It was a gift from her elder brother, a copy of Rabindranath Tagore's poetry anthology, The Crescent Moon, that kindled in her her lifelong affair with India. Tagore's poetry became the prism through which Kim Yang-shik began seeing India, and the world, and it has been a long and fruitful journey.
She eventually became a poet and an essayist like her inspirer; in fact, she calls Rabindranath her mentor and her spirit. Her whole life has been devoted to Rabindranath Tagore. And now, one of her life's dreams has been fulfilled. Visva-Bharati University has given her permission to open a Korea Bhawan in Santiniketan. There is already a Nippon Bhawan and a Cheena Bhawan, prominent centres of learning about the cultures of Japan and China, respectively. Now there will be a Korea Bhawan too. Of course, a lot is left to be done for the centre to finally come up, but things have started to roll, and that's good news. For it did take years of efforts to convince the university; years of writing, and years of getting no answers. Finally, Visva-Bharati has recognised Kim's noble intentions and given her the go-ahead.
Unlike Japan and China though, Tagore was unable to visit Korea. But he did write a five-line poem in English about the country in 1929, while visiting Japan, calling it the 'lamp of the east,' which has remained in the hearts and minds of many Koreans, like Kim and her brother. The poem appeared in the Tonga Ilbo (East Asia Daily) newspaper, the Korean title being ‘Tongbang ui Tungbul.’ Then under oppressive Japanese occupation, this small poem titled ‘Lamp of the East’ had a huge impact on Koreans, inspiring them to regain their national pride. The poem goes as follows:
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..
Kim has read a lot of Tagore's works, in English translation, and has translated some too, including Gitanjali: Song Offerings, to Korean. Right now, she is well into the magnum opus of her life – translating all of Tagore's poems to Korean. After years of sweet perseverance, 80 per cent of the work is now complete.
Not just Tagore, India itself has been a big part of Kim's life. In fact, she did her MA in Indian philosophy. Over the years, starting from 1975, she has travelled to the country 30 times and has collected nearly 2,000 Indian artefacts. She also sponsors a scholarship in the Korean language course at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
After years of devotion to the Bard of Bengal (to her, though, Tagore can be said to be the Bard of the World), Kim set up the Tagore Society of Korea in 1981, and is its head. She also heads the Indian Art Museum. Both are located in Seoul. At 83, the first Korean Padma Shri awardee is still going strong.
Rabindranath Tagore has been a friend, philosopher and guide to Kim: he has given her his 'song offerings;' now, she's ready with her offering, fittingly, in his ‘abode of peace.’
Written by Anushtup Haldar for Team M3.tv
Top image: india.com