Tagore’s Sense of Wonder in Indonesia:
Rereading his Letters from a Traveller to Java

Amiya Dev

Tagore at Borobudur, Java, 1927


[These letters (Java-Jatrir Patra in the original), written between the middle of July and the very early October of 1927, are not a mere chronicle of Tagore’s visit to Indonesia. For that we would do better to look up his travel companion, Suniti Kumar Chatterji’s book Rabindra-Samgame Dvipamay Bharat o Syam-Desh (Island India and Siam in Rabindranath’s company). Written to a few select persons tuned to his cast of mind, Tagore’s twenty-one letters are also in part intimate journals—his classic in that respect having been Chinnapatra (loose leaves) written much earlier to a niece.

Eighty-five years ago Indonesia came alive to Tagore, not merely as a repository of some strands of Indian culture of yore but also as an indigenous culture, remarkable for her love of ritual and art. What struck him most was her primacy of dance, as if dance was her natural language. The letters are full of it. Indeed the letters carry a sense of wonder in meeting a people so familiar and yet so unfamiliar, that have taken so much and yet have so much to give.

It is this sense of wonder that I propose to trace in rereading these letters.— 18 October 2012]

If we ride the time-machine and go eighty-five years back, then on this day, 18 October, we would have a glimpse of Rabindranath Tagore at Penang ready to sail back after a three-month visit to Singapore and Malay, Indonesia, and Siam, that is, Thailand. In fact on 19 October he boarded the Calcutta-bound Japanese ship Awa-Maru. Of these three months about one was spent in Singapore and Malay, a day in Sumatra, two weeks in Bali, a little over three weeks in two stretches in Java, a week in Siam, the rest in travel to and fro in the South East. This visit was in detail chronicled by one of his travel companions, Suniti Kumar Chatterji the famous linguist (Rabindra-Samgame Dvipamay Bharat and Syam-Desh—‘Island India and Siam in Rabidranath’s Company’). On his part Tagore wrote twenty-one letters and five poems. His letters are called Java-Jatrir Patra, ‘Letters from a Traveller to Java’, which indeed they are, Java including Bali. He hardly says anything about Singapore and Malay, and only announces the trip he is taking to Siam. However, two of the five poems are on Siam, the first at first sight, the second at departure. The other three poems are one on Java, one on Bali and one on Borobudur. Of these the Bali poem, first named ‘Bali’ then renamed ‘Sagarika’ (‘Sea-maiden’), is best known. Though my focus in this article is on the letters, I shall also touch on his Indonesian poems.

Historian Arun Das Gupta who had worked on South East Asia and been at Jakarta for two years on a visiting assignment, and had eventually begun research on Tagore in Indonesia, brought out a paper, presumably introductory, titled ‘Rabindranath Tagore in Indonesia: An Experiment in Bridge-Building’, in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 158 (2002), no. 3, Leiden, 451-477. Even if it does not chart out all Indonesian and Dutch sources, it is enough for my purpose in providing the necessary background to Tagore’s letters and poems. For I would take the letters and poems as the final outcome of Tagore’s visit to Indonesia eighty-five years ago no matter what transpired immediately, the reception and impact, even any probable gaps. Of course the historians have every reason to rewrite the whole story, the purpose of Tagore’s visit in terms on the one hand of the ‘Greater Indian’ realization and, on the other, of the propagation of Visva-Bharati’s ideals, the ‘renascent’ Indonesian intellegentsia’s eagerness to meet the great Indian poet and idealist, and the Dutch rulers’ careful handling of Asia’s first Nobel-laureate’s presence in their colony. In a way with Dutch archaeologists cum ancient historians around him, they helped him focus more on the islands’ past than on the present. However, Tagore was not a routine ‘Greater India’ enthusiast as was evident from the reply he had given to the reception accorded him in Calcutta by the Greater India Society on the eve of his departure for Southeast Asia. In so many words he criticized the not so unobvious pride that might be attending the truth of India’s millennial cultural expansion. ‘Using truth for the sake of pride is an insult to truth. My only prayer is that I do not carry the truth on my shoulder and go on beating it around, that I do not wear it only as a jewel to impress outsiders, that I seek and contemplate it for my own real sake. [paragraph] When I get to Java, let me rid my mind of pride and be humble on seeing how the undying essence of truth works.’

In fact it is on an allied tone that his first Java letter ends. Written to Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis to whom he wrote seven others, maybe a day or two after setting sail from Madras, he brought up the issue of science and of Europe’s greatness in the pursuit of knowledge, eventually of Europe’s smallness too in using science as her weapon of greed. That smallness had been violently manifest in the First World War. But it had been no less violent in Europe’s marauding of Asia and Africa. ‘In science’s arrogance, in power-madness and greed for wealth Europe has long been humiliating humanity world over; today its backlash borne at home is causing her anxiety.’ Obviously Tagore had colonial browbeating and loot in mind. When India had gone abroad a millennium ago her impulse had been spiritual and cultural. It was to discover those traces that Tagore and his companions were now sailing the seas. His trip to Java was a pilgrimage.

Rabindranath Tagore loved writing letters while on sea or from overseas which were not correspondence in the ordinary sense. Of course it was to a certain person that he was writing, a person tuned to his cast of mind, yet at the same time it was an occasion for talking aloud. As he said in Letter 2, ‘man has a special notebook; its leaves are loose (one would immediately recall his ‘loose-leaf’ letters written to niece Indira from mainly the family estates in Eastern Bengal between 1888 and 1895, the classic Chinnapatra), meant for writing whatever comes to mind; one doesn’t even think of its worth. Its aim is the writing itself, what is written is only an excuse. … The sound of a stream is the sound of its motion, as is the hum of the flying bee. What we call talking is also the sound of our mind in motion. The letter is talking in written words.’

I suppose at this point I should give a list of the Java letters, to whom, from where, and on what date. The first four are on his way to Singapore, on board SS Amboise, written on consecutive days in mid-July—two even on the same day—to Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis. The fifth is dated 28 July, from Malacca, addressee not known: it could as well have been a diary entry. The sixth is a hurried note dated 30 July, from Malacca, to Nirmalkumari announcing departure to a distant place (Kuala Lumpur). The seventh is dated 13 August, from Taiping, addressee not known. The eighth is to his daughter-in-law, Pratima Devi from Karang Assem, Bali dated 30 August containing a lot of backlog. The ninth too is from Karang Assem dated 31 August to Mira Devi, his daughter. The tenth is dated 1 September (signed 1 August by oversight) from Gianjar, Bali to Nirmalkumari. The eleventh is to his son, Rathindranath dated 7 September, apparently from Munduk, Bali. The twelfth is to Amiya Chakravarty, his literary secretary dated 8 September, apparently from Munduk, with a postscript dated 9 September from Soerabaja, Java. The thirteenth is from Soerakarta, Java to Pratima Devi dated 14 September. The fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth too are from Soerakarta, respectively to Pratima Devi, Amiya Chakravarty and Rathindranath, dated, the fourteenth and fifteenth, 17 September and the sixteenth 19 September. The seventeenth is from Jogjakarta, Java to Nirmalkumari dated 20 September. The eighteenth and nineteenth are from Bandung, Java to Pratima Devi and Mira Devi respectively, both dated 26 September. The twentieth is written on board SS Mijer to Nirmalkumari on 1 October. The last letter is to Amiya Chakravarty, apparently from Singapore, dated 2 October though the event related at the end (Suniti Chatterji rushing him [to catch a boat] occasioning his memory of Coleridge’s ‘Water, water, every where, / Nor any drop to drink’ took place on 3 October.

‘This condensed feeling of mine can be called the joy of being. An incarnate wholeness filled up with forms and colours, light and sound, expanse and leisure is beating up my heart saying “I Am” …’ This is from Letter 5 which I am tempted to say has been written to posterity. Tagore is full of wonder watching a coconut palm flutter out its fronds in all daring to the great ocean by which it stands. This is existence. Being. But pitted to it is ‘doing’ (would we call it ‘becoming’?), its complement. ‘It is this harmony that we seek in life—of the ever-flowing river-run of doing and the ever-grave great ocean of being.’ Apropos doing or action a theme that comes up again and again in the initial Java letters is greed (Tagore glosses Gita’s ‘nishkama’ as being free of greed) that derails all harmony. Letter 5 is as it were our gateway to his Javanese-Balinese experience to be related in Letters 8 to 21. Wonder is one of Tagore’s keywords in these letters, as in Letter 5 too. Will it be wayward to take the wonder-producing coconut palm fluttering its fronds to the great ocean as an advance signification of Bali and Java? I say Bali and Java in that order, for it was to Bali that Tagore first went though stopping at a couple of places in Java on the way. ‘We crossed over to Bali; we saw the ever-youthful shape of the earth. Here the past centuries are all present.’ In the poem he is later going to write on ‘Bali’ (on 1 October on board SS Mijer) the trope of a sea-maiden is used for the island—no wonder the poem is renamed ‘Sea-maiden’ or ‘Sagarika’—‘Wet with sea-water, with loose drooping hair / You sat on the rocky shore. / Your flowing yellow skirt / Rolled and curved round your feet.’ (trans. William Radice)

The wonder that is Bali is first revealed to him in her love of ritual. The long procession of people bringing offerings to a king long dead, on the occasion of his funeral was most colourful and most ordered. They looked like they had come out of Ajanta’s frescoes, the women especially, in demeanour and dress. There was no mourning in the air; it was more a festival than an everyday funeral, in fact quite Chinese in pomp though rather Hindu in the attendant chanting. The whole population was involved in it. It was almost like a puranic or a timeless event. With her past being her present Bali seems to have become a frieze raising doubt about her future. Tagore records it in one of his letters.

But Bali gives him his real surprise when towards the end of a long and tiring day—indeed his first day there—while driving with a king to his palace, with no communication between them for lack of language, upon a sudden view of the blue ocean he hears the king speak out ‘samudra’ and then, as it were inspired, a number of that Sanskrit word’s synonyms. Catching his guest’s wonder the king next quotes the ancient Indian notion of ‘seven seas, seven mountains, seven forests, seven skies’, and thereafter names a number of ancient India’s mountains, and further of rivers. Though these were only names and not experience, they were proof enough of a millennial contact. Probably one had to come to the distant Bali to revisit ancient and Hindu India’s own, and the ancient and Hindu Indian map of world geography. The king’s naming the four Vedas and the four Lokapalas and, though truncated, the Mahabharata Parvas gave this memory more authenticity. Tagore was indeed full of wonder, though he realized that in Bali ‘Hinduism was nowhere unmixed; it has taken a unique form by being merged with the nature of people here; the gesture is Hindu, but the body is their own.’ As he entered the palace yard he was greeted by the chanting of four brahmans—worshippers of Buddha, Siva, Brahma and Vishnu, but quite unfamiliarly attired.

‘In this country the main part of a festival is dance. As the coconut palms here are ever swaying to the sea-breeze, so are all women and men of this place caught in a movement of dance.’ Indeed dance to Tagore was Bali’s, and Java’s too, prime wonder. ‘Here when their heart wants to speak it breaks into a dance.’ In other words, dance is their natural communication. ‘Here dance is not to relish the pleasures of its performance; it is their very language.’ In his letters Tagore describes a number of dance performances he saw in both Bali and Java, of a whole variety ranging from where the dance flows like a stream through the dancer’s limbs without the dancer making an extra effort, to where the dancer wears the dance in enacting a drama or telling a tale, most of which are from the Balinese-Javanese versions of Mahabharata and Ramayana. The music that accompanies this dance, produced by the ‘Gamelan’ instruments, is more beat than tone. Yet that beat is like ‘a dance of tone’. In one letter Tagore uses a metaphor to characterize this dance: It is ‘not like the patter of pouring rains, but like the flow of a wavy stream.’ He realizes that while India and Europe have musical drama, Bali and Java have dance drama. We are told of Antonin Artaud of the Theatre of Cruelty fame coming under the impact of Balinese dance seen in Paris. Tagore had seen that dance on its own turf and had by any count a clear understanding of it its soul being movement. ‘Carried away by loss and gain, by pleasure and pain, human life is ever dallying with various forms and sounds and touch; if all that is to be expressed in sound alone, then it becomes splendorous music; likewise if leaving all else it is to be expressed in movement alone, then it turns into dance.’ I wonder if this understanding had not in some way been instrumental to his eventual composition of dance dramas. What I mean is of course no borrowing, but the deep-seated impression it might have made on him corroborating his sustained idea of rhythm and movement.

When I said that Tagore had seen a whole variety of dances in Bali and Java, I indeed meant an absolute variety, for nearly half the letters are full of them. If you would have asked him what he had done in Bali and Java, he might have simply said, I saw dances. Once he saw a dance where the performers moved about in the seated posture. It was a scene from the Ramayana where again the performers didn’t have a parity of age. If Kausalya was an eight or nine-year old boy, her son Rama was at least twenty-five. Such inconsistency didn’t bother them as long as they enjoyed rasa which was the main purpose of such performances. And all these supposed inconsistencies were attended upon by unlimited skill and great finesse, where even the most insignificant gesture was the outcome of long training and care. Speaking at some length of their sense of rhythm and movement, and also of the utter compatibility of the Gamelan percussion, Tagore concluded by saying: ‘Once the Nataraj had come here from India and was worshipped in the temple; the boon he had given them was his dance …’ In his ‘Bali’ poem too the dancing Siva is used as some kind of a Leitmotiv: ‘We dressed a basket with flowers; we sat together / And jointly worshipped dancing Siva’; ‘The full moon smiled; Siva and Parvati, / Light and shade, played in the waters of the sea’; ‘Opening the door of the Siva temple I saw / That our basket of flowers still lay there’ (trans. William Radice). Though not like an archaeologist, he quoted the Prambanan ruins where the Siva temple had been prime containing a good many dramatic gestures not found in the Indian texts. He noted with wonder that Siva had been held ‘guru’ or ‘great guru’ here and his surmise was that it was Buddha’s role as the great preceptor that had been taken over by Siva. ‘He teaches man liberation. He is Nataraj; he is Time, that is, the flow of movement in life, the rise and fall of birth and death are contained in his dance steps …’

Even if Rabindranath didn’t carry the Balinese-Javanese dance to be of help later in the making of his dance dramas, he did carry something from there, and that was the art of Batik printing on cloth. Batik was not merely a tradition in Indonesia, but proof of her love of art which was by no means confined to the artists alone. The Balinese and the Javanese people were as such fond of colour and beauty. This was one of the things that Tagore marked on the very first day of his arrival in Bali. That funeral festival was a veritable feast of colour, so crowded and yet had such display of decorum. He perceived the underlying spirit of unity and its achievements in a people.

But his wonder knew no bounds when he realized how entrenched they were in their Mahabharata and Ramayana—their, not the Mahabharata and Ramayana. They might have been a millennial arrival, who knows in the very form in which they now existed, for there had been many Mahabharatas and Ramayanas. Or maybe the transformation had occurred in their soil, out of the experience that had been theirs. In any case it was astounding that they had such a hold over the people. Witness their dance dramas. Tagore even said that ‘Dutch Indies’ might be better called ‘Vyasa Indies’. Java was Muslim though Bali Hindu, but that made no difference in their entrenchment in the epics. A sultan’s brother could very well play Ghatotkaca who incidentally was quite different from the Ghatotkaca we know.

Millennial Hinduism and Buddhism were found here together. Tagore’s three Indonesian poems are divided between them. ‘Borobudur’, the Buddhist poem is flanked by ‘Sribijayalakshmi’ (the poem on Java, written at Batavia in mid-August before sailing to Bali) and the Bali poem ‘Sagarika’, written as we know at the end of the Indonesian trip. While the Java poem is hopeful of a post-millennial recognition (incidentally, we know of the Javanese poet Doetadilaga’s positive response to Tagore in a ‘Kawi’ poem) and the Bali poem is all anxious about it (‘My Vina is all I have with me. / Look at me, see whether you recognize me’, in William Radice’s trans.), ‘Borobudur’ is set in the background of contemporary, that is, post First World War, malaise and greed, and declares the world’s need for a different kind of recognition, that of Buddha’s compassion:

It is time
The sick and bonded man
To this holy place
To read
The word carved on the silent stone—
That, on piercing a thousand years’ ruckus,
Rings out in the skies forever, the
Word of eternal love, ‘Buddham saranam gacchami’.
This, a year after The Court Dancer’s Worship (Natir Puja) in the context of Buddhist martyrdom in Hindu India!

All translations are mine unless otherwise stated.
Acknowledgements: Pranab Biswas, Probal Dasgupta and Rimli Bhattacharya.

October 18 2012. Published in Parabaas May 9 2015.

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