Jun 252017
 

In today’s Observer, Andrew Rawnsley writes that ‘That jeering sound you can hear is Europe laughing at Britain‘.

Though European leaders are too polite to put it so bluntly, they think that this country, once thought to be a nation of level-headed pragmatists, has taken leave of its senses. First, Britons narrowly vote to quit the world’s largest and richest free trade area. Then, at an election less than 12 months later, Britons split their support between the parties in such a way that there is no consensus in parliament about the terms on which Britain should leave. There is not even agreement about how to proceed on Brexit within the riven ruling party. Ridicule abroad is matched by ridicule at home.

Earlier last week, many on social media noted that even the Queen, who is not supposed to intervene in political matters, appeared to be sending a subliminal message through her choice of hat, the colour of her dress and her delivery of the Queen’s Speech. Some noted that, by putting her handbag on the floor as well, she was signalling that she was not amused by what she was obliged to read in the Queen’s Speech.

The ridicule is not limited to Europe. Here is a view from Australia’s ABC News:

Huw Parkinson turns to the fallout from the recent UK general election. Having lost her majority, and with complicated Brexit negotiations and fields of wheat on her doorstep, Theresa May is determined to “get on with the job of government” (and to seek the Holy Grail).

Meanwhile, in India, the Hindustan Times reported that the UK was looking to India to find nurses to fill a reported 40,000 nursing vacancies in the NHS. Yesterday, the Liberal Democrats’ Brexit spokesperson and Carshalton & Wallington MP, Tom Brake, drew attention to the impact of Brexit on our local hospital, which is the opposite of the extra £350 million per week which Boris Johnson and other Leave campaigners had said would be spent on the NHS if the UK left the EU:

At St Helier Hospital, they are no longer recruiting nurses from Spain, Portugal and Italy, partly because [the nurses] don’t know what their future is [without any guarantee from the UK Government of the rights of EU citizens in the UK], but also because the value of the pound has dropped and therefore they have less to send home as remittances and therefore they are not coming. So what the hospital is doing instead is to recruit nurses from India and the Philippines. The only difference, apart from the fact that it is harder, is that they have to pay £1,000 a visa to get them … really clever!”

Jolyon Maugham QC summarised the effect of the year since the EU Referendum in the UK as follows:

This is purely due to the uncertainty created by the Tories even before the UK has left the EU. Of course, all of this hardship and uncertainty for millions of people has been the result of attempting to keep the pro-EU and anti-EU wings of the Tory party together. So it is extremely rich for a Tory politician like Andrea Leadsom to interrupt a BBC Newsnight interviewer by saying that ‘if broadcasters were willing to be a bit patriotic’ about negotiations with the EU to refuse to answer a question about what the UK Government actually wants to achieve with Brexit a year after the referendum. This from a political party which has put its own interests ahead of those of the people of the country and made the UK a global laughing stock.

So what was Brexit supposed to be about? Taking back control of laws, borders and money, apparently. Well the Queen’s Speech for the next two years included 7 new pieces of legislation to try to make up for the EU laws which would not apply if ever the UK were to succeed in leaving the EU.

And why would the UK want to take back control of laws? Well, it was all about reducing red tape. The sort of red tape that could have prevented the Grenfell Tower fire disaster. This disaster underlined why regulations and regulators are needed: it’s to keep the public safe.

Sky News Political Editor Faisal Islam revealed last week that the Building Research Establishment had prepared a presentation in June 2014 about The fire performance of building envelopes. The presentation included a list of such fires dating back to 1991.

Knowsley Heights – 1991

Basingstoke – 1992

Irvine – 1999

Paddington, London – 2003

The Edge, Manchester – 2004

Windsor Tower, Madrid – 2005

Berlin  2005

Hungary 2009

Dijon France 2010

Chechnya

UAE

USA

The presentation also included diagrams showing how fires spread in buildings with external cladding, such as Grenfell Tower.

The fire risks of such cladding were examined in 1999/2000 by the Commons Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regulatory Affairs after the fire in Irvine, Ayrshire on 11 September 1999. Unfortunately, it seems that successive Government Ministers since then refused to adapt the Building Regulations fully to take these risks into account.

As Thomas Lane wrote in BDOnline soon after the fire:

There have been many calls for Part B, the regulation dealing with fire safety, to be revised in response to the risks of external fire spread via the cladding. As far back as 2000 a parliamentary committee investigating a fatal fire at Garnock Court in Ayrshire in 1999 where fire spread externally via the cladding said the guidance in Part B might not be adequate to prevent the external spread of fire. It said external cladding systems should be required either to be entirely non-combustible, or to be proven through full-scale testing not to pose an unacceptable level of risk in terms of fire spread. It also said it should not take a serious fire in which many people are killed before all reasonable steps are taken towards minimising the risks. This advice was not incorporated into the 2010 revision of Part B. Since then there has been the Lakanal House fire where six people died. The coroner’s 2013 report into this disaster found problems with fire safety including the building’s fire resistance.

Instead the government has sat on its hands and Part B remains unrevised allowing the use of cladding systems such as the one used on Grenfell Tower.

I should mention that my father was Head of Building Regulations for England and Wales in the late 1980s. So I grew up knowing that he was investigating High Alumina Cement, whose tendency to become porous had been responsible for a series of building collapses – including the Morden Swimming baths, where I learned to swim. When he took over the job, my father decided to go back to first principles, to why Building Regulations first started to be put in place. Their origin was the immediate aftermath of the Great Fire of London in 1666, when a small fire in a bakery had destroyed most of the city. That would appear to have been forgotten lately, perhaps as part of David Cameron’s pledge to “kill off the safety culture” to permit a “bonfire of red tape” to liberate the UK economy.

Yesterday, Sutton Council Leader Ruth Dombey said of the Grenfell Tower disaster that “All I do know is that their cladding was the cheap stuff. Their cladding was the stuff that you use when you want to cut corners. … We have two Council-owned tower blocks here in Sutton with cladding. They have both been tested. They are both up to the highest possible standards but, in spite of that, at 9:00 on Monday morning, we are taking off a panel from each of those two tower blocks to get it tested, just to be absolutely sure it’s OK. In the meantime, one of the two tower blocks already has a sprinkler system. We believe it was the first tower block in the whole country to have a sprinkler system installed and the other tower block will have a sprinkler system installed very soon.

“But what was so different between our response and the response of Tory-run Kensington & Chelsea is that, a few hours after we realised the tragedy, we were knocking on doors on every single flat in those tower blocks, together with the Fire Service, and the organisation that runs the Tenants’ Association. And we were talking to people who live there, reassuring them, listening to their concerns and answering their questions. The Council and Councillors have to be present. They have to be visible. They have to be there to deal with things when they go wrong as take the credit when things go right.”

So far, the Leave campaigners who got the country into its current mess of starting negotiations to leave the EU without much of a plan, then calling an inconclusive General Election without any clear consensus of what the plan is now, have been rather invisible.

As David Allen Green noted in the Financial Times, the diminishing public enthusiasm for Brexit is similar to the story of the Poll Tax, which was originally proposed as a brilliant idea by Margaret Thatcher, until everyone realised how unfair (and unpopular) it really was.

And maybe, since the UK Government appears to be singularly unprepared for the Brexit negotiations, Gina Miller’s observation could be quite astute.

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.

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.

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.

Aug 182012
 

Poster for the Brussels premiere of Chitrangada

On Thursday, we received the posters and ‘visiting cards’ for the premiere from the printers. Kaberi and I were both excited to see the results. Between this and travelling, I am again running over a day behind schedule with my blog post. To catch up, I include an update for yesterday’s developments as well.

One of these was the confirmation that our friend Adriana Opromolla, who translated the subtitles of Shyama into Italian, will be in Brussels to recite a poem in Italian during The Story of Gitanjali at the premiere of Chitrangada. While looking for the Italian translations of the poems in The Story of Gitanjali for her, I discovered that there have been around 12 Italian editions of the Gitanjali over the years.

Adriana had also kindly provided the Italian voiceover of one of our first audiovisual efforts: a trailer for Kaberi’s Manipuri dance performances.

I had mentioned in my previous post that Tagore’s works are being translated into Chinese. Yesterday morning, I heard that Chitrangada has been translated into Chinese by Professor Mao Shichang of Lanzhou University. In March 2012, at his initiative, students at Lanzhou University staged a Chinese language production of Chitrangada for the first time.

In January 2011, Professor Shichang wrote a paper on Tagore’s philosophy of universal love – Tagore and China. Professor Shichang is clearly a fan of Tagore. His PhD from Jawarhalal Nehru University in Delhi was on the depiction of women in Tagore’s literature.

According to an article in China Daily reporting on the performance of Chitrangada in March, when Tagore visited China in 1924, an English adaptation of his play Chitra was performed to celebrate his birthday. Tagore had originally written Chitra in 1892 and returned to it over four decades later to develop it into the dance-drama Chitrangada in 1936.

In an interview with the Hindustan Times, Professor Shichang revealed that his association with Tagore began in his childhood, when he had read Tagore’s poems, “which refreshed and warmed my thirsty soul like spring wind”. It was his dream to study Tagore in India, as he did from 2002. The performance of Chitrangada in Chinese with 60 students from eight departments of Lanzhou University became a tribute that he had never imagined he would be able to give to Tagore.

According to Professor Shichang, “Chinese people like the natural and fresh style of [Tagore’s] writing. His spiritualism echoes in people’s hearts. … [Chinese people], no matter whether they believe in religion or not, feel some supernatural power through his works. …Modern people can seek peace and sobriety, and avoid the hustle and bustle of their lives, through Tagore.”

Ambassador Jaishankar, the Indian Ambassador to China, added that “There is a sense of Tagore as an intellectual bridge between India and China, and as a person who stood up for China during difficult days. There is also a much greater appreciation of Tagore today, and of the things he said back in the 1920s. … there isn’t a single Chinese university where they do not know Tagore.”

I hope some day Kaberi and I have the opportunity to meet Professor Shichang.

Aug 152012
 

Sayan performing at the Rabindra-Okakura Bhavan, Kolkata, 10 September 2011

Oops! While translating the subtitles of the penultimate scene of Chitrangada last night, I missed my turn to give you an update on our daily progress. So here it is – better late than never.

I realise that my introduction to Sayan Bandyopadhyay in my post about gathering the team for The Story of Gitanjali was quite brief. Now I have the opportunity to provide more detail.

Sayan’s solo performance at the Rabindra-Okakura Bhavan, Kolkata, September 2011

Kaberi and I began yesterday by exploring Sayan’s page on ReverbNation. We ended up listening to all 12 of his songs published there, which included 8 from his solo performance at the Rabindra-Okakura Bhavan in Kolkata on 10 September 2011. If you are one of the many millions of fans of Rabindrasangeet (Tagore songs) around the world, you will be impressed. We are very pleased and honoured that Sayan has agreed to join us in Brussels for The Story of Gitanjali on 23 September.

Later in the day, I spoke to flamenco teacher and dancer Luisa Castellanos about reciting one of the Gitanjali poems in Spanish for The Story of Gitanjali. Meanwhile, Kaberi continued to explore online ticketing options.

I also started to prepare the sequence which will be projected above the performers during The Story of Gitanjali. It’s quite a challenge to include live subtitling but I now know how we’ll be doing it.

I also realised that the Wikipedia article on the Gitanjali hardly did justice to its subject. At least I think I’ve managed to resolve the long-running conflict between authors disputing how to reflect the distinction between the Bengali Gitanjali and the English Gitanjali. It still needs further fixing – perhaps someone else would like to do so?

A friend mentioned that Pankaj Mishra refers to Tagore in his new book, From the ruins of empire. This article about A Poet Unwelcome is an adapted extract from the book about Tagore’s ‘unkind reception in China’ in 1924.

This reminded me to see if we could make contact with the team which has been translating Tagore’s works into Chinese. In doing so, I noticed that the first Chinese collection of Tagore’s songs was released recently and that Chitrangada was staged at the Lanzhou University.

The day ended with going back to translating Chitrangada … and my missing my blogging cue!

Finally, as today is the 65th anniversary of Indian independence, a ‘happy birthday’ to Indians around the world. A reminder of my blog post exactly a year ago about Tagore and the Indian national anthem.

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