I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awake and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy!                                             – Tagore

Few poets are  as widely read and fewer writers are as deeply venerated as Rabindranath Tagore (born: May 6, 1861). He enjoys a unique honor: Two countries (India and Bangladesh) have adopted his songs as national anthems.

Tagore’s creative output was prodigious: 40 plays, more than a 100 books of poems, some 50 novels and short stories. Add to this his impact on Bengali language and style, and it is easy to understand his stupendous stature in the world of Bengal.

Tagore transformed his father’s ashram in Santiniketan into Vishva Bharati University: a peaceful place of learning, away from the hustle of noisy cities, some of the best expressions of the human spirit were taught, sometimes in the shades of sprawling trees.

Tagore was a child of Indic culture. The blood in his veins was of ancient vintage. His reflections were rooted in the mystical tradition of a Indic thought.  But he was no narrow traditionalist. He condemned superstition and casteism,  acknowledged values in Western science, industry, and enlightenment.

Tagore was a sensitive thinker who wondered about the universe and the meaning of life. His poetic vision resonated with beauty in nature. Words flowed from his pen to express his robust sensuousness. In his Naibedya (Offerings) Tagore mused on the inner essence of Reality. It is here that these oft-quoted lines first appeared (no. 72):

      Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

      Where knowledge is free;

      Where the world has not been broken up into fragments

      by narrow domestic walls, …

      Into that Heaven wake this Indian land!

Between 1907 and 1910 Tagore used to wander in moonlit mango groves, sleeping barely three or four hours. He was “very rest­less” and “anxious to know the world.” During that period he wrote Gitanjali, his most famous book. The poet touched was by the color and beauty, songs and sounds of the wondrous world around him. There are somber touches here and there. Nature is a heart-throb of love for the bliss of the sensitive soul. There is God in the work in the glorious sense, immanent and revealing, the light that illumines human experience. There are  references  to  dark clouds and downpour, gushing winds and swelling rivers,  serene boatmen and sacred temples, flute and veena, and more. The love and joy of God are all in Nature’s beauty:

      Lo! there streams your nectar so pure,

      Flooding all heaven and earth in love, with life.

It bursts into song and fragrance, into light and rapture.

      My life, drunk with that nectar,

      is full to the brim….     (No. 6)

If God and soul, rivers and flowers dance Gitanjali, so do the grandeur and shame of humanity. Tagore was profoundly moved by the insights of Upanishadic seers, he was no less pained by the inhumanity of castes and the mindless  mutterings of orthodoxy.

      Leave this chanting and signing and telling of beads!…

      He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground,

      Where the path-maker is breaking stones. (No. 11).

The longings of sages find ex­pression here: “Let all the strains of joy mingle in my last song: the joy that makes the earth flow over in the riotous excess of the grass, the joy that sets the twin brothers, life and death, dancing over the wide world, the joy that sweeps in with the tempest, shaking and waking all life with laughter, the joy that sits still with its tears on the open red lotus of pain, and the joy that throws everything it has upon the dust, and knows not a word” (No. 58).

English renderings of Tagore’s works led to world recognition, with the Nobel medal. Not only William Butler Yeats,  Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, not only Bernard Shah and Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein, but scores of other writers and intellectuals, and millions of common folk have been touched by this melodious Indian poet and sage

Tagore composed music too. His Jana gana mana became free India’s national anthem. A whole body of music, bearing his name, stirs the soul of every Bengali, from peasant to professor and all between. His tunes touch every emotional chord. Rabindra Sangeet is unlike other classical Indian music. Not all of it is  God-directed. Tagore invented new ragas by blending some ragas to harmonize more beautifully with his poetic compositions.

The power of music to soothe sorrow is expressed in a song (jokhon tumi bandhcchile taar) in which the minstrel sings to his beloved that while she was tuning the strings he experienced pain, and when she started playing the instrument his sorrow disappeared. In another love song (kachche theke duro chilo) he complains that even when his beloved was near him, she was distant, there was a strange kind of separation even in proximity. In all this we see the poet’s gift to convey through simple words profound truths about the human condition. To experience the beauty of this music, one has to listen to the songs.

Past sixty, Tagore took to drawing and   painting. His sketches  included one on himself with Gandhi, and a variety of themes. Many of these are on display at his home in Kolkata.

One can go on and on, reflecting on Tagore’s music and poetry, plays and prose. In the centuries to come, for as long as the lan­guage of Bengal is uttered, for as long as civiliza­tion prizes art and creativity, for as long as music and melody enthrall the human ear and the beauty of words brings joy to the human mind, Rabindranath Tagore will be remembered and celebrated, his songs and verses re­cited and enjoyed.

May 6, 2016

Published by:

Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.

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