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Discovering Tagore in Thinker's café

india Updated: May 06, 2011 01:14 IST
Reshma Patil

Chinese scholar Tan Chung sat in the Thinker's Café in the suburb of techies and intellectuals on Beijing's edge, urging the audience at the dining-table to start a new Sino-Indian cultural movement and keep alive the cross-border bonds built by a poet from Bengal in 1924.

The bespectacled man on my left mentioned my hometown Pune, a city few Beijingers know of. Professor Mao Xiaoyu of the National Arts Academy of China said Pune was his favourite place in India, where he travels almost every year since the late nineties. Mao surprised us with the dozens of photographs on his iPad - the Mumbai local, Kerala fishermen, a kathakali dancer, nameless faces from street life. "Even the poor in India live with dignity,'' said Mao, showing a picture of beggars.

I asked him how the Chinese react to his exhibitions. "The Chinese think that India is magical and mysterious,'' he replied. "But after they see the photographs they think it's the same as China!''

Across the table, artist Zheng Bo who plans to visit India this year, nodded with interest. A Chinese journalist discussed his colleagues' first reporting trip to India. Peking University scholars said they were preparing publications to help Indians and Chinese understand each other.

About a dozen Chinese and two Indians including this reporter had gathered to discuss the single most influential Indian poet in China whose 150th birth anniversary will be marked by Beijing's political elite on Saturday. Elderly Chinese scholars say that Rabindranath Tagore's translated writing is the first glimpse of India for the educated Chinese. They discuss the Nobel laureate's 1924 tour in the world of Chinese intellectuals as a landmark.

But the current generation does not share their passion for classic literary links with China's neighbour. Before this meeting, the young schoolteacher who teaches me Mandarin said she was blank on Tagore. I left the café with a copy of Tagore and China edited by Indian and Chinese scholars. I stopped at a restaurant run by a Chinese couple in their twenties.

"Do you know this man?'' I asked, pointing at the bearded poet's picture and the bilingual title of the book. "Never heard of him,'' they replied.