A new piece by Aurogeeta Das is in our Features section. A lovely account of the joys of handwriting.
October 8, 2014
October 8, 2014
A new piece by Aurogeeta Das is in our Features section. A lovely account of the joys of handwriting.
September 22, 2014
By Fiona Harvey
18th September 2014
As I sit down to write this next part of my exploration, I am distracted by the thought that it is Referendum Day in Scotland. Will we live in a different country tomorrow ? And it reminds me of all the many separations and mergings of nations in other parts of the world, in particular Partition of India in 1947.
Back to my voyage round the Archive. I had hoped to look at some of Tagore’s dance-dramas on video at the Centre, but they are unfortunately in too fragile a state and need to be transferred to a more robust medium. So I was able to read about them in some of the English language writings in the archive.
Only about one third of Tagore’s writing has been translated into English so I was glad to learn that there were also some commentaries in English. And, of course, there are inummerable posts on Youtube showing different dancers’ interpretations. I particularly like this one :
because it includes some introductory explanation about the work. I am a keen dancer myself, pursuing Contemporary and Ballet primarily, although I have performed a variety of Indian folk dance with a group at Lohri Festival in Ahmedabad.
I wondered how feasible it would be to develop some kind of crossover piece of work which blended Tagore’s style with a contemporary European approach. My aim would be to sever the boundaries of time and place, consolidating and developing the heritage.
September 21, 2014
by Aurogeeta Das
In the second part of my exploration of Tagore’s birds, I would like to first pick up some of the recurring themes that I saw emerging in his poetry, for example the ephemerality of life as hinted at in the following verse from Stray Birds:
Stray birds of summer come to my window to sing and fly away.
And yellow leaves of autumn, which have no songs, flutter and fall there with a sigh. (1)
One sees this in other verses too, all of which I quote here from The Jewel That is Best, a collection of beautiful translations by William Radice. The following two are from the section Jottings:
Ragged dusty feathers lie,
Forgetful of how they flew in the sky. (2)
No trace of my flight
Shows in the sky,
But what a delight
It was, to fly! (3)
In the first one, the ragged feathers speak of past glory; one senses a melancholic note here, but in the second, the ephemeral nature of flight is celebrated.
In other verses by Tagore, as pointed out previously, there is something of yearning, of wanting to be what one is not. Generally, Tagore’s bird is a symbol of nature, a metaphor for song, or freedom, or something else even (faith, for example), but seldom does Tagore name specific birds in his poetry. When Tagore does identify particular birds as he does with the tailorbird, the peacock, the koel and the crow below, there is something of irony that creeps in.
A subtle variation of the ironic theme is a more overt form of envy, articulated in the first poem here as misplaced pity (both poems are from the section Particles):
The tailorbird said, ‘O Peacock, I feel—
Such pity for you when I see your tail.’
Said the peacock, ‘Really? Please tell my why
Seeing me brings a tear to your eye.’
The tailorbird said, ‘It looks so funny —
Your tail is much greater in size than your body.
Just watch how I dart lightly about!
Your tail must be such a burdensome weight.’
‘Don’t,’ said the peacock, ‘grieve for me falsely.
Burdens must rest on those who have glory.’ (4)
The forest blooms with the coming of Spring:
All that the koel does is sing.
‘I suppose,’ says the crow, ‘you’ve nothing to do
But flatter the Spring with your hullabaloo.’
Pausing for a moment, the koel looks round:
‘Who are you? Where do you come from, friend?’
‘I’m the plain-speaking crow,’ the crow replies.
‘Delighted,’ says the koel, and politely bows.
‘Be free to speak plainly all the year long.
I’m happy with the truth of my own sweet song.’ (5)
Radice explains in a footnote that ‘the koel has a shrill, dominating call, rising up the scale, ending with a softer, cooing sound.’ It may be relevant to add that the koel is of the same family as the cuckoo and in the popular Indian imaginary, is often revered for its song.Tagore has several verses where birds are clearly regarded as sentient beings of the natural world and these are among my favourites, as they situate birds in a larger eco-system, as it were. All three poems below are taken from the section Sparks:
When a bird sings a song
It does not know that it worships
The sun’s dawning.
When a flower blooms in the wood
It does not know that it makes
Its pūjā offering. (6)
As Radice’s footnote explains, pūjā is Hindu worship or ritual, where ‘it is customary to offer flowers to a deity’.
Night becomes day:
Birds, wake up,
Follow light’s path
To heaven’s cup. (7)
Curiously, an additional theme that is clearly a major preoccupation for Tagore is the continual cycle of night and day. Itself a symbol of the ephemerality of life, the progression of day turning into night and night dawning as fresh day recurs time and again in his poems, including the ones I am quoting here, which evidently suggest this in myriad ways:
Rain in the night runs riot
In the tamāl branches.
It drums at the nests of birds:
‘Wake up, wake up,’ it urges. (8)
From the section Jottings, the following verse shows the same preoccupation, but here, day and night seem to additionally symbolise the presence or absence of faith:
Faith is a bird at dawn
Whose song says, ‘Light, light!’
Before night’s dark is gone. (9)
In my first blogpost exploring Tagore’s birds, I asserted that it would be reasonable to interpret Tagore’s feelings about birdsong being largely joyful. In the following verses (the first taken from the section Jottings and the second from Sparks), we see this and more — specifically, that Tagore equates the joy of birdsong with the joy of flight:
O flocks of ducks in the wind in winter,
The wine of flight inspires your wings!
Ecstatic with dreams of remoteness,
Drunk with the sky’s blueness,
Tell me, how can I fill my songs
With that same liquor? (10)
In the joy of its flight
The bird seems to write
Letterless words in the sky.
When my flying mind sings
My pen is borne high
On the same joyous wings. (11)Taken from the section Sparks, the following poem is a rare exception where Tagore seems to censure the bird for its incessant song:
‘Answer me, answer me, wife!’
The more the bird sings
The more its own racket
Drowns the answers
The woodland brings. (12)
Radice explains that the Indian nightingale is colloquially sometimes referred to as ‘Bau kathā kao‘. ‘Bau‘ meaning ‘wife’ in Bengali, this would explain the term ‘wife’ being used here. It would almost seem as though Tagore wishes that the bird would occasionally be silent enough to hear the responses of the woodland. This is unusual, in that Tagore almost always seems to delight in birdsong.
Indeed, judging by the number of verses Tagore penned which mention birds, birdsong, bird flight or even just feathers or nests, I cannot help but feel that Tagore perhaps even endowed the symbolic bird with qualities that he aspired to. This yearning, to possess a talent that the all encompassing bird is graced with, is felt in the following poems from the sections Sparks and Jottings respectively, articulated in the first poem not as the poet’s desire but the longing of the sky itself:
You give the woodland shade the gift of tongues.
Sky wants to sing with your voice
Its own songs. (13)
The songs in my heart
Are a flock of birds
Whose eager quest
Finds in your voice
A nest that is best. (14)
Furthermore, while the poems above refer to birdsong, one can sense through the many poems of Tagore where the bird appears as a leitmotif, that in fact, the qualities of the bird that Tagore aspires to are variously expressed as the articulation of song, the freedom of flight or even the realisation of unfulfilled dreams. In some poems, the bird represents these unattainable or as yet unattained qualities; in others, the bird is a metaphor, often a fairly cryptic one, such as in the following verses quoted from the sections Jottings and Sparks respectively:
Dreams are nests that birds
In sleep’s obscure recesses
Build from our talkative days’
Discarded bits and pieces. (15)
In the sky of the mind
Along its horizon
The world-weary dream-bird
Hastens on. (16)
I have tried in this post to underline the significance of Tagore’s ‘bird’, especially as seen in his poetry. In subsequent posts, I look forward to further exploring this leitmotif in his longer poetry, his drama, his other prose writings and his art.References:
(1) Tagore, Rabindranath, Stray Birds, Rupa & Co., New Delhi, 2002, p.3
(2) Tagore, Rabindranath, The Jewel That is Best: Collected Brief Poems, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2011 (translated by William Radice, First published as Particles, Jottings, Sparks: The Collected Brief Poems by Angel Books, 2001), p.80
(3) ibid, p.82
(4) ibid, p.37
(5) ibid, p.43
(6) ibid, p.139
(7) ibid, p.157
(8) ibid, p.157
(9) ibid, p.94
(10) ibid, p.100
(11) ibid, p.121
(12) ibid, p.143
(13) ibid, p.132
(14) ibid, p.85
(15) ibid, p.71
(16) ibid, p.152
Note on illustrations
Tagore’s paintings that I’ve reproduced here are from the following publication:
I have also included some of my paintings of birds.
September 15, 2014
So, I have now visited the archive at the Tagore Centre several times. I enjoy the feeling of space and light and quiet here, something to do with the curved expanse of glass making up more than half the wall space, and being above a library.
I was interested to discover the breadth of Tagore’s endeavours, unaware previously that he wrote dance-dramas in addition to the poetry, music and other writings that he is most known for. I knew he had painted, but had not looked at this work before, and spent a few happy hours browsing around 2,000 of his collected works in Kumar’s 4 volume edition. The work here is grouped into types of image : landscapes, figure, patterns, flowers, erasures and so on.
He started with doodles which turned into more complex images, sometimes abstract, sometimes as fantasy creatures, before training in more conventional styles of figurative and landscape painting. Whilst he makes accomplished enough works in these spheres, I feel they loose some of the imagination and uninhibited air of the earlier works. His extended drawings over his own manuscripts in both Bengali and English, sometimes covering large chunks of text, at other times merely linking it into a decorative trail, strike me as more profound and forward looking than his more conventional paintings.
Despite Tagore’s many talents, I found the arrangement of a photograph of him, adorned with vases of fresh lilies either side and having the appearance of an altar, a little disturbing. But perhaps this is down to cultural misinterpretation : maybe this arrangement is a mark of respect and not deification.
September 15, 2014
by Aurogeeta Das
In my previous post, I used the word ‘aphorism’ to describe Tagore’s poetry in Stray Birds. Before I continue my exploration of Tagore’s exploration of birds in his writing, I feel that this term requires some clarification. After all, an aphorism is not generally understood to be poetic. In the The Jewel That is Best, William Radice discusses the pros and cons of using the word ‘aphorism’ to describe Tagore’s poetry and understandably questions what word should be used, if not aphorism. He states,
Some people have called them epigrams; but the gnomic, ironic, often malicious connotations of the epigram… are not, for the most part, appropriate for Tagore. ‘Aphorism’ is better, and may be valid for Tagore’s own English translations of his poems of this sort, but the term is not usually applied to poetry, and every poem in the present volume is most definitely a poem, not a prose maxim or pensée. Moreover, the worldly yet subversive motive behind many aphorisms, particularly in the French tradition, is again not present in Tagore.” (1)
Radice ends by concluding that the best way to refer to these pieces is as ‘brief poems’.
Tagore himself seemed to derive considerable delight in being asked to write something ‘brief’. In his correspondence, we find explanations of the origins of the pieces that ultimately constituted the slim volume Stray Birds. Chief among these seemed to be a demand among his Japanese and Chinese admirers to jot something down on a hand fan, for example. This was during his travels to these countries. The brevity here is therefore not only occasioned due to pragmatic reasons — i.e. the space available, but also by the ‘moment’, if one may call it so — a brief moment of encounter between Tagore and an admirer, during which Tagore gifts a few lines written swiftly. Tagore writes of his pleasure that Chinese and Japanese admirers, unlike Indian ones, appreciated brevity, no doubt in part due to their tradition of the haiku. To me, a good haiku, despite being brief, seems to be characterised by reflections on a broader scale, suggesting through its little moments and brief words, things of greater — even perhaps, of universal — significance. A kind of mysticism permeates many of Tagore’s ‘aphorisms’ in Stray Birds:
There are tracts in my life that are bare and silent. They are the open spaces where my busy days had their light and air. (2)
It is this quality in Tagore’s brief poetry that is hard to emulate. I know, because I have tried in vain! It is possibly due to my own frustrations in this area that I wanted to share here some modern examples of haiku-like poetry. It is not so much as a comparison to Tagore’s sublime thoughts on nature that I offer these here, nor even as a linguistic or cultural parallel. It is more due to the beauty of the formal parallel that I quote Charles Reznikoff. Some of Reznikoffs poetry also provides an example of brevity suggesting something more. You might say that these are also poetic nuggets of sorts. These examples are from The Art of Hunger, a collection of non-fiction prose by the American writer Paul Auster:
The stiff lines of the twigs
Blurred by buds.
The trees’ shadows lie in black pools in the lawns.
In a cloud bones of steel.
While Tagore wrote so beautifully about nature, some of Reznikoff’s poetry seems to me to comment with elegant irony, on urban New York, by using images of nature:
This smoky winter morning —
do not despise the green jewel among the twigs
because it is a traffic light.
I do not know why it is that I recalled Reznikoff’s poetry when I read Tagore’s brief poems in Stray Birds. After all, Reznikoff’s poetry would seem to bear no resemblance whatsoever to Tagore’s. Indeed, beyond the fact that they both wrote poetry, it appears inappropriate to refer to both men on the same page. Reznikoff was a Jewish poet who lived in New York; his work drew upon legal testimonials and commented significantly on war and the Holocaust; he was known as an Objectivist, and therefore as a poet whose work would have been stripped of, for example, metaphor. Yet, it is Reznikoff’s work I thought of when reading Stray Birds. Perhaps it is merely my eclectic reading of poetry that is to blame. I read poetry without discipline, with no informed agenda. I derive great pleasure in browsing seemingly random volumes, so my apologies if it seems like I am indulging in what may well be a haphazard connection. But perhaps it is because I struggled to emulate Tagore’s quality of philosophical reflection and sought to remember when I had last felt like this that Reznikoff sprang to my mind.
To write this sort of brief poetry demands a range of special talents such as a facility with words and a skill for brevity, not to mention a poetic soul, a taste for philosophy and an ability to conjure images. Yet, it also requires something more ephemeral and therefore harder to grasp: an ability to be calm, to be so still that the reflections, like a gentle breeze, brush you for a brief moment. If you are agitated, if you so much as breathe a word during this moment, it passes you by and the breeze that might have left you with a few words of insight and beauty may have been nothing but a mirage. This ability to turn into an observer extraordinaire in order to write gems of poetry seems impossible to achieve without embracing absolute stillness and quietude; indeed, it seems unattainable unless one becomes quiet and still to the point of effacing oneself. Auster writes with penetrating insight, in relation to Reznikoff,
If the poet’s primary obligation is to see, there is a similar though less obvious injunction upon the poet — the duty of not being seen. The Reznikoff equation, which weds seeing to invisibility, cannot be made except by renunciation. In order to see, the poet must make himself invisible. He must disappear, efface himself in anonymity. (5)
Auster sees Reznikoff’s efforts to efface himself articulated in the following words by the poet:
I like the sound of the street —
but I, apart and alone,
beside an open window
and behind a closed door.
While I shall enjoy consolidating the research I have carried out on Tagore, I feel that I must begin to be quiet and still to be able to create work in response to Tagore’s art and writing. It appears to me impossible otherwise, to say anything of significance.
(1)Tagore, Rabindranath, The Jewel That is Best: Collected Brief Poems, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2011 (translated by William Radice, first published as Particles, Jottings, Sparks: The Collected Brief Poems by Angel Books, 2001), p.3
(2) Tagore, Rabindranath, Stray Birds, Rupa & Co., New Delhi, 2002, p.77
(3) Reznikoff, Charles, quoted by Paul Auster The Art of Hunger: Essays, Prefaces, Interviews & The Red Notebook, Faber and Faber, London, 1998 (first published by Penguin Putnam Inc, New York, 1997), p. 36
(4) Reznikoff, Charles, quoted by Paul Auster, The Art of Hunger: Essays, Prefaces, Interviews & The Red Notebook, Faber and Faber, London, 1998 (first published by Penguin Putnam Inc, New York, 1997), p. 40
(5) Auster, Paul, The Art of Hunger: Essays, Prefaces, Interviews & The Red Notebook, Faber and Faber, London, 1998 (first published by Penguin Putnam Inc, New York, 1997), p. 38
(6) Reznikoff, Charles, quoted by Paul Auster, The Art of Hunger: Essays, Prefaces, Interviews & The Red Notebook, Faber and Faber, London, 1998 (first published by Penguin Putnam Inc, New York, 1997), p. 38
September 10, 2014
We are happy to present a new contribution from Aurogeeta Das which is now available in our Features section. It picks out a few words and images of birds in Tagore’s work.
Let this whet your appetite for Aurogeeta’s presentation at the Tagore Centre this Sunday, September 14th 2014. There she will be opening up for discussion the rich inter-relationships Tagore perceived between human beings and nature.
August 27, 2014
by Nuala Dalton
When I saw the call for artists by the Tagore centre, I was not long back from my first and long awaited visit to India. I was not familiar with Tagore, but the more I read about him, the more I felt this was a project for me. So many aspects resonated – his breadth of activity in the arts, his love of nature, interest in women’s rights, the practical in tandem with the mystical, his feelings about education, his spirituality, concepts of internationalism paralleled with the importance of national culture & language, connections between traditional culture and political freedom in India as in my home country of Ireland – themes which are important to me as an individual, as a songwriter, as an educationalist and as a traditional musician. His poetry also reminded me of two poets I had loved and been influenced by, Rumi and Juan Ramon Jimenez. I am excited to connect with an artist who was so engaged in the world and I look forward to learning more about him and his work through this project.
My submission for this project is to have an open-ended interaction with Tagore’s work with no pre-defined outcome, based on the following themes:
I listened to the speech from the student, a young person who had received incredibly high marks in their exams, I heard the hollow ring in their voice of someone feeling lost in the world and
memories of how education had shaped my own childhood returned..along with memories of how academic success provided little response to questions I really needed answers for.
Tagore lamented the brutality of teachers in his era, it was the same in many countries. Yet regardless of the obvious logistics, how positive is it ever to put large groups of children in classrooms all day? Were those teachers who hit those children monsters? Some may have been, but others perhaps merely adults struggling to cope with this modern institutional set-up. I’m drawn to researching the strengths and weaknesses of Tagore’s educational projects.
Meditation & Yoga:
I’m also interested to find out more about Tagore’s spirituality and how it influenced his daily life and work. As my meditation and yoga practice improve, I meet the institutionalised part of me, this lost girl, twisted out of shape, longing to return to early memories of togetherness with nature and time – but so shaped by institutional education, almost unable to be without a to-do list, a calendar, a goal, thinking ahead, analysing, planning, analysing..
As a student and as teacher I’ve experienced the mania of busyness in the education system which exerts a constant pressure on students and teachers away from connection to the self. A giant vortex of busyness in which everyone is intensely active (hyperactive), yet that very over-activity creates a pervasive underlying boredom. Stillness, rest, non-thought are very rare experiences indeed. Lost Time by Tagore:
Music & Poetry:
Tagore began as an artist and turned to education later in life. Art in all forms was at the core of his life. My desire for this project is to avoid analysis, to avoid getting caught up in the trap of my own mind.. In order to reconnect to my own creativity.
Therefore, while I’m currently reading a variety of texts, by and about Tagore, including ‘Rabindranath Tagore. Adventures of Ideas and Innovative Practices in Education’ by Kumkum Bhattacharya and ‘An Education in Happiness. The Lessons of Hesse and Tagore’ by Flavia Arenzi, my work for this project will mostly take the form of songs, poems and instrumental compositions, at various stages of development.
August 27, 2014
As I’ve stated in my previous blogpost, Tagore’s birds tend to be fantastical rather than real; sometimes they are even chimeric (chimera: a composite of the physical attributes of two or more kinds of animals, mythical beasts, and often humans). So what constitutes the bird form? The simple answer seems to be its constituent parts: its beak, its eyes, a head, a body, feet and a tail and additionally, what it is covered with, i.e. rather than skin or fur, birds are normally covered with feathers. Obviously, some of these parts are shared by other creatures, including humans. That is, we also have eyes, a head and feet making up our body. And of course, while we may not have tails, animals do. But neither humans nor animals have feathers, which only birds have and yet neither Tagore’s nor my paintings include anything resembling feathers. Perhaps this is because feathers lend detail, thus distracting attention from the elemental form of a bird. Put another way, feathers lend unwelcome realism to a language that leans towards abstraction.
What is striking about several of Tagore’s birds is the fact that he often suggests the form of a bird with a few spare lines, using, for example, a beak or wings — obvious, characteristic identifying features of avian creatures. These identifying characteristics assume greater importance precisely because Tagore — for the most part anyway — does not paint real birds. In other words, these touches of figurativeness can lend definition even to the most abstract form. However, unlike feathers, a beak or wings remain more adaptable to abstraction.
I mentioned in my initial blog post that my bird paintings are influenced by Southern Indian women’s geometric floor-drawings, which often have a grid of dots or other markers, with innumerable combinations and permutations of lines connecting the dots either by being looped around them or by going over them.
Sometimes, I similarly use a bird ‘template’, for want of a better term, but I find myself experimenting with the manner in which the lines might operate within this template. The geometric shapes then become increasingly abstract, but like Tagore, I use the beak and the wings as distinguishing characteristics, to evoke the form of a bird. You might therefore say that the identifying characteristics constitute the broad template I envision at the outset. Most often, I also add bird-like feet and an eye or two, strategically placed to intimate the avian form. Like the prana-pratishtha in an Indian temple, where the placement of eyes on an idol is believed to breathe life into it, I add the eye(s) to give the form life. Sometimes the bird is only hinted at; at other times, it is suggested more overtly. Like Tagore’s birds, mine are sometimes geometric, sometimes quite amorphous, but the beak especially, lends figuration, thus transforming both geometry and amorphousness into something that might remind us of birds. This is one reason why I find the bird form fascinating: it lends itself equally well to abstraction, to realism and to the decorative. Its adaptability therefore, is useful to those who wish to maintain plasticity in form. Here then, are a few examples of how a geometric, abstract or amorphous form might be transformed into the intimation of a bird, through the introduction of a beak, wings or even feet.
One might say that such additions point to a token interest in birds, added as if the bird form were an afterthought, but in fact, I always begin a bird drawing by thinking of the distinguishing characteristics of birds and what birds represent to me, i.e. freedom. In some way therefore, it is not sufficient to suggest form. I try to infuse spirit too; the grace and beauty of a bird comes equally from its form and its evocation of freedom. Moreover, the compulsion to continue referring to the bird form despite increasing abstraction and/or amorphousness might even point to a committed engagement to exploring its form and its symbolism.
In the two paintings of mine (Aurogeeta, Figs. 4&5) that resemble fish rather than birds, it is the sinuousness of water that blends into the fish form.
In Tagore’s paintings of what appear to be heads of two swans (Tagore, Fig.4), without the beak, they could just as well have been eels or serpents.
While three of Tagore’s paintings reproduced here (Tagore, Figs. 1, 2 & 3) have more clearly distinguishing characteristics of birds, one (Tagore, Fig. 5) appears to have anthropomorphic legs and yet a head with crocodile-like jaws.
As much as I appreciate Tagore’s bird paintings, his chimeric forms fascinate me even more. Was his interest in chimeric forms merely formal or did it indicate a worldview? This is what I hope to explore next.
August 13, 2014
by Aurogeeta Das
For the most part, Tagore did not paint real birds. Although he may have done so occasionally (and this would be conjecture on the part of scholars and viewers since to my knowledge, Tagore did not title his works), it might be reasonable to assume that the real birds he saw around him formed an impression.
Certainly, India provides the avid bird watcher with ample opportunity to indulge in what the English call ‘twitching’, so named to describe the rapid turning of the bird-watcher’s head to follow the flutter and flight of large and little birds alike.
One cannot tell what kind of birds Tagore would have been painting had he lived for example, in Europe, Africa or in the Americas, or even whether they would have been any different. Did he watch birds, as I do? I have yet to discover whether he did. If an artist paints real birds figuratively, one might guess that the painter watched real birds, or even engaged beyond just watching, such as Audubon, who unfortunately even killed and stuffed real birds before painting them. However, there are some artists, like the American naturalist Charles (Charley) Harper, who relied extensively on photographs to paint real birds.
But for those artists who do not paint real birds but rather draw upon their imagination, one wonders whether they were inspired by real birds? I can vouch for my own experience, which began by painting birds partly, I suspect, from memory and partly from imagination. Then, I started watching real birds to understand more about the bird form. As I watched birds with greater enthusiasm, I wanted to be better informed about the species of birds that I encountered during my travels. I also started photographing the birds I spotted, filing them away for future reference or perhaps hoping that they would permeate my subconscious. Once they percolated into my subconscious, I hoped to be able to draw upon them to arrive at a more confident line when tracing the bird form.
Here, then, are some photographs of birds that I have taken during my travels in India and abroad. I assume that the most common Indian birds at least would have been observed by Tagore too? They were perhaps even absorbed into his subconscious from where he drew them out to create his bird paintings?
August 13, 2014
This post highlights some key points in Rustom Bharucha’s lecture at InIVA London on the relationship between the Indian Nobel Laureate in Literature Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and the Japanese curator Okakura Tenshin (born Okakura Kakuzō, 1862-1913).
A video of that talk in its entirety is available here.
I have chosen to look at those aspects of the talk that underline the need to approach the multi-faceted Tagore with a methodological openness. I would like to argue that given his Renaissance spirit, his phenomenal output, and the extraordinary legacy he created in Bengal, a single method would not do justice to a study of this somewhat neglected figure.
I began to prepare for my proposed Tagore-inspired artist book project (see the introduction in my previous blogpost) by immersing myself in Rabindranath Tagore’s work. The first event in this immersion process, it turned out, was a talk by self-avowed performance theorist Rustom Bharucha titled Performing Asia: The Affective Affinities between Rabindranath Tagore and Okakura Tenshin at InIVA, London (7 June 2014). This talk was part of a wider critical re-appraisal of Tagore organised by Iniva, Goldsmith’s College and the Tagore Centre, Tagore, Pedagogy and Contemporary Visual Cultures.
Many consider Tagore (1861-1941) to be a somewhat neglected figure now, outside his native Bengal, despite being the first non-European Nobel Laureate in Literature. Tagore is remembered variously as a poet, lyricist, short story writer, novelist, playwright, educator, social reformer, painter, philosopher, mystical figure and aristocratic landlord.
It is possible that Tenshin (born Okakura Kakuzō, 1862-1913), is even less known outside museum circles in Japan and the US, where he eventually became the head of the Asian department at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He is remembered mostly as an educator, curator and author of the Book of Tea. What drew these two figures to each other? This was the underlying question driving Bharucha’s lecture.
I had read a little of Bharucha’s work before, so I was curious to see what his particular brand of associative thinking might bring to the study of Tagore. Bharucha’s ideas were refreshing in that they frequently made connections that might not at first appear evident. Such correlations can work as a series of provocations that jog theorists out of their comfort zones, or they might prompt methodological questions about whether a narrow focus is always the best academic approach. Scholars sometimes cannot see the wood for the trees. Bharucha’s strength lay in his approach, which is enriched by an interdisciplinary artistic openness; he often voices what ivory tower academics either miss or do not venture to state without further investigation. While some lines of Bharucha’s exploration of Tagore and Tenshin’s relationship could lead to further avenues of research, others served merely as interesting footnotes. I shall not comprehensively recap Bharucha’s key points nor even review his lecture’s merits or demerits. Given the extraordinary breadth and sheer volume of Tagore’s professional output and my own limited knowledge of his many achievements, an introduction to Tagore’s work would be unwise and unfeasible, as indeed would a review of Tenshin’s work. I should like to instead convey my own impressions of those aspects of Bharucha’s lecture that I feel highlight the need to remain receptive to multiple modes of investigation when studying a complex, multifaceted figure such as Tagore. This essay is thus primarily a comment on critical methodologies.
Even the most cursory consideration of Bharucha’s above-mentioned question demands a closer examination of the period of Tagore and Tenshin’s first encounter in 1902 and their subsequent correspondence. One might wonder why Bharucha chose to focus his theoretical lens on this particular connection between an Indian poet-philosopher and a Japanese curator, but in fact, it might not be so surprising if one considers that this relationship unfolded during a period when Europe’s adoption of Japonisme (the study and love of Japan and its culture) was still having ripple effects in the US and elsewhere. More importantly, in India, this was a time when the idea of pan-Asianism was adopted, fine-tuned, questioned and ultimately rejected against the backdrop of lively debates on nationalism by — among more politically active others — cultural figures such as Rabindranath Tagore, Vivekananda (born Narendranath Datta, 1963-1902), Sister Nivedita (born Elizabeth Margaret Noble) and, according to Bharucha, Okakura Tenshin. So rather than being a whimsical, peripheral choice, Bharucha’s consideration of this relationship shifts much-needed attention onto a previously neglected subject. Such a spotlight is not without its methodological concerns, such as for example, the relative lack of documentation on Tagore and Tenshin’s friendship. However, as Bharucha pointed out, this worked in his favour as it allowed him room for exploration, unlike other aspects of Tagore’s life, which have ostensibly been researched so thoroughly that the proprietorial Bengali intelligentsia discourages any fresh viewpoints.
The following question at the lecture, raised by Andrea Philips from Goldsmiths, was perhaps prompted by an awareness of this proprietorial zeal: How should key figures be studied in academia when they have enjoyed a certain status in the popular imaginary due to the mushrooming of what might even be described as cult followings? This is a pertinent query. Should they be canonised, should they be brought down from the pedestals they have been placed upon by a more critical examination of their oeuvres and personalities? Should one institute a special programme of study dedicated to such examinations and call it Tagore Studies for example; or merely commission a plaque in a hall and move on to contemporary thinkers? It may not be irrelevant to point out here that the intense political and cultural climate of Tagore’s time, especially in Bengal, nurtured the multifaceted talents of several ‘greats’ like him. Admittedly, they were privileged with access to education, connections and funds and this access certainly helped contribute to their success, but their greatness was undoubtedly also forged in the anvil of the times. Although Tagore himself eventually became the most famous member of his family, in fact, several of his relatives had already distinguished themselves in cultural and other arenas and others continued to do so during and after his lifetime. Thus the family name ‘Tagore’ could just as easily refer to — among others — to Rabindranath’s nephews and contemporaries, the artists Abanindranath and Gagendranath. While it might therefore be less confusing to use Rabindranath here, in this essay, ‘Tagore’ refers exclusively to Rabindranath.
At any rate, even a brief overview of Tagore’s contemporaries Vivekanda and Aurobindo (born Aurobindo Ackroyd Ghose, 1872-1950) would reveal startling similarities, and yet there were significant differences too, including in the manner that they were venerated both during their lifetime and posthumously.
That all three figures were venerated in some manner is suggested by the titles conferred upon them: ‘Sri’ in Aurobindo’s case (a form of respect), comparable to Vivekananda’s title ‘Swami’ (which translates literally to ‘lord’) and Tagore’s sobriquet ‘Gurudeb’ meaning literally ‘spiritual guide’. Tagore also famously gave Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) his title of ‘Mahatma’ (literally ‘great soul’).
Questions such as Andrea Philips’ are habitually raised with reference to seminal figures, as for example, not so long ago, when Columbia University Press published American-born Indian historian Peter Heehs’ The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, a biography of author and philosopher Aurobindo. This publication caused considerable furore among a segment of Aurobindo’s followers, leading to an injunction of its sale in India. Eschewing the hagiographic (the complimentary, almost sycophantic tone used for biographies of saints written by those who are their devotees or followers) tenor that some Aurobindonians might have preferred, Heehs chose to present a critical and rigorously researched account. Although more moderate factions of the Aurobindonian community also found fault with Heehs’ approach (which is admittedly problematic in some instances), their appreciation of his research and recognition of his respect for Sri Aurobindo meant that the right-wing reactions of others was unwelcome. An extract of Heehs’ response to the trenchant criticism he received could be relevant here: “What distinguishes the hagiographic from the critical approach is not that hagiographers are sympathetic to their subjects, but that they base their accounts on unverifiable assumptions that are likely to be accepted only by members of the discursive community that they belong to.”  Yet Heehs accepted that when writing about Sri Aurobindo, it would have been negligent not to incorporate in some way that which may be unverifiable in a humanistic discourse. During an interview with me, the newspaper editor M J Akbar critiqued Tariq Ali’s The Clash of Fundamentalisms on the basis that Ali’s otherwise excellently researched and elegantly written account of the births of Christianity, Islam and Judaism did not sufficiently factor in the part played by the phenomenon of faith in the early development of these religions.
I do not mean to suggest that the study of Tagore has been muddied by questions of faith and religion, even if Tagore’s sobriquet suggests his status as philosopher, mystic and even spiritual advisor.This is because there is a marked difference between the spirituality of Aurobindo and Vivekananda and that of Tagore’s. Given the scope of this essay, it would be difficult to explain the significant distinctions between Aurobindo’s, Vivekananda’s and Tagore’s spiritualism. Suffice it to say that their very approach to spirituality differed. For example, while Vivekananda believed in and practised celibacy and renunciation of the world in order to dedicate himself to spiritual goals, Aurobindo attempted a conventional householder’s path and engaged in a more active political role before choosing a spiritual life over both marriage and politics. Tagore’s spiritualism, by contrast, appeared to be rooted primarily in creative expression. It is this straddling of multiple roles that makes Tagore a particularly intriguing figure. While Tagore’s poetry was admittedly mystical, he was after all a married householder and a landlord, very much a part of the world. This possibly had ramifications for the manner in which he negotiated his career. That is, unlike Vivekananda, whose activities — when they required fund-raising — were oftentimes supported by others who gathered funds on his behalf, and Aurobindo, whose philosophy was propagated by the Ashram founded by his spiritual partner and organiser extraordinaire, The Mother (born Blanche Rachel Mirra Alfassa, 1878-1973), with Tagore, much of the fund-raising is likely to have been planned and initiated by himself. In other words, he was forced to be worldlier, not least because of his position as aristocratic landlord, a role that he was not necessarily comfortable with. As one audience member reminded us at Bharucha’s talk, during a lecture in Iran, Tagore apparently mentioned feeling the dual burden of being a ‘landlord poet’. At any rate, it is important to recognise that while factoring in the possible effects that taking on the role of spiritual philosopher-guide might have had on Tagore’s other activities, one must assess his creative expression on its own merits. Similarly, for a more comprehensive understanding of his life, his work and his legacy, one has to take into account his character and personal preferences. Yet, the phenomenon of veneration threatens to cloud our evaluation of both Tagore’s personal and professional lives, which are necessarily intertwined. How then, does one even begin to analyse his ‘image’, which obviously has repercussions for how we engage with his legacy?
Of the many analytical methods that Bharucha borrows from for his exploration of Tagore and Tenshin’s relationship and their respective professional achievements (or lack thereof) was a semiotic analysis of press images and photographic portraits of both men. Tagore’s preference was for posed studio portraits, with arranged light conditions, ordered settings and a controlled body posture; this preference, along with his dislike of candid camera shots suggests to me a desire to exercise control over his public image and thereby to perhaps ultimately contribute to his own hagiography, even if unconsciously. This might be read as a sign of vanity, or alternately as a latent uneasiness with his status as celebrity performer on the international public lecture circuit. Bharucha’s mention however, of Tagore’s habit of donning ankle-length, full-sleeved robes indicates an attempt to cover up his body. This was in stark contrast to Gandhi’s (1869-1948) relative nakedness or “disrobing”, to use Bharucha’s term.
Gandhi’s rebellious loincloth was in effect a subversive political tactic against the British. With Tagore, as Bharucha put it, “If you’re looking for flesh, you’re not going to find it.” This suggests not only a possibility that Tagore’s clothing lent (deliberately or otherwise) further credence to his image as mystical figure from the Orient, but perhaps a more difficult relationship with his physicality. Bharucha pointed out the irony that his corpse, when paraded around the streets of Calcutta in the run-up to his cremation, was tugged at by thousands of fans; this was sad because during his lifetime, Tagore reportedly expressed discomfort at being touched.
A curious comment by Bharucha — “one of the hardest things to theorise in academia is fun; getting a kick out of something — we don’t theorise that” might at first seem to bear no relation to the above-mentioned question by Andrea Philips. It nevertheless underlines the importance of making room in academia, for the more personal aspects of key figures, traits that can influence professional decisions and determine courses of action that we might ordinarily consider without reference to intimate preferences. Allowing for the effects of such preferences does not exclude theoretical rigour; indeed, it nuances a study, thus lending it further accuracy. How is one to conjecture on such preferences, which may have scant available documentation? Not by deifying such figures, but by observing their multifaceted dimensions as best as possible when assessing their contributions to their respective fields and more importantly, by allowing for the possible effects these facets had on the many people they interacted with, including professional colleagues, family and fans. Interestingly, Bharucha took great pains at the lecture to reflect on the term ‘affect’, in relation to colonialism, claiming that while Edward Said’s seminal work Orientalism theorised the effects of colonialism on former colonies, it had not sufficiently considered its affects. One might do well to think of how people are affected by personal likes and dislikes when studying figures such as Tagore. Surely the best way to study them is to properly assess their contribution not only to society more generally and to particular historical junctures but also to the specific fields they operated in — be it literature, music, theatre, the visual arts and/or to philosophy? Such an assessment cannot be complete without allowing for the effects of fan followings, in terms of, for example, the distortions in reading him that apocryphal stories could cause or due to the avoidance of his frailties and foibles in authoritative biographical accounts; it is equally crucial to recognise what the element of faith and reverence add to his life and to his veneration posthumously.
Although celebrity studies have been around for a while now, and the behaviour of fans must necessarily be included in celebrity studies, this stream of study more often focuses on the mediated images of celebrities and the celebrities’ and other vested parties’ purposeful use of the media to further their own agendas. The relatively recent sub-stream of fan studies considers the complementary phenomenon of celebrity from what one might call the audience perspective. In Tagore’s case, this audience includes admirers in the form of the ordinary public (especially the legion of Bengalis who hail him as Gurudeb), creative practitioners, and scholars (whose own vanity might cause them to discourage others from further study). Although Tagore’s following in Bengal during and since his lifetime may not constitute celebrity-hood as experienced by today’s film, sports or music superstars, it may be worth bearing in mind that fan followings all too frequently take on an independent life, which can sometimes be in danger of clouding the integrity of the work as first conceived and executed. This appears to have occurred to a certain extent with admirers and proponents of Rabindra Sangeet (literally Rabindra’s music), with the result that Tagore’s musical style is oftentimes inadequately interpreted or worse, watered down to the Bengali version of what I like to call lobby music.
Tagore’s work as a lyricist and songwriter (famously resulting in his compositions being adopted as national anthems by both India and Bangladesh) was known to me but I had in fact never heard recordings of either his lectures or his own singing. During his talk, Bharucha played one of the rare recordings of a public lecture by Tagore, and what seems immediately apparent is that his voice and delivery (both show the results of training) undoubtedly contributed to his persona. Without a break or a false note, Tagore delivers his lecture in what can only be described as a performance — partly soliloquy, partly mesmerising chant. As Bharucha pointed out, today, no academic or philosopher would dare deliver a lecture in such a manner — with a cadence that is akin to a dramatic monologue rather than the accepted modes of a lecturer imparting knowledge and information. It is interesting to note too, that Tagore’s delivery in English closely follows the rhythm of Bengali chanting and monologue. Many authors, including Willam Radice, have pointed out the challenges of translating Tagore’s poetry into English. The context-specific nuances of words, not to mention the rhythm and poetic accents of the original no doubt suffer in translation. While the difficulties of translating Tagore’s work in Bengali for global audiences seem to have contributed to his neglect in the West (especially since his death), Bharucha spoke of other factors that may have caused a decline in Tagore’s popularity.
Bharucha critiqued Tagore for being relatively naïve and/or ill-informed about what was occurring in world politics, especially with reference to Asia and India. In comparison to Tenshin, who was seemingly an astute observer and negotiator of trends of political and intellectual activity, Tagore appeared to not know as much of public sentiment or if he did, seemed not to care sufficiently to cater to audiences’ political or cultural sensitivities (this was in the context of Tagore’s and Tenshin’s public lectures in Asia and the West). Tenshin, Bharucha suggested, was a savvy curator capable of making strategic decisions in his efforts to represent Asia to the West and vice-versa. Tagore’s penchant for philosophy — as is evident in his lectures and the highly reflective quality of his writing (both in prose and poetry) — make me wonder whether there were not more complex reasons for his behaviour. Was it lack of awareness or a reluctance to engage with activities that he felt were ultimately limited in political agency? Was he perhaps ahead of his time in this respect? Whatever be the state of his political awareness and engagement, it seems safe to assume that Tenshin’s activities were more focussed than Tagore’s, perhaps allowing him greater freedom to engage politically, or at the very least to remain informed of the political currents of the time and to voice this awareness to audiences. Tagore, if one considers his extraordinary range of activities, may have simply not had the time or the energy to succeed as a careerist in all the fields he contributed to. Without descending into the uncritical hagiography I referred to at the beginning, I do feel it may be necessary to cut Tagore some slack to properly understand his apparent socio-political naïveté. After all, in addition to contributing to philosophy, social reform, theatre, music, literature and the visual arts, his vision in the field of education demanded considerable energy to materialise in concrete form. Founding the Visva Bharati in Shantiniketan required fund-raising, planning and organisation. To be highly creative and active in creative pursuits, to the extent that one’s philosophy and spiritualism is rooted in creation expression; to carry the dual burden of being a landlord-poet and a householder and furthermore, to contribute to notions of Nationalism and pan-Asianism is a tall order, even for a man who seemed to embrace the Renaissance spirit.
Tagore had, in addition to all the roles already mentioned, also been invested with the role of mediator between the East and the West, sometimes winning praise and at other times, receiving a great deal of flak at what is perceived as his pro-West stance. Bharucha mentioned Tagore’s “anti-nationalist lectures” in Japan, delivered in 1916, and also to Tagore’s controversial statement that India was a “no-nation”. Surely these need to be studied in the context of Tagore’s humanistic view of Nationalism as something that lent cultural unity and cohesiveness rather than as something that defined national identity, in a manner that becomes geographically, socio-politically and culturally exclusive of other cultures. My knowledge of Tagore’s views on Nationalism and the controversial reception of his views is somewhat limited but I get the impression that Tagore was not particularly keen to dabble in politics and I cannot help feeling that this role of East-West mediator is also one that he did not necessarily ask for, as he seemed to view himself primarily as a creative person, not as a political activist. Consequently, the criticism of his views on Nationalism needs to be viewed in the context of the period’s nationalistic fervour. What is as pertinent to discuss here is an observation made by an audience member at Bharucha’s lecture: the need for anyone on an international public lecture circuit to negotiate their identity and image when catering to diverse audiences. This negotiation is especially fraught with challenges when the identities cross various boundaries: East and West, visual/performing arts and literature, abstract philosophy and socio-political pragmatism. For example, even at the most basic level, should one self-orientalise to add value to one’s image globally (i.e. wear oriental garbs, quote from eastern philosophy and literature, etc)? Should one meet the West mid-way by wearing Western clothes to put Westerners at ease? Should one make the East more palatable by presenting one’s ideas in a format that is more easily recognisable by — and acceptable to —the West? Should one even dare to suggest an amalgam of Eastern and Western thought at a time when racial and cultural differences were being cited as a basis for colonial rule, itself causing nationalist rebellion? The requirement to ascertain the audience’s level of knowledge of India and Asia, to gauge audience sentiment and to then perform accordingly is something that requires energy (the effective colloquial term ‘mental space’ springs to mind). It goes without saying that the more complex one’s role and the more diverse one’s range of activities, the harder it becomes to negotiate public audiences. Perhaps such an exercise even begins to seem more futile and certainly less compelling in the context of one’s long-term objectives? Placing figures such as Tagore on a pedestal, or distancing ourselves from their personal lives in our efforts to maintain scholarly objectivity might preclude recognition of simple factors such as the possibility that he did not have the energy to go that extra mile to ‘perform’ to audiences. Then again perhaps, unlike Tenshin, Tagore did not recognise the long-term benefits of developing shorter-term strategies.
It is fitting then that rather than carrying out a comprehensive comparison of Tenshin’s and Tagore’s myriad interests, to end his lecture, Bharucha reflected on one shared source of pleasure. Quoting an extract from a letter that Tenshin wrote to Tagore, in which the Japanese curator admires an ordinary clay bowl, Bharucha concluded that the basis for their friendship was perhaps — quite simply — their mutual enjoyment of, and instinctive aesthetic appreciation for beauty. This observation underlines the personal, even the intimate moments in a life that has been eulogised by some and neglected by others; it is a timely reminder to scholars interested in Tagore to view his many facets to arrive at a composite understanding of his nature and work.
 Heehs, Peter, “Getting beyond the Conventions of Biography – and Hagiography Too: A Post by Peter Heehs”, Columbia University Press blog, posted 4 August 2008