Friday, April 29, 2011

Rabindranath Tagore's 150th Birth Anniversary - 6

Tagore meets Einstein

A conversation took place in Caputh, Germany, on July 14, 1930

Rabindranath Tagore had a clear belief in the need for human reason to moderate received practices, religious faith and its rituals. Tagore was explicit in his disagreement with Mahatma Gandhi on this score:

We who often glorify our tendency to ignore reason, installing in its place blind faith, valuing it as spiritual, are ever paying for its cost with the obscuration of our mind and destiny.

With such a background it is natural that when he met Einstein in Germany in 1930 the conversation turned to the theory of knowledge: how do we come to know truth.

The conversation was edited after transcription by Amiya Chakravarty, Tagore's secretary at the time. It sounds as if Chakravarty eliminated all the small talk, pleasantries and jokes (if there were any) and wrote down only a wooden dialogue, as though the event was a seminar for the public, not a private meeting.

Tagore was far more loquacious (542 words, versus 329 for Einstein) and didactic. Einstein is more like a Socrates, understanding the point being made, raising questions, and interjecting alternate viewpoints which belong to the scientific-rational sphere of thought. Einstein speaks mostly in single sentences, until the very end.

There was one theme in the whole debate, which is stated by Einstein as follows: "The problem is whether truth is independent of our consciousness."

And in the end it becomes clear that Einstein says, Yes, truth is independent of human consciousness of truth. Rabindranath says, No, there is no truth independent of human consciousness. When Einstein remarked, “If there were no human beings any more, would the Apollo Belvedere no longer would be beautiful?” Tagore simply replied, “No.” Einstein nevertheless admits that scientists who posit the existence of a physical reality, independent of human consciousness, are making a working hypothesis.

And then the conclusion at the end is recorded thus:
EINSTEIN: If nobody were in this house the table would exist all the same, but this is already illegitimate from your point of view, because we cannot explain what it means, that the table is there independently of us. Our natural point of view in regard to the existence of truth apart from humanity cannot be explained or proved, but it is a belief which nobody can lack—not even primitive beings. We attribute to truth a superhuman objectivity. It is indispensable to us—this reality which is independent of our existence and our experience and our mind—though we cannot say what it means.
TAGORE: In any case, if there be any truth absolutely unrelated to humanity, then for us it is absolutely non-existing.
EINSTEIN: Then I am more religious than you are!

It's worth noting this topic of reality and human consciousness has nothing to do with the effect of experimental observations on sub-atomic events; that is quite another matter, first noted by Heisenberg and other quantum physicists.

The transcript of the conversation follows.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Rabindranath Tagore's 150th Birth Anniversary - 5

Translating a Poem — The Year 1400

The first stanza of the poem by Rabindranath Tagore
In a poem from the collection, The Gardener, Rabindranath imagined a poet reading his poems a hundred years later:

The Gardener (LXXXV)
Who are you, reader, reading my poems an hundred years hence?
I cannot send you one single flower from this wealth of the spring,
  one single streak of gold from yonder clouds.
Open your doors and look abroad.
From your blossoming garden gather fragrant memories of the vanished
  flowers of an hundred years before.
In the joy of your heart may you feel the living joy that sang one
  spring morning, sending its glad voice across a hundred years.
Later on in 1896 he wrote a poem titled “The Year 1400” in which he returned to the theme more expansively. This poem was recalled exactly a hundred years later by many people and it was widely recited in 1996.

The Year 1400 was written in 3 stanzas of 13, 16, and 10 lines. In the first Rabindranath sends his wishes forward in time to a poet a hundred years hence who is reading his poems. In the second stanza Rabindranath wonders if the poet of the future will be able to sense the passion that flowed in his veins when he wrote this poem for him. In the third stanza Rabindranath acknowledges the song of the future poet filling the house, and dispatches his joyful greetings laden the sounds of the earth from a hundred years ago.

I will give you three versions. 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Rabindranath Tagore's 150th Birth Anniversary - 4

Tagore's Poetry in Translation

Tagore could not resist the urge to simplify when he translated some of his poems into English. The Gitanjali translation, which he made himself first and then got some help from WB Yeats in redaction, is taken by modern critics as an example of the disservice he did himself as a poet. To quote Fr Pierre Fallon (a Jesuit who taught Comparative Literature in JadavpurUniversity when I was in college at St Xavier's): “The Western Gitanjali loses much of the musical beauty and evocative power of the original poems.” Yet he calls it a 'jewel' in the category of English religious poetry.

Rabindranath was not unaware that he cut corners when it came to translating his own poetry. He wrote to his friend Rothenstein who introduced him to London, ” I send you some more of my poems translated into English. They are too simple to bear the strain of translation.” What he meant, I think, was that he could not bear the strain of translating his poems and therefore he simplified them. Another critic says Rabindranath wished to present himself as a devotional poet in English and avoided the mass of his poems of landscapes and first-hand observation, and so on which could not be presented in that vein. In his next volume of translation, The Gardener, “the poet is carried away by the idea of simplicity and clarity, for which he sacrifices whatever was intense or complex in his original poetic texture.” (Subhas Sarkar, in Studies in translation By Ed. Mohit K. Ray). 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Rabindranath Tagore's 150th Birth Anniversary - 3

Tagore as a Religious Thinker
 Rabindranath Tagore, as 'Baul' by Abanindranath Tagore
Tagore was not a religious thinker primarily, yet it is appropriate to delve into the question of what was his religious thinking, because he wrote books, if not on religion, then at least on the artist’s philosophy. I lay myself open to a rash opinion here or there in this piece, but bear with me a while. I shall base myself on Tagore’s copious writings, taking the liberty of quoting extensively from them.
My religion,” Tagore says, “is a poet’s religion, not that of an orthodox man of piety, or that of a theologian.” He lacked any religious inclination in his boyhood, in spite of the fact the Tagore was born into a Brahmin family. His father was deeply involved in the Brahmo Samaj movement, the monotheistic religion based on the Upanishads, which sought to reform certain aspects of the received Hinduism, perhaps much as Sankaracharya did many hundred years before.
When Tagore underwent the rites of initiation at his coming of age as a Brahmin, the Upanayanam (thread ceremony), he got to reflecting on the Gayatri mantra which youngsters are first taught at that age. Appropriately enough, he dates the growth of his religious awareness from that time. Meditating on the mantra he awoke to the infinite consciousness that unites the external world with the person’s mind.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Rabindranath Tagore's 150th Birth Anniversary - 2

Rabindranath Tagore, Drypoint by Mukulchandra De

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)

In Bengal it is not unusual for boys to think of writing poetry. The Tagore family cultivated the arts within their home and Tagore was nourished in the fold. But he struck out on his own and started writing poetry at the age of eight.

He espoused no poetic camp. He was self-taught in the school of nature; he observed and played, had tons of leisure, and spoke with his own voice of innocence. Attempts were made to educate him at a regular school; he was sent at age thirteen to my alma mater, St Xavier’s in Calcutta, where a huge portrait hangs of this illustrious dropout.

He filled notebooks and scrapbooks. Sailing in country boats on the river Padma, the great tributary of the Ganges that runs through what is now Bangladesh, I can imagine him seated up front, the oarsmen rowing the craft, birds dipping and diving into the water, the river banks sailing past, flowers of every kind growing wild ashore, and hearing the sounds of nature and the songs of the boatmen. Later Tagore came to these places in Shelidah, again and again, to recoup his energies and translate his best known work, the Gitanjali, into English.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Rabindranath Tagore's 150th Birth Anniversary - 1

Bust of Rabindranath Tagore by Jacob Epstein

The anniversary falls on May 7, 2011. In preparation there are many functions being organised all over the world. The celebrations were set in motion a year ago at the start of the 150th year with India and Bangladesh deciding to celebrate the occasion jointly. Rabindranath is, after all, the author of the national anthems of both countries, and the people of Bangladesh consider him as much their poet as the Bengalis on this side of the border.

Rabindranath's ceaseless experimentation is manifest in diverse forms. In his own estimation it was the songs he composed, Rabindrasangeet, by which he will be remembered:

I know for certain that the Bengali race must needs accept my songs, they must all sing my songs in every Bengali home, in the fields and by the rivers.
Fortunately, the work of a dedicated lover of Rabindrasangeet, Dr Purnendu Sarkar, has made all 2213 songs of the Gitabitan available on a single DVD, sung by various artists. See

Rabindranath's collected works are spread over 29 volumes. A collaborative endeavour was begun in 2009 to make all his works available on the Internet, since the copyright has expired on most of it. See

Rabindranath changed the literary language, as well as ordinary discourse in Bengali by his writing. He wrote, spoke and debated regarding every sphere of the nation's life. Travelling extensively to many parts of the world, he met fellow artists and persuaded them to come and spend time establishing his vision of universal education at Santiniketan.

Aspects of Rabindranath will be touched upon in this and succeeding blogs as a tribute and remembrance. Only once or twice in the entire history of a language and its literature could there be place for someone of his stature. As Jawaharlal Nehru noted, when it came to discharging his duty to write a preface to the centenary volume on Rabindranath:
reluctance seizes me and perhaps a sense of humility, even though I do not normally suffer from this feeling.
One can do no better in the 150th year than re-read Nehru's words from that volume to get under way with the celebration. Watch this blog for more on Rabindranath. Please click below. 

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce — Apr 8, 2011

 First edition

Joyce's first novel challenges but does not intimidate. Several of the Joycean devices that became hallmarks of his style are on display in this book, but not in their extreme form.

James Joyce as a child in sailor outfit

One of the outstanding features of this novel is that Joyce changes the diction as the novel progresses from innocent memories of childhood, through the rigours of a Jesuit training, to the young artist in budding revolt. Those changes of style lend an artistry to the novel that would be missing in a pure recollected biography.

Young James Joyce aged 22

Naturally, some found the patina of Catholic pietism repellent. A debate on this was a running theme of the discussions initiated by Indira. 
Talitha, Priya, Zakia, Thommo, and Mohan

There is much to discover in this novel, even though the story line is thin: kissing, moocows, epiphanies, passion, reveries, poetry, flight, Thomist philosophy, and more. Joyce rewards readers by presenting a lyrical drift that has gone quite out of fashion with modernism. Plenty of dialogue, it may have, but feeble it is not! (sorry Mr Nabokov).

 Amita, KumKum, and Indira

At the end Talitha gave readers great delight by reciting an ode she wrote for KRG members. She said it was a response to the sonnet Joe wrote for her and Amita, when they announced they were leaving for other parts. Click on the images below to read the full ode in her hand, testifying to the various oddities of the readers in our group.

 For a full account of the discussions and readings, click below.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Child Man — personal development by Ashok Malhotra Apr 1, 2011

Ashok Malhotra is an organisation development consultant in Bengaluru who works in a group setting to resolve the human interface problems in corporations.
The book develops the thesis of the Child Man (CM), inherent in each of us, a basic duality that is at the bottom of human difficulties in acting appropriately in trying situations. It is a summary of Mr Malhotra's reflections, based on experiences gained from guiding organisations. In essence, he says, we are all a bundle of contradictions, not easy to fathom, passionate, yet surrendering to impulses. The CM is highly self-centred, but glad to help others too, endearing yet exasperating. S/he gets entrenched in self-defeating positions, said Mr Malhotra.

 The audience at David Hall for the Kochi book launch of the 'Child Man'
In today’s society the CM gets pushed from all sides. There's a pressure to be non-emotional at work. Therefore, finding space for the CM is difficult today, although it is the most delightful part of who we are. In modern times we are seeing only the ugly part of the CM, Mr Malhotra regretted. 
One has to remember that people in the corporate world are not purely rational, not purely calculating; plenty of non-rational processes are also going on.

  Jose Dominic and Mathew Antony at the Kochi book launch of the 'Child Man'
In an aside he addressed what might be the subject of his next work. It arises from a flaw in the theories of management currently held, namely that the desirable part in a manager (whether she be female or male) is only Man, dominant, forceful and rational, not Woman. This is in spite of the fact there is a Man and a Woman in each of us. And just as men have oppressed women historically, we are now oppressing the woman inside us in the corporate world and foregoing many of the benefits of the woman's qualities in us.
Mr Malhotra paid tribute to works of literature like Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's 1984 by, and Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler.
For further details of the book and the Question/Answer session please click below and continue reading.