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18 June, 2012, Colombo:
WHAT TAGORE MEANS TO SRI LANKA
“TAGORE AND SRI LANKA”: A JOINT SEMINAR BY THE INDIAN CULTURAL CENTRE, CENTRE FOR
INDIAN STUDIES UNIVESITY OF COLOMBO, AND LAKSHMAN KADIRGAMAR INSTITUTE
18 June, 2012, Colombo:
An inspirational one-day joint seminar on “Tagore and Sri Lanka” commemorating the 150
birth anniversary of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore (1861 1941) was organized by the Indian Cultural Centre, Centre for Contemporary Indian Studies University of Colombo, and the Lakshman Kadirgamar
Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies on 12 June, 2012. The seminar was
triumphant and memorable not only in terms of its stirring addresses delivered by eminent Indian
and Sri Lankan scholars as well as by Hon. Minister Dr. Sarath Amunugama and H.E. Ashok Kantha,
High Commissioner of India to a bursting audience with many distinguished guests, but also because
the seminar was successful in creating among the participants palpable feelings of nostalgia and the
universal connectedness and love dreamt by Tagore for humanity. Participants of the seminar were
roused by the poetry, literature, music, dance, art, and patriotism of Tagore, elevated by the
philosophy and spirituality of Tagore, and filled with a renewed respect for Sri Lanka's heritage,
loved by Tagore.
One came to understand the special relationship between Tagore and Sri Lanka as
well as gain an impression of the profound heart and open mind of Tagore - the philosopher, the
creative artist, the educationalist, the humanist, the patriot - as progressed by time and spirit.
The distinguished speakers of the academic sessions of the seminar included: Prof. Bharati Ray (Keynote Address: "Through the Prism of Travel: Rabindranath Tagore's Internationalism”), Prof. K.N.O. Dharmadasa ("Tagore's Translations in Sinhala and Their Impact”), Prof. Vini Vitharana ("Reminiscing within Narrow Domestic Walls”), Prof. Wimal Dissanayake ("The Poetic Humanism of Rabindranath Tagore”), Dr. Sandagomi Coperahewa ("Tagore's Visits to Sri Lanka: Revisited”), Prof. Radha Chakravarty (“Linking Cultures: Tagore's Travels to Sri Lanka”), Prof. Tissa Kariyawasam ("Rabindranath Tagore: A Visionary Visits Sri Lanka”), Dr. Sushobhan Adhikary (“Influence of Kandyan Dance on Tagore Dance-drama”), Mr. Ravibandhu Vidyapathi ("Tagorean Dance Drama and its Influence on Sri Lankan Dance Theatre”), and Mr. Chandraguptha Thenuwara (“Tagore's Influence on Sri Lankan Visual Arts”).
H. E. Ashok Kantha the High Commissioner of India introduced Rabindranath Tagore as he is known: a
“multifaceted genius”, the “quintessential renaissance man”, and a “dissenter among dissenters”. Mr.
Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, Executive Director of the Kadirgamar Institute stated that “as Sri Lanka
works to build a harmonious society through reconciliation in post-war Sri Lanka, this seminar on
Gurudev Tagore will certainly bring back great thoughts and values needed to build a peaceful society”.
H.E. the High Commissioner of India also spoke of Tagore's earnest mission to restore the kindred
relationship shared between India and Sri Lanka in ancient times. “No estrangement is possible
between India and Sri Lanka due to history and geography”, Hon. Minister Dr. Amunugama said. As
such, India and Sri Lanka will remain forever more, “inseparable friends”. During one of Tagore's visits
to Sri Lanka, Tagore said addressing a gathering in Colombo: “Although the political constitution of modern
Ceylon separates this country from India, it is no secret that its history, religion, language, morals, culture and
everything else are closely linked to India…Although the spiritual bond between the two countries that was
there in the past has collapsed, time has come to put that together again and strengthen it.”
Prof. Radha Chakravarty added that, Tagore's affirmation of the civilizational links between Sri Lanka and India
was “his vision of a harmonious world beyond the territorial boundaries of the modern nation-state”. For
Tagore, it was “Bharat”, instead of “India”. Tagore hoped to revive India-Sri Lanka ties by the awakening of a Sri
Lankan nationalist spirit. Tagore was a patriot and an anti-imperialist because he was opposed to the aggressive
nationalism pursued by Western (colonial) powers. Thus, Tagore was a catalyst in the resurgence of Sri Lankan
arts and culture - and pride beginning in the latter years of British colonial rule. Because of Tagore's initiative,
there was for the first time public appreciation for Sri Lankan arts and culture in Sri Lanka. Tagore taught Sri
Lanka that independence means not only political freedom, but cultural freedom. In one of his speeches
during his 1934 visit, Tagore had stated: “I thought it was my mission to come Ceylon to spread this message
of our Oriental culture to those who by some unfortunate external circumstances have forgotten their own
past and who are ready to disown their richest inheritance”.
It can be noted that Tagore visited Sri Lanka at a
time when the English-educated Sri Lankan elite treated the ancient cultures of India and Sri Lanka with
contempt. “Of course their contempt was due to the ignorance of their own language and literature and of
ancient Indian culture”, Dr. Sandagomi Coperahewa said.
Tagore's Love for Sri Lanka
Tagore made three main trips to Sri Lanka in 1922, 1928, and 1934 the visit in 1934 being the most significant (this was also Tagore's last overseas visit in his lifetime). It was in 1934 that Tagore inaugurated the Sri Palee College in Horana, Sri Lanka, which was inspired by Tagore's model of education at the Vishva-Bharati University in Shantiniketan, West Bengal which was founded by Tagore, where students learned in open-air classes in a rural setting and art and spirituality played a central role in learning. Tagore believed that education should give freedom - freedom of spirit and mind.
There were also two other lesser known short visits to Sri Lanka by Tagore as well as a visit in the early 1890s,
while Tagore was a student at the University of London revealing Tagore's emotional attachment to Sri Lanka.
When Tagore was in Sri Lanka, he did not only spend time in Colombo, but went to Anuradhapura, Galle, Kandy,
and Matara, as well as Jaffna, Panadura, Horana, and other places in Sri Lanka such was his interest in Sri Lanka
and its people. “Tagore does not see this cultural interface as a one-way process, but an eclectic, syncretic
approach to influences from cultures outside India - this remains one the most striking features of his
oeuvre”, Prof. Radha Chakravarthy said. Sri Lanka offered much to Tagore. For example, “Tagore was
enthralled by the Kandyan dance”, Prof. Bharati Ray said. Tagore wrote a poem on Kandyan dancing and his
dance-dramas incorporated Kandyan dance styles and costumes, such as in “Chandalika” and “Mayar Khela”
(Tagore's first musical play). Tagore's appreciation of Kandyan dancing helped encourage the revival of this
style from formal perahera processions to the mainstream in Sri Lanka.
Tagore's fascination with Sri Lanka can be attributed to two factors, Dr. Sandagomi Coperahewa said: his awareness of the Sinhalese people and culture having descended from immigrants from the Bengal region in ancient times and due to his profound respect for Theravada Buddhism and the Buddhist heritage of the island. One recalls Tagore's song about the Buddha, “Please be born again…” (two lines loosely translated being: “The world today is wild with the delirium of hatred, All creatures are crying for a new birth of thine”). Tagore was also aware of Anagarika Dharmapala's (1864-1933) pioneering Buddhist revival work in India, and the Maha Bodhi
journal (1892) started by Dharmapala was patronized by Indian intellectuals such as Tagore who contributed articles and poems to it, and needless to say, Dharmapala had great respect for Tagore. While in India, Sri Lankan art critic and historian Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877-1947) also formed close relationships with the Tagore family, and was involved in both the literary renaissance and the Swadeshi movement - an early
phase of the struggle for Indian independence.
Sri Lanka's Love for Tagore
Tagore's legacy in Sri Lankan cultural and intellectual life is unmistakable, Rabindranath Tagore being
the key personality in the cultural renaissance of modern Sri Lanka and having exerted the greatest
influence on Sri Lankan arts and culture among foreign individuals.
After Tagore's travels to Sri Lanka, a
vast majority of the Sinhalese intellectuals welcomed Tagore's ideas, and later his literary works began to
appear in the Sinhala language. Thus, Tagore influenced not only English-educated Sri Lankans but also
the Sinhalese-educated, Prof. K. N. O. Dharmadasa said. Tagore is the foreign author most translated
into Sinhala, for example, Gitanjali has been translated no less than seven times into Sinhala in Sri
Sri Lankan leaders in the arts also studied at Tagore's Vishva-Bharati University in Shantiniketan,
and thus were greatly influenced by Tagore. These individuals include Ananda Samarakoon (who wrote
and composed the Sri Lankan national anthem, the tune being heavily influenced by Tagore's music as
Ananda Samarakoon was Rabindranath Tagore's student), Ediriweera Sarachchandra, W.B. Makuloluwa,
Sunil Shantha, Chitrasena, Premakumara Epitawala, Shesha Palihakara, and Soma Vidyapathy.
However, it should be noted that although these artists have been undeniably influenced by Tagore in
verse, literature, song, dance, or painting, Tagore also inspired these great artistes to retain a
characteristic national flavour in their creations (which are distinct from the Tagorean style). Just as
“Rabindra Sangeeth” was not purely traditional Begali music, says Prof. Vini Vitharana, Ananda
Samarakoon for example, combined many musical traditions into Sri Lankan music including veddah
(aboriginal) and Portuguese music, while retaining a Sinhala folk touch, and Sunil Shantha did the same.
Other Sri Lankan greats including P. B. Alwis Perera, Kapila seneviratne, Amaradeva, Mahagama Sekara, and Druvinka Madawala have been deeply influenced by Tagore's thought or artistic style. It is can be observed that Sri Lankan writers, poets, and artists may have been especially attracted to Tagore for three reasons: his profound nature poetry, unparalleled intellect, and spiritual wisdom, Prof. K. N. O. Dharmadasa said. In an article titled “Tagore and Ceylon” (1964), Martin Wickremasinghe (1890-1976), the foremost Sinhala writer in modern times said: “…The enduring appeal of Tagore to the intelligentsia of Ceylon is his attitude to religion and life which he expressed artistically in his poetry and with imagination and religious perception in his lectures and essays.”
Tagore is Much More
In concluding his address, Prof. Vini Vitharana lamented over Tagore's influence in Sri Lanka largely
being limited to the revival in the arts, not having deeply impacted the philosophical, spiritual, and
humanistic thought of the island, in which Tagore, Nobel Prize Laureate, made significant
contributions to the world. It seems, Prof. Vini Vitharana said, that Sri Lanka remained confined to the
“narrow domestic walls” which Tagore warned against in his poem, “Where the Mind is without Fear”,
Gitanjali (1913). Prof. Vitharana urged the Sri Lankan nation-builders of today to embrace Tagore's
egalitarian and cosmopolitan concepts found in Gitanjali
Prof. Wimal Dissanayake said, that although “Rabindranath Tagore has distinguished himself as a
poet, novelist, short story writer, dramatist, artist, musician, educationist and social thinker, running
through all his manifold endeavors, is the unmistakable thread of humanism”
humanism defined by
concepts such as 'individual freedom' and 'the individual as the creator of her/his actions'. He said that
although Yeats and Ezra were blown away by Tagore, the West largely has a narrow understanding of
Tagore, seeing him mainly as a 'mystic' when he was in actuality a multifaceted personality and very
much also a man of action, being a vocal patriot, an educationalist, a dramatist, and much more.
“poetic humanism” of Tagore, Prof. Dissanayake divided into the six elements of: (1) literature and the
arts, (2) patriotism (advocating of traditional/ cultural model), (3) education (the arts and spirituality occupying a central role in Tagore's system of education), (4) modernity (breaking away from socially and spiritually constricting elements), (5) cosmopolitanism (“cosmopolitanism with a national face”), and (6) (philosophy of) freedom (as “humility arises from freedom”).
Prof. Dissanayake explained that for Tagore the individual was always connected to society, and never
isolated from it. Tagore's concept of language (and literature) also differs from the (Western postmodern)
notion that it is instrumental in nature (manipulating human understanding): for Tagore, language was a
part of humanity, it constituted humanity. For example, Tagore narrated the Upanishads and also Buddhist
concepts in his (nature) poetry, which reflects a complicated relationship of the poet to the world, the
cosmos, and the universe.
Prof. Dissanayake believes that even the Bengali scholars have not fully explored Gitanjali
, and thus that “Gitanjali
remains to be rediscovered”.
Although an anti-imperialist and (thereby having been made) a patriot, Rabindranath Tagore was a true cosmopolitan, having travelled to more than 30 countries in his lifetime at a time when travel was an arduous and time-consuming affair. He seeked to understand other cultures through personal experience, in order to gain a true perception of them. During his travels, Tagore explained his ideal of Vishva-Bharati and raised funds for its development, and continued with his dream of establishing contacts between different cultures and people. He believed in a Cultural Federation of the World for the future with “international cultural development”, where one culture does not try to dominate another but each is enriched by contact with others. Tagore has said: “The day has come for cooperation, the day of nationalistic cultures is gone.” Tagore's work also plainly displays his universalism, his influence being many including: Rumi of Persia, the Buddha, Bengali culture, Kabir, Baul, Nietzsche of Germany, Islam, Christianity, Vaisnavism, and many more (including
his father, Debendranath Tagore, a leader of the Brahmo Samaj, which was a new religious sect in 19 century Bengal, which attempted a revival of the ultimate monistic basis of Hinduism as laid down in the Upanishads who also made a visit to Sri Lanka before Rabindranath). Thus, needless to say, the world, and especially Sri Lanka, is deeply indebted to the Gurudev on several counts.
The seminar concluded with a musical rendition of Rabindra Sangeet with soulful and sweet vocals by Shantiniketan Alumnus Mr. Chamith Perera, which included one of Tagore's greatest compositions (which was also the favourite song of Mahatma Gandhi his devoted friend), “Ekla Chalo Re” (“Walk Alone”: “…If nobody responds to your call, alone you must go along your way…”) - an example of how human literary and artistic endeavour may communicate Truth.
The Kadirgamar Institute functions as a forum for the generation of research and analysis, with a view to providing an input to national policy formulation, while acting as a bridge that connects scholars and experts with statesmen, public officials and the Sri Lankan community.
Issued by: Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKIIRSS)
For further information, please contact Iromi Dharmawardhane at: (011) 2687025/ 5363501-3 or email:
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