Why Korea loves Rabindranath Tagore
The laureate plays a special role in Indo-Korean relations.
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Though South Korea and India established consular relations in 1962 and upgraded to ambassador-level ties in 1973, the cultural connection shared by the two countries is much older. In the early 20th century, Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore wrote but a few lines that reached the masses and generations, and marked the beginning of a long-standing association between South Korea and India:
"In the golden age of Asia
Korea was one of its lamp bearers,
And that lamp is waiting
To be lighted once again
For the illumination of the East."
- Rabindranath Tagore (1929)
Another very unique aspect about this poem is that Tagore never visited South Korea, the place he mentions in the above verse. These lines he used for the country, calling it the “lamp of the east”, made a huge impact in the minds of Koreans. It is hard to find a South Korean who is not familiar with Tagore's poem Lamp of the East. It was like a prophecy that it would not be long before Korea rose again like a star among the comity of nations.
Tagore’s poem links Korea’s historic legacy to its future as the “illumination of the East”.
Tagore in Seoul, South Korea.
It all began in 1916 when Rabindranath Tagore visited Japan for the first time. During his visit, he met many Korean students at the country’s universities and got introduced to the uniqueness of their culture. In the early years of the 20th century, Japan had occupied Korea and they were facing cultural annihilation. Tagore used his visit as a platform to raise the issue among the public — in the cities he visited, he spoke about Japan’s excesses in front of crowds.
At the time the Japanese had tried to counter it by saying it was just the voice of yet another subjugated citizen of the world, but this voice was bring about change.
The poet replied to the accusations with The Song of the Defeated.
It goes thus:
"She is silent with eyes downcast; she has left her home behind her.
From her home has come wailing in the wind.
But the stars are singing the love-song of the eternal to a face sweet with shame and suffering.”
The poem calls it conquest by sword, which is shameful, and not the defeat of the Korean people and their culture. It is also said that he wrote the poem for Choy Nam Sun, a Korean student in Japan. During his visits to the country in 1924 and 1929, Tagore condemned Japan’s imperialist policies. Soon, his works began to be translated and published in Korean. This gave the Korean masses a sense of confidence and belief in their culture and country.
When the laureate wrote Lamp of the East in 1929, it filled them with hope. To date, it is part of the Korean curriculum and taught in schools.
Tagore inspired many writers from this part of the East, so his influence is found in Korean literature too. One such example is the poetry of Han Yong-un, the author of Nim ui Ch'immuk (The Silence of Love), considered a milestone in modern Korean poetry.
Han also wrote the poem After Reading Tagore's Poem ‘Gardener', which reflects his understanding of Tagore. Another such Korean is Kim Yang-shik, who was awarded the Padma Shri by the Indian government in 2002 for her work on Tagore. Yang-shik has translated the laureate’s works from English to Korean and set up the Tagore Society of Korea in 1981.
In 2011, on the occasion of Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary, a bronze bust of the laureate was unveiled by then Lok Sabha Speaker Meera Kumar in Daehangro, Seoul’s cultural heart. It enjoys the rare distinction of being the first bust of any foreign dignitary or writer to be installed in South Korea’s capital city.
Thus, Tagore plays an important and meaningful role in Indo-Korean relations. His love and admiration for the lamp of the east will continue to remind the world of India and Korea’s shared ties.