Rabindranath Tagore’s memorable visit to The Netherlands: Centenary celebration at “Paradiso”

Paradiso © Ludwig Pesch 2020
Tagore sketched by Martin Monickendam in September 1920

The month of September offered an opportunity to celebrate the centenary of a successful lecture tour by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). It was organized by Dutch citizens with whom he shared a commitment to a cultural dialogue on eye-level. A Dutch press report highlights Tagore’s “silver voice” that conveyed his admiration for the songs of Bengal’s village mystics. His lectures attracted large audiences: 1

Several factor led [his Dutch translator, the writer Frederik van] Eeden – and like-minded intellectuals in Europe of the interbellum – to make an idol of Tagore as the poet-king the world was waiting for. 2

The impact or “hype” caused by his writings and lectures has been compared to that surround modern day celebrities going by a Dutch article published to mark the 100th anniversary in September 2020. 3

Today we are free to believe whether or not this was due to his charisma or indeed a deeper understanding, rather than unrealistic expectations that often arise from “western interest in spirituality as an antidote to cultural pessimism, modernism, and materialism”.

Historical context

By 1920 Tagore’s “celebrity” status had already attracted Dutch readers, enjoying highly popular edition of his Gitanjali based on the English edition hailed by W. B. Yeats. It was for this collection of poetry for which Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 “because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West”.

By 1920 extraordinary success story had already to both, the publication and staging of his favourite play The Post Office 4 (Dutch De brief van den koning).

Rie Cramer, a renowned Dutch children’s book illustrator, writer and freedom fighter in her own right, had created six miniatures included in a bibliophile edition enjoyed by generations of Dutch readers ever since. Besides adding beauty she contributed to a greater awareness of the fact that “Tagore uses the notion of freedom to decry narrow nationalistic boundaries, governed by myopic ambition and greed […] which bring out different facets of his broader abstraction of freedom. 5

In the Netherlands, Rabindranath Tagore was hailed by some as India’s “Poet King”, inspiring Dutch composers to create new and original work besides being a much sought after speaker all over Europe in view of his self-assigned mission to improve international relations in association with public figures from mutually hostile nations.

Rabindranath Tagore Vrije Gemeente Amsterdam 23 September 1920) © Spaarnestad Photo
Tagore with his hosts at the Vrije Gemeente Amsterdam
23 September 1920 © Spaarnestad Photo

Yet Tagore’s irrepressible sense of independence and personal freedom is evident from many of the poems he hand collected and translated for the benefit of foreign friends, published under the title Gitanjali; and even more explicitly in a letter written a few years later, addressed to his friend, the poetess Victoria Ocampo whom he had sought to honour by using her name in the Sanskrit equivalent “Vijaya”:

Whenever there is the least sign of the nest becoming a jealous rival of the sky [,] my mind, like a migrant bird, tries to take … flight to a distant shore. 6

Image: India Perspectives, Vol. 24 No. 2/2010
‘Where the mind is without fear!’: A poem from Gitanjali in Tagore’s calligraphy in “Tagore, Gitanjali and the Nobel Prize by Nilanjan Banerjee, India Perspectives, Vol. 24 No. 2/2010.

Freedom

In view of Tagore’s artistic and educational priorities the gathering commemorating his visit focused on the ways “freedom” permeates his legacy. 7

On 25 September 2020 the same venue – since 1968 a popular music venue known as Paradiso – welcomed a small gathering sharing an interest in Tagore’s work and its relevance for our times. Our discussion was enriched by contributions from other parts of the country, and by Santal educationist Dr. Boro Baski who hails from one the villages near Tagore’s Visva-Bharati University at Santiniketan (West Bengal). 8 The values and forward looking principles envisaged for his newly founded “World University” also figured prominently during meetings arranged in the course of Tagore’s successful lecture-cum-fundraising tour in 1920. 9

Paradiso - de grote zaal Vrije Gemeente (gezien naar de achtergevel circa 1900)
Paradiso (main hall of the Vrije Gemeente, circa 1900): built in 1880, 1965 sold to the City of Amsterdam © Stadsarchief Amsterdam; discussed in “Scheurmakers: 50 jaar Paradiso. Voorheen Vrije Gemeente” door Raymond van den Boogaard
https://www.groene.nl/artikel/scheurmakers

Rabindranath Tagore’s ideas left an impression worth debating today, be it on a personal level or perhaps even in a larger context, as discussed among the participants during and after the 2020 commemoration in Paradiso:

I am not against one nation in particular, but against the general idea of all nations. What is the Nation? It is the aspect of a whole people as an organized power. This organization incessantly keeps up the insistence of the population on becoming strong and efficient. But this strenuous effort after strength and efficiency drains man’s energy from his higher nature where he is self-sacrificing and creative. 10

His foresight is evident from one of his lectures on the danger posed by nationalism, anywhere in the world:

His life and work remain a source of inspiration, whether we focus on the creative artist he was – the world famous poet, musician and painter – or on the social activist who remains an example to emulate for many: today and for future generations Rabindranath Tagore’s legacy may be that of “The Argumentative Indian” Nobel Awardee Amartya Sen wrote about so eloquently as Visva-Bharati’s most prominent alumnus 11 just as the “Myriad-Minded Man”. 12

Rabindranath Tagore and his role in fostering “sympathy of the East and West” during his visit to The Netherlands in fall 1920

In his poetry, for which he received the Nobel Prize for Literature as Asia’s first awardee in 1913, Rabindranath Tagore uses musical instruments as metaphors for self-realization and transcendence; notably the vina (or “veena”, often translated as “harp”) and the flute. In a letter to Frederik van Eeden, his Dutch translator, he wrote in 1913, seven years before visiting the Netherlands:

Very often I think and feel that I am like a flute – the flute that cannot talk but when the breath is upon it, can sing. I am sure you have seen me in my book and I shall never be able to make myself seen to you when we meet; for the body of the lamp is dark, it has no expression, only its flame has the language. 13

In another letter to Van Eeden, Tagore wrote about a quest he shared with leading minds all over the world:

Still I cannot deny that this award of the Nobel Prize has been a great thing. It is the handshake of sympathy of the East and West across the water – it has proclaimed the oneness of humanity. 14

In 1920 Tagore spoke before packed houses including the “free congregation”: the humanistic and cosmopolitan “Vrije Gemeente” whose highly placed members had built a magnificent church at the Weteringschans in Amsterdam. (It now houses Amsterdam’s prime pop venue, known as “Paradiso”.)

Tagore’s lecture tour made a lasting impression on countless listeners:

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and the Dutch writer, psychiatrist and Utopist Frederik van Eeden (1860-1932) exchanged correspondence between 1913 and 1928, and met in Amsterdam in 1920. When Van Eeden discovered Tagore’s poetry in 1913, he experienced a feeling of profound recognition and went on to translate a considerable amount of Tagore’s poetic work into Dutch, starting with Gitanjali [Wijzangen]. Van Eeden’s translations became very popular in the Netherlands, also among composers. 15

Van Eeden’s father (the elder Frederick van Eeden) was in fact the co-founder of the “Colonial Museum” in nearby Haarlem in 1864 that moved to a grand new building in Amsterdam in 1923. 16

Tagore with tambura - Sangeet Natak Centenary Number (New Delhi 1961)
“As Blind Minstrel in Phalguni” by Abanindranath Tagore (detail); title page, Sangeet Natak Centenary Number (New Delhi 1961)

Even though the above quote confirms his fondness for the simple bansuri bamboo flute, an instrument he often heard played during Santal festivities – on “tribal” land where Santiniketan was founded – Tagore did not play any musical instrument other than the indispensable drone:

“I practiced my songs with my tamburā resting on my shoulder.” (My Boyhood Days, p. 38, Calcutta: Visva-Bharati 1997).

Later he was depicted as playing a similar string instrument, namely as a participant in his own music dramas (see the detail from Abanindranath Tagore’s painting reproduced here).

 

  1. “In the evening he read the essay on ‘Some Village Mystics of Bengal’ in the ‘Church Of the Christians’. About 1500 Theosophists and religious persons attentively listened his lecture.”
    Rabindranath in Holland (contd-2) – 1920 by Smaraka Grantha.
    https://sesquicentinnial.blogspot.com/2012/04/rabindranath-in-holland-contd-2-1920.html[]
  2. Tagore’s reception in Europe amounted to a “vogue”, Dutch “een ware rage”, as described by Rokus de Groot in his account of the atmosphere and extraordinary circumstances surrounding Tagore’s visit, making “Tagore into a major text source in Dutch new music of the first half of the twentieth century”. For details read “Rabindranath Tagore and Frederik van Eeden: Reception of a ‘Poet King’ in the Netherlands” in Hindustani Music: Thirteenth to Twentieth Centuries. Codarts / Manohar New Delhi 2010 pp. 521-76; find a copy in the library: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/699235007[]
  3. “‘Met zilveren stemgeluid leest dr. Tagore de rede, die hij te voren op papier heeft gebracht. Hij vertelt van de dorpsmystici ginds in Bengalen, van mannen en vrouwen wier godsdienst het Hindoeïsme is en die in religieuze devotie het dagelijksche gebeuren rondom hen vertolken in liederen van zeldzame bekoring.’ Tagores bezoek maakte diepe indruk en bracht in Nederland een ware rage teweeg.
    https://www.amsterdam.nl/stadsarchief/stukken/immigranten/tagore-amsterdam/[]
  4. Original title: Dakghar and available as The Project Gutenberg EBook: The Post Office by Rabindranath Tagore, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1914 http://www.gutenberg.org/files/6523/6523-h/6523-h.htm[]
  5. Bhaswati Ghosh in “Freedom in Tagore’s Plays — an essay”, Parabaas Rabindranath Section:
    https://www.parabaas.com/rabindranath/articles/pBhaswati.html[]
  6. Rabindranath Tagore quoted by Amartya Sen in The Argumentative Indian (London 2005), p. 103[]
  7. For more detailed accounts of Tagore’s journey between 23 September and 1 October 1920 popularity, read “Tagore in The Netherlands” by Liesbeth Meyer on parabaas.com, and “Rabindranath in Holland – 1920” by Smaraka Grantha.
    https://sesquicentinnial.blogspot.com/2012/04/rabindranath-in-holland-1920.html[]
  8. The mission statement of its university reiterates Tagore’s vision expounded to the intended beneficiaries and benefactors, be they from all over India or from abroad: “Visva-Bharati represents India where she has her wealth of mind which is for all. Visva-Bharati acknowledges India’s obligation to offer to others the hospitality of her best culture and India’s right to accept from others their best.”
    http://visvabharati.ac.in/index.html[]
  9. “Other than Dr. Eeden Rabindranth was introduced with two other poets. One, Henri Borel, and the other, Raden Mas Noto Suroto. Borel translated two dramas of Rabindranath, The King of the Dark Chamber [1914] and The Post Office [1916] in Dutch. The second one became very much popular in Holland.
    Rabindranath in Holland (contd-1)-1920 by Smaraka Grantha.
    https://sesquicentinnial.blogspot.com/2012/04/rabindranath-in-holland-contd-1-1920.html[]
  10. Nationalism by Rabindranath Tagore. Penguin Books – Great Ideas. London: 2010 [first ed. 1917], pp. 76-77; find a copy in the library:
    http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/1099200491[]
  11. To appreciate Tagore’s struggles and achievements, see The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity by Amartya Sen; find a copy in the library:
    http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/953774730[]
  12. See Rabindranath Tagore: the myriad-minded man by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson (a biography that “focuses on the man, not his art”); find a copy in the library: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/935863491[]
  13. See Letter#2: Rabindranath to Van Eeden, August 9, 1913 in “Tagore in The Netherlands” by Liesbeth Meyer
    https://www.parabaas.com/rabindranath/articles/pMeyer.html
    “Believe me, my friend, my heart goes out to you but I am inarticulate. I have to speak to you in a language not my own. The best that I have in me I give out in songs – no, I can not even say that I give it out – it comes out of itself. The superconscious self of mine which has its expression in beauty is beyond my control – and my ordinary self is stupid and awkward before men. Very often I think and feel that I am like a flute – the flute that cannot talk but when the breath is upon it, can sing. I am sure you have seen me in my book and I shall never be able to make myself seen to you when we meet; for the body of the lamp is dark, it has no expression, only its flame has the language.”[]
  14. Signed in Shanti Niketan, 12 December 1913, see Letter#4: Rabindranath to Van Eeden; December 12, 1913 in “Tagore in The Netherlands” by Liesbeth Meyer
    https://www.parabaas.com/rabindranath/articles/pMeyer.html[]
  15. Abstract: “Van Eeden en Tagore. Ethiek en muziek” by Rokus de Groot
    https://www.jstor.org/stable/939183?seq=1[]
  16. later known as Tropenmuseum and today absorbed into the Netherlands’ Wereldmuseum[]

Santiniketan: Birth of Another Cultural Space – Free e-book by Pulak Dutta

“Of all living creatures in the world, man has his vital and mental energy vastly in excess of his need, which urges him to work in various lines of creation for its own sake […] Life is perpetually creative because it contains in itself that surplus which ever overflows the boundaries of the immediate time and space.” – Rabindranath Tagore in The Religion of an Artist 1

KG Subramanyam with Pulak Dutta – Santiniketan 2009

Source: Pulak Dutta. Santiniketan: Birth of Another Cultural Space. Santiniketan 2015. Contact: pulaksantiniketan@gmail.com | Download his free e-book here | Backup copy (PDF, 5 MB) >>

More on and by Rabindranath Tagore >>

Listen to Tagore: Unlocking Cages: Sunil Khilnani tells the story of the Bengali writer and thinker Rabindranath Tagore: https://bbc.in/1KVh4Cf >>
The acclaimed BBC 4 podcast series titled Incarnations: India in 50 Lives has also been published in book form (Allen Lane).

“I was moved by how many of these lives pose challenges to the Indian present,” he writes, “and remind us of future possibilities that are in danger of being closed off.”2

  1. Quoted by Pulak Dutta (p. 97) from Sisir Kumar Das (ed.). The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, Vol 3. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi 2006 (pp. 687-8) []
  2. Sunil Khilnani quoted in a review by William Dalrymple in The Guardian, 14 March 2016[]

“Unity in Diversity, Antiquity in Contemporary Practice? South Indian Music Reconsidered

“Unity in Diversity, Antiquity in Contemporary Practice? South Indian Music Reconsidered” by Ludwig Pesch (Amsterdam) in Gardner, Matthew; Walsdorf, Hanna (Hrsg.). Musik – Politik – Identität. Göttingen: Universitätsverlag, 2016 (Musikwissenschaften)

This essay evolved from a presentation for participants at the music conference “Music | Musics. Structures and Processes” held at Goettingen University (4-8 September 2012); with due credits to the editors.

“an inspiration to many [and] the highlight of the conference for me” – fellow author/presenter Paul Christiansen

ISBN13: 978-3-86395-258-7

  • To download this essay (PDF 500 KB), click here >>
  • Download the entire issue for free here>>
  • More publications, articles and contributions to reference works, festival issues and museum catalogues listed on worldcat.org >>

Softcover, 17×24, 218 S.: 24,00 € Online Ausgabe, PDF (3.681 MB)

© 2016: Creative Commons licence Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International

Abstract

The “classical” music of South India is an amalgam of regional traditions and practices. Increasingly codified in the past five centuries, it is now known as Carnatic or Karnatak music. Like the Sanskrit term Karnâtaka Sangîtam, these Anglicisms denote “traditional” music besides distinguishing South Indian music from its northern (Hindustani) counterpart. Progressive scholars have long espoused the common goal of making teaching more effective for both idioms while safeguarding “authentity”. It may therefore seem odd that detailed notation has not been embraced by practitioners.

This paper probes the resilience of oral transmission in the face of modernity. It looks into the concerns shared by musicians who, while belonging to different cultures and periods, have much in common as far as performing practice is concerned: close integration of vocal and instrumental music. The role of manuscripts in Minnesang, as described by McMahon, also applies to Carnatic music: “songs were handed down in an oral tradition [and] the manuscripts were not intended to be used by performers.” (The Music of Early Minnesang Columbia SC, 1990.)

It will be argued that this fact is not just a question of some musicians’ conservatism, ignorance or irrationality; nor would it put the continuity of a living tradition at risk. On the contrary, Carnatic music reaches global audiences today while “ancient” roots are claimed even by those who cherish its association with musicians from other cultures throughout the 20th century.

About this publication

Music – Politics – Identity

Music always mirrors and acts as a focal point for social paradigms and discourses surrounding political and national identity. The essays in this volume combine contributions on historical and present-day questions about the relationship between politics and musical creativity.

The first part concentrates on musical identity and political reality, discussing ideological values in musical discourses.

The second part deals with (musical) constructions, drwawing on diverse national connections within our own and foreign identity.

Matthew Gardner & Hanna Walsdorf (eds.)

Musik – Politik – Identität

Musik ist immer auch Spiegel und Kristallisationspunkt gesellschaftlicher Paradigmen und politisch-nationaler Identitätsdiskurse. Der vorliegende Sammelband vereint Beiträge zu historischen und gegenwärtigen Fragestellungen, die um das Verhältnis von Politik und musikalischem Schaffen kreisen.

Im ersten Teil sind Beiträge zusammengefasst, die sich mit „Musikalischer Identität und politischer Realität“ befassen und dabei ideologische Zuschreibungsprozesse im Musikdiskurs thematisieren.

Der zweite Teil des Bandes umfasst Betrachtungen über „(Musikalische) Konstruktionen von eigener und fremder Identität“ aus verschiedensten nationalen Zusammenhängen.

Matthew Gardner & Hanna Walsdorf (Hg.)

Inhalt / Contents

Hanna Walsdorf und Matthew Gardner
Vorwort

I Musikalische Identität und politische Realität

Hanna Walsdorf
Deutsche Nationalmusik? Ein diskursgeschichtlicher Annäherungsversuch

Mauro Fosco Bertola
„Die Musik ist mediterran“: Orient, Latinität und Musikgeschichte, oder: Wie Nietzsche 1937 Italiens koloniale Macht legitimieren sollte

Yvonne Wasserloos
„Nordische Musik“ als Faktor der Propaganda der Nordischen Gesellschaft und der DNSAP in Dänemark um 1940

Simon Nußbruch
„Was ließen jene, die vor uns schon waren…?“ Musik in der Bündischen Jugend nach 1945

Gilbert Stöck
Methoden musikalischer Opposition in Portugal während der Salazar-Diktatur bei Jorge Peixinho und José Afonso

Paul Christiansen
‘The Stakes Are Too High For You to Stay Home’: Divergent Uses of Music in TV Political Ads in the 1964 U.S. Presidential Election

II (Musikalische) Konstruktionen von eigener und fremder Identität

Matthew Gardner
‘Das Land ohne Musik’? National Musical Identity in Victorian and Edwardian England

Rebekka Sandmeier
Reflections of European Culture in the Grey Collection (National Library of South Africa)

Mario Dunkel
Jazz and the Emergence of the African-Roots Theory

Dorothea Suh
Achim Freyers Mr. Rabbit and the Dragon King: Eine Interpretation des koreanischen P’ansori Sugungga

Ludwig Pesch
Unity in Diversity, Antiquity in Contemporary Practice? South Indian Music Reconsidered

Worldcat lists compiled by Ludwig Pesch

Carnatic (South Indian classical) music 

Rabindranath Tagore: works by and about the influential writer, humanist and social reformer

Indian performing arts

History 

Publications, book chapters and articles by Ludwig Pesch

“I savour the taste of freedom” – Tagore on individual exploration

Ludwig Pesch

“Vrije Gemeente” (Paradiso) image © Ludwig Pesch

My freedom lies not in
pursuing detachment.
Amidst a thousand fetters
shall I savour the taste of freedom
in delirious joy.

In 2020 we celebrated the 100th anniversary of a visit to the Netherlands, one that was eagerly expected by many in September 1920

Art: Arun VC >>

Believe me, my friend, my heart goes out to you but I am inarticulate. I have to speak to you in a language not my own. The best that I have in me I give out in songs – no, I can not even say that I give it out – it comes out of itself. The superconscious self of mine which has its expression in beauty is beyond my control – and my ordinary self is stupid and awkward before men. Very often I think and feel that I am like a flute – the flute that cannot talk but when the breath is upon it, can sing.1

From a letter to his Dutch translator, writer Frederik van Eeden (signed in London, 9 August 1913)

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), India’s first Nobel laureate, established his Santiniketan school and Viswa-Bharati University on and amidst several Santal villages. It is therefore hardly surprising that he often compared the Infinite Being to a flute player whose “music of beauty and love helps us to transcend our egotistic preoccupations”. 2

Such longings, here reiterated by one of world’s most celebrated poets – belong to a greater tradition that seeks to overcome barriers such as language or faith with the help of music. This is more than evident from sources that reveal his admiration for both, the “mad” Baul minstrels and Kabir, an equally rebellious poet whose song lyrics he knew and recommended: 3

In several plays Tagore introduced a baul inspired character who would voice his message and philosophy […] roles that Tagore himself delighted in playing with abandon.

Reba Som, Rabindranath Tagore: The Singer and His Song (New Delhi, 2009), p. 76

The play he was most fond of himself, playing the role of the “fakir”, is Dakghar, translated into English under the title “The Post Office”, and Dutch (De brief van den koning, first published in 1916 and again as Amal en de brief van de koning in 1992). 4

Its essence seems as relevant in today’s world as in Tagore’s own times, as Bhaswati Ghosh would put it: “In Dakghar (The Post Office), young Amal, the protagonist, bonds with numerous strangers with the spontaneity and guilelessness typical of most children. The play cleverly unravels Tagore’s thoughts on freedom.” Quoting from his Foreword to S Radhakrishnan’s The Philosophy of Upanishads,

Image © Tagore Centre

When our self is illuminated with the light of love, then the negative aspect of its separateness with others loses its finality, and then our relationship with others is no longer that of competition and conflict, but of sympathy and co-operation. 5

The essay by Bhaswati Ghosh is aptly prefaced by Tagore’s forceful proclamation, one worth pondering time and again: ours being a moment in history when freedom – human rights and democracy – can no longer be taken for granted, anywhere. So it is may be read as an urgent appeal directed at aspiring artists, educators, even “opinion and decision makers”; namely to take and share responsibility for this may well decide over their own survival when modern society relentlessly puts their very legitimacy into question in times of perpetual crisis:

My freedom lies not in
pursuing detachment.
Amidst a thousand fetters
shall I savour the taste of freedom
in delirious joy.

What makes his all-embracing outlook so relevant for all of us – to this very day – is this: “Tagore remains a staunch votary of exercising individual exploration as a key to finding freedom.” (Bhaswati Ghosh, Parabaas 2011)

Tagore Sketched by Martin Monickendam in September 1920 | Stadsarchief Amsterdam >>

This call for making individual choices in the face of social or political pressures, runs like a red thread through Tagore’s life and work, as can be gleaned from his letter written to the aforementioned Dutch writer, Van Eeden in 1924 (quoted by Rokus De Groot, p. 123):

Men like yourself in Europe prove that her soul is not dead and that the stream of life giving water runs deep under her spiritual soil, seeking its outlets in individual lives.

In hindsight, such high expectations may hardly seem justified given the many failures of judgement among Europe’s leading men (women having little, if any, say in such matters), such as preventing or mitigating the unprecedented suffering of yet another “World War” that was to follow the first one; an equally senseless one yet even more cruel war than the war that had just ended when Tagore visited the Netherlands in September 1920. It had caused untold suffering to millions of Indians.

Historical facts such as armed conflicts must not, however, dishearten those presently working towards lasting peace and intercultural dialogue, irrespective of one’s national, religious or class identity – the very notions Tagore had reason to question when seeking support among responsible fellow citizens at home and abroad. This may explain why music seemed best suited to the purpose of transcending even those obstacles others would have despaired of:

Tagore was “attracted by the distinctive styles of regional music [he] wrote about the great evocative power of tunes wafting across distances–carrying the message of an unknown address whispered in the ear by a traveller – bringing a note of hope and encouragement across oceans of divide.” 6

The above quote also reminds us of the fact that reed and bamboo flutes are the world’s most “democratic” to this very day, both literally and figuratively. His interdisciplinary approach to any major challenge – as pioneer in rural education, campaigner for social reform and international peace activist – remains likewise inspiring for countless artists, both well known (especially those with Bengali roots) and otherwise. His continuing influence reflects his prolific output and depth of thought on important issues, in the form of novels, theatre plays, poetry, stories, and essays.

Tagore’s commitment to bridging the divisions in India’s social fabric was unwavering even in the face of enormous pressure and political unrest. The wide appeal of his quest is evident from the fact that over two thousand of his songs continue to be sung by Bengali speakers in and outside India; and this in spite of the fact that these are spontaneous outpourings in need of being memorized while he sung them “without knowing how to write music” (Reba Som). One notable exception from this rule may be a poem that was later arranged in his presence and therefore lent itself to becoming independent India’s national anthem: “Jana-gana-mana”.

In later life he immersed himself in painting. His unusual oeuvre comprises seemingly surreal paintings besides hundreds of drawings resulting from a long habit of “doodling” in his manuscripts. Rejecting both academic Western and “Oriental Art“, Tagore is now regarded as path-breaking visual artist in his own right, initially by the surrealists who arranged an exhibition in Paris at short notice. As he told Romain Rolland during a conversation in Geneva (1930),

Words are too conscious; lines are not. Ideas have their form and colour, which wait for their incarnation in pictorial art. Just now painting has become a mania with me. My morning began with songs and poems; now, in the evening of my life, my mind is filled with forms and colours. 7

Tagore believed that art, music, painting and dance elevate man from a mere being to a personal man:

Personality [is] conscious of its inexhaustible abundance; it has the paradox in it that it is more than itself; it is more than as it is seen, as it is known, as it is used. And this consciousness of the infinite, in the personal man, ever strives to make its expressions immortal and to make the whole world its own. 8

This he amply illustrated by his own song lyrics, as it were, imbued with synaesthetic connotations such as these:

A light touch do I feel, a few words do I hear / And I conjure in my mind spring’s full moon / The intoxicating red of the ‘palash’ / Mixed with a dash of champa’s heady fragrance / I weave with music into a net of colour and fervour / Whatever comes close through intervals of time / Paints dream in the startled nooks of my mind / Whatever goes afar sets my tunes atremble with emotion / And with these I pass my days / Keeping count to the beat of anklets. 9


Ludwig Pesch specialized in the Carnatic bamboo flute under the guidance of H. Ramachandra Shastry (1906-1992) whom he accompanied on many occasions.

H. Ramachandra Shastry (Kalakshetra, ca. 1983)

At the invitation of Smt. Rukmini Devi-Arundale, a gurukulavāsa type of personalized apprenticeship became possible thanks to Kalakshetra College (today known as Rukmini Devi College Of Fine Arts), the “institution of national importance” inspired by Rabindranath Tagore: it was his pioneering institution, Santiniketan, that provided a model for the revival of South Indian performing and visual arts just as related crafts.

Tagore in Kalakshetra
image by L. Pesch

For Rabindranath, who was essentially a poet and artist, the realization and the expression of beauty was the supreme objective in human life. His concept of beauty, according to true Indian tradition, was inseparably connected with truth and goodness. Whatever is true and noble in life, nature and art is also beautiful. Thus, aesthetic sensitiveness, in the true sense, is a fundamental aspect of spiritual education. A proper aesthetic culture should also include the perception and expression of the beautiful in human life and social conduct, as well as in art and literature. Rabindranath stated in no uncertain terms that man’s sensory encounter with the environment was as important as his mind’s enquiry into its inner mystery, and any worthwhile society should provide for both. 10

Whatever is true and noble in life, nature and art is also beautiful” – Rabindranath Tagore quoted by the Archaeological Survey of India (Unesco) >>

Book recommendation: Pidhana – The Canopy of Life
Tagore’s ideal of uniting practical, academic, artistic and spiritual education amounts to “lifelong education” and “ecology” in the most modern and comprehensive sense, namely in harmony with nature. Kalakshetra’s unique ecology, like Santiniketan, was painstakingly created from a barren stretch of land, over a period of several decades. This process and the unique environment resulting from it are documented in a beautiful book titled Pidhana – The Canopy of Life (Chennai, 2014, ISBN: 978-81-921627-3-7): richly illustrated, this publication tells the story of the trees found in the 99acre campus of Kalakshetra Foundation.

Worldcat lists compiled by Ludwig Pesch

Carnatic (South Indian classical) music 

Rabindranath Tagore: works by and about the influential writer, humanist and social reformer

Indian performing arts

History 

Publications, book chapters and articles by Ludwig Pesch

  1. See abstract and article (in Dutch) by Rokus De Groot: “Van Eeden En Tagore. Ethiek En Muziek.” Tijdschrift Van De Koninklijke Vereniging Voor Nederlandse Muziekgeschiedenis, vol. 49, no. 2, 1999, pp. 98–147. JSTORwww.jstor.org/stable/939183, p. 109 (visited 11 June 2020[]
  2. My memories of Einstein (German ed. ’Meine Erinnerungen an Einstein’, 1931) in Das Goldene Boot, Winkler Weltliteratur, Blaue Reihe (2005) – WorldCat.org >>[]
  3. “Kabir, (Arabic: “Great”) (born 1440, Varanasi, Jaunpur, India—died 1518, Maghar), iconoclastic Indian poet-saint revered by Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs.” (visited 9 June 2020)
    https://www.britannica.com/biography/Kabir-Indian-mystic-and-poet[]
  4. “Tagore wrote The Post Office in Bengal in 1911, not long after losing his son, his daughter, and his wife to disease. In the middle of the night, while lying under the stars on the roof of his house in Shantiniketan (the ‘Abode or Peace’), he had a strange experience. ‘My mind took wing. Fly! Fly! – I felt an anguish … There was a call to go somewhere and a premonition of death, together with intense emotion – this feeling of restlessness I expressed in writing Dak Ghar The Post Office.’ Soon afterward, Tagore’s worldwide odyssey began.” – Translators’ Preface to The Post Office, translated by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson with illustrations by Michael McCurdy and an Introduction by Anita Desai, St. Martin’s press New York, 1996. (Amal’s dialogue with the Thakura, Tagore’s alter ego, is found on p. 35.[]
  5. Tagore’s Foreword to S Radhakrishnan’s The Philosophy of Upanishads, quoted by Bhaswati Ghosh in “Freedom in Tagore’s Plays — an essay”. Parabaas Rabindranath Section. (visited 11 June 2020)
    https://www.parabaas.com/rabindranath/articles/pBhaswati.html[]
  6. Reba Som, Rabindranath Tagore: The Singer and His Song (New Delhi, 2009), p. 147; this can be read quite literally, given “he stepped into the streets singing songs and celebrating Rakshabandhan between members of the Hindu and Muslim communities (1905)” as noted by Abhijit Sen in “In Search of a New Language for Theatre” published on the in a special issue that celebrates the 150th year of Tagore: Indian Horizons, Vol. 24, No. 2/2010 p. 42[]
  7. The Oxford India Tagore: Selected Writings on Education and Nationalism, pp. 190-1[]
  8. Rabindranath Tagore, “Personality” in The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, vol. 2, ed. by Sisir Kumar Das (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2008). Source: © 2012 Arup Jyoti Sarma (visited 21 April 2015) http://www.kritike.org/journal/issue_11/sarma_june2012.pdf[]
  9. “Ektuku chhoya lage” in Reba Som, Rabindranath Tagore: The Singer and His Song, p. 260[]
  10. The Santiniketan Aesthetic in Unesco’s “World Heritage List Nominations” (visited 9 June 2020)
    https://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5495/[]

How prehistoric societies were transformed by the sound of music

Amidst lively debates within and beyond India, 1 these perspectives on our shared legacy make interesting reading:

Learn more

Read excerpts from Abraham Pandither’s work (Karunamirtha Sagaram, 1918 ed., pp. 4-5)

The devotees who worshiped the deity in such a manner, found Him, according to the several conceptions, either as a King, or as a parent, or as a Guru, or as a timely helper, or as one who relieved them from all difficulties, or as a loving son, or is the loving bride-groom, and gave vent to the feelings in singing His praises; some worshipped by prostrating themselves before Him; some prayed to Him to deliver them from all their troubles; some prayed for the gift of obtaining whatever they desired; some bewailed their fate owing to separation from the deity; some, who realized His presence in themselves, danced for joy; many who desired His presence sent messengers for enquiry; others, filled with love, praised Him fervently. They described His several virtues and told the others about them by means of verse. They deplored their own unworthiness; conscious of their own faults, they implored pardon; some, owing to intense love, were so taken up with the contemplation of His image that they completely forgot this world and their food. […] 

p. 5 

In the same manner, little children, playing in the streets, rolled the leaves of the Poovarasu tree [“Indian tulip” or “umbrella tree”], made the kind of reed out of the thinner end and produced music by blowing through it finding that the sound was in proportion to the size and the mouthpiece, they played together three or four such reeds and felt elated when they found a certain kind of harmony existing between them. Then they may reeds out of the stems of the leaves of the pumpkin and attached rolled up leaves to them and were delighted to find that the sound was either dull of bright in proportion to the length of the rolled up leaves. Of these, those those who had a special ear for Music when they advanced in age, made reeds of horns, conches and bamboo, and later on of wood, gold, silver and brass of various shapes. In the same way, they made progress in stringed instruments. They found that Music could be produced by tying the bent ends of a stick together, either by a rope or a string. They proceeded to bend big bamboos in the form of a bow by means of leather thongs, tied bells to them to keep time, and sang those particular songs used on the occasions of using  bows. Finding by that strings, either metallic or of catgut, sound better when passing through the medium of a vessel full of air or a box or a dried Sorakkai [bottle gourd] with its contents scooped out, made instruments like the […], adjusted the strings to suit their voices and send the praises of the deity. […] From these beginnings, music with its new with its few fundamental rules, is making progress. 

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Art © Arun VC
  1. increasingly so pertaining to religious (or caste) affiliation, ownership or cultural appropriation[]
  2. “Savithri Rajan believes that Tyagaraja, like these other great men, was always meditating, but his medium of expression was nādam, ‘sound’ – he was an aspirant who followed nādopāsana, the approach or worship by way of sound. She points out that Tyagaraja composed a song beginning with the word nādopāsana saying there is nothing higher than worship via sound, music is the best vehicle because Brahman is nādam – divine sound – which is the omnipresent, omniscient power, ‘call it Power with a capital ‘P’, call it God, call it Christ, call it Krsna, call it Rāma.'” – Excerpt from: Tyagaraja and the Renewal of Tradition: Translations and Reflections by William Jackson (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 1994), pp. 174-175
    https://search.worldcat.org/en/title/878687716
    A longer excerpt titled “The greatest, most beautiful thing is compassion expressed through music” is found here:
    https://www.carnaticstudent.org/audio-dedication-to-her-guru-veena-dhanammal-by-savithri-rajan[]
  3. “Abraham Pandithar (1859-1919) was a Renaissance Man whose achievements, whether in traditional medicine, education, music, agriculture or photography, simply defy easy definition.” – Learn more: https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/The-Renaissance-Man-of-Thanjavur/article17008238.ece[]
  4. Frontline Magazine & Deutsche Welle on 20 June 2023, Learn more: https://frontline.thehindu.com/news/explained-how-prehistoric-societies-were-transformed-by-the-sound-of-music-archaeology-findings-israel/article66989021.ece[]