Essay On 150th Birth Anniversary Of Rabindranath Tagore Short

Inner Eye's logo for the 150th birth anniversary of Tagore

In less than two weeks, it will be the 150th birth anniversary of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who was born on 7 May 1861. Strictly speaking, his birthday was on the 25th of the Bengali month Boishakh, which is the first month of the Bengali calendar. This is not always the same date in the Gregorian calendar. The Bengali New Year (poila Boishakh) is celebrated by Bangladesh on 14 April and by Bengalis in India on 15 April.

Since setting up the Tagore150 Facebook page and the @tagore150 Twitter account last year, I have been thrilled to discover and relay the activities that people all over the world are organising to celebrate the anniversary. I’ve also seen that, every hour, many people are tweeting Tagore quotes in various languages. This is especially impressive since, apart from being written at least 70 years ago, the majority of Tagore’s work still hasn’t been translated from Bengali.

It is no surprise to me that Tagore’s words resonate with people all over the world, even today. Much of his writing is based on his observation of human nature, and is in a style which is both timeless and universal.

For our own contribution to the birth anniversary celebrations, Kaberi and I have been busy making film versions of his dance-dramas Chandalika (1933) – see trailer below – and Chitrangada (1936).  We filmed them in Tagore’s home town of Santiniketan in December and January respectively with the help of a very talented team of singers, dancers and musicians who are based there. We are especially fortunate that, for both productions, Subhra Tagore agreed to be the dance director and production designer and that Bulbul Bose agreed to be the music director.

Chandalika will have its world premiere on 8 May in Stratford-upon-Avon as the concluding event of the Tagore weekend being organised by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust – see details below. Dr Shamimul Moula, one of our Facebook fans who is based in Bangladesh, has very kindly drawn our attention to a paper by Dhriti Rai Dalai and Panchanan Dalai which explores the connection between Chandalika and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, as well as possibly A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For more background about Chandalika, you may also find this paper by Sutapa Chaudhuri worth reading.

Here is the programme for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Tagore weekend. To reserve a place at any of the events in the Tagore weekend, please email or call 01789 204016.

Saturday, 7th May

3pm Tagore-style tree-planting ceremony (brikkhoropon)
Celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of the Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore with a dance procession and tree planting ceremony led by Kaberi Chatterjee at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage to commemorate his birth.
Anne Hathaway’s Cottage

Sunday, 8th May

1pm Celebrating Tagore
Join Kaberi, Jayanta & Obhi Chatterjee and friends at Tagore’s bust in the garden of Shakespeare’s Birthplace for a special musical ceremony commemorating Tagore’s birth.
Shakespeare’s Birthplace Garden

2.30pm Tea with Tagore
Join Obhi Chatterjee as he recites excerpts from Tagore’s poetry. Diana Owen, Director of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust will speak about the influences of Shakespeare on Tagore. Refreshments will follow.
Tickets are £7.50 (£5 Friends)
The Shakespeare Centre, 2.30pm

7.30pm Chandalika – world première
World première of Obhi Chatterjee’s feature film version of ‘Chandalika’, one of Tagore’s three dance-dramas. Introduced by Kaberi and Obhi Chatterjee, with live dance illustrations, and followed by a question-and-answer session.
Tickets are £5. They are available inside the Stratford-upon-Avon Picturehouse at Windsor Place, online or by calling the booking line: 0871 902 5741.
Stratford-upon-Avon Picturehouse Cinema

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The significant anniversary of a dead writer often reveals as much about current tastes and fashions of critics and audiences as about the artist. So it is with Rabindranath Tagore.

These are the last days of the 150th birth anniversary of one of the most remarkable poets and thinkers produced by India, or indeed the world. Even that grand description does not do him justice. He was also a composer who provided the national anthem for not one but two countries (India and Bangladesh), the first Asian to win the Nobel prize for literature and the founder of a school and a university, both of which are still going, in Santiniketan, West Bengal. As the title of one excellent biography puts it, he was a myriad-minded man – the kind of figure a nation probably gets only once in its life (see also Goethe and Tolstoy). Yet the scant press coverage accorded to him this past year has, ironically, focused on why he is so neglected. "Who reads Rabindranath Tagore now?" sniffed the Times Literary Supplement last year.

An interesting question, but one that betrays its author's parochialism. Because the poet isn't ignored in his native Bengal, where middle-class family homes routinely contain some Tagoreana, whether a portrait, one of his own paintings, or CDs of Rabindrasangeet (his songs form a genre of their own). Publishers such as Harvard and Hesperus have brought out valuable editions of his work. And while the British literary calendar has not been bursting with Tagore celebrations, his anniversary has prompted festivals, concerts, revivals of his plays and, at Cumberland Lodge this Wednesday, a conference on his educational thought. Tagore may no longer have the (slightly suspect) popularity he gained among the likes of WB Yeats and Ezra Pound before the first world war, but he retains his devotees.

And rightly so. Thanks to translators such as William Radice and Ketaki Kushari Dyson, English readers can get a clearer sense of the pleasures in his work. With some historical imagination, they can also appreciate its achievement. Tagore was an Indian subject of a British monarch, adding to a literature dominated by Hindu mythologies. Yet rather than struggle within these personal and artistic constraints, he broke free of them. His work didn't reel off the deities, but revelled in human life and nature. Nor did his colonial status deter him from both criticising the British and urging Indians to learn from the west.

His life is thus an object lesson in how an artist, or anyone, can reimagine the possibilities handed down to them. Tagore has been logged in British cultural memory as a mystic, but he was too energetic, inventive, provocative for that. His 150th anniversary is as good a time as any for readers to rediscover just how various and interesting a man Tagore was.

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