September 15, 2014
by Ansuman
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Fiona Harvey at the Tagore Centre

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.

 

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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 Ansuman
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Of Tagore, Reznikoff and Brevity

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:

CCCXXIII.

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:

                  April

The stiff lines of the twigs

Blurred by buds.

 

                  Moonlit Night

The trees’ shadows lie in black pools in the lawns.

 

                  The Bridge

In a cloud bones of steel.

(3)

 

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.

(4)

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.

(6)

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.

 

References

(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
by Ansuman
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Tagore’s Birds

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.

Tagore’s Birds: Of Word and Image, Song and Silence

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.

Sunday Events

August 27, 2014
by Ansuman
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Lost Time

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:

  • music & poetry
  • yoga & meditation
  • education

Education:

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:

Lost Time

 

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.

Why Create?

Alaap & Alpana poem by Nuala

Alaap & Alpana by Ansuman Biswas

 

 

 

 

 

Nuala - Our World

 

 

Nuala - Song

August 27, 2014
by Ansuman
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What Constitutes a Bird Form?

Aurogeeta Das

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.

Aurogeeta_Fig1_BP4

 

 

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.

 

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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.

Aurogeeta_Fig4_BP4

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.

Aurogeeta_Fig5_BP4

 

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.

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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.

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Tagore_Fig2_BP4

 

Tagore_Fig3_BP4

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. Tagore_Fig5_BP4

 

August 13, 2014
by Ansuman
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Encountering Birds During My Travels

by Aurogeeta Das

 BP3_Img7c_MockingBird1_small

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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BP3_Img2c_MagpieRobin8_small

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BP3_Img2a_RedWhiskeredBulbul3_small

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BP3_Img3a_EurasianSparrowHawk3_small

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August 13, 2014
by Ansuman
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Walking the Tightrope

Tagore’s Negotiation of Identity and Image

by Aurogeeta Das 


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.

Rabindranath TagoreMany 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.

 

Okakura TenshinIt 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.

Swami VivekanandaAt 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.Sri Aurobindo

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.” [1] 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?

Rustom on Okakura

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.

Rustom on Rabindranath

Mahatma Gandhi

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.

 

[1] Heehs, Peter, “Getting beyond the Conventions of Biography – and Hagiography Too: A Post by Peter Heehs”, Columbia University Press blog, posted 4 August 2008

August 12, 2014
by Ansuman
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Tagore the Deep Ecologist

Much has been made of Tagore as an ecological poet or a poet of nature. However his vision was far from one-dimensional. In a new article on our Features page Chris Marsh sketches some connections between Tagore and 21st Century movements. Here is an overview which will lead into a series of pieces from her on Tagore’s anticipation of Permaculture principles: Towards a Tagorean Utopia

 

July 29, 2014
by Ansuman
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Responding to the Archive – Aurogeeta Das


Here is the first in what will be a regular series of posts by people working at the Tagore Centre, who will delve into the archive, share their findings and create new responses. Here the writer and artist Aurogeeta Das explains her motivations as she approaches Tagore’s work.

 


 

 

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Untitled (subject: semi-abstract bird figure) Ink on paper by Rabindranath Tagore Source: Facebook page: ‘Manuscript and painting of Rabindranath Tagore’

 

When I first heard of the Tagore Centre’s call for artists, writers and/or curators to respond to their archive and create new work, I was excited because of the interdisciplinary approach being encouraged. From the dim recesses of my memory, I recalled admiring Tagore as a teenager when I was introduced to his work at school. Tellingly, I cannot recollect in which subject I was introduced to his work but I do remember thinking of him as a Renaissance man, a ‘great’ with many talents and astonishingly diverse interests.

 

Twenty years on, I have explored a range of approaches to the visual arts, from the point of view of artistic practice, as an arts editor and journalist, as a researcher and writer, as a lecturer and most recently, as a first-time curator, with varying degrees of success in my desire to achieve greater coherence. Rather than see these myriad forms of expression as competing against each other, I have found that my adoption of each medium has lent fresh perspectives to the rest. This has made me appreciate anew that an interdisciplinary approach might still result in a richer outcome. My interests have been consistently interdisciplinary in the past 15 years; I continue to research, write, paint, lecture and curate all at the same time. I am now hoping to weave together the many strands of my work.

So in response to the Tagore Centre’s call for artists, I proposed to combine the various approaches I have previously explored in my roles as artist, curator, researcher and writer in a single experimental project. Interdisciplinary interests can lead to a variety of outcomes. I want mine to develop primarily into in an artist book, as I feel that numerous disciplines and media intersect in this form of expression. As such, it echoes the title of the Tagore Centre’s residency: an artistic book, I feel, is situated ‘between the lines’ of wall and page, image and word, conceptually and visually. What is perhaps a clearly visible manifestation of this ‘in between’ space is the frequent placement of images in between lines of text in an artist’s book. This is not quite the same as an illustrated book, as the artist’s book often places visuals and text on a more equal footing, rather than having the images merely accompany a text. When images illustrate a text, they remain secondary to the visual. While the core piece of work I have proposed is an artist’s book, I hope that its content can be reflected, in different forms, in distinct outcomes: a blog diary, a series of paintings, an academic paper on the relationship between words and images and a possible curatorial project. Although the content will adapt to the discrete media, as suits the differing form of each, every outcome will retain recognisable elements of the core work.

 

When I say ‘the relationship between words and languages’, I should clarify that I am interested in understanding how words resonate in visuals, both physically and conceptually and how the visual is evoked with words, as much through the materially realised form of letters as in the evocation of the visual through the imaginative use of poetic and literary language.

 

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Untitled (subject: semi-abstract bird figure from the tale ‘Bird of Fairyland’) Lithograph reproduction of original with coloured inks on paper by Rabindranath Tagore Museum No: IS.78-1961 Source: V&A Museum

Those of you who may be more familiar with Tagore’s work may know that his visual experiments started as doodles on his literary manuscripts. I am therefore fortunate to have a pertinent starting point to explore the relationship between words and images in Tagore’s work, though of course I hope to also address this relationship in his other cross-disciplinary endeavours. This exploration ought to enrich my own outcomes. To lend further focus to the core piece – the artist book, and to these distinct outcomes, my study of Tagore’s output as an artist and writer will concentrate on the theme of birds (and more broadly, nature). I chose this theme because of my own deep love for nature and my interest in birds but equally because I am intrigued by Tagore’s paintings of birds. In case you have not seen these yet, I have posted a few examples here. They are mysterious, fantastical, occasionally even otherworldly. They appear to have been created from the unconscious. At other times, they are almost anthropomorphic.

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Animals/Composites (2) Coloured ink on paper by Rabindranath Tagore, 38 x 42.5 cm, dated 13 September 1930, Copyright Rabindra Bhavana Source: V&A Museum

 

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Animals/Composites (3) Coloured ink on paper by Rabindranath Tagore, 34.9 x 45.6 cm, about 1930-31, Copyright Rabindra Bhavana Source: V&A Museum

 

I may also especially examine the collection Stray Birds (1916), which brings together verses and aphorisms written by Tagore. A significant part of my own ongoing work as a visual artist is focused on birds – a recurring motif that is indicative of my broader interest in nature.

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The complex exploration of line in my gouache paintings, which turns into a mapping of form, echoes South Indian women’s geometric floor-drawings, which often use a grid of dots or other marks. These grids act as markers for visual reference but they also become an intrinsic part of the drawings. Unlike South Indian women, however, instead of using a grid of dots or other markings, I imagine the generic form of a bird as constituting a broad grid.

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My paintings of birds also draw inspiration from indigenous artists’ depictions of fantastical and real birds, the latter often drawn with vivid imagination and whimsy. Needless to say, as you can see from the examples I have posted here, these bear little resemblance to Tagore’s paintings but like his, mine don’t realistically depict actual birds either but are drawn from my imagination. Rather than doodling, they often start by ‘taking a line for a walk’, to use Klee’s phrase.

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Bird Gouache on deckle-edged handmade paper, approximately 29.7 x 42 cm 2013-14

 

Although I read Tagore’s work as a child, and know of the range of his creative work, I am not very familiar with his whole body of work. This is one reason why I feel that the possible resonances among Tagore’s distinct outputs may be an interesting area to explore. I am so looking forward to drawing upon Tagore’s cross-disciplinary interests and outcomes by gaining an insight into his inter-disciplinary process, if it can be termed as such. I hope to ascertain to what extent his interdisciplinary interests were ‘visible’ in his literary and artistic work. In addition, I expect to reproduce Tagore’s own words and/or images in my interpretation of his work. This is all very ambitious, given the constraints of time and the daunting task of exploring Tagore’s phenomenal output, so I’d better get started!

 

 

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Bird Gouache on deckle-edged handmade paper, approximately 21 x 29.7 cm 2013-14

February 21, 2014
by Ansuman
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Behind the Beard

Here’s another contribution to our Features section. A short extract from Sahitya Akademi’s 1961 publication on Tagore. It follows on nicely from Matthew Pritchard’s piece on interpreting Tagore for the West.

Artists create with painstaking labour but have little control over how they or their works are perceived. The further the work travels, the more faint and distorted does the creator become. This Law of Celebrity has held true ever since the very first stories were told, and it is still true now. Some extra effort is required to penetrate the miasma of rumour and fantasy that obscures the work of art. Perhaps one way is to become absorbed into the work wholeheartedly in order to feel what was felt by the person who made it. And perhaps there is no more wholehearted involvement than singing. Is this what Tagore meant when he said that his songs were the most vital parts of him, living on long after he was gone?

Phillipe Stern’s piece gives us a glimpse of the person of Tagore, and thereby gives a clue as to how we might approach his art. As Matthew Pritchard also suggested, returning to the simple, vulnerable beauty of the voice seems to be key. That’s what is behind that beard and also right under our noses.

The Real Rabindranath Tagore and his Music