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A tribute to Tagore

By: Amrit Sen Email By: Amrit Sen
August 2010
A tribute to Tagore

Among the many aspects of Rabindranath’s multifaceted personality was his fascination for travel. “I am a wayfarer of the endless road,” he wrote. He travelled widely across Europe, America and Asia at different points in his life and left behind a copious record of his travels in his letters, diaries and reflections. For Tagore, travel not only broadened his selfhood, it also contributed to his philosophy of internationalism and the development of his institution Visva-Bharati.

Tagore’s earliest experience of travel was his trip to the Himalayas in 1873 with his father Debendranath Tagore. Apart from inculcating a bonding with nature, this trip also provided a sense of freedom and exploration that Tagore was to cherish throughout his life.

Accompanied by his brother Satyendranath, the young Rabindranath travelled to Europe in 1878 to study law. He reached London via Alexandria and Paris and visited Brighton and Torquay. He enrolled himself in the faculty of Arts and Laws in the University College London, but his trip was cut short and he returned to India in 1880. One of the interesting aspects of this trip was Tagore’s recognition of the freedom of women in European society, already discussed in another essay in this volume [India Perspectives, May 2010]. The young Rabindranath also visited the British Parliament and noted the bustle of English life. Tagore undertook his second trip to Europe in 1890 with his brother Satyendranath and his friend Loken Palit, visiting London, Paris and Aden. On both these trips Tagore familiarized himself with western music and was drawn to European art, visiting the National Gallery and the French exhibition.

Tagore’s third trip to Europe in 1912 was a landmark in his career. Recuperating in England, the ailing Rabindranath came in contact with the leading literary personalities of England including William Rothenstein, W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, C.F. Andrews, Ernest Rhys and Bertrand Russell (1872-1970). His translation of Gitanjali was received with great enthusiasm as Tagore left for the USA. He visited Illinois, Chicago, Boston and New York and delivered several lectures at Harvard. On his return to England, his play The Post Office was staged by the Abbey Theatre Company. Tagore’s growing popularity as a poet can be gauged from Rothenstein’s letter to him, “When you last came, it was as a stranger, with only our unworthy selves to offer our friendship; now you come widely recognized poet and seer, with friends known and unknown in a hundred homes.” Tagore left for India in September, 1913.

The award of the Nobel Prize transformed the reputation of Tagore and he was invited all across the globe. His ideas of internationalism also spurred his desire to travel and interact with cultures. In 1916 he visited Rangoon and Japan, stopping at Kobe, Osaka, Tokyo and Yokohama. Tagore was keen to locate in Japan a “manifestation of modern life in the spirit of its traditional past”, and he was moved by the aesthetic consciousness of the people. Tagore was, however, disappointed by the emergence of nationalism and imperialism in the country.

In September 1916 Tagore was invited to the USA to deliver a series of lectures. He travelled to Seattle, Chicago and Philadelphia delivering his critique against the cult of nationalism. Although he was warmly received, his views generated a lot of hostility.

Tagore returned to Europe in 1920. In England, he was disappointed to find that his strident stand against nationalism and war had cooled the ardor of his friends. He travelled to France and was deeply moved on his trip to the battle ground near Rheims. At Strasbourg, he delivered his lecture titled “The Message of the Forest.” His subsequent visit to the USA to generate funds for Visva-Bharati proved to be unsuccessful. Not only did he fail to raise significant funds, he also encountered a distinctly hostile audience for his criticism of materialism and nationalism. In 1921, Tagore travelled to Paris to meet Romain Rolland, immediately warming to the vision of internationalism that both shared. Tagore also visited Holland and Belgium, Denmark and Sweden delivering an address at the Swedish Academy. He travelled to Germany looking with interest at the Universities there and proceeded to Vienna and Prague. Tagore’s poetry was now being translated and discussed all across Europe and offered a significant acceptance among a population that had been ravaged by war. He received a rapturous welcome everywhere as he spoke about peace and world unity.

In 1924, Tagore travelled to China. He visited Shanghai, Beijing, Nanking and Chufu. Tagore interacted with a number of poets, educationists, once again reviving the notion of an Asian solidarity. He visited the tomb of Confucius and addressed the Chinese youth on several occasions reminding them of the tradition of cultural exchange between China and India.

Tagore’s visit to South America took him to Buenos Aires, Chapadmalal and San Isidro. An ailing Rabindranath recuperated at the residence of Victoria Ocampo (1890-1979). The voyage to South America was significant for Rabindranath’s preparation of the manuscript of Purabi with its copious doodlings. It was from this point onwards that Tagore’s career as an artist would find expression. In 1926, Tagore visited Italy at the invitation of Mussolini (1883-1945). He received a rapturous reception, but once he realized the fascist leanings of Italy he severely denounced the Italian government. Tagore proceeded to Oslo, Belgrade, Bucharest, Athens and Cairo. In Germany he interacted with Albert Einstein (1879-1955). The translations of his poetry ensured that he received recognition and appreciation wherever he went.

In 1927, Tagore undertook a trip to Southeast Asia, visiting Malaya, Java, Bali, Siam and Burma. The overarching motif of this voyage was to study the relics of an Indian civilization and to forge closer cultural ties with these regions. Tagore’s travelog on this trip shows his keen interest in the music and dance of this region.

In 1930, Tagore travelled for the last time to Europe. On this trip he exhibited his paintings at several cities including Paris and they were warmly applauded. He travelled to the University of Oxford to deliver the Hibbert lectures, later published as The Religion of Man. He travelled across Munich and reached Russia. He was warmly greeted by the Russian government and intellectuals. Tagore was deeply impressed by the rural development and cooperative movements here and later attempted to replicate them in Santiniketan.

In 1932 Tagore travelled overseas for the last time to Persia on the invitation of the King of Iran. He visited Baghdad, Shiraz, Tehran, Bushehr, and he appreciated the modern measures to improve the state under Reza Shah Pehlavi (1919-1980). Once again Tagore reminded this audience of the deep cultural bonds shared by the nations. He visited the tomb of the famous poet Saadi and interacted with the King, emphasizing communal harmony as a necessary condition for progress. The younger Rabindranath had admired the free spirit of the Bedouins in an earlier poem. Having travelled for a lifetime, he had finally met the subject of his fantasy.

Tagore’s travels within the country are too numerous to catalog. He travelled to all parts of the country for various causes. The last journey to Kolkata from Santiniketan in 1941 came immediately after his stirring address titled “Crisis in Civilization” where Tagore observed the darkening clouds of war and destruction gather over the world. His only hope was for the savior who could redeem mankind.

The sheer range of Tagore’s travels fascinates us, considering the enormous difficulties and hardship he had to encounter. He was always eager to familiarize himself with other cultures, integrating the best aspects within his self and his institution. The young Rabindranath had travelled for pleasure and education. Once he was recognized as a world poet, he travelled as a voice of humanity to a society recovering from war, warning against the dangers of nationalism, fascism and imperialism. He retained an unflinching stance despite the hostility that he faced. As Tagore devoted himself to the growth of Visva-Bharati, his travels were directed to enriching the institution by creating a space where different cultures could coexist harmoniously in one nest. Everywhere he went, he interacted with the brightest intellects and creative personalities debating issues of philosophy, politics and aesthetics.

Writing to his daughter, Tagore once commented, “I feel a restlessness swaying me… The world has welcomed me and I too shall welcome the world… I go towards the wide road of the wayfarer.” As he travelled across unknown ways dreaming about a globe without borders, he searched for the self that would be at home in the world.

[The author teaches English literature at Visva-Bharati, West Bengal, and is a specialist on American Literature. Reprinted with the permission of India Perspectives.]

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