Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Rabindranath Tagore, Wu Lien-Teh commemorative mural

It was back in January that we got to learn that the Hu Yu Seah would be commissioning a painter to put up a wall mural at the association to commemorate two outstanding citizens of the world; the two personalities being Rabindranath Tagore and Wu Lien-Teh.

Why they should be so singled out for recognition was soon revealed when the committee members of the Dr Wu Lien-Teh Society were invited to a press conference on 25 Jan at the Seah. We were told that both the Indian Nobel Prize laureate for Literature and our own Dr Wu had each laid foundation stones for the Hu Yu Seah buildings in the past.

On 14 Aug 1927, Tagore had visited Penang and he was invited to lay the foundation stone for the main Hu Yu Seah building. And on 25 Dec 1938, it was the turn of Wu to lay a second foundation stone for an adjacent block in the Seah premises.

Anyone travelling along Madras Lane in the subsequent weeks would not have failed to notice the British painter, Gabriel Pitcher, busily use the front of the vernacular primary school, the SJK(C) Hu Yu Seah, as his canvas. By and large, the Dr Wu Lien-Teh Society was invited back to the Hu Yu Seah on 10 Mar 2018 for the official launch of the commemorative mural. Coincidentally, as the 10th of March happened to be the 139th birthday anniversary of Wu Lien-Teh himself, this was a very special occasion that pleased many of us.

For the uninitiated, Rabindranath Tagore was born in Calcutta, India, on 7 May 1861. He was a Bengali poet, short-story writer, song composer, playwright, essayist and painter who introduced the use of colloquial language into Bengali literature. He also participated in the Indian nationalist movement in his own non-sentimental and visionary way. Gandhi, the political founder of modern India, was his devoted friend. Tagore was knighted by the ruling British Government in 1915 but within a few years, he resigned the honour as a protest against British policies in India. He was highly influential in introducing Indian culture to the West and vice-versa, and he is generally regarded as the outstanding creative artist of early 20th Century India. In 1913, he became the first non-European to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. (Extracted from a Think City press statement dated 10 Mar 2018.)

Much has already been written about Dr Wu Lien-Teh in this blog but again, for the completeness of this story, I would say that he was born in Penang on 10 Mar 1879 and was educated at Penang Free School and received the prestigious Queen's Scholarship to study medicine at Cambridge University. He is celebrated as "The Plague Fighter" who saved thousands of lives in the north-eastern China in the early 1910s when an outbreak of pneumonic epidemic was successfully halted by Dr Wu, working out of the city of Harbin using new scientific approaches to prevent the spread of the killer disease. He set up the Anti-Opium Society in Malaya and fought against colonial racism. He wrote extensively and was recognised globally. In 1935, Dr Wu Lien-Teh became the first Malaysian to be nominated for the Nobel Prize in Medicine. (Also extracted from the same Think City press statement.)

The mural was painted by Gabriel Pitcher, an artist from Britain who first visited George Town in 2014 to help a friend set up a solo exhibition and was so charmed by George Town that he extended his stay till today. His work takes him all around the world but he has made Penang his base. Gabriel's work focusses on expressive figurative portraits and he has done various outdoor murals in Malaysia, Indonesia and the United States.

The Rabindranath Tagore-Dr Wu Lien-Teh mural was funded by the Hu Yu Seah in collaboration with Think City, the Dr Wu Lien-Teh Society, Penang Gandhi Peace Centre, Ming Art and CanCan Public Art. (Think City is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Khazanah Nasional Berhad and is funded by Yayasan Hasanah. It is a community-focused urban regeneration body established in 2009 to help rejuvenate the heritage city of George Town. It has since established its presence in Butterworth, Kuala Lumpur and Johor Bahru.)

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