When Rabindranath was born 150 years ago in Calcutta the city was completely different from what it is today. Built by the British on the adjoining sites of three sleepy villages of Kalikata, Sutanuti and Govindapur on the banks of the Ganges, it was gradually shedding its rural character and becoming increasingly urban – man-made artificial environment was replacing the natural environment. Because of its posh European quarters it came to be known as the ‘city of palaces’ no doubt but the native quarter, where the house of the Tagores was located, was still something between a village and a town. The poet has graphically described it in his Jivansmriti (Reminiscences) and Chhelebela (My childhood), both available in English translations. It was still rather a magnified market town of palanquins and hackney carriages rattling along dusty roads at a snail’s pace, keeping pace with the slow rhythm of those times, open drains, without even gas light or kerosene, let alone electricity, lacking water supply and sanitation. Without gaining the facilities and conveniences of town life, by the time the poet was born it had almost completely lost the sylvan serenity, peace and tranquility of the countryside. It was becoming congested and there was a lot of dust and noise. It was being denuded of trees and plants, open spaces were steadily shrinking where you could hardly experience the changing moods of the day or of the seasons – the glorious sunrise and sunset, the quiet noon or moonlit nights. In their house there was a small patch of ground with a few trees which was a misnomer of a garden and in one corner there was a small pond with a banyan tree on its bank. Living virtually a Spartan life in confinement within the servants’ quarters looking through the windows this highly imaginative child used to enjoy these morsels of the natural world as best as he could. It was however more imaginary than real. Starved thus of the enjoyment of the beauties of nature in his childhood his appetite for them must have become acute in his nature and when the opportunity came he feasted on them. He became a great lover of nature. Both his life and works bear testimony to this.
About Calcutta of those days one very important fact the poet seems to have forgotten to mention – it was full of malaria, mosquitoes and dengue and subject to occasional attacks of epidemics. In his childhood during one such attack, that of dengue, (Calcutta is still not free from this menace) the entire Tagore family had to temporarily remove to a place called ‘Peneti’ or Panihati, a northern suburb situated on the bank of the Ganges, then a rural area but now an integral part of greater Calcutta. For the first time in his life the poet got the opportunity to experience a large open space on the bank of a flowing river. Although he became a globe trotter later, he cherished the memory of this visit throughout his life. He also never forgot the pain he keenly felt when during this visit on a flimsy ground he was not allowed to accompany some elders in their further explorations of the countryside.
He was yet to win his freedom. It came with his journey with his father to the Himalayas. On the way he also visited Santiniketan for the first time which was to become his home and workplace during the greater part of his life. The Tagores had extensive zamindari or estates in Eastern Bengal and Orissa. In his adolescence the poet once accompanied his elder brother Jyotirindranath during an excursion in their East Bengal zamindari when he took part in a tiger hunt and also experimented with the use of extract of flowers as ink! But his real encounter with the world of nature took place when his father entrusted him with the management of this zamindari. He had conclusively proved himself to be a good-for-nothing fellow – he dropped out of school, failed to become a barrister or an ICS after his stay and sporadic study in England! His elders were worried about his future; they used to say, ‘What will happen to our Robi!’ He was therefore hurriedly married off with a minor and illiterate village girl and in due course was sent off with his family to Shilaidaha, the field headquarters of the East Bengal zamindari. The region where this zamindari was located is one of the most fertile floodplains in the world, made of silts deposited by the great river systems of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra and watered by their innumerable distributaries and creeks and small channels that criss-cross the lower reaches of the Bengal delta. As a town bird, like the post master in his famous short story Post Master (filmed by Satyajit Ray as a part of his film Tinkanya) here he could have felt like a fish out of water. Instead he fell in love with the place. He used to extensively and intensively explore his charge almost continuously traveling in the houseboat Padma, built by his grandfather Prince Dwarakanath for the same purpose. Here he found himself in complete harmony with nature which infused him with a new vigour. It was a kind of rebirth for him. In one stroke the barriers of his urban background and aristocratic birth were removed. The ten years (1891-1901) he spent here proved to be the most fertile period of his life. He came not only close to nature but also to men. Poetry, short stories, letters, novels – in fact works in all literary genres - flowed from his pen in a spontaneous flow and each of them is a masterpiece. Our poet could very well say with Wordsworth that it was here that a ‘fair seed-time had my soul’. If you want to read many of his best poems, best stories, best letters and novels you blindly choose from his writings of this period. Nature here not only inspired his poetic genius but also shaped his character as a complete man – a patriot, a socio-economic reformer, an administrator, an educationist, an institution builder and finally the God-intoxicated man that he was. It was here that he began to translate his songs and lyrics into English that fetched him the Nobel Prize. In his life the influence of nature became deeper and enduring as time went by. Nature features in his works not as a mere literary trimming or fashion but is germane to them.
What was his attitude towards nature? According to him man is an integral part of nature. Let us refer to two famous poems Sukh and Madhyahna from the collections Chitra and Chaitali respectively, published in boloji in my translation as Happiness and The Noon. Both were written during this period. Here are the links - https://www.boloji.com/poetry/1301-1400/1350.htm and https://www.boloji.com/poetry/1500-1600/1591.htm. To elucidate this the concluding lines of Madhyahna are reproduced below –
In the midst of all these
I am a stranger
Yet I do not feel estranged
I feel I am one of them
It also seems
After a long time
I have returned
To my own native place
I have gone back in time
To my former life
To that fresh morning
When like an infant
Clinging on to its mother's breast
I was inseparably mixed
With land, air, water and the sky
And along with all living beings
That thrive on this earth
I was joyously sucking
The elixir of my first existence.’
And nearness to nature is nearness to God. That is what he says in the poem Palligrame from the collection Chaitali, also published in boloji in my translation –
In The Country
Here I get him closest to my heart –
As close is the earth beneath my feet
As are close to me
The fruits, flowers and the air and water.
Here I love him too
As I love the songs of birds
The murmur of streams
The mellowness around
The light of dawn and the greeneries of trees.
Here I find him beautiful
As the evening is beautiful
As the fragrance of flowers filling the night
And the dew-drenched morning
With its clean air
And a lone star in its sky.
Here he is dear to my heart
As the rain water dropping from the sky
The sweet sleep of night
The water of rivers
And the cool shade of trees.
Like the tears trickling down my eyes
Here my song flows with ease.
Here his love fills my heart
As life fills all my limbs.
Examples can be multiplied from his writings, here only some of those poems which are available in translations on boloji have been cited. A few more links are given below.
All These I loved
Akash bhara surya-tara
The Music of the Rains
The Call of the Far
Most significant are his songs written exclusively on the seasons. They are about 283 in number and all of them were set to tune by the poet himself. He introduced the celebration of different seasons when accompanied with dancing these songs were sung. Perhaps in world literature they have no parallel. Tagore rarely, if ever, boasted about his writings, but his songs were a different matter. He once said that everything else of his writings may be forgotten but his songs will never die. One has only to listen to his wonderful songs to know how eminently he was justified in making such a large claim. Let us conclude by quoting one rainy day song in my translation, also published in boloji under the caption – My friend, come in these rains – which was recited in the poet’s prose translation by W.B.Yeats during the reception given to the poet at Trocadero Restaurant in London in July, 1912. The poet’s own translation may be read in the English Gitanjali (no. XXII).
My friend, come in these rains
On this misty overclouded rainy day
Like silent night
In stealthy steps you have come.
The morning has closed its eyes
The wind is hopelessly sighing
And the blue naked sky
Is overcast with endless clouds
In the woodland the birds do not sing
In every home the doors are closed
You are a lonely wayfarer on a lonely road.
Now you are alone, O my dearest friend,
My doors I have kept open
Like a dream
Please don’t glide past my home.
Transcreation of one of the sweetest rainy day songs – Aji shravanghanagahan mohe/gopan tabo charan phele/nishar mato nirab ohe/sabar dithi eraye ele – by Rabindranath Tagore. Best recording of this song is by Debabrata Biswas.