May 142017
 

Last weekend, as in previous years, we marked the birth anniversary of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore at Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. Our theme this year was the centenary of the publication of Nationalism by Tagore. You can watch our half-hour presentation in the video above.

Celebrating Tagore’s birth anniversary in the garden of Shakespeare’s Birthplace (Shakespeare Birthplace Trust – 6 May 2017)

While the First World War was still raging in Europe, Rabindranath Tagore gave a series of speeches in Japan and in the US in 1916-17 warning of the harm of Nationalism. These speeches were published as essays in 1917 in a book called Nationalism. It comprised Nationalism in the West, Nationalism in Japan, Nationalism in India and the poem ‘The Sunset of the Century’.

In these essays, Tagore warned of the harm which he believed Nationalism could cause to humanity. 100 years later, his warnings appear to have been prescient and have a new relevance today.

I had included some of his observations in my previous post about the assassination of the British Labour MP Jo Cox a few days before the Referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. For the 10 months since the marginal victory of the Leave campaign, the politicians who argued for it have avoided spelling out how exactly they plan to deliver their ‘have cake and eat it‘ promises.

Only this morning, in his 13-minute interview with Robert Peston, Britain’s Brexit Minister David Davis revealed the extent of the delusion he is under. He seems to be blissfully unaware of the speech by the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier just over a week ago in Florence about ‘Protecting Citizens’ Rights in the Negotiations with the UK‘. He also seems to have no understanding of trade negotiations … .

Still, let us not worry about this, Theresa May invites the people of the UK to put our faith in her ‘strong and stable leadership‘. This after the UK’s National Health Service came to a grinding halt on Friday due to a cyber-attack using vulnerabilities found by the US NSA.

Theresa May seems simply to have taken over the populist mantle of the UK Independence Party, emphasising the need to control immigration into the UK (and reject trading with the rest of the EU). Her ‘battle bus’ has ‘Theresa May: For Britain’ emblazoned on it and she has been meeting pre-selected voters and journalists who have had to submit their questions in advance.

In the modern era, nationalism has become popular in several countries. Fake news, and the money behind it, has played a major role in this, including in the UK Referendum. Claudia Cadwalladr’s investigation has linked the main Leave campaigns to a US billionaire who also financed Donald Trump’s campaign. It remains to be seen whether the Tactical2017 campaign will be able to counter this.

As we have seen recently in France, the debate is no longer between left and right but between the Nation and the world. In the French Presidential elections last Sunday, the people of France clearly preferred the internationalist view of Emmanuel Macron to the nationalist view of Marine Le Pen.

Emmanuel Macron: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité

Of course, there is still an underlying problem which the populists have been playing on: many ordinary people have not seen the benefits of globalisation. Remarkably, globalisation was something Tagore had predicted a century ago in his speeches on Nationalism. He also suggested that the way to avoid the world being “broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls” could come from India’s experience.

The whole world is becoming one country through scientific facility. And the moment is arriving when you also must find a basis of unity which is not political. If India can offer to the world her solution, it will be a contribution to humanity. There is only one history – the history of man. All national histories are merely chapters in the larger one. And we are content in India to suffer for such a great cause.

European nationalists, not to mention Donald Trump, were hailing the result of the UK Referendum as the beginning of a domino effect leading to the disintegration of the EU. Fortunately, since then, the voters of other EU Member States rejected the advances of eurosceptic populists, as Thomas Taylor’s cartoon illustrates.

In his TED talk ‘Why Brexit happened – and what to do next’, social scientist Alexander Betts explains that this was behind the way people voted in the UK Referendum.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attributes his election success to having identified some years ago that ‘Globalisation isn’t working for ordinary people‘. Similarly, France’s new President, Emmanuel Macron, campaigned for a clear diplomatic policy to make France an independent, humanist and European power. In his inaugural speech earlier today, he said “We will need a Europe that is more efficient, more democratic and more political, for it is the ultimate instrument of our sovereignty.”

Macron’s call for France to be a humanist power echoes Tagore’s most famous poem from the English Gitanjali:

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.

Here is the French version recited by Arlette Schreiber for our multilingual Story of Gitanjali at the world premiere of our film version of Chitrangada in 2012:

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.

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.

Nov 152012
 

Background image for the first two poems of The Story of Gitanjali

I realised this morning that I had missed this year’s European Day of Multilingual Blogging, which was actually yesterday. Now in its third year, it’s the brainchild of my friend Antonia Mochan at the European Commission’s UK office. As it’s still Internet week Europe, I hope she will accept this slightly late entry! [Update: She did, awarding this post the prize for the entry with the most languages involved – thanks, Antonia!]

In my previous post, I wrote about the world premiere of the third and final film of our Tagore dance film trilogy: Chitrangada. The first half of the evening was a performance of The Story of Gitanjali . This included poems from Tagore’s English Gitanjali recited in 13 European languages and the corresponding Tagore songs performed by Manini Mukhopadhyay, Sayan Bandyopadhyay and Kaberi Chatterjee, with Asit Ghosh on tabla and Tirthankar Roy on esraj. I narrated and directed the show.

So, for my contribution to the European Day of Multilingual Blogging, here are the poems from that performance.

1 Dutch: Jee Reusens – This is my delight, thus to wait and watch at the wayside – Translation by Victor van Bijlert

2 French: Arlette Schreiber – Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high – Translation by André Gide

3 Polish: Maria Glowacz – Clouds heap upon clouds and it darkens. – Translation by Jan Kasprowicz

4 Romanian: Raluca Zaharia – The day is no more – Translation by George Remete

5 Italian: Adriana Opromolla – You came down from your throne and stood at my cottage door. – Translated by Adriana Opromolla

6 German: Konstanze Hanreich – Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure. – Translation by Marie Luise Gothein

7 Hungarian: Ágnes Kaszás – Thou hast made me known to friends whom I knew not. – Translation by Babits Mihály

8 Spanish: Luisa Castellanos – Light, my light, the world-filling light – Translation by Zenobia Camprubí Aymar & Juan Ramón Jiménez

9 Russian: Alexandra Shlyopkina – I am here to sing thee songs. – Translation by J Baltrushaitis

10 Greek: Olga Profili – When my play was with thee I never questioned who thou wert. – Translation by Olga Profili

11 Swedish: Sofie Gardestedt – Thus it is that thy joy in me is so full. – Translation by Andrea Butenschön

12 Czech: Josef Schwarz – I know not how thou singest, my master! – Translation by Dušan Zbavitel

13 English: Prajña Paramita – When I go from hence – Version by Rabindranath Tagore

Oct 012012
 

As you will have realised, last Sunday was the world premiere of Chitrangada in Brussels. The English-subtitled version of the film is now available worldwide via the Internet. Before midnight on Sunday, 28 October, if you watch it or host a screening of it for friends or for people in your area, you can be part of its global premiere. If you can watch the trailer above, you have everything you need to be part of the global premiere: basically a screen and an Internet connection.

Singers and musicians from Santiniketan
(Photo: Enrique Nicanor)

At the start of the evening, the audience was greeted with a glass of champagne, courtesy of a well-wisher. Thanks to the Indian Embassy in Brussels, the audience was able to see two Tagore exhibitions from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. One exhibition was of framed, digital prints of some of Tagore’s paintings. The other exhibition comprised a series of panels describing Tagore’s travels.

The evening was introduced by our guest of honour, His Excellency Shri Dinkar Khullar, the Indian Ambassador.

Obhi narrating The Story of Gitanjali
(Photo: Enrique Nicanor)

Our multilingual performance of The Story of Gitanjaliexplained how Tagore came to write the English Gitanjali – the collection of English poems which led to his international fame and the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Each of the thirteen poems were recited in a different language, while the Tagore songs corresponding to most of them were performed by a team of singers and musicians from Santiniketan. For the cast and their biographies, please see here.

Almost all the actors who read poems from the Gitanjali in their native languages.
(Photo: Ekaterina Tarliouk)

The talent on the stage was complemented by a large-screen display above the singers and musicians for the subtitles. You can get an idea of the setting from this photo.

View of the stage with the on-screen subtitles
(Photo: Enrique Nicanor)

Many in the audience were apparently inspired by the show to read Tagore’s poetry. One of them, Sandeep Kalathimekkad, was even moved to write a poem as he was watching the show – he kindly gave me the poem on a slip of paper during the interval. The Story of Gitanjali was filmed. So you will have a chance to see it in due course, together with the subtitles.

After the interval, the world premiere of Chitrangada was introduced by Her Excellency Ambassador Ismat Jahan of Bangladesh. Tagore is a national icon in both India and Bangladesh, whose national anthems are both Tagore songs. Ambassador Jahan, who is a member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, introduced the film as being part of Tagore’s campaign for women’s emancipation.

Many people came up to congratulate us about the film as well. Even before we had got home after the premiere, a post by Sophie H on Facebook summarised the feedback we have had ever since about the evening: “Thanks to Obhi Chatterjee and Kaberi Chatterjee for an amazing evening! The first part, with the poems in different languages was beautiful, and the second part, the movie, was excellent! Such a pleasure! I also discovered (a small piece ) of the art of Tagore. Thank you!”

Sep 022012
 

The process of finding actors to perform each of the 13 poems in The Story of Gitanjali in a different language has been a fascinating journey. We have discovered that there are theatre groups for the different language communities in Brussels and that there are six English-language theatre groups (who kindly announced my quest for actors on their website).

The actors who have come forward have also been rediscovering the Tagore connection in their respective home countries.

A Bulgarian friend and colleague, Mariya Dimitrova, to whom I’d mentioned our multilingual project was surprised to find that there are about 70 editions of Tagore’s works in Bulgarian. She was also impressed that Anna Akhmatova, one of the biggest Russian poets, and Boris Pasternak had translated Tagore’s poems into Russian.

From online extracts of a 2008 biography of Tagore by Bulgarian author Stefania Dimitrova (whose video interview is at the start of this post) called Rabindranath Tagore – The Mythical Sentinel, Mariya found that Tagore’s poetry (The Gardener) was translated into Bulgarian for the first time in 1918. GitanjaliThe Home and the WorldSadhana were translated into Bulgarian in the 1920-1930’s. In 1985 Gora, poetry, plays, stories, memoirs and essays were published in three volumes. In 2009, a luxurious edition with some of Tagore’s works (GitanjaliThe GardenerStray Birds, excerpts from Fruit Gathering, The Fugitive etc.) was published.

Tagore visited Bulgaria in 1926 during his Europe tour.  He arrived by train from Belgrade and at the first railway station in Bulgarian territory a crowd was waiting to see him. Sofia railway station was also crowded and more than 10,000 people were massed between the rail station and his hotel. All the schools and universities were closed in his honor. Tagore was extremely touched and said he felt Bulgarian and he celebrated his birthday again in Bulgaria.

Unfortunately, we don’t (yet) have a Bulgarian actor for our show on 23 September. However, actors have come forward to recite poems from the Gitanjali in Czech, English, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Spanish and Swedish. Dutch and perhaps Romanian, Lithuanian and Hindi should complete the 13 languages for the 13 poems in the show.

My search for a good Dutch translation of the Gitanjali led me to this review by Dr Bhaswati Bhattacharya of one translation. Having established contact with her, Kaberi and I were delighted to discover another kindred spirit. She introduced us to Dr Victor van Bijlert, who has translated Tagore’s Gitali into Dutch from the original Bengali. He has kindly agreed to translate one of the Gitanjali poems in our script from Bengali to Dutch.

Rabindranath Tagore’s bust in Prague

Trying to find translations of the Gitanjali in Czech, Josef Schwarz realised that there is a street named after Tagore in Prague near where his mother grew up: Thákurova Street in Prague 6, home to the city’s Technical University. The bust in this photo stands there. It looks quote similar to the one we saw on Tagore Sétany in Balatonfüred.

An article based on a Radio Prague programme about Rabindranath Tagore: an Indian poet who inspired a Czech generation provided more details of Tagore’s special significance for Czechs and identified Dr Dušan Zbavitel as the Czech Republic’s foremost scholar of Tagore’s poetry. Sadly Dr Zbavitel passed away last month.

Now we have started rehearsing with each of the actors one-by-one. It is really fascinating to hear the Gitanjali poems in all these different languages. Each has its own distinct character, as I hope you will be able to see and hear quite soon. Even today, over 100 years after Tagore wrote the original poems, they clearly resonate with people from quite different cultures and languages. Perhaps this illustrates Tagore’s global relevance in the most tangible way.

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.”

Aug 232012
 

This morning, as I read the blog post ‘Once in a lifetime‘ by our friend AJ Leon, I was reminded of this song by Tagore – যদি তোর ডাক শুনে কেউ না আসে তবে একলা চলো রে ।

AJ has set off on a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ trip around the world in 1,080 days. At the same time, he announced a competition to help someone else go on an adventure of a lifetime (deadline 23:59 EST tonight) and, to celebrate his 30th birthday, published a collection of essays about changing the world entitled The life and times of a remarkable misfit . It’s a stylishly-presented, free download, which is inspiring reading – and, yes, as I’d noticed before he told me, he does recommend reading Tagore’s poetry.

AJ sets off from Pennsylvania Station

Here is my English translation of the song:

If, hearing your call, no-one comes, then go on alone.
Go on alone, go on alone, go on alone, oh go on alone.

If no-one says anything, dear, dear, oh unlucky one,
If everyone stays with their faces turned away, everyone is afraid –
Then, opening your soul,
Oh say out loud what you are thinking, oh say it alone.

If everyone turns back, dear, dear, oh unlucky one,
If, as you are going along a difficult path, no-one looks back –
Then crush the thorns on the path
Alone under your blood-stained feet.

If no-one holds a light, dear, dear, oh unlucky one,
If in wind and rain, on a dark night, they close their doors –
Then with a thunder-flame of pain
Ignite your own chest, oh burn alone.

In 2001, in a message to a gathering of all living Nobel laureates to mark the 10th anniversary of Aung San Suu Kyi 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.”

This was that poem. As she observed in her message “There are no words of comfort in the poem. No assurances of joy and peace at the end of the harsh journey. There is no pretence that it is anything but evil luck to receive no answer to your call, to be deserted in the middle of the wilderness, to have no one who would hold up a light to aid you through a stormy night. It is not a poem that offers heart’s ease, but it teaches you that a citadel of endurance can be built on a foundation of anguish. How can anybody who has learnt to ignite his heart with the thunder-flame of his own pain ever know defeat? Victory is ensured to those who are capable of learning the hardest lessons that life has to offer.”

Last month, over 20 years after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights, Aung San Suu Kyi was finally able to deliver her Nobel Lecture in Oslo, Norway. On Monday, Burma abolished media censorship.

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