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!

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35 thoughts on “Is Rabindranath Tagore relevant today?

  1. A most touching tribute to the person I realize I have come to understand and respect with time. Beautifully written. Sharing with my Mom, the biggest Tagore fan I know.

  2. A truly beautiful tribute. There was once a time when I used to think Tagore was overrated, but as I grew older, I came to realize how profound and timeless his works were. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • I think that is the natural progression. There was a time when I felt his work was overrated too. Considering the vast body of his work, it is understandable that there is some repetition, but on the whole it is, as you say, timeless.

  3. Wonderfully written – poignant and composed.

    You mention how the focus of education was (actually, still is) to memorize the lines of Rabindranath rather than to internalize. This continues to be the bane of our education even to this day. One area where we see less reference of Rabindranath Thakur yet his influence is monumental, has got to be his thoughts on education.

    Copyright on his works, including his music, has expired recently opening up his work for creative interpretation by the cultural interlocutors of today. Several artists have enriched his music so much more by adding elements of innovation. Innovation that Tagore himself behooved us in his book “Sangeet Chinta” (Thoughts on Music). The same innovation that was throttled for so long by a draconian Vishwa Bharati. Modern thinking of music has resurrected the relevance of Rabindranath – relevance, which in the poet’s own words would be “tumi nobo nobo rupey esho praaney”

    Tagore did not give us a new world, he merely provided us a multitude of lenses to view the world. Each lens was crafted with a very special fabric – the fabric of humanity. And Rabindranath Thakur shall shall remain relevant to this world for as long as humanity retains its relevance.

    Thank you once again for such a wonderful piece of writing.

    Sincerely
    Subrata

    • Hi Subrata,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Visva Bharati had a stranglehold on interpretations of Tagore’s work during my childhood.You had to use certain instruments and sing in a certain style. Some singers like Pijush Kanti Sarkar fell out of favor and struggled to release albums despite his popularity. Very recently I heard an album of his songs to guitars which had been recorded when he was still alive.

      What troubles me most is that there is a cottage industry of literary reviews, theses, and issues with his letters in Bangla, but very few people are trying to make his work accessible in non-pedantic language to a wider audience.

      Thanks again for reading,
      Anirban

  4. I took time to read this…stopping at places to think for a while and then read on again…today morning as i woke up i realized that its not only for this special day, but everyday, i am dependent upon Tagore for my expressions… amar raag e,amar dukkhe,amar anonde,amar chokher jol e,amar ohonkar e,amar bhalo lagay,amar bhalobashay achho tumi

  5. A very nicely written piece. The thoughts are shared by countless Bangalees the world over, I’m sure, but very lucidly put to paper, or should I say – screen. Rabindranath is a part of our very existense. Like it is mentioned in the tribute, he has expressed all possible emotions in such a manner that cannot be paralleled by anyone ever! It is just our joy and good fortune to discover the various expressions and appreciate the sublime beauty of the Master’s work, linked to various phases of our lives.
    Will look forward to similar tributes from Anirban, specially in the month of May, the month that also saw the birth of Satyajit Ray and Najrul Islam, apart from Rabindranath Thakur.

    • Thanks for reading, Sugato.

      There have been some readable write-ups on Ray, so I may not write on his films, but Nazrul seems to be a very good idea for a piece. 🙂

      Take care,
      Anirban

      • Agree with you, Ray has been written about extensively, and some of it is good. Will wait for your piece on Nazrul, and maybe Sukanta as well?
        Regards
        Sugato

  6. Seriously, only Bongs think he is so great. Everyone else says it because it is the politically correct thing to say. If anyone dares to have a different opinion about Tagore, he will be attacked, as will this comment.

    • Not every Bengalee thinks Tagore is great. I suspect that not everyone who is not a Bengalee says he is great because it is “politically-correct” either.

      I am not concerned with how Tagore is perceived or what his legacy is. My own life has been enriched by knowing his works in Bangla which I wanted to point out in this post.

      Thanks for reading.

      • I think the reason for his appeal being limited to Bengalis is simply that the works are considered as “untranslatable” and therefore inaccessible to the majority of the world’s population. A lamp hidden under a bushel, so to speak. Even Tagore’s own translations of his own works have been written off as poor interpretations, although these “poor” interpretations were good enough to win the Nobel Prize.

        When people ask me, “Why are you learning Bengali?” and I reply, “To read Tagore,” it is not a false statement. I have long thought it unfair that I am unable to fully understand these works of greatness simply because I didn’t know the language. I personally would love to see Tagore’s works translated more widely; if the world is not able to understand the fullness of his genius, at least they should get a taste, don’t you think?

  7. Thank you. Lovely post. I truly believe that there are a lot of people out there for whom Tagore is an integral part of their daily existence. And that their lives are better for it.

  8. Pingback: India, Bangladesh: Is Rabindranath Tagore relevant today? · Global Voices

  9. Pingback: Indian Bloggers post on Rabindranath Tagore, Bhagvad Geet and more

  10. Beautiful tribute ! Off course Tagore is relevant today. His works give an entirely new meaning to literature.
    I am not a Bengali but his works were one of the first piece of literature I was introduced to ! Infact my Father is named after Tagore.
    So his legacy spreads far far beyond just Bengal ! 🙂
    One of my biggest dreams is to learn Bengali so that I can read Tagore in original !

  11. Well written Ani.
    I am sure I wouldn’t like translations of his poems/songs as much. The few “only Bengalis like Tagore” comments are understandable.

    • Well, you know what Robert Frost said right? “Translate; whatever is left over is poetry, whatever gets through is prose.”
      😛

      We feel it acutely because of the simplicity of language and musicality of the poetry.

  12. Very passionate post. Love it. I wonder if Sahaj Path is still considered a textbook in Bengal schools. I went to a private school and we had Sahaj Path. And I loved the sketches. This time I go home, I hope to salvage the books.

    And yes, that old man has said it all 😦 but away from home, I seem to turn to him again and again despite all other distractions.

    Thanks for making Tagore relevant in the age of blogs.

    By the way, i hope you’d update your Feluda and Byomkesh blogs too!

    • Thank you very much. Your short comment made me wistful as well.

      As the old man said, “সময় কারো যে নাই, ওরা চলে দলে দলে, গান হায় ডুবে যায় কোন কোলাহলে?”

      As soon as I get some time I’ll write for Feluda and Byomkesh blogs too. 🙂

  13. You know it is strange – just yesterday a colleague and I were talking about Tagore and saying that he is still relevant even today. We thought that his poetry, superlative as it is, does not really do justice to the person that he was. It was one of the hats he wore – and wore it exceptionally well. But the whole concept of shanthiniketan and his ideas / experiments on rural development could hold good / strong even today. A Man of the Age with a global vision perhaps can attempt to describe his genius.

  14. I am a Bengali and yet I have read very little of Tagore, other than what was part of school curriculum. For sometime now I have been planning to read his works- why should I be left behind! I really do not know why I refused to read Tagore’s work. May be when I was younger (as a teenager or in my early twenties) I liked heroic stuff! I entertained & inspired myself watching and reading works portraying heroic and masculine ethos. Well I still love them. And Tagore somehow did not fit the bill for me!!! But being a Bengali you can’t help yourself from occasionally bumping into Tagore’s work however I could not keep his company for long. Well, now I feel I should read his works. May be I too will be able to partake some of that ambrosia which is keeping Bengalis alive for the last century and a half!

    • I think a part of that is the rebelliousness of youth. Tagore, as he is presented by culture-kakus, is often shown in a very traditional light and mechanically offered. At other times, his works are considered “high-art”. Both are somewhat off-putting to a young person trying to decide for himself what he wants to read.

  15. Very often, Anirban, I have paused to ponder what made RNT, an unschooled lad, who should have been a spoilt brat, become a mesmeriser. The answers, I suppose, are that he (a) had it in his genes, (b) was a fluke – a precursor of Homo sapiens superior, (c) operated in a near vacuum of his time and space. Do they ever satisfy you?
    What I find irritating is the way we, Bongs, including government bodies, celebrate Rabindra-Najrul-Sukanta sandhya in every street corner in the most amateurish manner. The point is how many of us truly appreciate him for what he was, without gaping in awe?

  16. if you consider how mahakavis are constituted, they are same all over the world.
    they express same thoughts, wherever they are situated, of course tempered by local customs and manners.
    on the whole they enrich our life.

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