By Sankalita Shome
Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian Nobel Laureate in Literature, is no stranger to Egypt; he was great friends with renowned Egyptian poet Ahmed Shawqi and the words that he penned for Egypt seem almost prophetic in the aftermath of the January 25 Revolution.
He said of Egypt that it is “the land where the head is (now) held high and the mind is (now) without fear.”
The Maulana Azad Cultural Center in Cairo is organizing year-long celebrations to commemorate Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary. As part of these celebrations, two exhibitions have made it to the shores of Egypt; the first is “A Philatelic Exhibition on Tagore” and the second is an exhibition of kantha embroidered panels.
The word philately refers to the study of stamps and postal history and other related items. “A person graduates from being a mere collector of stamps into a philatelist when he delves into the postal history relating to the stamps; it is then that stamp collection morphs into a science,” Sekhar Chakrabarti, curator for the philatelic exhibition, told Daily News Egypt.
Tagore’s famous play “Dak Ghar” portrayed the post office as a symbolic messenger of hope and deliverance. The exhibition, which consists of 20 panels of commemorative stamps and other rare philatelic objects, thus seems an apt tribute to the Nobel Laureate, who was a poet, novelist, musician and painter.
Chakrabarti has a simple explanation for his interest in Tagore: “I am a Bengali and anyone who is a Bengali cannot but be inspired by him,” he said. But Tagore’s fame extended beyond the shores of India.
Tagore was a native of Bengal, which in his day was composed of both the Indian state of West Bengal as well as the modern independent nation-state of Bangladesh. Tagore was the first non-European to be awarded the Noble Prize for Literature in 1913 and was an avid traveller, having visited 30 countries on five continents during this lifetime; spurred by his curiosity to know more about the cultures and the people of the world.
The postal departments of around 20 countries have issued stamps on him and the first to bestow this honor was the erstwhile USSR, in 1961, on the occasion of Tagore’s birth centenary. Brazil, Romania, Vietnam, Bulgaria and others followed suit, with the latest addition being the one issued by Uruguay, earlier this year, to celebrate the Bengali Bard’s 150th birth anniversary.
Some of the items on display are more than a century old and belong to private collectors in India. The postal departments all over the world may be losing their functional relevance with the arrival of the electronic mail but their commemorative stamps are an important part of the history of a country.
During India’s freedom struggle against the British colonial authority, many items of patriotic postal stationery were printed and featured Tagore, who was an iconic figure in the Nationalist Movement. On display is a postcard from the year 1905 that was in circulation during the partition of the state of Bengal by the British and a symbol of the resistance and boycott of the partition by the nationalists.
The Indian Postal Department released the first stamp on Tagore in 1952, as part of a set of six stamps on leading poets and saints of India. These stamps were the first to be printed, using the photogravure technology in place of the lithographic one. Among other noteworthy exhibits is the stamp designed by Satyajit Ray, India’s most celebrated filmmaker, the design of which is based on a photograph taken during Tagore’s visit to Milan in 1926.
At the age of 60, Tagore took up painting, inspired by the beauty of a nude image he saw at an exhibition in Paris. One of the many meticulously labelled exhibits by Chakrabarti gives an insight into this aspect of Tagore’s personality and includes the display of a Rupee one denomination stamp, issued by the Postal Department of India in the year 1978, featuring an oval pensive face painted by Tagore.
An enduring art from Bengal, to which Tagore belongs, is the embroidery work known as kantha, characterized by running stitch motifs. From its humble beginnings, when the women in Bengal used old saris and cloth and layered them with kantha stitch to make quilts, it is now blazing a fashion trail, both in India and elsewhere.
The other part of the exhibition at the El Bab gallery in the Cairo Opera House complex showcases a number of panels done in kantha embroidery, telling tales from Tagore’s works and life. A total of 13 panels illustrate Tagore’s short stories, songs, poems and dance dramas and have been conceptualized by Shamlu Dudeja who has worked for over 25 years for the revival of kantha work.
A personal favorite is one that depicts the story of Kabuliwala, a poignant tale by Tagore that has also been immortalized on celluloid. It is the story of a fruit seller, Rahmet, from Afghanistan who visits Calcutta, the capital of Bengal, to sell his wares and befriends a small girl, Minnie, who reminds him of his own daughter back in Afghanistan.
The rural women, who worked on these panels, have used their imagination to conceive important scenes from the story and have painstakingly stitched them, using interesting color palettes.
The philatelic exhibition may showcase a personality who belonged to the last century and the kantha embroidered panels may depict stories, poems and plays that were written almost a century ago; but the man and his stories are relevant even today — 150 years after his birth, the legend of Tagore lives on.
The exhibition runs until July 17 at El-Bab, Cairo Opera House Complex.
Gandhi and Tagore 1920.