By Dr. Vidagdha Bennett
25th January 2008: It has been raining heavily all night – a solid, drenching rain with no intermission. Nor did it arrive with thunder and lightning. It just came; to deluge the alleyways and the little stalls of the street vendors, to wash the dust from buildings and rickshaws, to cleanse the air and give the parched city a taste of winter. I emerge to find that everyone has pulled out their humble assortment of vests, scarves, socks and black umbrellas. Our hotel guard is wearing a thick woollen khaki uniform that looks as if it may have done service in the British army long ago.
After greeting my new acquaintances – the old man who sells the English newspapers and charges four times the newsstand price, the manager of the internet shop who has taken pity on my inept skills, the moneychanger who waves enthusiastically from behind his counter when the dollar climbs up a fraction, the young cook who makes perfect lemon pancakes and milk coffee on a tiny, antiquated stove – I reflect on the day’s itinerary.
As if by design, my Lonely Planet Guidebook falls open at the map showing destinations to the north of the Maidan and my eyes light on two words: Tagore’s house. It is, without doubt, the perfect day to go to the house of the Poet.
“The sky is overcast with clouds and the rain is ceaseless. I know not what this is that stirs in me – I know not its meaning.”
– Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali 27
I catch a taxi to Jorasanko Thakur Bari, the distinguished seat of the Tagore family. It is located at 6, Dwarkanath Tagore Lane in north Kolkata. This vast and spacious red brick dwelling was built in 1784 by Prince Dwarkanath Tagore, the Poet’s grandfather. In his book, “Rabindranath Tagore: His Life and Work” (1921), Edward Thompson describes it intriguingly:
“The Jorasanko house is a vast, rambling congeries of mansions and rooms, representing the whims of many generations.”
It is here that Bengal’s greatest poet was born, here that he spent half his life and here that he breathed his last. I have come to pay tribute to the beginning of his life and its ending, after eighty sublime years on this earth.
When Rabindranath came into the world, on May 7th, 1861, he was the ninth son of the illustrious Maharshi Debendranath Tagore, the eldest son of Prince Dwarkanath. The Tagore family had firmly established itself in the vanguard of Bengal’s cultural and literary renaissance. Both the men and women of the household were progressive and forward thinking. They were involved in diverse pursuits. In an age where women were largely confined to the andar mahal, the inner family quarters, the women of the Tagore house rode horses on the Maidan, wrote poetry, composed songs and participated fully in the lively political, religious, philosophical and literary discussions.
Rabindranath thrived in this stimulating environment. In his essay, “Ideals of Education” (1929), he later wrote:
“I was brought up in an atmosphere of aspiration, aspiration for the expansion of the human spirit. We in our home sought freedom of power in our language, freedom of imagination in our literature, freedom of soul in our religious creeds and that of mind in our social environment.”
The main building of Jorasanko Thakur Bari is now a museum. It is so revered by the Bengalis that visitors leave their shoes downstairs near the ticket office. It seemed I was the only visitor on this rainy morning. I climbed the stairs in bare feet and gained the second floor. As soon as I stepped onto the wide verandah overlooking the lawn, I was transported to another world, a world of indescribable enchantment and mystery. Here a little boy had hid for hours on end in an old palki abandoned in the corner, or stood at the railings, gazing dreamily at the scene below, inhaling the scent of almond blossoms, listening to the rousing song of the curd-seller, counting the hackney carriages that passed in the lane. I could almost make out, through the sheets of rain, the black umbrella and hazy form of Rabindranath’s tutor picking his way through the puddles to reach the main building.
And as I looked through Rabindranath’s eyes at a Bengal of long ago, I realised that the young poet was shaped as much by the things he observed outside – the sights and sounds that flooded his senses, the seasons that came and went – as by the life within its walls of the grand Thakur Bari.
In spite of the intellectual and cultural richness of the household, he was a lonely and often solitary child. His father was frequently absent, supervising the family’s zamindary estates, his mother was constantly ill (she died an untimely death when Rabindranath was only thirteen), his brothers and sisters, whom he adored, were many years older than he was. He felt estranged at school and begged to be allowed to have private tuition. Even that proved to be infrequent and inadequate. Essentially, it meant that responsibility for the boy devolved upon servants. Confined to the rambling house, and often rooted to a single spot by a chalk circle drawn on the floor near a window, the boy was left to his own devices. -Beyond my reach was this limitless thing called the Outside,- he explained. Thus he was drawn to play with light and shadow, his imagination animated the forms of clouds, the shapes of trees and the rustle of leaves. Many years later, he wrote of one particular banyan tree in the courtyard:
“With tangled roots hanging down from your branches, O ancient banyan tree, You stand day and night like an ascetic wrapt in meditation. Do you recall the child whose fancy played with your shadows?”
At the tender age of eight, this future Nobel Prize-winner made his first attempt at Bengali poetry ‘Jal pawray/pata nawray (‘Water falls/Leaves tremble.’) It was a portent of the exquisite lyrics, full of delicate atmospheric touches, that were to follow. Contemporary Bengali poet Sri Chinmoy writes:
“Tagore was essentially a Master-poet by temperament, immediately and exquisitely conscious of every claim of mellifluous beauty in all its multifarious forms. His was a personality of singular charm, and a character of singular sweetness.”
– Rabindranath: The Myriad-Minded (1961)
Niharranjan Ray in his penetrating essay “Rabindranath and World-Life” (“Rabindranath O Bishwajiban”) asks of Tagore’s poetic gift: “Does this creative impulse well up from within only? Isn’t there an external source for it? Does this impulse, which Rabindranath calls kautukmayi antaryami [the mysterious indwelling deity] awaken spontaneously without any external stimuli?” Tagore himself reveals the answer in poems such as this:
“The great pageant of thee and me has overspread the sky. With the tune of thee and me all the air is vibrant, and all ages pass with the hiding and seeking of thee and me.”
– Gitanjali 71
The experiences of Rabindranath’s childhood, where he was always “athirst for the far-away”, were to become a constant theme in his adult life. It is the Poet’s inner cry that awakened his creative impulse. His life was defined by his quest for union with the Lord of Life, Jiban Debata, who dwelt at times inside the inmost recesses of his heart and at other times inside the loveliness of the created world.
Was Tagore’s longing to become one with this mysterious innermost Being ever fulfilled- In his moving tribute to Rabindranath, Sri Chinmoy affirms:
“By his soul-awakening songs of transcendental beauty, Rabindranath charmed the world and seized the All-Blissful.”
This spiritual ideal of identifying oneself with the Bliss of the divine is expressed by the Upanishadic seers:
From Delight we came into existence. In Delight we grow. At the end of our journey’s close, into Delight we retire.
– Taittiriyopanisad III.6
Perhaps here was the meaning of my visit to the place where the Poet came into existence and also retired from the earthly scene.
Tearing myself away from the verandah and all its suggestive mysteries, I entered the cool recesses of the family dining room, with its low black tables and backless chairs on which one might comfortably sit cross-legged. I could not escape the sensation that I was interrupting some lively family debate. I then passed through to the two living rooms, where some of Tagore’s robes are displayed in an almirah. Here and there it was possible to discern that the thin fabric had been heart-breakingly mended by hand.
Had the Poet worn these robes on his European travels when his striking physical appearance, as much as his poems and songs, had such a profound effect on those who came into contact with him- Who can forget the description given by the distinguished editor Ernest Rhys of the day in 1912 when there was a knock at the door of his house in London- In the words of Rhys: “When I went into the hall as the maid opened the door, there paused on the threshold, a tall, grey-bearded figure attired in a close grey robe that fell to his feet. For a moment I was abashed. It was as if the prophet Isaiah had come to one’s door.- Satyajit Ray as a young student at Santiniketan was too awed by the university’s founder to approach him, referring to -Tagore’s prophetic appearance.- Yet only a glass door now separated me from the hem of the Poet’s garment.
The next room was the sanctum sanctorum in which Tagore cast off his mortal frame. The folding screen doors along the length of both sides of the room were open so that one could enter or exit from the wide verandahs freely. Tagore’s sickbed has been replaced by a simple shrine. But the tangible peace inside the room and the subtle radiance that seems to infuse its very air gave me the feeling that he was still lying there in his final days, gazing out upon the rain clouds lowering in the sky and taking his long farewell from this world that he loved so much. “And because I have loved life, I will love death as well,” he said serenely.
Again, his immortal words from ‘Gitanjali’ vibrated across the interstices of time:
“When I go 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 that expands on the ocean of light, and thus am I blessed – let this be my parting word. In this playhouse of infinite forms I have had my play and here have I caught sight of him that is formless. My whole body and my limbs have thrilled with his touch who is beyond touch; and if the end comes here, let it come – let this be my parting word.”
– Gitanjali 96
On December 3rd, 1939 Tagore had composed a song for his most famous play, “The Post Office”. The song was supposed to be sung after the death of the boy Amal. But the production for which the song was intended was cancelled and the song was never sung. On his sickbed, Tagore expressed the wish that this particular song should be sung after his death. It subsequently became one of the most favourite songs of Sri Chinmoy who, in many ways, became the latter 20th century musical and poetical heir to Tagore. The song begins, “Sammukhe shanti parabar” The translation runs:
“In front of me is the ocean of peace. Sail the boat, O pilot You are my companion now. Take me in your lap. Along our journey to the infinite The pole star alone will shine. Giver of Freedom Set me free. May your forgiveness and compassion Be my eternal resources for the journey ? May the mortal ties fall away, May the vast universe Hold me in embrace, And with an undaunted heart May I come to know the Great Unknown.”
It was this prayer-song that I kept hearing inwardly, sung by Sri Chinmoy with that inexpressible longing for the Infinite which is shared by these towering Bengali souls, as I walked slowly up and down the verandas, drifting in and out of rooms at will, while curtains of rain fell to earth in the limitless Outside.