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.

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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.

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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.

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.

Dec 102012
 

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Norway in July 2011, apparently by a man angered and alienated by the multicultural changes in the country, I had been impressed to see Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg saying “We must never cease to stand up for our values. We have to show that our open society can pass this test too. And that the answer to violence is even more democracy, even more humanity, but never naïveté.”

Today has a special significance. Apart from being my father’s 79th birthday, the European Union (all 500 million of us) will receive the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. According to Alfred Nobel’s will, the Peace Prize is awarded to “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” The winner is selected by a 5-person committee nominated by the Norwegian Parliament. They noted that “The union and its forerunners have for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.”

The EU’s Nobel Peace Prize comes at a time when parts of Europe are descending into Nationalism. In 1916-17, during the First World War, not long after winning his Nobel Prize for Literature, Tagore gave a series of speeches criticising Nationalism . He 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.”

Audrey Hepburn, who was born in Brussels, witnessed this type of inhumanity at first hand at the age of 11, after Germany occupied the Netherlands in 1940. “I have memories. More than once I was at the station seeing trainloads of Jews being transported, seeing all these faces over the top of the wagon. I remember, very sharply, one little boy standing with his parents on the platform, very pale, very blond, wearing a coat that was much too big for him, and he stepped on to the train. I was a child observing a child.” [Source: Wikipedia]

Audrey Hepburn’s wartime experiences sparked her devotion to the international humanitarian organisation UNICEF (winner of the 1965 Nobel Peace Prize), for which she became a Goodwill Ambassador. Her friend Gregory Peck recited her favourite poem, Tagore’s Unending love, in an interview soon after her death in 1993 (from 1:35 in this clip).

Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights”, was finally able to receive it in June this year having spent decades under house arrest. As I mentioned in my post ‘If, hearing your call, no-one comes, then go on alone‘, in a message to a gathering of all living Nobel laureates to mark the 10th anniversary of her 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.”

Similarly, Nelson Mandela, who won the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize together with Frederik Willem de Klerk, had ended a letter to the Secretary of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations by saying “We join with you, the people of India, and with people all over the world in our striving towards a new tomorrow, tomorrow making a reality for all mankind the sort of universe that the great Rabindranath Tagore dreamed of in Gitanjali:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, where knowledge is free; where the world has not been broken into fragments by narrow domestic walls; where words came out from the depths 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 these into ever widening thought and action into that haven of Freedom, My Father, let my country awake.”

For centuries before it actually happened, the idea of unifying Europe was associated with preventing a recurrence of war. Large areas of Europe had previously been united by empires built on force, such as the Roman EmpireByzantine EmpireFrankish EmpireHoly Roman EmpireOttoman Empire, the First French Empire and Nazi Germany. In the 17th Century, there had been the fairly unsuccessful Peace of Westphalia – parodied here in a clip sent to me by a friend from Luxembourg.

The calls for unity became louder after the First World War but it was only after the Second World War that the first real steps were taken towards creating the European Union.

Even during the Second World War, French politician Robert Schuman had been convinced that Franco-German and European reconciliation had to take place after the war ended. As Prime Minister of France (1947-48), he laid the foundations for the Council of Europe and what is now the European Union. As Foreign Minister in 1949, he said “We are carrying out a great experiment, the fulfillment of the same recurrent dream that for ten centuries has revisited the peoples of Europe: creating between them an organization putting an end to war and guaranteeing an eternal peace.” [Source: Wikipedia]

So here we are, over 60 peaceful years later. Sadly, countries like the UK have forgotten why they joined the European Union and have succumbed to their nationalist tendencies, preferring only economic unity. The absence of peace in Europe is now taken for granted.

Perhaps another problem is that peace has no value as far as economic measures like GDP and GNP are concerned. Maybe a more useful statistic in our connected and globalised times could be the Gross National Happiness index developed by Bhutan since 1972. Futurist Gerd Leonhard explains why in this recent TEDx talk.

Back in 2008, France’s then President Nicolas Sarkozy commissioned a report on measuring economic performance and social progress from Nobel Prize-winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, as well as French economist Jean-Paul Fitoussi. Of course, Amartya Sen has been strongly influenced by Tagore’s philosophy and is one of the products of Tagore’s school in Santiniketan.

Earlier this year, the UN added happiness to the global agenda. As the Economist reported, an international survey of happiness showed “the highest levels of self-reported happiness not in rich countries, as one would expect, but in poor and middle-income ones, notably Indonesia, India and Mexico. In rich countries, happiness scores range from above-average—28% of Australians and Americans say they are very happy—to far below the mean. The figures for Italy and Spain were 13% and 11% (Greece was not in the sample). Most Europeans are gloomier than the world average. So levels of income are, if anything, inversely related to felicity. Perceived happiness depends on a lot more than material welfare.”

So I hope that the EU’s Nobel Peace Prize will be a reminder to many in Europe, not only in the UK, who seem to have succumbed to “one of the most powerful anaesthetics that man has invented”: Nationalism. The official EU delegation that collects the Nobel Peace Prize  includes four young European citizens – Ana from Spain, Elena from Italy, Ilona from Poland and Larkin from Malta – who won a drawing and writing contest organised by the EU institutions together  with the European Youth Forum. They were asked to answer the question: what does peace in Europe mean to you?

In Brussels, at 6pm, some have called for a flash mob in front of Robert Schuman’s statue near the parc de Cinquantenaire – those attending are asked to bring a candle and something to light it. Being in London for my father’s birthday, I will miss the gathering. That is why, in the absence of any UK celebrations of the Prize (celebrations are planned around the world, including in the US), I am celebrating it with this post. After all, it’s not every day we get to be a Nobel laureate.

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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