Tagore, Janáček and yoga: Czech-Indian connections over two centuries


The Czech Republic has links with India going back to long before both countries won independence. In this programme, in our occasional series In Their Own Words, we draw from our archives to look at Czech-Indian connections – through music, literature, geopolitics and even yoga.  

Photo: MBatty,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“The Czechs know yoga! Every second Czech is doing yoga. So that is a very big soft power of India that you find in the Czech Republic. There are yoga studios just about everywhere.”

That is the former Indian Ambassador in the Czech Republic, Narinder Chauhan, when she came to talk to Radio Prague International in 2020.

But it is not just yoga that Czechs associate with India.

“What we very much appreciate is that your textbooks tell you about colonial India and the contribution of Mahatma Gandhi to the world philosophical thought. In the Czech Republic India is associated with Mahatma Gandhi. India is Mahatma Gandhi and Mahatma Gandhi is India. Recently, when we celebrated 150 years of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth, the Czech Republic was one of the few European Union countries that brought out a special commemorative stamp to mark the occasion.”

A great Indian poet in pre-war Prague

As far as we know Mahatma Gandhi never visited Czechoslovakia, but this country does have a strong connection with his contemporary, the great Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore, who was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. When I made a short documentary about the poet in 2011, I started in one of Prague’s inner suburbs…

“I’m in Thákurova Street in Prague 6, home to the city’s Technical University. The street gets its name from the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, and I’m standing by a bust of Tagore put up to mark his close friendship with the pre-war Czechoslovak Republic. It is a characteristic portrait, depicting him in his later years, with a long beard, just as he is known from many photographs.”

Dušan Zbavitel | Photo: David Vaughan,  Radio Prague International

At the time I went on to speak to Dr Dušan Zbavitel, who was the Czech Republic’s foremost scholar of Tagore’s poetry. Professor Zbavitel was already 86, but he still spoke with immense enthusiasm and energy about the poet.

“Tagore was not only a poet and a writer. He was a Renaissance personality in that he was a great composer – he founded a new style of Indian music called Rabindrasangit, which is still popular in India, he was a great painter, he was also a pedagogue and so on. He even founded an agricultural school in India to teach the Indian peasants new methods of agriculture.”

A deep humanism runs through Tagore’s work, along with a pervading sense of optimism, two qualities that appealed strongly to many writers, artists and intellectuals in the newly emerging Czechoslovak Republic after World War I. Here are a few lines from Tagore’s most famous collection Gitanjali, in the poet’s own English translation.

Mind Without Fear

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Professor Zbavitel reminded me that the links with India that eventually led to Tagore’s two visits to Czechoslovakia take us back over two hundred years.

Rabindranath Tagore | Photo: eugeniohansenofs,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“The knowledge of Indian languages goes back a very long way in the Czech Lands. For instance, some of the so-called enlighteners of the beginning of the 19th century knew and studied Sanskrit. Dobrovský, Jungmann and others considered it their duty to get acquainted with Sanskrit. So the tradition of interest in India was very old and very vivid in our country. I don’t know the reason – nobody knows – but India was very sympathetic for Czech people as a country under foreign rule. It was an English colony until 1947 and the Czechs were under Austria-Hungary until the First World War, so there were mutual sympathies, and our also very much followed the fight of India for freedom – for political freedom.”

The father of Indian studies in Prague was Vincenc Lesný, who, in the first half of the twentieth century, built up the study of Indian languages at the Charles University, along with Moriz Winternitz from Prague’s German University. Lesný became a good friend of Tagore, and both he and Winternitz were invited to India to lecture at the Visva Bharati university that Tagore set up in Bengal. Lesný was also responsible for two visits that Tagore paid to Prague in the 1920s. Dušan Zbavitel reminded me that among the many Czechs who went to hear him speak was the composer Leoš Janáček.

“Tagore came twice to Prague. He came in May 1921 only to Prague, because his visit was rather short, but during this short visit he delivered two public lectures. One was in the Lucerna ballroom and it was very well received. That’s when Janáček met him. At the time, Janáček wrote a column for the paper Lidové noviny, and he put down the intonation of Tagore’s recitation of Bengali poetry. And when Tagore came for the second time in 1928, in our National Theatre two of his plays were performed and in the German Theatre they also performed one of his plays.”

Tagore’s language inspired Janáček to compose one of his best-known choral pieces, the “Potulný šílenec” (The Wandering Madman) for mail choir and soprano solo, which puts a story from Tagore’s book The Gardener to music.

A wandering madman was seeking the touchstone, with matted locks
tawny and dust-laden, and body worn to a shadow, his lips
tight-pressed, like the shut-up doors of his heart, his burning
eyes like the lamp of a glow-worm seeking its mate.

Before him the endless ocean roared.
The garrulous waves ceaselessly talked of hidden treasures,
mocking the ignorance that knew not their meaning.

Tagore defends Czechoslovakia against Nazi Germany

There is little evidence of Tagore himself having taken particular interest in Czech music and literature, but he was very actively interested in political life in Czechoslovakia, especially in the face of growing extremism in Europe.

“He was considered by nearly everybody here as an ambassador of peace and understanding between nations. This was his message. He was the first president of the Indian League against Fascism, a great enemy of Nazism and of Hitler and Mussolini. That’s also why his works were not allowed to be published during the Second World War, when we had the Protectorate here.”

Memorial of the Čapek Brothers,  Náměstí Míru,  Prague | Photo: Juan Pablo Bertazza,  Radio Prague International

On Christmas Eve 1937, the celebrated Czech writer Karel Čapek sent a message over the airwaves to Tagore in Santiniketan in Bengal, and at the same time the inventor of the arc-lamp, František Křižík sent a message to Einstein in Princeton – a gesture of solidarity among democratic nations - all broadcast live to Czechoslovak radio listeners. This is the only surviving recording that features Čapek’s voice.

“To you, who are the harmonious voice of the East, we send our greetings to Santiniketan. We send our greetings from Czechoslovakia, where the snow is already falling, from an anxious Europe in the Western world, where even the most highly developed nations are unable to shake each other’s hands as brothers would. Regardless of the great distance between our countries, however, we stretch out our hands in brotherly love to you, the poet of wisdom, to you, quiet Santiniketan, to you great India, to you mighty Asia, even to this Asia which is now being destroyed by arms discovered by the West. At this very moment, when cannons are roaring against the east and west of our common continent, our Western democracy feebly calls out to you at the turning point of the year: ‘Long live the world, but let it be a world of equal and free people.’”

Tagore himself sent a telegram in return, which was read out in English on air.

“Friends in Czechoslovakia. In the terrible storm of hated violence raging over humanity, accept the goodwill of an old idealist who clings to his faith in the common destiny of the East and West and all people on the Earth.”

When, a few months later, Czechoslovakia was carved up under the Munich Agreement, Tagore spoke out in defence of the country. Dušan Zbavitel:

“At the time of the Munich Crisis in 1938, he wrote an open letter to the world’s press, which was also published in English and American newspapers, in which he condemned Nazism and also Western democracies for betraying us. He expressed in this letter his hope that our country will regain its freedom. Unfortunately, by the time this letter reached this country, the German influence was so strong that the letter was not allowed to be published and Czech readers were not able to read it until 1945, after the liberation of Czechoslovakia.”

Czechoslovakia after the Munich Agreement | Photo: Muzeum dělnického hnutí/e-Sbírky,  National Museum in Prague,  CC BY-NC-ND

Rabindranath Tagore did not live long enough to see Czechoslovakia liberated from Nazi Germany. He died in Kolkata on 7 August 1941, at the age of 80. After the war, Czechoslovakia’s communist regime was initially deeply suspicious of his legacy, but thanks largely to the persistence of Dušan Zbavitel, some of Tagore’s poems were republished in the mid 1950s, and interest in the great Indian writer has continued ever since. Dušan Zbavitel died in 2012, a year after I spoke to him, but he continued translating Tagore’s poetry right up to his death.

“In translating his poetry, one great advantage has been that the structure of the Czech language and the Bengali language is very similar. We have very similar sounds and also the structure of the verbs is very similar. So it is not so difficult to translate it. I even did an experiment: Tagore turned many of his poems into songs, so I tried to translate these very songs in such a way that they can be sung to the same melodies. But of course Indian music, even Tagore’s music, is different from European music and never got many listeners in Europe.”

These boots are made for walking

In the period between the two world wars, Czechoslovakia was keen to cultivate trade with India. The most famous example was Tomáš Baťa, the shoe magnate who built the city of Zlín in the east of what is now the Czech Republic. The Baťa company was hugely successful and built factories in many parts of the world. At the beginning of the 1930s Baťa built the town Batanagar in Bengal, just outside Kolkata. Here’s Ambassador Chauhan again:

“The Bata Works were set up in India in the 1930s, well before we established diplomatic relations with Czechoslovakia, when we were still part of British India, the Bata works were actually set up by your country. And we all grew up in India thinking that Bata is India! The Bata Works are famous all over the country. The common man knows Bata."

Baťa | Photo: Loreta Vašková,  Radio Prague International

The Batanagar factory remains to this day one of the largest shoe-making centres in the world. It was also the setting for part of the novel Sound of the Sundial, published in 2001 and written by the Czech novelist Hana Andronikova. At the time Hana spoke to Radio Prague about the book, and read some extracts.

“The whole book is narrated by two people, and these two people have a dialogue during one night and they slowly reveal the whole story of Daniel Keppler's family. I'm going to read a part that takes us to the thirties. This part is narrated by little Daniel when he's a boy, and his father Tomáš Keppler comes back to Czechoslovakia to take his wife Raquel and his little son to India, where he's working on the construction of the Baťa shoe factory. Of course Tomáš Keppler is quite enthusiastic about India and he's hoping that his wife is going to like it there."

She didn't like it in India at all. She saw the dirt, the mouldering walls of the houses, litter floating in the sludge. It made her feel sick, the putrid stench wafting towards her, the dozens of curs and cats running around, hairless and mangy. She went into fits when she saw crippled children lying in the dust of the street, wretched beggars with their club-feet and outstretched hands. She suffered from phobias. About dirt and disease. She couldn't bear the naked face of reality, the raw shape of misery, sickness and dying. The day she saw her first snake she wanted to go home.

Mother India. Land of an ancient culture, mysterious and inscrutable. Broad rivers of rolling yellowy-grey water, silent and everlasting. India. Father tried to merge into the land and extract the best from the tangle of different people, cultures and religions. At first, mother tried to understand the country. She always tried to find sense in things. But then, you have to hate India.

In the end Raquel falls in love with the country.

India wasn't going to change for her sake. India had remained the same for thousands of years. It was Raquel who changed. She came to terms with it. Thanks to her obsession with age-old myths, images of faith and the power of the word, she revealed, for herself and for us, the poetry of the oriental continent; she let herself be carried away by extremes and by the abundance of destinies. She fell in love with India.

An Indian writer inspired by Prague

Ashutosh Bhardwaj | Photo: David Vaughan,  Radio Prague International

While Hana Androniková found inspiration in India, there have also been Indian writers inspired by their experience of this country. One of the most important writers of the post-war generation in India, Nirmal Varma, spent nearly ten years in Czechoslovakia. The Indian writer and journalist Ashutosh Bhardwaj has been researching into Varma’s life, and I spoke to him in the spring of 2023, when he was on a two-month stay in Prague on the invitation of the Prague City Library.

“In 1959 Varma he came to Czechoslovakia to learn Czech and translate Czech literature into Hindi. You will be surprised to know – more surprised because hardly anybody here in the Czech Republic knows about him today – that he translated writers like Kundera and Čapek into Hindi long before they were available in English. He introduced Czech writers to the Hindi world, before they had moved to England or France or westwards in Europe. He also wrote several important works, located in Czechoslovakia, including his first novel, which was based in Prague.

“Its title in Hindi is 'Ve Din', translated into English as ‘Days of Longing’. It’s now available in Czech translation as well. On the surface the novel is about a short-lived romance between an Indian student who is studying in Prague and a woman from Vienna, who is a decade or maybe fifteen years older than him. The brief romance lasts for three or four days. But if you scratch below the surface it’s about the post-war trauma which Europe, particularly this part of Europe, central Europe, was reeling under at that time. You come across Raina, the woman protagonist, who had been in a labour camp. There are several other protagonists who have their own horror stories and they are unable to come out of it. I only now learned in the last fortnight since I am here in Prague that Nirmal’s writings about Prague are incredibly authentic. Czech people tell me how he gets the emotions right. How could he write that? ‘It’s so Czech, it’s so authentic,’ they tell me.”

Nirmal Varma is among the most influential writers in Hindi literature.

“He also had a deep interest in Indian literature of other languages. He is a pan-Indian phenomenon. People across languages have read him. He has been translated into various other languages. He also had an early exposure to the West. He begins with communism, then he comes to the west – he lives in a country that is part of the socialist bloc, then he faces the reality and goes back to India and then after several years his anti-communist stand starts getting even further hardened and then he goes back in search of his Indian tradition, his Indian roots, before he takes to the other end of the spectrum. So it’s a long and fascinating and complicated and challenging journey that he has taken.”

Czechoslovakia and India during the Cold War

Illustrative photo: ha11ok,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

At the time when Nirmal Varma came to Prague, relations between Czechoslovakia and India were close. India had broken away from British colonial rule and cultivated close relations with the Soviet Union and the countries of the Eastern Bloc. Czechoslovakia became the second biggest arms exporter to India after the Soviet Union. As I was looking through the Czech Radio archives, I came across one recording that was quite typical for the time. The year is 1957. India has already been independent for a decade and Czechoslovakia is firmly under the Soviet sphere of influence. The recording is from New Delhi. Two of my journalism students from the Anglo-American University here in Prague, Kristina Zakurdaeva and Valentina Pšeničková, chose to take a closer look at the recording as part of their history of journalism course.

Kristina Zakurdaeva | Photo: Markéta Jirovská

KZ: “In September 1957 Czechoslovakia and India signed quite an extensive trade agreement, under which they were cooperating on many issues. The Indian government and the Indo-Czechoslovak Association set up an exhibition. It took place in New Delhi and was about how Czechoslovakia perceives Indian identity."

We hope to be able to present to you and to the citizens of Delhi an idea of the interest that has been evinced in Czechoslovakia in this country of ours.

Who is actually talking on the recording?

Valentina Pšeničková | Photo: Markéta Jirovská

VP: “We hear the chairman of the Indo-Czechoslovak Association, Krishna Rau, and his voice is followed by that of an unknown woman. I had some tips as to who it could be, but it turned out it’s not her. So we don’t know…”

The exhibition has been arranged under the title India in Czechoslovakia and I sincerely believe that those sober documentary photographs will show you, at least to some extent, how Indian philosophy, literature and art are deeply appreciated in my country. The Czech and Slovak translations of Indian literature are a part of all our libraries. The exhibitions of classical and modern Indian art are visited by tens of thousands of people in our country. All the performances of dance and musical ensembles visiting Czechoslovakia are always sold out long in advance.

KZ: “Then we have the Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Balakrishna Vishwanath Keskar:”

When I was a student in Europe, I had the occasion to visit once or twice the beautiful country of Czechoslovakia. Just as to large numbers of people in Czechoslovakia and other European countries India is something very distant and very vague, so it is possible that to a large number of people in this country, Czechoslovakia must be something just on the map. But let me tell my friends in India that Czechoslovakia is one of the most forward and one of the most dynamic centres in Europe that I ever saw. There is no doubt that even before the last war, it was a great intellectual and cultural centre.

Did you manage to get some background information about the relationship between India and the countries of the Soviet Bloc at the time?

KZ: “After gaining independence from the British Empire in 1947, India established diplomatic relations with Czechoslovakia. It was one of the first countries to sign diplomatic agreements. They opened embassies. This was quite a sentimental thing for Indians and Czechoslovaks, because they were united by this feeling of being one country oppressed by another. Especially this trade agreement of 1957 was one of the most important things in re-establishing close ties between the countries.”

This recording from the Czech Radio archive takes us back to a completely forgotten event 59 years ago. Did you feel it shed some light on the time, on the period of the Cold War or on the history of Czechoslovak-Indian relations?

KZ: “For me it was interesting to see that India was one of the proponents of the Non-Aligned Movement at the time, at the height of the Cold War, and they started cooperating with Czechoslovakia as a communist state. They were cooperating on many issues."

The food of love

Indian food | Photo: PublicDomainPictures,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

Today, nearly thirty-five years after the fall of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia, you do not have to go far to find a flavour of India in the Czech Republic, as former Indian Ambassador Narinder Chauhan reminds us.

“There are more than 75 Indian restaurants in Prague. I am surprised how Czechs have taken to Indian food which is spicy and has a very different flavour from the local cuisine. And there are Indian shops in Prague and the rest of the Czech Republic selling spices and Indian food ingredients. Indian food is very popular in the Czech Republic. And if you like Indian food, you will like Indian culture, you will want to visit India, trade with India –so food is the way to a man’s heart.”

The musical connection also continues. Debashish Chaudhuri is a highly esteemed Indian conductor, who has been based in the Czech Republic since the year 2000. He spoke to Radio Prague in 2020.

“It was a journey of discovering that eventually led me to Prague, and I must say quite blindly. They said you can learn to conduct, as a special student, since you already have some experience now and qualifications. And one fine day, I find myself standing in front of the Prague Conservatory. I don’t know why Prague, not London, or somewhere in Scandinavian – I don’t know, I can’t answer that question. I think fate brought me to this country.”

In the course of his time in this country, Debashish Chaudhuri has explored the wealth of Czech-Indian musical links. We have already talked about Leoš Janáček’s Wandering Madman, which drew from Rabindranath Tagore’s collection of poems, but Chaudhuri reminds us of another less well-known connection between the poet and the composer.

“He not only inspired Janáček, but if you go to Janáček's grave in Brno, the inscription on his tombstone is from Tagore! From Tagore’s book The Gardener – not many Czechs know that, even Moravians.

“Another piece of music – and I’m actually going to do the world premiere pretty soon – is by J.B. Foerster (born in Prague in 1859). It’s never been released, and I’m working from the autograph score, with the permission of his family. I’m very lucky to have found it because it’s basically the song cycle based on the Gitanjali (a collection of poems which Tagore rendered into English as Song Offerings). It’s the text of Tagore, using the German translation which he had at that time, in 1914. It’s a short song cycle and is a direct link not only to India but to Kolkata, my hometown, and to Prague and the Czech Republic.”

Market in Kolkata | Photo: lyndenj,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License