Sundeep Bhutoria

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Shanghai honours the Bard of Bengal


President Pratibha Patil is in Shanghai where she would be formally unveiling the bust of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. As we celebrate the 150th Birth Anniversary of Gurudev this year, I personally feel that Gurudev has received a lot more respect and reverence in many other parts of the world than in India.
I have visited a number of countries and found that Gurudev’s appeal cuts across geographies and cultures and he is highly revered as a towering intellectual of his times. From Latin America, Europe, Far East and China the respect and honour bestowed upon Tagore is unrivalled and remains largely unknown to many Indians. Take for example Santiago (Chile), the birthplace of Pablo Neruda, has a Park named in honour of Tagore. During my visit to that Park I saw a huge bust of Rabindranath Tagore at the centre of the city along with that of Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru (picture).
When Tagore visited Latin America in 1924 he fell ill and was nursed by the famous and beautiful Lady Victoria Ocampo. Lady Ocampo, who was a lynchpin of the intellectual scene of the 1920s and '30s in Argentina, had serious literary interests and had read Andre Gide’s French translation of Gitanjali. She keenly followed Tagore’s works and was the editor of one of the leading literary magazine of Latin America called SUR.
Tagore was also very impressed by Victoria and named her Vijaya and dedicated the poems he wrote in Argentina to her under the titlePurabi. Tagore, who was in Argentina for two-and-half months, also drew some sketches during his stay. The House in which Gurudev stayed is now under UNESCO. With the help of the then Indian Ambassador to Argentina, Mr Nigam, I had visited that House at Illartodo, 1811 Coradaba, which is an hour’s drive from Buenos Aires.
Ms Maria, the personal secretary of Lady Victoria Ocampo, takes care of the Trust that was set up by Victoria for the promotion of literature. During my visit I met Ms Maria and she was the one who gave the permission to visit the House where Tagore had stayed during his illness. In 1970 Indira Gandhi visited the place and placed a stone to mark her visit to the House.
In 2002, when I visited Latin America, I found the same love and reverence for Gurudev in Peru, Brazil, Chile and Venezuela. But I remember my visit to Hungary for a very different and embarrassing reason.
Rabindranath Tagore had visited Hungary in 1926. The Mayor of Budapest had hosted a civic reception in his honour. I have seen the invitation card and the menu of Mayor’s reception framed and kept as a memento at the Ambassador’s room at the Indian Mission in Budapest. Tagore was perhaps the only man from this part of the world to get such a reception. There is a small village 100 kms from Budapest called Balatonfured that has a statue of Gurudev. The village hospital, where the bard was treated, has a suite named Tagore Suite that is reserved for the VIPs. Even today the village celebrates Tagore’s birthday with full of reverence. When I visited the Hospital in Balatonfured, the director of the Hospital, Dr Gabor Veress, asked me about the nearest airport to Santiniketan and the museum where the Nobel Prize was kept. He wanted to visit and see the medal Tagore had won. I was caught off guard. It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. What could I tell him – That the Nobel Prize had been stolen?  I had no answer.
My trip to Hungary took place just after the medallion was stolen. I did not have the face to formally invite Dr Veress to Santiniketan. Even now, I still don’t have the moral courage to invite him formally.
I visited Prague, the capital of Czech Republic, in 2004 on the invitation of University of Economics. I visited Thakur Riva - the street named after Gurudev Rabindranath Thakur. I also visited the spot where a bust of the bard is set atop a pillar that marks the starting point of Thakur Riva.
As I read about the Indian President’s current visit to China, I recalled that this is not the first time that China is honouring the Bard of Bengal. Shanghai has immortalised the conversation of Tagore and a Chinese poet over tea in a sculpture currently housed in one of the museums (picture)I recall the days when Smt Pratibha Patil ji was the Governor of Rajasthan she was at my house for dinner (pictures) and I had mentioned to her about the respect accorded to Gurudev Internationally referring to the picture lying on the table. After many years today the President of India, who has a personal interest in literature, is in Shanghai to unveil the statue of Tagore in honour of the Nobel laureate’s journey to the city in 1924.
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