IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF XUANZANG: TAN YUN-SHAN AND INDIA
During a visit to America in 1985, while
travelling on a California highway, an amazing scene unfolded in front of
my eyes. Against a backdrop
of deep blue sky, there appeared a swath of white cumulus clouds in the
form of a mountain range. Our
eldest brother who is the most knowledgeable in Sinology uttered:
"look at the cloud-mountain".
Father's name "Yun-Shan" literally means
to this spectacle, I had no notion of what "cloud-mountain"
meant. This sudden revelation
sent a pleasant spine-tingling sensation through my entire body.
My father was born nearly a hundred years ago
in a village called Chaling in the Province of Hunan.
he came of a literary and religious family.
These two traits were inherited by father in good measure.
Moreover, from an early age, father displayed such strong
principles and a thirst of knowledge that the native soil could not
contain him very long. After
completing his education he left for Singapore in 1924.
In his words, this period was spent in teaching, in writing poems
and articles for various journals and newspapers, and in contemplation of
his mission in life along the seashores in his spare moments.
He was young and full of self-confidence.
During the four years in Singapore, the most
memorable moment in Father's life was his first meeting with Gurudeva
Rabindranath in 1927. On
hearing about Rabindranath's tour of South-East Asia, father went to meet
Rabindranath was looking for a qualified Chinese teacher for his Visva
Bharati University. In the
meanwhile, the thought of reviving the ancient cultural interchange
between China and India was crystallizing in father's mind.
Rabindranath's invitation to come to Santiniketan to teach was,
therefore, a command, hard not to accept.
However, a personal matter unexpectedly and
temporarily came in the way. This
too I learnt from my father. Before
leaving singapore father went to bid goodbye to his close friends.
One of them happened to be a young teacher in the Chinese Girls'
School. She was also from
Hunan Province. One of the
pioneer Chinese teachers in Malaya, she was a great admirer of father's
poetry. In fact, she had
learnt by heart all the poems that father had published in the local
journals. At the time of
parting, her tear-filled eyes were evidence of a deep relationship that
had already emerged between the two.
After father's departure for Santiniketan,
mother remained in Malaya for sometime in her teaching profession.
In those years, because of shortage of funds in Visva Bharati,
father did not take any salary. It
was mother's income that supported the two establishments.
In reply to mother's first letter from Singapore, father responded
in poetry: "your letter filled my two eyes with tears".
After mother's death, I heard this poem in its entirety from father
for the first time. The first
child was born in Malaya in 1929. He
was not only the eldest brother, but also the follower in the footsreps of
father's life-long mission.
In 1937, the China Hall or Cheena Bhavana was
built and inaugurated as an important institution within Visva Bharati.
This auspicious occasion was graced by Rabindranath himself.
Because of Jawaharlal Nehru's indisposition, his daughter
Priyadarshini Indira conveyed Nehru's good wishes.
behind the success of this remarkable institution was the dream,
planning and tireless efforts of one dedicated seeker.
The rare and valuable collection of books and their careful upkeep
was meticulously planned. The
teaching curriculum and the research programs in the Cheena Bhavana are
silent testimony to the strength of his vision.
China and India, two neighbouring
civilizations. In their
ancient history (from the Fifth to the Twelfth Centuries), close ties
between the two countries were established through the medium of Buddhism. China's way of life and philosophy and greatly influenced by
Buddhist scriptures. Unfortunately,
those ancient ties have been severed for many centuries. My father's mission for life was to bridge that chasm and to
firmly reestablish the culture ties.
The vicissitudes of personal life, its joys and sorrows, its
pleasures and pains, its glories and pitfalls became secondary to this
dream. His arena of activity
was spread between these two expansive nations.
However, behind this life-long undertaking lay the touch sacrifice
of another person, that of our mother.
She took on the responsibility and burden of running the household
and raising a large family of five sons and two daughters, tirelessly and
without complaint. On top of
this, she took care of the hospitality of many friends and guests who
frequently visited father in connection with his work.
Mother's household itself changed venues several times.
From Singapore to Santiniketan to Shanghai to Changsha and back to
Santiniketan. She never had
the pleasure of enjoying the company of all seven children in one
location. The pain of
separation from some of the children remained with her throughout, but she
never let this pain get the better of her responsibilities.
My mother started her career as a teacher.
After a lapse of many years when she stood beside her husband and
raised a family, mother went back, in late life, to her teaching
profession. She built her own
school in Changsha and named it Dathong or "Great Confluence". This school will celebrate its Golden Jubilee next year.
After three sons, Tan Chung, Tan Chen and Tan
Lee, I am the first daughter Tan Wen.
Because of this, I received special affection from mother.
However, in my childhood, father appeared remote.
I did not get to see him in the first few years.
This caused me to avoid him as a child.
China was then engaged in war with Japan.
There was bombing and destruction everywhere.
Our city of Changsha did not escape from this rampage. I have heard from mother that during air raids she would
gather me and my three brothers hurriedly to head for the bomb shelters.
There, she had taught all the children to utter the words "Nomo
Amitofu" or "Greetings to Amitava", and we would all chant
them. Leaving the family in
China under these conditions was a concern.
On the urging of Rabindranath, father returned to China to bring
mother and the two youngest children to Santiniketan, leaving the two
eldest sons in China. This split in the family caused endless concern in mother and
cast a shadow in our young lives.
My younger sister was born a year before
Rabindranath's death. he
named her "Chameli". He
said the word had phonetic resemblance to Chinese.
After that two younger brothers were born in Santiniketan.
They also received Bengali names: Aujit and Arjun.
The youngest was born when the dance-drama Chitrangada was being
staged in Santiniketan. The
song "Arun Tumi Arun" was reverberating in our minds.
That's how the youngest brother acquired the name.
Today, when I think of father, I remember his strong straight body,
his bright dignified face. His
bearing and personality set him apart from most men.
Even in his dress he was distinct.
He always wore clothes of his own particular design.
He was remarkably self-disciplined.
I have never seen him utter a harsh word even when someone offended
him. He lieved a life of
strict regularity and control. In the morning he would get up long before sunrise and go to
the roof of Cheena Bhavana to do his morning meditation and exercise.
Following that he would come down to say his prayer to Buddha and
start his days work. The
whole day would be spent in preplanned activities.
Everything was done like clockwork.
Even while bathing, the number of pails of water used was
Father tried to teach his children by example
and expected them to follow his disciplined life.
Thus he appeared rather strict to my young mind.
That behind this formidable facade was a kind loving heart was
revealed to me in later life, much later.
Laxity and shoddiness in work was against his character.
He expected the same high standard of behaviour and work ethic from
Besides being blessed by Rabindranath, father
received encourangement and co-operation from many leading personalities
in India and China which helped him immensely in fulfilling his life's
mission. The exception was
Mahatma Gandhi which father acknowledged with due respect and humility.
When father had approached Gandhiji for his support in
re-establishing the ties between India and China, his response was
straight forward and direct: "My first duty is to look after the
welfare of my own country. Beond
that, where is the time for anything else?".
These words rang true in father's ears.
The existence of Cheena Bhavana and father's
life-long efforts came to the attention of many intellectuals in China.
The Chinese Government had given full financial support for the
works carried out in Cheena Bhavana for many years.
Although this support was halted in 1949 with the change in the
political structure in China, the new Government respected the research
and teaching at the institute. In 1956, the invitation to father to visit China came from
the Premier himself. In his
letter to father, Zhou Enlai said: "We are fully aware of the
valuable work you have engaged in for such a long time.
But you have not visited you homeland for many years.
Come, take a look of what we have accomplished".
At the suggestion of the Chinese Consul-General in Calcutta, I
accompanied father on his trip to China.
During the trip, I became aware for the first time of the ease with
which father's personal could attract the attention and respect of the
political leaders in China.
Two encounters deserve special mention here.
First was the meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong.
Father had written a letter to the Chairman criticizing his one-way
leaning in foreign policy. Mao
mentioned this letter and said that in the effort to help improve China's
industrial wealth quickly, no super-power other than the Soviet Union is
likely to come forward. And
this was the reason for China's one-sided policy.
He spoke those words with such passion that even my uninitiated
mind could respond to them. In
retrospect, father's far-sightedness in this matter becomes more apparent
The second was the meeting with Premier Zhou
Enlai. The appointment was at
midnight! We were given to
understand that was the customary time for serious discussions. The Premier's graceful demeanour impressed me very much.
When I garlanded him in traditional Indian style, he immediately
said it was a photo-op not to be missed.
A photographer was summoned right away and pictures were taken.
I remember that my artist sister Chameli had sent a hand-made batik
table cloth depicting Saraswati as a present.
Zhou received it and looked at it carefully.
He said regretfully that it was not customary for the new
Government to exchange gifts. But
later he sent autographed copies of four albums of paintings by famous
Chinese artists. Father's
visit with Zhou Enlai lasted for three hours during which he listened
carefully about the Visva Bharati University and the Cheena Bhavana.
When my father invited him to visit Santiniketan, he sent for his
itinerary to see if it was included.
Subsequently, Santiniketan was added to the list. Following the
long meeting we had a light suppoer of simple food.
The entire ambiance was spartan, but the Premier's personality lent
a special aura to the occasion.
In this context, let met touch upon an event
that took place during Premier Zhou's visit to Santiniketan.
The Premier's special train arrived at Bolpur station the evening
prior to his tour of Santiniketan. Father
went to Bolpur to meet the Premier. Of
the many topics of discussion he carried with him was a special request. That request came from no other than Pratima Bouthan,
Rabindranath's daughter-in-law through her confidant Kshitish Roy.
Bouthan was aware than in the past the Chinese Government had
helped Visva Bharati with generous financial support.
She was hoping that the present Government would like wise support
the construction of a Memorial to Rabindranath where his archival
materials could be properly preserved.
Initially, father was somewhat hesitant to broach the subject with
Zhou. Father's connections
with the previous Chinese Government was strong.
But he was not sure of the support he would get from the present
Government. However, his deep
dedication and commitment to Rabindranath came on top.
Next day it was announced that the Chinese Government had donated
Rs. 60,000 towards the establishment of a Memorial to Rabindranath Tagore.
It is appropriate here to correct a
misinformation. There is a
common belief that father was a class-mate of Mao Zhedong.
This is incorrect. Although
the two went to the same school, Mao was senior to father by a few years.
When Mao was an established leadre among the students, father was
still an up-and-coming flag-bearing junior among the youngercrowd.
However, some close associates of Mao, one of them a Minister,
remembered my father well. Moreover,
during our visit father met an old teacher who had very fond memories of
both Mao and my father.
In 1959, border dispute between China and
India reared its ugly head. The
hurt and disillusion caused in father's soul can not be comprehended by
ordinary mortals like us. The
life-long dedication of father to build up cordial relations between the
two great countries appeared to be at the point of crumbling. There was only pain and suffering in his countenance.
One person who could bring a sliver of joy in the face of my father
was his long-time dear friend Anil Kumar Chanda.
He tried his best to cheer up father by saying "even brothers
some times fight". The tension was felt by other members of our family as well.
The poet's words: "so much joy has turned to sorrow, so many
friends will turn tomorrow" symbolized the pain in all of us.
One afternoon I went to visit my respected
teacher at his home. He
welcomed me and said in the presence of others: "she is not one of
the bad guys". I came
home with a heavy heart, having been branded by a racial identification
that I was oblivious of. In
his novel "Gora" Rabindranath has said no one is born with
racial markings. I felt this
was only an ideal. In
reality, it was very difficult to reach that lofty height of colour-blindness
that our father achieved.
After retiring from Visva Bharati, father's
work ethic once again made him restless. The result can be seen in the start of the gigantic World
Buddhist Academy in Bodh Gaya which was, once again, my father's
before this project could be completed, father's life-flames were
Father's last days were spent as a mendicant.
In fact, his whole life was lived in sacrifice and not in luxury.
Even in old age, when most mortals break down in health and require
assistance, father had no such need.
After our mother's death, the children tried hard to keep father in
some semblance of comfort. But
no amount of pleading would succeed in keeping him close to us. Again in the words of the poet: "you want to keep me in
bonds of love, but do you have that capability?". He took shelter in a small room in a temple in Bodh Gaya.
A simple ration came from a poor family in the village.
Father subsisted on it contentedly year after year.
Even in his last days father was free of any ailment.
His mind was strong as ever. But
unfortunately, his weakened constitution ultimately succumbed to a bout of
flue. In 1983, father
breathed his last in his favourite place of pilgrimage, Bodh Gaya. None of his children nor any friend was present at the time
of his demise.
The funeral pyre was built on an open field next to his incomplete dream, the World Buddhist Academy. Our eldest brother lit the flame. The harsh environment became aglow with the ultimate sacrifice of father's life-long pursuits. The two Chief Bhikshus from Bodh Gaya and father's long-term friend Reverand Jinaratna of the Mahabodhi Society stood in front of the pyre and chanted Bodhist scriptures in Pali. I felt that in the modern annals of exchange of knowledge and culture between India and China a major chapter had come to a close.
by Tan Lee
©1999 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced any manner without written permission of the publisher.