Rede bei der Convocation der Rabindra-Bharati Universität (Kalkutta)

Rede bei der Convocation der Rabindra-Bharati Universität (Kalkutta)

am 15. März 2012

Excellency, Governor M. K. Narayanan,

dear Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Chinmoy Guha,

respected professor friends and dear students,

let me tell you how honoured I feel to stand before you this morning to address you. For the conclusion of the Rabindranath Tagore 150th Anniversary and on the 50th birthday of this University, I have arrived all the way from Germany with a special message, and that is the message of the universality of your poet – our poet – Rabindranath Tagore.

Three weeks ago, I have returned from the German Literature Archive in Marbach near Stuttgart, the premier library and archive for German literature. It accepted my seven large boxes of research material on “Rabindranath and Germany” and asked for more – for essays, music scores, CDs, Tagore films to be incorporated in their huge archive which harbours, for example, manuscripts by Franz Kafka and Hermann Hesse. The German Literature Archive already possesses some thirty original letters by Rabindranath, namely the letters he wrote to his German translator, Mrs Helene Meyer-Franck, and to his student and translator Aurobindo Bose. The Archive has already published a book on Tagore’s relationship with German writers and scholars. Mind you, this is the German Literature Archive which so far had never looked East, had never moved beyond the Western hemisphere in its search for the traces of Germany’s literary expression.

Two weeks ago, I stayed at Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital, attending the inauguration of a Tagore seminar. After this I proceeded to Hamburg where I stayed some fifty kilometers from the city in an academy on the shore of a beautiful lake. The academy stores a library with rich material on Tagore, including some original manuscripts. Soon the bust of Rabindranath will be ceremoniously unveiled. From Hamburg, I have come directly to you. Indeed, Rabindranath Tagore has emerged from the margins of world awareness to the centre of the arena. His universality is demonstrated by the fact that many peoples today are able to see in him a guiding figure of alternative culture symbolizing the opposition to consumerism and ecological exploitation and to the aggression of war.

Returning to Kolkata, I want to share the one emotion that overwhelms me while I stand before you. That is: how enormously fortunate you are – all of you before me who know Bengali as their mother-tongue – to have grown up speaking, reading and writing the language which Rabindranath Tagore used. The blessing you have received by being at home in Bengali as your mother-tongue cannot be overestimated. I began learning Bengali at Santiniketan when I had already crossed thirty years. I wanted to read the Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita and Rabindranath’s poems. For several years I made a sincere effort to learn Bengali as perfectly as possible – to enter into the depth of Rabindranath’s emotions and his subconscience. All I can say is that I am still learning after spending thirty years at Santiniketan using the language every day. Nothing – nothing! – can compensate for that blessing of being born into Rabindranath’s language. Returning from abroad and entering Kolkata and its language again, I feel so humble realizing that I am and will continue to be a learner.

Please remember, Rabindranath Tagore, the great classic writer of Bengali language and literature, is your contemporary. He has experienced in his life-time many of the important transformations that have resulted in our modern age in India. He saw the beginning of industrialization and portrayed it in plays like mukta-dhara and rakta-karabi. He experienced urbanization, population explosion, the beginning of a movement towards greater freedom for women, towards the freedom from caste-sentiments, towards universal education, towards a democratization of society with greater justice for marginalized groups. Rabindranath already spoke, wrote and fought for these issues which are still so topical today.

Having realized this, turn to the classical writers of other countries: William Shakespeare lived in the 16th and early 17th century; Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire of France in the 19th century century; Dante of Italy even earlier, in the 13th and 14th century; and Germany’s Goethe lived in the 18th and early 19th century. None of them has shared the 20th century with us and witnessed modernity and became part of our contemporary consciousness. None of them can directly guide us in our modern dilemmas and confusions – except Rabindranath Tagore.

The grace of a birth inside Rabindranth’s charmed circle does not, however, come without its challenges and responsibilities. This jubilee year and this convocation give us the opportunity to reflect on how true we have been to the core concerns of the Poet. Rabindranath wanted, for himself, for his children and for his society, an education which was unfettered by the kind of “achievement” and “success” which can be measured in numbers and collected in examination halls. He wanted an education which was creative, which did not only inform and acquire knowledge, but also inspire and build character. Looking at our present education in India we have to humbly admit how much we have failed our Poet. The boys and girls in our villages and towns continue to memorize the data of knowledge and strive for little more than “numbers”. The term “by-hearting” is particularly cruel because it has nothing to do with the heart. We may argue that the kind of education Rabindranath wanted can be afforded only by privileged children who need not struggle for jobs and a livelihood. But we have even lost the vision for the meaning of life if our only ambition is to become medical doctors, engineers, government employees and men or women of finance and business.

Rabindra-Bharati is the university which needs to be the trail-blazer for advocating a greater balance between the demands of the job-market and the demands of the heart. It must demonstrate that a proficiency in literature and the arts and an enthusiasm for creative activity can indeed lead to meaningful and remunerative professions. If we as Bengalis and Bengali-speaking persons enjoy the privilege of having Rabindranath Tagore as our guide, then we must feel urged to rethink our educational targets. At the least we can create areas of education in every school and College which are obligatory, yet are kept outside the purview of examinations. Some of you may know that at some distance from Santiniketan, a non-formal Santal school has been established by educated Santals with my support; it begins to be seen as a model institution because it combines the demands of gathering knowledge with a child’s desire for play, song, dance, for art and creative interaction.

After rabindric education, the second challenge and responsibility is to accept and emulate Rabindranath as an activist. What do I mean by this? Our radio programmes and television channels perform Rabindra Sangeet every day and sometimes several hours per day. This is indeed welcome as Tagore’s songs can mould our emotions and strengthen our moral fibre; they can make us more sensitive human beings. Which other people is so lucky as to possess such sophisticated and refined songs as their folk songs! Elsewhere folk songs are mostly rustic and sentimental. Our schools, youth clubs and theatre groups perform Tagore’s plays, we enjoy recitation competitions declaiming Tagore poems with passionate abandon. Indeed, we value Tagore the poet, the composer, the playwright and the author of novels and stories. Yet, we largely ignore the Tagore who reached out to the neighbouring villages with his rural reconstruction programmes. We know of Rabindranath’s love and pity for the village lease-holders on the East Bengal family estate. He poured out this love not only in his famous stories, but also in practical social work among his villagers. When Rabindranath settled in Santiniketan, he almost immediately founded his village work in neighbouring Sriniketan. For him it was quite unthinkable to build an ideal school with a few children mostly recruited from Kolkata while around him in the villages people lived in poverty and ignorance. Idealism can never see things in isolation.

So, by force of his moral sensitivity, Rabindranath Tagore became a social activist working patiently for the education, the human rights ,the good health, the self-confidence of the village population. Following him on that path is more difficult than just singing ekla cholo-re and reciting his poems. But if we are serious in loving and appreciating Rabindranath Tagore as we so often profess, we cannot avoid following him in his social action as well, even though it may be a lonely path.


This month of May marks the conclusion of a grand year celebrating the 150th year of Rabindranath’s birth. Not in our wildest imagination could we have expected the kind of response the Poet received worldwide! The Indian Government supported the commemorative efforts with generous funds – but money alone cannot generate the genuine and innovative interest that was witnessed in many countries in the last twelve months. Numerous anthologies and special numbers of journals have come out or are yet to appear. More and more professional translations of Tagore’s poetry and prose and plays are about to be published. The largest potential for innovation lies in the performance of Tagore’s songs and plays, his music dramas and in recitations. In music, theatre, and poetry readings, Rabindranath’s ideas and visions can be moulded according to contemporary needs and tastes without falsifying his original creative impulse. The stage is the place where Rabindranath’s images and narratives can most easily enwrap the viewer with their magic. Therefore my appeal in many fora has been to put Tagore on the stage more and more often. I am aware that I say this in that historical space where the young Rabindranath had first experimented with his stage charisma.

There have been many such efforts, especially outside India. The stage can comfortably offer opportunities of intercultural experiments and expressions. For example, two months ago, this University has in its hallowed courtyard witnessed the composition of a German music composer who took Rabindra Sangeet as his inspiration and created a long piece for a German choir. The choir members sang some Bengali words as well as a few song-lines in my German translation and repeated them like mantras while slowly surrounding the entire audience. Listening to the same words from all sides, the audience lived within a sound-space which gradually elevated them into a separate sphere of rapture. What can be more “rabindric” than creating such an atmosphere?

Elevation into a sphere of rapture was what European, especially German, audiences have been expecting all along from Rabindranath. In Germany the Indian poet was not the subject of a colonized country, he was not a representative of a country that was to be economically exploited. Rather, in Germany Tagore was what he essentially was: a romantic poet. He fell in line with the German tradition of Romanticism which had begun in the early 19th century. It was no coincidence that it was the same time German scholars “discovered” their interest in India and began to study her philosophy and mythology. Indian culture continued to be

associated with Romanticism in Germany, and Rabindranath was the final great figure in whom German Romanticism and India united. Did Rabindranath not himself imagine that he was a romantic writer, ever yearning for the Far Away, for an unknowable Beyond?

This affinity between German Romanticism with Rabindranath had become obvious from the moment Rabindranath set foot on German soil in 1921. After the Second World War, the German people were especially vulnerable. They had lost the war, lost many young men in its battles, they had sunk into an emotional and cultural crisis. Rabindranath arrived like a savior and relished this rôle which was a decidedly romantic one. We do not know what exactly Rabindranath had read of German Romanticism, except Heine, or of the country’s classical literature, except Goethe’s drama Faust. But we do know that he felt a deep attraction to the German romantic spirit as he mentioned it again and again.

Asked why I continue my life in India for the last almost forty years, staying at Santiniketan and writing on India, I come – being totally true to myself – to the same conclusion: because of India’s romantic sweep of emotionality. It bears a conviction which need not, and cannot, be legitimized by rational arguments. And it carries you upward and gives you that rapture which Rabindranath evoked in his finest poems.

I have considered myself privileged to be able, in spite of all the impediments and all my limitations, read and translate Rabindranath’s poetry. Sometimes I say to my Bengali friends – in half-jest – that by translating Rabindranath’s poems I enter his spirit more deeply than any other person who just reads them. Thus communing with Rabindranath’s jīban-debatā expressed in his poems has given me some of the happiest moments in my life. Sometimes it genuinely feels like “becoming” the poet and like myself writing his poem, though in German instead of in Bengali.

This is, however, one side of the coin, and I must admonish myself as well as others that we must not lose ourselves in romantic sentiments. They are indeed salutary to energize us, but we must not stop with them. In Europe, romantic feelings are looked upon nowadays with a certain suspicion. The last World War was fought with a surfeit of passion and ended in disaster. Any excess of emotions is dangerous. Therefore many intellectuals in the West have kept a distance from Rabindranath. They did not know the whole of him and his work. How could they? Rabindranath himself preferred to present his romantic side to the West.

Now the time has come to work towards an image of Rabindranath Tagore which encompasses his entire humanity and the whole gamut of his work. Let us say farewell to the old man with the long beard and the Sufi-cap and see the complementing and conflicting strands of Rabindranath’s character and work as well. He himself confessed to his restlessness – which is such a contrast to the cliché of a composed and contemplative man. Restlessness means the yearning for and a continuous discovery of new “material” with which to fire one’s creativity: new sense-impressions, novel emotions, encounters with new people. We cannot tie down the poet to his meditative moods. In order to discover Rabindranath’s fullness, we ourselves must grow.

Recently I have undertaken an interesting experiment: I made a comparison between Rabindranath and Goethe. All of a sudden I saw Rabindranath in a more distinct, but also more complex, light. Both, for example, were also artists – but Goethe always drew from nature, while Tagore used his imagination. Both were engaged in the theatre and in education. Tagore wrote many plays for the children of his school, while Goethe staged his dramas for the edification of the urban middle-class. Tagore founded a school and a University, while Goethe created no institution. However, his ideas on education were astonishingly similar to Tagore’s. Goethe had no talent for music, like Tagore did; however Goethe put great stress on the natural sciences with his explorations and experiments. Goethe wanted to understand and define the laws of nature. Tagore, too, showed interest in the natural sciences, he however preferred to observe the universe in order to marvel at the greatness of God’s creation…

I could go on and on. What I try to express is that by way of comparison we see both personalities in ever greater fullness, we enter the conficts and tensions within Rabindranath’s writing and personality. This gives us the opportunity to ourselves grow in our humanity and become full and mature human beings.

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