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

Breakfast scene with Alph & Chah-lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabindranath Tagore, 1912

Oct 072013
 

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

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

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

tagore-ceremony-pic

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

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

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

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

high-commissioner-tagore-ceremony

HE Dr J Bhagwati,
High Commissioner of India

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

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

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

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

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

tagore-ceremony-pic-two

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

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

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

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

tagore-ceremony-pic-three

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

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

You can watch Chitrangada here.

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

You can watch Chandalika here.

You can watch Shyama here.

May 012013
 
Painting by Rabindranath Tagore: Three witches from Macbeth

Painting by Rabindranath Tagore: Three witches from Macbeth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This year, the programme will be as follows:

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

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

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

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

3.30pm Tagore archive exhibition

4pm UK film premiere: Chitrangada

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

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

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

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

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

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

6pm End

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

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

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

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

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

Ranajit Roy was renowned and widely respected for his integrity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ajoy River flood of 1978

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Encouraging Kaberi

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

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

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

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

Later years

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

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

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

Tagorean spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

রবীন্দ্রনাথ ঠাকুর (গীতাঞ্জলি ১৪২)

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

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

by Rabindranath Tagore (English Gitanjali – poem 96)

Jan 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 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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