Thursday, September 28, 2023

Tagore’s Attraction to Indonesia

Raghu Gururaj 
May 6, 2021 | 9:52 pm
File photo: Rabindranath Tagore poses for a photo while standing on the step of Borobudur Temple in Central Java during his visit in 1927. (Photo courtesy of the Indian Consulate)
File photo: Rabindranath Tagore poses for a photo while standing on the step of Borobudur Temple in Central Java during his visit in 1927. (Photo courtesy of the Indian Consulate)

Medan. This year marks the 160th anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, one of India’s greatest philosophers, intellectuals and a revered cultural figure. Rabindranath Tagore was born on May 7, 1861 in Kolkata. Every year, his birth anniversary is observed as Rabindra Jayanti across the world.

Tagore gave India its national anthem. He once said: “I have loved India and sought to serve her not because of her geographical magnitude, not because of her great past, but because of my faith in her today and my belief that she will stand for truth and freedom and the higher things of life".

His writings, poetry, songs, stories and dramas which included portrayals of lives of common people, literary criticism, philosophy and social issues of his time, won him global admiration and a huge fan following. The Nobel Committee, when awarding the Nobel prize for literature in 1913 for his celebrated work ‘Gitanjali’, recognized 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 became the first non-European person to receive such a prestigious award for literature. Apart from being a great poet, Tagore was also a philosopher, religious thinker, an intellectual leader who has made reforms in the world of education and a humanist who campaigned for world peace and harmony all his life. Tagore was a wanderer, possessed with a zeal to discover countries and cultures first hand. His passion for travel took him all over the world and his impressions have been documented in his letters and poems.


Tagore visited Southeast Asia in 1927 to discover Indian culture in the region, promoting the idea of an Asian cultural identity and mobilizing support for his world university “Vishwa Bharati”. His objective was also academic when he wrote: “We have embarked on this pilgrimage to see the signs of the history of India’s entry into the universal.” He also wanted to “collect source materials there for the history of India and to establish a permanent arrangement for research in this field”. Just prior to his departure from India, Tagore wrote: “India’s true history reflected in the many stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata will be seen more clearly when we are able to compare with the texts that are to found in Southeast Asia.”

Between July and September 1927, Tagore visited Belawan, Batavia (now Jakarta), Medan, Surabaya, Solo, Yogyakarta, Bali and Bandung. According to his chronicler and linguist Suniti Kumar Chatterji, of the three months Tagore spent in South east Asia, he stayed in Singapore and Malay for just a month, a day in Medan, but he spent two weeks in Bali and three weeks in Java.

His fond impressions of Indonesia are contained in 21 letters and five poems in the Java-Jatrir Patra (Letters from a traveler to Java). Three poems are devoted to Java, one to Bali and one to Borobudur. Of these the poem on Bali, renamed ‘Sagarika’ (‘Sea-maiden’), is the most famous.

What Tagore saw and experienced in Java and Bali simply blew him away, leaving a profound impact on him. Not only was he confounded by the extent of Indianness in Indonesian culture, but Indonesia also came alive to him as a vibrant indigenous culture with all its unique art, rituals and dance forms. Such was the impact of Indonesia on Tagore that his letters carry much emotion, a sense of wonder and possibly a realization of having met a set people so familiar and yet so unfamiliar of a unique culture.

Tagore was especially smitten by the Balinese dance forms and Indonesia’s glorious tradition of Batik making. He spent most of his time in Bali watching various Balinese dance forms and was spellbound by the beauty, grace, rituals, variety and color of dance costumes. His letters are so full of them. 

On his first day in Bali, Tagore was driving with the king. There could not have been much conversation between them due to the obvious language barrier. But during their ride, the king mentioned ‘samudra’ pointing to the sea and quoted the ancient Indian idea of the seven seas, mountains, forests and the seven skies, and names of Indian mountains and rivers. The king also told Tagore about the four Vedas and Lokapalas. Tagore was left in disbelief with the thought that he had come to distant Bali to realize the millennial connect of the Indian civilization.

Upon arrival at the royal palace, Tagore was greeted at the entrance by chanting of four Brahmans – Buddha, Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma.  By the unfamiliar costumes, Tagore realized that Bali’s Hinduism is an indigenous culture not to be confused with Hinduism in India. He was presented a set of coconut leaf manuscripts containing a chapter on Bhishma from the Mahabharat.

Bali continued to unravel itself and amaze him when he witnessed the funeral festival. He was struck by the rituals involving the long procession of people bringing offerings to the dead. The elegant demeanor and colorful costumes of the Balinese procession instantly reminded him of Indian women depicted in Ajanta Frescos. But what astounded him most was the fact that the funeral bore a festive appearance with no mourning at all. He was quite overcome by the dignified decorum and the underlying spirit of unity. It became a spiritual moment for him.

Most likely Tagore was unsuccessful in importing Bali’s dance forms in the making of his own dance forms in India. But he did take back aspects of the art of Batik making with the intention of reinvigorating the flagging batik tradition of Kolkata. He even introduced a two-year course on batik making at the Vishwa Bharati University in Shanti Niketan. This led to a brief resurgence in Indian batik for a few years, but it never went on to achieve the glorious heights that Javanese batik has been able to achieve.

Tagore was also overjoyed to find out how the Indian epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana have become deeply embedded in the cultural matrix of islands of Indonesia. Tagore reckoned that the islands of Dutch Indies could well be called “Vyas Indies”. After watching dance plays and puppet shows based on the themes of the epics, he soon realized that the interpretation of the two epics had undergone transformation in Indonesia.
Tagore was impressed by Mendut Temple and Borobudur Temple in Central Java which he visited on September 22-23, 1927.  He planted a sapling at the Borobudur Temple and sitting on the steps of this grand temple, he wrote a poem "To Jawa”, expressing his deep love for Java. In his poem “Borobudur”, Tagore expressed his immense admiration for the size of the temple complex and its architecture. 

In a letter to his daughter, he said: “Within these few days I have comprehended how much the stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata have occupied their life. So much emotion of the heart cannot rest without expressing itself in arts. The joy of that expression was felt in the conception of the images in Borobudur. In this temple we see everyone-from king to beggar. Reverence for people has been profusely expressed by the influence of Buddhist religion; not only of men but of the other animals. There is a great message through the Jataka stories”. 

He also wrote in detail about the deep influence of Buddhism on Javanese life and culture, which he held in high esteem. The Prambanan temple reminded Tagore of Bhubaneswar in Odisha.  A statue of Tagore stands proudly in front of the Manohara temple of Borobudur Study center. A street in Surakarta was named Tagaro Straat. In Yogyakarta Tagore was a guest of the Sultan. A special performance of the story of killing of Jatayu from the Ramayana was enacted for Tagore by members of the royal family.

After his visit to Surabaya in Java island, Tagore remarked in one of his letters that the sugar from Surabaya went into the making of Sandesh (a famous Bengali dessert).

In his speech at the time of receiving the Nobel prize for literature, Tagore had talked about the need to establish an international university to harmonize different world cultures and become a learning center for all countries. When he visited Taman Siswa school in Yogyakarta in 1927, which was a school similar to the Shanti Niketan model, Tagore and its founder Ki Hadjar Dewantara discussed the idea of a world university.

Ki Hadjar Dewantara is considered the founding father of Indonesia’s education system and was profoundly influenced by the ideals and philosophy of Tagore. The Montessori system of education of Dewantara appealed to Tagore as well. Both Tagore and Dewantara worked closely to strengthen cooperation in education field. Their joint efforts led to the establishment of a special department of Javanese studies at Shanti Niketan

It is clear from his letters and poems that Tagore had high regard for Indonesian society and was particularly struck by Indonesia’s pluralistic culture. He found lot of relevance in the meaningful fusion of diverse cultures, religions and languages of Indonesia with the Indian civilization and actually hinted in many of his letters that a pluralistic and cultured society like Indonesia can contribute to an old civilization like India. Indonesia’s pluralistic background resulted in its modern day ‘Pancasila’ philosophy.

The author is the Consul General of India to Sumatra.

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