As a participant in the Tagore Festival 2013 in the U.K., the author was witness to how Rabindranath Tagore’s ideas on education and the arts continue to influence people.
August is a month of aphorisms and a series of significant dates in India: Independence Day, Janmashtami. Across coastal villages the Amman deities are vibrant with feminine force as they transfer their energy into worshippers and visitors alike. It is a time of transition and transformations. In England, it’s a last burst of long days and cricket, anticipating a forthcoming season of football, parents delaying the back-to-school paranoia and everyone catching up with themselves.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Tagore’s Nobel Prize for the English translation of the Gitanjali, which was published in 1912, with an Introduction by W.B. Yeats. While Tagore did not need an introduction to the ‘west’; in hindsight, it was perhaps Yeats’s own multilayered colonial ethos, seeking emancipation in a renaissance of Irish Literature while continuing to write in English. The Introduction to Gitanjali can be regarded as a formal celebration of intercultural insights between ‘east’ and ‘west’ and a shared creative education without the colonial trappings of a beholden top-down learning process.
The anthems for India and Bangladesh resound in the subcontinent and they too are a micro intercultural legacy of Rabindranath Tagore, the poet and the man.
While a subcontinental and regional celebration of his contribution to a free India takes on the status of veneration, it is his unique imagination as an artist and educationist that endures in his intercultural relationships — personal and public.
In 1890, Tagore moved to the vast family estate in Shilaidaha, a region now part of Bangladesh. His wife and children joined him in 1898. He travelled by barge throughout the rural region among the Padma River’s sandy estuaries, collecting rents from the tenants and learning the villagers’ ways, working in the rice fields, watching the fishermen with their nets, visiting school children, and attending feasts in his honour. He gained much inspiration from the people and the landscape and it became a prolific period of writing for him, works including Chitra: A Play in One Act (1896), Manasi (poetry, 1890), and Sonar Tari (poetry, 1894).
He had an organic capability of bridging the gulf between imagination and the workshop where art could be manifested — sheer practicality of engaging with the farming tenants on ancestral land, teaching, fundraising, travelling as an artist without government affiliation, but whose familial and societal background must have exuded a certain urbanity that opened doors in England.
In England, in Dartington Hall in evergreen Devon, Tagore is a living presence in education and the arts. Leonard Elmhirst — best described as an agriculturalist, economist, and spiritualist — shared his wife Dorothy’s earnest interest in an education that combined creativity with forestry. They charted a new course in building England, following a decimation of young men in World War I. Elmhirst met Tagore in 1921 and, deeply inspired by Shantiniketan, invited Tagore to the medieval hall that in later years gave political and artistic refuge to Stravinsky, Michael Chekov and Laban. In 1921 Tagore and Leonard Elmhirst founded the Institute for Rural Reconstruction, “Shriniketan”, near Santiniketan. Gustav Holst and his daughter were alchemised by Tagore’s imagination and the synergy of his ethos that looked to the spirit and imagination as the foundation of all art forms, and political and historical circumstances fuelled the intense need for that triumph of collective and individual self-expression.
The impact of Tagore’s legacy continues to be experienced as the Dartington College of Arts, now a University, was founded on the principle of a sustainable environment that combined living and creativity and livelihood. David Francis, the Director of Dartington Hall and Arts, hosts a Tagore Festival that is drawing in generations integrating England’s brand of inter-culturalism, along with Schumacher College that hosts post-graduate programmes on the future of farming, conservation, and the great debate on sustainability that includes heritage.
This year, I was invited as Artist-in-Residence. Armed with my uncle’s (Rao Bahadur K. Venugopal Rao) first edition of the English Gitanjali, I was a witness and a storyteller. Online poetry flowed with my guest Tishani Doshi as we opened with Tagore and gender — woman as nature, woman as nationalism, and woman in society. While his women were allegorical, it was a beginning of roles for women in fiction that was contemporary, and taking centre stage; it was crucial to acknowledge that a free India meant an intellectual mobilisation of women.
William Elmhirst, son of Leonard Elmhirst, was at the Tagore Festival and spoke vividly of Tagore’s influence on space for imagination, and that creativity demanded practicality and stamina. He remembers sitting on Tagore’s lap as a little boy enchanted by the flowing beard. Many memories of the man himself, but William insists it’s the ideas that have become a living legacy.
While the verse is lyrical, it awakens the profound.
One morning in the flower garden a blind girl came to offer me a flower chain in the cover of a lotus leaf. I put it round my neck, and tears came to my eyes. I kissed her and said, “You are blind even as the flowers are. You yourself know not how beautiful is your gift.”