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 Tagore: Pioneer in Asian Relations 


 Kalidas Nag

Moving amongst the delegates of the Asian Conference, I was agreeably surprised to notice how many of them remembered our national poet Rabindranath not only as the greatest luminary in the literary horizon of Asia, but also as a pioneer in reviving inter-Asian relations in modern times. I propose to recount here briefly some of the specific contributions of Rabindranath to the cause which found such glorious vindication in the Delhi Conference.

The earliest so-far-traced reference to Tagore’s interest in Asian affairs is to be found in his Bengali article on Death Traffic in China protesting vigorously against the inhuman Opium trade of the European merchants.  The article was published in 1881 before the foundation of the Indian National Congress, and it should be re-translated into Hindi, Urdu and other Indian vernaculars. Rabindranath’s saintly father, Maharshi Debendranath Tagore, undertook, in an advanced age, a sea-voyage to China; though, unfortunately, his diary of that voyage is now lost, fragments were published in his diary of that voyage is now lost, fragments were published in his famous Bengali journal Tattra Bodhini Patrika 1875-76 which printed articles on Taoism Confucianism and other systems of Chinese philosophy as well as some vivid description of the temples of Canton which was apparently the terminus of his China tour.

Rabindranath naturally inherited from his father a deep appreciation of Chinese culture and it will be news to many that in his later years, when he read that brilliant vindication of Eastern idealism by Professor Lowes Dickinson in his Letters of John Chinaman, Tagore was the first to popularise the book in Bengali through his essay, Chinamaner Chithi (1905-06).

The Republic of China was established in 1911 and Tagore, after his 50th birthday, started on his momentous tour with the English version of his Gitanjali which brought the first Nobel Prize to Asia (1913). In his third foreign tour of 1912-13, the Poet came in contact with many oriental students and some of the early translations of the Gitanjali were in Chinese and Japanese.

In 1915, Mahatma Gandhi returned from South Africa and brought home to the Poet, at their first personal contact, the tragic history of race-hatred in South Africa. The Reverend C.F. Andrews and W. Pearson, two of thloyal British friends of the Poet, who were also professors at Santiniketan had already been to South Africa to help Mahatma Gandhi. Naturally, the Poet received with open arms the members of Mahatmaji’s family and his disciples in Santiniketan.

In 1916, Tagore undertook a voyage through China and Japan to Amrica and suffered humiliation from the Japanese for his trenchant criticism of nationalistic chauvinism which was the cause of the first world war. He repeated the same warning to Japan through his letters to the Poet Noguchi (1938).

In 1920, I had the privilege of travelling with him through France and other European countries. I saw how in his sixtieth year, Tagore plunged with the enthusiasm of a youth, into the planning of an Asian Research Institute at Santiniketan. He had already inspired Pandit Vidhusekhar Sastri to learn Tibetan with a view to restoring some of the forgotten Indian texts, luckily preserved in Tibetan translations. While in Paris, he came to learn from my venerable professor Sylvain Levi that a large number of valuable Indian scholars could be induced to learn Chinese. And although the financial resources of the Santiniketan School were very low in 1921, Rabindranath at once decided to invive Professor Sylvain Levi to inaugurate the department of the Sino-Indian studies at the cost of over ten thousand rupees. Thus Professor Levi spent some of the happiest months of his life in Santiniketan and the Visva-Bharati was founded in December, 1921, as the first institute of Asian Culture, developing under the joint collaboration of the scholars from the East and the West.

In 1923 when I returned from the University of Paris to join the Post-Graduate Department of the Calcutta University, I had the rare fortune to be invited by gurudev to join his Visva-Bharati mission to China and the Far East. The poet had received a cordial invitation from eminent leaders of the Chinese Republic, led by the renowned Liang Chi Chao. Details of this memorable tour have already been published by me in many articles, and recently in the booklet, Tagore in China. His appearance in China opened a new chapter in the collaboration between China and India in modern days.* Pandit Kshitimohan Sen explored the possibilities of organising a comparative study of Chinese and Indian religions and cultures. Acharya Nandalal Bose, who also was a member of the delegation, charmed artistic China by his magic brush and brought back to India valuable hints and suggestions regarding the assimilation of the techniques of Chinese and Indian arts.  And I, in my humble way, hoped to integrate the studies of South-East Asian art and culture into our university curriculum; thanks to Dr. Tagore and to the support generously offered by the late Sir Ashutosh Mookerjee, I could organise the Greater India movement which completed its Silver Jubilee in the year of the Asian Relations Conference.

On my way back from China and Japan, I visited in 1924 our ancient culture colonies of Champa (Viet Nam) and Cambodia in Indo-China, as well as the islands of Java and Bali. In 1927 Tagore sailed for Indonesia leaders of Java and Bali; on his return journey he spent some time in Siam, Malaya and Burma as well. Some of the significant poems that he wrote in this period should now be translated from original Bengali into different Asian languages. The entire East Asia with its rich legacies of Sino-Japanese art (mainly inspired by Indian Buddhism), the art and culture of Indonesia, Siam, Burma, in fact, of the whole of South-East Asia, was made for the first time real to our consciousness by the exploratory zeal and the creative genius of Rabindranath.

My friend Dr. Suniti Kumar Chatterji, a pillar of our Greater India movement, who accompanied Tagore in 1927, has given a very valuable account of this cultural odyssey in his Bengali book Dvipamoy Bharat.

Another learned colleague and a dear friend at the University of Paris, the late Dr. Probodh Chandra Bagchi, opened a new chapter by proceeding to the National University of Peking as a visiting scholar; and he remembered, with gratitude, the fact that he got in touch with Professor Sylvain Levi for the first time in Santiniketan where he was initiated into the various branches of Sino-Indian studies in 1921-1922.

In 1930-31 I had again the privilege of travelling with the Poet through Europe and America. We watched how the venerable Poet, almost in his seventieth year, was still dreaming of exploring fresh fields of cultural collaboration. Visiting Soviet Russia in 1930, Tagore was deeply moved to find how eager were the rural folks of Russia, specially of Soviet Asia, to come to the aid of our unfortunate exploited rural population. Tagore’s Letters from Russia written in Bengali (but not then permitted to be published in English), should now be published by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, pioneer of inter-Asian Relations, for the benefit of all those who cannot read them in the original, and specially for the numerous nations of Soviet Asia who sent such a large and brilliant delegation to the Asian Conference. When in 1931-32. I had the privilege of assembling and publishing The Golden Book of Tagore, messages flocked in from his admirers of Europe and America as well as from Soviet Russia, China, Japan, Indonesia, the Middle East and the Far East.

Tagore’s relations with the Near Eastern countries were most cordial. He passed often through Egypt and King Fuad presented him with a set of valuable Arabic manuscripts for the Islamic Department of the Visva-Bharati. The celebrated Near Eastern poet Bustani personally visited Santiniketan; and I was glad to note that he completed the translations of some of our Sanskrit classics into Arabic.  In 1932 the Poet received a personal invitation from the builder of Modern Iran, Reza Shah Pehlavi. Tagore then in his seventy-first year, flew to Teheran and to Baghdad and amidst the glorious roses of Iran, his birthday was celebrated with banquets and poetic recitals, evoking truly Iranian grace and glamour. The Shah also made gifts of enduring nature to the Poet by sending in his party to Santiniketan the celebrated poet and scholar Poure Daoud, together with some rare manuscripts from the Royal Library.  Thus Iran also joined hands with India. And Iran and Iraq were the last foreign countries which the Poet could visit in his declining years. But even in his sick-bed, whenever he would hear about an Indian going to some outside country, specially to some Asian cultural zone, he would give ethusiastic blessings.

I remember vividly, in this connection, the evening when the venerable Poet was giving readings to us from his Bengali manuscript of Chhelebela (My Younger Days) and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru quietly came into the logue, had a few moments’ conversation, and with his warm benidictions, started on his first voyage to the Chinese Republic. The Poet had the satisfaction of seeing firmly established, through the devoted zeal of Professor Tan Yun-Shan, the Cheena-Bhavana, where a regular cultural exchange between China and India has been established. Scholars and students not only from China, but also from Japan and Java, Siam and Burma, Ceylon, Afghanistan and Iran and far-off Palestine, have been visiting the International University of Visva-Bharati. This account of Tagore’s practically unaided efforts in reviving inter-Asian relations will, I hope, inspire us to undertake our responsibilities in a proper way and on an adequate scale in Free India.

(From Kalidas Nag, Discovery of Asia, Calcutta : The Institute of Asian African Relations, 1957, pp. 9-13.)


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