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Tagore takes tram to mark Nobel centenary

For it is a desperate age of hurry and hustle

and the lyric muse has to take her journey

to her tryst of hearts

on trams and buses.

Rabindranath Tagore

It’s only fitting that the poet’s journey through life — including his receiving the Nobel 100 years ago — will be celebrated on a Calcutta tram, appropriately christened Gitanjali.

Calcutta Melbourne Tramway Friendship Forum, in association with Calcutta Tramways Company and Australia-based Connies.com, is organising an exhibition on a tram of rare photographs tracing Tagore’s journeys across the world. The exhibition, from Wednesday to Sunday, has been designed by artist Hiran Mitra.

“When I came here last year, we decided that this year’s tram festival will centre around an exhibition on Tagore. The decision was taken especially keeping in mind the centenary of the poet’s winning the Nobel,” said Roberto D’ Andrea, a Melbourne tram conductor-turned-green entrepreneur.

Melbourne is the only city other than Calcutta outside Europe where trams have never stopped trundling.

Among those who have lent their support to the exhibition are Calcutta-based documentary film-maker Mahadeb Shi and Polash Larsen, Bengali-Australian cultural activist based in Australia.

Tram No. 498 has been given a fresh coat of paint and more than 50 black-and-white photographs of Tagore and his paintings have been put up inside and on the exterior of the tram. “The photographs have been mostly collected from Visva-Bharati and Rabindra Bharati University,” said Shi.

The exhibition was to be launched on December 10 — on this day in 1913 Tagore had received the Nobel — but has been deferred by a day because of the state mourning for Nelson Mandela.

“From Wednesday to Sunday the tram will move between Belgachhia and Tollygunge, via Esplanade, twice daily. Anyone can take a ride and see the photographs and paintings,” said Roberto, who will be on the tram wearing the conductor’s uniform and carrying a bag full of mementoes.

Roberto’s tryst with Calcutta — especially its trams — began two decades ago when he first came to the city on a holiday and ended up at the Belgachhia tram depot.

Around the same time a Calcuttan named Debasish Bhattacharya was tirelessly writing to tram crusaders all over the world, pleading with them to fight and defeat the then Left Front’s government’s plan to scrap the trams.

Roberto and his Australian artist-activist friend Michael Douglas joined hands with Calcutta’s green activists to save the trams, and thus was born the friendship platform.

The platform subsequently took it upon itself to organise a theme-based tram ride almost every year to highlight the importance of the greenest mode of motorised public transport in the city. A similar tram ride is also organised in Melbourne.

“We are happy to help in the great cause. Rides on the special tram will be free,” said Nilanjan Sandilya, the managing director of Calcutta Tramways Company. Poet Alok Ranjan Dasgupta and mayoral council member Debasish Kumar will open the festival.