Through the ‘Sea Maiden’s’ Eyes – Tagore the Diplomat
Sagar jale sinan kori sajala elo chule
matir pare kutilarekha lutilo charipash.
Nirabaran bakshe taba, nirabharan dehe
chikan sona-likhan usha ankia dilo snehe.
Makarachura mukutkhani pori lalatpare
dhanukbaan dhori dakhin kare
Kahinu “ami eshechhi pardeshi”
Freshly bathed in the deep blue sea,
Your wet tresses glistening in the sun,
You sat on the rocky pebbled beach.
Your yellow garments loosely draped, fell around you – yet outside reach
as if drawing a scribbled line of forbidden desires on the earth.
The sun attempts to kiss the uncovered unadorned body,
painting the un-kissed terrain with its gentle golden hue.
Making me stand humble in my attire royally adorned,
Whispering "I have come O foreigner from another land.
(Sagarika, Translations mine)
Seemingly a romantic love poem, ‘Sagarika’ (The Sea Maiden) explores a golden period in Indian history where her civilisation had crossed boundaries to be accepted in distant lands. The poem explores the necessity to renew this bond within the framework of mutual respect.
Tagore’s Bharattirtha stands as a testimony to his belief in the syncretic possibilities of the Indian subcontinent as opposed to the hegemonies of colonial rule. He dreamt of an ideal flow of cultures to all locales which could be absorbed and syncretised within the boundaries of a local culture. The Indian quest on the foreign shores has always been strikingly different. Indians had taken their voyage abroad in the past to export their humanistic ideas, religious values, music and culture along with their merchandise, but never with imperialist contemplation. It is this theme that is explored through Tagore's poem ‘Sagarika’ which stands to be the epitome of the noble laureate’s ideas on diplomacy and foreign relations.
Tagore, an avid lover of travelling on different shores, often undertook travel more to understand the people, the culture of the land and its relationship with his homeland than leisure. In 1926, he had undertaken such a travel when he included Italy in his travel plans. From Italy Tagore moved to England, Norway, Germany and also Central Europe. By the side of Lake Balaton where he took rest, stands an inscription of "the poet who loved while he lived". He had planted a sapling that still lives. From Belgrade he went to Sofia, from Sofia to Bucharest and then to Istanbul, Athens and finally to Cairo. It was as if the wayfaring would never crease for him. When he came back to India in December 1926, communal riots loomed large. Swami Shraddhananda, whom he had known and who visited Santiniketan frequently, was killed by a fanatic.
The tumulus situation perturbed him and his mind was at unrest. He wanted to give vent to his dilemma through writing but then he knew that time was sparse, as he would soon be on high seas again. Tagore had often toyed with the idea of renewing India's lost cultural contact with Far East. With internal conflicts glaring and foreign ties breaking, Tagore thought it to be appropriate to visit the eastern shores. Financed by the Birlas, he with a party of six, visited Singapore, Malaya, Java, Borneo, Sumatra and Indonesia. To sketch his journey in brief, Tagore set out from Calcutta on a three and a half month Southeast Asian tour on July 12, 1927, accompanied by the noted philologist Suniti Kumar Chatterji, the artist, photographer and architect Sunrendranath Kar, and the painter and musician Dhirendra Krishna Deva Varman. It is during this tour that the tribute to lost ties and thanksgiving happened through ‘Sagarika’ where he writes:
I come as your guest, I said ... In your woods by the sea where the south wind blows. My veena is all I have with me. Look at me, see if you recognize me.
The party sailed from Madras to Singapore on the French ship ‘Ambois’. After a month's stay in Singapore and Malaya, Tagore arrived in Batavia via Sumatra on 21 August. The poet and his party soon left for Bali and spent the two weeks from 26 August to 8 September there. Thereafter Tagore returned to Surabaya and visited different places in Java from where he left Batavia for Singapore. On his way back to India the poet paid a brief visit to Siam that is, modern Thailand.
Tagore wrote to Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis on July 15, 1927, ‘[b]ut the people outside accepted it ... We have embarked on this pilgrimage to see the signs of the history of India’s entry into the universal.’ His only motive in making this journey was ‘to collect source materials there for the history of India and to establish a permanent arrangement for research in this field’. The Amboise arrived at Singapore on July 20, 1927. The poet’s stopover in the Malay Peninsula afforded an opportunity for a rapturous welcome by Indian and Ceylon Tamils as well as Gujarati Khojas and Banias. The reception given to the poet by the Indian Association in Singapore attracted a large number of ordinary Indians – small traders, motor-car drivers, security guards from a variety of communities including Sikh, Pathan and Punjabi Muslims; Tamil Hindus and Muslims; and Gujarati Bhatias, Khojas and Bohras. Tagore’s gracious host in Singapore was an Iranian businessman, Mohammed Ali Namazi, who had come to Southeast Asia via Madras. Tagore stood there, humbled.
Tagore’s moment in the Malay Peninsula gave him a chance to have a conversation with the Chinese literati. The Chinese had named the Indian poet Chu Chen-Tan (Thunder and Sunlight of India) based on the following equations: Rabi=Tan=Morning Sun, Indra=Chen=Thunder, India=Thien-chu=Heavenly Kingdom (an ancient Chinese name for India). The poet could not but be touched by the friendliness and warmth of welcome. He stood there baffled with the vast opportunity that lay to strengthen foreign ties and regrettable mused over such lost opportunities by of contact, constrained as nations were by the spectre of nationalism.
A trip to the Malay Peninsula was unthinkable without including a visit to Malacca. From Malacca the sea presented a serene spectacle. The ocean beach was spread out in front of the poet in the shape of a half moon. The colour of the shallow waters made the sea look as if it was clad in the earth’s saffron end of a sari. On the left were coconut trees leaning on each other for support. That is seemingly when he felt the urge to romanticise about the lost political glory which India once shared with the Far East.
Later during his pilgrimage to Bali, Tagore discovered how ‘Hindu’ religious sentiment and ritual pervaded life in Bali, but in very distinctive form. During a silent drive with the ‘king’ of Karengasem a gap in the surrounding forest revealed the blue ocean. The king at once uttered the Sanskrit word ‘samudra’ (ocean). Seeing that Tagore was astonished and thrilled, he gave further synonyms for ocean - ‘sagara, abdhi, jaladhya’. He then recited: ‘saptasamudra (the seven seas), saptaparbata (the seven mountains), saptavana (the seven forests), sapta-akash (the seven skies)’. Having given a rather difficult Sanskrit word ‘adri’ for mountain, he then rattled off: ‘Sumeru, Himalaya, Vindhya, Malaya, Hrishyamuka’ - all names of Indian mountains. At one place a small river was flowing below the mountain. The king muttered on: ‘Ganga, Jamuna, Narmada, Godavari, Kaveri, Saraswati’ - names of key rivers in North and South India. Tagore reflected: ‘In our history Bharatvarsha (India) had realized its geographical unity in a special way.’
That mode of imagining the unity of natural and sacred space had crossed the great eastern ocean to reach distant islands. Tagore also noted that neither the names of the Indus and the five rivers of the Punjab nor that of the Brahmaputra flowing through Assam figured in Balinese vocabulary. He concluded that these regions were not culturally part of the ancient India that had spread its influence across the Bay of Bengal at a particular moment in history.
Engulfed by the depth of strong ties of the past, swept away by the similarities of thought, as Tagore stared at the vast sea, it is believed that ‘Sagarika’ occurred to him. The poem was first published in a slightly longer form in the journal ‘Prabasi’, with the title ‘Bali’. It is generally assumed to be an allegory on the Indian relationship with Southeast Asia. The lyrical poetry through lines 1 to 40 evokes the golden days of Indian influence on Bali. The poet speaks for India personified as Kama: he arouses the sea maiden (Bali) to love and to the worship of Shiva. The relationship between them becomes the counterpart to the divine love of Shiva and Parvati (which is also manifest in the beauties and the balancing of opposite forces in Nature - Lines 19-20; 39-40). Moving on the following lines describe the breaking off that relationship through the 'shipwreck' of Indian civilization - its long centuries of decline and stagnation. Through lines 47-68 Tagore speaks for modern India, 'broken in fortune' (1.47): the Veena mentioned in the poem (1.67) may possibly associate him with Narada, divine inventor of the instrument; but it is frequently just a symbol of Tagore's own
poetic calling (as it is believed through Indian mythology that Saraswati carries the Veena). By this stage in his career, Tagore could think of himself as India's ambassador to the world. He sees in Balinese religion, music and dance many legacies of its earlier contact with India, and asks whether the 'sea maiden' still recognises him.
The Poet through the poem recalls all this past link with Bali which dates back to the glorious period of Indian history, but was particularly snapped since mid-eighteenth century when the dark period of our country was at the worst with the advent of the British rule, and the Poet with a heavy mind while the freedom fighters’ suffering was at its peak in his own land. The Poet thus regrets his inability to offer anything precious new to Bali except his humble music.
The following quote from Tagore’s diary recording his thoughts at the time of his voyage to Java will more clarify his thoughts behind ‘Sagarika’
Tibet, Mongolia, Malayas, wherever India had preached her wisdom, had been through genuine human relations. To-day my pilgrimage is to witness those historical evidences of man’s holy access everywhere. Also to note is, that India of yore did not preach some cut and dried sermons, but inaugurated the inner treasure of man through architecture, sculpture, painting, music and literature, stamps of which remain in the deserts, woods, rocks, isles, rugged terrain and difficult resolve .... [Java Diary, July, 1927]
Poems like ‘Sagarika’ are records of his responses and reactions to alien cultures and peoples and nature. In his Bengali travelogues the alien and India, the other and the self, are interposed as if in a musical structure to create a harmony out of a relationship of opposition. There is a delight in observing things around him: the ordinary, the simple the trivial and yet so rich in human terms.
Written in 1927 soon after Tagore denounced his knighthood in protest against the massacre in Punjab, and when all his attempts to impress upon the British government and the British public inhumanity of the crime failed. Tagore's writings often came as a sharp rejoinder to the polite advice to distance him from politics, to keep the white robe of the mystic free from dirt. Tagore chose to address all the crises of Indian life and to clearly articulate his anxiety. He was not a member of any political party and yet his involvement with the national movement was too deep to be ignored by the national leaders. At the same time his faith in an international order was so strong that he emerged as a most powerful figure symbolizing sanity and moral authority in the world by the mid twenties of the century.
Often condemned as unpatriotic because of his uncompromising denouncement of nationalism, which he considered an instrument of political hegemony and an ideology to legitimize the oppression of one nation over the other, Tagore was idolized by revolutionaries, many of whom were inspired by his words and music. Tagore crossed swords with the greatest Indian of his time and yet not for a moment did he have the slightest doubt about the nobility of his mind and the ability of his leadership.
Tagore’s writings like ‘Sagarika’ indicate his growing involvement with the major issues of world politics. He witnessed two world wars and the rise of fascists in Italy, in Spain and in Germany; he witnessed the rape of Africa by the white powers, the rise of an aggressive Japan and also the revolution in Soviet Russia. Each of these events moved him tremendously and to each of them he responded with courage and thought. In certain cases he faltered and hesitated; he was trapped and tempted, as during his Bali visit - but always he addressed the problems and refused to escape on the precious plea of being an artist, not a politician. Neither his opposition to fascism nor his condemnation of nationalism was controlled by any other political ideology but by his basic faith in the unity of man and in a moral universe.
When the 70 year old poet wrote from Russia, 'had I not come [to Russia] my life's pilgrimage would have remained incomplete', it was not a statement of a politician declaring his ideological commitment, it was the expression of his faith in man. He was concerned about the poverty in his country, the conditions of the farmers and workers: 'Who could be more astonished than an unfortunate Indian like myself to see how in these few years they have removed the mountain of ignorance and helplessness?' With this deep anxiety for the people of India, as well as for humanity at large, steeped see the light of the greatest sacrificial fire known in history'. And yet he was not a believer in the communist ideology: his faith in 'spiritual man' remained unshaken till the last moment in his life. He cherished freedom of thought as the highest ideal in social and political life.
He wished for political stability and steady growth of external ties. He wished to be the first ever true diplomat of India, but realised soon enough that he was not taking any more than baby steps to achieve his cause. He voiced the same in through his own words, when he wrote, 'As I look around I see the crumbling ruins of a proud civilization strewn like a vast heap of futility', he wrote and yet he thought it was a 'grievous sin' to lose faith in man. He believed that, ‘A day will come when unvanquished man will retrace his path of conquest, despite all barriers, to win back his lost human heritage.’
Comparing travel to foreign lands as tirtha (pilgrimage), Rabindranath saw it as a mode of contact between various civilisations that was free from the dialectic of power. In his Asian voyages he recognised the ties that once existed vibrantly and the ways in which these exchanges had enriched local cultures. At the same time he respected the process of synthesis, in turn borrowing elements of his Rabindranritya from these new cultural formations. Poems like Sagarika highlight Tagore’s passionate desire to search for linkages between cultures, deep respect for the local and a willingness to engage and reciprocate to envision the global. In his own way the poet was a sensitive diplomat.
Seldom has poetry in any language given away so aptly one of the most deep set facades of a great man and which better conveys one’s passion for the old link with a country through such a superb love allegory. It presented a new face of this myriad minded man before the world and helped us discover him once again. However, little introspection into what exactly he meant by the lines of the poem and restricting the same to mean a love ballad has done complete injustice to this masterpiece through the years.
But then again when has the world learnt truly about great men, marring them time and again with interpretations that suit the time and space. In his own words he seemed to say:
The first day's sun had asked
at the manifestation of new being - who are you?
No answer comes.
Year after year went by.
The last sun of the day the last question utters
on the western seashore - Who are you?
He gets no answer.
How true are the above lines, for even after more than six decades it remains for us to tease out the latent meanings this poem: as the dirge of a lover to muse over his beloved’s seduction; to sketch the perfect woman of his dreams: as the patriot who strove to rebuild lost cultural ties. The poem remains a dream which the greatest diplomat of all times attempted to start and motivate his followers to keep alive – the dream that one day there shall be kinship again all around.
A. Das Gupta, "Rabindranath Tagore in Indonesia: An experiment in bridge-building", Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 158 (2002), no: 3, Leiden, 451-477
Rabindranath Tagore, "The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore: A miscellany", (1996) Sahitya Academy
Rabindranath Tagore to Nirmalkumari Mahalanabis, 1 August 1927, “Tagore- Java Jatrir Patra”, pp.472-474
Rajat Dasgupta, "Sagarika:Tagore", 2008
Sisir Kumar Ghosh, "Rabindranath Tagore", (1990) Sahitya Academy
Sugata Bose, "Rabindranath Tagore and Asian Universalism", Harvard University
William Radice, "Selected Poems by Rabindranath Tagore", (1985) Penguin Books