Several years ago, a Bengali friend invited me to her home for lunch and “adda”. Her other guests were Bengalis too. But I was not acquainted with them. Post lunch, the conversation moved to art and literature. Unsurprisingly, a harmonium appeared. Requests for songs did the rounds. After a while, all of us pitched in to sing, unsurprisingly, only Rabindra Sangeet.
We sang with sincerity at different scales and with wrong or missed lyrics. We created more cacophony than music in the process. But nobody could fault our passion. A little later, when everyone’s ears had had their fill, someone began a conversation about a particular poem by Tagore. And soon, an animated discussion followed, in which some of us remained listeners.
A venerable gentleman made an observation. Another, equally venerable, immediately interrupted him, and quoting some lines from a Tagore poem, said, “This is Rabindranath.” Yet another, not to be outdone, recited some other poem by Tagore, and said, “No! This is the true Rabindranath.”
Watching them spar and try to outdo one another, it occurred to me, how similar they were to the six blind men and the elephant. And how, common this disposition is among Bengalis with regard to Tagore. So common that Sudeep Chakravarti devoted an entire chapter – “Amader Rabindranath Tagore Plus” – in his book The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community.
Chakravarti had rightly noted the Bengali’s Tagore fixation. A fixation that has reached obscene levels at times, though in the past. In Chakravarti’s words, “Our Tagore fixation is today tempered with reassessment, looking anew at the work of the person and the legend.”
‘How dare you?’
Tagore wrote as much for the city intellectual as he did for the peasant working in the paddy field. Perhaps more for the latter than the former. Yet, for years, anyone who tried to revisualise his songs, poems, plays, was pulled down and rebuked. They didn’t have to spell it out. “How dare you?’ reverberated in their clamorous displeasure.
Priya Sarukkai Chhabria has dared. Her daring is greater since she is not a Bengali. Although the time of Bengali “ownership” of Tagore has waned, Chhabria herself seems to be not a little conscious of it. And, I confess, as a reviewer, I initially felt compelled to place Chhabria’s Gitanjali against Tagore’s, as if they were two paintings, one an inspired rendition by a modern artist and the other the original classic.
I am guilty of it, even though I myself, despite my Bengali blood, possess as much or as little knowledge of Tagore as any lay person. But there is one thing I do know about Tagore, because it is universally known, and here I quote Chakravarti again, “…Tagore knew his literature and poetry and theatre were always much more than he, even as he knew it was no sin to be free with his feelings and prolific in his art.” I think Rabindranath Tagore would have agreed.
Coming back to my placing the two books side by side. I read through WB Yeats’s introduction, having just finished Chhabria’s in her book. Poetic, though often syrupy with praise and condescending, rambling, sometimes ill-informed, other times too defensive, and in places clumsily written – that is Yeats’s introduction.
Two ways to read
Chhabria’s introduction begins on a diffident note, as if she is pre-empting the “How dare you”. It soon reasserts itself however, turning into a more scholarly essay, with quotes and references. Chhabria writes that she regarded her published excerpts of the book as her “erasure” poems. She quickly clarifies, “Though erasure is a form of contained writing, its reductionist connotations did not agree with me, for mine is a tribute. Besides I believe a great poem is one that often serves as a draft or raft for someone else’s poem. Or that is how it should be. A spark or a shift in another’s subconscious.”
Further into her introduction, I recognise her own sensibilities as a reader and writer of poetry. For the introduction is also a critique, and in no way subservient. There is candour in her approach. I feel as if she has written it in one sitting, letting her emotions wash over her, as she emerged from her personal experience of Gitanjali, beckoning the reader to experience Tagore through her. And in her journey into Gitanjali, “each new finding was like an anchor, each one a spike of elation. The experience was like nectar being tipped back into the flower’s calyx. (She) was brimming.”
Chhabria also seems to have made a promise:
“On that first day in Bir, as I put pencil to paper, I decide I will not alter his word order, nor interlope, nor substitute his words; I will stay with the present tense to honour the work’s energy.
I stay with the thrall.”
She has. Once again, I must point out her diffidence. She has included Tagore’s original prose poems at the end of her rendition. I feel this was not necessary.
In my opinion, there are two ways of taking this new version of Gitanjali. As a first exposure, for the uninitiated – and I do not mean this as a slight, far from it – who has hitherto been daunted by Tagore’s stature (through no fault of his), Chhabria’s modern representation would be welcome. All classical works, including and mostly those by Shakespeare, have been adapted for newer generations, reinvented and re-imagined. That is how a literary work stays alive, speaking in a fresh voice to new readers, new audiences.
The second way is to read it against the backdrop of Tagore’s Gitanjali. This latter way is for one who is already deeply immersed in Tagore’s works. For such a person, comparing the poems side by side is unnecessary, for the “nectar” is already within. The exercise of parallel reading is also unfair. If you call yourself a connoisseur of Tagore, the first thing to do is to be open minded, because that is how Gurudev was himself.
Distilled and reshaped
Chhabria has been particular about sticking to the older book’s progression, as she said she would. She has also included a version, hers, of WB Yeats’s introduction. The very first poem is a versified, and also abbreviated, form of WB Yeat’s introduction to the original Gitanjali. This is followed by a footnote on the Tagore-Yeats encounter. I sense irony here, and something more...tongue-in-cheek? Perhaps it is my personal sensibility and predisposition that sees it that way. Perhaps Chhabria intended it.
All the poems in Chhabria’s Gitanjali, from Verse 1 to Verse 103, are a joy to behold and read. She has distilled and literally reshaped Tagore’s verses. Her poems are visually represented with the spaces and words working in tandem on the page. She successfully spins the words like a cocoon over each poem’s soul. One feels the pulse within, and there is a tendency to hold the breath, for the cocoon will soon split open and the spirit will emerge, like sunlight set free. The poems literally bounce across the page like smooth-bodied pebbles skimming the surface of a lake.
As I journey through Chhabria’s Gitanjali, I carry away snippets of verse in the albums of my mind, as a wayfarer in a natural park would, in her cell phone. A hundred years ago, I would have carried a notebook and pencil. The poems are like small watercolour paintings which come alive beneath a certain angle of sunlight. They ask for specific times in which to read them and no other will do. But sometimes,
“…drunk— Verse 2
i forget myself”
and my immersion becomes continuous, spilling over my day’s routine.
Stripped bare of dense lyricism that may create impatience among the readers of the 21st century, Chhabria creates bowstring-taut verses that can make one wince, even as they remain, essentially, Gitanjali. To give a couple of examples:
“Pluck this little flower
honour it with a touch of pain
The time of offering goes by— Verse 6
pluck it while there is time”
And, the almost raw:
The emotions in verse 9 find an echo in verse 14, and here the poet is also a seeker, an often-disappointed seeker. But the poet has already asked,
do you worship?
where— Verse 11
and even found an answer of sorts:
“I spent my days stringing and
unstringing my instrument
the song— Verse 13
i came to sing
In poem after poem the natural world and the divine walk hand in hand or in each other’s footprints. As with Tagore, so with Chhabria, they are one and the same. Nature is divine manifestation and the divine is manifest through nature. And, it is the Poet’s task to seek the divine with songs –
“I have sought you
with my songs With them
I searched and touched the world
They showed me secret paths…”— Verse 101
Sometimes in the voice of the devout, sometimes in that of a lover, always free of gender, the poems flutter through these pages like the south wind in summer. They seek faith, even as they ride despair at times –
it I will wait like the night its head bent
low Morning will come golden streams breaking— Verse 19
their way through sky…”
And, the worship is never forced –
my spirit— Verse 25
It is not possible to read a book of poems in one sitting. Certainly not Gitanjali, including this one. There is only so much of beauty, distilled and pure, that one can drink in one gulp. Yet, that is precisely what one must do for a review. Gitanjali, this Gitanjali, is beyond review. This is not a book one reads because the review was good or eschews because it was not. This is a book that should reach readers quietly, and let the reader seek its nourishment in solitude.
Tagore’s voice was powerful in his time. His thoughts and poetic vision, his philosophy resonate powerfully even today. But language is merely a tool. And like any tool it needs to be sharpened, made ready for the next person who will use it. As Chhabria notes, “Gurudev prefigures my urge to remake his words a hundred years later.” And she closes her introduction with his poem, Song 85 of “The Gardener”, a portion of which I include here:
“Who are you reader, reading my poems a hundred years hence?
I cannot send you one single flower from this wealth of the spring,
one single streak of gold from yonder clouds.
Open your doors and look abroad.”
Priya Sarukkai Chhabria has revitalised Tagore’s original by paring down what would have only slowed the modern always-on-the-run reader, and by making the core crystal clear. In doing so, she has made Gitanjali relevant today while retaining its energy. This Gitanjali is meaningful, and provides opportunity for deep contemplation and solace in these turbulent times.
Sing of Life: Revisioning Tagore’s ‘Gitanjali’, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Context.
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