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Life Arts    H4'ed 7/8/12

A translation and interpretation of Rabindranath Tagore's poem, Africa

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[During his illustrious lifetime, Rabindranath Tagore traveled extensively around the world, generating inspiration and veneration in most destinations as the emissary of the East and of a deeply futuristic universalist philosophy.   An assessment of the intellectuals and cultural icons of the world that Tagore encountered, interacted with, and influenced, is both astonishing and indeed still waiting to be adequately evaluated.   His exchanges with Einstein, Wells, Rolland, Gide, Freud, Durant, Yeats, Rothenstein, Andrews, Noguchi, Gandhi, Radhakrishnan, Nehru, Bose and numerous others are well documented.


Tagore's literary works and public life centered around rejoicing in, and celebrating everything unique and artistic in human culture.   In the grandest sense, he did not see one culture (East, West, Middle-East, or Latin America) as necessarily inferior or lesser than another.   He was endlessly fascinated by all lofty pursuits of the human mind, no matter their points of origin.   As much as he participated in India's freedom movement against British imperial rule, and served as the nation's greatest inspirational voice through his lectures, teachings, literary works, and of course, his greatest forte, poetry and musical compositions, Tagore empathized as well as identified with the cause of freedom and the struggle against oppression and violence everywhere in the world.   In Iran, where he was received and feted by the Shah, he spoke in highly reverential terms about the works of Hafiz (see URL: ), Omar Khayyam and other Persian poets and philosophers.   In Turkey, he developed special bonds with Kemal Ataturk and expressed favorable views of the latter's efforts at forging a secular republic in the Muslim world.   I have read that Ataturk sent Tagore an entire collection of books (probably of Turkish origin) for the library at Tagore's newly-founded Visva Bharati University in Bengal (see, for instance, URL: ).  


So great was Tagore's influence upon the literary and even political firmament during his lifetime, that more than once regimes with dictatorial leanings attempted to woo the great Eastern ambassador in the hopes of receiving positive endorsements from him.   The list of such questionable world leaders included Mussolini (whose efforts did not succeed; see the essay, URL: ) and Stalin.   Tagore visited Russia during the early years of the Stalinist regime.   Given Tagore's natural leanings towards national upliftment from the grassroots, and the need to address poverty, hunger, illiteracy and mortality among the poor in the world, he was initially much impressed by what he perceived and witnessed as efforts to create an egalitarian society that was based on sharing, equity, society's obligation towards the downtrodden, and a national culture devoid of pomp and muscle-flexing.   His early Russian tour resulted in the relatively favorable Letters from Russia.   Doubtless, the Stalinist purges, the Gulag and associated repressions would greatly disappoint Tagore later on.   As for the United States, which Tagore visited at least four times, it is safe to say that he was consistently unimpressed by its cultural life, and much less its history of slavery, racism and propensity towards self-promotion.   He found America's crass commercialism distasteful (and in this regard, Tagore merely reflected what Henry David Thoreau had felt and expressed many decades earlier), and once wrote that "America is mad about sex."   I am tempted to think that Tagore had not seen the worst.    


In the Americas, Tagore left a far stronger and more favorable legacy in the Southern continent- specifically Argentina (where his admirers included Victoria Ocampo), Chile (where a young Pablo Neruda was notably influenced by Tagore's romantic poetry), Brazil (where the poet Cecilia Meireles translated Tagore's works into Portuguese) and elsewhere.


In the context of Indian history itself, Tagore identified with the struggles and heroic actions of people from different regions of India.   Of particular note is his magnificent poem (Bandi Bir- The Valiant Prisoner, 1899.   See URL: ) about the sacrifice of the Sikh hero, Banda Singh Bahadur, whose body was ripped apart live using red-hot tongs by imperial orders, even after the valiant fighter had been forced to plunge a knife into his own young son's chest while uttering Hail to Guruji! during the Sikh resistance against Mughal incursions into their dominion.   This poem, I have found, is recounted by Sikhs to this day, including in special mentions online at websites dedicated to Sikh history.   Thus, as with the poem dedicated to the great Maratha hero, Shivaji (Shivaji Utsab- Celebrating Shivaji, 1904.   See URL: ), the Bard of Bengal extended hands of timeless friendship with virtually all regions of India.   His travelogues and commentaries of cultural celebration included Travels in Persia, Travels in Japan, and of course Letters from Russia, as mentioned.   It therefore should come as no surprise that Tagore would also hold out sympathy and a deeper understanding of Africa- one of the most exploited continents in the world.   His poem dedicated to Africa captures the plight and anguish of that continent rather well.


I present below Rabindranath Tagore's seminal poem on Africa, and append my commentary on the cultural and poetic significance of different sections of the poem, and its strident condemnation of colonialism, imperial brutality and racism- here applied to the ravaging of Africa by imperial Europe, but applicable universally.   Monish Chatterjee ]  






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Monish R. Chatterjee received the B.Tech. (Hons) degree in Electronics and Communications Engineering from I.I.T., Kharagpur, India, in 1979, and the M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Electrical and Computer Engineering, from the University of Iowa, (more...)

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