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.

Aug 302012

While researching the different translations of Tagore’s English Gitanjali for our performance of The Story of Gitanjali on 23 September, I came across this talk by Deepak Chopra about Tagore’s relevance for the future of spirituality and humanity. He gave the talk at the Tagore Festival last year at Dartington College of Arts, Devon – the UK college founded by Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst according to Tagore’s educational philosophy.

As so often happens when I settle down to find out more information online about Tagore, this led me to start exploring what others have suggested about Tagore’s relevance to modern society. After all, in our world of 2012, why should people be interested in the ideas of someone who spent half of his life in the 19th century?

Professor Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and former student at the university founded by Tagore, had this to say.

Professor Amartya Sen

In fact, Professor Amartya Sen’s thought-provoking analysis What happened to Europe? earlier this month seems to echo Tagore’s ideas about social justice. Last year, he had explained in another article Why Rabindranath Tagore still matters.

A few years ago, Uma Das Gupta and Anandarup Ray contributed this article on Rabindranath Tagore and his contemporary relevance. They 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.”

Jul 222011

Part of the Santiniketan wall around the Visva-Bharati campus - Photo: Subir Banerjee

A controversy has been brewing for the past two years in Tagore’s home town of Santiniketan about the 21km, 6ft-8ft (1.8m-2.4m) concrete wall now being completed around the Visva-Bharati University campus. Many long-standing residents of Santiniketan, including former university teachers Somendranath Bandhyapadhyay and Gora Sarbadhikari, have criticised the plan. Back in January, the Governor of Visva-Bharati visited Santiniketan to try to settle the dispute.

Things came to a head last week when Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, who grew up and studied in Santiniketan and has his family home there, accused Visva-Bharati University authorities of creating a jail-like compound. He also criticised the University authorities for evicting local stall-holders without rehabilitation to make way for the wall.

This week, the Vice-Chancellor of Visva-Bharati, Rajat Kanta Ray, defended the decision to build the wall. He claimed that the University had not destroyed Tagore’s vision and that the Governor had written in April that the construction of a wall does not go against the vision of Tagore.

Last Kea grove in Santiniketan cut back to make way for the wall - Photo: Subir Banerjee

According to the Archeological Survey of India’s submission proposing Santiniketan to UNESCO as a World Heritage Site last year, “The architectural and landscape setting of Santiniketan embody Tagore’s vision of an eclectic architectural expression that was a blending of diverse cultural traditions in a landscape setting that formed the backdrop for a literal translation of ‘Santiniketan’ as an abode of peace.”

It would appear from the recent exchanges concerning the wall that both the landscape setting and the peace have been disturbed. This is confirmed by my parents-in-law, whose family has lived in Santiniketan since Tagore’s time.

My impression from Tagore’s writings was that he didn’t particularly appreciate walls and was an ardent advocate of proximity with nature. For example, his most famous poem begins

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

I thought I should explore what else Tagore has written about walls, just in case I was ill-informed. What I have found (see below) seems to confirm my impression. Even so, if you are aware of any quotes from Tagore where he was enthusiastic about walls, especially in connection with education, perhaps you could let me know?

Dungeon (via

He whom I enclose with my name is weeping in this dungeon.
I am ever busy building this wall all around;
and as this wall goes up into the sky day by day,
I lose sight of my true being in its dark shadow.

I take pride in this great wall, and I plaster it with dust and sand
lest a least hole should be left in this name;
and for all the care I take, I lose sight of my true being.


The parrot’s tale (via

Once there was a bird. It was an utterly foolish bird. It sang songs, but did not read the scriptures. It flew, it jumped, but did not have the faintest sense of etiquette. The King said, “Such birds! They are of no use at all. They only eat the fruits in the orchards and the royal fruit-market runs a deficit.” He called the minister, and commanded, “Educate it.”

The King’s nephew was given the responsibility of educating the bird. The scholars held long discussions, the subject being — “What is the reason behind the foolishness of this creature?” The conclusion was: much learning could not be stored in the tiny nest that the bird could make with just chips and twigs. So, first of all, it was necessary to build a good cage for it. The scholars got amply rewarded and went home merrily.

The goldsmith started building the cage. The cage turned out to be so exquisite that everyone under the sun rushed to see it. Some said, “Education indeed!” Others said, “Education or no education, at least the bird has got the cage! What a lucky bird!”

[see parabaas for the rest of the story]

Other extracts from Tagore’s writings in Bengali:

জাপান যাত্রী

যেমন ঘরে থাকতে হলে দেয়াল না হলে চলে না, এও তেমনি। কিন্তু সবটাই তো দেয়াল নয়। অন্তত খানিকটা করে জানলা থাকে, সেই ফাঁক দিয়ে আমরা আকাশের সঙ্গে আত্মীয়তা রক্ষা করি। কিন্তু, সংসারে দেখতে পাই, লোকে ওই জানলাটুকু সইতে পারে না। ওই ফাঁকটুকু ভরিয়ে দেবার জন্যে যতরকম সাংসারিক অনাবশ্যকের সৃষ্টি। ঐ জানলাটার উপর বাজে কাজ, বাজে চিঠি, বাজে সভা, বাজে বক্তৃতা, বাজে হাঁস্‌ফাঁস্‌ মেরে দিয়ে দশে মিলে ঐ ফাঁকটাকে একেবারে বুজিয়ে ফেলা হয়। নারকেলের ছিবড়ের মতো, এই অনাবশ্যকের পরিমাণটাই বেশি। ঘরে বাইরে, ধর্মে কর্মে, আমোদে আহ্লাদে, সকল বিষয়েই এরই অধিকার সবচেয়ে বড়ো; এর কাজই হচ্ছে ফাঁক বুজিয়ে বেড়ানো।



কী বলেন প্রোফেসার, আমিও পারি ঐ দেয়ালটাকে হাওয়া করে দিতে?

পার বৈকি। হিড়িংফিড়িং দরকার হয় না, দরকার হয় মাল-মসলার।

আমি বললেম, বলে দিন-না কী চাই।

দিচ্ছি। কিছু না— কিছু না, কেবল একটা বিলিতি আমড়ার আঁঠি আর শিলনোড়ার শিল।

আমি বললুম, এ তো খুবই সহজ। আমড়ার আঁঠি আর শিল আনিয়ে দেব, তুমি দেয়ালটাকে উড়িয়ে দাও।



তাই আমি বলিতেছি, শিক্ষার জন্য এখনো আমাদের বনের প্রয়োজন আছে এবং গুরুগৃহও চাই। বন আমাদের সজীব বাসস্থান এবং গুরু আমাদের সহৃদয় শিক্ষক। এই বনে, এই গুরুগৃহে আজও বালকদিগকে ব্রহ্মচর্যপালন করিয়া শিক্ষা সমাধা করিতে হইবে। কালে আমাদের অবস্থার যতই পরিবর্তন হইয়া থাক্‌, এই শিক্ষানিয়মের উপযোগিতার কিছুমাত্র হ্রাস হয় নাই, কারণ এ নিয়ম মানবচরিত্রের নিত্যসত্যের উপরে প্রতিষ্ঠিত।

অতএব, আদর্শ বিদ্যালয় যদি স্থাপন করিতে হয় তবে লোকালয় হইতে দূরে নির্জনে মুক্ত আকাশ ও উদার প্রান্তরে গাছপালার মধ্যে তাহার ব্যবস্থা করা চাই। সেখানে অধ্যাপকগণ নিভৃতে অধ্যয়ন ও অধ্যাপনায় নিযুক্ত থাকিবেন এবং ছাত্রগণ সেই জ্ঞানচর্চার যজ্ঞক্ষেত্রের মধ্যেই বাড়িয়া উঠিতে থাকিবে।



যে পৃথিবীতে এসে পড়েছি , এখানকার মানুষগুলি সব অদ্ভূত জীব । এরা কেবলই দিনরাত্রি নিয়ম এবং দেয়াল গাঁথছে — পাছে দুটো চোখে কিছু দেখতে পায় এইজন্যে পর্দা টাঙিয়ে দিচ্ছে — বাস্তবিক পৃথিবীর জীবগুলো ভারি অদ্ভূত । এরা যে ফুলের গাছে এক-একটি ঘেরাটোপ পরিয়ে রাখে নি , চাঁদের নীচে চাঁদোয়া খাটায় নি , সেই আশ্চর্য! এই স্বেচ্ছা-অন্ধগুলো বন্ধ পালকির মধ্যে চড়ে পৃথিবীর ভিতর দিয়ে কী দেখে চলে যাচ্ছে!

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