In 1942, the famous Polish children’s author, Janusz Korczak, who ran an orphanage, chose Rabindranath Tagore’s ডাকঘর, The Post Office as a play to be performed by a group of orphans living within a Warsaw ghetto in Poland. This was weeks before they were sent to their deaths.The story is that of a terminally ill young boy, Amal– excluded from the rest of the world, by his illness, much like those within the ghetto were excluded because of their religious beliefs.Korczak wished to brighten life for the children while they waited for the inevitable.
This is proof of how far his name had travelled within a mere year of his passing – from the sunlight and freedom of his beloved Santiniketan to an orphanage in war ravaged Europe, where children were dying, often more than 10 in a single day.
The 151st birth anniversary of the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for literature, approaches in less than a week. Thanks to thousands of individuals and organisations as large as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), this will not pass unnoticed..
The celebrations include performances of his plays and songs and conferences. The 150th anniversary was marked by auctions of paintings and memorabilia and the release of commemorative stamps by countries all over the world.
While Tagore visited over 30 countries across five continents, his work by way of translations has travelled much more widely. A group of Chinese Tagore scholars are completing the mammoth task of translating his complete works from Bengali into Chinese.
Jyotirmoy Datta has taught Tagore and other Indian literature at the University of Chicago. He has said that beauty of Tagore’s works is capable of reaching out to people across cultures and that the question of the language or quality of translation becomes superficial.
The reverence offered to Tagore who was the composer of the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh is similar to that accorded to a spiritual guide or the leader of a religious order. People quote his poetry, perform his plays, and read and analyse his prose. The major Bengali festival of Durga Puja is marked by the release of albums of his work by a range of artists.
The relevance of Rabindranath Tagore remains as strong as ever in the world that he wished to see as one and “not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.”(চিত্ত যেথা ভয়শূন্য, উচ্চ যেথা শির/ Where The Mind Is Without Fear)
The English translation of Gitanjali, first published in March 1913, had already been reprinted 10 times by November of that year, when the Nobel Prize was announced. Tagore’s handsome figure. bearded and dressed in exotic robes was compared to “a powerful and gentle Christ.”
Unfortunately by the time he revisited Europe in 1920, he was shunned by those who had idolised him in 1913. The reason for this difference was possibly his vocal criticism of imperial rule and his rejection of knighthood after the Jalianwala Bagh massacre in 1919. “At that time for a figure of his stature speaking out against the empire was new,” Mr. Datta says, adding that it was as if someone had risen and “shamed the world order.”
Tagore’s first visit to Germany in 1921 on the other hand saw the people welcome him as an icon of resurrection. According to Mr Datta, “It was because he was regarded as a symbol of resurgence, of the indomitable spirit of man.”
Even though it is not possible to expect this love of Tagore to attain him bestselling status outside India, particularly as the readers of serious literature in all times are as rule relatively few, the publishing history of his works show that Tagore is regarded quite seriously. In the 100 years that the copyright was applicable on his translated works in the West, no less than 56 editions have been printed.
Each chapter of Elisabeth Kubler Ross’ seminal work, On Death and Dying, which is thought to be a classic of psychiatry begins with a quote from Tagore, which indicates the extent of his influence.
It has been said that Tagore is the second most widely translated foreign author after Shakespeare in China where he is called “Chu Chen Tan,” the thunder and sunlight of India, a literal translation of his name in Bengali.Translating Tagore is almost a 100-year-old tradition in China. Chen Duxiu, one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party, published four poems from Gitanjali (An Offering of Songs) in Xin Qing Nian (New Youth) in 1915.
For the first time, Tagore’s complete works are being translated directly from Bengali into Chinese by Dong Youchen and his team. The first five volumes, being published by Renmin Publishing House, were published in May 2011, to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth, and all 24 volumes are expected to see the light of the day by 2015. (photo and link below)
Recently a FB group that I am a part of hosted a celebration of Rabindranath Tagore’s work at an evening of song and poetry in Kolkata. This is one of hundreds of such groups dedicated to spreading awareness and an appreciation of his work.
Another friend has posted about an event happening in the seat of English literature as far as I am concerned, Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford. With the help of Shakespeare Aloud actors and Prantik friends, Obhi and Kaberi Chatterjee will be telling the Story of the Gitanjali. This year is the 100th anniversary of the first publication of Tagore’s English Gitanjali, the main collection of poetry for which he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.(photo and link given below)