Discovering Gurudev afresh

‘Rabindranath Tagore: 1861-1941 – His Life and Work’ is an enlightening exhibition encompassing his life and achievements.

Often when an accomplished man is exalted to the status of an idol, a demi-God even, he ends up in the pages of history as a mere label, a name exploited by political leaders, the media and cultural experts for their own benefits, but rarely understood by anyone at all. From the time that a child starts schooling in India, specifically Bengal, he is ‘fed’ Rabindranath Tagore as a litterateur, a painter, a dramatist, but seldom ever do we delve into his life and philosophy of living. Can any of us really claim to know ‘Tagore,’ the man?

Now a scholar, Uma Dasgupta has put in herculean effort and thought into mounting a comprehensive exhibition on Rabindranath Tagore, his life and work. Illustrated with sparkling archival photographs of the bard and excerpts from his introspective writing, the exhibition facilitates a rare sneak-peek into his mind. The exhibit, at Delhi’s India International Centre, is part of a much larger display on at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Rashtrapati Bhavan in Shimla.

Though packed in a single room, it is remarkable how the exhibit encompasses a full 80 years of Tagore’s life and creative accomplishments. On view, firstly, are a few gems of photographs of Rabindranath Tagore and his family. Most of us have seen him in popular media as the bearded, aged, saintly man. But here you will find a snap of a young Tagore, strapping, broad-shouldered and only 17. Then there is a beautiful family photograph of his wife Mrinalini, daughters Bela and Renuka and son Rathi. Mrinalini looks every bit the Bangali bouthaan (mistress of the house) from an era past.

The labour of his life, Shantiniketan, finds a place of prominence in the display. There are several pictures of classes on in full swing at the Visva-Bharati University: a botany class in the open garden where students examine flowers under a microscope, music classes under international tutors such as Alain Daniélou and art students painting murals on the varsity walls. There are also some curated excerpts from his writings on education: “The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence.”

 (Tagore, My School)There is a whole series of photographs of his travels, lectures abroad and meetings with luminaries of his time, besides the majestic blue and golden Nobel Medallion and Citation for Literature conferred on him in 1913. Tagore travelled incessantly from 1878 to 1932 all over Europe, Asia and the middle-east. He met personalities such as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, HG Wells, Benedetto Croce, Bernard Shaw etc. In a thoughtfully-picked up text, displayed here, he says, “The world has received me in its arms, I shall do the same.”
Then there are instances of his exchanges and visits with ‘friends’ Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru too. It is almost incredulous to see a frail and naked fakir Gandhi and a top-to-toe dressed, bearded Tagore jumping with joy at receiving each other. Nehru even inaugurated the Hindi Bhavan of Visva-Bharati.

There is so much that you wouldn’t know about Tagore, the omnipresent figure in Indian culture and art. ‘Rabindranath Tagore: 1861-1941 – His Life and Work,’ the exhibition, demystifies him for us all.

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