Gurudev's legacy on wheels

Totality through different facets

Gurudev's legacy  on wheels

One of the paintings

“This looks like our Kannagi (Tamil icon of womanhood and chastity)!” exclaimed a high school lad from one of the Chennai schools without batting an eyelid at the first sight of a mystifying sketch of an angry young woman with luxuriant flowing black hair turning her back to the world by ‘Gurudev’ Rabindranath Tagore. The silhouette was a stunner as much as it brought out the variety of paintings done by the ‘Kavi Guru’.

 It was no sylvan surroundings of ‘Visva-Bharati’ that Tagore had initially started as a small school in Santiniketan in West Bengal. The young boys and girls were mesmerised, overawed and winged into a new perspective inside a five-coach moving exhibition, ‘Sanskriti Express’, a unique effort by the Indian Railways to bring alive Tagore’s legacy to a whole new generation, to commemorate the great poet's 150th birth anniversary. 

Chugging across in many parts of the country, the ‘Exhibition on Wheels’, has kindled new interest in Tagore among the youth in particular, most of whose knowledge about him may not have gone beyond he being the first Indian to win the Nobel Prize for
Literature in 1913, and as the author of National Anthems of two Nations - India and Bangladesh.

The train will arrive in Bangalore from Mysore on Monday. Even if words fail to articulate feelings in their totality, they are complex , live and pulsating as every element of it yearns for a connect with a kindred spirit with a similar wavelength. This wonder train on Tagore’s Life and Work - even if five compartments are barely enough- precisely did that to manifest that totality through different facets that you pick up and identity with what makes your heart tick. 

There was this Tagore - the universal Poet, with over 2000 songs “he left as his most popular legacy to his people”. The coach that was decorated with his beautiful songs in Bengali with a sprinkling of their translations into English was aptly named ‘Gitanjali’, the fantastic collection that made him world famous and won for him and the country the ‘Nobel Prize’. The covers of ‘Gitanjali’ translated into 20 languages were on display, triggering a sense of wonder in the viewers. Seeing the English translation of a Tagore poem, ‘Kiss’, an enchanting piece of love poetry that nuances the theme of belonging and parting, another high school boy took out his notebook and religiously took down every word. His teachers were just humble onlookers.

Tagore-- the gifted dramatist from the age of 16, the passionate and prolific writer he was, as evidenced from his historic May 30, 1919 letter to the then Viceroy Lord Chelmsford, returning his Knighthood title conferred by the British in protest against the Jalianwallabagh mass killings in Punjab that year, and as the fascinating painter that Tagore emerged in his later years, besides the early socio-cultural influences on him and the globe-trotter that he was as a humanist and internationalist, all rolled out alongside vivid images, a throwback to a time when India was on the cusp of a great change.
Just sample these vignettes from his remarkably varied writings: “I realised gradually that life must be seen through the window of death, as the inevitable way to Truth,” wrote Tagore in a letter to Amiya Chakravarty on June 22, 1917, that partly explains how he came to terms with a terrible tragedy and pain when one of his close relatives committed suicide.

Another letter to the British painter Rothenstein (who drew a series of portraits of Tagore during a trip to India in 1912 when he visited the Tagore family home), the poet sees a harmony between life and death to say how the meaning of the “setting sun is not in its disappearance, but in the sunrise, in the new Morning.” Such displays came out as very illuminating to the young, imparting a sense of equanimity to make them see suicide is futile.

“The Calcutta where I was born (May 7, 1861) was an altogether old-world place. Hackney carriages lumbered about the city raising clouds of dust and the whips fell on the backs of skinny horses, whose bones showed plainly below their hide,” is a classic autobiographical noting, as much as his talk in Geneva in 1930 - when his paintings were a rage in Europe - was very forthright: “My pictures… occur out of accidents, just a play with lines.”

If these were tantalising to spark a revisit to a forgotten romantic idealist like Tagore, a priceless collage of rare pictures of ‘Gurudev’ - with Mahatma Gandhi at Santiniketan (February, 1940) when the poet urges him to take charge of Visva-Bharati, with Nehru and the then young Indira, with Helen Keller (1929-30) and snapshots with Albert Einstein and George Bernard Shaw, not to forget the photo of Tagore’s Nobel medallion which a few years back went missing from Santinekatan - have added a visually gripping dimension, giving a glimpse into the versatile genius. And all this are in a train for Tagore, who saw and lived life as a bonding journey, constantly striving as an organic whole to seize the ‘immaculate and the perfect’.   

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