President to unveil Tagore statue

New Delhi: President Pratibha Patil, who left Wednesday on a six-day visit to China, will unveil a statue of poet Rabindranath Tagore in Shanghai in honour of the Nobel laureate`s journey to the city in 1924, one that was marked by radical hostility from student groups at the time.

Patil, who will unveil the statue Sunday at Mao Ming Road in Shanghai, has been invited by her Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao. Her visit assumes importance as it is the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two Asian giants.

President Patil`s visit also comes at a time when India has begun year-long celebrations to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Tagore.

The Indian poet philosopher had been invited by the Beijing Lecture Association in 1923 to deliver a series of talks as part of its objective to have foreign scholars come and talk to Chinese intellectuals. However, the invitation to Tagore created an unprecedented uproar which culminated in strong hostility against him as well as against Liang Qichao, president of the association, by radical student circles and some ultra left-oriented political leaders.

Tagore set foot in China on April 12, 1924, but the debate about him had started from September 1923, almost within a few weeks of the announcement of his visit. A group of poets and intellectuals, some of whom were abroad at that time, came out openly to criticise Tagore`s thoughts and writings, which they considered a "great threat" to Chinese youth.

Before sailing for China, Tagore told the press that when he received the Chinese invitation he felt it was an invitation to India herself and as her humble son he should accept it. He hoped that his visit would re-establish the cultural and spiritual links between the two civilisations.

"We shall invite scholars and try to arrange an exchange of scholars. If I can accomplish this, I shall feel happy," he had said.

Although there is not much published writing, in either Bengali or English, that sheds light on the then controversial visit, American scholar Stephen Hay wrote in 1970 that the "failure" of the visit was prompted by Tagore`s desire to play the role of a prophet rather than a poet.

He also said that Tagore - who was a great proponent of universal brotherhood - went to China to propagate an ideal of the Orient, an ideal of One Asia and the cause of spiritualism against the materialism of the west.

In his welcome address to Tagore, Liang Qichao said, "Rabindranath Tagore wishes to make it known that he is not a religious teacher or an educationist or a philosopher, he says that he is only a poet."

Tagore in his addresss reiterated the point: "I am not a philosopher, therefore keep for me room in your heart, not a seat on the public platform. I want to win your heart, now that I am close to you, with the faith that is in me of a great future for you, and for Asia, when your country rises and gives expression to its own spirit - a future in the joy of which we shall all share," said Tagore, who was dressed typically in a flowing saffron robe and a red cap.