Mr. Under-Secretary-General, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I
acted and behold, service is joy.”
These are the words of Rabindranath Tagore, the great Bengali poet who
was the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature hundred years ago
from today in 1913, for his collection of poems, Gitanjali. These words,
though simple and spoken with no adornment, capture the very essence of
Tagore’s message to the world and of his life-long mission in the service of
our common humanity.
He was a man born into wealth and comfort, and yet he chose a life of
simplicity and hard work, dedicated not only to expanding the world-vision
of his fellow countrymen through poetry and songs, but also to improving
their daily lives through hands-on action.
One of his life-long passions was education. Tagore himself never received
any formal degree, and yet he built one of the finest universities in the
world. This school, which he described as his life’s work, was called
Shantiniketan, the abode of peace. He spent every penny that he earned –
from lectures, royalties and, of course, his prize money for Gitanjali, and all
of his remaining strength– to build it as a place where the East and the West
could meet. Instead of any clash of civilizations, it was to be a place where
students and teachers from the East and the West would sit together and
learn from each other in a common pursuit of truth.
Bangladesh that pursues its policy of ‘Friendship to all and malice to none’
has been promoting ‘Culture of Peace’ that is designed to inculcate a sense
of tolerance, understanding, respect and friendship as it believes, all violence, terror and war, and misunderstanding emanate from a mindset of
hatred and ignorance. Long before, our resolution of ‘Culture of Peace’ or
our resolution of "International Mother Language Day' to protect, preserve
and promote native languages and cultural diversity were adopted to enrich
humanity in 1999 at Shantintiniketan, Tagore set up the first South Asian
Institute to study Chinese and learn diversity. Amartya Sen, another Bengali
to have won the Nobel Prize, recalled that his mother, who studied at
Shantiniketan, even learned Judo from Japanese Judo trainers. And there
were separate institutes dedicated to learning art, music, philosophy, culture
and, yes, farming --- and in the process you a develop a sense of belonging
and respect to one another of this planet earth and to humanity.
Bangladeshis, like myself, look at Tagore and discover in him a renaissance
man. His firm stance against communalism and all forms of fanaticism
serves us as a constant reminder of the need to remain vigilant and united in
our total rejection of all forms of violence, bigotry and injustice.
Tagore’s profoundly sensitive, ever fresh, beautiful, simple, and soothing
verses that express deep philosophical and spiritual inner self are still vibrant
and alive. His prophetic words, I quote, “Azi Hothe Shotho Borsho Pore Ke
Thumi Porecho Boshi Amar Kobitha Khani kuwtuhal Borey” --- 'who are
you reading my poem even after 100 years' is still strong and alive. No
wonder, Tagore was perhaps the most important literary genius of Bangla
literature. Tagore started writing his poems at age 8 and drama at age 16.
Tagore modernized Bengali art by spurning rigid classical forms. His stories,
songs, dance-dramas, essays and novels were acclaimed for their lyricism,
colloquialism, naturalism, and contemplation. His poems and music are like
prayers for one’s self enrichment, purification and salvation. For example,
“Onthoro Momo Bikoshitho Koro Onthoro Thoro Hey
Jukthokoro Hey Shaber Sange Muktho Korohey Bandho,
Uzzalo koro, Nonditho koro, Sundhoro Korohey” ---
[Make my inner self enriched in the best possible way. Join me with others
and liberate myself from bondage. Enlighten me; make me great and
beautiful in the truest sense of the term].
Incidentally, Tagore is the only poet in the world to have written the national
anthem for two countries – India and Bangladesh. A third country, Sri
Lanka, in crafting its own national anthem, drew inspiration from Tagore as
I thank the Under-Secretary-General for Public Information, Mr. Peter
Launnsky-Tieffenthal and the Department of Public Information for its
thoughtful initiative to organize a special event to celebrate the centenary of
Rabindranath Tagore and his Gitanjali by bringing together some of today’s
brightest minds. We are particularly lucky to have Rizwana Chowdhury
Bonnya, one of the best known exponents of Tagore songs, whose beautiful
opening song has given us both the solemnity of the occasion and the deeper
insight it calls for.
My gratitude also goes to the United Nations Academic Impact for
partnering with the Permanent Mission of Bangladesh to the UN to make
this wonderful event a reality.
H.E. Dr. A. K. Abdul Momen
of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh to the UN