Centenary Celebration of Tagore’s ‘Gitanjali,’ which won the Nobel Prize 100 years ago, was marked by recitations and music.

Rabindranath Tagore as an idealist had admired the power and humaneness of the spirit that was seen in the liberalism of nineteenth-century English literature of the West. Being a patriot, he needed to believe in the endurance of ancient India’s spiritual values in contemporary India.

In 1912 through his poems in the ‘Gitanjali’ (Song Offerings), translated by him into English, the two beliefs were harmonised in his mind. In the late afternoon of November 14, 1913, the news of his winning the Nobel Prize for ‘Gitanjali’ (Song Offerings) reached Santiniketan. ‘Gitanjali’ had an introduction, in the form of a letter by W. B. Yeats to the painter William Rothenstein.

To celebrate the centenary of this historic event and in commemoration of the book, a programme entitled “The Verses for the World” was conceived and presented at the Rabindranath Tagore Centre, ICCR, Kolkata, by renowned singers Debashish and Rohini Raychaudhuri, the only father-daughter duo in Rabindrasangeet. They had created history in the Belfast Music Festival 2010 by showcasing Tagore’s songs for the first time on a global stage, being the only Indians after the late Pt. Ravi Shankar to be invited there.

Filmmaker and a professor of English in a Kolkata College, Debashish’s performance texts are special, as was evident in their recital together with William Radice, in May 2011 at Dartington, England. Since the award-winning book was in English, according to Debashish, “the programme targets, among others, the non-Bengali audience of Kolkata.”

Tagore and Vedas

It comprises an introduction to the context of the poems of the English ‘Gitanjali,’ which was published in 1912, recitation of the poems by the veteran actor Barun Chanda and renditions of the Bengali songs by the father-daughter duo that were translated into English. The programme also tried to trace Tagore’s affinity with ancient texts of the Vedas in the creation of some of his poetry that took the world by storm a hundred years ago.

Insight into Vedic Sanskrit and renditions of ancient Indian songs from the Vedas were by a young practitioner of Dhrubapada and the Vedas, Sayan Mukhpadhyay.

Instead of dwelling upon the life and personality of the Bard, it was the mighty flow of his poetry, music and spirituality that Raychaudhuri fascinatingly projected in his presentation. It began with the song Tagore composed when he was 45, ‘Koto ajanarey janailey tumi’ by the duo, which was followed by Chanda’s recitation of the English translation, ‘Thou hast made me known to friends whom I know not.’

The presentation was in three parts. The renditions of poems and songs from Gitanjali, the Dhrubapadas and the shlokas from the Vedas and their ragas incorporated in songs of Tagore and also his ‘Vedgaans,’ the hymns and the sensibility of the compositions, and Vedas as narrated and sung by Sayan and the corresponding songs of Tagore rendered by the duo.

Debashish narrated how it all began. In the spring of 1907 Tagore started composing for his Bengali Gitanjali. Between 1902 to 1907, he was tormented by personal tragedies. When he was in great sorrow, he wrote the most beautiful love poetry- the inspiration of mankind are in his hymns as in the recitation, ‘My desires are many, my cry is pitiful,’ followed by the song ‘Ami bahu basonaye pranponey chai,’ sung with passion by Rohini. A romantic composition rendered with subtle grace was ‘Beautiful is thy wristlet, decked with starry gems,’ followed by the fine fast-paced duet, ‘Sundaro botey tobo aangada Khani, taraye taraye khochito.’

The English ‘Gitanjali’ was not entirely a translation of the Bengali one, but also had poems from ‘Gitimalyo,’ ‘Naibedyo,’ ‘Kheya,’ ‘Achalayatan’ and ‘Utsarga.’ Many of these translations were done when he went to Shelaidah (his country house in, what is now, Bangladesh) to rest. In a letter Tagore mentioned that only sorrows are our own, all others are given to us by God.

One has to buy even ‘ananda’ with sorrow. This is expressed in a final song of the play ‘Sharadutsav’, also included in ‘Gitanjali’ - recited and sung one after the other – ‘Mother I shall weave the chain of pearls with thy sorrow,’ followed by the intense tappanaga solo, ‘Tomar sonar thalaye sajabo aaj dukher aasrudhar,’ sung soulfully by Debashish. Songs such as ‘Jagatey anandajogney’ followed ‘I had my invitation in the world’s festival’.

The second part saw some of the best Brahmasangeets in Dhrupadanga and their corresponding poems intensively connected with the Upanishads emanating the philosophical and spiritual aspect of Tagore’s work.

Literary tour

In the last leg Sayan Mukhpadhayay took listeners on a tour through the land of Sanskrit and its analogy with Tagore’s spiritualism and sensibility in ‘Gitanjali.’ Sayan mentioned that Sanskrit is not just a language but a research into the heart of sound - ‘Nada.’

In Vedic Sanskrit as Sayan mentioned, “Agni is just not Fire, ‘Agraniyatey iti Agni’, Som is just not intoxicant and Indra they say is ‘Imdra’. When this universe looks at it’s self, that very act of looking is Imdra in Vedic Sanskrit.” ‘Imdraye yaadey chitrangbhava mahey’, he sang.

A seasoned Dhrupadanga singer, his renditions of tarana, range and control in all the three registers and clarity were wonderful. He also referred to the Tagore-Einstein dialogue: ‘Esho Debo Vishwakarmah Mahatma, Purandaraba Kabiamrita’. Tagore’s poem and songs on the view were presented –‘What Divine drink wouldst thou have my God’ and Rohini’s mellifluous, ‘Hey mor Devota.’

From the Vedas an Ode to joy or ‘Ananda’, a concept almost central to Rabindranath, was explored. ‘Anando Brahmati Brijnath’ recited Sayan and broke into a fast paced bandish, ‘Anadang twang twang,’ followed by ‘This is my delight’ and a lovely joyous duet, ‘Aamar ei path chawatheyee ananda.’

Light and darkness have always been a constant theme in Tagore’s work and the programme ended with a juxtaposition of Vedic verse, Tagore’s famous song that occupies the central theme in English ‘Gitanjali’ with the chanting of Rishi Narada’s popular mantra, ‘Om Anantahari Narayana,’ where Hari is Fire and also Light in Vedic Sanskrit. In celebration of undying light that is present in every human being, the Gitanjali centenary was held with a dignified and aesthetically emotive recitation in English, ‘Light, my Light, the world-filling light,’ the joyous singing of ‘Alo aamar alo ogo aloye bhuvan bhora,’ and the chanting of ‘Om Bhurbhuva Swaha tat Sabitur Barenyam.’