There is the lamp but never a flicker of a flame—is such thy fate,
my heart? Ah, death were better by far for thee!
Misery knocks at thy door, and her message is that thy lord is
wakeful, and he calls thee to the love-tryst through the darkness of night.
The sky is overcast with clouds and the rain is ceaseless. I know
not what this is that stirs in me—I know not its meaning.
A moment’s flash of lightning drags down a deeper gloom on my
sight, and my heart gropes for the path to where the music of the night calls me.
Light, oh where is the light! Kindle it with the burning fire of
desire! It thunders and the wind rushes screaming through the void.
The night is black as a black stone. Let not the hours pass by in the
dark. Kindle the lamp of love with thy life.
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the
dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action—
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake
Rabindranath Tagore, from Gitanjali
There are many strong ties between Rabindranath Tagore (May 7, 1861 – August 7, 1941) and Guyana. Some of them are obvious, some significant and explainable, while a few others are somewhat mystifying and speculative. Though Tagore’s deep and patriotic roots lie in his native land, there are extensive links with the whole world, especially the Western world, as his work is highly celebrated and revered.
Tagore, India’s greatest poet, the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, which was awarded to him in 1913, was also a poet, playwright, short story writer and novelist. He also became a musician and artist, and had a great belief in the value of travel. He placed the knowledge, experience and wisdom gained from travel above formal school-room education and university study. Significantly, he travelled extensively, took back a vision of the horizons of the world to his native Calcutta, while offering the creative forms and the literature of his homeland to the world – in particular the Western world, and was known for influencing cross-fertilisation.
Tagore was born in Calcutta where he belonged to a prominent middle-class and highly-educated family, steeped in the arts and learning. He studied in England, travelled widely, but always returned to Bengal, widening its horizons through his writings, his translations, his literature in languages, styles and preoccupations that were easily understood in the West and in English, as well as by Bengalis of all classes and walks of life. He moved modern literature and language away from the elite classical and Sanskrit, much like Goswami Tulsidas did.
Tulsidas translated and reworked The Ramayana originally written in Sanskrit by Valmiki so that the less educated classes of Indians could understand it. Tagore did the same, but what is more, he wrote his first play about Valmiki and his spiritual inspiration in the writing of The Ramayana. Tulsidas is believed to be a reincarnation of Valmiki.
Tagore visited England in 1912, where the English translation of his greatest work, Gitanjali, was published and immediately became very influential. The great poet WB Yeats was overwhelmingly impressed by Tagore and wrote the introduction to Gitanjali. Further it is said that it was the promotion of the work by Yeats that led to Tagore’s wider recognition and the award of the Nobel Prize. In 1915, Tagore was knighted by King George V, though he later renounced his knighthood in protest against British policies in India. Further noting his Western importance, his Nobel citation attributed the prize to: “His profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West.”
Tagore’s introduction to Guyana, could have come from the west or by way of Indian indentureship. Many indentured Indians were Bengali and some of that culture came to British Guiana (BG). The name Thakur is well known and carried by many Guyanese. The poet’s name has also been written as Rabindranath Thakur.
In BG in the 1930s and 40s, East Indian social and cultural groups, particularly the British Guiana Dramatic Society (BGDS), devoted their readings and performances to the promotion of the works of Tagore. Clem Seecharan and Jeremy Poynting have written separately about this period and about the BGDS.
There is a secondary school on the Corentyne in Berbice, today named after the poet – the Tagore Memorial Secondary School. There is also a Rabindranath Tagore Resource Centre in the University of Guyana Library, established there in 2006 when the Government of India made some donations to the library.
Tagore’s play Chitra, was revived at the Theatre Guild in 2015. And as recent as May this year, the National Drama Company and the National School of Theatre Arts and Drama performed excerpts from Gitanjali and Kabuliwala at a show, together with the Nrityageet dancers, at the Indian Monument Gardens in Georgetown. The show was produced by Seeta Shah Roath using a concept treatment by Vibert Cambridge in commemoration of Arrival Day. It formed part of the Golden Jubilee Literary Festival.
It was inspired by the strong links between Tagore and Guyana and conceived by Cambridge, who recognised these links: the historical with indentureship and the culture, including ‘Taan singing’ that transmigrated; the heroic personality Bechu in the 1890s – early 1900s about whom Seecharan wrote; and the links with liberation and nationhood.
An important factor in all this, recognized by Cambridge, is that the Parliamentary Prayer read in the National Assembly of Guyana, took lines, words and the main incantation from Verse 35 – one of the poems in the sequence in Gitanjali. The prayer, recorded in the Standing Orders of the National Assembly, 2011, p.61, is a remarkable copy of Tagore. Inter alia, it goes like this:
“Almighty God, we, who are here gathered together, do most humbly beseech Thee to guide us in all our consultations, so that we may together build a land where knowledge is free, where the mind is without fear, and the head is held high, and where words come from the depth of truth. . . Grant us O God, the vision so to lead, that all the people of this fair land may enter into that state of brotherhood and unity, where the mind is led forward by Thee into ever widening thought and action.”
How or why this was done is not immediately known. There are, however, factors which are relevant. The Tagore Secondary School was founded in 1942 – around the time when there was a very strong sense of Indian cultural heritage in BG. It was a strong exclusive ethnic movement and Tagore was deified. Interestingly, the Tagore Memorial school prayer is the exact poem—Verse 35—of Gitanjali. The history of the school, on its web page, shows a strong ethnic focus and it was a private institution until taken over by the government in 1976.
Suffice it to say that Verse 35 must have been well known in Guyana. It is relevant to note that Tagore was an anti-colonialist with a sense of liberation and of nationhood. The invocation at the end of Verse 35 says “Into that heaven of freedom, let my country awake,” which no doubt impressed whoever purloined the words into the Parliamentary Prayer.
“Gitanjali” means “Song Offerings” containing both music and a spiritual appeal. Many of the poems in the sequence are highly spiritual, often addressed to a “god”, and the prayer in parliament might have wanted to address itself to some supreme being for guidance without having to single out any of the major religions of Guyana.