Letters from a foreign shore — Rabindranath Tagore’s letters to his niece

First published in Cafe Dissensus

39

Shilaidaha

Thursday, January 9, 1892

[January 14]

For the last couple of days, the weather here has been vacillating between winter and spring. In the morning, northern winds send shivers through land and water and, in the evening, the southern breeze dances through the moonlight of the bright fortnight. It is clear that the spring is nigh. After a long time, an Indian nightingale has started singing from the garden on the other side. The human heart is somewhat excited, too. One can now hear strains of song and music from the village across, which indicates people aren’t too eager to shut their doors and windows and retreat to bed all bundled-up, while the evening is still young.

It’s a full-moon night – a giant moon stares at me from the open window to my left as if to check if I am berating it in this letter. Perhaps she thinks the earth’s residents gossip more about her blemish than her jyotsna. A lone bird calls to dispel the shore’s quietude. The river is still, no boat sails on it; the forest on the other side spreads its solemn shadow on the water. This massive moonlit sky looks a touch hazy – the way things appear when drowsy eyes try to stay awake.

Tomorrow onwards, evenings will begin getting darker again; as I cross this small river after completing my kutcherry work, I will notice a slight separation between me and my beloved away from home. Could the one who had unveiled to me her large and mysterious heart be wondering if all that self-revelation was prudent enough and thus pull back the curtain to her heart again?

Indeed, nature becomes intimate to one who lives alone abroad. I have truly felt for a few days now that I might no longer receive this swathing moonlight once the full-moon night is over; that from this foreign place, I will drift further abroad; that the familiar calm beauty that awaits me at the river bank every day after work, won’t be there for me, and that I would have to make my return journey on the boat in darkness.

But today is a full-moon night – this is the first purnima of this year’s spring, and so I record its story in writing. Perchance I might remember this still night – complete with that lone bird’s call and the gleam of the light on the boat anchored to that bank; this clear outline of the river, that coating of a quasi-dark forest and that detached, indifferent, pallid sky – after a long time…

(Jyotsna: Moonlight; Purnima: Full-moon night)

***

105

Shajadpur

July 7, 1893

This is a small village. Meandering through broken ghaats, a tin-roofed bazaar, granaries with split bamboo fencing, bamboo clumps, mango-jackfruit-palm-shimul-banana-akondo-bherenda-yam trees huddled in a bush, huge boats with raised masts anchored on the river banks, paddy submerged in water, and half-soaked jute fields, I reached Shajadpur last evening. This is going to be my abode for a while now. After spending days in the boat, it’s lovely to step into a house in Shajadpur. It’s wonderful to discover the freedom of being able to move around and stretch one’s limb at will and the impact it has on one’s mental health.

This morning, the sun is beaming from time to time, a wind is blowing swiftly, tamarisk and lychee trees are sashaying and rustling in a sway, a variety of birds are calling out in as many different ways to enliven the forest’s morning assembly. Sitting in this large, companion-less bright and open second-floor room, I am delighted to see a row of boats on the canal and, across it, a village flanked by trees on both sides. On this side, moderate activity guides the movements of a nearby locality. The workflow of a village isn’t rushed, and yet, neither is it inert or lifeless. Work and rest seem to walk hand in hand here.

Ferry boats sail on, passengers walk along the canal with umbrellas in their hands, women dip rice-filled wicker baskets in the water to wash the grain, farmers carrying bundles of jute on their heads head towards the haat, two men rest a log on the ground and crack it with axes for firewood, a carpenter upturns a fishing boat to repair it with a chisel, the village mongrel wanders around aimlessly, a few cows lazily sit on the ground and ward off flies by shaking their ears and tails before ingesting their lunch of the monsoon grass. When crows annoy them excessively by sitting on their backs, they turn their heads just a few times to register their protest.

The sounds of this place – the monotony of cracking wood, the cheer of unclothed children in play, the plaintive high-pitched song of a cowboy, the sloshing of oars, the shrill drone of the oil-grinding block – don’t create any dissonance when they combine with bird calls and rustling  of leaves. In fact, all of it is like a peaceful dream sequence of a bigger sonata, a bit in the manner of Chopin, albeit attuned in an expansive yet controlled composition.

My mind brims with sunlight and all these sounds; I better conclude this letter and soak in it for a while.

(Ghaat: River bank; Haat: Village market)

Image courtesy: theculturetrip.com

The Art of Solitude: In Rabindranath Tagore’s letters, the gifts of a life in solitude

First published in Scroll

After a week of rain, hail and non-seasonal arctic chills, a balmy sunshine and a breeze carrying whispers of spring indulge us in the Southern Ontario suburb where I live with my husband. With a book in my hand, I step out into the backyard and find it to be the venue of an unrehearsed celebration of this climatic turnaround. All our immediate neighbours are out – the daughters of our next-door neighbours yell hellos to their school friends in the backyard across theirs; our other next-door gardener neighbour is busy tending to her perennials; my husband readies the soil for his impending vegetable garden.

Human hums and giggles enter me along with the constant chirp of the backyard birds. As I open my book Chhinnapatrabali – Rabindranath Tagore’s collection of letters, written for the most part to his niece, Indira Devi Chaudhurani, I don’t miss the rare synchronicity this moment brings, especially in our current physically distanced world. The cover of my reading material is beginning to tear up, evidence of the book’s confidant-like association with me through the decade of my life outside India.

Tagore wrote a lot of these letters from his family estate in East Bengal, which he’d been tasked to manage in his youth. While opening a window to his literary talent and creative process, the letters also serve as a manifesto of living in and celebrating solitude and its many gifts. A shift away from the human-centric way of life is one of these gifts. In letter after letter, Tagore speaks of how, whenever he lands in the rural environment of his estate from the industrially-rushed Calcutta, he senses centrifugalism of the humankind. “There’s less of man and more of earth here,” he notes in a letter and adds, “when in the village, I cease to see man as an independent entity,” likening mankind’s journey to that of rivers coursing their way through forests and cities.

Chhinnapatrabali also endears itself to me because of the way it reveals the everyday Rabindranath, shorn of his career accolades and their accompanying weight. With gentle humour and uncensored vulnerability, the letter writer brings out his deepest loves and anxieties, his humanism shining through them like the sun gleaming in our rain-sodden backyard.

In reading the letters nestled in this volume, I learn, recurrently, the need to take a pause from the staged antics of a mechanized life. For, as Tagore shows, true viewing – whether of blackbirds and squirrels in my backyard, or the rivers and trees, boatmen’s songs and women’s banter, cows chasing flies away with their tails, a silent full moon night in a Bengal village – calls for rest and repose. Not only of the outer eye that sees. But of the inner eye that makes, out of one, a seer.

Letter photo source: The Daily Star

Of faces and portraits: Ramkinkar Baij

I recently had the opportunity to read from “My Days with Ramkinkar Baij” on the occasion of the launch of “Could you Please, Please Stop Singing?”, Sabyasachi Nag’s book of poetry at the Art Gallery of Mississauga.

In this excerpt, Baij talks about the essence of portraits and the fodder faces can provide to an artist. He also discusses his own treatment of Tagore for sculpting a bust of the poet.

Here’s a video recording of the reading.

Call for submissions: The Everyday and Other Tagore

Tagore addressing his tenantsCAFE DISSENSUS

UPDATE: The issue is now available here.

Issue 19:  October 2015: The Everyday and Other Tagore [Last date for submission: 30 September, 2015; Date of publication: October, 2015]

Send submissions to: bhashwati@gmail.com

There is the Rabindranath Tagore we all know – the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, the founder of Visva-Bharati University, the grand literary canon of India, and the towering figure without whom Bengal just can’t do.

And there’s the other Rabindranath Tagore, the one who forms the leitmotif of the activities of a social worker working with children from marginal communities in Delhi. Tagore shows up in their handcrafted embroideries, in the food they make, in their art and craft projects, in the plays they enact, and in the worldview they imbibe, unbeknownst to themselves.

Tagore comes alive in the song an unknown Baul fakir sings in a village in Bangladesh, “Jawkhon porbe na mor payer chinho ei baate,” (When my footprints are no longer seen on this path). The words haunt the listener with the singer-poet’s elegiac visions of a time after he is gone. It’s penned and composed by Tagore, yes, but the fakir makes it his own, with his distinctly carefree, unchained rendition.

In a very urban school in Delhi, a principal strives to give her students a taste of Tagore’s inclusive education paradigm. She doesn’t have the space to provide the open-air classrooms of Visva-Bharati, but she opens the doors of art, literature, music, dance, and drama to her pupils, so they can breathe free beyond the confines of a book’s pages.

In one of his most powerful poems (Patraput, 15), Tagore declares himself an outcast, one who has renounced the bondage of religion and ritual. He likens himself to Bauls and their search for the man of the heart, a quest to find divinity in humanity, not in external or imagined symbols.

This is the other, everyday Tagore – internalized in universes that don’t often feature in scholarly discourses.

This issue of Café Dissensus invites fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or multimedia works on the theme of The Everyday and Other Tagore.

Along with written pieces, we are also open to audio-visual content. If you would like to do a short interview (5-15 minutes), please feel free to send that to us. If you send us the rush copy, we can edit. However, it would be better if you do the editing and send to us.

Your submissions should not exceed 1500 words. If a particular piece deserves more space, we are willing to go beyond the word limit. Please email them to bhashwati@gmail.com. Also, provide a brief 2-3 line bio at the end of your piece. Submissions will be accepted until 30 September, 2015.

Photo courtesy: http://permacultureambassadors.blogspot.ca/

Alien Winter — II

“Let my love like sunlight surround you
and give you illumined freedom.”
~ Rabindranath Tagore

Sunshine isn’t an easy paramour.

In my hometown,
it spills over in
volcanic excess–
scorching land,
human bodies,
cattle and crops,

even as it gently
rocks the hills
with its undulating dance
on terraced tea gardens.

Yet in this frosty city,
it plays hard to get.
Deaf to pleas,
appearing on whim,
the hometown beau
avenges yesterday’s curses
by spurning today’s
advances.

Sunshine is a tricky lover.

Also see Alien Winter — I

Alien Winter — III

The Alleyway, by Rabindranath Tagore

One day, this concrete-laden alleyway of ours set out—twisting her way right and left again and again—to find something. But she would get stuck at every move–a house on the right, a house on the left, a house right across.

From what little she could see by glancing above, a streak of the sky revealed itself—as narrow and as skewed as herself.

She asked that filtered slice of sky, “Tell me sister, of which city are you the blue alley?”

In the afternoon, she would catch a glimpse of the sun for just a moment and think, “I couldn’t understand any of that.”

Thick monsoon clouds cast shadows over the two rows of houses, as if someone had scratched out the rays of light from the alleyway’s notebook with a pencil. Rain slid through the concrete, swooshing the snaky stream away with a snake charmer’s drum beats. The road became slippery, the umbrellas of pedestrians hit each other, and the water from an open drain suddenly splashed up to an umbrella, stunning its carrier.

Overwhelmed, the alleyway uttered, “There wasn’t any problem when it was parched dry. Why this sudden pouring trouble?”

                                                                                                   ***

At the end of spring the southern wind looks delinquent, raising swirls of dust and sweeping torn pieces of paper. The alleyway says, bewildered, “Which god’s drunken dance is this?”

She knows that all the garbage that gathers around her every day—fish scales, stove ash, vegetable peels, dead rats—are reality. With those around, she never thinks, “Why all this?”

Yet when the autumn sun slants itself on the balcony of a house, when the notes of Bhairavi float from the puja nahabat*, she thinks for a second, “Perhaps something big really lies beyond this concrete track.”

The day yawns; sunlight drops from the shoulders of the houses to rest in a corner of the alleyway, just like the slipping away of the end of a housewife’s sari. The clock strikes nine; the maidservant walks by, tucking to her waist a basket of vegetables she bought from the market; the smell and smoke of cooking envelopes the alleyway; office goers get busy.

And the alleyway thinks again, “All of reality is contained within this concrete road. What I had thought of as something big must be just a dream.”

* Music room or a tower from which live music is played/performed during festive occasions.

Translated by: Bhaswati Ghosh
Image courtesy: Flickr