Friday, May 9, 2008


Today is Pochisey Baisakh (the 25th day of Baisakh month in the Bengali calendar), and Bengalis all over the world are probably celebrating Rabindra-Jayanti, the birth-anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, the unchallenged Colossus of Bengali culture.

Little girls in plaits and pleated saris will sing Rabindrasangeet (Tagore’s songs) and dance with lissome, undulating (if un-athletic) movements (Rabindranitya). Little boys, chafing in uncomfortable kurta-pajamas (or dhotis) will recite lisping poems from SHISHU (The Child). Their suddenly-self-conscious parents will clear their throats and launch into reinditions of songs, poems, or verse-plays from the prolific output of the Gurudev (Spiritual Father), accompanied by the tabla and the harmonium. The chief guest will place the mandatory garland-of-white-blossoms on the framed portrait of the white-bearded, visionary-eyed, loose-robed gentleman. The boredom of listening to his (the chief-guest’s) long bhason (speech) about the ‘importance of Kabiguru (Poet-prophet-teacher) in Bengali life and culture’ will be somewhat mitigated by the tantalizing aroma of frying luchis (a preparation of refined flour) and alurdom (curried potatoes). Finally, having gorged on food and culture, everybody will return home, criticising the performance of the neighbour’s son/daughter (“Ki aar emon gaye” – no great shakes) and praising their own offspring (“Ki darun aabriti korlo, aamar toh chokhey jal eshey giyechhilo” – his recitation brought tears to my eyes) in true Bengali spirit.

But such obvious (and sometimes odious) panegyrics aside, Tagore is present in the Bengali’s life and self-fashioning in subliminal, sub-conscious, all-encompassing ways. All Bengalis will proudly declare to the rest of the world that Rabindranath Tagore was the FIRST Indian to receive the Nobel Prize (For literature, for his book of poems – GITANJALI - Song Offerings). The Bengali holds his head high during the national anthem, Jana gana mana adhinayak jaya hey (Hail the ruler of the hearts and minds of the people), because Tagore penned it. Each Bengali has his own individual relationship with Tagore’s poems and songs (the bearded-bespectacled-Bengali-intellectual has an almost proprietory relationship with Tagore’s novels, plays and paintings as well).

Most Bengalis grow up force-fed on his songs. That is not to say that they do not like it. When I was young, my father would often, in the evenings, open the battered blue-bound family-copy of GITABITAN (a collection of Tagore’s songs) and randomly sing songs in his untrained-but-melodious baritone and we would all join in at will; Didia (my cousin) would hum a few notes and I would amateurishly dance my self-choreographed dances.

Now, with my daughters, I am going through the rich legacy Tagore has left for children, the simple-but-graded stories and the lyrical nuanced poems of SAHAJ PATH (Easy Reader). I share their wonder at:
Kal chhilo dal khali,
Aaj phuley jaye bhorey;
Bol dekhi tui maali,
Hoy shey kemon korey?”

("Yesterday’s bare branches
Are today in full flower;
Can you tell me, O gardener,
Who wroughts this strange power?") – Imperfect translation by me.

Each Bengali grows up with his own memories of Tagore. His lyrics-of-many-moods comfort us, cheer us, make us weep, sustain us through the seasons of joy and sorrow, hope and despair. All nostalgia-haunted-Bengalis, separated from home and childhood-friends by time or distance, have sung (or lip-synched or listened to) “Purano shei diner katha bhulbi kirey haye (How can we forget those old days…)”. My aunt had once told me (when I was dismissive of Tagore as overly-sentimental and old-fashioned), that as we grew older, the relevance of Tagore would increase. How true she was! Now in my thirties, though I still have a lot of uncharted Tagore-territory to travel, and though I still do not agree with a lot of his opinions and emotions, in my heart the bond has grown stronger.


Piscean Angel said...

The last few lines of the 1st para reminded me of the famous bengali PNPC & how true it is. :)
I also remembered those times during the load-shedding days in Calcutta when my brother (untrained but melodious) & I used to sing from the Gitabitan. Brought back lots of memories ... thanks to u.

Paul Bernard said...

Very interesting insight into the culture. Well done.
Thanks for still reading and commenting on my blog. I have to say, you are very well read. Much better than me. It is an education to me, reading your comments.
I am well up on popular culture though, I think that helps my writing as much as the books I've read.
What popular music and films do you like?

jyotsana said...

hi sucharita
a very happy mother's day to a wonderful mom who is a lecturer in a college, reads so many books n classics, updates her blog regularly, manages the house and still finds time to enjoy her 2 kids and even teach them bengali coz they should know their mother tongue. bhalo aache (hey dont kill me if its wrong, just trying to speak my friend's lang.)

Nancy said...

I've heard of him! (Yes! Not as dumb as I look.)He was mentioned at some length, I believe, in the first volume of Will and Ariel Durant's colossal Story of Civilization series, which began to be published right about the time that Mr. Tagore (honorific correct?) won his Nobel.

Kunjubi said...

Who are you reader, reading my poems an hundred years hence?
I cannot send you one single flower from this wealth of the spring,one single streak of gold from yonder clouds.

Open your door and look abroad.
From your blossoming garden gather fragrant memories of the vanished flowers of an hundred years afore.

In the joy of your heart, may you feel the living you that sang one spring morning. sending its glad voice across an hundred years... Tagore... A humble homage of remembrance. Thank you for reminding about Gurudev.. A thousand times... Wish I could be somewhere near Shantiniketan now... You have created a nostalgia, and melancholy in my thoughts.. great!... kunjubi