagore were instrumental in bringing the art of Bauhaus masters to Kolkata in 1923. This was the first ever Bauhaus exhibition on such a scale outside of Europe and included graphic works, drawings and woodcuts from artists like Wassily Kadinsky, Gerhard Marcks, Lionel Feininger, Lothar Schreyer, Johannes Itten and Paul Klee. Tagore had visited the Bauhaus school at Weimar, Germany in 1921 and met Paul Klee, Walter Gropious and others.
Rabindrasangeet and Bollywood: Few people know that Tagore's music left an imprint on yesteryear Bollywood. For instance, the most recent example of his influence is the film "Parineeta's" popular song "Piyu bole" inspired by Tagore's "Phule, phule, doley, doley". The list is long -- SD Burman's "Tere mere milan ki yeh raina" picturized on Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bhaduri in the film "Abhimaan" is based on Tagore's "Jodi tare nai chini go sheki". In April, as part of the ongoing countrywide celebrations, a music event in Ahmedabad, Gujarat traced the roots of Rabindrasangeet in Indian cinema.