On The Wings Of Imagination

“The flying machine made man a bird.The land and the water are at his feet Only heaven is there to conquer.”

These are lines from the poem Pakkshi Manab, or Bird Man, penned by Rabindranath Tagore on February 28, 1932. The words reflect the enthusiasm and wonder in Tagore’s heart about the joy of flying in aeroplanes, a crucial invention of man. It may come as a surprise to many that the Nobel laureate was an avid airplane traveller at a time when passengerboarded air flying was in its initial phases. He flew three times between 1921 and 1932, as the unofficial cultural ambassador of India.

His travel diary, say Tagore researchers, talks extensively about his amazement at soaring in the sky and above the land and seas. In his book, Away: The Indian Writer as an Expatriate, Amitava Kumar, captures Tagore’s almost childlike eagerness to fly. “He (the poet) had awoken at three-thirty in the dark morning and was in the air at four,” writes the author, referring to Tagore’s flight to Persia in 1932.

Tagore’s fascination with air journeys was also popular among his friends and family. It was captured in an Expressionist cartoon by the poet’s nephew Gaganendranath Tagore. The book Rabindranath Tagore in the 21st Century: Theoretical Renewals, describes the cartoon: “Tagore is in a flying chair, soaring in the sky, holding on to his cap, with the crescent moon behind and star clusters around him and his books fluttering alongside like birds.” The unofficial title of the work was Babamoshay udchen (the patriarch is flying)! Tagore flew for the first time in 1921. In May, 1920, he embarked upon his Europe-America tour. He returned home after almost 14 months, on July 16, 1921. During the trip, on March 24, the poet reached England from America, where he stayed three weeks. On April 16, he left from Croyden airport of London to Le Bourget airport of Paris by a small Goliath aircraft operated by Compagnie des Grands Express Aériens. This was his first air voyage. The landing of the Goliath at the Paris airport was even captured on a movie camera.

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During the latter part of the tour he delivered his Nobel Prize lecture at the Swedish Academy of Stockholm. From there he decided to go to Berlin. His son Rathindranath wrote in his book On the Edges of Time that the home minister of Sweden offered his father “an army seaplane to go back to Berlin. Father liked the idea and a plane was being got ready.” However, this trip was cancelled. In 1926, Tagore visited Italy, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, Germany and Hungary, with Rathindranath and a few others. Tagore was keen on making an air trip from Copenhagen to Hamburg. But taking into account his feeble health, the idea was dropped.

Tagore’s wish, however, came true in 1932. It was decided that his daughter-in-law Pratima Devi, secretary Amiya Chakrabarty, art critic Kedar Nath Chattopadhyay and scholar Dinshah J Irani would accompany him to Persia, on an official invite from the government. But could the 73-year-old Tagore bear the stress of travelling nearly 2,090 air nautical miles (around 4,000 km) from Kolkata to Persia? But the poet was so eager that he came to the Kolkata airport for a test flight on February 21 the same year. It was a Dutch airplane and the journey was for half an hour. The Dutch consul-general, his wife and Amiya Chakrabarty accompanied him. Van Dyck, famous for a successful voyage over the Atlantic at the time, was the pilot. And Tagore enjoyed his second air trip.

In a letter written to Hemanta Bala Devi, Tagore said he was going to Persia on April 11, 1932, and would return in a month. And sure enough, on the said date, the poet flew in a Trimotor Fokker F12. Tagore’s love for flying is amply evident in his Persian memoirs. He described the aeroplane as the “Sky Chariot” or the “Mechanical Pegasus”. He praised the power and energy of the flight personnel (the crew included the pilot, co-pilot and technicians). The flight to Persia was a hopping one. The first stop was Allahabad; the next was Jodhpur. The next day the evening flight took them to Karachi, then Jask, where they stayed the night. The final destination was Bushire. Against torrential storm and rain, the flight landed at Bushire airport on April 13 at 10 am. On the return journey, Tagore took the same flight from Baghdad and reached Kolkata on June 5 or 6, 1932. This was his last air voyage.

Words: Sudip Basu

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