His works transcend boundaries and strike an emotional chord. Kausalya Santhanam on the various literary and cultural events organised across Tamil Nadu to celebrate Rabindranath Tagore's 150th birth anniversary
His genius encompassed an astounding number of fields — literature, music, painting, science, philosophy… His vision led to the founding of a unique university that was universal in its scope and vision — the Visva Bharati. Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was a unifier whose outlook transcended physical and man-made boundaries. The songs that he set to rich and diverse tunes were inspired by Indian folk, classical and Western. They struck emotional chords in all those who heard them. The 150th anniversary of the polymath is being celebrated widely.
How do those living far away from Bengal respond to the genius who created Rabindra Sangeet as well as the exceedingly beautiful works of art and literature? How popular and well known is the bard in Tamil Nadu?
“We began celebrating from April 15, 2010 with the staging of Tagore's drama ‘Rakta Karabi', says Tapas Bhajan, secretary of the Bengali Association in T. Nagar. “During the Rabindra Jayanthi we had songs, dances and recitation based on his works; we also staged ‘Kabuliwala'. Every year in June or July, we pay tribute to poet Nazrul and Tagore.”
“During Tagore's 150th birth anniversary celebrations, we featured many programmes on him,” says Sushyamal Kundu, a computer engineer who has lived in Chennai since 1968. He has been associated with the Bengali Association in the city and with the South Madras Cultural Association for decades. Both organisations have presented Rabindra Sangeet quite a few times in the city. Kundu is also associated with the Nikhil Bharat Banga Sahitya Sammelan, an all-India organisation that propagates Bengali literature and culture. “Last year the Sammelan presented a number of Tagore's plays and organised Rabindra Sangeet recitals. We also conducted discussions on his painting, music and literary works. There was a good response to the programmes, mostly from Bengalis. In Tamil Nadu, we are not lagging behind in promoting an appreciation of Tagore. In Chennai, people are eager to learn about him,” says Kundu. Tamilians are quite enthusiastic about Bengali works of literature, he adds. Tagore's dance dramas are revolutionary and dynamic.
Dancer Vyjayanthimala staged the dance drama “Chandalika” to much acclaim. “Tagore's plays bring out social injustice,” says Rooma Bhaumik who has choreographed and presented the dance dramas of Tagore — “Shyama”, “Chandalika”, “Chitrangada” and “Valmiki Pratibha” — in Chennai.
In August, Geetha Srinivasan, president of INTACH, Nilgiris, along with the Bengali association, the Nilgiri Sarbojanin Durgotsab Committee initiated and organised Tagore celebrations in Ootacamund. “Tamilians participated in large numbers,” she says.
Tagore who was not formally trained as an artist began to paint only at the age of 60. But within the next 20 years he had created 2,500 works that were intensely modern and powerful. Pradipta Mohapatra, chairman, Governing Board, Executive & Business Coaching Foundation Indiaand an art collector was associated with the exhibition in March in the Lalit Kala Akademi, Chennai, as part of the 150th anniversary celebrations. “The highlight was four paintings of Tagore were displayed for the first time in Chennai,” he says. “There is relatively low awareness about Tagore in Chennai; part of the responsibility lies with Bengal itself,” says Mohapatra. “It embraced him so much that no one else could claim him. He was a nationalist but he became Bengal's Tagore.”
Tagore's household in Calcutta was deeply influenced by the visits abroad of the family members and this got reflected in their cuisine, says Deb Dutta, creative director in an advertising firm in the city. He conducted a unique programme on 18th and 19th Century European influence on the food habits of the Tagore family. The programme was held in Soba Bazaar, the oldest raj bhari (kingly house) in Kolkata.
Dutta recreated the ambience of Tagore's house — now a museum — and used songs and Rabindra Sangeet to narrate the gastronomical experiences of the family. Dutta says he would love to repeat the programme in Chennai if provided the opportunity.
“In school, there is generally only an essay on Tagore or a poem or play by him — some excerpts from ‘Kabuliwala' perhaps,” points out Mini Krishnan, Translation Editor, Oxford University Press. “A great many of Tagore's works have been translated. Only by building up the translation component of education will great writers get to be known in our country,” she says.
Dancer Anita Ratnam's “Avani: A Handful of Dust”, a dance theatre presentation was based on the similarities in Tagore's works and those of Muthuswami Dikshitar and Kalki Krishnamurthi. Remembering Tagore”. “I had to find connections between Rabindra Sangeet and my own training in Bharatanatyam and classical music,” says Anita. “As a Tamilian, the apprehensions I would have had in approaching Tagore were dispelled by the Department of Culture's initiative in organising the Tagore celebrations and inviting artistes to contribute creatively to it,” she says.
Pianist Anil Srinivasan recently presented a programme at the Prakriti poetry festival in Chennai featuring Tagore's poems “I wove them with Western compositions — with Beethoven for instance. The response was great. You get into Tagore's music through translation. Rabindra Sangeet is not very popular here. It has to be presented in a way that makes it accessible to people,” says Anil.