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Missing Tagore, missing President

- Pranab whisked away after landing

Santiniketan, Dec. 18: President Pranab Mukherjee landed on the helipad in Santiniketan at 3.55pm and was whisked off to his elder brother’s home in Jambuni in Bolpur by his convoy in a few minutes.

The vice-chancellor, registrar and students of Visva-Bharati were left holding flowers. It was a little odd as the President is here on a two-day visit to “launch the year-long centenary celebration of the first Nobel Prize in Asia” on invitation from Visva-Bharati.

The university, whose representatives were ignored, is organising a “curtain-raiser” seminar on Tagore and China in collaboration with Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi.

Vice-chancellor Sushanta Duttagupta and the students were not allowed to receive Mukherjee at the helipad because of security reasons. Governor M.K. Narayanan and fisheries minister Chandranath Sinha received the President, who spent about 45 minutes at the home of his brother Piyush Mukherjee, a retired schoolteacher.

There, Mukherjee is said to have commented on the concrete jungle that Bolpur and Santiniketan are becoming. He was visiting the house after one-and-a-half years. When his brother asked if there was any way such growth could be stopped, Mukherjee reportedly said it was the same everywhere.

Later in the evening, Mukherjee released a bilingual edition of Geetanjali at a private ceremony at the university to kickstart the Nobel celebrations.

Like his elder brother, many elders of Santiniketan, too, have requests for the President. On the missing Nobel medal — and a missing Tagore.

The prize, in the most literal sense, is not there. The Nobel medal and 50-odd items used by the Tagore family were stolen from the Rabindra Bhavan museum on March 25, 2004. A replica was installed a year later.

There is a greater irony. That the original medal is not there has been forgotten, feels Amitrasudan Bhattacharya, a retired Tagore professor at Visva-Bharati who now edits the Visva Bharati Patrika.

The President could request Visva-Bharati to search for the stolen medal again, he says. The case was closed by the CBI in August 2009. “No one talks about it these days,” he says.

What is true of the medal is true of the poet, suggests Bhattacharya, who has recently brought out a collection of more than 500 of Tagore’s letters written to Rani Mahalanobis. “The Nobel Prize celebrations begin today. But too much ceremony has hidden the fact that we have not been able to take Tagore to the world,” he said.

It has been 71 years since Tagore’s death but only a small part of his works have been translated into English. “The President could ask Visva-Bharati to take the responsibility of translating all of Tagore’s works,” Bhattacharya said.

So far, to the world, and to Indians outside Bengal, Tagore has remained the poet of Geetanjali, which won him the Nobel. So far, there has been no plan to undertake the translation of all of Tagore’s works into English.

“Thousands of Tagore’s letters are lying scattered,” he said. “Even the Japanese have translated most of Tagore’s works, almost 80 per cent, in 12 volumes,” he said.

Somendranath Bandyopadhyay, another former Visva-Bharati professor, agreed that the stolen medal was a matter of shame. But he said he did not like the idea of making a fuss about Tagore’s Nobel.

“One writer gets a Nobel every year. I do not think that it was a great honour to Tagore when he received it, though of course he was the first Asian to get it,” Bandopadhyay said.

The Visva-Bharati media release mentions Tagore as the first Asian to receive the Nobel. To commemorate the Nobel is not to remember Tagore. The poet is remembered when he is read. “That is the real honour,” Bandopadhyay said. He, too, spoke about the Japanese translation and said India had nothing to show like that.

“There’s nothing to object in celebrating the honour,” said Supriyo Tagore, a Tagore descendant and former Patha Bhavan principal. But the missing medal remains inside your head.

Supriyo Tagore said it was not expected that the whole world would know about a Nobel laureate, but we could have done better. “He was not only a poet. He wrote many essays and much on philosophical ideas. There has been no sustained effort to take these to the world.”

U.N. Singh, a former pro-VC of Visva-Bharati and currently Tagore professor at Rabindra Bhavan, downplayed the importance of the 100-year celebrations. "The President has also come to inaugurate the Indo-Chinese seminar."