In 2020 we celebrated the 100th anniversary of a visit to the Netherlands, one that was eagerly expected by many in September 1920
By Ludwig Pesch
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.)1From 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,
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
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)
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.
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.
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.
- 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. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/939183, p. 109 (visited 11 June 2020
- My memories of Einstein (German ed. ’Meine Erinnerungen an Einstein’, 1931) in Das Goldene Boot, Winkler Weltliteratur, Blaue Reihe (2005) – WorldCat.org >>
- “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)
- “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.
- 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)
- Reba Som, Rabindranath Tagore: The Singer and His Song (New Delhi, 2009), p. 147
- The Oxford India Tagore: Selected Writings on Education and Nationalism, pp. 190-1
- 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
- “Ektuku chhoya lage” in Reba Som, Rabindranath Tagore: The Singer and His Song, p. 260
- The Santiniketan Aesthetic in Unesco’s “World Heritage List Nominations” (visited 9 June 2020)