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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.4

By 1920 extraordinary success story had already to both, the publication and staging of his favourite play The Post Office5 (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.6

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.7

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.8

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).9 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 1920.10

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.11

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

And the idea of the Nation is one of the most powerful anaesthetics that man has invented. Under the influence of its fumes the whole people can carry out its systematic programme of the most virulent self-seeking without being in the least aware of its moral perversion – in fact it can feel dangerously resentful if it is pointed out.12

Tagore’s Nationalism should be mandatory reading in today’s climate of xenophobia, sectarianism, violence and intolerance. (Ramachandra Guha)13

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 alumnus14 just as the “Myriad-Minded Man”.15

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.16

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.17

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.18

Van Eeden’s father (the elder Frederick van Eeden) was in fact the co-founder of what later became the Tropenmuseum, established as the “Colonial Museum” in nearby Haarlem in 1864. The grand building in Amsterdam dates from 1923.

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).

 

References
  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. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1913/summary/[]
  5. 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[]
  6. Bhaswati Ghosh in “Freedom in Tagore’s Plays — an essay”, Parabaas Rabindranath Section:
    https://www.parabaas.com/rabindranath/articles/pBhaswati.html[]
  7. Rabindranath Tagore quoted by Amartya Sen in The Argumentative Indian (London 2005), p. 103[]
  8. 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[]
  9. 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[]
  10. “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[]
  11. 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[]
  12. Nationalism, p. 63[]
  13. “As Ramachandra Guha shows in his brilliant and erudite interoduction, it was by reading and speaking to Tagore that these founders of modern India, Ghadhi and Nehru, developed a theory of nationalism that was inclusive rather than exclusive.” – Publisher’s note for the Indian ed. 2017 [Haryana : Penguin Books]
    http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/1099200491[]
  14. 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[]
  15. 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[]
  16. 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.”[]
  17. 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[]
  18. Abstract: “Van Eeden en Tagore. Ethiek en muziek” by Rokus de Groot
    https://www.jstor.org/stable/939183?seq=1[]