Late posting: My article on Tagore was published in the classic compendium 2022 brought by Literoma as part of Tagore litfest held in Kolkata in May 2022
Rabindranath Tagore’s idea of one Asia
Tagore romanticized the idea of one united Asia. His paeans on bridging the gap of China and India and bring the two countries closer were well known. He was venerated by people across the Asian countries as the greatest living poet and intellectual. He was an ardent traveler and did not miss an opportunity to travel to Asian countries. It was his eagerness to see the Indianness, the cultural influence of India in all those countries where Hinduism was part of their culture and tradition that took him to the countries in Southeast Asia. Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Japan, Burma where he travelled, he interacted with much enthusiasm and wrote poems with love for the countries after every visit.
Guru Rabindranath Tagore’s charisma was so great and so deeply rooted in Southeast Asia that his 100th birth anniversary was observed in Singapore in 1961 and several discussions and forums were held in his honour. The Institute of Southeast Asian Research in Singapore has a dedicated Nalanda Sriwijaya center established with the aim of research study of Chinese and Indian diasporas, their interactions, maritime and trade links with Southeast Asia, maritime technologies, historical spread of Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, and Christian networks across Asia, learning and cultural exchanges among Asian societies, cross cultural interactions between India and China, during the Late Qing and Republican Periods. Among the focus of studies, it is heartening that the center has marked the study on influence of Rabindranath Tagore and his contemporaries across Asia as one of the main research projects. The center is also working with the West Bengal State Archives to identify and digitize materials relevant to Southeast Asia and China-India relations.
Perceptions of Asia by Rabindranath Tagore
The Nalanda Sriwijaya center explores the conversations across Asia conducted by Rabindranath Tagore, and his contemporaries who all imagined Asia as an abstract entity, transcending the colonial boundaries.
In 2011, as part of 150th year of Rabindranath’s Tagore’s birth anniversary, lectures and events were held across four countries in places of academic excellence, Harvard University US, Beijing University in China, Singapore ISEAS and Netaji Research Bureau in Kolkata. A series of four conferences examined Tagore’s travels in Asia and the wider impact of his ideas on Asia, to understand the Tagore phenomena through his experiences in Japan and China during the 1910s and 1920s. A Different Universalism lecture series explored the political, intellectual, cultural conversations conducted by Tagore and his contemporaries towards a global vision in the age of colonial empire and anti-colonial nationalism. It also examined the modern intellectual history of Asia as well as theories of universalism, cosmopolitanism, and internationalism.
Rabindranath Tagore’s Influential Travels
Rabindranath Tagore (7 May 1861 – 7 August 1941), was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and an icon of intra-Asian interactions and of the Pan-Asian movement. Tagore made his first trip beyond India in 1878 to Britain to study and several influential voyages to Asian countries after receiving the Nobel Prize in 1913.
Beginning in 1916 he visited Burma and in 1922 he travelled to Sri Lanka. Longer visits to China and Japan took place in 1924, Singapore, Malaya, Indonesia, and Thailand in 1927, and China, Japan, and Indochina in 1929, were interspersed with further visits to Sri Lanka and, to many countries in the Middle East and Europe. The ways in which Tagore was received and reacted to during his Asian voyages varied enormously, with some in his audiences considering him a “seer and patriarch”, or even a saint with “a great and tender soul”, while others were vehement in their denunciation of their visitor, who claimed to be intent on saving the spirituality of the East from the materialism of the West.
China Visit in 1924
Tagore was a celebrated figure even before his arrival in China in April 1924. Chen Duxiu, one of the founding fathers of the Communist Party of China had translated Tagore’s prize-winning anthology, Gitanjali in 1915. Guo Moruo, a writer of Tagore’s status was deeply influenced by Tagore when he was studying in Japan from 1914 to 1920.
On receiving an invitation, Tagore was overjoyed, “it was an invitation to India herself and as her humble son I would accept, and though India being poor in many respects had something to give to the world’. On arrival he was the only invitee of Emperor to the inner sanctum of the Forbidden City, after the British Sir Reginald Johnston. He interacted with many Chinese poets with a hope that a dreamer among them will preach the message of love and bridge the chasms of passions widening since ages. Famous Chinese poet Xu Zhimo, also Tagore’s close friend on being asked to be an interpreter, in his joy likened it to transcribing nightingales’ passionate songs or Niagara’s grand roars.
Tagore was deeply touched when a renowned Chinese scholar, Liang Qichao, presented him the Chinese name, ‘Zhu Zhendan’ translating as “thunder of the oriental dawn” as also when his play Chitra was performed by young Chinese actors. He truly believed in the mutually beneficial interactive relationship and passionately advocated the reopening of the path between the two countries that got obscured through the centuries. Barring some young students, his message of love and brotherhood were well received and admired by Chinese intellectuals as espousal of civilizational strength of the east.
His international university, ‘Visva-Bharati’, played a pioneering role in development of Chinese studies in India. The establishment of the first Sino-Indian Cultural Society, and then, ‘Cheena Bhavana’ (Chinese Department) at Shantiniketan were corner stones for this cause. Scholars, teachers like Tan Yun-Shan, who led Cheena Bhavan for many years, contributed greatly to modern India’s understanding of Chinese civilization and her modern development. The late Ji Xianlin, Padma Bhushan and doyen of Indologists in China observed that Tagore was an icon of Sino-Indian friendship both in India and China.
Visits to Southeast Asian countries in 1927
Day by day records of his visit in 1927 to Singapore starting 25th July show the respect for the great poet among elite of Singapore society. He was introduced as greatest living poet of East after he gave a speech on India and China and how Indian students should read Chinese history. Gurudev spoke about India’s glorious past, and that all his countrymen should support the ideals of Visva Bharati. He addressed school children and teachers, gave a lecture on China India cultural fellowship in Victoria theatre.
As he sailed to Malacca, he was given a rousing reception among Chinese and Indo Ceylonese and post his lecture on education, an amount of $3500 was raised for Visva Bharati. In Muar and Kuala Lumpur as next stoppages he was garlanded and given ‘at home’ honour with performances by Chinese, British and Ceylonese communities. His speeches were mainly about unity of human race and India China relations, uniting of China India cultures in service of the whole world. His reception was equally grand in Klang, Ipoh, Kuala Kangsar, Taiping, Telok Anson. In Penang he laid foundation stone of a building and addressed to a large gathering that Asia was the birth- place of many religions of the world. He spoke about nationalism and emphasized that India must understand history and culture of China. His public speech was the best of all according to his companion and teammate. His next destinations were Surabaya, Bali, and Yogyakarta in Indonesia.
Indonesian Hindu islands and cities had captured a place deep in Gurudev’s heart who was always enthused by cultural interactions rather than military conquests. The Sriwijaya empire of Indonesia had given its patronage to the Buddhist university at Nalanda and enjoyed friendly ties with the Pala kingdom of Bengal and both had suffered military defeat at the hands of the Cholas of south India in the 1020s. As Tagore sailed on Plancius from Singapore towards Batavia on August 16, he wrote his poem Sriwijaylakshmi celebrating the renewal of bond after a thousand-year separation, which was given an equally classical response by a leading Javanese poet addressing him as an elder brother to guide in the world, teach scriptures, tongue and all that is needed to exist.
An interim pilgrimage to Bali and an interaction with the king of Karengasem left Tagore completely stunned. The king uttered the word Samudra and other synonyms for ocean such as Sagara, Abdhi, Jaladhya and did Sanskrit recitation of seven seas, mountains, skies, and forests. Mention of names of Indian mountains and rivers astonished him further and he observed that in our history Bharatvarsha (India) had realized its geographical unity in a special way. The discovery of further variations in the Southeast Asian versions of the great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata enabled Tagore through comparative study to propound the version as original and an interpretation of marriage (Ram and Sita) as a metaphor.
However, he noted that the ‘Hindu’ ethos of the island was no bar to Arab Muslims, Gujarati Khoja Muslims and Chinese merchants conducting trade. After his departure from the island Rabindranath Tagore wrote one of his most beautiful poems, Bali which was later renamed Sagarika (Sea Maiden) of which the opening verse read: Having bathed in the sea with your wet tresses you sat on the rocky beach. Your loose yellow robe drew a forbidding line around you on the earth…
From Bali, Tagore travelled to Surabaya, a predominantly Muslim Island of Java. His romanticization of India and witnessing the stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata suffusing the dance and drama of the Muslim Javanese, made him call it “Vyas Indies’ instead of Dutch indies. The poet inaugurated a new road in Suryakarta, called Tagaro Straat. The temple ruins at Prambanan reminded him of Bhubaneswar in Orissa. He wrote about the great Saiva-Buddhist temple complex of Borobodur in his poem Borobodur. Tagore pursued the Buddhist connection in Siam and composed some of very popular songs on his way back through Southeast Asia. In Bangkok, Tagore met the prince of Chantabun. His poem Siam composed on October 11, 1927, gave a final expression to Tagore’s search for a greater India: Today I will bear witness to India’s glory that transcended its own boundaries I will pay it homage outside India at your door.
Tagore’s obvious pride in ‘India’s entry into the universal’, were based on his partial view of the historical relations between the two regions, India as not a monolith to discuss how cultural influences radiated out, cultural influences happened through active historical agents.
Travel to Middle East in 1932
After seeing European colonized Muslim societies of Malaya and Java, he boarded a Dutch airplane to travel to Muslim sovereign countries of Iran and Iraq in April 1932. In Iran he was poet of the east and wrote an essay Parashye (In Persia) which is much more than a diary or a travelogue. He had a special affinity to Persian Sufi poets. Tagore wrote, ‘my identity has another special feature. I am Indo-Aryan…I have a blood relationship with them.’ There was absolutely no occasion, Tagore asserted, when the Persians made him feel that they belonged to another society or religious community.
At a reception in a carpeted garden surrounding Saadi’s grave Tagore claimed kinship with the Sufi poets and composers of yesteryears; it was just that he used the language of the modern age. He had been agonizing about the blindness and prejudice that went by the name of religion and wanted India to be free of this terrible affliction. “Will the tavern’s door be flung open,” Tagore read when he opened his eyes, ‘and with it the tangled knots of life unfasten?
Tagore was entranced by the gardens and mosques of Isfahan. He visited the Masjide-Shah started by Shah Abbas and the neighboring Masjid-e-Chahar-e-bagh. Not surprisingly, Tagore compared Shah Abbas with India’s Akbar. During his two weeks in Tehran, he participated in as many as eighteen public functions. Persian music continued to intrigue him with its elements of sameness and difference in relation to north Indian classical music. On the violin the melodies sounded like the morning ragas Bhairon, Ramkeli and even the pure Bhairavi.
The poet’s 71st birthday on May 6, 1932, was celebrated with great fanfare in Tehran. In return for all the bouquets, Tagore gave a gift in the form of a poem titled ‘Iran’ which ended with a verse of victory to Iran. In return he received from parliamentary leaders an exquisitely produced volume of the poetry of Anwari. Among the various sights that the poet saw were Darius’s carvings on the mountainside in Behistun and the glorious sculpture of the Sassanid age in Takibustan.
On seeing the ferocity of British air force on Iraqi villagers he reflected on the shift from sea power to air power in human history and easiness of killing desert dwellers from the air and wrote as a message: From the beginning of our days man has imagined the seat of divinity in the upper air from which comes light and blows the breath of life for all creatures on this earth. The peace of its dawn, the splendor of its sunset, the voice of eternity in its starry silence have inspired countless generations of men with an ineffable presence of the infinite urging their minds away from the sordid interests of daily life… Reflecting on how different his life nurtured by the rivers of Bengal was from the struggle for existence in the desert, bedouin chief surprised him. “Our Prophet has taught us,’ the chief said, ‘that he is a true Muslim from whom no fellow human being fears any harm.
In late May 1932 the intellectuals of Baghdad organized a civic reception in Tagore’s honour. Tagore expressed his anguish about Hindu-Muslim conflict in India and invited his hosts to resend their Prophet’s message of Universal brotherhood across the Arabian Sea so that India could be saved from communitarian narrow-mindedness, inhuman intolerance and the degradation of liberal religion and put on the high road to unity and freedom.
The aspirational quality of a different universalism was perhaps best expressed by Tagore in a poem-painting signed. The night has ended. Put out the light of the lamp of thine own narrow corner smudged with smoke. The great morning which is for all appears in the East. Let its light reveal us to each other who walk on the same path of pilgrimage.
In the present day of war and conflict, it is relevant to throw light on Tagore’s pan Asian ideals. He undoubtedly was a powerful critic of worshipping the Nation as God and he simply did not want Indian patriots to imitate European nationalists. Yet he loved the land that had nurtured him. It is not without reason that Mahatma Gandhi in his obituary comment on Rabindranath Tagore in 1941 lauded the poet as ‘an ardent nationalist’. Indeed, a nationalist with a unique cosmopolitanism and a different universalism best describes Rabindranath Tagore.
Source: Nalanda Sriwijaya Center’s Tagore Booklet