Rabindranath Tagore at the University of Costa Rica
It is impossible once you have read Tagore not to fall in love with his literature -- the English translations he made of his own poems are music to my ears, even if my not so fluent English only serves to give me a hint of what I am missing—, and there are so many things to cover when I first considered the writing of this article, that it would never reach its ending if I would linger on each one of them.
Thus, I must content myself with answering only one question, the main reason for this article: “Why is Tagore taught at the University of Costa Rica?,” while leaving aside the infinite meanders of personal significance that Tagore has for me and for those many Costa Ricans who have discovered and rediscovered with me, semester after semester, his poetry.
It all began in 1968, with the opening of a course on Sanskrit, to go along with the courses on Latin and Greek of the Classical Philology Department. The idea was to offer Sanskrit as an elective class, so to give the students some extra credits, while keeping the main focus on the major European classic languages. Sanskrit, of course, was not thought by the academic authorities as a serious subject in those days at our University; yet, the students proved the authorities wrong, and for 31 consecutive years, Sanskrit has continuously been taught, with plenty of students always willing to discover a new world.
My first contact with Sanskrit as a young student inspired me to study the ancient Indian ideas, and among the subjects I dealt with was Comparative Religion and the Bhagavad Gita, which enthralled me from beginning to end, and left an indelible trace on my intellectual formation. I had been taught to love Greece and Rome, but India became my home. Prof. Chen Apuy was at that same time looking for a person to substitute her after her retirement, someone whom she might teach to follow her steps, in order to direct the Asian Studies area at the University. Fortunately, I was chosen as her assistant to the Sanskrit courses and, to my pleasure, also to Tagore’s.
As time went by, Prof. Chen Apuy retired from the University, and therefore, it was my responsibility to keep up with her work, but always with the constant reminder of not to abandon Tagore's course and continue teaching it all along with my other duties. One of her presents for me when she retired was a collection of Tagore translated by the very Zenobia Camprubí.
And thus began my work with my students: to fill their imagination with Tagore's work while battling the restrictions of our students not having, in the most of cases, the least of information about India (Tagore's course, along with the current courses on Sanskrit and Sanskrit Literature are nowadays the only means by which our students can get in touch with India and its culture). Yet, Tagore was and is a universal thinker, and soon my students understood this: by reading his poetry and plays they began to get an idea of how complex and rich is India, with its assortment of foods and languages, literature and philosophies, religions and ethnic groups. This is something I always try to convey to my students about India: how to shun the difficulties of huge cultural divisions, so to achieve mutual respect and live together in peace, despite the always present efforts of some to stir up hatred and division; through Tagore, my students discover the hazardous yet possible path of peaceful co-existence that the writer and Gandhi envisioned for India.
The approximate number of students registered in the courses has always ranged from 35 to 15; this last semester, I had 20 students from different areas of the University, as this course has been transformed as an elective World Literature class, which allows any student of the University to enroll in it.
The course begins with a short introduction of the cultural and historical background of ancient India and the goals of the human individual in Indian philosophy. Then, comes a brief section devoted to the arrival of the East India Company and their expansion on the continent, and their influence on Bengal, finishing with some exploration on Rabindranath’s own family background. Often, some students may inquire about Gandhi and his relation with the poet, yet with a week, I can hardly cover some of Tagore’s own works; therefore I can only give a brief lecture on the man that was named the “Mahatma” by the Bengali writer, and mention their differences and discrepancies, while insisting in how, at the end, these were only the result of how much they both loved India.
After this short introduction, I get right into the analysis of the Gitanjali. I think that that my students should be aware that Tagore received the Nobel Prize for it, and that this allowed Asian writers to be known in the western world and, of course, in Latin America.
The next step is to analyze a series of different texts, literary and philosophical, dealing with a wide variety of Tagorean topics: favorite subjects are those related to children and their education; women, contemporary Indian society, Tagore’s religious views, drama, etc. Thus, by the end of the semester students have some basic notions on Tagore’s literature and thoughts, notions that may compel them to a fuller exploration either on the ideas of the Bengali writer or on many other South Asian authors. I have even received phone calls from students who had taken the Tagore course years ago, requesting my advice on other Asian literature; these are people not necessarily involved in literature, with careers as diverse as economics, law, engineering, medicine, etc.; and who still keep warm memories of the course. Through Tagore, they learned to love books and literature.
At the end of the course, I request an essay on any of the writers' works. The results of these essays always reaffirm my impressions on Tagore’s long-lasting effect on young people: his words have that special quality of rekindling themselves when in touch with a young heart.
The more I teach the course, the more I find new paths of thought through the beauty of his writings and the satisfaction of approaching my students to a writer who excelled in all the literary genres. A writer who, despite our distance from him both in space and time, is still capable of directly addressing our dreams.
As this is the first opportunity that I have to write about my favorite author to his fellow country-people, I only wish I had been able to express the importance that Tagore has for me and my students, and that I hope someday I may be able to tread the same ground on which the author lived, especially Bolpur and Shantiniketan. In the meantime, I will keep performing my humble part as an instrument of communication of Tagore’s genius, thus hoping to open the door for more Costa Rican students to India and his huge cultural environment. Gracias por todo, Rabindranath Tagore (Thank you for all, Rabindranath Tagore).
Published July 15, 2001