Indian icon and the first non-European Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who has turned 161 last week, contributed to a cult song in the Soviet Union four decades after his death and also inspired a Polish ghetto before its orphan children were killed in a concentration camp. There are more such stories of his global appeal transcending times and generations.
Many decades ago, in the erstwhile Soviet Union, a young music director called Alexey Rybnikov composed a melodious tune for one of his upcoming projects. However, Rybnikov, a perfectionist with a poetic bend of mind, was looking for the most appropriate lyrics for his tune. His search for the perfect lyrics continued for days, months and years before he stumbled upon a Russian edition of Indian poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s prose-poetry masterpiece “Shesher Kobita” or the “Last Poem,” translated by eminent Ukrainian-descent poetess Anna Andreyevna Gorenko, who was famous by her nom de plume of Anna Akhmatova. Incidentally, Akhmatova’s first husband, Nikolay Gumilyov, was executed by Stalin’s secret police of Cheka, while her common-law husband and life partner, Nikolay Punin, was sent to death in one of the notorious Gulags in Stalinist-Leninist Soviet Union of the 20th century. But her translations of Tagore, who was gagged by Stalin during his Soviet tour, were available and quite popular behind the “Iron Curtain” for decades.
No wonder, Rybnikov got hold of one of such copies, still in circulation in those decades, and the rest, as they say, is history. Reading the last poem of the “Shesher Kobita” was a eureka moment for the prolific music composer of Russian cinema. Rybnikov found his dream lyrics in that Russian translation of that popular poem and blended it with his erstwhile unused tune to create a masterpiece, aptly and eponymously titled Poslednya Poema (Last Poem) in Russian. The song created quite a sensation when released as the main theme song of the 1981 Soviet teenage classic, Vam i ne snilos (Love and Lies). The superhit film, loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, catapulted the song to a household favourite before Uzbek singer Farrukh Zokirov and his erstwhile popular Soviet folk-rock band, Yalla, gave it a cult status by performing it at the Soviet Song of the Year contest in the same year. It was awarded as one of the best songs in the Leonid Brezhnev-led Soviet in 1981. But amidst fame and being famous with Poslednyaya Poema, an eternally grateful Rybnikov didn’t forget to give credit to a certain Rabindranath Tagore as its lyricist even after 40 years of the Indian Nobel laureate’s death. The movie has been shown this year in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe, Russian capital Moscow and in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, to mark Tagore’s 161st birth anniversary.
The fascinating story of Tagore’s unknowingly contribution to the Russian-language song, Poslednyaya Poema or the Last Poem, however, stayed inconspicuous outside the erstwhile Soviet region for many years until an Indian entrepreneur, Suvra Chakraborty, from Tagore’s birthplace of Kolkata, discovered the fascinating connection during a business visit to, of all places, Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, by a sheer stroke of luck. In his eponymous recent documentary, Last Poem, Chakraborty, the owner of Kyiv-headquartered AMC Overseas, highlighted the previously unknown story of Tagore’s only Russian song after tracing back the origin of the song through his personal interviews with both Rybnokov and Zokirov. The documentary narrated the story of how a timeless song evolved for years into a totem of culture and universalism. The song is also a profound testimony that Tagore has been a pivotal power to transcend the barriers of languages, cultures, regions, countries and continents and has been an ultimate global citizen.
Another example of Tagore’s global appeal was a tragic incident during the height of the Second World War. In 1942, just a year after Tagore’s death, a certain Henryk Goldszmit, who was quite famous in his native country of Poland by his pen name Janusz Korczak as a doctor, author and director, staged Poczta, an adaptation of Tagore’s play Daakghar (The Post Office) with a bunch of Jewish children at his orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto. Korczak’s idea was to motivate and cheer up the ghettoized young orphans staring at a bleak future and distract them from the imminent fear and trauma of being captured by the Nazis in those dark days of humanity. Unfortunately, a few days later, Hitler’s brutal force eventually found the orphanage and took all its inhabitants, including the entire cast and crew of Tagore’s play, to the Treblinka extermination camp. Sadly, none of them, including Korczak, could survive the Nazi barbarism and died at Treblinka.
Many decades later, another version of Tagore’s Daakghar was staged in another foreign country. Just a few days after the bloodshed involving the Chinese and the Indian forces in Galwan Valley, a teacher in the Chinese capital of Beijing went ahead to stage the play with a group of Chinese school children from various parts of China at a time when the COVID-19 started bringing the whole world to a standstill and the diplomatic relations between the two neighbours plunged to its nadir. In fact, once, while addressing the media aftermath of the soldiers from the two countries coming to fatal blows, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying quoted Tagore to play down the standoff and the subsequent ban of over a hundred Chinese applications in India. Interestingly, Tagore's name and greatness were mentioned by Chinese President Xi Jinping on a few occasions over the last few years. Even the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was seen invoking the Indian bard’s legacy as Senior Colonel Wu Qian, then spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Defence, referred to Tagore while voicing its support for the rapprochement between India and China ahead of the 2018 Wuhan summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping.
Meanwhile, back home in India, almost every Prime Minister, starting from Tagore’s acquaintance Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi, whose strategically groomed Tagore-like long beard ahead of the West Bengal assembly elections last year, kept the grapevine abuzz, and every Indian government since independence has incorporated Tagore and his works into the Indian foreign policy and its various cross-cultural outreach programmes in different countries.
Not only in India, but the multifaceted polymath has also often been an integral part of Bangladesh’s diplomatic and geopolitical playbook. Interestingly, Japan’s Ambassador in Bangladesh, Ito Naoki, mesmerized many by singing Tagore’s song “Anandaloke Mangalaloke” in chaste Bengali and keeping every bit of the notation, beat and rhythm intact during a cultural event in Dhaka last year. In addition, alongside Marie Curie, Tagore has been one of the most, if not the most, frequently featured Nobel laureates in social media posts by the digital media outreach campaigns of the Nobel Foundation’s Nobel Prize social media handles. These days, both the Indian and the Argentine government has been actively promoting the upcoming Indo-Argentinian movie, “Thinking of Him,” directed by Argentine Pablo Cesar, depicting the platonic relationship between Tagore and Argentine poet laureate Victoria Ocampo.
Therefore, it’s pretty evident that a timeless Tagore’s universal appeal during his lifetime as well as decades after his death has cemented his status as India’s most prolific global brand ambassador, apart catapulting him to the highest echelons featuring the universal icons in the field of diplomacy and geopolitics. Thus, it’s also clear that no other Indian except Mahatma Gandhi evokes such an immense, and widespread global appeal for India as Tagore’s name and his legendary works do. In fact, in a few major countries like China, where Gandhi was never a familiar foreign icon, Tagore has always been one of the most recognizable foreigners and has been the most translated foreign author in China, standing the vicissitudes of times.
(Pal is an independent media professional, author & documentary filmmaker. He tweets @suvvz. Views expressed are personal.)