Cyprus Mail

Tagore: one of India’s finest minds has lessons for Cyprus

A meeting of minds - Albert Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore pictured in 1930

By Stephanos Stephanides

When in 2016 the former Indian High Commissioner to Cyprus, Ravi Bangar, suggested offering the University of Cyprus a bust of the eminent Indian poet, intellectual and humanist, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), I was delighted.

The statue will finally be inaugurated this Tuesday by the Indian President Shri Ram Nath Govind, during his visit to Cyprus.

I have been a lifelong admirer of Tagore ever since I first read him as a teenager in the 60s, when Western culture opened its imagination eastward through the writings of the Beat poets, the music of Ravi Shankar, and the healing power of yoga.

In the course of my life and career as a poet, writer and scholar, my admiration grew as I discovered the multifaceted complexity of his work, and realised that he was more than a post-Romantic visionary from the East, but also a modernist living in the final throes of British rule in India.

Above all else, he is credited with the renaissance of modern India: his philosophy of education, aesthetics and religion, and deep understanding of culture and tradition inspired him to respond to and transform the social realities shaped by colonialism and modernity. His essay on Viswa-Sahitya (World Literature) was essential to my teaching of comparative world literature.

In one of his talks delivered during his visit to Greece in 1926, he stated: “Both young Greeks and Indians always have to struggle to live on the level of our glorious past. Yet it is not enough to ponder on the past only, we have to live in the modern reality.”

Tagore was born in Calcutta, India, wrote in Bengali and often translated his own work into English. He was the first Asian to receive the Nobel Prize, which was awarded to him for Literature in 1913.  As well as a writer of poetry, fiction, drama, essays and songs, in later life he also turned to painting and drawing.

In the way that he creatively fused tradition and cosmopolitanism, he had a major impact on what came to be known as the Bengali Renaissance.  He was a critic of both British imperialism and of nationalism, avowing that humanity must triumph over patriotism.

His novel The Home and the World, which articulates the struggles between nationalism and cosmopolitanism, public and private life, set against the historical background of the partition of Bengal between Hindus and Moslems enacted by Lord Curzon in 1905, is one of my favourites.

This work is readily available in Greek translation, and for Cypriot readers can serve as an interesting reflection on our shared historical realities of colonialism, nationalism and partition.

Tagore travelled widely, visiting at least thirty countries on five continents; he met with some of the great minds of his time including WB Yeats and Ezra Pound, and corresponded with the Greek poets, Costis Palamas and Angelos Sikelianos.  Most notably, he met with Albert Einstein in Germany in 1930, and the two great men discussed a range of subjects including truth, beauty, reality and consciousness. They shared a genuine curiosity about each other, and their famous dialogue (available online) reveals a convergence of scientific and poetic vision.

Tagore believed that civilisation must be valued not through the power it acquires but though the way its institutions inspire and support a love for humanity. He believed in education that was an open model, one that would promote the aesthetic development of the senses in a natural environment. He famously said that the highest education is one that does more than give us information; it is one that produces a life in harmony with the whole of existence.  He favoured teaching in the open air without the constraints of walls.

His educational philosophy was realised with the establishment of the Shantiniketan School (Abode for Peace) in the rural hinterland of Bengal.  In 1921, and with the gift of Tagore’s Nobel prize money, the school was expanded into a university.

After Indian independence, the university was renamed Viswa-Bharati, a name fusing the words for the world and for India.  Its educational philosophy inspired the vision and methodology of Maria Montessori, who visited the campus in 1934. Among the university’s many distinguished alumni are the Nobel-laureate economist Amartya Sen and the world-renowned filmmaker Satyajit Ray, whose body of work includes film versions of several Tagore novels, such as The Home and the World.

Tagore’s philosophy, writings and ideas can serve to inspire and expand the Cypriot educational vision.

His bust will be unveiled on the campus of the University of Cyprus by the President of India, Shri Ram Nath Govind, on Tuesday, September 4 2018, at 11.00am, Room  108, Anastasios G. Leventis Building. The president will also give a lecture ‘Youth, technology and ideas: shaping the contours of the 21st century.’


Stephanos Stephanides is a poet, writer and former professor of comparative/world literature at the University of Cyprus

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