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Updated: August 4, 2013 03:00 IST

Tagore and Tamils

Ashokamitran
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The Hindu Archives

With the literary giant’s death anniversary round the corner, theauthor wonders if Tamil Nadu knows how much it owes him.

Amid much seemingly casual chatter on private Indian TV channels, a piece of truth is revealed. It is from the low-key regional language quiz shows. “Who is the first Indian to win the Nobel Prize?” Gandhi, Nehru, Abdul Kalam feature in the answers. A feeble voice says C.V. Raman. “Can you tell us for what he won the prize?” No answer. It is possible that they haven’t even heard of Rabindranath Tagore. In a matter of 60 years, the name of the creator of Gitanjali and scores of other works of great literary and humanitarian value did not even occur to the contestants, who are a representative cross-section of 21st century Indians.

Students from southern India, studying for competitive examinations, memorise the names Rabindranath Tagore and Gitanjali.

For most, their curiosity ends here. But has it been so always? No. Thirty years ago, my eldest son Ravi, then studying in class VI, needed a story to narrate in his class. I told him of a great man in Bengal, who in the guise of addressing grown ups, wrote stories that any child would cherish. Then I told him the story of ‘Kabuliwalla’. By the time I finished, he was sobbing. Next day, after narrating it in class, he told me, “When I finished the story, I couldn’t control my tears. Many students were in tears too.”

This took me farther back to the 1940s when I was a school student.

Our English text-book was a selection of prose and poetry pieces, mostly of British origin but there were a few like ‘The Hero’ of Rabindranath Tagore and ‘Transcience’ by Sarojini Naidu. ‘The Hero’ was my first conscious experience of Tagore. I had seen the bearded face of Tagore a couple of years ago in a Tamil book called Kumudhini. Almost on the same day I saw another photograph of the face in the Tamil weekly. It was in August 1941. Tagore passed away on August 7, 1941. Three years later was the year of ‘The Hero’. It took me a few more years to be able to penetrate into the world of Rabindranath Tagore. His plays were a little puzzling but there was no barrier between us and his prose pieces. Gora gave us a glimpse of the spiritual movements taking place in Bengal in the second half of the 19th century.

When I became a resident of Madras (which is now Chennai), in 1952, I found quite a number of people familiar with Tagore’s writings. Not only Tagore but Bankimchandra Chatterjee, Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, Tarashankar Banerjee and an odd writer by name Rakhaldas Bandhopadhyay. Many of Tagore’s works were then available freely in Tamil Nadu as translations. For the few avid readers of serious writing, translations from Bengali authors were among their first choices.      

Later I learnt that two brothers, T.N. Kumaraswamy and T.N. Senapathi, lived in Bengal and learnt the language to be able to read Tagore’s work in the original and then translate them into Tamil.

Another dedicated translator from other Indian languages to Tamil was Shanmugasundaram.

There was a spell of artistic rivalry between Tagore and the great luminary of Tamil literary renaissance, Subramania Bharati. The two poets resembled each other in their poetic fervour and their love for the land. In affirming the glory of the heritage, in giving form to visions of the future, Bharati and Tagore  were so alike. Each was passionately attached to his own language. Both drew immense sustenance from the realm of spirituality.  Tagore’s was tenderness, equanimity and a silent tear here and there.  Bharati’s was turbulent, indignant and demanding. Despite its magnificence, Tamil did not have the national and international recognition and exposure as Bengali. Bharati may have felt that circumstances conspired to restrict his luminosity to his own region and language yet, to him, Tagore was a precious aspect of India’s genius. He translated stories of Tagore’s into Tamil lovingly. Not many today know that he also translated Bankim’s ‘Vande Mataram’.

The Tagorean influence in Tamil writing was pronounced in the pre-Independence years. Apart from the Kumaraswamy brothers, a number of people took to translating Tagore into Tamil and, by 1947, almost all his fiction and his essential poetry had been rendered into Tamil and, more importantly, the books were in print. Recalling the little I read in those days and currently rummaging the works of Tamil writers from 1925 onwards, I am struck by the subtle manner the Tagorean spirit had overtaken their minds. Tagore’s creations were springboards for literary discussions and Naa Pichamurthy, a short story writer and poet, even grew a beard to resemble Tagore closely. The greatest contribution of Tagore to Indian thought and new Indian writing is probably the legitmisation of the use of child characters as valid components of writing for adults.

As had happened in the case of many an artist, after the first spell of acclaim and adulation, there was a period of reaction — all-round criticism and even condemnation of Tagore. Humanity takes a vicarious delight in crowning someone and dethroning the same person later. In Tagore’s lifetime, he experienced it when the Nobel Award was announced in 1913. In a letter to Sir William Rothenstein, who first introduced him to the West, Tagore wrote: “I am smothered with telegrams and letters… and those who had no friendly feelings to my work are the loudest.” This was to change, of course. He was a much revered figure not only for his writings but also for his message of a universal man. In Tamil, his story Vision was first enacted as a play and, in 1953, and made into a film (Kangal). But the great cinematic successes were south Indian film versions of his Wreck and Ardhangi. Interestingly both were made in Telugu and then in Tamil. Another piece of irony is that the Tamil version formed the basis for a Hindi film Ghunghat.

All this was over by the 1960s, when the rising tide of regionalism swept away memories of the extraordinary contributions of Tagore. Tamils sought new gods, so it appeared.

For one who lived through the 1930s and 1940s, the present lukewarm interest of regional language writers and readers towards  Tagore is saddening. The irony is that there is at least one poem by Tagore in all high school English textbooks. If a student manages to reach the final high school class, he just cannot avoid encountering Where the mind is without fear. Are these words taught as they should be?  Where is the failure — with the mentors or the young ones?

Perhaps one shouldn’t see too much into this. Just as Presidents and Prime Ministers change, so do spiritual and artistic icons. With or without Tagore’s works being available, at least for a few more years there will be someone in some ‘dark corner of the temple’ cherishing the memory of a man who never shunned leadership in times of adversity and hostility. There will always be a parent narrating the story of a Kabuliwalla to his child. In Tamil Nadu as well as in Andhra, the kabuliwallas were not thought of kindly. But Tagore, by the magic of his fiction, turned the hateful image into one of warmth and compassion. ‘One touch of nature turns the whole world kin’.  This 400-year-old line of Shakespeare is as true for another as great as he! 

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Mr. Ashokamitran's article on Tagore clearly points out how literature
and writers are reminded in our nation. Probably in recent days
schools never have a cult of story telling or narrating to the
students. The creativity or interest in literature field is slowly
getting down and we should accept this. Because this generations are
running and lighting lamps for an engineer and other money making
professionals.

This article shown me how our next generation is going remind those
eminent scholars. Some comments on this article are biased and purely
reflects the linguistic affinity. Being anthropology graduate i am
unhappy with the comments and misleading judgmental statements of the
author's article.

Finally we are all social animal and victimizing ourselves to the
globe by our own actions.

from:  Janani
Posted on: Aug 5, 2013 at 08:44 IST

Many do not know that Tagore was fascinated by the richness of Bharata
Natyam during his stay in Madras (Chennai).

He took with him a teacher, and the 1st Bharata Natyam class north of
the Vindhyas stared at Shantiniketan - Tagore's famous school.

Tagore learnt carnatic classical music and wrote songs based on
Thyagaraja's compositions.

There is no room for narrow parochialism or regionalism in Tagore's
worldview.

from:  Ashis
Posted on: Aug 5, 2013 at 00:11 IST

if not for any other of his works, tagore shall be remembered for
writing the national anthem of our country.

from:  gaurav
Posted on: Aug 4, 2013 at 21:00 IST

@Sachidananda Narayanan - You either have a personal grudge against Ashokamitran or
you did not understand his article. He is not putting Tamil down - he is saying Tamil and
Bharathi deserve more recognition. All the things you are saying is known to Tamils but not
to others. It is time to stop saying how Bengalis and others are not reading Tamil but rather
take it to places where it matters - world literary forums and not just conducting world Tamil
conferences and keep talking about the same thing over and over again among selves. Your
comments seem to personify the classical regionalism and parochialism, that we need to
avoid.

from:  Rajan
Posted on: Aug 4, 2013 at 20:38 IST

In a restaurant with my Japanese friend in Tokyo in October 2009. The
waitress brought in a tray plenty of green leaves cooked in the typical
Japanese method. I asked my Japanese friend the name of the green leave
that came with sauce and rice. To my surprise, he told me that it was
"Pasali". In India we know by its English name "spinach". But, though
being a Japanese knowing English, he told me its "original" Tamil name,
"Pasali" that Mr. Ashokmitran and the ilk live writing and speaking
Tamil language must know what the international standing of simple and
common words in Tamil is and how they made their influence felt outside
the boundaries of Tamil Nadu and India. I immediately put that incident
on my blog. In an hours time I came to know that already a Tamil
student was doing a study in research in the Tamil Department of Tokyo
University on etymological links between Tamil and Japanese! A visit to
places might open 'Ashokamitrans' myopic eyes to the 'world of Tamil'
for sure.


from:  C. Sachidananda Narayanan
Posted on: Aug 4, 2013 at 18:39 IST

Ashokamitran says it an 'irony' to take a Hindi movie based on its
Tamil depiction. What a joke! Waheeda Rehman, Vijayanthi Mala, Padmini,
Hema Malini, Sridevi, Kamal Hasan, Rajnikant and now Dhanush have made
telling impact from Tamil language on Hindi film world. To
Ashokamitran, it must be salt in his eyes to see the Tamil version of a
Tagore story to be the base for its Hindi version! What a pity with
Ashokamitran's sagging mindset! Like Ka. Na. Su, Ashokamitran must be
yearning for a Vaghdevi recognition from the Union government with its
purse. Good. But in that process, he is exposing his darker side
chocking him up with hatred for Tamil language which goes against his
dream. There were some people called Dr. Mu. Va., Bharathidasan,
Jayakanthan, jagasirpiyan, M. Karunanidhi, CN Annadurai, Nallan
Chakaravarthy Rajagopalachari, P. Jeevanandham, Gnanamuthu Devaneyan
and scores of others were not given the Vaghdevi. They never spat into
the bowl that fed them, like Ashokamitran.

from:  C. Sachidananda Narayanan
Posted on: Aug 4, 2013 at 15:16 IST

..I do not mean to say that Bengali is any way inferior to any other
Indian languages. The sweetness in Bengali language and the demand for
the recognition of it against Urdu alone was the sole reason for East
Pakistan to become "Sonar Bangladesh". Ashokamitran equates languages.
Thereby he betrayed his ignorance. It is a saying in Sanskrit that
"Bhasha Bhaghucha Neer". Languages are water flowing in the stream. It
was Guru Tagore declared first and authenticated the existence of the
Dravidian race in his extensive research on the history of India. In
his fair name, Ashokamitran sows the seed of linguistic poison.
Lampooning Tamil language this way taking the Great Name of Gurudev
Tagore is a sure insult to not only him but also to one and all who
speak it as well.

The International exposure of Tamil is proven beyond doubt from the
times of the Roman dynasty and the burning down of the famous Jaffna
Tamil Library in Srilanka. Will Ashokamitran should desist from writing
such trash?

from:  C. Sachidananda Narayanan
Posted on: Aug 4, 2013 at 14:56 IST

It is blasphemy committed on Tamil language by Ashokamitran to dare say
that "Despite its magnificence, Tamil did not have the national and
international recognition and exposure as Bengali". If Ashokamitran is
fond of Bengali language, it is his choice. But, to say Tamil did not
have national and international recognition and exposure as Bengali is
ridiculous and cantankerous in the mindset of someone claims himself to
be a writer. Of all the Indian languages, it is only Tamil that is not
only spoken but also an official language in Malaysia Singapore,
Srilanka, Myanmar, Surinam, South Africa, Mauritius, The Caribbean
nations apart from freely spoken in France, pockets of PRC, Thailand,
Fiji and Cambodia. Needless to say the Gulf countries in the Middle
East and with the inroad made by Tamils into the United States of
America. There is not a single major city in the world where there is
not a Tamil Sangam. Be it Beijing, Paris, London, Tokyo, Dubai, Lagos,
Dublin or Moscow.

from:  C. Sachidananda Narayanan
Posted on: Aug 4, 2013 at 14:27 IST

Except his literary works getting translated in Tamil I did not see any
contribution of Tagore to the Tamil language . However I do not disagree
his momentous contribution to the nation

from:  ANANDA PRAKASH RAJKUMAR
Posted on: Aug 4, 2013 at 13:58 IST

Ashokamitran's article is parochial, slanderous and vicious against
Tamil and Tamil language and Tamil literature. Perhaps, he wants to
emulate the late Ka. Na. Subramanyam gone haywire over his grudge
against Akilan given Gyanpeet award while he expected the same for him
years ago. As much Ashokamitran ridicules the students of South India
in not knowing Tagore against CV Raman, he should have gone to do some
research if not simple study to ask students from North Indian schools
if ever they knew the names of the three dynasties ruling Tamil Nadu
ages ago in the history of India. Or who Narayanaguru, Bharathidasan or
even Subramanya Bharati himself. If Ashokamitran has any special love
for the intellectual acumen of the students of North India and a
distaste for the student of the South, so be it. When I did my PUC in
St. John's College in Palayamkottai, there was the "Wreck" of Tagore.
But, can Ashokamitran ever say a Bengali student read at least one
singe gem of Dr. Mu. Va.?

from:  C. Sachidananda Narayanan
Posted on: Aug 4, 2013 at 13:34 IST

It is a British conspiracy that Tagore was given the Nobel Prize and Mahatma Gandhi was denied the Nobel.

from:  Shyam
Posted on: Aug 4, 2013 at 11:19 IST

This article takes me through 'down memory lane'. Tributes like this are what keep our fading memories stay alive. The author aptly depicts the breezy Tagore vis-a-vis the turbulent Bharathi. Regional fervour has taken its toll on such national stalwarts. I hope the next generation gets introduced enough not to let the wealth of literature that Tagore produced and gave to mankind.
Tagore will forever remain one of those influential persons in the lives of a great majority of Indians in the past century. I was greatly influenced (and shaled) by him, no doubt.

Thank you for the touching article, Mr Ashokamithran and 'TheHindu'!

from:  P Rajeswaran
Posted on: Aug 4, 2013 at 10:24 IST

Tagore is not only the first Indian to have won the Nobel Prize, but also the first Asian, in any field.

from:  D Rakesh
Posted on: Aug 4, 2013 at 10:24 IST

Very true and apt commentary of current times, and the vision and universality of Tagore's
thoughts. Thanks to Sri. Ashokamithran for this article.

from:  Dr. K.T. John
Posted on: Aug 4, 2013 at 09:06 IST

My thanks to the vivid comparison of Tagore and Mahakavi by the author. I have started
reading Bharathis life and his poems after 40 years of school life, when my school teacher
used to sing Bharathis song on cats and unity. Such a long time I missed Bharathi.

from:  Pn
Posted on: Aug 4, 2013 at 08:43 IST

It is not only Tamils but India in general, barring Bengal and Bangladesh that do not know Tagore. J C Bose, Sir C v Raman, Ramanujam, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Sarojini Naidu, Mahadevi Verma, just to mention a few among the many are not even names for the majority of Indians. It is only names that can get some votes are promoted. Better than biographies are diaries, letters, notes. Uma Das Gupta has compiled and edited Tagore and one is privileged to know of the man, just a glimpse. India is the world's largest movie producing center. In USA one can get DVDs of the lives of Presidents and a program American Experience presents American History and the personalities in a manner befitting events and the persons. Ten Percent of the time TV stations spend on political and "celebrities" scandals can be used for programs on India. It required a Michael Wood to produce a documentary on India. Margaret Emersen Sen had to write "A pageant of India's History". India has forgotten her glorious past,

from:  Ceeoren
Posted on: Aug 4, 2013 at 07:34 IST

Kabuliwala - a great story - also made into a film in Bengali.

from:  Venk
Posted on: Aug 4, 2013 at 04:03 IST

"Into the haven of freedom my father, let my country awake". I remember my teacher
asking us to correct the spelling of "haven" into "heaven". At times I tend to pity our
English teachers. What a great poem it is! Another poem of Tagore that flows from
my memory spontaneously is "Have you not heard his silent steps; he comes; comes
ever comes".

from:  Edwin Thadheu
Posted on: Aug 4, 2013 at 02:51 IST

Rabindranath tagore was in chennai for few days after meeting Aravinda
Ghosh in Pondichery in 1932.Sri.T.N.seshachalam a great Tamil writer
was running a literary weekly Kalanilayam (1928 to 1935).He had the
opportunity to meet and interview Tagore on behalf of the weekly.
He had published about the interview covering most of the subjects
like running a literary weekly in Tamil,the condition of Tamil stage
and
plays,about the importance of language(mother tongue) to convey
feelings and ideas.He had congratulated the editor for running it with
much difficulty.readers of the hindu would agree with the writer of
this article on Tagore and his love for tamil if they could read
through the interview in full.

from:  T.S.Gopalakrishnan
Posted on: Aug 4, 2013 at 01:48 IST

Enjoyed reading Mr Ashok Miran's piece. Having read Tagore in English and ofcourse the great Bharathi in Tamil, allways felt that the Tamils did huge injustice to Bharathi. He was hardly translated well for the Non Tamil audience. The British were not keen to promote him, knowing his staunch nationalism and anti British activities. Bharathi deserved a Nobel Prize as much as Tagore. The Dravidian movement also forgot him,apart from the occasional lipservice for the " greatest Tamil Poet" of the 20 th Century,though he was rationalist in his thoughts and actions than the leaders who doiminated the political space in TN in last 60/70 years.More Compartive work of Tagore and Bharathi will be very useful for the future generations.

from:  Adithya
Posted on: Aug 3, 2013 at 19:57 IST
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