For the first 7-8 years of my life, born and brought up in cosmopolitan Bombay, my milieu was hardcore Bangali – Bangla gaan (Bengali songs), kobita (poems), Robindra Shongeet, Bangla porikha, (bangla exams), borno porichoy, shohoj path (school textbooks in Bangla) etc.
I was fortunate to have studied in a school in Bombay where our third language was Bengali.
My summer vacations were spent listening to vinyls of Rabindranath Tagore’s musicals on loop. Shapmochan, Shyama, Chitrangada and Rabindra Sangeet sung by the soulful Hemant Kumar were an everyday feature.
These musicals of Shyama, Shapmochan and Chitrangada are like no other. Rooted in Indian mythology, these musicals tell a story of how human judgements can be erroneous. And at that age I really did not comprehend the depth of these stories and the depth of Robi Thakur’s works. All I loved were the songs and its tunes. I would sit with the Gitabitan (a compendium of all Rabi Thakur’s songs) and follow the words in the book as the songs played.
But it does fill me with wonderment that a great man like him was an intrinsic part of growing up years and I had never understood its gravity then.
Somewhere along the line, his influence dwindled. A shift to a convent school, learning Physics, Chemistry Biology, and French as third language, board exams, jobs, boyfriends etc. took primacy.
Even then, as customary it is in any family gathering – ‘Ekta gaan kore shonao’ (sing for us a song) was commonplace. And I would quickly resort to ‘Ami chini go chini tomare’ at the drop of a hat.
It’s been more than 40 years on this planet and my relationship with Robindro Shongeet is strong enough.
For Prabhashi Bangalis like me, that the influence of Rabindranath Tagore will be strong. But what about the next generation?
With age obviously and knowledge of his literary works, I have become more appreciative of how forward looking, progressive the man was. I am enumerating 2 of his works which have had a deep impact on me: Shapmochan and Charulata.
Shapmochan – which loosely translates as ‘Breaking of the Curse’ is about a King who has an inferiority complex about his looks – so much so that he sends a veena to represent him at his wedding ceremony. The Princess was extremely impressed with this gesture. He meets his wife only in the night and impresses her with soulful music, sensitive words and dance. Even though the Princess is eager to see him physically, he insists that she must first like him for his inner beauty. Upon her insistence, he reveals his looks to her. Even though she is repulsed with his looks, she understands that it’s the heart that matters.
Of course, there is a mythological backstory to their love-story too. A curse that was laid on this couple in their previous life by Indra in heaven was undone when true love is recognized between the couple on Earth.
My earthly surmise is that women can be superficial- men can be intensely in love. But we are each fulfilling on earth a divine plan. Each person might have a different interpretation of this story, but the embonpoint of this dance-drama is certainly very real and relevant even to this date.
Timeless Tagore songs like “Rangiye Diye Jao Jao”, “Esho Esho Amar Ghar-e”, “Aaji Dokhin O Duar Khola”, and “Mor Bina Uthey Kon Sur-e Baji” still ring in my ears and I still know them word for word.
They act as nothing but nostalgic balms to the heart.
The vinyl version of the musical was sung by stalwarts like Hemanta Mukherjee, Suchitra Mitra and the narration was done by Kazi Sabyasachi, eldest son of Kazi Nazrul Islam, Bangladesh’s renowned poet. His soothing and calming narration gives the entire dance-drama a purpose.
In 2012, on the 150th birth centenary year of Rabindranath Tagore, a theatrical rendition of Shapmochan was held at the Dhaka Cultural Center. Catch it if you can on YouTube.
A few days ago was Satyajit Ray’s 100th Birth anniversary. I was reminded of his film ‘Charulata’ which is an adaptation of a short story written by Rabindranath Tagore called ‘Nashtanirh’.
It is about a woman who is lonely and bored in her affluent life confined in her husband’s palatial residence – a battery of servants to help at home where afternoons are for mindless card games and teas. Her dissatisfaction towards this life finds an out through her immense love for embroidery and books. Her proclivity towards literature is something her husband doesn’t share with her. Amal, her husband’s cousin comes into their household like a storm. Their discussions on female characters of her favourite author Bankim Chandra invigorate her soul as she finds in him a friend and an intellectual equal. While Amal recognizes her higher intellect compared to his, she gradually falls for him. He leaves her home which ultimately leads to destruction of her marital relationship with her husband: therefore Noshto-nirh (Broken home).
Rabi Thakur’s portrayal of his protagonist as an intellectual and as someone who harbours the ambition of being a published writer, the nuanced love-hate-envy relationship with Amal goes beyond the boundaries of time. He juxtaposed the ethos of a nationalist freedom-hungry country through Bhupati with Charulata’s lack of freedom.
For a Prabashi like me, it is difficult to differentiate the story of Noshtonirh from Satyajit Ray’s Charulata. His brilliance is multiplied by Madhabi Mukherjee’s simplicity and Soumitra Chatterjee’s subliminal charm.
Rabindranath Tagore’s life and works are universal and relevant even today.
His non-denominational spirituality and interpretation of nationalism go beyond boundaries. His love was for the entire mankind. He said nationalities are man-made. We just happen to be British or Indian. We don’t choose a country. It happens to us. This perspective and idea of nationalism is well captured in his refrain – ‘Manush ii Ishwar and ‘Ishwar ii Manush (God is man and man is God).
If we look at Rabindranath Tagore as a Bengali alone, then it would be an enormous disservice to his legacy.
The Swedes acknowledged him through their Nobel Prize, the British acknowledged him through the Knighthood, even though he gracefully returned it after 4 years, in response to his anguish over the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
Unfortunately, we have bracketed him as a Bengali intellectual property. Kazi Nazrul Islam called him the World Poet, Mahatma Gandhi, who afforded him the title of Gurudev, Albert Einstein, W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw all of them took him seriously.
His thoughts and ideas are for generations. He was and is for everyone. Let everyone embrace him.