My earliest memory of Rabindranath Tagore is the image of his portrait in the large assembly hall of my school. The portrait was a profile in black and white, and Tagore’s face looked luminous, his flowing beard shining. To the uninitiated, he’d have looked like a forbidding patriarch; over the years, as I read his thoughts, heard his music, saw his art and learnt to appreciate the breadth of his vision, I understood his essential playfulness and humanity, and how he made his life, and his response to it, part of our collective consciousness.
The Vyas family, which had set up our school, New Era, was inspired by two titans of modern India. Gandhi gave the school its sense of social purpose; Tagore, its philosophy of openness. That meant respecting all faiths but favouring none; it also meant going outdoors often and learning from outside the classroom, deriving pleasure from nature and expressing one’s self through art; discovering different parts of India, enjoying different forms of dance and music, and reading literature beyond the “narrow domestic walls” our own state (Maharashtra) or our own language (Gujarati) imposed. Being without boundaries, where the mind was without fear—that’s what we learnt.
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Rabindra Sangeet was heard often in that hall. Tagore had inspired our school’s song; teachers encouraged parents to join activities at the school, and when I was a little boy, I remember my father, who loved to sing, going to Rabindra Sangeet classes on Sundays. He would then hum songs such as Amar mone (In my heart) to himself, sometimes mangling the pronunciation but staying close to the tune, and his humming formed the reassuring background to my morning ritual of getting ready for school. Tagore’s gentle lilt and melody were always pleasing. The songs were not loud, like what we heard on Vividh Bharati (for Mumbai had no television then), and nor was the rhythm monotonous, such as the garba and dandiya raas that we heard night after night at Gujarati weddings in the wedding hall near our apartment.
I began my own journey in Tagore’s universe with several friends, boys and girls— we saw his films together, we read his books, some of us decided to paint, others, to dance. And what a rewarding journey it has been: discovering the Gujarati translation of Kabuliwala and its bittersweet ending at the library; seeing the first of Satyajit Ray’s films based on Tagore’s writing; seeing his elegant art emerge from the way he filled blank space on the page between the words.
Looking East: The poet in Japan in 1916. Photo: Visva-Bharati Publication Department, Kolkata
The year I left school, on Tagore’s birth anniversary, we enacted some of his poems, including the one I liked a lot, about the unrequited love of two birds, one caged, the other free; a few months later, in Kolkata, I heard Suchitra Mitra sing the original song Khachar pakhi (the caged bird); I saw it as my school-leaving reward. I also remember seeing Satyajit Ray’s Charulata, discovering how different the yodelling Kishore Kumar sounded when I heard him sing Ami chinigo chini tomare, ogo bideshini (I know you, O fair one from afar).
When I first saw that film, I was in my early teens. It was only later, when I was older, that I understood the underlying pathos of that novel, about the lonely wife, Charulata, the exuberant brother-in-law, Amal, the scholarly husband, Bhupati, and the growing chasm between Bhupati and Charulata, which they try to fill as their hands draw closer, about to touch; a conclusion Ray’s camera denies, freezing the frame moments before the hands can meet. That scene is etched in my memory, and whenever I think of it, I think of someone trying to reach out, coming close and yet staying far, like the caged bird and the wild bird in that Tagore poem. But also fingers poised elsewhere, like the two hands about to meet in Rodin’s sculpture Cathedral, but never quite managing to touch, and the fingertips yearning to brush one another at Pioneer café, where Amina meets Nadir, in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Neither had anything to do with Tagore, but you could see such connections if you saw the world through his eyes.
To infuse that world view, in the late 1970s I learnt Bengali, for the rather snobbish reason of wanting to read Tagore in the original and see Ray’s cinema without subtitles. I managed that up to a point: I went to the classes for two years, and what I learnt was good enough for me to have reasonable conversations in rural Bangladesh when I went there as a reporter, in 1986. Over the years, my Bengali has fallen into disuse—until I see another film, and it comes back, like an old friend returning to occupy her favourite couch in my room. To read, I now await Arunava Sinha to translate more of his work; my fluency at reading Bangla is too slow.
And then, there is the vision. In her recent book Not for Profit: Why Democracy needs the Humanities, Martha Nussbaum emphasizes Tagore’s ideas on education, a theme elaborated from her earlier book, The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future, in which she champions Tagore’s vision over Nehru’s or Gandhi’s. Tagore was wary of extreme nationalism. While two of his songs ended up being national anthems—India’s and Bangladesh’s—martial nationalism was farthest from his mind. Tagore’s “nation” had no boundaries. Cultures changed a bit and became different along the flow of a river, but the borders didn’t have guards or fences with watchtowers. He would react with horror as the camera zooms towards the horizon and suddenly stops at the end of the rail track in Ritwik Ghatak’s film, Komal Gandhar (E Flat).
Nationalism divided people and aroused uncontrollable passions, and so Tagore turned away from mass mobilization: In Ray’s film on Tagore’s novel, Ghare-Baire (The Home and The World, which I remember seeing at a theatre near Lincoln Center in New York in 1984, with a friend from my school days who had moved to America, and with whom I had seen many of Ray’s films in Mumbai), Nikhil does not share his old friend Sandip’s nationalism—but that’s not out of feigned aristocratic elitism; rather, it is because of the passionate intensity it unleashes. Gandhi understood that; he suspended the satyagraha when his supporters turned violent in Chauri Chaura in 1922. And he wrote to Subhas Chandra Bose that while they had both wanted India to be free, their means were so different, that their ends only appeared to be the same. And yet Gandhi was sympathetic to the idea of nationalism, as a way to assert a wounded culture’s identity. Tagore liked to celebrate the identity, but remained worried that nationalism would lead to divisions and boundaries.
Tagore was at home in the world. He believed in its beauty and aesthetic. And he enhanced my life, through his presence on my bookshelves in the homes I have lived in over the years. His ideas gave shape to many of my thoughts, impulses, responses and emotions. It was a Tagore poem, Ananta Prem (Unending Love) that I read out when I got married; it was to that poem that I turned nearly two decades later, at my wife’s funeral, and read aloud again, for Tagore sang “the songs of every poet past and forever”. In the difficult months that followed, it was another friend from those days at school who sent me two CDs with hundreds of Tagore songs to let the music heal.
With him by your side, you never walked alone.
Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.
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