Jun 192016
 
Jo Cox MP

Image Today 07-15-39

The assassination of Labour MP Jo Cox on Thursday while working for her constituents has shocked many of us in the UK. Apart from the tragic loss of such a promising young politician and campaigner, perhaps the most unsettling aspect has been that her killer apparently repeatedly shot and stabbed her while shouting “Britain first“. The man charged with her murder, Thomas Mair, would only give his name in court as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”

In the aftermath of her death, her husband, Brendan Cox, issued a courageous statement calling on everyone to “unite to fight against the hatred that killed her.” Jo Cox’s Fund, set up by friends and family on Friday, has raised almost £600,000 at the time of writing. One of the three causes which will benefit from the fund is Hope not Hate.

The Hope not Hate campaign learned from the Southern Poverty Law Centre that Thomas Mair “had bought manuals and other materials linked with terrorism from one of America’s (and the world’s) most virulent neo-nazi movements, the National Alliance(NA)”.

In her maiden speech in the House of Commons last year, Jo Cox said: “Our communities have been deeply enhanced by immigration, be it of Irish Catholics across the constituency or of Muslims from Gujarat in India or from Pakistan, principally from Kashmir. While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”

This conclusion is behind the #MoreInCommon hashtag which is being used to celebrate Jo Cox’s “belief in the humanity of every person in every place”. It also echoes the basis of Rabindranath Tagore’s humanism throughout his work.

In a series of speeches criticising nationalism over a century ago, after winning his Nobel Prize for Literature, Tagore observed that:

“… the idea of the Nation is one of the most powerful anaesthetics that man has invented. Under the influence of its fumes, the whole people can carry out its systematic programme of the most virulent self-seeking without being in the least aware of its moral perversion, in fact feeling dangerously resentful if it is pointed out. …

“When we are fully human, we cannot fly at one another’s throats; our instincts of social life, our traditions of moral ideals stand in the way. If you want me to take to butchering human beings, you must break up that wholeness of my humanity through some discipline which makes my will dead, my thoughts numb, my movements automatic, and then from the dissolution of the complex personal man will come out that abstraction, that destructive force, which has no relation to human truth, and therefore can be easily brutal or mechanical.”

Tagore defined the Nation as follows:

A nation, in the sense of the political and economic union of a people, is that aspect which a whole population assumes when organised for a mechanical purpose. Society as such has no ulterior purpose. It is an end in itself. It is a spontaneous self-expression of man as a social being. It is a natural regulation of human relationships, so that men can develop ideals of life in co-operation with one another. It has also a political side, but this is only for a special purpose. It is for self-preservation. It is merely the side of power, not of human ideals.

… The time comes when it can stop no longer, for the competition grows keener, organisation grows vaster, and selfishness attains supremacy. Trading upon the greed and fear of man, it occupies more and more space in society, and at last becomes its ruling force.

Tagore reminded his audience that the real history of India is that of its social life and attainment of spiritual ideals.

… her homes, her fields, her temples of worship, her schools, where her teachers and students lived together in the atmosphere of simplicity and devotion and learning, her village self-government with its simple laws and peaceful administration—all these truly belonged to her.”

He contrasted this with Western society, where “the national machinery of commerce and politics turns out neatly compressed bales of humanity which have their use and high market value; but they are bound in iron hoops, labelled and separated off with scientific care and precision.

As Uma Das Gupta and Anandarup Ray concluded “Like Tagore, we also live in the age of science and internationalism. Today we call it globalisation, and our education is still similar to Western-style colonialist education. Given how troubled our world is becoming, there is a growing awareness of the need to reconcile the values of ‘universal’ and ‘diversity’, a conviction that Tagore pioneered not only in thought but also in his life of action.”

This tension has been heightened by UK politicians in the build up to the UK Referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EU or leave it. The Remain campaign has focused on building fear of the economic consequences of the UK leaving the EU. Meanwhile, the Leave campaign has been urging people to “Take back control” and stressing the need to control immigration. Both have been “trading upon the greed and fear of man”. But these concerns have driven not only the UK’s but also the EU’s migration policies – to such an extent that the latter has been branded by Médecins Sans Frontières as ‘dangerous‘ for asylum worldwide.

Jo Cox was Co-Chair of the Friends of Syria All Party Parliamentary Group and had called for 3,000 Syrian children seeking asylum to be welcomed to the UK. Her parliamentary interests were “foreign policy, international development, early years education and social isolation”. Before entering Parliament, she had helped to launch Britain in Europe, the pro-European organisation. She had spent two years working with Baroness Glenys Kinnock in Brussels, followed by “a decade working in a variety of roles with aid agency Oxfam, including head of policy, head of humanitarian campaigning based in New York and head of their European office in Brussels.”

Speaking yesterday, Jo Cox’s sister said that she “only saw the good in people.” Jo Cox had also received abuse on social media during her political career. “But, she would still see the positive and talk about the silent majority who would not always shout the loudest but were in her corner,” she said.

Jo Cox’s untimely death last Thursday raises questions about where society is heading, not only in the UK but also elsewhere. Unfortunately, it seems to fulfil Tagore’s prediction of a society whose humanity has been broken up, leading it to become a brutal or mechanical destructive force. Of course, as Tagore also realised, the solution lies in two of Jo Cox’s interests: early years education and social inclusion.

On Wednesday, which would have been Jo Cox’s 42nd birthday, there will be #MoreInCommon celebrations of Jo Cox’s life around the world. Perhaps, like Tagore, Jo Cox dreamed of a united world:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free:
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action –
Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake.

Feb 042015
 
Photo: Herb Thyme

Dartington Hall – Photo by Herb Thyme

I have recently been reminded about my visits over the years to Dartington Hall, near Totnes, Devon in South-West England. The connection between it and my family is, of course, through Rabindranath Tagore.

My first visit there was with my parents as part of a small group accompanying the late Tagore singer Kanika Bannerjee, a long-standing friend of my father. It was to organise a concert with her at the Conway Hall in London in 1976 that my parents had launched the cultural organisation Prantik.

Some years later, when Dr Frances Shepherd was the music director at Dartington College of Arts, she had persuaded the late Pandit Sharda Sahai to become artist in residence at Dartington. During this period, he started giving tabla lessons every weekend at Toynbee Hall in East London. As he was from the same gharana as my original tabla teacher (Binod Bihari Sarkar in Kolkata), my parents took me there to help me to develop my tabla playing.

Before long, it was time to do my tabla exams. However, as they were only a week or so after my university finals, I had had little time to prepare. So Shardaji kindly offered to let me stay with his family for the week before the tabla exams, so that I could prepare for them with his students in Dartington. It was a memorable week.

Dartington College had been established by Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst, who bought Dartington Hall and the land around it in 1925. Leonard Elmhirst had been rural development adviser to Tagore in Santiniketan. Dartington College was modelled on Tagore’s educational principles (which are similar to the ‘self-organised learning environments’ that Professor Sugata Mitra was advocating at the Learning Technologies conference in London last week).

More recently, Kaberi and I visited Dartington with my father in 2004 so that she could do some research for her PhD in Tagore dance in the Elhirst archives at Hill Cross House.

To kill an error is as good a service as, and sometimes even better than, the establishing of a new truth or fact.” – Charles Darwin, 1879

I was reminded of our connection with Dartington recently when I decided to write to the Chair of the Commons Health Select Committee to call for an investigation into the apparent problems I had come across while exploring how best to help my father’s dementia. I was fascinated to see that Dr Sarah Wollaston, the Chair of the Committee, is the MP for Totnes. Dartington falls within her constituency.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I have drawn attention to these problems in my film You must be nuts! – the business of dementia.

I gave the letter I sent to Dr Wollaston last night the title ‘Doubts about dietary/medical guidance and research funding’. As you will see, it has four annexes – on dietary advice, medical guidance, medical research and chronic regulatory failure affecting the nation’s health.

My thanks particularly to those who provided me with background information for the letter, including Jerome Burne (medical journalist), Patrick Holford (CEO of the Food for the Brain Foundation), Dr Stephanie Seneff (Senior Research Scientist at MIT), Justin Smith (Producer/Director of Statin Nation and Statin Nation 2), Nina Teicholz (investigative journalist and author of The Big Fat Surprise), and Dr Verner Wheelock (nutritionist). I am also grateful to Zoë Harcombe (author of The Obesity Epidemic), Dr Malcolm Kendrick (author of The Great Cholesterol Con) and cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra for their articles and blog posts.

Over the weekend, it emerged that doctors are being offered incentives to prescribe statin drugs (which Dr Stephanie Seneff described as ‘toxic’ in her interview for You must be nuts!). After sending my letter, the morning news revealed that MPs from the Public Accounts Committee had called for radical change to make the NHS sustainable.

On the last page of the fourth annex of my letter, I draw attention to a model highlighted by Frederic Laloux in his RSA talk ‘How to become a soulful organisation’. Maybe it could suggest a humanist and more cost-effective way forward for the NHS.

Dec 242014
 
Breakfast scene with Alph & Chah-lee
Breakfast scene with Alph & Chah-lee

Breakfast scene with Alph & Chah-lee

It has been over a year since my last post here. Let me explain why.

In January 2013, I wrote about Coconut oil: after the cataclysm. Almost two years later, I have just completed the film You must be nuts! which traces the journey I’ve been on since then.

It’s my fourth feature film – the first three being film versions of the three dance-dramas by Rabindranath Tagore: Shyama, Chandalika and Chitrangada. Of course, You must be nuts! is a very different film from the Tagore dance-dramas. However, after dealing with repressive regimes, prejudice and women’s emancipation in the previous films, the theme of You must be nuts! is probably just as controversial.

You must be nuts! is more like an investigative documentary, with puppets. Here is its 3-minute prequel.

As you will realise from the film, the situation is even more sinister than I had imagined when I wrote my blog post about coconut oil almost two years ago.

You may be asking yourself what this has to do with Tagore. After all, he was writing poetry right up to his death at the age of 80 on 7 August 1941 and he wrote his most accomplished stage work, Shyama, at the age of 78.

Well, here in the West, there is a convenient myth that more people are likely to develop dementia because people are living longer. Was Tagore an exception? Maybe it was because he kept himself mentally active?

In reality, there has been a surge of dementia in the last 30 years which cannot be explained simply by increased life expectancy. It was rare until the 1980s. Today, over half of people over 85 have Alzheimer’s, compared to 2% in the 1960s. In addition, 8% of people with dementia have Young onset dementia – they are between 30 and 65.

Even so, friends joke about having a ‘senior moment’ or ‘early Alzheimer’s’ when they forget a name or something slips their mind. There is a general fear that, as everyone gets older, they will get Alzheimer’s. Indeed, a recent UK survey revealed that ‘a third of people are worried about getting dementia’.

In what has been classed as one of the best non-fiction books of 2014 (The Big Fat Surprise), Nina Teicholz has provided a fascinating but tragic account of why scientists in the US and other countries started to advocate a low fat diet and lowering cholesterol 50 years ago. She summarised the story of what happened in an interview:

“It begins in the 1950s, when the desperate need to solve the heart-disease epidemic caused experts to jump the gun, launching dietary guidelines based on weak, incomplete science. As research dollars and institutions became invested in the idea, it became harder to reverse course, until, ultimately, the U.S. government’s adoption of the diet enshrined it in our federal bureaucracy. Biased science became a necessity. A once-loud group of critics was silenced … .”

When you realise that a low fat diet and lowering cholesterol may cause dementia, and that a (low fat), high carbohydrate diet increases the risk of dementia by a factor of almost 4, you start to see this seemingly harmless dietary advice in very a different light. Indeed, a study published last month concluded that, not only does eating more saturated fat not increase the level of saturated fat in the blood but also diabetes and heart disease are linked to diets high in carbohydrates.

Last week, Dr Richard Smith, the former editor of the British Medical Journal, wrote a feature article with the title Are some diets “mass murder”? . He concludes that:

“The successful attempt to reduce fat in the diet of Americans and others around the world has been a global, uncontrolled experiment, which like all experiments may well have led to bad outcomes. What’s more, it has initiated a further set of uncontrolled global experiments that are continuing.”

After all I have seen and heard in my research about dementia over the past three years, it seems to me most likely that the lives of millions of people, including my father, have been harmed by regulatory failure which failed to stop ‘bad science’ driving Government advice. That, in turn, seems to be costing public authorities millions, if not billions, in avoidable healthcare costs.

The clear stream of reason seems to have lost its way, whether because of corruption or complacency (the dreary desert sand of dead habit), over at least 30 years. Maybe there is even fear to admit that mistakes were made. Whatever the reason, it’s time for a full, formal investigation, possibly with criminal penalties for the individuals responsible, certainly with policies based on the latest scientific research.

As things stand, though, we in the West are far from being where the mind is without fear. At least by publishing You must be nuts! on YouTube, and by providing the underlying scientific references, knowledge is free and words come out from the depth of truth.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free:
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action –
Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake.

Rabindranath Tagore, 1912

Oct 072013
 

A version of this post first appeared on the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust blog on 9 May 2013.

7 May 2013 was the 152nd anniversary of the birth of the Bengali creative genius and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore. This year is also the centenary of Tagore winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

We celebrated the occasion at Shakespeare’s Birthplace on 4 May 2013, two weeks after the Shakespeare birthday celebrations.

tagore-ceremony-pic

Board in the garden of Shakespeare’s Birthplace announcing the ceremony

I had outlined the connection between the two Bards and presented the programme for the afternoon in my blog post Two bards’ birthdays. The annual tradition of celebrating Tagore’s birth anniversary by the bust in the garden of Shakespeare’s Birthplace was started by my parents and their Bengali cultural group Prantik in 1997, the year after the bust was installed in the garden.

This year, the event attracted many people, including HE Dr Jaimini Bhagwati, the High Commissioner of India to the UK, and HE Mohamed Mijarul Quayes, the High Commissioner of Bangladesh to the UK.

As High Commissioner Bhagwati noted in his introduction, the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh are songs which were written by Tagore.

high-commissioner-tagore-ceremony

HE Dr J Bhagwati,
High Commissioner of India

With the help of Shakespeare Aloud! actors Jennifer Hodges and Jenny Jenkins, we gave the first performance of Tagore’s Nobel Prize in the garden of Shakespeare’s Birthplace, by the bust of Tagore. The show explained, through poems and songs by Tagore, how he came to win the 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature.

The opening poem was recited in Bengali by Mousumi Basu, who was also one of the singers. The other singers were Supratik Basu, Chhaya Biswas, Kaberi Chatterjee and Tirthankar Roy. We were accompanied on esraj by Tirthankar Roy.

Of course, behind the scenes, there had been weeks of preparation by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust team: Dr Diana Owen (its Director), Julia Howells, Jennifer Stone (Shakespeare Aloud!), Chloe Malendewicz (Operations manager) and Charles Rogers (Centre manager).

Tagore’s Nobel Prize recalls how Rabindranath Tagore was invited to London by the painter William Rothenstein, a friend of Rabindranath’s nephew Abanindranath Tagore. In July 1912, Rothenstein introduced Rabindranath to his literary friends, including W.B. Yeats. They became mesmerised by Rabindranath’s English Gitanjali.

By February 1913, Tagore had been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature by Thomas Sturge Moore, a member of the Royal Society of London. Meanwhile, 97 members of the Royal Society had nominated Thomas Hardy.

tagore-ceremony-pic-two

Me narrating Tagore’s Nobel Prize
in the garden of Shakespeare’s Birthplace

By September 1913, members of the Swedish Academy of the Nobel Committee were considering awarding the Nobel Prize to Emile Faguet, a French literary historian and moralist. However, a letter by Swedish poet and novelist Verner von Heidenstam (who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature himself) convinced them to give the Prize to Tagore:

“I read them with deep emotion and I cannot recall having seen for decades anything comparable in lyric poetry… and if ever a poet may be said to possess the qualities which entitle him to a Nobel Prize, he is precisely the man… we should not pass him by… the privilege has been granted us to discover a great name before it has time to be paraded for years up and down the columns of the daily newspapers. If this discovery is to be utilized we must not delay and lose our chance by waiting another year.”

We concluded the performance by moving next to the bust of Tagore and singing two Tagore songs which are usually sung on his birth anniversary.

tagore-ceremony-pic-three

Singing by the bust of Tagore
in the garden of Shakespeare’s Birthplace

After a break for tea and a chance to look at the Tagore section of the ‘Shakespeare Treasures’ exhibition, HE Mohamed Mijarul Quayes, the Bangladesh High Commissioner, launched the CD collection of all 2,222 songs in Tagore’s Gitobitan (the compendium of his songs) and presented a framed portrait of Tagore to the Shakespeare Birthplace. He then gave this excellent introduction to the UK premiere of our film version of Chitrangada.

You can watch Chitrangada here.

In his introduction, High Commissioner Quayes also mentioned the other two dance-dramas by Tagore: Chandalika and Shyama. Our film versions of these dance-dramas had their world premieres in Stratford in 2011 and 2009, respectively. Chitrangada completes the Tagore dance film trilogy.

You can watch Chandalika here.

You can watch Shyama here.

May 012013
 
Painting by Rabindranath Tagore: Three witches from Macbeth

Painting by Rabindranath Tagore: Three witches from Macbeth

On April 23, (with a little help from our friends AJ and Melissa Leon) people all over the world celebrated Shakespeare’s birthday. Those who used Twitter to wish Shakespeare a Happy Birthday included Stephen Fry, Arianna Huffington and Geri Halliwell.

Shakespeare’s birthday is certainly one I cannot miss, since it happens to be my birthday too. It is also St George’s Day – and you can imagine that I have supported calls to make St George’s Day a national holiday for years, but to no avail … !

Next week, on May 7, it will be Rabindranath Tagore’s birthday. Apart from becoming known as ‘the Bard of Bengal’ for his major impact on Bengali literature, Tagore was quite strongly influenced by Shakespeare. One of the tasks he had been given by a tutor at the age of 13 was to translate Macbeth into Bengali. This probably contributed to his deep respect for Shakespeare’s work.

We came across this painting of the Three witches from Macbeth at an exhibition of Tagore’s paintings in Bruges last year, where our film versions of Tagore’s dance-dramas Shyama and Chandalika were shown at the Cinema Novo festival. The collection of paintings had been brought together by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the exhibition was arranged by the Indian Embassy in Brussels.

In 1995, the then Indian High Commissioner, Dr L M Singhvi, arranged for a bronze bust of Tagore by Kolkata sculptor Debabrata Chakraborty to be installed in the garden of Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. The bust was dedicated in its current position on 20 September 1996. Flowers were laid by Jyoti Basu (then Chief Minister of West Bengal), Buddhadeb Bhattacharya (then Cultural Affairs Minister of West Bengal), Dr L M Singhvi and Professor Stanley Wells (then Chairman of the Trustees of Shakespeare’s Birthplace).

My parents were among those who attended the ceremony. When the then Director of the Indian Cultural Centre in London had told my father that he hoped that there would be a regular celebration at the bust, my father promised to make sure that Tagore’s birthday would be celebrated at the bust each year.

So on Saturday May 4, with the kind help of the Director of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Dr Diana Owen, and her team, we will be continuing this annual tradition started by my parents and their group Prantik in 1997.

This year, the programme will be as follows:

Tagore Nobel centenary celebrations at Shakespeare’s Birthplace – 4 May

2.30pm Ceremony around Tagore’s bust in the garden at Shakespeare’s Birthplace

Introduction by the High Commissioner of India, His Excellency Dr J Bhagwati.

Tagore’s Nobel Prize – a show telling the story of how Tagore came to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, through his poetry and songs. I will be narrating the story, the English poems will be presented by Shakespeare Aloud! actors John Robert Partridge and Jennifer Hodges, the Bengali poetry and songs will be presented by Mousumi & Supratik Basu, Chhaya Biswas and Kaberi Chatterjee. We will be accompanied on esraj by Tirthankar Roy.

3.30pm Tagore archive exhibition

4pm UK film premiere: Chitrangada

Introduction by the High Commissioner of Bangladesh, His Excellency Mohamed Mijarul Quayes.

Chitrangada (90 minutes) – Our authentic, colourful, feature film version of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s classic, 1936 dance-drama with an ensemble cast featuring leading dancers, singers and musicians from Tagore’s home town of Santiniketan, India. Perhaps best described as a cross between opera and ballet, Chitrangada was part of Tagore’s campaign to encourage women to have be given a greater role in society. It was based on his earlier play Chitra, which Tagore had directed and designed for a production at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London in 1920.

Kaberi Chatterjee stars as Princess Chitrangada, with the singing voice of Manini Mukhopadhyay. Sourav Chatterjee is Arjun, with the singing voice of Jahar Kumar Dutta, and Nibedita Sen is Modon, with the singing voice of Ritwik Bagchi.

The dance director and production designer is Shubhra Tagore. The music director is Bulbul Basu.

The film completes the Tagore dance film trilogy of authentic, widescreen film versions of Tagore’s dance-dramas, the others being Chandalika (1938) and Shyama (1939). Elements from Chitrangada were included in the promotional trailers and videos created for UNESCO’s Tagore, Neruda & Césaire programme. Chitrangada had its world premiere in Brussels in September 2012.

The film will be followed by a Question & Answer session with Kaberi Chatterjee and me.

6pm End

Tagore Nobel centenary celebrations at Shakespeare’s Birthplace – 5-6 May

During the rest of the bank holiday weekend, the Shakespeare Aloud! actors will be including poems by Tagore in their performances in the garden. One of them will be the poem which Tagore wrote in 1916 for the Tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death:

When by the far-away sea your fiery disk appeared from behind the unseen, O Poet, O Sun.
England’s horizon felt you near her breast, and took you to be her own.
She kissed your forehead, caught you in the arms of her forest branches.
Hid you behind her mist mantle and watched you in the green sward where fairies love to play among the meadow flowers.
A few early birds sang your hymn of praise, while the rest of the woodland choir were asleep.
Then at the silent beckoning of the Eternal you rose higher and higher till you reached the mid sky, making all quarters of heaven your own.
Therefore, at this moment, after the end of centuries, the palm groves by the Indian sea raise their tremulous branches to the sky murmuring your praise.

Feb 102013
 
Left to right: Kaberi Chatterjee, Ranajit Roy & Shipra Roy at Bolpur Station in January 2004

Left to right (foreground): Kaberi Chatterjee, Ranajit Roy & Shipra Roy at Bolpur Station in January 2004

Ranajit Roy was renowned and widely respected for his integrity.

His father, Shibdas Roy, was one of the early students at the school Tagore founded in Santiniketan. Thanks to being a very good singer, Shibdas Roy became one of Tagore’s favourite students and, later, an honorary teacher at the China Bhavan, teaching English to Tibetan monks. The family used to live in their ancestral home in Moukhira, about 18km from Santiniketan.

One day, when Ranajit Roy was still a little boy, Shibdas Roy took him to Santiniketan to present him to Tagore. It was a Wednesday morning and Tagore was coming down the steps of the Mandeer after prayers. The young Ranajit was so impressed by the image of the strikingly handsome, long-white-haired Tagore in this setting that he asked his father, “Is this God?” Shibdas Roy introduced his son to Tagore, who gave him a toffee.

Later on, Ranajit Roy followed in his father’s footsteps and joined Tagore’s school, Patha Bhavan. This was probably the source of his keen artistic sense and his love of nature. The latter led him to study Agriculture at University.

He became very good at football and cricket, particularly as wicket keeper. He was an artist and a keen photographer, processing and developing his own photos. He also encouraged his wife Shipra Roy to follow art studies at the Kala Bhavan at Visva-Bharati University.

From 1970, he, his wife and daughter Kaberi started living in Ratan Palli, Santiniketan. As soon as he returned home from work, he would start a new drawing in his sketch book. Later in the evening, he would pick up the collection of Tagore’s songs (Gitabitan), select a song whose lyrics he appreciated and ask Kaberi to learn how to sing it. He would also advise and help his wife with her artwork.

As Block Development Officer for a number of different areas of the district of Birbhum in West Bengal over thirteen years, among other things, he was responsible for authorising licences to sell various commodities such as rice, cement, fertiliser and kerosene in those areas. This could have allowed him to accept gifts in return for preferential treatment but he always refused them, returning any which arrived nonetheless at his house. He always followed what he felt to be the fairest and most honest course of action.

The Ajoy River flood of 1978

‘Ranjitda’, as many knew him, became a local hero after saving many lives when the Ajoy River burst its banks in 1978. It was typical of his sense of responsibility that, if he heard that someone was in trouble, he would drop everything and do whatever he could to help. One rainy night, in the middle of a power cut, he was called to the Ratan Kuti Guest House, which had the only telephone in the area. As Block Development Officer for Illambazaar at the time, he was asked to oversee the situation at Illambazaar, which had been flooded.

The Chief Medical Officer’s car was going to pick him up from the Guest House and take him there. However, in the forest, they found that the road to Illambazaar had been blocked by a fallen tree and there was no way to cut through it to reopen the road until it was daylight. He didn’t return home but went to Bolpur Health Centre, where he stayed until dawn before heading back towards Illambazaar.

Daylight revealed that the water level had risen considerably and the 1km-long Ajoy Bridge at Illambazaar was shuddering as the swollen river flowed past it. ‘Ranjitda’ found hundreds of bewildered people waiting at his office. Those people and animals who had been lucky enough to hold onto something which would float (bales of hay, palm trees, sacks of wheat, etc) were being swept past the bridge by the fast current. An old lady, sitting on top of a sack of rice was praying and counting religious beads as she floated past.

‘Ranjitda’ sequestered nearby shops to find ropes which could be used to pull people to safety from the river. When the District Magistrate arrived later to see what was going on, the crowds rose to attack him. Many villages had been flooded and people had been made homeless. ‘Ranjitda’ was given District Magistrate powers to deal with the emergency. He ordered rice, lentils, utensils, etc to be taken from the shops so that they could be used to feed and shelter the homeless.

Meanwhile, many students from Santiniketan, where the school and university hostels had closed for the holidays, became stranded on the way to their homes in Calcutta, on the other side of the river. Supriyo Tagore, then Principal of Patha Bhavan, had decided to escort a group of the students. With ‘Ranjitda’s help, they made it across the river.

Back at his house, after waiting for three days, the 10-year-old Kaberi started sitting at the window crying because her father hadn’t come back while other fathers had returned for the puja celebrations. ‘Ranjitda’ was busy helping people. Mrinal Mukherjee (the father of Tuli Mukherjee, who was a dancer in the Shyama in Egypt team) was then working for ‘Ranjitda’ and ferried clothes and food from the house for him.

Moukhira too had not escaped the floods. The villagers made their way to Illambazaar so that they could have something to eat at the shelter.

‘Ranjitda’ found the mental strength to deal with the emergency with the moral support of his guru Mohonanda Maharaj. Although ‘Ranjitda’ had originally been sceptical of gurus, his father had been a friend and devotee of Maharaj. Reluctantly accompanying his father to see Maharaj, he had been astonished to find later that Maharaj had correctly made a number of predictions.

Encouraging Kaberi

Kaberi and her father understood each other very well. When she was nervous about sitting her Higher Secondary exams, he reassured her that she shouldn’t be afraid and that she should carry on and do whatever she could. Everything would be fine.

When it came to the decision to study dance at the Sangeet Bhavan of Visva-Bharati University, he was the one who encouraged her to do so as that was the subject she was most passionate about. He had also told her that if she did something else and the passion went away, she would never be able to come back to it.

When she had initially decided not to try for the Indian national scholarship in Manipuri dance because she didn’t think she would get it, her father had told her that, even if it meant that they would have to travel to Delhi for the exam, they could all take the opportunity to do some sight-seeing once the exam was over. Even if she didn’t succeed, he told her that at least they would all have been on holiday together.

Of course, she did succeed and it was also through his encouragement that she started her PhD in dance and became one of few people in India to have such a PhD.

Later years

Although, ‘Ranjitda’ had been known for telling humorous anecdotes, in recent years, he fell increasingly silent. As well as being separated from his beloved daughter after our marriage, he became absorbed with the property-related tension between him and his younger brother, who had been very close.

‘Ranjitda’ was the eldest of four children but, other than identifying parts of the land in Santiniketan and Moukhira for ‘Ranjitda’, their parents had not left a will setting out how the rest of their property in Santiniketan and in Moukhira was to be divided between the children. It became apparent that the younger brother had been selling off agricultural land around Moukhira which had been assigned to ‘Ranjitda’, without his knowledge and without giving him any share of the proceeds. The younger brother refused to register a division of the property which had been agreed by the four siblings and had not spoken to ‘Ranjitda’ since 2004.

That was the last year ‘Ranjitda’ went to the annual Durga Puja festival he used to enjoy at the ancestral house in Moukhira. His near-exile from Moukhira was an open secret among the villagers. Having brought up his younger brother like a father and paid for his education, ‘Ranjitda’ felt a deep sense of betrayal and shock. This was probably the main reason for the depression and Alzheimer’s which eventually led to his death on Friday, four days before his 85th birthday, after several years of suffering. Unfortunately, we found out too late that coconut oil might have helped to treat the Alzheimer’s.

Tagorean spirit

Through everything I have seen and heard about my father-in-law, I recognise his sincere belief in Tagorean values and humanism, including his sense of social justice and his aversion to corruption and insincerity. Needless to say, we got on with each other very well as a result and he always gave me a very warm welcome.

Of course, these beliefs and principles live on in Kaberi and they are the common message of the dance-dramas we have filmed together. He was always keen to watch dance, music and theatre performances. If ever he wasn’t able to attend one himself, he would want to hear a full account of the performance from anyone who went.

In spite of his illness, he continued to encourage us as we made the films, enjoying the rehearsals and filming of Shyama in 2007 and making a special effort to visit us in the Lipika Theatre as we were filming Chandalika and Chitrangada two years ago.

However, my favourite memory of him is probably from the first visit of Kaberi’s parents to Europe in 2005. Together with my father and Kaberi, we had all spent a gloriously sunny day in Belgium’s Ardennes. Towards the end of the day, as we sat having a drink at a riverside bar in Dinant, Kaberi had asked him how he felt. He had replied that he thought he was in heaven. Perhaps it was the combination of the beauty of the natural scenery, being with Kaberi again and being away from the family tensions in Santiniketan.

In any case, probably this poem by Tagore sums up how he felt:

যাবার দিনে এই কথাটি
বলে যেন যাই —
যা দেখেছি যা পেয়েছি
তুলনা তার নাই ।
এই জ্যোতিঃসমুদ্র-মাঝে
যে শতদল পদ্ম রাজে
তারি মধু পান করেছি
ধন্য আমি তাই —
যাবার দিনে এই কথাটি
জানিয়ে যেন যাই ।

বিশ্বরূপের খেলাঘরে
কতই গেলেম খেলে ,
অপরূপকে দেখে গেলেম
দুটি নয়ন মেলে ।
পরশ যাঁরে যায় না করা
সকল দেহে দিলেন ধরা ।
এইখানে শেষ করেন যদি
শেষ করে দিন তাই —
যাবার বেলা এই কথাটি
জানিয়ে যেন যাই ।

রবীন্দ্রনাথ ঠাকুর (গীতাঞ্জলি ১৪২)

Tagore’s English version of this poem was as follows. The phrases in square brackets come from his manuscript, which seems to me to be closer to the original than the published version (which is recited by Prajña Paramita in the video below from The Story of Gitanjali):

When I go from hence, let this be my parting word, that what I have seen is unsurpassable.
I have tasted of the hidden honey of this lotus [yonder] that expands on the ocean of light, and thus I am blessed—let this be my parting word.
In this playhouse of infinite forms I have had my play and here have I caught sight of him [that eludes all forms].
My whole body and my limbs have thrilled with his touch who is beyond touch; and if the end comes here, let it come—let this be my parting word.

by Rabindranath Tagore (English Gitanjali – poem 96)

Jan 202013
 

Today we witness the perils which attend on the insolence of might; one day shall be borne out the full truth of what the sages have proclaimed: ‘By unrighteousness man prospers, gains what appears desirable, conquers enemies, but perishes at the root.’ From Civilisation’s crisis – the last speech of Rabindranath Tagore, 7 May 1941.

Coconuts hanging from a tree (Photo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Iaminfo)

Coconuts hanging from a tree (Photo: Iaminfo)

Early last year, a neighbour in London sent me a link to a video news clip suggesting that coconut oil could help to reverse Alzheimer’s disease. It sounded like an unlikely potential solution to a fairly widespread health problem – at least two of our friends and relatives suffer from Alzheimer’s or from dementia.

The clip was based on the research efforts of Dr Mary Newport who had started giving her husband 2 tablespoons of coconut oil per day after her husband was diagnosed as having advanced Alzheimer’s in 2004. It had a noticeable effect within 2 weeks. The news item followed the publication of her book What if there was a cure for Alzheimer’s and no-one knew? in late 2011. This was also the title of an article she had written in 2008 based on her experience and her research. In 2010, she had done a study of the effects of giving coconut oil/MCT oil to people with dementia.

One relative with fronto-temporal dementia, who had been advised to try alternative therapies as there is no known medication for it, started taking coconut oil after I did some research about its possible side effects. Essentially, the main side effect I’ve come across is that, for some people, it can lead to diarrhoea or stomach cramps initially unless you start with a little and increase the quantity of coconut oil gradually. Another is weight loss.

Earlier this month, a follow-up video news clip was published and the UK Daily Mail published an article entitled Can coconut oil ease Alzheimer’s? Families who’ve given it to loved ones swear by it. From what we have seen with our relative, the answer is ‘yes’ … and, since dementia can start 10-20 years before the symptoms appear, we have started to use it too.

What type of coconut oil?

There are different types of coconut oil. The main distinction is between refined and unrefined (also referred to as virgin or extra virgin coconut oil). The specific characteristics depend on the process used to create the coconut oil. Some coconut oils are refined using a chemical process involving hexane.

Virgin (or extra virgin) coconut oil is quite expensive, even if you buy in bulk. The one we are using at the moment is Coconoil organic virgin coconut oil, which costs £7.50 per 460ml tub if you order 12 tubs. We have tried other virgin coconut oils from health food shops but these have been more expensive.

We use the virgin coconut oil ‘neat’, with porridge or yoghurt, but use a refined coconut oil for cooking. The refined coconut oil we are using is KTC pure coconut oil, which is “not hydrogenated in any way and hexane is not used in the refining process“. Both Coconoil and KTC pure coconut oil come from Sri Lanka.

How much coconut oil?

In the original video, Dr Newport had mentioned giving her husband 2 tablespoons of coconut oil per day. However, more recently, I came across the article Conquering Alzheimer’s with coconut ketones by Dr Bruce Fife.  According to him “The simple of act of adding coconut oil into the diet can both prevent and treat Alzheimer’s disease. For treatment purposes a total of 5 tablespoons (74 ml) a day taken with meals is recommended. Add a portion of the coconut oil to each of the three meals consumed during the day. For prevention, take 2-3 tablespoons (30-44 ml) daily.”

Combining coconut oil with a low carbohydrate diet

Dr Fife insists that coconut oil would need to be combined with a low carbohydrate or ketogenic diet. His book Stop Alzheimer’s now! goes on to claim that this would prevent and reverse not only dementia but also Parkinson’s, ALS, Multiple Sclerosis, and other neurodegenerative disorders.

In any case, other research suggests that the best oil for salads is olive oil while the best oil for cooking is coconut oil. Indeed we shouldn’t use olive oil at high temperatures.

Wait, but isn’t coconut oil supposed to be bad for the heart?

Miranda Kerr has had coconut oil daily since she was 14

In mid-2011, when it emerged that the then 27-year-old Australian supermodel Miranda Kerr attributed “her blemish-free skin and glossy hair”, as well as her slim figure, to taking coconut oil since she was 14, supposedly credible doctors, including at the World Health Organisation, asserted that, since coconut oil contains high levels of saturated fat and calories, it could lead to an increased risk of coronary heart disease. Unfortunately, those doctors seem to have an “elementary school understanding of the subject of fats” because the “saturated fats in coconut oil are medium chain triglycerides which means they are converted by the body into immediate energy, not as added weight!”

In fact, as Dr Joseph Mercola pointed out in his article Coconut Oil Benefits: When Fat Is Good For Youa study back in the 1930s found “South Pacific Islanders whose diets were high in coconut to be healthy and trim, despite high dietary fat, and heart disease was virtually non-existent. Similarly, in 1981, researchers studying two Polynesian communities for whom coconut was the primary caloric energy source found them to have excellent cardiovascular health and fitness.”

Moreover, rather than being a threat to coronary health, “the naturally occurring saturated fat in coconut oil is actually good for you and provides a number of profound health benefits, such as:

• Improving your heart health.
• Boosting your thyroid.
• Increasing your metabolism.
• Promoting a lean body and weight loss if needed.
• Supporting your immune system.”

This is a relatively short list compared to the 333 uses for coconut oil. That notes that coconut oil contains the “good” cholesterol

So where does the bad reputation of coconut oil come from?

According to this and other articles, it is the result of a campaign to discredit coconut oil which was started in the mid-1980s by the American Soybean Association to increase sales of soybean oil by eliminating competition from imported coconut and palm oils. Up to that point, coconut and palm oils were common ingredients in many foods and were used extensively because they gave foods desirable properties.

“The media started warning the public about a newly discovered health threat – coconut oil.  It was proclaimed that coconut oil was a saturated fat and would cause heart disease.  In response to this anti-coconut oil campaign, movie theaters began cooking their popcorn in soybean oil.  Food makers began using soybean oil and partially hydrogenated soybean oil (margarine) instead of the tropical oils they had used for years.  Restaurants stopped using tropical oils in favor of soybean and other vegetables oils. The ASA set out to scare people away from using tropical oils.  In 1986, the ASA sent a “Fat Fighter Kit” to soybean farmers encouraging them to write to government officials, food companies, etc. protesting the use of highly saturated tropical fats.  The wives and families of some 400,000 soybean farmers were encouraged to lobby touting the health benefits of soybean oil.  Misguided health groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CPI) joined this lobby, issuing news releases referring to tropical oils as “artery-clogging fats.” By the early 1990s, the tropical oils market was only a fraction of what it once was.”

This had a fairly devastating effect on the countries which exported coconut oil. “Factories closed down, coconut farms were abandoned, the trucking and shipping industry was adversely affected, literally millions of people found themselves out of work and unable to find employment. In the island countries of the South Pacific, coconut production contributes to as much as 80% of their economy. So when coconut sales fell, these countries were thrown into an economic depression. In the Philippines, one-third of the population depends on coconut for their livelihoods. That amounts to about 25 million people. The majority of these people barely made a living as it was, now with the drop in demand for coconut oil and other coconut products the majority were thrust into complete poverty.”

The irony

As a result, the coconut oil and palm oil in people’s diets were replaced by vegetable oils. Unfortunately, “many of the domestic [US] oils are predominantly polyunsaturated, which makes them quite unstable, and subject to oxidation. To make them more stable, they need to be hydrogenated. A major portion of soybean oil, for example, is hydrogenated.”

As Dr Mercola explains, “Hydrogenation manipulates vegetable and seed oils by adding hydrogen atoms while heating the oil, producing a rancid, thickened substance that really only benefits processed food shelf life and corporate profits — just about all experts now agree, hydrogenation does nothing good for your health. These manipulated saturated fats are also called trans-fats — and you should avoid them like the plague. … And polyunsaturated fats, which include common vegetable oils such as corn, soy, safflower, sunflower and canola, are absolutely the worst oils to cook with.”

Angelina Jolie has virgin coconut oil for breakfast

According to recent scientific research, hydrogenated vegetable oil “may be responsible for an unknown, but certainly very large, number of heart attacks”. So, ironically, having branded coconut and palm oils as “artery-clogging fats” without scientific evidence, the oils that were used to replace coconut and palm oils in the 1980s for essentially trade reasons have turned out to be “an artificially produced fat form that contains rich amounts of trans-fatty acids, or trans-fats. Trans-fats can increase your LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol and reduce your HDL, or “good,” cholesterol. Managing your cholesterol is important, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, because high cholesterol can lead to clogged arteries, which is associated with heightened risk for Alzheimer’s disease.”

Fortunately, coconut oil has started to make a comeback over the past 10 years, as illustrated by this interesting list of The top 10 celebrities who use virgin coconut oil. Coconut oil is also widely available at health food shops, Asian groceries, larger supermarkets and even Amazon. Thanks to the Internet, I was able to read the articles linked here and suggest that our friends and relatives, not to mention ourselves, try coconut oil. Thanks to the Internet, people around the world are helping to set the record straight about coconut oil.

In the early 1900s, Tagore famously sought a “heaven of freedom” “where knowledge was free” – rather like the late Aaron Swartz, Sir Tim Berners-Lee and others. In his last speech some 30 years later, he had looked forward to a period “after the cataclysm is over and the atmosphere rendered clean with the spirit of service and sacrifice. Perhaps that dawn will come from this horizon, from the East where the sun rises. … Today we witness the perils which attend on the insolence of might; one day shall be borne out the full truth of what the sages have proclaimed: ‘By unrighteousness man prospers, gains what appears desirable, conquers enemies, but perishes at the root.'”

Jan 012013
 

Wordpress.com 2012 blog statistics image

So 2012 is over. If you click on the above image, you’ll find the statistics for my blog in 2012 (courtesy of wordpress.com and Jetpack).

Just to give you an overview, my blog had about 9,200 views during the year, of which just over 4,000 were in September. My most popular post was actually one I’d written in 2010 about our experience of watching the film Julie & Julia ! The next most popular posts in 2012 were:

Celebrating Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary
Civilisation’s crisis – Tagore’s last speech
Tagore and the Indian national anthem
Celebrate nature & Tagore the environmental pioneer

My thanks to all who have found my blog posts of interest.

Looking ahead, 2013 is the centenary of Rabindranath Tagore winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. If you are on Facebook, you may wish to ‘Like’ the Facebook page Rabindranath Tagore: Nobel Prize centenary. Even if you are not on Facebook, you can see the contents of the page.

For now, here is a 50-second audiovisual tribute to celebrate the start of the centenary year and to allow me to wish you a Happy New Year!

Dec 312012
 

Candle image posted by Google India

Sexual violence in India

Over the past two weeks, India’s news has been dominated by the brutal gang-rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in Delhi while on her way home with her fiancé after going to the cinema. By Western media standards, it is almost a miracle that her real name has not been published. Instead, the Indian media have named her Nirbhaya (fearless one/braveheart), Amanat (after a TV soap opera about a father with seven daughters) or Damini (after the heroine of a hit film who refuses to let a rapist escape justice).

Unfortunately, this was just one example of the violence faced by women in India. Even as the protests mounted, an 18-year-old gang-rape victim committed suicide in Punjab after coming under pressure from police either to come to a financial settlement with her attackers or to marry one of them! According to Russia Today, “Official figures show that 228,650 of the total 256,329 violent crimes recorded last year in India were against women. However the real figure is thought to be much higher as so many women are reluctant to report attacks to the police.”

Several of our friends and relatives in India have joined the online protests, with some changing their social media profile pictures to a black square or a black circle following news of the death of Nirbhaya/Amanat/Damini on Friday night. On Saturday morning, “RIP Nirbhaya” was the #1 topic on Twitter in India, where 8 of the top ten trending topics were related to it.

Some have been calling for the death penalty for rapists, although there is no evidence that this would discourage rape. Rather, as suggested by a protestor and social worker interviewed by the BBC, it could encourage rapists to kill their victims to ensure that their crime was not reported.

The public outcry has led to a number of analyses of how India treats its women and drew attention to its “rape culture“. A male Indian MP, who is the son of India’s President, dismissed the protestors as “pretty women who were dented and painted” who had “no contact with ground reality”. However, the fierce reaction to his remarks (such as this ironic open letter) obliged him to withdraw them.

The initially muted reactions of senior politicians contrasted sharply with the emotional reactions of the protestors. Perhaps the underlying reason for the former is the challenge of changing attitudes which have been endemic in Indian culture for centuries. For example, this article identified 10 reasons why India has a sexual violence problem and the above Al Jazeera discussion explores what it would take to confront India’s ‘culture of rape’.

Tagore’s campaign for women’s emancipation

Tagore was clearly conscious of this and the women in his works are often strong and outspoken, while suffering from tradition. His campaign for women’s emancipation was decades ahead of equivalent thinking in the West. There have been many scholarly analyses of the female characters in his works and some see his legacy regarding women’s role in society as being one of his most important contributions (see, for example, Rabindranath Tagore’s legacy lies in the freedom-seeking women of his fiction).

“Violence against women must never be accepted, never excused, never tolerated. Every girl and woman has the right to be respected, valued and protected.” – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

As well as being one of the media names for the Delhi gang-rape victim, Damini is the name of the female protagonist in Tagore’s 1916 novella Chaturanga (Broken Ties or, more literally, Quartet). Damini’s role in Chaturanga, in which she represents truth and innocence, has been compared to those of Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Stella in Rattigan’s A Streetcar Named Desire. All the female characters in Chaturanga suffer at the hands of men, with two of them committing suicide as a result.

In his novel Jogajog, (Contact), Tagore highlights the issue of marital rape. In his short story Shasthi (Punishment), two brothers work in the fields all day while their wives stay at home to cook, clean and bring up a child. When one of the brothers kills his wife for explaining that there is no food because he hadn’t brought home enough money, the ‘pillar of the village’ (a man) helps them to pass the blame onto the other wife, who is subsequently executed.

In 1936, Tagore campaigned more overtly for women to step out of the precincts of their homes and play a greater role in society. His paper Nari (Women) was part of his campaign, which included speeches and his dance-drama Chitrangada. Perhaps it is no coincidence that 1936 was also the year in which Victoria Ocampo, Tagore’s “distant muse“, co-founded the Argentine Union of Women.

In fact, all three of Tagore’s dance-dramas (ChitrangadaChandalika and Shyama) are centred on female characters who live at the fringes of society – a warrior princess, an untouchable and a courtesan. Dr Sutapa Chaudhuri has written an interesting analysis of the expression of self and female desire in Tagore’s dance-dramas. She provides more detail in her paper on class, caste and gender in Chandalika.

Tagore created a social revolution by pioneering coeducation at his school in Santiniketan. However, parents still resisted allowing their daughters to dance on stage for many years for fear that they would be viewed by society as prostitutes. The criticism of women dressing “provocatively” is perhaps the modern version of this attitude, without daring to challenge the indecency of those men who molest women.

Where the mind is without fear …

Not surprisingly, several commentaries on the Delhi rape have cited Tagore’s poem Where the mind is without fear as being an as-yet unfulfilled dream for women. Some have pointed out that several elected Indian politicians have been charged with rape – a factor which would be a major electoral liability in Western democracies. Yet it seems to be viewed as being acceptable/unavoidable, male behaviour by a patriarchal, Indian society in which the ratio of girls to boys is one of the lowest in the world.

“Rape happens everywhere: it happens inside homes, in families, in neighbourhoods, in police stations, in towns and cities, in villages, and its incidence increases, as is happening in India, as society goes through change, as women’s roles begin to change, as economies slow down and the slice of the pie becomes smaller — and it is connected to all these things. Just as it is integrally and fundamentally connected to the disregard, and indeed the hatred, for females that is so evident in the killing of female foetuses. For so widespread a crime, band aid solutions are not the answer.” – Urvashi Butalia, The Hindu

Just before Christmas, Valerian Santos wrote to India’s Prime Minister proposing stronger laws to ensure better security for women in India. His son Keenan Santos, together with his friend Reuben Fernandes, was stabbed to death by a mob for taking on a man who had harassed their female friends in Mumbai in October 2011. In addition to the comments from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon above, UN human rights chief Navi Pillay has called for profound change in India in the wake of the gang-rape tragedy.

Of course, India is not the only country in the world where women suffer sexual violence. However, as I write just after the start of 2013 there, it seems to be the only country whose people have found the collective will to begin to tackle the problem. As India’s people, particularly the younger generation, seek a new dawn in attitudes towards women, they (and indeed people of other countries) may find that Tagore’s works could offer inspiration on changing society to empower and respect women.

Dec 102012
 

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Norway in July 2011, apparently by a man angered and alienated by the multicultural changes in the country, I had been impressed to see Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg saying “We must never cease to stand up for our values. We have to show that our open society can pass this test too. And that the answer to violence is even more democracy, even more humanity, but never naïveté.”

Today has a special significance. Apart from being my father’s 79th birthday, the European Union (all 500 million of us) will receive the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. According to Alfred Nobel’s will, the Peace Prize is awarded to “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” The winner is selected by a 5-person committee nominated by the Norwegian Parliament. They noted that “The union and its forerunners have for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.”

The EU’s Nobel Peace Prize comes at a time when parts of Europe are descending into Nationalism. In 1916-17, during the First World War, not long after winning his Nobel Prize for Literature, Tagore gave a series of speeches criticising Nationalism . He observed that:

“… the idea of the Nation is one of the most powerful anaesthetics that man has invented. Under the influence of its fumes, the whole people can carry out its systematic programme of the most virulent self-seeking without being in the least aware of its moral perversion, in fact feeling dangerously resentful if it is pointed out. …

“When we are fully human, we cannot fly at one another’s throats; our instincts of social life, our traditions of moral ideals stand in the way. If you want me to take to butchering human beings, you must break up that wholeness of my humanity through some discipline which makes my will dead, my thoughts numb, my movements automatic, and then from the dissolution of the complex personal man will come out that abstraction, that destructive force, which has no relation to human truth, and therefore can be easily brutal or mechanical.”

Audrey Hepburn, who was born in Brussels, witnessed this type of inhumanity at first hand at the age of 11, after Germany occupied the Netherlands in 1940. “I have memories. More than once I was at the station seeing trainloads of Jews being transported, seeing all these faces over the top of the wagon. I remember, very sharply, one little boy standing with his parents on the platform, very pale, very blond, wearing a coat that was much too big for him, and he stepped on to the train. I was a child observing a child.” [Source: Wikipedia]

Audrey Hepburn’s wartime experiences sparked her devotion to the international humanitarian organisation UNICEF (winner of the 1965 Nobel Peace Prize), for which she became a Goodwill Ambassador. Her friend Gregory Peck recited her favourite poem, Tagore’s Unending love, in an interview soon after her death in 1993 (from 1:35 in this clip).

Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights”, was finally able to receive it in June this year having spent decades under house arrest. As I mentioned in my post ‘If, hearing your call, no-one comes, then go on alone‘, in a message to a gathering of all living Nobel laureates to mark the 10th anniversary of her winning the Nobel Peace Prize, she said, “During my years of house arrest I have learnt my most precious lesson from a poem by Rabindranath Tagore, many of whose verses reach out to that innermost, elusive land of the spirit that we are not always capable of exploring ourselves.”

Similarly, Nelson Mandela, who won the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize together with Frederik Willem de Klerk, had ended a letter to the Secretary of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations by saying “We join with you, the people of India, and with people all over the world in our striving towards a new tomorrow, tomorrow making a reality for all mankind the sort of universe that the great Rabindranath Tagore dreamed of in Gitanjali:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, where knowledge is free; where the world has not been broken into fragments by narrow domestic walls; where words came out from the depths of truth; where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection; where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit; where the mind is led forward by these into ever widening thought and action into that haven of Freedom, My Father, let my country awake.”

For centuries before it actually happened, the idea of unifying Europe was associated with preventing a recurrence of war. Large areas of Europe had previously been united by empires built on force, such as the Roman EmpireByzantine EmpireFrankish EmpireHoly Roman EmpireOttoman Empire, the First French Empire and Nazi Germany. In the 17th Century, there had been the fairly unsuccessful Peace of Westphalia – parodied here in a clip sent to me by a friend from Luxembourg.

The calls for unity became louder after the First World War but it was only after the Second World War that the first real steps were taken towards creating the European Union.

Even during the Second World War, French politician Robert Schuman had been convinced that Franco-German and European reconciliation had to take place after the war ended. As Prime Minister of France (1947-48), he laid the foundations for the Council of Europe and what is now the European Union. As Foreign Minister in 1949, he said “We are carrying out a great experiment, the fulfillment of the same recurrent dream that for ten centuries has revisited the peoples of Europe: creating between them an organization putting an end to war and guaranteeing an eternal peace.” [Source: Wikipedia]

So here we are, over 60 peaceful years later. Sadly, countries like the UK have forgotten why they joined the European Union and have succumbed to their nationalist tendencies, preferring only economic unity. The absence of peace in Europe is now taken for granted.

Perhaps another problem is that peace has no value as far as economic measures like GDP and GNP are concerned. Maybe a more useful statistic in our connected and globalised times could be the Gross National Happiness index developed by Bhutan since 1972. Futurist Gerd Leonhard explains why in this recent TEDx talk.

Back in 2008, France’s then President Nicolas Sarkozy commissioned a report on measuring economic performance and social progress from Nobel Prize-winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, as well as French economist Jean-Paul Fitoussi. Of course, Amartya Sen has been strongly influenced by Tagore’s philosophy and is one of the products of Tagore’s school in Santiniketan.

Earlier this year, the UN added happiness to the global agenda. As the Economist reported, an international survey of happiness showed “the highest levels of self-reported happiness not in rich countries, as one would expect, but in poor and middle-income ones, notably Indonesia, India and Mexico. In rich countries, happiness scores range from above-average—28% of Australians and Americans say they are very happy—to far below the mean. The figures for Italy and Spain were 13% and 11% (Greece was not in the sample). Most Europeans are gloomier than the world average. So levels of income are, if anything, inversely related to felicity. Perceived happiness depends on a lot more than material welfare.”

So I hope that the EU’s Nobel Peace Prize will be a reminder to many in Europe, not only in the UK, who seem to have succumbed to “one of the most powerful anaesthetics that man has invented”: Nationalism. The official EU delegation that collects the Nobel Peace Prize  includes four young European citizens – Ana from Spain, Elena from Italy, Ilona from Poland and Larkin from Malta – who won a drawing and writing contest organised by the EU institutions together  with the European Youth Forum. They were asked to answer the question: what does peace in Europe mean to you?

In Brussels, at 6pm, some have called for a flash mob in front of Robert Schuman’s statue near the parc de Cinquantenaire – those attending are asked to bring a candle and something to light it. Being in London for my father’s birthday, I will miss the gathering. That is why, in the absence of any UK celebrations of the Prize (celebrations are planned around the world, including in the US), I am celebrating it with this post. After all, it’s not every day we get to be a Nobel laureate.

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