Rabindranath Tagore – Discoveries, memories, and a thanksgiving

May 7, 2012 was a quiet day for most people, but it also happened to be the 150thbirth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore. While Tagore’s prolific output borders on the incredible, what is even more astonishing is the high level of quality that he sustained across his body of work. His songs used folk and ragas extensively, his writings touched on every possible human emotion, his novels fueled award winning movies, his plays were staged worldwide, and a translation of just one of his volumes of poetry won him a Nobel prize.

Tagore’s extraordinary creative output

I discovered – rediscovered would be more appropriate – Tagore’s music and poetry in my last years of college in the US. A Bangladeshi friend had an extensive collection of Tagore on cassette. My reading of Tagore’s poetry, and his essays on living, was enhanced by listening to my friend’s tapes. Songs that I could not stand in my school days suddenly took on new meaning. Reading a poem in Gitanjali, and then hearing it in song, was a brain-shifting experience. The tune was rarely what I expected, and yet it made the poem spring to life, evoking feelings and emotions that the written word could not.

On occasions – it happened more than once – I would hear a song and love it. Both the tune and the words. When I would mention it to my father on our weekly call, he would laugh and tell me that the song was one of my favourites when I was 3 or 4 years old. I used to repeatedly ask him to play it for me, till he got tired of the song himself. Sometimes I would try and play the record (only vinyl back then, cassettes were rare in India) myself and either scratch or damage the record. Two such songs were

Aamra chonchol, aamra odbhut, aamra nutawn juboneri doot
Hum hain chanchal, hum hain adbhut, hum hain nutan yuva ke doot.
We are playful, we are extraordinary, we are messengers of youth.

Aaji shubho din-e, pitaro bhobon-e, amrito shodoun-e chalo jai
Chaulo chaulo chaulo bhai.
Aaj shubh din par, pitra bhavan mein, amrit sadan mein chalo jaayein,
Chalo chalo chalo bhai.
On this auspicious day, let us go to where our ancestors dwell, to that house of nectar.
Let us go, let us go, let us go, O brothers.

Note to Parents: the music you play in the house sticks with your children, even if they don’t consciously remember the song in later years. I have learnt that lesson. Certain Rabindrasangeet songs my grandmother played regularly that I abhorred, I love them now.

In school (i.e. junior and high school), we had to sing a song every day at assembly. The songs were secularly chosen across various saints, poets and religions. Songs of Iqbal, Kabir, Tagore and so on. Two of the three most popular assembly songs were Tagore songs. Quite an irony, since my school had a lot of North Indians who touted a hate of Bengalis, but happily sang the Bengali songs at assembly. One of the songs was

“Ananda Loke, Mangala Loke, Viraajo Satya Sundara”
“Joy to all, Harmony to all, May Truth and Beauty Triumph”.

Several years later, well after college, I was asked to sing the same song at a Bengali friend’s wedding. My friend’s mother wanted to hear me once before unleashing me on stage. When I first began to sing it to her the way we sang it in school, she was aghast. She and her sister then sang it back to me (with such good voices that they ought to have sung the song at the wedding), and I realized that the music teacher in school had made some minor modifications in the rendition of the song to suit child voices. The original tune I heard from my friend’s mother was much more beautiful. With just a few changes, the song had acquired such depth and melody, that I was suddenly touched by the sheer beauty of the words. That is the power of a Tagore composition. Simple, yet powerful.

Although I ventured into Tagore territory on my own in the US, my father played a large role in making me understand and appreciate Tagore. One day, as we were talking about the efficacy of prayer, he began to quote a Tagore song.  He explained to me each and every line of the song, and gradually unraveled the immense beauty of the language, the choice of words, the tune, and the devotional content.

Dhaai jano mor shokol bhalobasha probhu tomaar paane, tomaar paane, tomaar paane
Jai jano mor shokol gombhir aasha probhu tomaar kaane, tomaar kaane, tomaar kaane.

May all my love flow towards you my Lord, to You, to You
May all my deepest longings reach your ears, my Lord, to You, to You.

On another occasion, on one of my trips home from college, we were discussing the pursuit of material things. He then told me a story written by Tagore which I can never forget.

A very rich man suddenly lost all his wealth. He went from pillar to post trying to find a way to restore his earlier glory. He traveled all over the country, visited various temples, and met many traders, but to no avail.
After a long time, on one such occasion, he came across a sadhu. The sadhu was meditating, and he patiently waited till the sadhu was done. He then explained his tragic story to the sadhu and asked for help.

The sadhu said, “That’s no problem. If you go down this path, you will come to a beach. There will be some ruins there. If you dig in this specific spot in the ruins, you will find a stone. With that stone, whatever you wish will turn to gold.”

The man, somewhat skeptical, went down the path. He found the beach. He found the ruins. He dug at the specific spot mentioned by the sadhu. He found the stone. He tested the stone. He took a brick in his hand. He wished. It turned into gold. He took some sand and wished. It became gold.

He could not believe his luck. He began to fantasize about what how his life would change. He imagined the glorious mansions, clothes, horses and chariots that he would possess again. He thought about the people he would take revenge on, and the people he would help.

And then he stopped. He put back the stone. He made his way back to the sadhu.

The sadhu saw him return empty-handed and was surprised.

“What happened? Did you not find the stone?”

The man responded, “I did, but I want what you have that you did not take that stone.”

I read the story out at my father’s memorial service when he passed away.

When I moved to London from New York, I joined Smt. Shyamoli Basu’s Rabindra Sangeet singing group, quite by chance. During that time, I came to understand the extensive use of raagas and taals by Tagore in his songs. I also discovered the various ways he used folk music such as Baul and Bhatiyaali, as well as folk instruments such as the Khol. Some of his more complex songs were explained to me by my teacher and others in the group. It was an enriching experience to learn the techniques of a great master while simultaneously enjoying his music and poetry. Once at Shyamali Di’s place, she sang a song

Jibane joto puja holona shara,
Jaani-he jaani tao hoyni hara

Jeevan mein jitna bhi puja hua nahi saara,
Janta hoon He tabhi bhi hua nahin haara

The prayers that have remained incomplete in this life,
I know O Lord that yet they are not forgotten.

Recently, I was given a book on Tagore’s music called  Rabindranath Tagore The Singer and his Song by Reba Som. It’s a terrific book, delving into how Tagore made music, and how his music and his life were deeply interconnected till his end. Tagore’s genius is made evident in the book as the author uncovers stories and methods behind many of his songs, some famous, with context and interesting trivia. Many myths and criticisms of Tagore are explored. Some are dispelled and some are validated. I am greatly thankful for such a gift, and more so to Mrs. Reba Som for having taken the trouble to write such a fascinating book.

Another book that I must mention is a book I happened to pick up at a railway station in India a few years ago, most likely the Howrah Station. The book is called Psalms of Solitude Gitanjali, an edition for non-Bengali readers published by Binode Behari Pal of Mind India Publications. The book has every poem in its original Bengali, the poem in hindi, the english meaning of every word in the poem, and then Tagore’s english translation. All of these are in English script. Essentially, it allows the reader to reconstruct the poem in English directly from the Bengali or hindi version. By doing this, the reader can grasp some of the finer nuances of the language, or the meter, or the particular rhyme that Tagore used in the poems.

Two aspects of Tagore’s life stand out for me.
1. He was home schooled because he could not take the stifling atmosphere of a classroom. His incredible creativity, his fearless experimentation, came from his unique education. He later experimented with the idea in Shantiniketan.
2. He went through a series of what would normally be called life-crippling events in his forties, but came out stronger for it.

I will write more on these aspects in another post later.