On the foggy winter morning of November 5, 1919, a train pulled into Sylhet Railway Station.
A man with a mane of long, flowing white hair and beard disembarked from the train. Having been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature six years earlier, the first individual to be so honoured from the Indian sub-continent, Rabindranath Tagore's visit to Sylhet is still fondly recalled by the local people.
Precisely 100 years ago today, the poet arrived in Sylhet, to spend three days here.
The eminent editor Nalini Kumar Bhadra reflected on Kabiguru's visit thus, "Any history of Sylhet written that does not take note of the events of these three days in the poet's life would be incomplete. Our posterity will read this story with pride – though they will envy our good luck."
The centenary of Rabindranath's arrival will be commemorated in Sylhet in great fanfare and with pride. The three-day celebrations, appropriately titled "Rabindranath in Sylhet: Hundred-Year Celebrations," will get underway on Tuesday. Sylhet MC College, Brahmo Samaj, Singha Bari and Masimpur Manipuri Mandir will arrange separate events on the occasion.
Writing to Kalidas Nag, historian and Vice Chancellor of Colombo University, on December 3, 1919, Rabindranath said, "Just returned to the Ashram. Visited Guwahati, Sylhet and Agartala on the way from the hills (Shillong). Not to mention that I have been delivering lectures extensively. On some days I even gave four full length lectures. I was agreeable to going through this sort of excess because I was astonished that people there still love me with all their heart. I felt that they do not know me as thoroughly as the people of Kolkata do, and so they still think I am someone special. Therefore, when the opportunity presented itself, I told them everything which came to my mind." (Letters-12, Chinnapatra)
During his Sylhet tour, Rabindranath delivered two lectures, one at the town hall on November 6 and the other at MC College on November 7. Subsequently, the town hall lecture was published in the journal 'Prabasi' with the title "Bangalir Sadhana" (The Aspirations of Bengalis). Meanwhile, a synopsis of the lecture delivered at MC College, titled "Akankha" (Desire), was published in the magazine 'Shantiniketon'.
In his lecture at MC College, Rabindranath told his audience of students, "With what objective are you here? Great desire. You have been admitted to college to learn. But reflect on what you will learn. What do birds learn from their parents? To spread their wings, to fly. Every individual must learn to spread the wings of his inner being; he must learn to desire the impossible. You have to be satisfied. You do not have to work impossibly hard to learn this; but to be a human being you have to learn to seek infinity and to keep the flame of desire lit till the end."
He went on, "In a country where we see students going for knowledge by opening the pages of their notebooks, or looking for it in textbooks only to pass the exam, where people are fulfilling their everyday needs by begging from others, where nobody is giving the country anything with his own hands – not health, not food, not knowledge, not power; a country where space for work is narrow, efforts weak; where in the arts nothing is being created to renew the inner joy of the self; a country where people's minds and rituals are bound to everyday habits; where questioning, judging and practicing new thoughts and applying them is banned and condemned, men cannot see their self-reflections in their own society. They see only handcuffs, the chains on their feet and the detritus of time long dead around them. They only see an unmoving divinity and not the awakened God."
During his visit, Rabindranath composed a poem being inspired by the natural beauty and cultural traditions of Sylhet. At the time Sylhet was not a part of Bengal but was linked with Assam. This historical fact was also depicted in the poem. Many recall the poem in their reflections on Sylhet a hundred years after Rabindranath's visit.
"In the cruel stream of time/ you are exiled/ from the frontiers of Bengal/ O land of beauty/ your heart is bound/ with the heart of Bengal/ with the garland of language/ the blessings of Bengal are knotted/ in that bond forever with you."
The writer and Rabindra researcher Professor Nripendra Lal Das has said, "Rabindranath never wrote any poem about any place except Sylhet. There was no title for the poem. There was no date either. Later the poem was published under the title 'Sribhumi' in Kabipranam. Many Rabindra scholars believe that the poem was composed in 1936."
Rabindranath was fascinated by a Manipuri dance he happened to watch. He was also impressed with Manipuri attire. Farzana Siddika, professor of Bangla at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, wrote in "Rabindranath in Sylhet: A Hundred Years On", that Rabindranath was so charmed by the Manipuri dance that while returning to Kolkata he took along with him a Manipuri dance teacher, with the help of the King of Tripura, to teach his students there.
Although Sylhet is readying itself to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the arrival of Rabindranath in the city, many places and infrastructures linked to memories of the poet are clearly on the verge of ruin.
During the Sylhet visit Rabindranath stayed at the Missionary Bungalow in the Naya Sarak area of town. The bungalow does not exist anymore as it was clandestinely sold by the missionaries owning it many years ago. At present, Sylhet Women's College and Hospital and a private hospital are situated on the premises.
Rabindranath visited historical Singha Bari of Chowhatta area of the city. During the period of the four-party alliance government in Bangladesh, the building was handed over to an influential group. However, the decision was reversed after protests were voiced by citizens. Sadly enough, there has been no visible effort to preserve memories associated with the poet's visit to MC College.
Rabindranath visited the Brahmo Mandir of Bandarbazar twice during his visit. He took part in a prayer session there. The Brahmo Mandir is currently in a derelict state.
The poet enjoyed the Manipuri dance in a pavilion in Masimpur. A bust of Rabindranath has been put up there.
Poet Tushar Kar said that the Rabindra visit centenary will not only be about songs and dances. "We have to preserve the memories of Rabindranath. Future generations will learn many things from them."
A committee has been formed with former finance minister Abul Mal Abdul Muhith as convener and Sylhet city mayor Ariful Haque Chowdhury as secretary to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of Rabindranath's visit to Sylhet.
Ariful Haque Chowdhury stated the celebrations will be inaugurated on November 5. Rabindranath sailed to Sylhet through the Surma river on a boat, alighting at Chandni Ghat. The first day's ceremony will be held at Chandni Ghat.
"A mural created around the theme of Rabindranath's poem on Sylhet will be unveiled. The main programme will be held at the District Stadium on November 7 and 8. Artists, writers and researchers from Bangladesh and India will participate in the event," he added.