20 - 26 October 2011
Issue No. 1069
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875
Contemplating the contemplator
Cairo's Maulana Azad Centre for Indian Culture staged a exhibition to commemorate Rabindranath Tagore. Gamal Nkrumah feasts his eyes on India's Philatelic treasures
Cairo's Philatelic exhibition on Rabindranath Tagore may provoke a connoisseurial smirk or a knowing sneer to the uninitiated in the art of stamps issued by the postal departments of around 20 countries from across the globe. Satirists look at life's conventional scenes and see panoplies of penetration and discernment. The most resonant images portrayed in the philatelic objects on display are the sensational portraits of the first Asian Nobel Laureate himself. "The progress of our soul is like a perfect poem. It has an infinite idea which once realised makes all movement full of meaning and joy," so reflected Tagore on encountering Einstein. It was the proverbial meeting of the minds.
Tagore exerts a hypnotic grip on his Egyptian audience. His spectacular posturing offers a tableau of an extraordinary sensualist and a subtle hint of sensationalism.
In a rousing address before the visitors to this exceptionally moving exhibition, His Excellency Ambassador R Swaminathan of India paid special homage to the Rabindranath Tagore Centre, Indian Council for Cultural Relations, Kolkata.Sekhar Chakrabarti whose rare philatelic objects from his private collection were borrowed specifically for this unique Cairo exhibition best expressed the mood of the moment.Magically, the exhibition was staged masterfully at a defining moment in Egypt's history. Tagore would have been delighted, one suspects, at the spirit that Egypt's 25 January Revolution exuded. "Tagore was a universal thinker even though he was also a symbol and beacon of contemporary Bengali culture," Sekhar Chakrabarti mused.
Gurudev, literally "Teacher" as Tagore was endearingly called, promoted rural reconstruction including traditional arts and crafts. Equally disparaging was the attitudes of the rich towards the poor. The immense income differentials and social inequalities, disparities in social prestige and economic wellbeing between castes and classes were the hallmarks of Indian society under British rule. That crisis touched him deeply.Tagore was born into a life of privilege and wealth. Yet abject poverty was all around him. Human suffering was an inescapable facet of everyday life in rural Bengal.All art aspires to the condition of creation. And, Tagore understood that truism all too well. His lessons cannot get lost in the cornucopia of kantha. What humans the world over find innately inspiring and touching has changed little over time. Therefore we can today emphasize with images made more than a century ago even when their original contexts have faded.The common themes are catharsis and the remaking of an individual's and a nation's vision.
The time for geopolitical caution is past. Tagore was received rapturously by Egyptians when he visited the country in 1926, and especially the cultural and political elite.
Bengal's celebrated bard spoke to a packed two houses of parliament and he had a memorable encounter with the foremost Egyptian poet Ahmed Shawki. It metamorphosed into a story of a friendship between two men of letters but who are from different worlds, but share common concerns.
Tagore encounter with Shawki was touching without going gooey, though. India and Egypt were unsuited for the role in which modern history had cast them -- colonies of Britain. Both countries were haunted by their great past and ancient glories and yet were bedeviled by the fear of a failed future. Yet, there was hope of redemption, of emancipation from colonial oppression and a yearning for a return to a golden age of freedom.
By many standards Tagore is one of the titans of modern India. His correspondence is of great importance both in the historical and literary sense. Few other poets can match his elegant, lapidary style and this shines through in his letters. "Receiving letters was an important impetus for collecting stamps in the past. Now everyone uses social networking and the Internet as the main means of communication."
In many ways this exhibition, of course, is perfectly timed. The lustre of the personal correspondence of Tagore has not been tarnished by the seismic events that engulfed South Asia like a tsunami. Bengal was divided in two, India was partitioned, and then Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan.
A constant menace in Tagore's long life was the peril of bereavement that was grotesquely inextricably intertwined with beauty. The beautiful ones passed away in the very apogee of youthful vivaciousness. When you read Tagore, you do have to contemplate the contemplator, sharing with him his loss and pain and the subsequent overcoming of anguish. His poems alone are captivating capturing the serene miraculousness of being.Tagore was not merely a starry-eyed poet. His sister-in-law Kadambari Devi committed suicide in 1884, a year after Tagore himself was betrothed to his beloved Mrinalini Devi.
Mrinalini Devi breathed her last in 1902, only to be succeeded by the passing of Tagore's second daughter Renuka in 1903. The death of his father followed in 1905 and then his youngest son Samindranath died in 1907. But his finest works were yet to be produced. Few thinkers of the past three centuries have crafted literature more pertinent than Tagore.
In Egypt we bury our dead. In India things are different. This cultural discrepancy manifests itself in all sorts of ways. Yet Tagore's magic was universal. He was, after all, the first non-Westerner as well as the first Asian to be bestowed the Nobel Prize.
Tagore did not see the tormented turn on the tormentor. In 19010 his magnum opus Gitanjili was published to international acclaim. This was the chef d'oeuvre that earned him the Nobel Prize. Tagore wrote a poem on Africa entitled Africa, the Sleeping Giant. His visionary insight was matched by his epic sweep.
Patriotic postcards of Tagore, like his prose and poetry, struck a chord with people all over the world. The suffering appalled him, the humiliating indignities of a subject people. He was sickened by the inexplicable inequalities.A mood of catharsis prevailed. Tagore espoused a universalistic spirit and he was by nature an internationalist. The Bengal's historical rich cultural heritage became, paradoxically, more entrenched in the poet as he became more conscious of the common concerns of humanity.
Heart-rendingly, Tagore wrote about life and death, suffering and enjoyment, beauty and ugliness -- life in all its kaleidoscopic facets.
His works were written for eternity, for his words speak directly to every age. They were told to perfection.As in so many areas of Indian life, the art of kantha reflects a down-to-earth culture. It is of the daughters and sons of the soil.What is so special about Tagore's secularist philosophy is the moral legitimacy lent mankind.
Whether it will benefit Egypt at this particular historical moment is more doubtful. Now and then one is struck by the antediluvian quality of inter-faith relations in India, or South Asia if you will. "Progressive intellectuals" and the powers that be often endorse the confrontational rhetoric of religious zealots, and those who advocate and espouse confessionalism and sectarianism. So can Egyptians learn something from Tagore? Ironically, the religious strife that is ripping the country apart has intensified since the Tagore exhibition was staged in Cairo. There were few things that made the great Bengali sage feel grimmer than religious-instigated violence.
The vitriol had a xenophobic edge. It is not just the interim post-25 January Revolution government that detects an organising hand behind the unrest in contemporary Egypt.
What makes this so jarring is that the legendary bard foresaw the division of his homeland, and tasted the bitter partition of his beloved Bengal. How could he deliver exuberance, vivacity and even euphoria in such a morbid setting?
Tagore stayed out of the political squabbles of his time. However, he was anything but apolitical.
Tagore was for emancipation, liberation of mankind and that certainly included womankind. "Rabindranath's role in the liberation of Bengali women was a seminal one," declares Kathleen O'Connell who conducts courses on South Asia at New College, University of Toronto, Canada. "Initially, he exposed the plight of women and argued for their autonomy through his letters, short stories and essays. Through his novels he was able to construct new and vital female role models to inspire a new generation of Bengali women. Later, by his act of admitting females into his Santiniketan school, he became an innovator pioneer in co-education," O'Connell concludes.
So why not keep going? Women are often fettered by the confines of tradition. Tagore championed the free mixing of the sexes and abhorred the Bengali practice of confining women to purdah. "It is only natural that men and women should seek amusement together. Women are a part of the human race and God has created them as part of society. To consider the enjoyment of free mixing between people to be a
cardinal sin, to be unsociable and to turn it into a sensational matter is not only abnormal, it is unsocial and therefore in a sense uncivilised," wrote Tagore so insightfully observed.
The muse of the moving image of Tagore's characters fill the kantha scenes. Do not expect old postcards and faded pictures of purists popping out of ashrams with sad and saucy lines from poets other than Tagore.
Tagore had no political axe to grind. It was in Bengal that the latent resentments and religious tensions that manifested themselves most bitterly.
Bangladesh fought a bitter war with Pakistan to attain its own independence and the quest for Bangladeshi emancipation and political liberation was inspired by the country's pride in its national language.
Kazi Najrul Islam, born in West Bangal, but widely considered the national poet of Bangladesh, considered Tagore his guru. He developed a highly stylized form of nationalistic, revolutionary poem -- songs to inspire the people. Ironically, his wife was Hindu.
People must be prepared for this possibility in Egypt as surely as in Bengal. Perhaps even more challenging is the refreshing of the traditional mindset in both Egypt and Bengal in a contemporary setting.
And, kantha just as surely as song inspires the Bengali people. Kantha work uses the "running stitch" to create beautiful motifs on fabric. Bengali women traditionally make quilts from old, worn out saris.
Tagore passed away in 1941, but his literary achievement is there for posterity, for generations to come. This is an issue that India knows well. And, this year Egypt was invited to share something of this understanding.
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