Kim Yang-shik’s eyes sparkled behind those stylish glasses while talking about the letter she received from Shantiniketan’s Visva-Bharati university earlier this year. The university, according to her, had finally in principle given the green signal to her opening a Korea Bhawan in the town synonymous with Rabindranath Tagore.
It was “no answer, no answer, no answer” for years, she said.
Tagore, of course, has been Kim’s “mentor” and her “spirit”.
“Through Tagore’s poetry, I saw the world,” she told me while we sat chatting in the Indian Art Museum in a trendy Seoul neighourhood.
Kim heads both the museum and the Tagore Society of Korea; she set up the society in 1981 following years of reading Tagore’s works and translating some including the Gitanjali from English to Korean.
Her elder brother urged her to read Tagore, handing her copy of The Crescent Moon; there was no looking back after that, only turning more pages.
She did her MA in Indian philosophy, eventually becoming a poet and essayist herself, and devoted time to translating Tagore.
Currently, Kim is translating Tagore’s entire collection of poetry.
“Around 20 percent is left. I have been translating the poems for years,” Kim said, carefully wrapping her 30-year-old favourite embroidered Kashmiri shawl around her shoulders.
Tagore never visited South Korea. But four lines he uttered about the country calling it the “lamp of the east” still remains lit in hearts like that of Kim’s. The city has Tagore statue in an university area as well.
Tagore isn’t her only passion in life; India is a huge part of it.
She’s travelled to India 30 times since 1975 and, over the years, collected Indian nearly 2000 artefacts – ranging from wood and stone carvings, musical instruments, paintings, furniture, fabric and handicraft – from across the country.
The artefacts are displayed twice a year for a few months at the Museum, the curator, Kim Kyu-Won said. Kim also sponsors a scholarship at the Korean language course at JNU.
She took me downstairs for a quick cup of coffee before rushing off for a meeting with lawyers and a visit to the National Museum of Korea. Looking at the chic, young Korean girls at the café, she grinned: “Very busy, these girls. Quick coffee after lunch”.
At a sprightly 83, the Padma Shri awardee, Kim Yang-shik isn’t doing too badly either, I’d say.