Jun 152010

Rs150 & Rs 5 coins issued to commemorate Rabindranath Tagore's 150th birth anniversary

Many have been looking forward to celebrating Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary, which will be on May 7, 2011. So much so that some started celebrating over a year in advance.

UNESCO announced that it would be celebrating the anniversary, in the same way that it had celebrated Tagore’s birth centenary in 1961. That was marked by several notable events all over the world, including Satyajit Ray’s documentary Rabindranath Tagore and Teen Kanya, his trilogy of Tagore’s short stories The Postmaster, Monihara (the lost jewels) and Samapti (Conclusion). It was also the year when the classic HMV recording of Shyama was released with a memorable cast of singers, including Kanika Banerjee singing the role of Shyama.

Note that ‘Teen Kanya’ literally means ‘three daughters’ in Bengali. However, Teen Kanya was released internationally with only the first and last films of the trilogy (The Postmaster and Samapti) under the title ‘Two daughters’. The running time of each film is just under an hour and Monihara is just over an hour long – presumably this was the only reason for the disinheriting the middle sibling!

Last month, with a year to go before the 150th anniversary, the celebrations started getting more serious. India issued 150 rupee and 5 rupee commemorative coins to mark the occasion. Although the news of the release of a commemorative coin was widely reported, none of the articles included a photo of the coins themselves. I came across this photo on the Facebook page of India Coin News , which apparently spotted it in an article by Ravi Shanker Sharma.

Although Rabindranath Tagore is frequently referred to as being Indian, it is important to remember that the partition of the Indian subcontinent took place at the time of independence from British rule in 1947, six years after his death. Tagore is revered by Bengalis on both sides of the border between India and what is now Bangladesh. The national anthems of both countries are songs by Tagore, making him the only person ever to have written the national anthems of two countries.

The most comprehensive tribute to Tagore I have read remains the article ‘Tagore and his India‘ by another Nobel laureate: Amartya Sen, who was given his name by Tagore and studied in Santiniketan under the educational approach pioneered by Tagore.

Tagore's bust in the garden of Shakespeare's Birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon, UK

Small wonder, then, that Indian Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, and Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, are overseeing the joint celebrations of Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary . The Chancellor of the university set up by Tagore, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, is traditionally the Indian Prime Minister.

UNESCO launched its year-long celebrations in Paris on 12 May at Maison de l’Inde, City University. The event was attended by the acting Deputy Director General of UNESCO, Mr Hans D’Orville, who referred to a very appropriate quote from Tagore in connection with the current Millenium Development Goals: “No great civilisation is possible in a country divided by the constant interruption of steep mountains, as they retard the natural flow of communication. Large fortunes and luxurious living, like the mountains, form high walls of segregation. They produce worse divisions in society than physical barriers.”

As in previous years, Kaberi, my father and I marked Tagore’s birth anniversary this year at Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. Last year, we had introduced the first public screening of Shyama there as part of the Stratford Poetry Festival with a short performance including live music and dance tracing Tagore’s journey from poetry to dance.

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