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Celebrating Tagore in Berlin

Here I am in Berlin, strolling down Kurfurstendamm on a windy, rain swept afternoon, trying to recall memories of previous visits to the most happening avenue of Europe's most culturally alive city. There was a time when cities evolved gradually, almost imperceptibly, while their landmarks aged gracefully. Not so anymore.
 
Twenty-one years after my last visit, which was soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city looks vastly different. That change is personified by Kurfurstendamm, popularly known as Ku'damm, which is now cluttered with chrome-and-glass shopping malls and where people no longer stroll leisurely along but walk at a crisp pace like horses on the trot. In the days when a wall built with prefab concrete slabs divided this city, West Berlin was a lone outpost of freedom, a beacon of liberty, on the other side of the Iron Curtain that had descended on Europe heralding the Cold War. But neither the Kremlin-ordained partition nor the fact that the Allies retained de facto control over West Berlin dampened the city's zest for life.

Boisterous Ku'damm reflected that zest for life. There were more art galleries than you could count. The smallest restaurant boasted a live band. Cafes were crowded as were the pavements. A bar, popular among writers and artists, had framed the doodles on the wall of its loo. It was very radical, very chic.
As evening progressed into night, happy couples high on the pleasures of life made Ku'damm come alive. Young Tamils from Jaffna, barely out of their teens, hawked long-stemmed roses, persistent and pestilential, plying the trade of illegal immigrants pretending to be asylum seekers. At one end of Ku'damm stood the magnificent Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, its missing steeple and scarred fa ade preserved as a reminder of Berlin's fall and Germany's liberation. Minstrels and artists crowded the flagstone square of the church, ringed with cafes, bars, restaurants and art galleries. 

 The church still stands there. But its grey stone-and-mortar fa ade is overshadowed by a glimmering skyscraper, the Europa Centre. The past and the present are no longer in harmony; Kurfurstendamm, whose 125th anniversary is being celebrated this year, is now just another upscale shopping area in a city where nothing looks remotely down market, not even the less affluent districts. Berlin, however, still remains the cultural capital of Europe, the great melting pot of plastic arts, literature, music and cinema. Other cities pack their calendar with shopping festivals and business conferences -- Wiesbaden, one of the oldest spa towns of Europe where I spent the weekend, is now the centre for technology jamborees. Not so Berlin.

 Each day culture is celebrated in this city, though by a dwindling tribe of connoisseurs, in one form or another. Liberalism in Berlin has a saucily rebellious edge to it. Some would describe it as snobbishly subversive. Either way, it's all very charmingly heady. As the season of cultural events draws to a close, the highlight of this year's autumn is a grand exhibition of 98 paintings by Rabindranath Tagore, evocatively titled 'The Last Harvest'. The exhibition began on September 2 and will end on October 30. The Museum for Asiatiche Kunst where the masterpieces are on display has been drawing impressive crowds.

At home in India, the 150th birth anniversary of the poet has largely gone unnoticed. Not so in distant Berlin where Germans of all age still look up to Tagore for a "light from the East". The ongoing show at Dahlem Museum bears testimony to this fact. A broadsheet supplement published to commemorate the event would shame all Indian newspapers.

Tagore had visited Berlin thrice -- in 1921, 1926 and 1930. By the mid-1920s, recalls scholar Alex Aronson, he was a "household name in Germany" and had been "received as an honoured guest by a multitude of people". His spoken and written word acted as a balm for Germans, "frustrated as they were by military defeat, economic disaster and political chaos". A cartoon dating back to 1921 in a German magazine, Simplicissimus, shows a woman asking her friend, "But have you actually read any Tagore?" Her friend, languidly reclining on a couch, replies, "Oh, much more than that! I have read his eyes!" 

Ludwig Justi, director of the Nationalgalerie, on seeing Tagore's paintings in 1930 wanted to acquire them for his gallery's collection. The poet gifted him five paintings. In 1937, the Nazis declared those paintings as "an example of degenerate art" and ordered them to be removed from the Nationalgalerie. Nobody knows what happened to them. That's an amazing anecdote I have picked up in Berlin which makes this visit worth every euro it has cost me.

-- The writer is a journalist, political analyst and activist

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