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 Tan Yun-Shan: Personification of Rabindranath's Visvakarma


 Bhudeb Chaudhuri 


A hundred years have rolled on since the advent of Professor Tan Yun-shan (1898-1983); and admiring hearts, near and dear ones, are aspiring to cherish him afresh, in devout remembrance.

Rabindranath Tagore once felt not withstanding the intrinsic vigour of genius all around, commemorable are only those, who offer a whole life for consummation of a definite cause - a specific value. Rabindranath's, again, was a pivotal role in nurturing the unpreconceived blooming of Professor Tan Yun-shan, thoroughly consecrated to the enthralling cause of Sino-Indian cultural concord. The monumental edifice of the Cheena-Bhavana, at the heart of natural serenity of the Santiniketan Ashrama, still bears the eloquent exterior testimony to the innate vitality of that total dedication, all born in a meditative mind.

Professor Tan, in fact, flourished in a turmoiled juncture of modern China's history. Age-old lofly traditional values of all-found spiritual-certainly not all etherial -sustenance waned in utter material depredation; and western colonialists, with subverting designs, wrought havoc unabatedly. Rabindranath, even when com-paratively young in age, scorned that perfidious onslaught in a remarkable paper: Cheen Maraner B yabasay' -Trade of Death in China.

During the maturing days of Tan Yun-shan and his contemporaries, a vibrant resurgence rebounded in the ancient land, with a newer conviction of emancipation. This time, exclusively mundane in nature. As a result at a particular level of youthful exuberance, a rebellious negation of the contemplative past, together with a vigorous craving for unmitigated techno-scientific progress, as of the modern age, gave vent to a confrontational atmosphere. Yet, the inlaid quest, even then, was for an assimilative consonance between the traditional fibre of the people and the newly usurping urge for unstinted corporeal advancement. Rabindranath himself, also got entangled, unknowingly, into that agitative jolt, during a visit to China, in 1924.

Tan Yun-shan, as of himself, was a visionary and an activist at the same time. He came in close contact with the Xinmin Association led by Mao Zedong and his comrades, cherishing a western intellectual proximity, particularly, then, with France. Equally, he was drawn to the world of eastern wisdom, that Rabindranath had been striving to renovate in the modern context, with its enduring lusture.

In 1924, Tan could not meet Rabindranath in the mainland. Yet, reverently, he noted the messages of the poet. In fact, at a stage, he of his own, thought of a voyage to India, before venturing for one to France. In the mean time, in 1927, he came in contact with Rabindranath, for the first time, at Singapore, where he happened to be a teacher then. The poet, quite impressed, invited him to Santiniketan, the seat of the newly sprouting university of his dream, where the world would meet in one nest. Tan responded in 1928; and the poet immediately offered him the Professorship of Sino-Indian Studies at his university, Gradually, the visionarycum- activist inTan got so usurped in the mission, that all other programmes, envisaged earlier, got abandoned, even unperceived. In fact, Tan got usurped by Rabindranath, and his vision.

That vision of the poet, of the universal mind commingling in the precincts of his budding institute, acquired its first dominant pragmatic exposition in the pursuit of Sino-Indian Studies, and Tan Yun-shan happened to be the lone architect.

Rabindranath was of the firm conviction that true knowledge emanates from within the life-spirit of the people; knowledge, that breathes the vibrant exposition of a people's collective wisdom, and not all a conglomeration of variously assorted informations. Knowledge in that perspective, is capable of stimulating a supraphysical - an innate cohesion between man and man, all the world over. Hence the poet contemplated that Visva-Sharati, the just originating university of his conception, would devote entirely to the study of that aspect of knowledge spiring out of the meditative acumen of the east. There, this nest of universal concord, would invite scholars from all parts of the world, irrespective of east or west, in a collaborative venture of a fresh appraisal and expansion of the wisdom.

In pursuit of the novel idea, Rabindranath comprehended study of Sino-Indian cultural relations as one of the focal themes. The message of universal compassion and love, as propagated by Buddha, was of supreme attraction to Rabindranath. That, again, had an all-found impact on the Southeast Asia of yore, as also on China, Tibet and others. In this context, cultural interaction between India and China had been most abiding through ages. Illustrious deliberations on Buddha's humanistic reflections had been translated, with indepth commentaries, from the languages of India into Chinese; and that instilled in the land, a special humane glow. There had been direct exchange of scholars as well. Yet, with the lapse of time, Buddha's message gradually got over-shadowed in its land of origin, and many an invaluable text vanished in the process. A vast treasure of enduring reflections indeed ! A lot of those, again, were retained, in translations, amongst others, in China. After centuries of oblivious secretion, a new urge for resuscitation emerged in the modern context; a new scope for Sino-Indian interaction at academic level: a melodious venture of reconstructing the lost original texts from translations, through a process of interlocution. To that, Rabindranath added the new dimension of cultural amity and transfusion. This was the idea of replenishing a total image of the wisdom of the east as a bond of universal understanding, and amalgamation.

In fact, investigation into the new arena of oriental knowledge, commenced in the west also, almost around the same time. Rabindranath invited Professor Sylvain levy, the much adored sino-lndo-Tibetologist as the first Visiting Professor of his university. And thence commenced, in right earnest, a well orchestrated study in the verity of Sino-Indian cultural identity, in modern perspective. At the end of his short tenure, Professor Levi left behind a warm inquisitiveness for the quest, and Rabindranath was all the more eager to perpetuate the legacy. Yet, inconceivable resource crunch seriously impeded on the way. Only a course of Chinese language study could be organised for an intervenning short period, while the poet was eagerly looking for a permanent centre of Sino-Indian cultural study. In Tan Yun-shan he visualized the potential and vigour of fulfilment of his dearly cherished programme.

That the poet was not mistaken in his selection seldom was he so, if ever, is embalmed, even today, through the multifarious impressions of thoroughly dedicated flamboyant services of Tan Yun-shan. Cheena Bhavana, the celebrated centre of Sino-Indian cultural and academic collaboration at Visva-Bharati, was ushered in through unilateral contributions of most eminent Chinese personalities and scholars. And all that could be organized through unstinted, singular efforts of Professor Tan. As the solid structure of the Bhavana, so also commenced intimate inter-courses between Indian and Chinese scholars, and that continued with unabated enthusiasm. To start with, some one and a half lakh erudite volumes of Chinese books were procured from the mainland, and much had been added to the stock with progress of time. And today, that treasure of rare books, manuscripts and others is simply matchless in the academic domain of the discipline. And all these could be attained through the tireless endeavour of Professor Tan Yun-shan. Himself an unsparing ardent scholar, he organised a reverberating hub of radiant vibration between souls of India and China. And the process transcended the academic limits to encompass dignitaries like Chiang Kai-shek at one end and Jawaharlal Nehru at the other, Rabindranath being always at the centre.

All these, and many others, are records of history today; history, not only of Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, but also of the Sino-Indian cultural relations prevailing through decades. And, so far, I have ventured to scrible a very inadequate out line of that.

But, my ovation, at the moment, seeks a much more intimate perspective; personal, indeed. I have the privilege of witnessing Professor Tan from close quarters, and yet, outside the orb of his inexorable, glorious, activities. He retired from Visva-Bharati services in 1967; and I joined the university just the following year, with a residential accommodation adjacent to that of the Professor, the only barrier being a thin flowery hedge, as usual of Santiniketan. Yet, the constructions were such that though the inner meadow of his quarters could be seen from mine, there was hardly any avenue for contacting that Way. A tiny lane had to be crossed, to be able to reach to his doorway. lnspite of a piquent desire to meet my venerable neighbour, from the very first day, I dared not quite for some time, lest my intrusion disturbed his normal routine.

At last, on a Wednesday morning, the weekly holiday of Visva-Bharati, I knowcked at his door. An attendant appeared and guided me to a big room, wide open on east and south, a sort of a one-in-all sitting-cum-bed-room, as well as a study-room. The Professor, a slim elegant figure, with his bright eyes and calm face, all dazzling in seducing smile, clasped both my hands with an inexplicable warmth of intimacy; and I got entranced immediately. We talked quite for some time; mine were short queries, his responses also were thoroughly prescise, yet complete. Soft and sweet spoken, he tried, always, to evade points leading to his remarkable success in career. He escorted me, finally, up to the gate, and I left charmed by the rare grace of his personality.

Within a few minutes of my returning home, came an attendant with a basketful of fresh vegetable grown in the kitchen garden of Madam Tan. We all were surprised, but learnt, instantly, that was an indispensable trait of Chinese hospitality; to entreat the guest with some endearing present. Madam Tan's was an equally fascinating, graceful role in the neighbourhood. She was an mother figure', all the houses around pertained to her household. And, we, the new comers, got automatically enrolled to that long list, since that day.

Gradually, I had occasions to come closer to Professor Tan, a self-absorbed, calm personality, and myself a thorough introvert. His residence, constructed out of the fund he collected for Cheena-Bhavana, was actually an annexe to the main building, just on the other side of the narrow lane. And he left that to be acquired by Visva-Bharati, after his demise. Quite a time, I could be with him, when the Cheena- Bhavana used to be humining in the midst of its daily routine work. I tried, often, to draw the Professor to a comparative deliberation on the plan and programme of the Bhavana, as envisaged by him, originally, and the contemporary exposition of the same. Every time, he skipped with soft, kindling smile, obviously to avoid any possible reference to self-appreciation. Instead, he often used to divert to topics relating his daily routine of the time; and they were no less attractive to me.

An early riser, he left his bed quite before dawn, undertook some open air exercises on the roof of his house or of the Cheena-Bhavana. I surmised those might have been of the traditional nature, Then, after bath, he offered solemn prayer, as I could gather from the evasive expressions, so wont with him. Finally, he prepared for the day's work. That, of course, was, mainly a deep, absorbed study Once, he led me to an otherwise closed room in his quarters, which was adorned with piles of neatly arranged books, all over the spacious floor. Study, I felt, could be a meditative exercise in the environ. There was another room in the main building of the Bhavana, even more spacious, which served as the seat of the Professor's studies in seclusion. There, also, was an image of Buddha, I could trace, amongst heaps of books.

Professor Tan never could project himself in eloquent conspicuity, and preferred, ever, to keep mute in a self-receding abstraction. That's how I was led to draw my own inferences of what I saw and heard during those precious contacts.

And there, revealed to me a unique personality; a speechless, innate devotee of Buddha. Buddha, to Rabindranath, was the ideal man of his contemplation. And, there, not really abnegation of the world, but an ineffable compassion for mankind as a whole, was the true tenet. Time and again, my short-spanned contacts with Professor Tan Yun-shan, dragged me to the sprinkling reflections of the poet. What Buddha wanted to be renounced, I felt, was not the unfathomable world, but the very intricate self the avid self-interest of the individual man.

World, as it is, transpires, definitely, in man's perception. When man is dipped deep into self-indulgence, he cannot look beyond which is the immanent source of compassion. I wondered how ardently the Professor strove to build the edifice, not only of the solid construction of brick and mortar, but even more, one of illuminous love and compassion, through a deep bond of cultural knot. Yet, how unbelievably, he could withdraw himself, completely, from the apex of his lifelong glorious service. The whole Bhavana buzzed in exalting activities, and Tan Yun- shan, by no means, was to be duped, even for a moment, to peep into those enthralling scenes, cherished, so dearly, for a full life time. That, by no means, was any aversion, but a total self-withdrawal abnegation of self-interest and self-exertion, with a view to self-assumption to plunge into the core of universal compassion.

Even today, when I remember Professor Tan-Yun-shan, Rabindranath's vision of Man ushers within me; and I deem myself fortunate that I was given to witness a lively meaning of that inexplicable idea :-

"It is only when his [man'sl] efforts take him beyond all personal interests and the inertia of customary habit that he becomes 'Visvakarma', a world-worker. (It is only when his love transcends his self-seeking that man becomes 'mahatma' - great soul - through his relationship with all creatures."

Solemnly, I do salute that "Man", that "Visvakarma" - that "Mahatma", when I pay my humble homage remembering Professor Tan Yun-shan on the gracious occasion of his first birth centenary,


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