Nikolay Nikolaev

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Nikolay Nikolaev

Bulgaria

Bulgaria and India
Bulgaria, being on the outskirts of Europe, has long suffered rather than benefited from its geographical position. Its peripheral situation allowed Bulgaria only a limited access to mainstream European culture. For half a millennium Bulgarians, oppressed and preoccupied with their own survival under the Ottoman Empire, did not get much exposure to the cultural and literary tendencies of the time. Divided in two, Bulgaria managed to re-unite only in 1912. The very same and the next one were years of wars on the Balkan Peninsula that saw the young and newly liberated country fall prey to its neighbours.

Just a few decades after the Bulgarian liberation from Turkish oppression in 1878, two World Wars shook the world. After the First World War Bulgaria was ruled by Monarcho-fascist governments till 1944 with tight control over culture, especially literature and arts. With a chequered history, Bulgarians never had the chance to establish direct connections with distant lands, such as India, before the twentieth century and the first Indian personality to enter into the wider cultural life of Bulgaria was Rabindranath Tagore.

The famous writer and literary and art critic Vicho Ivanov (1901-1979) wrote in his article Tagore in Bulgaria,
The subject of Rabindranath Tagore in Bulgaria leads up to that of Indo-Bulgarian relations in the past and to-day.i
The initial reception

The turmoil of the two Balkan Wars followed by World War explains why there is no evidence that even the big literary figures wrote about Rabindranath Tagore or translated anything written by him until 1918. It is unlikely that the event of awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature has not reached the Bulgarian elite and literati although there is no written record of any reaction to it. Interestingly, the first Tagore translation into Bulgarian was that of The Gardener in 1918. Gitanjali, the work Tagore became known to the world with, was translated into Bulgarian only in 1920. The early translations were not even made from English. The Gardener was translated from Italian, and Gitanjali from Russian.

After that the interest of the Bulgarian public and literary figures in Rabindranath and his works increased gradually, and reached its climax in 1926 (the year when the poet visited Bulgaria for three days in November), and in the following year. In the words of the eminent Bulgarian literary figure Vladimir Svintila (pseudonym of V. Georgiev Nikolov),


The public sentiment in Bulgaria in the twenties was particularly receptive to Tagore’s ideas. There were many reasons for it. Already in the eighties of the nineteenth century, a number of Russian scholars had turned their eyes to the East. These moods in Russia resounded in Bulgaria as well.ii
Visit in 1926
Rabindranath’s visit to Bulgaria was a major catalyst in the development of a range of social movements, some of them positive, others of a dubious character. Part of the Bulgarian public viewed his thoughts and written works as a source of great inspiration and would not hesitate to use them, in their quest to defend their cause through Tagore’s words of wisdom. Many, from freedom fighters to cooperative movement advocates, educationists and humanists, religious figures or monarchists, Russophiles or Russophobes, or defenders of women and their rights, seem to have found exactly what they needed in Tagore, they referred to his personality and used his words and ideas to promote their own ideas.

In the Bulgarian sources one can find deliberate omissions in Rabindranath’s translated works and distortion of the truth about facts of his personal life and travels. Sometimes his works would be intentionally misinterpreted or presented in a way Tagore would have remained oblivious to. The journalists and public figures would occasionally offer their audience “facts” that were fictional in nature.

Tagore initially did not intend to visit Bulgaria. On his 1926 European tour, in October he falls ill in Vienna and following the advice of his doctor he takes a route back to his motherland through countries, where he would be less exposed to the severity of the approaching European winter. From Lake Balaton in Hungary, Rabindranath heads for Zagreb and Belgrade and visits Bulgaria on his way to Romania, from where he returns to India via Istanbul, Greece and Egypt. Rabindranath Tagore is accompanied by his son Rathindranath, his daughter-in-law Pratima Devi, and their adopted daughter Nandini, as well as his secretary, Prashanta Chandra Mahalanobis and his wife Rani Mahalanobis.

The Bulgarian literary and cultural institutions competed as to whose guest Tagore would be. The House of Arts and the Press, with which the Unions of writers, journalists and artists were affiliated, took pride in managing to invite the Poet, and several of their representatives met him at the Yugoslav-Bulgarian border. Some sources state that the Bulgarian King had sent a carriage to bring the Poet to Sofia — others that the Ministry of Railways had released a special coach. Some even go further and state that Rabindranath Tagore was an official guest of the Bulgarian King Boris and the Bulgarian Government. Other sources categorically deny this, and state that Rabindranath Tagore, having been informed in advance of the situation in Bulgaria, and how the ordinary people and the intelligentsia were oppressed — had explicitly stated that he was a guest of the Bulgarian people and not of the regime, and had refused to meet any representative of the Government or the King.

The reason stated in some Bulgarian sources as to why Tagore himself objected to being considered an official guest of the Bulgarian Government was that the first antifascist uprising in the world, which took place in September 1923 in Bulgaria, was drowned in blood. Many people were also killed in a second uprising in April 1925. Some of the victims were the most progressive intellectuals and literary figures of the time.

A short announcement in the North China Star (Beijing) on 22 November 1926 stated that “According to Sofia reports Rabindranath Tagore was received by King Boris and Princess Eudoxie.” However, the sources of the “Sofia reports” are not mentioned.

A note titled “Poet’s Home-Coming” in the Indian Daily Telegraph (Lucknow) on 19 December stated that: “While in the Balkan States he was the guest of governments, the kings of Romania and Bulgaria invited him to their palaces for lunch.” However, other sources state exactly the opposite. In an article in the Indian Mainstream magazine on 7 August 1976, the Bulgarian journalist Vladimir Svintila stated,

In Tagore the Bulgarian public honoured the exponent of democratic ideas. On the way to the hotel he was warned that a fascist dictatorship had been established in this country whereby all rights and freedoms were suppressed. The proud Indian bard immediately took the side of the oppressed people—he refused to meet any official persons. In his interviews with journalists, he stressed that he was a guest of the Bulgarian people, implying that he was not a guest of the Bulgarian Government.

Since the fascist coup in 1923, the authorities had not allowed entry into the country any foreign representatives of progressive thought. Therefore, the visit of India’s great son was hailed as a triumph of the democratic ideas. Was it not true that Tagore was the son of a country whose people, too, were oppressed in those days? His book The Rebel Gora was a manifesto of the freedom of the spirit.

The visit was an exhilarating occasion for the progressive Bulgarian intelligentsia. Tagore met representatives of the leftist movements, held talks with them and expressed his sympathy. Thus he helped to keep up their spirit.

From the thousands who greeted him at the station and on the streets, “guarded and respected” by mounted and foot police, that have taken part in both his lectures, delivered on 17 and 18 November in the hall of the “Free Theatre” in Sofia, Rabindranath Tagore realised the real situation of the people. Being an absolutely unexpected “guest” for those who had seized the right to rule the lives of the people, Tagore had avoided all meetings and ceremonies with monarcho-fascist’s representatives of the authorities, and stayed with his close companions in hotel Imperial.

Bearing in mind the situation in the country, many eminent figures in Bulgaria, including some of Tagore’s interpreters, wanted to give the impression to their readers that Tagore was an active revolutionary. The students and the ordinary people were in need of following a colossal figure, such as Tagore. They transferred all their hopes onto this great poet, writer, playwright, composer, artist, thinker, philosopher and humanist. Though initially there was just a small note published in one of the Bulgarian newspapers, Utro, thousands of people came to know and flocked at the Sofia Railway Station to meet Rabindranath. It is reported that the schools and the University were formally closed for the day of his arrival.

Rabindranath Tagore was perceived as a look-alike of a Messiah or a biblical prophet. There have been speculations about Tagore's connection with Petar Dunov, the leader of the White Brotherhood movement. Some sources claim that he corresponded regularly with Dunov. However, they had never met or written to each other.

Tagore’s visit to Bulgaria in 1926 stirred up the entire society. An article kept at the Rabindra Bhavana Library at Santiniketan from the Zora newspaper, most probably of 20 November 1926, entitled “Rabindranath Tagore in Sofia: The Singer of Bengal. The Sage of India. The Welcome at Tzaribrod. The Solemn Reception in Sofia. What Tagore Says”, does not bear any important news or information, and has many inaccuracies in it. However, the aim of the article is quite obvious and it is written on purpose that “up to now nobody from Russia (sic!) has been invited.” The conclusion is in capital italics: “RABINDRANATH TAGORE DOES NOT BELIEVE THAT THE AGGRESSIVE NATIONALISM, WHICH IS MUCH FELT IN SOUTH-EASTERN EUROPE, WILL IMPROVE THE SITUATION. MUCH JEALOUSY AND SUSPICION EXIST BETWEEN THE NEIGHBOURS.”

In spite of this statement, obvious animosity is felt against Russia and the neighbours of Bulgaria throughout the article. Another similar article — from the Sofia-based French-medium periodical La Bulgarie of 22 November 1926 entitled “Notes of a Passer-by: Rabindranath Tagore” states that though the Bulgarians had the chance of meeting Rabindranath Tagore for only less than two days, the time had been enough to greet one of the greatest pacifists of the time, a man who had been called by Clemenceau “Homme Candide”. Even Tagore himself had been very surprised at the exceptionally cordial reception at Sofia station. He said it was not exactly clear to him what kind of mysterious force had brought all these people- big and small, to come and meet him. Then follows the explanation of the author of the article- Tagore’s personality emanates sincerity and truthfulness, as it is with the writer Tolstoy.

The crowd understands him and his pure soul because the hearts of the people in this crowd are also pure and they started beating as one with the pulse of the great poet. Then follow the remarks that in no other country on the Balkan Peninsula would he have a similar reception nor would he be as sincerely understood as he was in Bulgaria, though he spoke in languages many did not know:

“Rabindranath Tagore spoke in English and recited his poems in Bengali. But in whatever unknown language he would have spoken to us, we would have understood him- so much his thoughts are similar to ours. Anyway, we are much in doubt that it would be the same everywhere, and more precisely in some Balkan states. There, to be well understood, the Hindu poet could have held his lecturers on the subject of love and fraternity between people and the nations in the language of the country, and even then it is very doubtful that he would have made them understand.”

The article was signed only by the initial “P.” The verbal attacks are again clearly directed at the neighbouring countries.

In the first Bulgarian translation of Rabindranath’s novel Gora, in order to boost the morale of people involved in active struggle against their oppressors, an important qualification was added to the original title and to the Bulgarian public it became known as The Rebel Gora. It was translated from German. Interestingly, in the preface of the novel, the translator Dr. Vera Plocheva states that “His [Rabindranath’s] characters are creative personalities, immersed in religiousness. Their strong longing for the “Eternal” makes them really close to God.” The change in the title and the above phrase in the Preface present an interesting mixture of support for actual political fight and of seeking support in Tagore’s characters and in God in general.











Rabindranath Tagore. The Rebel Gora: Novel.

Translated from German by Dr. Vera Plocheva. Sofia: “Pravo” Publishing House.


In 1927 the writer and literary critic Vasil Stavrev (1885-1929) published his book Rabindranath Tagore: Life and Creativity. The author writes that he “had apparently been another witness and participant in the improvised Tagore “mela” in Sofia”, and draws the following portrait of Tagore with an abundance of Biblical references and terms.


In order to make the features of this extraordinary man stand out more clearly, I shall take the liberty of saying a few words also about his so interesting outer appearance.

A tall, sturdy old man who, in spite of the great exhaustion of his constant travels, will never stoop and, like some Colossus, always towers above those around him. Long white hair crowns his broad and tall forehead like a halo. The features of his face are composed and absolutely regular- the features of a truly Aryan face. His dark coppery complexion, more yellowish than reddish, is characteristically offset by the surrounding whiteness of the hair and the long beard of a Biblical prophet, which completes his amazingly handsome portrait. Yet, the deep intelligent eyes piercing to the bottom of one’s soul, are the most striking part of this face. How penetrative they are, those dark, large eyes!.. And his gentle kind smile too, as pure as that of a child! Isn’t it the best expression of the childlike purity of his soul? And, lastly, his voice! If it is true that the voice can sometimes be the best interpreter of the inner spiritual manifestations, it is Tagore’s voice that is the surest proof of that. The poet has such a sweet and melodious voice that even the commonest prose acquires with him the tone of a divine chant…iii

Some famous Bulgarian artists also came to be very close to Rabindranath. Boris Georgiev painted his portrait on several occasions. Copies of Tagore’s portraits are kept nowadays in both the Kala Bhavana (Department of Arts) of Visva-Bharati as well as in the Modern Art Gallery in New Delhi.
Mystifying Tagore
The author of a monograph on Boris Georgiev, Irina Mihalcheva, while connecting Tagore with Russia and Tolstoy, remarks,
Soon after his arrival in India Boris Georgiev was invited by Rabindranath Tagore to visit his University at Santiniketan, near Calcutta- Bengal. Tagore established this school on the estate of his father like Tolstoy’s Yasna[ya] Poliana… He invited and insisted that Boris Georgiev should assist in the University in the arts field. The invitation was an honour to our artist, as in India the teacher’s profession is a much-respected one. Georgiev refused the offer, because he had a planned program in advance, and continued travelling around the country, collecting material for his cycle of Indian paintings. Nevertheless, his friendship with Rabindranath Tagore continued.iv

A Bulgarian article from 1994 went even further claiming that Boris Georgiev “teaches for some time at the University of Rabindranath Tagore because of his [Tagore’s] explicit request.”v However, it is very unlikely that Georgiev ever visited Santiniketan.

It is not only Bulgarian sources that have written irresponsibly or stated erroneous facts about Tagore, his stay in Bulgaria and his connections with famous Bulgarians. The well-known Indian artist Chintamany Vyas, wrote a monograph titled Boris Georgiev, in two identical texts in Hindi and in English. The effort is an interesting one though the author has allowed many inaccuracies and mistakes to creep in his text. Vyas states,

Living with Roerich for some time, Boris gained deep insights into the Himalayas and nature as a whole and made some paintings of the great mountain. From Nagger, on being invited by Rabindranath Tagore, he went to Santiniketan where he came in contact with Acharya Nandal (sic!) Bose, Gaganendranath Tagore, Bireshwar Sen, Sass Brunner, Upendra Maharathi, Binod Bihari Mukherji and others. During his stay in Santiniketan he exchanged views with some noted artists and as a result his approach got changed considerably. Earlier his art was inspired and influenced by the European values and standards. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Titian and Renaissance values in general had left a mark on his paintings.vi

While researching Rabindranath Tagore’s connections with Bulgaria in Santiniketan, I found the statement quoted above, as well as numerous other “facts” stated in his book to be fictitious and lacking any truth or substance.

In contrast with the scholarly articles, distortions in the yellow press were sparse. There were only a few hints that there was something more than a normal working relationship between Rabindranath Tagore and the wife of his secretary, Mrs. Nirmal Kumari Mahalanobis. For instance, the 20 November 1926 issue of Vestnik na zhenata, a Bulgarian weekly for literature, social life and housekeeping, on its front page carries a photo of the poet with Mrs. Mahalanobis with the caption: “Rabindranath Tagore (On the photo next to him is one of his millions female admirers — Mahalanobis)”.

However, some of the frivolities in publishing imaginary facts in the press at that time are surprising. A source states that Tagore has been on an outing around Sofia, and visited some villages and a monastery. In fact, his entire company did go, but the Poet stayed in his hotel room only — he was too exhausted by his lectures and travel to join them.

Even in recent years similar “facts” do appear in the press. The newspaper Vsichko za vseki carries an article titled “The Bulgarian Heavenly Apples” by Misho Hristovvii (more often signing himself as Mihail Topalov), where Rabindranath Tagore’s stay in Bulgaria has been mentioned. Mihail Topalov is a person, who regularly authors “memories”, mostly of a nostalgic monarchic slant. In his article Mikhail Topalov states that Tagore really loved Bulgarian apples, especially those from the Kyustendil region. After meeting with the author in person to inquire what information he had about Rabindranath Tagore and his stay in Bulgaria in 1926, Topalov denied any knowledge of such facts and stated that he had just made up the story for the sake of publishing one of his “reminiscences”!

There is a case of an almost certain “deliberate” mistake regarding Rabindranath Tagore and his works translated into Bulgarian. This is the omission of letter No. 13 from Rabindranath’s book Letters from Russia. The Russian translations of Tagore were definitely censored; the Bulgarian ones would go even a step further. For instance, Letter No. 13 from Letters from Russia has been consistently missed out in the Soviet editions as well as in translations into Bulgarian. The letter itself was written by Tagore to Mr. Kalimohan Ghosh (1882-1940). The reasons for its exclusion from the translations could only be that Tagore compares the communists and the fascists, and though the letter itself is a beautiful piece of literature, that comparison would have been enough for the letter to be considered an anathema by the regime, and be removed from the publication. This is probably the most notable intentional “error” in presenting Rabindranath Tagore to the closed world behind the former “Iron Curtain”. Otherwise, Letters from Russia is an edition much appreciated for obvious reasons in the former Soviet Union as well as in some socialist countries at that time.

{What about the Postscript to the Letters? See further!}


The Bulgarian translation of the letter by the author of the present essay published in the literary magazine Plamukviii was the first direct translation from Bengali into Bulgarian. Even to date, the translation of the concluding part of the original book, as well as the appendixes are missing from the Bulgarian translation of Rashiar Chithi.ix
Engagement with Tagore's ideas after the poet's death in 1941
Obviously, Rabindranath Tagore has stirred up many a mind in Bulgaria, as he has probably done elsewhere too. Decades after his visit his personality and his literary works are found to be relevant to people of unconventional thinking. In the years before socialism gripped the country, the supporters of the cooperative agricultural movement interpreted Tagore and his ideas in their magazine Kooperativna prosveta 1 October 1941 (No. 14), with the title “Rabindranath Tagore. The Writer and the Co-operator”,
We know him [Rabindranath Tagore] from his literary works as an ethical poet, philosopher and a person, who is seeking God. We also know that he takes a stand regarding agriculture and unequivocally and openly he supports the cooperatives
Tagore has been quoted as assisting the Bengal Cooperative Journal. The magazine continues further,
All fruitful activities develop within the framework of a common cooperative effort. All that is human creation, has been achieved through the work of a huge majority that benefits a minority, and it is a pity to many that the riches nowadays are concentrated in the hands of a small capitalist group.
The aim of the magazine is clear and the article ends urging the people to unite and organize their efforts and work in cooperatives.

Even the literary editions that were meant to be only informative could not stay neutral. The bias towards the socialist ideas are quite clear in the Short Bulgarian Encyclopaedia (1969). It contains the scant and sometimes convoluted explanation of who Rabindranath Tagore was,

Rabindranath Tagore… is an Indian writer, who wrote in Bengali. He is an author of lyrical poems, dramas and historical novels, directed against feudalism. His verse has a philosophical character. In 1901 he opened a school- Abode of Peace, and in 1921- a national University. He created the first social novels in Indian literature- The Wreck (1902), The Rebel Gora (1910)- a broad picture of the Bengali life. He takes part in the struggle for the liberation of India. His works are filled with hatred towards imperialism and tyranny. He mixes realism, romanticism and symbolism. In 1926 he visited Bulgaria. He had been in the USSR and had written Letters from Russia (1930). Nobel prize winner (1913).x

Clearly biased (and unexplained) are the claims about how and when Tagore took part in the struggle for the liberation of India. Undoubtedly, these claims had in mind Tagore’s taking part in the 1905 movement against the partition of Bengal. The hatred towards imperialism leaves no doubt against whom these lines were written. Other countries, which Tagore visited — some of them many times — have been completely ignored in favour of the only country that mattered to the authors of the above entry — the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). One is directed to think that Letters from Russia is one of the most important works penned by Rabindranath Tagore out of the wealth of literary heritage he has created and left to mankind.

Speculations about Tagore are rife even nowadays. People try to attract attention to the great personality, and associate him with various societies and clubs, even those shrouded in mystery for the masses, such as the Masons. An article in the Bulgarian newspaper 24 Chasa of 12 November 1994 titled The Local Masons Held the Power: 26 Years the Slogan “Hear, See and Stay Silent” Leads Their Activities mentions Rabindranath Tagore as one of the most notable Masons of all times. The Masons are also mentioned in Irina Mihalcheva’s monograph on Boris Georgiev where she writes about his portrait of Tagore’s close associate C.F. Andrews,

In the summer of 1932 Boris Georgiev is in Simla…. There he makes portraits of the Commander-in-Chief of Gwalior, Raja Rajewade and his wife Rani Rajewade, of Princess Indu Raji, of Mr. Andrews from England (who invites him to become a Mason, but Boris categorically refuses)...”.

The time of Rabindranath’s death coincided with big tensions in Europe and the world, when the attention of all people was turned more to survival during the World War II years than indulging in literature and culture. After the World War under the Socialist regime not much of Tagore has been translated and published in Bulgaria, even though the relations between India and Bulgaria were at their peak. The period since 1945 has seen only seven Tagore books translated or retranslated and a three-volume edition of selected works published. The first book translated after the war, The Wreck, appeared as late as in 1958. My survey of Bulgarian publications of that period resulted in finding references to Tagore in further 27 books, and 49 articles.xi

The complexities of social, political and literary life in this small Balkan country account for a multifaceted and unique reception of Rabindranath in Bulgaria.


Bibliography

Biswas, Amalendu; Marsh, Christine and Kundu, Kalyan, ed. Rabindranath Tagore A Timeless Mind. Kolkata: Shishu Sahitya Samsad, 2011.

Ivanov, Vicho "Tagore in Bulgaria." In Rabindranath Tagore: 1861- 1961: A Centenary Volume. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1961, 323-331.

Mihalcheva, Irina. Борис Георгиев. Монография (Boris Georgiev: A Monograph). Sofia: Bulgarski hudozhnik, 1987.

Nikolaeva, Anna and Nikolaev, Nikolay. Rabindranath Tagore and the Bulgarian Connection. Kolkata: Visva-Bharati, 2009.

Tagore, Градинарятъ (The Gardener), translated from Italian by D. Hr. Maksimov. Sofia: Tzviat Publishers, 1918.

Tagore, Гитанджали (Gitanjali), translated from Russian by Metodi Vecherov. Sofia: Tzviat Publishers, 1920 (De Luxe edition).

Tagore, Letters from Russia. Translated by Sasadhar Sinha. Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, 1984 (1st edn 1960).

Tagore, Бунтовникътъ Гора (The Rebel Gora). Translated by Vera Plocheva. Sofia: “Pravo” Publishing House, 1927 (“Pearls of World Literature" series).

Stavrev, V. Рабиндранат Тагор. Живот и творчество (Rabindranath Tagore. Life and Creativity), Sofia, Acacia Publishers, 1927. ("Giants of Mankind" series, vol. 5).

Svintila, Vladimir. “Tagore in Sofia” Mainstream, August 7, 1976.

Vyas, Chintamany. Boris Georgiev. New Delhi: The All India Fine Arts & Crafts Society, 1980.

Georgiev, Vladimir, ed. Кратка Българска Енциклопедия (Short Bulgarian Encyclopaedia), Volume 5. Sofia: Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, 1969.

[Photograph "Rabindranath Tagore"] Вестникъ на жената 257, November 20, 1926, 1.


i

Quoted in Ivanov, "Tagore in Bulgaria", 323.



ii Svintila: “Tagore in Sofia”, 6. The article gives an account of Bulgarians, connected directly or indirectly with India and with Tagore.

iii Stavrev, Rabindranath Tagore, 161-162.

iv Mihalcheva, Boris Georgiev, 43. When I met the author, Irina Mihalcheva stated that she did not recall where she obtained this information from, and one cannot conclude for certain whether Boris Georgiev was invited by Tagore to teach art at his University.

v Standart (Sofia), January 28, 1994, 11.

vi Vyas: Boris Georgiev, 52.

vii Vsichko za vseki, November 4-10 (1997): 2.

viii Plamuk 1-2 (1992): 122-124.

ix For further discussion of Tagore's Letters from Russia see the Russian article in this volume.

x See the "Tagore" entry in Georgiev, Кратка Българска Енциклопедия.

xi For a select bibliography of the Bulgarian Tagoreana see Nikolaev and Nikolaev, Rabindranath Tagore and the Bulgarian Connection, 125-132.




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