88 years later, Tagore comes to China again

March 24, 2012 01:03 am | Updated 01:05 am IST - BEIJING:

Chinese actor from Lanzhou University performing Rabindranath Tagore's 'Chitrangada'. Photo : Special Arrangement

Chinese actor from Lanzhou University performing Rabindranath Tagore's 'Chitrangada'. Photo : Special Arrangement

When Rabindranath Tagore set foot in Shanghai in 1924, he began a whirlwind tour that left behind a complicated legacy.

Welcomed as a wise and sage-like figure by intellectuals and liberal romantics, Tagore was also vilified by Western-influenced and nationalist supporters of the ‘May 4 movement,' seen as an anti-modern and unwelcome throwback.

Strong criticism and protests greeted his first visit, which marked for China a long and complex relationship with Tagore. Over decades, however, his literature came to be widely loved by Chinese intellectuals — so much so that even today, Tagore is studied in Chinese high schools and universities, and perhaps given more attention than even in Indian schools.

Now, 88 years later after he first arrived in China, the poet is being remembered here through a unique tribute. On Saturday, Students at the Lanzhou University, in north-western Gansu province, will stage the first-ever Chinese language production of Tagore's play Chitrangada .

In coming weeks and months, the play will travel all over China — giving people in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou a chance to reacquaint themselves with the figure who has, more than anyone else, shaped their imagination of India.

Behind the initiative is Mao Shichang, a professor at Lanzhou University whose love affair with Tagore began during a stint at Jawaharlal Nehru University, where he studied Indian epics.

“God of poems”

“Tagore was like the god of poems in my heart,” he told The Hindu in an interview. “Chinese people like the natural and fresh style of his writing. His spiritualism echoes in people's hearts.”

Professor Mao said Chinese people, “no matter whether they believe in religion or not, feel some supernatural power through his works.” “Modern people can seek peace and sobriety, and avoid the hustle and bustle of their lives, through Tagore,” he said.

He chose to perform Chitrangada , a fairy-tale about a warrior princess adapted from a story in the Mahabharata, because it showed “the beauty of love, the equality between women and men, and internal beauty”.

“Tagore's view of love was ahead of his times,” he said. “A fascinating play alone can't show the real culture of India, so we added a lot of original Indian elements, such as the costumes, original music, dance and background.”

Helping with the production is Chen Ziming from the Central Conservatory of Music, who has studied Indian music, and Beijing-based Bharatnatyam and classical danseuse Jin Shanshan. The production is being supported by the Indian Embassy here.

“A Tagore play, done by the Chinese and in the Chinese language, is worthy of support,” Ambassador to China S. Jaishankar told The Hindu .

“There is a sense of Tagore as an intellectual bridge between India and China, and as a person who stood up for China during difficult days. There is also a much greater appreciation of Tagore today, and of the things he said back in the 1920s.”

Mr. Jaishankar said “there isn't a single Chinese university where they do not know Tagore,” making him a “very effective symbolic figure” to reach out to the intelligentsia and students.

“A lot of people can dismiss his pan-Asian message as a Utopian thought,” said Bivash Mukherjee, an Indian journalist in Shanghai who has produced a documentary on Tagore's visit to China and helped revive interest in Tagore's China connection. “Even back then, it was welcomed by few people, and his visit, because of the turmoil China was going through then, was seen by some as coming to the wrong place at the wrong time”.

But despite the controversy, Tagore's image remarkably endured — something even Mr. Mukherjee is “mystified” by. “Perhaps it was because he was an intellectual from the East, and someone whose ideas they identified with,” he suggested.

Tagore himself, in his first speech in Shanghai in 1924, offered a clue. “I say that a poet's mission,” he said, “is to attract the voice which is yet inaudible in the air; to inspire faith in the dream which is unfulfilled; to bring the earliest tidings of the unborn flower to a sceptic world.”

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