Is Rabindranath Tagore relevant today?

“আজি হতে শতবর্ষ পরে কে তুমি পড়িছ বসি আমার কবিতাখানি কৌতুহল ভরে?”
“Who are you, a hundred years from today, reading my poetry with curiosity?”- Rabindranath Tagore

It is common knowledge that every young Bengali man dabbles with poetry. If I may be permitted, I’d like to add to the cliché. Every young Bengali man dabbles with poetry, discovers to his chagrin that his emotions have been better expressed by a man who died decades before he was born, writes a tribute to the great man, and moves on to become a clerk, engineer, or professor of comparative literature. It is a tragicomic progression precisely because the great man had warned against this sort of mediocrity and predictability.

Well, predictably, my life also followed this trajectory. I ‘rediscovered’ Tagore on my own after I had been inoculated with his poems, stories, and music almost since birth. I don’t recall my father enjoying any music as much as the songs of Tagore and my mother seemed to know even the most obscure lyrics in his canon of thousands of songs. Of course, back then, I had no appreciation for either the tunes he composed or the deceptively simple lyrics he wrote. It is a different matter today, though I cannot sing his songs as well as others in my family can.

Every Bengali grows up reading Tagore’s Sahaj Path (“Simple Lessions”) as a primer for learning the Bangla language along with Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar’s Barna Parichoy. At the age of six or seven, he or she is exposed to a remarkably lucid thought. (At the outset, I apologize for the audacity of attempting to translate Tagore when I personally belong to the camp which believes he is untranslatable.)

নদীর ঘাটের কাছে
নৌকো বাঁধা আছে,
নাইতে যখন যাই, দেখি সে
জলের ঢেউয়ে নাচে…
কত রাতের শেষে
নৌকো-যে যায় ভেসে;
বাবা কেন আপিসে যায়,
যায় না নতুন দেশে?

Next to the river ghat,
A small boat is tied.
When I go to swim, I see it
Dancing in the waves…
After the end of many a night
The boat floats away;
Why does baba go to an office,
And not to a new country?

Of course, though the poem is thought-provoking, our young Bengali pupil is forced to spend more time on memorizing the poem than in putting any thought into what it means.

Most Bengali girls learn to either sing songs of Tagore accompanied by the harmonium or to dance in the style he perfected to his songs. I remember my sister and many others used to dance to the following song:

“আজ ধানের ক্ষেতে রৌদ্রচায়ায় লুকোচুরি খেলা– লুকোচুরি খেলা”
“Today, the sun and shade play hide-and-seek in the paddy fields. They play hide-and-seek”

The idiom is indicative of Bengal’s strong agrarian bond, but now when I hum the line I recall a pictorial visualization symbolizing a yearning for this bond by the Partition displaced in Ritwik Ghatak’s multilayered masterpiece, Subarnarekha and a shiver runs down my spine. What would Tagore have said of the vivisection of his beloved Bengal had he lived to see the day? Tagore championed for the unification of Bengal after the first partition by Lord Curzon, but as he notes in Ghare Baire (“The Home and The World) he was keenly aware of the grievances of the mostly-poor Muslim populace in the eastern part of the province.

Ghare Baire was made into a film by Satyajit Ray. Tagore’s works have been recreated for the silver-screen by Ray, Tapan Sinha, Tarun Majumdar, and other doyens of Bangla cinema. His influence on the art, poetry, music, and culture of Bengal either directly through his work or indirectly through the institution he founded, Visva Bharati, is unmistakable.

At the age of thirteen, I read the first short story that tried to understand how I felt at that time, “Chuti”. It was part of the West Bengal school curriculum at the time, and I’ve read it many times since. I read a translation of it in Hungry Stones – a compilation of short stores translated mostly by CF Andrews, which my father had received in school as an award for academic performance many decades earlier. The power of the story transcends language and I highly recommend reading it for it is indicative of what makes Tagore so endearing: his unmatched ability to find the universal in the specific.

Consider the following passage:

In this world of human affairs there is no worse nuisance than a boy at the age of fourteen. He is neither ornamental, nor useful. It is impossible to shower affection on him as on a little boy; and he is always getting in the way. If he talks with a childish lisp he is called a baby, and if he answers in a grown-up way he is called impertinent. In fact any talk at all from him is resented. Then he is at the unattractive, growing age. He grows out of his clothes with indecent haste; his voice grows hoarse and breaks and quavers; his face grows suddenly angular and unsightly. It is easy to excuse the shortcomings of early childhood, but it is hard to tolerate even unavoidable lapses in a boy of fourteen. The lad himself becomes painfully self-conscious. When he talks with elderly people he is either unduly forward, or else so unduly shy that he appears ashamed of his very existence.

Yet it is at this very age when in his heart of hearts a young lad most craves for recognition and love; and he becomes the devoted slave of any one who shows him consideration. But none dare openly love him, for that would be regarded as undue indulgence, and therefore bad for the boy. So, what with scolding and chiding, he becomes very much like a stray dog that has lost his master.

Tagore distills the awkwardness and the promise of adolescence into two short paragraphs better than I’ve read anywhere else since.

But I did not fully appreciate Tagore’s brilliance in his full oeuvre until college. The hardened cynic used to be idealistic and naïve; full of hope but unsure of the future; perceptive but impractical; and ready to rush headlong toward the pain of hopeless love. Tagore’s songs defined my joy and my sorrows –the physical seasons and the emotional ones.

I have danced to a campfire singing out of tune to his lines:

আমার স্বপ্ন ঘিরে নাচে মাতাল জুটে–
যত মাতাল জুটে।
যা না চাইবার তাই আজি চাই গো,
যা না পাইবার তাই কোথা পাই গো।
পাব না, পাবনা,
মরি অসম্ভবের পায়ে মাথা কুটে।

In my dreams dance drunk fellows –
A bunch of drunkards
What should not be desired is what I desire today!
What will never be found, where will I find it?
I won’t get it, I won’t get it
Groveling at the feet of the impossible

A few lines from one of his songs perfectly describe my life’s philosophy in better words that I could ever imagine possible:

যে বাতাস নেয় ফুলের গন্ধ, ভুলে যায় দিনশেষে,
তার হাতে দিই আমার ছন্দ–কোথা যায় কে জানে সে।
লক্ষ্যবিহীন স্রোতের ধারায় জেনো জেনো মোর সকলই হারায়,
চিরদিন আমি পথের নেশায় পাথেয় করেছি হেলা।।

The breeze which carries the fragrance of flowers forgets by day’s end
Into its hands, I offer my pulse – who knows which way it will go?
Know this: in the aimless flow of currents, I’m losing everything
Always, for the thrill of the journey, I’ve ignored the price of passage

I have cried to his songs. When my grandmother, who loved me more than she loved anyone else, died, I listened to his songs. When I finished my doctoral dissertation, I dedicated the volume to her with the following line from a Tagore song:

“তুমি জাননা আমি তোমারে পেয়েছি অজানা সাধনে” -
You don’t know, I’ve discovered you through an unknown quest.

But most of all, I have known love and loved my world through his words.

So, is Tagore still relevant today? The noted post-Tagore Bengali poet Bishnu Dey opened one of his poems with the lamentation that we had reduced him to celebrations on specific days of the year – in essence making him irrelevant in the unkindest manner possible:

তুমি কি কেবলই স্মৃতি / শুধু এক উপলক্ষ কবি?
Are you simply a memory, just an excuse, poet?

Tagore’s own poem which prompted the stylistic response from Dey is worth noting as an answer to the question:

তুমি কি কেবলই ছবি, শুধু পটে লিখা।
ওই-যে সুদূর নীহারিকা
যারা করে আছে ভিড় আকাশের নীড়,
ওই যারা দিনরাত্রি
আলো হাতে চলিয়াছে আঁধারের যাত্রী গ্রহ তারা রবি,
তুমি কি তাদের মত সত্য নও।
হায় ছবি, তুমি শুধু ছবি।।
নয়নসমুখে তুমি নাই,
নয়নের মাঝখানে নিয়েছ যে ঠাঁই– আজি তাই
শ্যামলে শ্যামল তুমি, নীলিমায় নীল।
আমার নিখিল তোমাতে পেয়েছে তার অন্তরের মিল।
নাহি জানি, কেহ নাহি জানে–
তব সুর বাজে মোর গানে,
কবির অন্তরে তুমি কবি–
নও ছবি, নও ছবি, নও শুধু ছবি।।

Are you simply an image, only lines on a canvas?
Like those distant galaxies which crowd the night sky?
Like the planets, stars, and the sun–
Travelers transporting light through complete darkness–
Are you as unreal as they are?
Alas, image, you’re only an image!

You have no presence in front of my eyes
You’ve taken your seat deep inside my eyes –that is why
You’re the blue within the blue, the green inside the green
In my completeness, I have found I am identical to you
I don’t know: no one understands-
Your tune resonates in my songs,
You’re the poet within this poet –
Not an image, not an image, not only an image!