Just recently the Dutch NTR television organization produced a new series on Indonesia and its Dutch colonialization. As known, the Dutch occupied Indonesia during 300 years and this could only be ended by the invasion of the Japanese in Indonesia in 1941 at the beginning of WW II and after that, by the independence declaration in 1949. I was pleased to see a photograph of Tagore visiting a school in Jogjakarta in 1927 in this documentary. I knew Malaysia was of special interest to Tagore and I knew he had visited the region, but I wanted to know more about his travels to that region. I started some search on the internet and discovered a very well documented report of which I shall put a small summary here. The full report consists of 28 pages. To my delight I also discovered a very nice e-exhibition on YouTube by the Malaysian Bengalees Association which provides us with photo's taken in 1927 while Tagore made this tour - it is really worth watching!
Rabindranath Tagore in Indonesia - An experiment in bridge-building
It was on the invitation of the Dutch and Javanese intellectuals that Tagore visited Indonesia in 1927 - the tour was privately organised, not officially sponsored. The initiative for the invitation to Tagore came from the Kunstkring (Art Circle) in Batavia, a cultural society for the promotion of literature and arts. It is not surprising that Tagore received this invitation. Cultivated circles in Java, both Dutch and Indonesian, were familiar with Tagore's work. To them Tagore was a symbolic figure who sought to integrate modern education with indigenous culture as an alternative to a totally western education. The British Indian government did not stand in the way of the tour and the Dutch authorities in Indonesia did all they could to make the visit easy and comfortable for Tagore and his party. Although the authorities were a little nervous because of recent communist uprisings in Indonesia and the Dutch colonial government did not want the poet's tour to advantage the rebels. However, the poet's assurance that he would keep out of politics, reassured the local authorities. Tagore set out for a three-and-a-half month Southeast Asian tour on July 12th 1927. He was accompanied by the philologist Chatterji, the artist Surendranath Kar and the painter Deva Varman. They sailed from Madras to Singapore. After a month's stay in Singapore and Malaya they arrived in Batavia on August 21st. They soon left for Bali and spent two weeks there, from August 26 to the 8th of September. Thereafter Tagore returned to Surabaya and visited different places in Java from the 9th to 30th of September, on which date he left Batavia for Singapore. On his way back to India the poet paid a brief visit to Siam, what is now modern Thailand.
Source: KITLV - In: Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 158 (2002), nr.3, Leiden, page 451-477 -
Author: Arun Das Gupta
Title: Rabindranath Tagore - An experiment in bridge-building.
Tagore's mission had two aims. Firstly, to study the remains of Indian civilization in the antiquarian relics as well as the life and the living arts in Indonesia and Farther India. Secondly, he wanted to bring about close cultural cooperation between India and these regions through an appreciation of the ideals of Visva Bharati. He had founded Visva Bharati University with the idea that it would be 'One nest for the world' where scholars of different nationalities would come together. And many of them did respond to Tagore's invitation to spend some time with the students of the ashram. Tagore's Indonesian tour represented a serious attempt at establishing a two-way traffic in scholarship and the arts between India and Indonesia. Also to put his travels in Southeast Asia in a proper perspective, one has to understand the nature of his interest in the area. For quite some time he was curious about Bali, probably because the Hindu relegion and culture were still alive on that island. He longed to see what could be seen of the remains of ancient Indian culture in these regions. Tagore himself said that he was going on a pilgrimage to India beyond its modern political boundaries. But besides, Tagore wanted to discover the Asian cultural identity as well.
The visit of Tagore to the Netherlands in 1920 proved to be of great significance. His work was already read in English translation long before that time. Besides Frederik van Eeden's translations there were two other writers who translated Tagore into Dutch: Henri Borel and Noto Soeroto. A close friend of Soeroto had translated some of Soeroto's Dutch writings on Tagore into Javanese language.
At the beginning of the 20th century in Malaysia education was only for the elite (European) and a small group of Indonesian elite. Then the elite started to develop their own educational system. Raden Mas Soewardi Soerjaningrat founded the Taman Siswa Schools in 1922 which are still present today.
See on YouTube:
Tagore, his Asian Voyages
e-exhibition by Malaysian Bengalees Association 2023
This involved the basic education in writing and arithmetic's and only for the indigenous population themselves. The Dutch authorities however called these schools in Indonesia illegal, because they were afraid the indigenous population would become too much educated and create new political ideas ... Soerjaningrat was exiled for six years to the Netherlands by the Dutch government because of founding this educational system. While in exile he learned a great deal about the Montesori educational system and he took also great interest in Tagore's educational ideas. Soerjaningrat was eager to meet Tagore when in Jogjakarta and on September 19th Tagore paid a visit to one of his schools.
On September 24th Tagore and his party arrived in Bandung. He gave a talk of art at the local Kunstkring. On the 26th they visited a theosophical teacher-training centre nearby Lembang. They attended a pan-religious prayer meeting with readings from the Koran, Bible and Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu scriptures. This Bandung visit turned out to be something really special because of an unscheduled meeting with the young Indonesian nationalist political leader Soekarno. Tagore had generally kept clear of political contacts in Indonesia, since he had promised the Dutch authorities to do so. But here in Bandung, with no Dutch officials present, one ot the Dutch scholars, mr. Samuel Koperberg (Secretary of the Java Instituut) took the initiative to introduce Soekarno and two other young Sundanese activists to Tagore and his company. Soekarno spoke good English. It became clear in the course of the conversation that the young Indonesian nationalists were keeping a sharp eye on the Indian political scene! They knew a great deal about Gandhi, Nehru and other polital figures.
While Tagore addressed audiences in different towns in Java, he established contact with Dutch and Indonesian officials in order to work out a plan for an exchange of scholars and artists between Indonesia and his university at home. Today Rabindranath Tagore is hardly remembered as the first person to launch a cultural exchange progamme. Nonetheless, he was a pioneer bridge-builder between India and Indonesia in that period of time.