Rabindranath Tagore was the pride of India. He was a poet, philosopher, playwright, musician and artist of world renown. He greatly influenced Indian art, literature and music through his creative genius. He was born into a Hindu (Brahmin) well-to-do orthodox family on May 07, 1861 in Bengal, India. His mother died when he was quite young. He was literally raised by ayahs (servants) because his rich father was always busy and had little time for him.
Tagore lived during the time of the British Raj in India and, through his writings, he would be among the influential leaders advocating the freedom of India. Tagore, at the beginning, wrote only in Bengali which kind of limited his influence to his native Bengal—or more particularly, to Kolkata, which was then also the capital of India. However, matters would change for him after 1913, when he became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature for his magnificent collection of poems (in English) “Gitanjali” (Offering of Songs) that caught the attention of the literary world by storm.
“Gitanjali” was hailed as “spiritual and mercurial” by critics worldwide. Tagore became a celebrity and his name a household name in India. All India soon came to know that their illustrious countryman had achieved something “Big”; something “Great!” His winning the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature was an unprecedented honour for an “Indian.” And, indeed, it was. It was no mean feat! So much so, when India finally achieved independence from British rule in August, 1947, free India chose one of Tagore’s compositions in (Bengali): “Jana Mana Gana…” as its national anthem. Decades later, when East Pakistan – now Bangladesh – broke away from Pakistan and declared its own independence, it too chose a poem of Tagore in Bengali (“Amar Shonar Bangla…”) as its national anthem. By the way, even Sri Lanka’s anthem is inspired by a Tagore poem.
In 1961, Mauritius would become “Tagore country” and his name a household name. In fact, that year was the centennial year of Tagore’s birth anniversary and his many admirers in Mauritius decided to mark the occasion in a big way – in a manner befitting the glory and fame of the great genius Tagore was.
Under the impetus of that group of admirers, led by, among others, Dr. Seewoosagur Ramgoolam ; Somduth Bhuckory – a gifted poet and writer in Hindi; (Dr.) Nandkishore Nundlall, the first Mauritian graduate in Indian Music and Arts; Kissoonsingh Hazareesingh, prominent civil servant and famed author and great fan of Tagore, and who would also write a doctoral thesis on the poet, decided to celebrate the occasion as “at the national level.“ Accordingly, a National Committee was struck with Dr. S. Ramgoolam as Chair and Prof. Ram Prakash, Supervisor of Indian languages in Mauritius, as Secretary with several stalwarts of the Indian community as members.
The initiative also soon aroused interest across the island. Regional committees were formed all over the island, including my own village of Goodlands, where a group of young enthusiasts, led by the late Jagdeesh Fokeer, formed the “Goodlands Tagore Centennial Celebrations Committee” to commemorate the poet’s birth anniversary. I had the privilege to be chosen President of that Committee.
I was then in my early twenties and was the youngest person to hold such a position at the regional level. As such, I participated in the meetings of the National Committee attended by some of the big shots of the Indo-Mauritian cultural community and also presided over the commemorative celebrations put on by our own local Committee at KING’S Cinema in Goodlands on the evening June 22, 1961 in front of a full house and under the “distinguished patronage” of His Excellency, the Commissioner of India in Mauritius, H. E. Mr. Mustapha Kidwai – the first and so far the only Indian Muslim appointed to the position by the Government of India.
The National Committee’s gala celebration was held at the Plaza Theatre, Rose Hill, in May the same year. It was a colourful event and was a phenomenal success. The programme comprised the staging of a play by Tagore – Amal or The Post Office — and also recitations of his poems as well as a concert of Rabindra Sangeet (music and songs) beautifully arranged, choreographed and performed by local artists. The event became the talk of the town.
The celebrations, however, did not end there but continued for weeks across the island. The Youth of rural Mauritius took turns to pay, in their own way, their tribute to the memory of the great Indian poet. Indeed, Tagore’s centennial celebrations became an unprecedented cultural event in the annals of Indian art and culture in Mauritius. Nothing of the sort has been replicated since.
The historic tribute to Tagore by our Youth of Goodlands was a milestone in itself. The programme comprised, among others:
(a) an Exhibition of books (courtesy of Indian High Commission in Mauritius);
(b) the screening of a documentary film on Tagore’s life and work at King’s Cinema for the benefit of the students of the local schools and colleges of our area; and
(c) the staging of “CHITRA” – the one-Act play of Tagore.
The celebrations lasted three days.
We were all novices and crude at what we were attempting to do then. However, what we lacked in experience, we complemented with our youthful enthusiasm. And, led by my late friend, Jagdeesh Fokeer, who was the driving force behind our team, we put out our heart to the task and we pulled it off – beautifully! The celebration turned out to be greatest cultural event ever held by the Youth of Goodlands.
The staging of the play “CHITRA” by our Group impressed everyone so much so that Prof. Ram Prakash, the Secretary of the “National Tagore Centennial Celebrations Committee,” who attended our function, invited our Group to do a repeat performance at the Plaza Theatre, Rose Hill, before a select elite audience. We were only too happy to oblige. We accepted the challenge and, with the help of friends and well-wishers, we again put on a memorable performance. Sure, it was all a long time ago now! A lot of water has since gone under the bridge — so to say! Many of the friends who helped and participated in the event are no more to-day but their memories live on. “Rabindranath Tagore”, thanks to them and their enthusiasm, became by then in Goodlands as it, indeed, did in Mauritius– a household name!
“Gitanjali” is Tagore’s masterpiece and his best known work in the West. It is a collection of timeless poems. As one reads his poetry one feels the impact of the beauty of his words, loftiness of his thoughts and feelings intimately. His command of the English language, his choice of imageries, metaphors and similes just keeps us mesmerized. Indeed, reading Tagore is intensely fulfilling and invigorating. A couple of his poems from “Gitanjali,” picked randomly, amply illustrate the point:
“Life of my life, I shall ever try to keep my body pure, knowing that thy living touch is upon all my limbs.
I shall ever try to keep all untruths out of my thoughts, knowing that thou art that truth which has kindled the light of reason in my mind.
I shall ever try to drive all evils away from my heart and keep my love in flower, knowing that thou hast thy seat in the inmost shrine of my heart.
And it shall be my endeavor to reveal thee in my actions, knowing it is thy power gives me strength to act.”
Or for that matter, the following from the same collection reverberates the fervour of his realm of freedom which, as he beautifully puts it, is:
“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world is not broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection; Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever widening thought and action –
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake!”
Rabindranath Tagore died in August, 1941. He was eighty years old. After his memorable centennial celebration, Mauritius would keep his name alive in the “Rabindranath Tagore Institute” at Ilot, d’Epinay, near Pamplemousses. It was, indeed, a fitting tribute to the memory of not only the great poet, philosopher and also the great Guru (Master) he was. As is well known, Tagore converted his dad’s estate of Shanti Niketan in Kolkota into an open-air university – the Viswa-Bharati University, which was a great success.
Also, it is interesting to add that Rabindranath Tagore was knighted by the British Government in May, 1919. However, he vehemently renounced the honour in protest of the horrible massacre committed by the British forces only a few weeks earlier – that is, on April 13, 1919 — on unarmed Indians: men, women and children, during a peaceful a protest march at Jalianwala Bagh in Punjab.