Sunday, May 29, 2011

The eternal beauty of Tagore's writing reaches rural Britain

The sun shone as I sat at a trendy hippyish café inside a beautiful grand county estate in Devon. I felt like I was at a similarly hedonistically intellectual event, the Jaipur Literature Festival, but I was, in fact at the Tagore Festival, which was being held, bizarrely not in Derby, Bradford, Southall or any other British Indian haunt,  but rather in rural Devon.

About 2,000 people had descended on the new age town of Totnes (where I once went on a shiatsu course)  earlier this month for The Tagore Festival, held to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the famous Nobel prize winning Bengali writer and artist’s birth.

Auto rickshaws, creating the India vibe, plied festival goers up to the Dartington Hall Estate, a venue deliberately chosen because it was turned into a centre to promote arts, sustainability and social justice in 1925 inspired by Tagore, then friends with the owners, Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst, who had visited his famed Santiniketan in West Bengal, where Gandhi sent his children. The two men actually shared a lot of values but Tagore was not an ardent nationalist like the Father of the Nation.

Dartington Hall is a grand stately home inside a huge luscious estate in the county of Devon, not known for its Indian connections. For the festival, a huge elephant had been erected on the lawns, with garlands around it and a smell of curry wafted from tents erected to sell chai and samosas.

Intellectuals, hippies and middle-class families intermingled on the lawns as Indian fusion music pounded out from speakers.

Surprisingly, most of the delegates on the day I went were Caucasian and not Asian. I had thought it would be a draw for the British Asian community, but a bit like yoga, curry houses and Asian underground music, Tagore seems to have imprinted himself on the non-Asian British psyche possibly more than that of the psyche of the Indian origin community in the UK.

Like many young Indians, I too, had heard of, but never read Tagore. That is until I got to the exhibition where his poetry moved me. It was as powerful and enlightening as that of Shakespeare or Wordsworth. I was surprised it was not taught in every Indian school. My Indian friend informed me Tagore was taught in West Bengal but not, for example, in Maharashtra, which I found strange. To me, he was India’s Shakespeare – surely he should be on the national curriculum - or maybe there is someone better? 

The festival consisted of a series of speeches by different speakers ranging from Deepak Chopra to Mark Tully and there was also an exhibition of Tagore and his relationship with Dartington Hall. This included genuine letters from Tagore to the Elmhirsts. 

One of the most bizarre items on exhibit was a real grey wiry lock of the poet’s beard inside a plastic case. The grey hair had apparently been sent to Dartington upon Tagore’s death in 1941; his robe and hat that he had left there were also on display. This lock of beard, perfectly preserved, became a major taking point in the Indian press afterwards.

What impressed me somewhat more than that was how much of the community of Devon had been doing Tagore-related activities to celebrate Tagore’s enduring spirit. So, for example, students from nearby schools had created a Tagore sculpture trail made out of intricate carvings inspired by Tagore’s poems using oak grown on the estate and milled locally. There was also a bell made by a local sculptor in his name.

 Five local schools had taken part in an all-day art workshop combining Tagore’s writing with art. It was heartening to see the Indian poet having such an influence on English schools and young people.

But most people on the day I went were there for Deepak Chopra’s two sessions which had queues stretching across the lawn. 

After signing copies of his new (56th?) book, Chopra went on stage to give a speech.

“I do not know why but I felt good when I read his poems,” the qualified doctor and multi-millionaire author said, revealing he was 12 when he started reading the poems. “Sometimes in medicine you encounter death and there is solace in his poetry and it allowed me to transcend even the fear of death,” he said quoting from Tagore’s poetry.

I was not aware of the moment
When I first crossed the threshold of this life.
What was the power that made me open out into this vast mystery
like a bud in the forest at midnight!
When in the morning I looked upon the light
I felt in a moment that I was no stranger in this world,
that the inscrutable without name and form
had taken me in its arms in the form of my own mother.
Even so, in death the same unknown will appear as ever known to me.
And because I love this life,
I know I shall love death as well.

In a private interview with me before the speech, Chopra, a down-to-earth man who lacked the social pretensions one might expect from a millionaire, said: “Tagore has great relevance in the world today when you look at for example the ecological devastation happening all around us. “ He explained that Tagore believed the universe was inseparable from the stream of life running through our veins and Tagore would be very unhappy with the way the environment was being destroyed.

“I think Tagore would be disappointed with modern India, the fact that the country boasts about being an emerging superpower when it has more malnourished children than in Sub-Saharan Africa and politics is rife with corruption. 350 million Indians live in radical poverty,” he said. He said Tagore would want to see India pursue a more “authentic spirituality.” I asked him to elaborate. “ The spirituality there is the same old stuff that’s been recycled over 1000s of years  from gurus to disciples, it’s very self-absorbed and not about helping others, nor is it practical, with some exceptions, it is very narcissistic,” he said.

He was critical of the lack of state support for Tagore in India. “He’s better known in south America than in India because India does not promote him at all. Very few people in India have read his works because India is on a race to conform yet he is as great as Shakespeare. India does not promote him at all. How many people know about this festival?” he asked rhetorically.  It was indeed strange that the profile of Tagore, India’s only Nobel laureate in literature, was not higher.

Satish Kumar, a former Jain monk, who edits Resurgence magazine, and was the artistic director of the week-long event, also criticised the Indian Government for not supporting the British event.  “The Indian Government did not support the festival,” he declared. “I asked them to pay for some Indian artists to come here and they would not so they did not come. Mark Tully came at his own expense. People in England know more about Bollywood than Tagore.”
He blamed it on the modern Indian growth story: aggressive pursuit of economic growth, above spiritual, personal or artistic growth.
“Tagore would not approve of the way the main thrust of India at the moment is economic growth and materialism, and that despite 60 years of Independence in India, millions of people there are without homes and food,” he said.
He added Tagore would be heartbroken with the whole world today, not just India. He was referring to the materialism and destruction of natural resources everywhere.
He added that Tagore could lift the spirit of the common man and was accessible to him. “He should be taught in every school. He is widely read in Bengali schools but not elsewhere,” he explained.

Kumar also gave a speech in which he spoke about the importance of “using our hands”, “our imagination, spirituality and creativity” and “working at a local level,” commenting that “that was religion,” and what Tagore advocated. “We should replace the three R’s, that is reading, writing and arithmetic, with the heart, hands and head, “ he commented:  “We are all connected. Tagore is the Shakespeare of India because he touches the depths of the human soul and that is the gift of Shakespeare too. How to treat land, people and nature – all this can be found in his writings. He taught that the natural world is not just a source of economic wellbeing, but also spiritual wellbeing.  For Tagore, God is not someone in the clouds; he is a divine presence in all living beings.”

I liked this concept and it reminded me of the essence of Shintoism. Kumar was very pleased with the turnout, despite the low attendance of British Asians: “It’s a people’s festival. Our aim is to popularise Tagore,” he said. "We have had people fly in from overseas."

But the one woman I spoke to sunbathing on the lawn, said she was there because of Kumar, not Tagore, or even Chopra. "I just love his magazine Resurgence and his thinking about everything in the world," she told me. "I am his soulmate. I came across his book in a second-hand bookshop. I had not heard of Tagore but I came because of Satish Kumar."

Amit Chaudhuri, author of five novels and who is a professor at the University of East Anglia, also gave a speech, in which he was critical of the English translation of Gitanjali, Tagore’s most famous work, saying it had a “semi mystical tone not present in the Bengali version” and the playfulness of Tagore’s writing in Bengali was lost in the translation, making the poems the property of “new-age people, spiritualists and Khali Gibran followers.
 “He is not widely read in India and that is because he is a nightmare to translate and those who do translate him, do so with plenty of passion but not enough judiciousness.  The common man does not have access to his writing, except in Bengali where it is popular kitsch culture,” he added derisively.

So while the literary world argued over what the real merits of Tagore were and why he isn't more of a success in today's society (unlike in 1913 when he was propagated as a literary genius) , I was left to mull over why the Indian and West Bengal governments had not jumped at the chance to promote their literary talent, the only Indian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, to the world. 
Perhaps they are angry with Dartington Hall Trust for making a killing out of selling 12 rare Tagore paintings at Sotheby’s last year and not handing the paintings over to them for free. Or maybe they simply thought the Trust had enough money to put on the festival following the £1.5 m auction in June 2010. 

One day in spring, a woman came
In my lonely woods,
In the lovely form of the Beloved.
Came, to give to my songs, melodies,
To give to my dreams, sweetness.
Suddenly a wild wave
Broke over my heart's shores
And drowned all language.
To my lips no name came,
She stood beneath the tree, turned,
Glanced at my face, made sad with pain,
And with quick steps, came and sat by me.
Taking my hands in hers, she said:
'You do not know me, nor I you--
I wonder how this could be?'
I said:
'We two shall build, a bridge for ever
Between two beings, each to the other unknown,
This eager wonder is at the heart of things.'

The cry that is in my heart is also the cry of her heart;
The thread with which she binds me binds her too.
Her have I sought everywhere,
Her have I worshipped within me,
Hidden in that worship she has sought me too.
Crossing the wide oceans, she came to steal my heart.
She forgot to return, having lost her own.
Her own charms play traitor to her,
She spreads her net, knowing not
Whether she will catch or be caught.

~Rabindranath Tagore


Proj Ghosh said...

Just a few pointers if I may, first and foremost, for the last 34 years, West Bengal had a communist government. My understanding of communism is it being some form of fascism, so they will run a parallel administration and make every effort to break the backbone of the state administration. If you need justice, you go the local party office instead of the session court. I know this brief is not enough to portray a complete picture but at least it gives a fair idea. All pioneers born in the state of Bengal were branded as bourgeois and Lenin/Stalin were demi-gods...blah blah.
Further, India is a conglomerate and not a country with more or less uniform culture like Britain (off course London excluded). To me even America who are quick to strut their diversity at the drop of a hat is far more uniform than India. Therefore, every state has a very different culture(there is some amount of generalization in this statement) and are left to themselves to promote their culture, the role of the Centre being very limited in this regard. Now the good news, the new Bengali government led by Mamata Banerji is putting a lot of efforts in reviving the rich cultural heritage of Bengal to the extent of playing Rabindra sangeet at red lights, just to make stoppage time more pleasant and also promote Bengali culture. She deserves a huge round of applause for her efforts at reviving the Bengali heritage and culture.

Now a foreigner may well ask, why is something as universally applicable as Rabindranath Tagore's writings not popular in other states then. Although not readily apparent to a foreigner, most Indians are busy following and promoting their community culture only, Beth Payne's the US consul general's comment might be a case in point. She recently said that most of us from the west the way we understand Indian culture is very Punjabi or at best North Indian based. She has been very impressed with Bengal especially Santiniketan, the abode of Viswabharati university where Tagore spent most of his later life. That's primarily because Punjabis are pretty boisterous with their culture(Bhangra is an agrarian dance, remember) and fits into mainstream party them pretty well while most other Indians are not. Bengali culture is way more intellectual and thoughtful which most in today's world are least interested. I have seen this numerous times in the US and I get asked often why do Indians always dance with their arms up, forget being constantly assumed I'm a vegetarian although very few days in my life till date have been spent eating vegetarian all day.

Finally for the sake of completeness, I see the more intellectual pieces of Indian culture being revered and appreciated more in the west(Britain, Germany, Japan and the US last because they are more business minded than their European counterparts) than in India, no wonder most Indian intellectuals make a beeline for the west.

Proj Ghosh said...

I posted a comment here yesterday but i don't see it anymore. If there are problems with the content, I am more than happy to edit but removing comments without any warning is rude in my opinion.

Naomi Canton said...

Hi Proj, I just searched for your comment and found it in the spam folder. It has now been published, so please accept my apologies. Comments are mot deleted unless they are highly offensive or defamatory. Thanks for explaining that Tagore is not promoted as much as one would expect owing to each state focusing on its own state literature..Interesting to the music is being played at traffc lights! That is pretty amazing...Do they stop at the lights? By the way I would be interested to know your views on Delhi Belly...

Proj Ghosh said...

Thanks, Naomi. I really enjoy these discussions and write the posts with a lot of passion and serious thought. I have an opinion and not afraid to express but I try my best not to go overboard although I must admit I am human too. Appreciate you taking the trouble of picking up my post from spam and reposting.

About Delhi Belly, I am sorry I did not watch it, don't follow bollywood, only watch select bollywood movies only if it makes a lot of headlines. I watched the first Test at Lords though and once again it was proved Tendulkar can't handle pressure. I don't trust that viral flu story a bit but I completely agree with Nasser Hussain that Indians, especially Zaheer Khan got that injury because of all that extra work he had to do in the IPL for his corporate bosses.


Proj Ghosh said...

Oh, I forgot to answer your music question. They are going to introduce this sometime around October, yes Tagore songs will be played at the red light only when all vehicles stop in an effort to do away with the boredom of having to idle your vehicle for the lights to turn green.