Java-Yatrir Patra – Rabindranath Tagore’s Indonesian experience

Rabindranath Tagore at Borobudur Temple, Central Java
Rabindranath Tagore at Borobudur Temple

By Poonam Sagar: “Curiosity is the very basis of education and if you tell me that curiosity killed the cat, I say only the cat died nobly.” Arnold Edinborough

I am have been caught up in the frenzy of the 150th birth anniversary celebtrations of Indian Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore from Shantiniketan to Shanghai, and it is all due to a meeting with MK Singh, director of the Indian Cultural Center in Jakarta, that whetted my curiosity.

May 9th 2011 marked the 150th birth anniversary of the poet, mystic and musical composer born in Calcutta, India. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, for his collection of devotional poems Gitanjali, and was knighted in 1915 but resigned the knighthood to protest Britain’s action as colonial ruler of India. A great friend of Mahatma Gandhi, Tagore died on Aug 7, 1941 in Calcutta. A prolific author, he wrote over 50 volumes of poetry, plays, paintings and a wide variety of other works, and left a rich cultural legacy of thoughts, ideals, teachings and values.

My guide to Rabindranath Tagore is Mr Rajat DasGupta, author of ‘The Eclipsed Sun‘ and his wonderful translations of the Bengali poems into English. One of the poems is ‘Sagarika‘ or originally ‘Bali’ wherein Tagore implores in his travels to Indonesia.

I come as your guest, I said ‘In your woods by the sea where the south wind blows. My veena is all I have with me. Look at me; see if you recognize me’

An excerpt in Bengali below:

Sagar jale sinan kori sajala elo chule
bashiachhile upala-upakule.
Shithila peetabash
matir pare kutilarekha lutilo charipash.
Nirabaran bakshe taba, nirabharan dehe
chikan sona-likhan usha ankia dilo snehe.
Makarachura mukutkhani pori lalatpare
dhanukbaan dhori dakhin kare
danranu raj-beshi
Kahinu “ami eshechhi pardeshi”

To symbolize India’s millennia old tradition to connect to South East Asia with humanistic ideas, religious values, music and culture along with merchandise. The poem explores the necessity to renew this bond within the framework of mutual respect.

To quote from Tagore’s diary:
Tibet, Mongolia, Malayas, wherever India had preached her wisdom, had been through genuine human relations. To-day my pilgrimage is to witness those historical evidences of man’s holy access everywhere. Also to note is, that India of yore did not preach some cut and dried sermons, but inaugurated the inner treasure of man through architecture, sculpture, painting, music and literature, stamps of which remain in the deserts, woods, rocks, isles, rugged terrain and difficult resolve”. [Java diary, July, 1927]

At a send-off to his journey to Singapore, Malaya, Java, Borneo, Sumatra and Indonesia on a three and a half month Southeast Asian tour in July 1927, Tagore said that he was going on a pilgrimage to India beyond its modern political boundaries. ‘India’s true history reflected in the many stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata will be seen more clearly’, he wrote, ‘when we are able to compare with the texts that are to found here [in Southeast Asia]’

While he journeyed from Singapore across the straits of Malacca towards Batavia Tagore wrote his poem ‘Srivijayalakshmi‘ celebrating the renewal of a bond after a thousand-year separation, an ode to the ancient Srivijaya empire. A classical response to this poem was composed by a leading Javanese poet Doetadilaga (Timboel):

“Remember how we never could believe in days past that our love would know separation; perfect was our harmony, one our thought, one our soul and one our body, “ the unity of God and creature nigh. Verily I saw in you my elder brother guiding me in the ways of the world, teaching me scripture, tongue and behavior, and all that we need to exist.”

An amazing study by Dr Arun Das Gupta ‘Rabindranath Tagore in Indonesia, An Experiment in Bridge-Building‘ takes you on this journey with Tagore along with extracts from his journals.