India Inspiration – Tropenmuseum Amsterdam


An exhibition at the South Asia department of the Royal Tropical Museum Amsterdam: to celebrate the inspiration Indian artists have graciously shared with their western peers; and to trace the role of migrants from India via Surinam through songs, memorabilia, images, and documentary film clips.

Concept and research: Ludwig Pesch (www.aiume.org) in collaboration with museum staff and Architectenbureau Jowa (www.jowa.nl).

Photographs © Ludwig Pesch

This exhibition is one of the five themes in the exhibition “Round and About India”: Wanderings

Amsterdam-Museum-Tropen_VisitStorytellers and actors brought their stories to every corner of India. Today their narrative boxes, scrolls and performances are increasingly being replaced by modern mediums, but they have not yet disappeared.

India is a country of stories and storytellers. Opportunities abound in the exhibition Round and About India to watch and listen to narratives about people, ideas and objects. Every item has a tale, every person has something to tell. Whether it is festivals and processions, commerce and history, gods and heroes, pilgrimages and wanderings.

In this exhibition these stories are the central features of performances in dance, theatre and music. | More information: www.tropenmuseum.nl (official website)

Visit the Tropenmuseum

This museum is one of Amsterdam hidden treasures. Located off city centre in a beautiful old building in East Amsterdam (Amsterdam Oost), Tropenmuseum often remains forgotten, like an old collection of post stamps. However, if you are interested in other cultures, other countries and distant lands – do no miss it.

Amsterdam Tropenmuseum exhibit is modern, fascinating on many levels and inspiring. […] Modern and intelligent presentation makes the visit pleasant to a larger public, including children. | More information: www.amsterdam.info/museums/tropenmuseum

Some notes on Rabindranath Tagore and his role in fostering “sympathy of the East and West” during his visit to The Netherlands in fall 1920

In his poetry, for which he received the Nobel Prize for Literature as Asia’s first awardee in 1913, Tagore uses musical instruments as metaphors for self-realization and transcendence; notably the vina (or “veena”, often translated as “harp”) and the flute. In a letter to Frederik van Eeden, his Dutch translator, he wrote:

“Very often I think and feel that I am like a flute – the flute that cannot talk but when the breath is upon it, can sing. I am sure you have seen me in my book and I shall never be able to make myself seen to you when we meet; for the body of the lamp is dark, it has no expression, only its flame has the language.” (signed in London, 9 August 1913) [1]

This recurring motif may excuse the amusing blunder by a cartoon character (the alter ego of the museum’s former Curator for South Asia), who hails Tagore as “India’s greatest flautist”! [2]

In an earlier letter to Van Eeden, written seven years before visiting the Netherlands, Tagore wrote:

“Still I cannot deny that this award of the Nobel Prize has been a great thing. It is the handshake of sympathy of the East and West across the water – it has proclaimed the oneness of humanity.” (signed in Shanti Niketan, 12 December 1913) [1]

Tagore_Vrije_Gemeente_Spaarnestad1920

Rabindranath Tagore in Amsterdam (Vrije Gemeente 1920) © Spaarnestad Photo – click on the photo for more details and to zoom in

In 1920 Tagore spoke before packed houses including the “free congregation”: the humanistic and cosmopolitan “Vrije Gemeente” whose highly placed members had built a magnificent church at the Weteringschans in Amsterdam. (It now houses Amsterdam’s prime pop venue, known as “Paradiso”.)

Tagore’s lecture tour made a lasting impression on countless listeners:
“Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and the Dutch writer, psychiatrist and Utopist Frederik van Eeden (1860-1932) exchanged correspondence between 1913 and 1928, and met in Amsterdam in 1920. When Van Eeden discovered Tagore’s poetry in 1913, he experienced a feeling of profound recognition and went on to translate a considerable amount of Tagore’s poetic work into Dutch, starting with Gitanjali [Wijzangen]. Van Eeden’s translations became very popular in the Netherlands, also among composers.” [3]

Van Eeden’s father (the elder Frederick van Eeden) was in fact the co-founder of what later became the Tropenmuseum, established as the “Colonial Museum” in nearby Haarlem in 1864. The grand building in Amsterdam dates from 1923. [4]

[1] Learn more about Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Frederik van Eeden (1860-1932) and the spread of Tagore’s educational ideas through Noto Soeroto in “Tagore in The Netherlands” by Liesbeth Meyer:
www.parabaas.com/rabindranath/articles/pMeyer.html
(visited 14 March 2016)

Tagore with tambura - Sangeet Natak Centenary Number (New Delhi 1961)

“As Blind Minstrel in Phalguni” by Abanindranath Tagore (detail); title page, Sangeet Natak Centenary Number (New Delhi 1961)

[2] For the record: it is a well known fact that Tagore did not play any musical instrument other than the drone:

“I practiced my songs with my tamburā resting on my shoulder.” (My Boyhood Days, p. 38, Calcutta: Visva-Bharati 1997).

Later he was depicted as playing a similar string instrument, namely as a participant in his own music dramas (see the detail from Abanindranath Tagore’s painting reproduced here). So if you visit the exhibition and watch its audiovisual contents, kindly ignore this blunder by an over-enthusiastic museum team member. Here you may enjoy the rare and instructive media contents supplied by many contributors including the Embassy of India in The Hague.

[3] More information is found in the English Abstract by Rokus de Groot for his article titled “Van Eeden en Tagore. Ethiek en muziek” in Tijdschrift van de Koninklijke Vereniging voor Nederlandse Muziekgeschiedenis, D. 49ste, Afl. 2de (1999), pp. 98-147. The  abstract and article (in Dutch) are found here: 
www.jstor.org

[4] In 1923 the building on the corner of Mauritskade and Linnaeusstraat was completed and the collections from Haarlem could be moved to Amsterdam. On 9 October 1926 Queen Wilhelmina officially opened the new Colonial Institute. The history of the Tropenmuseum is outlined here (in English): 
www.geheugenvannederland.nl/?/en/instellingen/tropenmuseum

Tip

Listen to “Tagore: Unlocking Cages” from the series of podcasts by BBC 4 titled “Incarnations: India in 50 Lives”. Sunil Khilnani tells the story of the Bengali writer and thinker Rabindranath Tagore. The series is found here: http://bbc.in/1KVh4Cf