DHAKA – Recently found photographs of Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian to win the Nobel prize for literature, show the poet in a new, more intimate light in an exhibition marking the 150th anniversary of his birth.
The pictures offer a glimpse of Tagore — a poet, novelist, musician, painter and playwright who is revered in both Bangladesh and India — at the university he founded in Santiniketan, a small town in West Bengal, India.
“They are not formal or official pictures. This is why they are very rare. They are a glimpse of life in the golden age of the university,” said Samuel Berthet, director of the Alliance Francaise in Chittagong, Bangladesh.
Berthet discovered the trove of hundreds of photographs, taken by French historian Alain Danielou at Santiniketan between 1932 to 1940, while “digging through the late photographer's archives at his house in Italy”.
The Viswa Bharati university, founded with the prize money Tagore received from the Nobel Foundation, was “a gate to rural India, and it is still the case now — artists from across the globe are living there,” Berthet said.
Tagore was born into a prominent intellectual and artistic family in Kolkata in 1861. He spent time in both India and what is now Bangladesh, and for many — especially among the world's 250 million Bengali speakers — his work mirrors the spiritual heritage of both countries.
The author of over 50 volumes of poetry and of both India's and Bangladesh's national anthems, Tagore is best known internationally for Gitanjali (Song Offerings), his book of poems in English.
He instituted open-air classrooms at the university in Santiniketan to give the living world of nature priority over the rigidity of book learning.
One of the photographs, which went on show on Saturday, shows Tagore in the last years of his life — his trademark long beard turned white — smiling playfully at Danielou's camera.
Other shots show campus life at Shantiniketan with teachers and students working together.
More recently, the school's alumni include Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen.
“We don't want to commemorate Tagore as something of the past — he is of the present,” said Berthet, adding that the exhibition will later travel to India and then to Europe in the autumn.
The series of events to mark the anniversary was launched by Indian Vice President Mohammed Hamid Ansari and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Friday in Dhaka.
The Indian leg of the celebrations began Saturday in New Delhi with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announcing an award in the name of the poet, who was part of the national campaign for India's independence from British colonial rule, attained in 1947.
“The commemoration of Tagore is one of the rare projects where India and Bangladesh get together without any political controversy. It shows that he is still very effective” at uniting people across cultures, Berthet said.
Tagore, who died in 1941 aged 80, took a powerful and progressive stance on issues that still affect people today, including education, urbanization and the status of women, said William Radice, a Tagore expert.
“It's inspiring he has (these issues in his work) but what makes him relevant is that he was a great creative artist, that his works are rich and complex,” he said.
“People will find as time goes on that they can derive more and more from them. That’s what makes them relevant,” he said.
In 2010, the United Nations cultural body UNESCO declared Rabindranath Tagore “a symbol of universality,” along with Pablo Neruda and Aime Cesaire.