Meron Shapland recalls the impact Tagore first had on her when she was a spirited teenager.
Rabindranath Tagore was first brought back to my attention one February afternoon at our Richmond satsang (a gathering of speakers), when Satish Kumar came to share with us his idea of a Tagore Festival and to invite us, as a group, to contribute.
I felt then both a stir and a feeling of joy passing through my heart as the thought crossed my mind that a book could be collated for an audience still unfamiliar with the beauty and graceful writings of this fine man, and thus my book A Taste of Tagore was born.
I know that Tagore truly called to me in a whisper to guide me in the selection of the poems, prayers, songs and contemplations that I would include in the book.
I knew from the outset that I wanted Tagore’s own thoughts on certain subjects to be made known to the reader, so I revisited his many speeches and lectures and married together his thinking over a few years to give authentic voice to his thoughts on art, education, construction versus creation, international relations and, most importantly, his own life.
My memories went back to that now distant time when Tagore had first come to meet me: I was an opinionated teenager living in South Africa, with a healthy appetite for philosophy, poetry and psychology, and I was introduced to the ideas and writings of Tagore by a respected mentor of mine.
I already had strong views on colonialism and apartheid and had set off down the ‘activist route’ of youth. I remembered, too, reading what Nehru said when he first heard of Tagore’s passing. He was in a British jail in India at the time and stated: “Gandhi and Tagore...India’s great men...[they] were supreme as human beings.”
I spent some of my formative years in Durban, where Gandhi had lived for a portion of his twenty years in South Africa. During the apartheid era my English-born parents rebelled against the regime. They entertained and, in turn, were entertained in the homes of, their Indian friends – which, at that time, was a rather alien thing for ‘white’ people to do. But it was here in South Africa, during those debates around the dining table over many a famous ‘Durban curry’, that I was first exposed to the writings and thinking of these two great men. And I recall reading that the Nobel committee had passed over Tolstoy, Yeats and Shaw in favour of Tagore, and I was so heartened and impressed by this that I made a conscious effort to seek out his writings for myself.
Over the years, Tagore’s poetry and prayers have never been too far away. He writes about the ebb and flow of life with passion, depth and beauty. Tragedy struck him so many times during one period of his life that he contemplated suicide, but he pushed through and his writings grew even deeper through these experiences.
He was an educator, a musician and an artist – all paths that I too have explored. But, for me, the most important thing about Tagore was his non-sectarianism.
He came from a Hindu family but recognised Buddha as the greatest human being ever to have lived; he extolled the Sermon on the Mount and translated the poems of Kabir, the mystic seer of Islam. The description of his own Bengali family was of “a confluence of three cultures: Hindu, Mohammedan, and British” and this, too, resonates with me through my own personal experiences in life.
We in the West have moved forward in the last 60 years trying to fulfil Tagore’s desire to bring East and West ever closer, and in this Year of Tagore, may we all ever more continue to walk along his path to a deeper understanding of all cultures.
A Taste of Tagore, compiled by Meron Shapland, is published by Green Books. ISBN: 9781900322935