Sunday, May 9, 2010

Celebrating Tagore

When I leave from hence let this be my parting word that what I have seen is unsurpassable. I have tasted of the hidden honey of this lotus yonder that expands on the ocean of light and thus am I blessed, let this be my parting word.
 – Rabindranath Tagore

My introduction to Tagore came at a time when I didn’t know books were written in any language other than English, and people spoke any language other than English and Tamil. I was five, my mother and aunt were tired of telling me stories, and so I climbed on a chair and dug out a book from the top of the antique built-in bookshelf in my grandmother’s house. It was Cabuliwallah.

“That’s a very sad book,” my mother said, and I pouted.

“At least it won’t get tired of telling me stories,” I shot back and, offended at her amusement, I shut myself up in a bedroom and began to read. It was the first book that made me cry.

Touching its covers, I saw a curious inscription: ‘Translated from the original Bengali by Rabindranath Tagore.’

“Isn’t this the man who wrote our national anthem?” I asked my mother, forgetting the rockiness of our relationship.

That man would come to my rescue several times, growing up. The lyrical English he wrote, the poignant characters he created and the beauty he lent to the world he saw would etch indelible marks on my memory. So would his pride, courage and dignity – he had refused to kneel before the Crown, even to be knighted, and made his disgust at the Jallianwallah Bagh Massacre public.

The next big moment in my relationship with Tagore came in the third year of my college life. I was depressed. I was in a class where everyone was a feminist or an idiot, and often, both. Most of my teachers couldn’t pronounce ‘nihilism’ right. But that was the least of their problems. One of them asked me whether Measure for Measure was written by Shakespeare or Marlowe, and another disliked me because I wouldn’t conform to her misinterpretation of texts. Since the woman believed Mephistophilis was a beautiful character and Dr. Faustus was punished for his deal with the Devil and refused to think Marlowe himself was a rebel, I was not her favourite student.

Two years after this woman had said, “don’t be so happy because you’ve got eighty percent. You’re not that good”, I opened Gitanjali for the first time.

I will never forget these words:

O fool, to carry thyself upon thy own shoulders
O beggar, to come beg at thy own door!
Leave all thy burdens on his hands who can bear all,
And never look behind in regret.

Having spent two years resisting attempts to convert my religion, my stance on feminism and my attitude to life, I heard the words echo something within me; as though someone else had gone through the same thing, more than a century earlier. And then I read this:

When thou commandest me to sing it seems that
My heart would break with pride; and I look to thy face,
And tears come to my eyes.
All that is harsh and dissonant in my life melts into one sweet harmony –
And my adoration spreads wings
Like a glad bird on its flight across the sea.
I know thou takest pleasure in my singing.
I know that only as a singer I come before thy presence.

That was the second time Tagore made me cry. I sat in class, using my curly hair to block my profile as I bent down, pretending to sneeze so I could wipe off the relief of sorrow finding a kindred soul.

That wasn’t the only reason I was crying, though. Everyone who knew me four years ago knows I couldn’t sing a note. My voice had broken into a deep bass that had been branded sexy, sultry yada-yada. But I couldn’t sing a note. At least Tagore had his songs, I thought on that day, more than six years ago. The reason I sing today is him. The reason I sang today is him too, but that story will come later in this post.

While I have memories of my Bengali uncle listening to music I found fascinating, I didn’t know that was Tagore too, until one of my best friends, Anirban Banerjee, gifted me the CD Tomar Binai Gaan Chhilo. The first song I heard, Ami Tomaro Shongge, rendered by Pankaj Mullick, made me well up for the third time in the history of my association with Tagore.

A man who could sing, write, compose, paint, act and lead…someone who had penned the national anthems of two countries, someone whose life’s work is knit into the fabric of not just those who come from his region, but lovers of art all over India and the world…what was his life like, I wondered. What pain had spurred on such creativity and such sadness? Sunil Gangopadhyay’s masterpiece Pratham Alo and Reba Som’s work The Singer and His Song gave me a peek into the eighty years that had moulded a language and a genre.

Each plaintive note tells the story of love, not unrequited but forbidden – his much-celebrated muse Kadambari Devi was so accessible, and yet cut off. When she killed herself, Rabindranath thought he would never write again, until he began to see her ghost. Is it the indomitable human strength that makes one pull oneself together when one’s life is in pieces, is it the fact that our bodies and minds cooperate completely only when our hearts are too broken to carry on with life…what is it that makes us recover from the most devastating circumstances and go on? Whatever it was, that brilliant mind found it.

Each plaintive note tells of a partnership that could never inspire. Perhaps, as a woman, I’m expected to pity Mrinalini, Tagore’s child bride. The family clerk’s nine-year-old daughter, whom Tagore was married off to when he was twenty-one, as his oldest sister-in-law Gnanadanandini Devi wished. But I could only feel the pain a gifted artist without a partner who could appreciate his talent felt. What is the point of having to live with someone to whom metre and verse, lyric and intensity, high drama and subtle emotion are just descriptive terms?

Each plaintive note tells of regret, of failure, of doubt…of being the one who returned from a half-complete education, of being a non-businessman, of being unable to fill the shoes of his grandfather and brothers, of being uncomfortable with the garlanding and crowning ceremonies his serfs held for the zamindar, of trepidation lest his dream fizzled out, of guilt as the family’s money was drowned in that dream – Shanti Niketan – and his wife died for him just as his muse had died for his brother.

Sometime in those months I spent listening to hundreds of his songs, I felt the urge to sing them. I felt the urge to celebrate the man who has been there for millions of people he didn’t know, influencing their lives decades after his death.

And exactly a hundred and fifty years after he was born, I found myself in the middle of one such celebration. The music teacher I learn Hindustani classical from, who happens to be Bengali, asked me if I’d like to sing at a little function in her house. My frighteningly excited reaction prompted her to teach me four songs. Today, as I sang, I could see Tagore giving Kadambari a push as she sat on the flower-decorated swing of their expansive home in rural Bengal, I could see him directing the servants to set the stage for one of his many plays, I could see him looking anxiously for Kadambari as he was getting married to Mrinalini, I could see him sitting contemplatively on the family’s houseboat, watching as his children ran about under the supervision of Mrinalini and Gnanadanandini, his pen writing words on thick parchment as he saw the ghost of his muse, I could see him on that bed preserved as he left it in Shanti Niketan, thinking up names for babies who went on to become Satyajit Ray and Amartya Sen.

The evening, which saw a group of singers pay tribute to Tagore with more than thirty songs, ended with the rendition of two of my favourites, whose lyrics and translation I put down here. He said what he had seen is unsurpassable; so is what he had been. Let him have the last word.


Tumi kaemon kore gaan koro he ghuni
Ami awbak, hoay shuni, kaybol shuni
Shoorer aalo bhubon phaelay chheye
Shoorer hawa chawle gogun beye
Pashan toote baekul baygay dheye
Bohiya jaay shoorer soorodhooni
Tumi kaemon kore gaan koro he ghuni
Monay kori omni shooray gai
Konthe amar shoor khooje na pai
Koite ki chai koite kawthaa baadhe
Haar maynay je pawraan amar kaandhe
Amai tumi phaelay chokon phaandhe
Cho dikhe mor shoorer jaalbhuni
Tumi kaemon kore gaan koro he ghuni
Ami awbak, hoay shuni, kaybol shuni

Translation by Rabindranath Tagore:

I know not how you singest, my master!
I ever listen in silent amazement
The light of thy music illumines the world.
The life breath of thy music runs from sky to sky.
The holy stream of thy music breaks through
All stony obstacles and rushes on.
My heart longs to join in thy song,
But vainly struggles for a voice.
I would speak
But speech breaks not into song,
And I cry out baffled.
Ah, thou hast made my heart captive
In the endless meshes of they music, my master!

And this next song is my absolute favourite:


Aji boshonto jagroto ddare
Boshonto jagroto ddare
Tobo obogunthito kunthito jibone
Koro na be rombito tare
Boshonto jagroto ddare
Aji khuliyo rhidoyo dolo khuliyo
Aji bhuliyo apono poro bhulilo
Ei shonggito mukhorito gogone
Tobo gondho torongiya tuliyo
Ei bahiro bhubone disha haraye
Diyo choraye madhuri bhare bhare
Aji boshonto jagroto ddare
Boshonto jagroto ddare
Eki nibiro bedona bono majhe
Aji pollobe pollobe baaje
Dure gogone kaharo potho chahiya
Aji bakulo boshundhora shaaje
Mor porane dokhinobaju lagiche
Kare ddare ddare koro hani magiche
Ei shourobho bihbolo rojoni
Kar chorine dhoroni tole jagiche
Ohe shundoro bollobho kanto
Tobo gombhiro ahbano kare
Aji boshonto jagroto ddare
Boshonto jagroto ddare

Translation by his niece, Indira Devi Chaudhurani:

Spring stands at your door today.
Let not your life of dark constraint embarrass the guest.
The day is come for you
To open your heart like a flower,
To bestow your gift on all alike.
Let the aroma of your blossoms
Arise wave upon wave
Up to the very sky
Which reverberates with songs.
Come, stand in the wide world outside
To shower your gift of sweetness.
Deep in the forest of your heart,
There is a pain
Which murmurs among your leaves.
You look longingly at the far horizon
And avidly put on
Your vestment of beauty.
Softly blows the south wind
As it knocks
At the door of your heart,
Calling for your surrender.
Sweetly do you lie at your lover’s feet
All through the fragrant night.
‘You are beautiful, my beloved,’ you murmur,
‘You are the Lord of my heart
Your call is sweet and solemn.’

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Umpire Strikes Back!

There have been some of us who, for years, have grit our teeth and sat through baby moans and wails at cinema halls, music sabhas and theatres, straining to hear the screenplay, raagas and dialogue through the jarring, disharmonic, thin chords of a below-five's throat.

There have been some of us who, deciding to speak up for the vast majority of entertainment enthusiasts, broke our silence to chide parents who stinge over daycare and decide to impose their disappointing creations on an unsuspecting audience.

There have been some of us who, while acting for the greater good, found ourselves in a club of one. We've been cursed by parents for objecting to the products of their unprotected intercourse spoiling our evening out, sworn at, reviled and threatened.

For all those of us, a play I went to pronounced that there is Someone Up There, holding up a finger to tell these hell-raisers their little darlings would be better off at home.

I went to a play, and carefully chose a seat right in the middle of the auditorium, with the left and right of the stage equally balanced in my perspectives. I sat next to an adult, and was reassured when no one sat on my left until the play began. Five minutes into the play, of course, in comes Hell, dragging its Raiser behind it.

"Come on, Mummy, let's sit next to that girl!"

"Mummy, what did she say?"

"Mummy, what is the meaning of intevilable?"

And then, it happened:

"So I said 'Sameer, what the fuck is your problem?'..."

"Mummy, she said 'fuck!' She said 'fuck'! Fuck, Mummy!"

The beginnings of a smile twitched through the spasms on my face.

"When he first saw me, I was a breasts were so firm they would burst through my blouse!"

"Mummy, what is 'breast'?"

"Well, he can have sex, you see? And he kept groping the maids, pinching their buttocks, fondling their breasts..."


"I tried to slit my wrists, you know. I had sex with a boy who was fifteen years younger! That's practically incest!"

"What is 'incest', Mummy?"

"Baby, we have to leave now."

For long, I dreamt of being at a movie with steamy scenes and panting, and of seeing a round-eyed five-year-old ask its parents what those people in the picture were doing. I dreamt of a public service ad whose punchline would go, "DON'T BRING YOUR NUISANCES TO MOVIES!"

That day, I looked to the Umpire and sent out a silent prayer of thanks. One down, a few million to go. But at least, He's up there, and He's on our side.
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