Sri Lanka Sandagomi Coperahewa University of Colombo As a poet, it is my mission to restore that ancient association of mind through my efforts that speak through a direct language of art. Rabindranath Tagore 1934 Introduction

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Sri Lanka
Sandagomi Coperahewa

University of Colombo
As a poet, it is my mission to restore that ancient association of mind through my efforts that speak through a direct language of art.

Rabindranath Tagore 1934


In the twentieth century, among the foreign individuals who exerted an influence on Sri Lankan arts and culture, the greatest was Rabindranath Tagore. 1 It is not an exaggeration to say that the name Tagore had become a household name in Sri Lanka and every educated Lankan is aware of his contribution to Sri Lankan music, art, literature and education. Focusing on Tagore’s most well-known visits to Sri Lanka, 1922, 1928 and 1934 and other lesser known visits to the island, the first part of this paper discusses the socio-historical background of Tagore’s relationship with Sri Lanka and his impact on Sri Lankan cultural life. After his travels to Sri Lanka, a vast majority of the Sinhalese intellectuals welcomed Tagore’s ideas and later his literary works began to appear in the Sinhala language. By examining the ways in which he interacted with the cultural personalities of that era, the second part of this paper revisits Tagore’s reception in Sri Lankan cultural and intellectual life. In general, this essay provides insights into the historical context which the image of Tagore – one that persists today – was developed in Sri Lanka and his reception in a neighbouring country.

Among the many aspects of Rabindranath Tagore’s diverse personality was his fascination for travel. He kept his doors open to ideas from the East and the West. As Supriya Roy writes, Tagore’s journeys to the East are quite distinct from those he made to the West; “his travels to the West had an air of adventure, his travels eastward were like pilgrimages – in the footsteps of his ancestors who travelled to the East from India carrying a message of truth and love”2. Tagore visited more than thirty countries in the world including Sri Lanka. In fact, his last overseas visit was to Sri Lanka. During his travels, Tagore explained his ideal of Visva-Bharati and raised funds for its development and made a deep impact on the cultural life of the people. He also continued with his dream of establishing contacts between different cultures and people.

During the early twentieth century, when Tagore visited Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), both India and Sri Lanka were under British colonial rule. Britain’s colonial relationship with South Asia led to many cross-cultural exchanges in the arts and sciences. Many South Asian intellectuals and academics established influential contacts and friendships within the region. At the same time, Bengal was the most vibrant intellectual and cultural nerve centre of South Asia. Two important institutions attracted the attention of Sri Lankan scholars: one was Calcutta University (founded in 1857) and the other was Visva-Bharati at Santiniketan founded by Tagore in 1921. It must be mentioned that in the later nineteenth century Bengal also experienced a revival in Buddhism due to the untiring efforts of Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933), a Sri Lankan Buddhist activist. Tagore himself had shown a great interest in the Sri Lankan people and had an emotional attachment with island’s history. Tagore’s fascination with Sri Lanka seems to have been prompted by two factors: first, from the general belief that the Sinhalese, the majority of Sri Lankans, descended from immigrants from Bengal; and second, from the profound respect for Theravada Buddhism and the Buddhist heritage of the island.3

Tagore and Sri Lanka: Early Contacts

According to Kalidas Nag, the historian and a student of Tagore, Tagore’s father, Debendranath Tagore, had visited Sri Lanka in the 1860’s with his son Satyendranath 4. This shows that the Tagore family had an abiding interest in the island. In the 1890s, when Tagore edited the literary journal sadhana he invited articles on Buddhism and Tagore was aware of Anagarika Dharmapala’s (1864-1933) Buddhist revival work in India. The Maha Bodhi, a journal started by Dharmapala as the organ of the Mahabodhi Society, was patronized by Indian intellectuals such as Tagore who contributed articles and poems to it. Moreover, during 1903-05, Asit Kumar Haldar (1890-1964) an artist-colleague of Tagore was a frequent visitor to the home of Dharmapala (Halder, 2011: 132). In the first two decades of the twentieth century, the cultural and spiritual collaboration between India and Sri Lanka was deepened through the initiatives of Dharmapala, Asutosh Mookerjee and Tagore. While in India, Sri Lankan art critic and historian Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877-1947) formed close relationships with the Tagore family, and was involved in both the literary renaissance and the swadeshi movement, an early phase of the struggle for Indian independence. It is clear that Tagore had already met Sri Lankans before he travelled to Sri Lanka.

On 13 November 1913, the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Tagore by the Swedish Academy; the Bengali poet had become a world figure. Soon after the First World War, in May 1920, Tagore sailed for Europe, where he was received with immense admiration. Before 1913 the name of Rabindranath Tagore was hardly known to anybody in neighbouring Sri Lanka except for a few personal contacts. The award of the Nobel Prize to Tagore enhanced the prestige of the Asian people who were under the British colonial rule and also created an interest about his works and life in Sri Lanka. In an article titled ‘Tagore and Ceylon’, Martin Wickremasinghe (1890-1976), Sri Lanka’s foremost Sinhala writer in the twentieth century, stated:

Tagore would have been ignored by the majority of our English-educated intelligentsia if he was not the recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature. When I was young, I read the Rev. Edward Thompson’s ‘Life of Tagore’ in which he ironically related the criticisms of Tagore by some Bengali Sanskrit scholars and university professors. The latter gave passages from Tagore’s prose works and told matriculation students to re-write them in chaste Bengali! This attempt to humiliate the genius of Tagore, before he was offered the Nobel Prize was the result of the influence of English culture and colonialism that prevailed in Bengal. 5

In 1915, two years after winning the Nobel Prize, there is a record in Sinhala Bauddhaya(27May 1915), a Sinhala weekly newspaper of the Mahabodhi Society, that a visit of Tagore to Sri Lanka was postponed.
Tagore’s First Visit to Sri Lanka – October 1922

The beginning of the twentieth century saw a remarkable social, political and cultural change in Sri Lankan society. The English-educated elite were politically involved in constitutional reform activities and at the same time they were interested in various cultural and reform movements6. It is clear that during the early 1920s Tagore had many connections with Sri Lankan Buddhist priests, politicians and intellectuals, including D. B. Jayatilaka, Dr. W.A. De Silva, Ven. Rambukawelle Siddhartha. All of them studied at Calcutta University and Tagore had a close association with the university. In 1918, Tagore laid the foundation for his ideal institution Visva-Bharati at Santiniketan and made adequate provisions for the study of Buddhism and Pali7. Ven. Ambalangaoda Dharmadhara (1858-1936), one of the earliest Buddhist monks to cooperate with Dharmapala in his efforts to revive Buddhism in India, was also a close associate of Tagore. Ven. Dharmadhara served as the first Professor of Buddhism and Pali (1918-1922) in Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan8. Moreover, the socio-cultural atmosphere that existed in Sri Lanka in the early decades of the twentieth century and Tagore’s connections with Lankans paved the way for a visit to his neighboring country.

Tagore’s first visit to Sri Lanka in October 1922 was on the invitation of Dr. W. Arthur De Silva (1869-1942), a scholar, politician and philanthropist, who was an alumnus of Calcutta University. Tagore was accompanied by his close associate C. F. Andrews. In this visit Tagore first stayed at Sravasti in Colombo, the home of De Silva and then went to Kandy, and spent a week in Nuwara Eliya. At this time the political elite were founding the Ceylon National Congress (1919), following the example of the Indian National Congress. Tagore’s friend De Silva was a Member of the Executive Committee of the Ceylon National Congress and became the President of the Congress in 1928.Tagore gave a lecture at the newly established Ceylon University College (1921). He spoke on the “Ancient Indian Universities” and the “tradition of close engagement between the guru and shiya”.9 Robert Marrs, Principal of the College, presided over the event. On 10November 1922, Tagore visited Ananda College in Colombo as the chief guest of the annual prize-giving ceremony. During his visit to Kandy, he was honoured by politician George E. De Silva and Albert Godamunne and also gave a lecture at Trinity College. During this visit he addressed gatherings in Colombo, and at the Mahinda College, Galle. At this time Kalidas Nag served as the principal of the Mahinda College in Galle. In one of his speeches Tagore said:
Although the political constitution of modern Ceylon separates this country from India, it is no secret that its history, religion, language, morals, culture and everything else are closely linked to India. Briefly stated, the fact that Ceylon became great because of India is no exaggeration. Although the spiritual bond between the two countries that was there in the past has collapsed, time has come to put that together again and strengthen it.10
Tagore’s Second Visit to Sri Lanka – May 1928

In 1928, the University of Oxford invited Tagore to deliver the Hibbert Lectures. Tagore had embarked on a ship on 12 May 1928 but had to cancel his trip to Europe due to his illness. Instead he visited his Sri Lankan friend Arthur De Silva in Colombo. The visit lasted for ten days, from 29 May to 11 June 1928. Tagore again stayed at Sravasti and then went to Nuwara Eliya. C. F. Andrews was with him during this trip also. When Tagore visited Sri Lanka in 1928 he was much better known to the Sinhala intelligentsia as a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature and also as a “Great Indian Poet” (Bharata Maha Kavi). Sinhala and English newspapers announced the arrival of the great Indian poet. In connection with this visit the Sinhala daily Dinamina published several poems in praise of “Maha Kavi Ravindranth Tagore” including a poem written by a famous Sinhala poet, Katunayaka Lionel W. De Silva, wishing the poet good health 11. During the early 1930s Arian Williams (Sri Aryanayakam), a Sri Lankan Tamilian from Jaffna, served as the poet’s Secreteray and worked as a teacher at Santiniketan12. He also acted as a translator during Tagore’s vist to Malaya in 1924. Moreover, Tagore’s interaction with Sri Lankan students in Santiniketan provided scope for another visit to the island.

Tagore’s Last Visit to Sri Lanka – May 1934

During 1931-32 Tagore’s Visva-Bharati had financial difficulties and his friends and well-wishers in Sri Lanka invited him to the island and helped him to raise funds for Visva-Bharati. Tagore’s last visit to Sri Lanka was in May 1934. It was his most important visit and invitation was extended by an admirer, Wilmot A. Perera (1905-1973), a business magnate who had visited Santiniketan in 1932. The friendship between Perera and Tagore had a profound influence on the cultural relationship between the two countries. When Tagore arrived in 1934, the country and the people of Sri Lanka were facing various socio-political and constitutional reforms. With the introduction of universal adult suffrage by the Donoughmore Constitution in 1931, this period saw various socio-political developments, such as the broadening of political participation, and the emergence of organized political parties and associations which inspired the government to adopt the people’s ‘own language’ (swabhasha) in education and administration.13

On 9 May 1934, Tagore and a group of 23 students from Santiniketan arrived in Colombo. The poet’s 73rd birthday anniversary was celebrated on board the ship. He was accompanied by his daughter-in-law Pratima Tagore, the daughter of the poet, Mira Devi, and the renowned artist Nandalal Bose. Huge crowds welcomed Tagore and his group with warmth and enthusiasm. The personalities who were present to receive him included Sir D. B. Jayatilaka who was then the Leader of the State Council of Ceylon and also an alumnus of Calcutta University, and W.L. Murphy, the Mayor of Colombo. On his arrival to Lanka, Tagore stated:

I know your island and her beauty. I have been here more than once. And this time I have a special mission. I have bought some part of our culture which Santiniketan represents. I hope I will be able to please you. I hope my mission will be fulfilled… I have bought something from India, some aspect of the culture, some delight of her arts and I hope you will realize that it that it is of eternal value. With politics I am not concerned. My mission is spiritual delights of art and beauty far and wide.14.

Tagore stayed as a guest at Helena Wijewardena’s Colombo residence - Sri Ramya. The coverage of this visit was intensive compared to his earlier visits to Sri Lanka. The Sinhala and English press gave wide publicity for Tagore’s visit. Both Sinhala and English daily newspapers carried the news of Tagore’s visit on the cover page. The Sinhala daily, Dinamina considered Tagore as the ‘Sage of Santiniketan’ or the Great Poet (Maha Kavi) of India. On 9May 1934, an editorial appeared under the titled ‘Tagore and National Revival’ and Martin Wickremasinghe again wrote a feature article on Tagore’s life and works for Dinamina. During his stay in Colombo, Tagore gave interviews to English newspapers expressing his views on national culture and language problems, and he delivered several lectures. D.B. Dhanapala, a leading English journalist who interviewed Tagore in 1934, gives the following interesting account:

I remember an interview both of us [DB Dhanapala & HAJ Hulugalle] had with Rabindranath Tagore when he was the guest of Wijewardene at Sri Ramya, now occupied by the American Embassy. Both of us listened to Tagore for two hours, only now and then putting a timid question to him. We came away without taking down a single note. He wrote down from memory half the interview and I wrote the other half in the first person singular in Tagore’s own words. We sent the proof to Tagore for approval keeping our fingers crossed. It came back with only one word altered – ‘catastrophe’ changed to ‘cataclysm’ – just in time to be rushed to the front page to be published as “The Island of Lotus Eaters”.15 .

On 10 May, Tagore delivered a talk on Visva-Bharati under the titled “Ideals of an Indian University”, and it was broadcast over Radio Ceylon. He also recited his poems at the YMBA and YMCA and spoke in Jaffna, Kandy, Horana and Panadura. His speeches made a deep impression at that time. On 12 June 1934, speaking at the Jaffna Central College, Tagore said:

The spirit of India once visited Lanka. The best moral ideals, the deepest spiritual philosophy which had been produced in that land, travelled across the barriers of mountains and seas, consecrating this beautiful land. But centuries passed by and she became alienated from India, and today India’s gifts lie disassociated from their sacred source. As a poet, it is my mission to restore that ancient association of mind through my efforts that speak through a direct language of art.16.

In this visit to Sri Lanka, Tagore also hoped to raise funds for Visva-Bharati with his dance troupe. He was accompanied by 23 artistes and performed the dance-drama shapmochan in Colombo and Jaffna. On the evening of 12 May, the Santiniketan artistes presented the first show of the Bengali dance-drama shapmochan at the Regal Theater, Colombo. It was a memorable performance which was reviewed for the Ceylon Daily News by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, an Oxford graduate in Classics who became the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka in 1956. The following is an excerpt from his review:

The curtain went up, and my first impression was one of aesthetic satisfaction at the setting and the grouping, which had the simplicity and the beauty which Greek drama alone has yet been able to achieve. There was Tagore seated at one end, approximately garbed in a yellow robe, a typical bard and seer with his flowing grey hair and beard. The first thing that struck me was the beauty of his shapely hands and the long tapering fingers; only a great artist could have hands like that. The music started, low and soft, and the slow movement of the dance. . … Love and wrath and sorrow and joy and chivalry – all human emotions find their place in this play, and the delicate and sure touch with which they are conveyed by the music and dancing is a revelation of art at its highest.17 ..

According, to Martin Wickremasinghe, “Tagore’s dance-drama which was a visual presentation of an aspect of Indian culture made an impression on the educated section who were ignorant of their own language and culture”.18 Furthermore, the English press acclaimed this dance drama as “A Feast of dance and song music”, “Greatest within living memory”19. This dance-drama was so popular that it was extended to three performances in Colombo and three in Jaffna. Shapmochan brought a new theatrical experience to the local theatre and later several plays came to be modeled on shapmochan which were staged in Colombo and other provincial towns.20

On 14 May 1934, an exhibition of Arts and Crafts of Santiniketan was opened at the Colombo Art Gallery by Sir Graeme Tyrell, the Chief Secretary. At the opening ceremony, Tagore spoke on ”The Ideals of Indian Art”. The exhibits included paintings by Tagore, Nandalal Bose and by students of Kala-Bhavan. This exhibition created an awareness and enthusiasm of the traditions of Indian art among Sri Lankans. Tagore was delighted to find that some of the pupils of his art school had already served as teachers of drawing and painting at the Ananda College, Colombo and other schools.21 At this time, there was also a suggestion to hand over the task of painting the murals of Kelaniya Buddhist Temple to Nandalal Bose.22 On 16 May Tagore was accorded a reception by the Colombo Municipal Council and the following day he delivered a lecture and recited his poems at the YMCA building in Colombo.

During this last visit, besides giving lectures and interviews, on 20 May 1934, Tagore laid the foundation for the new institution called Sri Palee in Horana. Sri Palee was a dream institution of Wilmot A. Perera. He visited Santiniketan in 1932 with his wife on a scholarly pursuit, Mrs Perera joined Kala-Bhavan and learnt a number of arts and crafts, while Wilmot Perera spent the whole time to study the Santiniketan method of teaching. After his return home from Santiniketan, Wilmot A. Perera continued to build a school for rural reconstruction on similar lines with Sriniketan. To inaugurate the new institution he invited Tagore. Tagore even gave the name for this institution. He called it “Sri Palee” – “a place where the goddess of Fine Arts lives”. At the founding ceremony of Sri Palee Tagore said:

My heart goes out to these simple people from the neighbouring villages and I feel unhappy that I am not able to speak to them in their own language, but I hope that they will realise that they have my heartiest blessings and I wish them well. It reminds me of my own work in Bengal, this institution which you have started, and I feel that this will be a channel of communication of hearts between your island and our institution in Bengal. It makes me feel so happy.23

The establishment of Sri Palee at Horana based on Tagore’s concept of education and culture was a ground-breaking event for fostering local culture and fine arts. It was the direct result of a close relationship that developed between Tagore and Perera, its founder. Many former pupils of Sri Palee (which is now the government-owned Sri Palee College) have vivid memories of their school education which aimed “to provide a humane education in harmony with [the] environment with inputs from aesthetic fields for the overall development of the students.24.

On 22 May, Tagore visited Galle and then Matara – two main towns in southern Sri Lanka – where he witnessed a traditional mask-dance. On 4 June, he visited Kandy where he was fascinated by the Kandyan dance on which he wrote a beautiful poem. Tagore encouraged inmates of Santiniketan to learn and imbibe these dance forms and adapted some elements of those dances in his later choreographic productions. Moreover, his words of encouragement helped the Kandyan dance form emerge into the mainstream of Sri Lankan dance culture. During this visit, Nandalal Bose who travelled with Tagore, did some beautiful paintings and sketches, including on Kandyan dance. While in Kandy, Tagore completed his novel, char adhyay (Four Chapters). After a visit to Anuradhapura and other places of historic interest, he went to Jaffna on 9 June where shapmochan was performed on three successive evenings. While Tagore stayed on the island, he translated a poem from the original Bengali to commemorate the Vesak (Vaisākha or Buddha Purnima)25 and sent it to the Ceylon Daily News. On Vesak Day (28 May), the poem was published under the title To Buddha26. During this last visit he visited almost every important town and at every place he was accorded an enthusiastic reception. He left Jaffna on 15 June and returned by way of Danuskodi-Madras to Calcutta by rail.27

It needs to be mentioned here that Tagore visited Sri Lanka at a time when the English-educated Sri Lankan elite treated with contempt the ancient cultures of India and Lanka. The decades of the 1920s and 30s also marked “linguistic decolonization”– actions taken to undo the social, political and cultural effects of the dominance of colonial language within the Sinhala and Tamil communities.28 For example, at this time there was a general trend in Sinhalese society to adopt Arya-Sinhala or Sanskrit names. In the aftermath of Tagore’s visits, many Sinhalese intellectuals who proceeded to Santiniketan abandoned their Anglo-Portuguese names and adopted Sanskrit names in order to defend their Sinhalese identity.29 In this socio-cultural context, Tagore truly believed in the mutually interactive relationship between the two cultures and often showed his regard for the glorious history and cultural traditions of India and Sri Lanka. In one of his speeches during this visit Tagore had stated:

I thought it was my mission to come [to] Ceylon to spread this message of our Oriental culture to those who by some unfortunate external circumstances have forgotten their own past and who are ready to disown their richest inheritance.30

Tagore’s Lesser Known Visits to Sri Lanka

Apart from these three main visits in 1922, 1928 and 1934, three other, lesser known, visits to Sri Lanka have been recorded. These were stop-overs rather than visits.

In September 1924, on his way to Argentina he stopped at Colombo and was the guest of W. Arthur De Silva at Sravasti. He was accompanied by his son, Rathindranath, daughter-in-law, grand-daughter and Surendranath Kar.

In 1929, on his way to Canada via Japan, he left Bombay on board of S.S. Naldera and stopped over at Colombo on 4 March for a brief halt.

On 5 March 1930, Tagore stopped at Colombo on his way to Oxford to deliver the Hibbert Lectures.

Tagore was successful in achieving the goals of his visits to Sri Lanka: the cultural and social cooperation between the two countries. Tagore’s visits to Sri Lanka and his close contacts with Sri Lankans had a profound influence on the socio-cultural relations between the two countries. An important cultural landmark was thus established in the mutual relationship between India and Sri Lanka.

Impact of Tagore, Translations and Commemorative Events

Tagore’s three visits to Sri Lanka in 1922, 1928 and 1934 and his three transit halts had clearly left an abiding imprint and turned into a landmark events in the annals of modern Sri Lankan cultural development and of Indo-Lanka relations. Moreover, his extensive interaction with artists and literary personalities of Sri Lanka contributed to the country’s cultural resurgence, inspiring young artistes, dancers and singers to develop their genres to classical forms. A reporter wrote on Tagore’s visit to Lanka in 1934:

Here in Ceylon, Tagore has kindled a new enthusiasm. He has awakened a great yearning, he has held aloft a great idealism. It is not this generation that will thank him for his inspiration to Ceylon. Generations cannot measure the value of his services. It is not history that will record his achievements. Even history cannot give a niche to ‘an impetus’ that has opened our eyes to a vision of the joy and grandeur of our song and music, of our art and culture.31
In the following years (1934-35), Tagore’s popularity in Sri Lanka reached its culmination. Several young intellectuals and artistes proceeded to Santiniketan to study music, dance, painting and Indian philosophy.32 Some of them had an opportunity to interact personally with Tagore. Later, they became major figures in Sinhala art and literary movements and enriched the cultural life of post-independence Sri Lanka. Among them were Ananda Samarakoone,Edwin Samardiwakara, Surya Shankar Molligoda, Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Devar Suryasena, Sunil Shantha, Lionel Edirisinghe, C. De S. Kulatilleke,Chitrasena, Premakumara Epitawela, and W.B. Makuloluwa. All these men have succeeded as artistes trying to evolve a contemporary local art with its bases in the oriental tradition. Tagore inspired many Sri Lankans to develop and appreciate their own traditions of music and song. For Ananda Samarakoon (1911-1962), the composer of Sri Lanka’s national anthem, Sri Lanka Matha, Rabindra-Sangeet had been his main source of inspiration. Other musicians like Surya Shankar Molligoda, Sunil Shantha and W.B. Makuloluwa who followed training in Santiniketan, broke new ground in developing an indigenous music tradition which was continued by their pupils and subsequent generations.

Ediriweera Sarachchandra (1914-1996), Sri Lanka’s premier playwright and a former professor of Sinhala (at the University of Ceylon) was influenced by Tagore. While he was at university, Sarachchandra was lucky to see a ballet performance by Tagore’s Dance Troupe at the Regal Theatre in Colombo. Having graduated from the University of Ceylon, he went to Santiniketan in 1939 to study music and philosophy. In his autobiography and his series of articles titled “Through Santiniketan Eyes” Sarachchandra talks at length on the deep and enduring impact of Santiniketan on his life and work.33 On his return to Sri Lanka in 1940, Sarachchandra became a teacher at the S. Thomas’ College, a leading English school in Colombo. In his autobiography Sarachchandra further says that he attempted to teach Tagore’s poetry to students who came from an English-speaking elite background.34

During the 1940s and 1950s several poets of the “Colombo School” of Sinhala poetry were also inspired by Tagore’s poetical creations. For example, the veteran Sinhala poet P.B. Alwis Perera’s sabadahama(1942) displays the influence of Tagore’s philosophy. Several Tagore poems were published in Dedunna, the poetry magazine edited by poet P.B.Alwis Perera. In 1963, in an article on “Tagore and Ceylon” to Ceylon Daily News Sinhala writer Martin Wickremasinghe wrote:

Tagore encouraged these young poets to break away from the traditional Sinhalese poetry which was influenced until the 13th century by the Sanskrit poetry of Magha and others… The enduring appeal of Tagore to the intelligentsia of Ceylon is his attitude to religion and life which he expressed artistically in his poetry and with imagination and religious perception in his lectures and essays.35

However, it has been pointed out recently that pioneer writers of modern Sinhala has failed to grasp the artistic depth and poetic value of Tagore’s works.36

When Tagore died in 1941, Dinamina, the main Sinhala daily newspaper of the island, carried the news on the first page, further an editorial and feature articles describing Tagore’s contribution to literature and the arts.37 In connection with Tagore’s death, M. Balasunderam, a leading Tamil educationist from Jaffna, who had invited Tagore in 1922 to address students at the University College, contributed an incisive and revealing article titled “Unchronicled Anecdotes about Tagore” to the Jaffna-based newspaper Kesari.38 In 1944, a large portrait of Tagore painted by Dulip Das Gupta was presented by the Calcutta Art Society to the government of Sri Lanka. Today that portrait hangs facing the entrance to the library of the University of Peradeniya (University of Ceylon). On this occasion, Sir D.B. Jayatilaka, who had extended a cordial reception to Tagore on his arrival in 1934, said, “When the portrait of the great poet, thinker, and social worker is hung up in the library of the University of Ceylon, it will be a continuous source of inspiration to lofty aspirations and high endeavours of the youth of Ceylon for all time.”39 C.W.W. Kannangara, the Minister of Education at that time mentioned in a message that Tagore himself “treated Lanka as a daughter of Bengal and the emotions of the youth of this country were touched by the beautiful and musical prose with which he clothed lofty ideals of eternal value”.40

The Tagore Society in Sri Lanka was formed in 1944; under the auspices of this society several commemorative functions were organised mainly to create an awareness of the poet’s works. In 1961, on the occasion of Tagore’s birth centenary, the Ven. Udakendawela Sarnanakara, a Buddhist monk who spent some time in Santiniketan, compiled a special issue of his journal Navalokaya on Tagore. It contained several Sinhala articles on Tagore’s contribution to Sri Lankan arts and culture. The Sinhala daily Dinamina also carried a special supplement to commemorate the birth centenary of the poet.41

It needs to be mentioned here that in Sri Lanka the reputation and impact of Tagore in the fields of music and arts was high in the 1920s to 1940s, but his fame as a literary figure came only after the publication of Tagore’s works in Sinhala translation. His works had not yet appeared in local languages – mainly in Sinhala – in the 1920s, so only a section of the English-educated intelligentsia had the opportunity to read Tagore’s works in English.42 As more and more of his works began to appear in Sinhala, Tagore became popular. Even today, Sinhala writers are keen to translate his works. In Sinhala newspapers we can find translations of Tagore’s poems and short stories. Tagore is perhaps the foreign figure most translated into Sinhala. In the decade 1961-1971 the popularity of Tagore with the Sinhala reading public even increased. The early Sinhala translations of Tagore’s works include Gitanjali (1950), Crescent Moon (1954), The Gardener, Lover’s Gift, Natir Puja (1960), Gora, Chitra (1961), Mashi and Other Stories (1962), Chandalika (1964), Sacrifice; The Post Office (1966). During the last decade several other Tagore’s works had been translated: Fruit Gathering, Reminiscences; The Wreck in 2000, Broken Ties and other Stories in 2002, Chokher Bali, The Home and the World in 2003, My Boyhood Days in 2005, Chaturanga in 2007, Four Chapters in 2008 and Stray Birds in 2009. All translations were done from English, except, in 1999, a Sinhala translation of Gora which was based on the original Bengali. Among these translations Gitanjali gained such popularity that more than one translation of the work appeared. Now there are four Sinhala translations of Gitanjali, the latest is from 2010.43.

The life of Tagore also inspired deep interest in the Sinhala readership. The first Sinhala biography of Tagore appeared in 1947; at present we have four Sinhala biographies of Tagore written by different authors.

In 2011, the 150th birth anniversary of Tagore provided an opportunity to celebrate the poet and also to review Tagore’s contribution to the country. A series of lectures, seminars, exhibitions, film festivals and the re-staging of shapmochan were organised to commemorate Tagore and appreciate his work and life.44 On this occasion, the Ministry of Postal Services of Sri Lanka released a postal stamp on Tagore. A special commemorative volume Remembering Rabindranath Tagore45 was published by the University of Colombo with the support of the India-Sri Lanka Foundation. This volume contains articles in Sinhala, Tamil and English which highlights the poetic, philosophical and cultural expressions of Tagore and their relevance in the contemporary world. In June 2012, a one-day seminar on “Tagore and Sri Lanka” was held in Colombo under the auspices of the Indian Cultural Centre, Colombo and in association with the Centre for Contemporary Indian Studies (CCIS), University of Colombo. The seminar, which was coordinated by the well-known Indian author and literary critic, Radha Chakravarty, focused on the travels of Tagore to Sri Lanka and the cultural exchange they helped to enhance. During the academic sessions, both Indian and Sri Lankan scholars revisited Tagore’s contribution and cultural exchanges and the impact of his visits to the island. On 26 June 2012, a bust of Rabindranath Tagore was unveiled by G. L. Peiris, the Minister of External Affairs of Sri Lanka, in the presence of Ashok K. Kantha, the High Commissioner of India in Sri Lanka, at the main library of the University of Colombo. The bronze bust has been gifted by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India on the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Tagore. The bronze bust is sculpted by Janak Jhankar Narzary, a renowned sculptor and Professor of Art History in Kala Bhavan, Visva-Bharati. The unveiling of the bust marked the end of the year-and-half long celebrations of the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore in Sri Lanka.


Ariyratne, Sunil. (1999) ‘An Insight into the Impact of Rabindranath Tagore on Sinhala Art and Music’ Vidyodaya Journal of Social Sciences Vol. 1 Jan pp. 157-165.

Ceylon Daily News, 1934

Coperahewa, Sandagomi.(2009) ‘The Politics of Language in Colonial Sri Lanka, 1900-1948’ Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Cambridge.

_______ (ed.) (2011) Remembering Rabindranath Tagore (150th Birth Anniversary Commemorative Volume) Colombo: University of Colombo.

Coperahewa, Sandagomi & Ramanayaka, B. ( 2011) ‘ A Bibliography of Rabindranath’s Works in Sinhala’ in Sandagomi Coperahewa (ed) Remembering Rabindranath Tagore (150th Birth Anniversary Commemorative Volume) Colombo: University of Colombo, pp. 128-131.

Dhanapala, D.B. (1962) Among Those Present Colombo: M.D. Gunasena.

Dharmadasa, K. N. O. (2011) ‘Tagore and Sri Lanka: The Highlights of an Abiding Relationship’ in Sandagomi Coperahewa (ed.) Remembering Rabindranath Tagore 150th Birth Anniversary Commemorative Volume) Colombo: University of Colombo. 1-7 pp.

Dinamina, 1928, 1930, 1934, 1941, 1961
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Guruge, Ananda (1984) From the Living Fountains of Buddhism Colombo: Ministry of Cultural Affairs.

Halder, Gautam (2011) ‘ Asit Kumar Halder- Rabindranath’s Poet of Colour’ in Something Old, Something New - Rabindranath Tagore 150th Birth Anniversary Volume. Mumbai: The Marg Foundation. 130-149 pp.

Jayasuriya, Edmund (2011) ‘Gitanjali – Lotus and Empty Basket ‘ in Sandagomi Coperahewa (ed) Remembering Rabindranath Tagore (150th Birth Anniversary Commemorative Volume), Colombo: University of Colombo, pp. 104-107.

Kumara, Yasasiri Janka ( 2010) ‘ Wilmot A Perera – a main among men who took the less travelled path’ in The Splendour of Sri Palee ( 75th Anniversary Publication) Colombo: Sri Palee Past Pupils Association, pp. 347-357.

Mukhopadhyaya, P. & K. Roy (1961) ‘A Chronicle of Eighty Years’ Rabindranath Tagore – A Centenary Volume New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, pp. 451-503.

Nag, Kalidas(1944) Rabindranath Tagore and Ceylon Calcutta: Prabasi Press.

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Sri Palee College Website,

Udaya Narayan Singh and Navadeep Suri, (2011) Rabindranath Tagore – A Commemorative Volume New Delhi: Public Diplomacy Division.

Wijesooriya, Sarath(2011) ‘Nutana Sinhala Sahitya Kala Sambhashanaya ha Ravindranatha Thakur’ (Modern Sinhala Literary Arts Discourse and Rabindranath Tagore) in Sandagomi Coperahewa (ed) Remembering Rabindranath Tagore (150th Birth Anniversary Commemorative Volume) Colombo: University of Colombo, pp. 81-90.

Wickremasinghe, Martin (1964) Buddhism and Culture (2nd edition, 1981) Dehiwela: Tisara Prakasakayo

Dr. Sandagomi Coperahewa BA (Colombo), MA (Lancaster), MPhil (Peradeniya), PhD (Cambridge) is a Senior Lecturer, Department of Sinhala, University of Colombo and also the Director, Centre for Contemporary Indian Studies (CCIS), University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

1In general, he is referred to as Tagore – the Anglicized form – but those who conversant with Bengali language refer to him as Thakur.

2 Supriya Roy, 2011, p. 2.

3 Nag, 1944.p.5; Dharmadasa, 2011, p. 2.

4 Kalidas Nag 1944, p. 4.

5 Wickremasinghe, 1964, p. 69.

6 Coperahewa, 2009, see chapter 2.

7 Nag, 1944, p. 5

8 Guruge, 1984, p. lxii.

9 Goonetileke, 2001, p. 51.

10 Cited in Dharmadasa, 2011, p. 4.

11 See Dinamina, 31 May 1928.

12 Nag, 1944 p. 7.

13 See Coperahewa, 2009, chapter 4.

14 Cited in Nag, 1944, p. 2.

15 Dhanapala, 1962, p. 174-175.

16 Ceylon Daily News, 13 June1934; also cited in Nag, 1944, p. 3.

17 Ceylon Daily News, 21 May 1934.

18 Martin Wickremasinghe, 1964, p. 69 – At this time the English educated elite condemned the local arts and culture and that context Nobel laureate Tagore’s dance drama created an enthusiasm among the educated elite.

19 Ceylon Daily News, 21 May 1934)

20 Ariyaratne, 1999, p. 158.

21 Nag, 1944, p. 7.

22 See Dinamina, 31 May 1934.

23 Cited on the Sri Palee College website

24 Kumara, 2010, p. 356

25 Buddhist festival to commemorate Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and passing away.

26 Nag, 1944, p.12.

27 Mukhopadhyaya & Roy, 1961, p. 496.

28 Coperahewa, 2009, chapters 3 & 4.

29 See Dharmadasa, 2011, p. 6.

30 Ceylon Daily News, 21 May 1934.

31 Cited in Nag, 1944, p. 8.

32 See Ariyaratne, 1999, 160-161; Dharmadasa, 2011, p. 5.

33 See Sarachchandra, 1985, 85-112; Sarachchandra, 2001.

34 Sarachchandra, 1985, p. 121.

35 Wickremasinghe, 1964, p. 71.

36 Wijesooriya, 2011, p. 83.

37 See Dinamina 8 August 1941.

38 Goonetileke, 2001,p.51.

39 Nag, 1944, p. 14.

40 Nag 1944, p. 15.

41 Dinamina, 8 May 1961.

42 See Sarachchandra 1985, p. 91.

43 See Coperahewa & Ramanayaka, 2011, p. 129.

44 See Sandesh June/ July 2012.

45 Sandagomi Coperahewa, (ed.) Remembering Rabindranath Tagore 150th Birth Anniversary Commemorative Volume. Colombo: University of Colombo, 2011.

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