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Tagore's Legacy

daya dissanayake

To commemorate the 150th Birth Anniversary of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian Cultural Center, Colombo, Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and The Center for Contemporary Indian Studies, University of Colombo had organized a one-day seminar on Tagore and Sri Lanka.

It was a very timely discussion, well organized, well represented and well attended and all the credit goes to the organizers.

The Seminar began with the singing of the National Anthems. Many of the Sri Lankans sang along with the recorded music, while the Indian delegates were silent, and then the Indians sang with the Indian Anthem. Looking at the photograph of Tagore on the screen, I wondered how wonderful it would have been, and how happy Tagore would have been, had he been here this morning, if we had been able to sing one song, a song for humanity, a Universal Anthem, a Vishvagita. We came together to honour Gurudev, but we sang separately.

It was mentioned that in the early 20's of the last century, this song, Janaganamana had been used as a national anthem at Mahinda College, Galle, by replacing Bharato by Sinhalo. In the same manner if we could change Bharato to 'Loko' (if that is the correct Bengali term) and use the names of continents and major geographical landmarks instead of Indian states and landmarks, then we could have a Universal Anthem, which could be sung by all mankind. Tagore would have agreed with such changes.

Tagore himself had translated the song into English, and named it 'The Morning Song of India', and we could rename it 'The Morning Song of Humanity'. The English version is available in the public domain, it could now be translated into all world languages, but still retain a universal anthem in the original Bengali in honour of Tagore, because he was a true human being, a true Purushottama. Tagore does not belong to India. He belongs to the whole world, to all life in the universe, the multiverse. He does not belong to England, even though a mockery of the Nobel was made with the opening words of the Award Ceremony Speech "In awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to the 'Anglo-Indian' poet, Rabindranath Tagore.." and in the same speech referring to Debendranath Tagore and the Brahmo Samaj, "an enlightened and influential man who had been much impressed by the doctrines of Christianity" (Harold Hjame, Chairman Nobel Committee). But the colonial masters failed to make Tagore to be a cultural comprador.

About 'Janaganamana' Tagore had said, "In a sense it is more a religious hymn for all mankind than a national anthem for any country". If Vandemataram had been retained as the national anthem of India, perhaps someday Janaganamana could have been easily adapted as the global anthem. As Tagore had written in a letter in 1921, "I love India, but my India is an idea and not a geographical expression. Therefore, I am not a patriot - I shall seek my compatriots all over the world".

National Anthems around the world were a result of the emergence of nations. Its origins could be traced to Europe, the industrial and economic revolutions, because there was a need for such a socio-political organization. But today the situation has changed once again, when it is time for a concept of Universalism instead of Nationalism, which Tagore envisaged a century ago. Tagore had written that nationalism is "the organized self interest of a people, where it is least human and least spiritual". (Nationalism, 1916). Most nations which have identified themselves under different names today, had been under different states, different kingdoms or reigns, and such kingdoms, expanded, contracted, split up all depending on the strength of their leaders. Perhaps earth will become One Nation when someday we are invaded by life from outer space.

Today we honour Tagore for creating the national anthems of India and Bangladesh and also influencing the national anthem of Sri Lanka. Yet had he been with us today would he have been happy with the honour, or would he have renounced it the way he renounced his knighthood?

As my thoughts were moving along these lines, I heard mention of "ekla chalo re", "if they answer not to thy call walk alone". I wondered if we have, all this time taken this song at its face value, and are we, each one of us, walking alone, when we could all walk together, or make a serious attempt to do so, before venturing out alone. This thought grew stronger, as someone from the audience asked about the effect Tagore had on Jaffna, her people and her culture, because of his visits to Jaffna and also how he was accepted in the north. We look forward to attending another seminar, which could be arranged by these same organizers, with participants from Jaffna and also from the Tamil speaking community which includes the Tamils and the Muslims in Sri Lanka, so that the main theme, Tagore and Sri Lanka would be covered completely.

Another question raised by the audience was of the 'theistic' and 'atheistic' views of Tagore. That is an irrelevant issue, because such a question comes to our minds only when we think in the English language. The concept of God, of 'theism' as known in the west, has no relevance to Tagore, to India or to the entire east. If we are to use all such western labels, then Tagore was a theist and an atheist, a Hindu, a Jain, a Buddhist, a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim and a heretic.

Let us learn from the entire song, 'Jodi tor daak shune', instead of only 'ekla chalo re', and sing together and walk together to a better, more humane world.

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