By Mitali Chakravarty
Long ago, I had heard from my uncle, I would sit open mouthed and stare at the sky. That was more than fifty years ago. I can faintly recall looking at the glowing rods of fire in an electric heater and losing myself in that. I remember collecting fallen mangoes after a storm in a mango orchard with my grandmother. Maybe she was as old as I am now. And then as time moved on to more comprehension of the world around me, I recollect listening to people reading or singing Tagore poetry or songs. My grandfather used to recite, then my father… exquisite lines that during my childhood captivated me with their lyricism and rhythm. The meaning often eluded me then. My first Bengali primer was called Shahaj Pathh. The words were written by Tagore and the drawings in black and white were by the famed artist Nandalal Bose. Learning a language from lyrical poetry was perhaps an adventure that left deep rooted imprints in my mind.
Now when I think back, perhaps as I gazed at the sky as a child, I was lost in the wonder of it for I do lose myself looking at the skies now and often I recall Akash Bhora, a song by Tagore that reflects and internalises the grandeur of the universe.
( A translation/transcreation of Tagore’s Akash Bhora, Shurjo Tara, 1924)
The sky replete with sun and stars, the Earth brimming with life,
In the midst of this universe, I have found my abode.
Spellbound by the plenitude, songs awaken in my being.
The infinite, eternal waves that create planetary tides
Resonate through the blood coursing in my veins.
As I walk to the woods, I step on the grass.
Heady perfumes of flowers startle me into a rhapsody.
Benefactions of joy anoint the universe.
I have listened, I have watched, I have poured my life into the Earth.
Through knowing, I have sought the unknown.
Spellbound by the plenitude, songs awaken in my being.
When I started comprehending Tagore’s words, I found myself enraptured with their sweetness, depth and meaning. While the nuances were deeply Bengali, the feelings were universal. Later in life, in Walt Whitman’s poetry, Song of Myself, I found weaves of Tagore. Whitman was before Tagore. But the sentiments that he carried in these lines reminded me of Tagore.
I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you…
The smoke of my own breath…
My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore…
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
(Excerpted from Song of Myself, Walt Whitman, 1881)
Tagore felt a union with nature which made him embrace, like Whitman, the whole world. This is of course a realisation that came to me much later in life. But the depth of his songs and the universalism he talks of only helps me improve as a writer and as a human. When I translate his poetry to English, I find the words almost echo what is there in my blood and bones.
When he sings of losing himself in his imaginary world, I can well see myself do the same.
(A translation/transcreation of Tagore’s Kothao Amar Hariye Jawa Nei Mana, 1939)
There is no bar to losing myself in an imaginary world.
I can soar high on the wings of a song in my mind.
Weaving fantasies into vast tracts of lands and unexplored oceans,
I lose my path in the distant shore of quietude —
I get acquainted with the champak blooms in the parul woods in my mind.
When the sun sets, I gather flowers in the sky amidst the clouds.
Mingling with the foam of the seven seas,
I reach the shores of faraway lands —
I knock at the closed doors of fairyland in my mind.
The same ideas reverberated in the unforgettable lines of Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Nights’ Dream:
“And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name”
(William Shakespeare, A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, 1596)
What completely rhapsodises Tagore’s works for me is his philosophy and ideology, which I feel is found in his songs, his novels, stories and essays. He completely lost himself in his own world of love, nurture and imagination, empathetic and inspired by nature and mankind. He described that spirit in his autobiography, Atmaporichoy, a collection of essays post-Nobel Prize, post-Santiniketan which was first published after his death in 1943 (1350 in Bengali Calendar). I was enthralled when I read of his Jivatama (finding the living God in an ordinary soul) which echoes through his poetry and lyrics. I could understand his need to reach out to develop the excellence in humankind. In multiple poems and dance dramas, like Abhisar, Chandalika and Notir Pujo, he idolises Buddhist monks as the ultimate nurturers, where noted courtesans and social outcastes find refuge when they lose their worldly aspirations and possessions, whether through disease, accident of birth or death. This again is a major comment on the role of religion, especially Buddhism. Perhaps this can be imbibed in the current context. When we see the treatment of Rohingyas and the military junta of Myanmar, we are appalled by the actions of a population that is perceived as largely Buddhist. The Buddhist values as painted by Tagore’s words cry out for a revival in the real world.
In Atmaporichoy, the Kobiguru also expressed his disappointment with various institutions and attitudes to academic mores. When he critiques these, I experienced disillusionment. It is difficult to accept an idol as a human. Just as one wants to see no flaws in one’s parents, hear no complaints and one tends to treat them as Gods, idols also suffer from a similar need in their fan base. However, I did progress from idolisation, to humanisation with flaws to admiration for what touches your heart.
Tagore’s writing does that. Touches one’s heart in a way that envelopes one’s being. I find his need for union with nature, his ideology profound as are the values taught in his novels. Gora (1909), the story of an Irish orphaned and abandoned during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1875, brought up in strict Hindu Brahmanical traditions, wrecks all concepts of caste, religious and class barriers that had been so carefully used by politicians to fan divides. For me, it was an eye opener.
Tagore authored more than 2,000 songs and poems, number of dance dramas, about a dozen novels and many short stories and essays. I have read only a few. But I would like to mention a few which have impacted me in a big way. Ghore Baire (The Home and the World) has been popularised by the Satyajit Ray production (1984). In both the novels, Ghore Baire (1916) and Gora, Tagore’s outlook on nationalism defines itself as very different from that of the Congress or politicians putting forth a dream of a new India. He spells out his stand in the voice of Nikhilesh in Ghore Baire: “I am willing to serve my country; but the One I will invoke is far above it. If I pray to my country, it will be disastrous for her.” Nikhilesh further questions a freedom fighter, Sandipbabu: “… if you disregard the presence of God in another land and feel hatred towards it, how will your worship be complete?” Through portrayals like that of Nikhilesh who persistently tries to develop land and tenants under his Zamindari and poems like Krishnokoli and Puraton Bhrita, Tagore expressed the need to flatten the divides that have become so prominent during the pandemic in India, where the justification of slums like Dharavi appals. The inhuman outlook where clean water and bathrooms for individuals are not seen as an essential commodity and living in squalor is approved and turned into tourism is frightening.
How have our lives improved in the post-colonial regime? Do we all have clean plumbing, food and water? In Tagore’s novel Chatturanga (The Quartet, 1916), Jagmohan, an affluent atheist, actually dies of plague during the pandemic, feeding and tending to Muslims tanners in the neighbourhood. Nikhilesh himself in Ghore Baire defies the call of the nationalistic chant of ‘Vande Mataram’ to look after his own tenants irrespective of their caste, religion or creed. For all these spokespersons of Tagore’s ideology welfare of mankind came before all else. Jagmohan tells his brother: “Yes, these Muslim chamars are my gods. You will notice among all the deities they are distinguished by a remarkable ability to polish off whatever eatables are placed before them. None of your gods can do that. I love to watch this miracle, so I have invited my gods into my home. If you weren’t blind to true divinity you would be pleased at this.” Putting man above ‘isms’ is something Tagore wrote about in Gora too – where the protagonist who thinks of himself as a high caste brahmin actually eats and lives with a poor Muslim family in the outskirts of a village.
Tagore had put humanitarian concerns above a form of nationalism that justifies the nation above human needs – and that was long before the pandemic of the twenty first century where the virus sees no difference between economic or societal divides. And yet, we, the humans, overlook the needs of the members of our own species, the domestic workers and labourers who builds our homes, work in mines and fields, people who are less privileged and continue to work to satisfy our daily wants. They also need food, housing, hygiene, bathrooms and clean potable water. It is time to learn to respect and treat them perhaps as Jagmohan or Gora did – as our fellow humans who have the same needs. That is a change in our mindsets that Tagore’s ideology perhaps hoped to inculcate in us. The bridging of these divides was perhaps a dream the Kobiguru had over and above ‘isms’ and political needs of a patch of land which overlooked basic human requirements.
In his essays on nationalism, Tagore wrote: “…it is my conviction that my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.” His outlook has been summed up beautifully in a book by Bidyut Chakrabarty, Socio-political Thought of Rabindranath Tagore: “Despite sharing the nationalistic condemnation of the colonizer, Tagore never allowed this restrictive vision to cloud his concern for human emancipation.”
Tagore saw the truth as above politics and narrow interest groups. He dreamt of a world where “knowledge is free” and “the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls”. In the spirit of Ubuntu, we can find free knowledge and the movement towards uniting under a single blue sky depends on how we think. Let us, while celebrating his writing, imbibe his spirit and move beyond a dystopian outlook to one that embraces freedom with responsibility.
Classic Rabindranath Tagore, Complete and Unabridged, Penguin Books India, 2011: All the quotations from Tagore novels are from this book.
All the translations of the poems can be found in Borderless Journal.
Mitali Chakravarty writes in hope of a world undivided by manmade constructs. In that spirit has founded the Borderless Journal, an online forum to unite with ideas.