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In the middle of the cricket World Cup, that concluded last month, a small newspaper report appeared amid the cricket clutter. This too was on cricket, but it mentioned Rabindranath Tagore in the headline: Odd bedfellows, it seemed, considering that the Nobel laureate had died over four decades before India’s first World Cup win at Lord’s in 1983. Tagore, the report went on to mention, was enjoying an unprecedented omnipresence in World Cup matches involving three countries.

A portrait of Rabindranath Tagore taken in Singapore, 1927.

“Jana Gana Mana and the Sri Lankan national anthem are based on the same raga too," explains Supriya Roy, who is curating an exhibition of photographs, text, poems and manuscripts titled Rabindranath Tagore: Pilgrimages to the East, which opens on Monday to coincide with Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary. A letter from Ananda Samarakoon, the composer of the Sri Lankan anthem, to Tagore is in the possession of the Tagore archives of Visva-Bharati University, Roy says

In it, Samarakoon—a former student at Tagore’s Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan who was moved by Rabindrasangeet to create the modern Geeta Sahitya music style in Sri Lanka—expresses gratitude to Tagore and hopes the Sri Lankan song “pleases" him.

Beginning with his first visit to Japan in 1916, and subsequent visits in 1924 and 1929, Tagore took months off from his busy schedule in Santiniketan and Kolkata to make significant journeys to Asian countries and cultures: China (1924), Burma (1916, 1924 and 1927), Singapore (1916, 1924 and 1927), Java and Bali (1927), Malaysia (1924 and 1927), Thailand (1927), Vietnam (1929), Iran and Iraq (1932), and Sri Lanka (1922, 1928 and 1934).

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The visit to Sri Lanka in 1934 would be the last foreign tour of the first Asian Nobel Prize winner, ending a long and passionate tradition of travelling which began when Tagore took the ship to England at the age of 17. “It is only in our country that people ask why a man should go somewhere without reason," Tagore wrote in a letter explaining his wanderlust. The letter was published in the essay On the Eve of Departure in the book Towards Universal Man edited by Humayun Kabir. “The natural desire to travel is something that we cannot understand. We are so strongly tied to our homes, and the very thought of moving out is so much inhibited by fear of the inauspicious and tears of parting, that the world has slipped away from our purview. Our kinfolk make such a close circle that all who are beyond it appear unrelated."

The voyager: Tagore at Borobudur, Java, in 1927.

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At the Santiniketan home of Roy, a retired librarian and archivist at Rabindra Bhavana, the Tagore Memorial Museum Archives and Research Centre of Visva-Bharati University, a large wall-mounted painting vies for attention with stacks of books, artistic knick-knacks, an unfinished canvas and the cuddle-seeking family dog. Artist Nisar Hossain’s painting is a portrait of Ituko Kasahara, Roy’s benign and wizened Japanese mother-in-law, and her grandchildren.

The archivist: Supriya Roy has been researching on Tagore’s travels in Asia.

“I, along with the rest of Asia, did once admire and look up to Japan and did once fondly hope that in Japan, Asia had at last discovered its challenge to the West…," Tagore wrote in a letter to Rashbehari Bose, the Indian revolutionary leader, encapsulating his thoughts on how a newly powerful Japan would safeguard the culture of the East. “But Japan has not taken long to betray that rising hope," Tagore added.

Tagore was getting ever more critical of the steady Westernization of Japanese traditional society; the chauvinistic nationalism of some of its leaders and Japan’s military aggression in China, from which the poet disassociated himself. In a publicized spat in 1938 through an exchange of letters with Yone Noguchi, the influential Japanese poet, Tagore wrote: “You are building your conception of Asia which would be raised on a tower of skulls. I have believed in the message of Asia, but I never dreamt that this message could be identified with deeds which brought exaltation to the heart of Tamerlane at his terrible efficiency in manslaughter."

That Tagore had firmly invested his hope on the humanist and artistic practices of Japan can be understood from the steady stream of Japanese visitors to Santiniketan and Kolkata—the art scholar Okakura Kakuzo who, according to Tagore’s son Rathindranath Tagore, “oriented the minds of intellectuals in Bengal towards a healthy nationalism"; the artists Taikan and Hishida, who taught Japanese brushstrokes and wash techniques; the woodwork artist Kimtaro Kasahara; and the wrestler Takagaki Shinzo, who was invited to teach judo and martial arts to students.

At home in the world: (clockwise from above) Tagore on his way to China in 1924; with students at a girls’ college in Karuizawa, Japan, in 1916; at the tomb of Hafez in Iran in 1932; and inaugurating a road in Java, Tagorestraat, in 1932.

In China, Tagore revelled in the spirit of a country that had captivated his imagination since childhood. It was partially a result, Roy contends, of Tagore’s belief in the two great ancient civilizations, India and China, and his fascination for Buddhism. She props up her statement with an anecdote of how Tagore, a Brahmo Hindu who did not believe in idol worship, had “spontaneously genuflected" in front of the Buddha idol in Bodh Gaya. “When it came to China, he was both aware and sympathetic," says Roy. Nevertheless, his 1924 visit to China was marked by rancour and protests by a section of the student community. At a time when the country was witnessing the early stirrings of Communism, Tagore’s spiritual discourse went against the fledgling political momentum. Protest leaflets were distributed at his lectures and his speeches were interrupted often. The situation became so bad that after delivering two lectures, Tagore called off his seven-lecture schedule in Beijing, even though in Nanjing, the auditorium balcony was at the risk of collapsing under the weight of the audience. The China episode made Tagore comment that “they are determined to misunderstand me".

“It is possible that a section of the student community in China felt that Tagore’s message was regressive. That Tagore, through his work, was a revolutionary himself in India is something that they tragically missed," says Roy.

On Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary, Roy says, the China trip is being reassessed and the previous misunderstanding is making way for a renewed understanding of Tagore’s love for the country. “The complete works of Tagore have been translated into Chinese and a detailed documentation on what Tagore had to say about China throughout his life has been completed. His love for China is at last being vindicated," says Roy.

It might also vindicate Tan Yun-Shan’s faith and belief in the person he deemed to be the “Gurudeva of humanity". It was in Singapore in 1927 that Tagore met Tan Yun-Shan, the young Chinese teacher who later started teaching the language at Visva-Bharati; an association that led to the formation of the Indian branch of the Sino-Indian Cultural Society in 1937 and the founding of the Cheena Bhavana in Visva-Bharati, which continues to house one of the most important libraries on classical Chinese study in India. “When I saw Rabindranath, I at once found in him the very representative and symbol of the Buddha’s country," Tan Yun-Shan wrote in a 1941 essay.

In 1921, Tagore established Visva-Bharati, his idealized educational institution in Santiniketan based on the motto: Where the world makes a home in a single nest. The motto seems apt for a visionary who often allegorized his wanderlust with the idea of birds, wings and flapping. “For wings stiffened by disuse, the joy in sheer flying is beyond comprehension," Tagore wrote once to elucidate his craving for distant shores.

Around 200km from Kolkata, in the rural district of Birbhum, Visva-Bharati would soon turn into a global cultural cauldron, with Tagore arranging for research in Islamic and Zoroastrian studies, and courses offered in Chinese literature, Persian, Japanese, old Persian, Islamic culture and history, Indo-Iranian philology, Turkish and the history of Turkey. Visva-Bharati, according to Tagore’s description to Mahatma Gandhi, was “a vessel that carries the cargo of my life’s best treasures".

His trip to Asian countries such as Malaysia in 1927 somewhat assuaged the state of financial crisis that perpetually hounded Visva-Bharati, says Roy. Tagore was advised by friends in Malaysia to visit the country when the prices of rubber—a widely produced commodity there—increased and probable donors had more cash in hand. The hugely successful “fund-raising trip", says Roy, was also a particularly tiring one. Tagore was pursued by fans everywhere he went and requested to deliver speeches extempore. “I too get down and start talking like one of those popcorn machines in the USA where popcorn keeps bubbling out of its mouth," Tagore reported on his trip.

Today, like the “remnants of old India" he observed in Bali, nuggets of the Asian cultures Tagore carried back with him continue to embellish life in Visva-Bharati—in the subtle hints of South-East Asian architectural patterns that decorate some buildings; in the Javanese elements inherent in the choreography of Tagore’s dance dramas; or in the batik prints worn by students—a printing style carried over from Indonesia for the first time by Tagore’s entourage and introduced in India.

The connections he made between the cultures of India and other Asian countries were often serendipitous. While travelling in Bali, home to ancient Hindu practices and artistic traditions, Tagore was hamstrung by the language barriers he faced with his fellow traveller, a tribal chief. Captivated by the sheer beauty of the place, Tagore was seeking compensation in the fact that “nature here does not speak Balinese" when suddenly, at the sight of the sea, the tribal chief muttered “samudra". In the island that Tagore felt “India itself had forgotten", the tribal chief would go on to mention Sanskrit and Indian language synonyms for the sea.

For some, the multicultural influences that streamed through Tagore can be gauged easily through his distinctive style of dressing: the long robe strongly pointing towards Iran, a country he visited along with Iraq, in 1932. While Tagore admired the communal harmony he witnessed in Iran, King Faisal of Iraq would assure him of Muslim-Hindu amity in India, saying: “The strained relationship is a temporary situation. During the reawakening of a people in a country, the many communities become acutely conscious of their distinctive nature and identity and intensify their efforts to maintain them. But soon enough this impulse would decelerate and the communities would be more relaxed."

He was a traveller who claimed to “feel homesick for the outside world". And when it came to his frequent visits to Asian countries, Roy feels there were a number of reasons. “On closer scrutiny, it is found that all these strands converge at one point, Visva-Bharati." He wanted the Asian countries to participate in the creation of this university and re-establish the spiritual and cultural ties that existed between India and other Asian countries. Visva-Bharati complemented Tagore’s mission to “create an Asian mind".

Most of the information for the article has been sourced from three books: Talks in Japan (published by Shizen, 2007), Journey to Persia and Iraq (Visva-Bharati, 2003) and Letters from Java—Tagore’s Tour of Southeast Asia (Visva-Bharati, 2010)

Rabindranath Tagore: Pilgrimages to the East will be on at the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), Kolkata, from 9 May-10 June. It will then travel to Thailand and other Asian countries.

Photographs are courtesy Visva-Bharati Publication Department, Kolkata.

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