Last week, Kaberi and I visited Bulgaria with a group of friends. While we were in Sofia, we took the opportunity to explore the two theatres where Rabindranath Tagore had made speeches during his visit in 1926.
There are limited details of this visit in English but several websites in Bulgarian, such as this one, described what happened. Between them, I have pieced together the story of his visit and we were able to retrace his steps.
In 1926, Rabindranath Tagore had started his tour of Europe in Sweden. However, he fell ill while visiting Budapest and spent three weeks at the heart hospital in Balatonfüred in Hungary. Afterwards, on his way back to Kolkata, he needed to travel overland through warmer countries.
According to an article in Politika.bg, on hearing about his change of route, members of the Bulgarian PEN Club invited Tagore to visit Bulgaria on behalf of the House of Arts and Press, which had been established three years earlier.
In the summer of 1923, in order to coordinate activities in different cultural spheres, to promote philanthropy, and in order to create a lasting interest in the arts, a group of artists, intellectuals and public figures decided to create a House of Arts and Press in a prominent city. The founders included almost all prominent representatives of Plovdiv’s artistic circles: composers and conductors Angel Bucharest, Anton Tyner, Hristo Manolov, opera singer Subcho Sabev, musicians Dr. Pavel Nedkov, Spas Sofaliyev, Anton Tsarigradski, Aglaya Barzova, Gidali Gidaliev, Philip Slavov, Minya Katsarov, journalists Vasil Pavurdzhiev, Dr. Alexander Peev, artists Tsanko Lavrenov, Hristo Stanchev, Simeon Velkov, lawyer Stoyan Atanasov and others. The writer Nikolay Raynov, at that time chief librarian of the National Library in Plovdiv, was elected chairman of the House of Arts, and Peter Karadzhiev, one of the founders of the Plovdiv School of Music and the Plovdiv Municipal Opera, was the vice-chairman.Bulgarian-Czech connections, 2010
Tagore accepted the invitation and Dimo Kazasov, chairman of the Union of Journalists, took charge of organising the visit. Tagore was travelling by train from Belgrade and Kazasov arranged for them to meet the train at what is now Dimitrovgrad in Serbia.
The impatience is so great that without passports, but with the permission of the Yugoslav authorities, our delegation goes on November 17, 1926 to meet Tagore in Constantinople (now Dimitrovgrad). Its members include Prof. Ivan D. Shishmanov (Chairman of the PEN Club), Prof. Minchev (Chairman of the Anglo-Bulgarian Society), writer – Anglophile Anna Kamenova and Dimo Kazasov. The short but extremely straight-forward journalist lightly outstrips everyone and first enters Tagore’s wagon to wish him welcome. There is nothing left for the others to do than to present magnificent bouquets to Tagore’s daughter-in-law [Pratima] Devi, to her young daughter [Nandini], and to Ms Mahalanobish, who is accompanying them. In the wagon is Rathindranath, the son of the poet, as well as Mr Mahalanobish.From “How Tagore drove Bulgaria mad” by Boyan Draganov, 12 August 2016
After a short breakfast, the train set off from Dimitrovgrad in Serbia for Sofia. Its first stop in Bulgaria was in Dragoman. The station was crowded with people who wanted to greet him.
The schools and the university in Sofia were closed in honour of Tagore’s visit. As a result, several thousand students met Tagore when his train arrived at Sofia station on 17 November 1926.
As soon as the train arrives at 1.30 pm, the wagons are literally besieged by a crowd of thousands who even roam the roof and meet Tagore with the frenetic “Hooray!”. The author of Gitanjali is astonished and scared – even in China they have not met him so. At this time, the news that the guest had arrived brought the entire population of the capital to the streets, except for the “lumps and diapers”, according to the press. The area from the train station to the city center is crowded with eager greeters.
About 100,000 Sofia residents (from the entire quarter-million population of the capital) are trodden and pushed to take a more advantageous position on the Tagore road to Imperial Hotel (2 Lege Street), where it is known that it will stay. At the station, the elite of the intelligentsia bows to the sage Tagore, who along with Tolstoy, Hamsun, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky is the idol of the most prominent Bulgarian minds. Two girls in Macedonian costumes bundle the guest with bouquets of white chrysanthemums.
“The journalists somehow masterfully obsessed, received and accommodated Tagore, and we remained in the background,” complains the secretary of the PEN Club Vladimir Polyanov.
The human anthill finally goes mad when the car with Tagore reaches Maria Louise Blvd. The crowd breaks the line. Each of the welcomers tries to touch the startled guest. Horse cops barely save him from being crushed. Until then, Sofia had never seen such a psychosis with a car moving on a carpet of flowers and a crowd of thousands running after it.
Tagore eventually arrives unharmed at the crowded hotel. People do not move away after Tagore welcomes the crowd from his apartment balcony. His appearance was met with endless applause and a forest of hands.From “How Tagore drove Bulgaria mad” by Boyan Draganov, 12 August 2016
The reception that the Bulgarian society gave to the Hindu philosopher-poet was magnificent! The streets of Sofia were congested with people, and at the station, young students, musicians, leaders and thousands of people, gave their deep words of respect and kind attention in welcoming speeches. The picture was touching: the Bulgarian student body presented Tagore with white lilies, perhaps selected by them as the poet’s favorite flowers.ПРОВИНЦИАЛЕНЪ АКТЬОРЪ , “Rabindranath Tagore in Sofia” 25 November 1926
That evening, he gave a public speech about Contemporary Art at the Free Theatre (now the Musical Theatre).
Bulgarian politician and journalist Dimo Kazasov (1886-1980) described the reaction to Tagore’s appearance:
A public meeting with high-priced tickets was held at the then Free Theater (today’s Musical Theater on Vasil Levski Street). Tickets were looted and visitors could hardly make their way among the crowd that blocked the street outside the theatre. When Rabindranath Tagore appeared on stage, the theatre’s showroom lounge shook with a stormy and prolonged standing ovation.
In a few words, I opened the meeting, recalling the following speaker’s statement to the European press: “Europe is a madhouse in which people dance over their sons’ graves.”
In his speech, Rabindranath Tagore said: “I am still under the impression of the touching welcome I found here. I would like to be a musical instrument because only music can express human feelings.
“I traveled all over Europe from the north of Sweden to your south and saw a lot. I am thinking and trying to guess the secret that has been brought to you here, and I come to the conclusion that you are a young people with a simple soul who has not yet been corrupted by Western civilization. I was in countries where the physical and material were valued, I was among the circus of brute force. And you are a young people who want to join the spiritual beginning. You are a people who believe in the ideals of the future.
“I do not come to you as a poet and philosopher, but as a poet I want to say that I am your man, because the poet sings about the love that he feels and that I feel overwhelms your souls. I come to emphasize what will revive humanity and serve it fully – love between nations.
“I belong to a nation that has young literature that is unaffected by the atmosphere of Western literature that poisons the reader. I come from a country where we are closer to nature, to man and to the people, and where we more clearly and fully understand the desires and aspirations of the world.
“Our literature is not afraid of criticism, which often uses abducted things. We value the works of the most invested in them. We are simple, we do not know advertising and we are indifferent to its methods. Our folk songs and our lyrics are dear to us. In them we find values that are alien to the complex and rich European literature.
“In my country, there was a tendency to emulate everything that came from the West. This imitation leads to falsehood and blunting. My father and I have always been alien to any grafted thing. What I have created is deeply my own. It is sincere and I believe it to be true.
“Our critics did not know whether to accept me or to deny me. Their denial does not despair me. On the contrary, strengthen my spirit. When I wrote my works on the banks of the Ganges, I didn’t think I was writing for others, I thought I was writing for myself. As a child, I didn’t like school and my educators. I was disobedient. Disobedient because I sought freedom.
“It was not until my fifties that I felt the need to get to know the outside world and one day I found myself in London with the Gitanjali manuscript. In an intimate circle, I read something from my works, but did not notice the reader’s interest in the readings. I felt humiliated. I wanted to escape. But the following day praiseworthy reviews came out and I became known to Western readers. However, I am an Eastern man and remain an Eastern poet.
“I believe that you too have great literature and rich folk poetry. I am sure that you are not yet infected by the false vicious practices of the West and its schools. You are not like artificial flowers: seemingly fresh and fragrant, but actually dry and without any scent.
“Our two peoples have in common that they are young so I believe that I will be understood by you. I believe in the great foundations that lie in your people and I wish from your heart to be happy. ”Dimo Kazasov, Traces of past days – 1971
After the end of Tagore’s first speech, police had to be called so that he could get out of the hall and into the car.
Having barely taken his place in the car, Tagore was attacked from all sides. The crowd pushes out the guards, squeezes the car and does not overturn it. Casasov then sees a helpless horror written on the poet’s face. Eventually, the police support the car as it gets back on its wheels and escort it to the hotel.From “How Tagore drove Bulgaria mad” by Boyan Draganov, 12 August 2016
One of the teachers who joined the crowd outside the theatre later wrote this:
On November 17, 1926, Tagore came to Bulgaria. The people greeted him with enthusiasm and brotherly warmth. That day, all the streets around this theatre were jam-packed with people, eager to see and greet the eminent guest most cordially in our country, and only those who could hear and listen to him in the hall, who had special invitations. I was one of the many visitors there around the theatre and just from afar, I could see a person with the halo of Wisdom and Kindness. This event naturally reflected and excited the Sunrise. We commented vividly in the most favorable light of the event. shining in an expression of reverence before this envoy of light, he came to show the peoples of Europe the path of salvation from the looming monstrosity.Ани – Petar Danov forum – 9 February 2013
The following day, he had lunch at the Bulgarian restaurant of the House of Arts and Press. At his request, opera artists sang Bulgarian folk songs.
Later, he gave another speech at the Ivan Vasov National Theatre – across the City Garden from his hotel. This time, he was asked to speak about his poetry in the collections Gitanjali and The Gardener. At the end, he said “The sympathy with which I am surrounded makes me believe that you consider me a poet, and I feel Bulgarian.”
Again a crowd of fans accompanied him to the station, from where he set off for Ruse at 21:55. At Ruse, a military boat took him across the Danube into Romania. Unfortunately, his arrival in Romania was rather more subdued: there was a lone man waiting to meet his boat!
In his paper ‘Tagore in Bulgaria‘, Nikolay Nikolaev suggests a darker explanation for Tagore’s popularity among Bulgarian people. Tagore’s works inspired a broad cross-section of people. However, in addition, his visit followed a fascist coup in 1923, since when “the authorities had not allowed entry into the country any foreign representatives of progressive thought”.
As a result, Tagore refused to be seen as a guest of the Bulgarian Government but rather of the Bulgarian people. The title of his novel Gora was translated as The Rebel Gora and seen as a “manifesto of the freedom of the spirit”. He was seen as an “exponent of democratic ideas” and was opposed to nationalism.
Bearing in mind the situation in the country, many eminent figures in Bulgaria, including some of Tagore’s interpreters, wanted to give the impression to their readers that Tagore was an active revolutionary. The students and the ordinary people were in need of following a colossal figure, such as Tagore. They transferred all their hopes onto this great poet, writer, playwright, composer, artist, thinker, philosopher and humanist.Nikolay Nikolaev, Tagore and Bulgaria – 2011
Tagore clearly left a lasting impression on those who heard him speak in Sofia. Prof. Assen Zlatarov wrote: “Tagore is gone. But his image will remain sealed in our souls for a long time. Sofia lived for two days on a spiritual holiday: we did not have such a stir in all the years … Our wisdom and beauty were hosted and made us remember that we are human”.
Wherever he went, he was received very warmly. At the end of his visit, he addressed all Bulgarians with the words: “You are a people who believe in the spiritual beginning and in the ideals of the future.”