The Bard of Bengal

[I was first introduced to Tagore’s “Song Offerings” by my future wife, Lolita, who herself had picked up a Macmillan’s Pocket Library of the work in 1958 while pursuing in London her Associate of the Royal College of Music (ARCM) studies in piano performance. The collection of prose translations was made by the author from the original Bengali with an introduction by W. B. Yeats.]

Rabindranath Tagore, a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society (FRAS), was born 156 years ago on May 7, 1861 and died August 7, 1941. He was a polymath – known in India by his sobriquet Gurudev – who reshaped Bengali literature and music, as well as Indian art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Author of Gitanjali and its “profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse”, he became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. Sometimes referred to as “the Bard of Bengal,” Tagore wrote poetic songs that were viewed as spiritual and mercurial; however, his “elegant prose and magical poetry” remain largely unknown outside Bengal, even today.

A Brahmin from Calcutta with ancestral zamindari roots in Jessore, Tagore wrote poetry as an eight-year-old. At the age of sixteen, he released his first substantial poems under the pseudonym Bhānusiṃha (“Sun Lion”), which were seized upon by literary authorities as long-lost classics. By 1877 he graduated to his first short stories and dramas, published under his real name. As a humanist, universalist internationalist, and ardent nationalist, he denounced the British Raj and advocated independence from Britain. As an exponent of the Bengal Renaissance, he advanced a vast canon that comprised paintings, sketches and doodles, hundreds of texts, and some two thousand songs; his legacy endures also in the institution he founded, Visva-Bharati University.

Tagore modernized Bengali art by spurning rigid classical forms and resisting linguistic strictures. His novels, stories, songs, dance-dramas, and essays spoke to topics political and personal. Gitanjali (Song Offerings), Gora (Fair-Faced) and Ghare-Baire (The Home and the World) are his best-known works, and his verse, short stories, and novels were acclaimed—or panned—for their lyricism, colloquialism, naturalism, and unnatural contemplation. His compositions were chosen by two nations as national anthems: India’s Jana Gana Mana and Bangladesh’s Amar Shonar Bangla. The Sri Lankan national anthem was inspired by his work.

Afterthought
What follows is an absolute gem of mine, No. 57 of the 103 song offerings:

LIGHT, my light, the world-filling light, the eye-kissing light, heart-sweetening light!
Ah, the light dances, my darling, at the centre of my life; the light strikes, my darling, the chords of my love; the sky opens, the wind runs wild, laughter passes over the earth.
The butterflies spread their sails on the sea of light. Lilies and jasmines surge up on the crest of the waves of light.
The light is shattered into gold on every cloud, my darling, and it scatters gems in profusion.
Mirth spreads from leaf to leaf, my darling, and gladness without measure. The heaven’s river has drowned its banks and the flood of joy is abroad.

References: Wikipedia; Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore.

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