A Poet's Dream: Discovery of Tagore Texts

Shailesh Parekh 

Prof. Niranjan Bhagat, a noted Gujarati poet, now 77, believes that it was Tagore’s death in 1941, that ‘seduced’ him into writing poetry! While I have known Prof. Bhagat for over 20 years, it was only in the past several years that Tagore literature forged a bond of friendship between us. His knowledge of Tagoreana fascinated me. I would tell him that we must present Tagore to the people of Ahmedabad like never before. I believe he has the wealth of information and insight as well as the knack for presenting the poignant and multifaceted message of Tagore to a person for whom the language of Tagore was alien. He would agree and then the conversation would drift to many other interesting aspects and the main issue would not be addressed.

Finally, it came to transpire that we should also rope in Dr. Bholabhai Patel, another scholar of Tagore, author and critic. The three of us got together for the first time on 11.9.2001 - that fateful day, when the World Trade Centre in New York went down. All three of us distinctly remember watching the excruciating sight on a TV screen!

In that meeting it was agreed that the first programme should be held at the Shahjahan Palace where Tagore had spent a few months in 1878 before proceeding to England. It was also felt that it would be fitting to hold the first programme on the birthday of Tagore on May 7. Since the story of Kshudhit Pashan was conceived at the above palace, it would be nice if we could screen the film based on the same and directed by Tapan Sinha.

Prof. Bhagat suggested that we present our programmes under the auspices of ‘Ravindra Bhavan’ - meaning the house of Rabindranath. He said that Rabindranath did not really have a house that he loved - Jora Sanko was something that he loathed and at Shantiniketan, he moved from one house to another, as his mood dictated! He further said that wherever people talked about Rabindranath and his creations can be described as the house of Rabindranath. He also wished that ‘Ravindra Bhavan’ should not have an account or an address. While all of us were quite enthusiastic about what we were embarking upon, we must admit that we did feel that the poet in Prof. Bhagat was dreaming!

Shahjahan Palace (17th century)
(Top) Lithograph by James Forbes (from Oriental
; 1781; courtesy K. L. Dalal (New Delhi)
(Bottom) A current photograph
May 7, 2002 was preceded by ugly disturbances in the city of Ahmedabad and we could not hold a programme as desired at the Shahjahan Palace. But indeed, Ravindra Bhavan was launched on that day. A programme was held in another hall, where Tagore music was played, talks on Gitanjali and Naibedya were delivered and the documentary ‘Rabindranath Tagore’ directed by Satyajit Ray was screened in a hall with standing room only!

For the next seven months talks were held under the auspices of Ravindra Bhavan on the first Wednesday of every month at the premises of Gujarati Sahitya Parishad.

Prof. Bhagat visited UK from July 2002 to November 2002. While there, he met Dr. William Radice, who was on sabbatical leave from his teaching position at the University of London. It transpired between them that Dr. Radice would be visiting India in February and would be willing to deliver a talk on Tagore's Poetic Greatness in Ahmedabad. He was rather keen to do so because he believed that it was necessary for the voice of Tagore to be heard in the disturbed city of Ahmedabad.

The poet with his lieutenants set out to give shape to his dream.

It was also decided to release an anthology of Ahmedabad-related Tagore literature in a bilingual publication titled `Tagore in Ahmedabad’. While collecting the material for the publication titled `Tagore in Ahmedabad’, Prof. Bhagat realised that there was much more to the Tagore connection with Gujarat than had been highlighted earlier. Even before Rabindranath, his father Maharshi Devendranath had visited Ahmedabad once and had lectured at the Prarthana Samaj and Rabindranath's elder brother, Satyendranath, who was posted here as a District Judge, was conversant with Gujarati and had given lectures also.

After 1878, Tagore visited Ahmedabad in 1920 to attend the 6th Gujarati Sahitya Parishad at the instance of Mahatma Gandhi. At the Parishad, Tagore had delivered an outstanding lecture titled `Construction vs. Creation’ which was later published in `Lectures and Addresses of Rabindranath Tagore’ selected by Anthony X. Soares, Professor of English Literature, The College, Baroda, in 1928. Subsequently, in 1996, the same was published in Volume 3 of `English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore’ edited by Sisirkumar Das and published by Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, - now considered a complete and exhaustive reference for Tagore’s English writings and lectures - with a note stating that this lecture had not been published anywhere else except the above referenced publication. While going through the report of the 6th Gujarati Sahitya Parishad published in 1923, it was observed that the above lecture was published therein under the title of `Dr. Tagore’s Reply’. (This lecture was delivered in response to the felicitation paper read on the occasion, hence, the title - ‘Dr. Tagore’s Reply’. This is published here in its full indicating, in italics, the sections that are different from `Construction Versus Creation' as appears in English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore; Lectures and Addresses, Vol. 3.; Ed. Sisirkumar Das). For scrutiny and verification of the authenticity of the events reported therein, Prof. Bhagat also went through the memoirs/diaries of three eminent personalities (Shri Narasinhrao Divetia, Shri Ravishankar Raval and Shri Karunashankar Bhatt) of that time, published in Gujarati.

After `Tagore in Ahmedabad’ was sent to the press with `Constuction versus Creation’ - as it appeared in Volume 3 of `The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore' - it was observed that the lecture appearing in the report of the 6th Gujarati Sahitya Parishad contained a few more paragraphs than those contained in `Construction versus Creation’ and the last several pages from the original version had been totally eliminated from the versions later published. While it would be impossible to determine the reasons for such an omission/revision today, it may suffice to state here that the contents of this omitted portion are not only poignant and profound but also are as relevant today as they were in those days - some 83 years ago. Besides, it is hoped that this will be of interest to Tagore scholars.

Another accidental discovery during the course of the publication of ‘Tagore in Ahmedabad’ pertains to a lecture Tagore delivered in 1930 in Baroda under the title of `Man the Artist’. The event is reported in more than one Tagore chronicles. However, the lecture was not found in Volume 3 of `English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore’. Even inquiries at Santiniketan drew a blank. A casual query was referred to Dr. Donald Clay Johnson of the Ames Library of South Asia, University of Minnesota, who is a dear friend of mine for over 40 years, who searched the online database and came up with the following: Tagore, Rabindranath. Man the artist. Baroda: Baroda State Press, 1932. 14p. 25cm.

It is part of the series: Baroda. Dept. of Education. Kirti mandir lecture series no. 1. Another request was made to Ms. Panna Naik of Van Pelt Library of University of Pennsylvania, which had this volume in its library, and a xerox copy of the lecture reached us in a matter of days.

After all the arrangements were made for the lecture of Dr. Radice on February 24, 2003, at the Shahjahan Palace, the discovery of these two texts came as added bonanza.

Shahjahan Palace as sketched by
Gaganendranath Tagore

The programme, attended by about 500 persons, commenced with two Tagore songs, the ones he composed at this palace in 1878. As narrated in his autobiography, this was the first time he set to music his own poems. The two songs - bali o amar golap bala and nirab rajani dekho magna jochhanay were recited in English and Gujarati by Ms. Sugna Shah and rendered by Ms. Sucheta Roy. The evening was dedicated to Tagore by recitation of a poem composed for the occasion by me. Mr. Prakash Shah, Secretary of Gujarati Sahitya Parishad, introduced Mr. Ramanlal Soni, (96 years old translator of Tagore and author in his own right), who was presiding over the function and Dr. Radice, who was the Chief Guest. After an address by Mr. Ramanlal Soni, Dr. Radice delivered his lecture - Tagore's Poetic Greatness. After an intermission, the movie, ‘The Hungry Stones’ was screened.

One hundred and twenty five years ago a budding poet of 17 had stayed at this palace and for the first time had cast his words in notes and was inspired to write one of his haunting short stories based upon his vision of the past of this palace. Many years later, when he had become an acknowledged poet, he addressed a poem to his readers of a hundred years hence. In that poem, he dreamt that his own greetings of spring had transcended time and resonated in the songs of a new poet.

The poet’s dream came true on the spring evening of February 24, 2003, when a poet from across the seas paid homage to the poet laureate at the same place, where he had lived one hundred and twenty five years ago!

I believe,

A poet dreams -
With dreams fulfilled,
Forever, he lives.

Published May 7, 2003

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