My Tryst with Gurudeb Tagore: The Song I came to sing

Santosh Bakaya

Santosh Bakaya (Tagore Special)

I don’t claim to be a Tagore scholar, but I am happy that I can at least proudly claim that my initiation into his works was by an immensely erudite scholar of Gurudeb Tagore.
My best friend in Ninth Grade was from Calcutta. She had a tinkling voice,
which still chimes in memory, although she is no more.
It was from her that I picked up a smattering of Bengali, a language which I found very sweet, and friends would often see us conversing in Bengali. Some of my new friends started thinking that I also hailed from Calcutta. Whenever I would go to her house, her mother’s melodious voice singing Rabindra Sangeet would fall into my ears. Whether she would be pottering around in the kitchen, watering her plants, or reading a newspaper, the notes of Rabindra Sangeet would always hover on her lips.
One memory chunk refuses to leave me.

Her mother sitting on the sofa, singing Rabindra Sangeet and my friend’s father, sitting on another sofa, eyes closed, listening to her, rapt, a soft smile playing on his lips.

“You should read Gitanjali,” He told me one day, and her mother nodded, smiling affectionately. In fact, she was always smiling. I could see that my friend’s tinkling laughter, came from her amiable mother, whose bunch of keys stuck in her saree paloo provided the accompanying music to the songs that she sang. My initiation into Gurudeb’s monumental literary oeuvre started from that snug house in the Railway Quarters in Jaipur.

Her father could go on and on about Geetanjali. It was he who told me that the introduction to Geetanjali was written by Yeats, who was greatly touched by the verses. I can still recall the reverential tones, with which he said,
“You know Santosh, Yeats wrote,
I have carried the manuscript of these translations about me for days, reading it at railway trains, or on top of omnibuses, and in restaurants, and I have often had to close it less some stranger would see how it moved me.”

He also told me how the
artistic environment of Gurudeb’s home infused him with the spirit of creation, and the profusion of nature, honed his poetic sensibilities. “You know, Santosh, [He had a particular way of pronouncing my name, which I loved] in My Boyhood Days, published in 1940, he says that he was averse to ‘the mills of learning that went on grinding from morn till night.” He felt closer to the clouds, trees, and the crisp fragrant air; hearing musical notes in the verdant surroundings. He changed many schools, but his favourite school was Nature.”

 Once that my friend’s father had magnanimously opened the gates to Gurudeb’s massive literary treasure, I got hooked on to his writings. It was as if I had found my secret garden, where myriad hued flowers bloomed and rare and beautiful species of birds chirped all the time, leaving behind esoteric messages. His poems wielded an overpowering influence on me, drenching me in lyrical cadences. The unique mystique of his later poems, brimming with his quest for the unknown, sent me on a journey of self- introspection trying to decipher the underlying myriad nuances.

On his 70the birthday, in an address delivered at Vishwabharti University which he founded in 1918, he had said, “I have, it is true, engaged myself in a series of activities. But the innermost me is not to be found in any of these. At the end of the journey, I am able to see, a little more clearly, the orb of my life. Looking back, the only thing of which I feel certain is that I am a poet.” [Ami kavi]. Indeed, this great bard, who started writing at a very early age, went on to publish nearly 60 volumes of verse, enriching the world with his mammoth, awe- inspiring output.

 In An Acre of Green Grass, Buddhadeva Bose [1908- 1974], Sahitya Akademi Awardee [1967] also recipient of the Padma Bhushan [1970], known as perhaps the most versatile talent on the Bengali literary scene, succeeding Tagore, aptly says, that calling Gurudeb just prolific or versatile is not enough, “he is a source, a waterfall, flowing out in a hundred streams, a hundred rhythms, incessantly.” Yes, this literary colossus is indeed a waterfall, drenching us in different ways, leaving us with a lingering glow of contentment, and enriching not just India but the entire world with a cultural synthesis, resulting from his immensely enlightening travels, which made him discover a rampant joy in the tiniest mote of the universe.

His stories and the brilliant delineation of his characters had always mesmerized me, and there are a few characters from his stories who refuse to leave me. Who can forget Kabuliwala and Mini? When I saw the movie as a child, I could not sleep for days, imagining myself as Mini and often indulging in dialogues with Kabuliwala.
 My tryst with Gurudeb which started in school, continues unabated; some of his poems having become an integral part of me, and I keep harking back to them.

These lines from another favourite poem of my childhood, Fairy Land, still snuggle close to my heart, and almost in juvenile glee, I still dream of the terrace where the pot of the tulsi plant stands.

‘Only puss is allowed to come with me, for she knows where the
barber in the story lives.
But let me whisper, mother, in your ear where the barber in
the story lives.
It is at the corner of the terrace where the pot of the tulsi
plant stands’.

Many of my childhood moments were spent in visualizing these images- the King’s Palace, with walls of ‘white silver and the roof of shining gold,’ the puss, the barber, the tulsi plant, the queen living in a palace of seven courtyards, the sleeping princess of the cascading hair, with ‘bracelets on her arms and pearl drops in her ears’ and imagining myself running through the courtyards, with a sense of serene abandonment, an ineffable calm creeping all over my small, frail figure.
Moreover, robustly convinced of Gurudeb’s faith, I find myself perennially seeing ‘
a flash of lightning’ and falling in love with everything and everyone around me.

 “But we have this faith- that a lifetime’s bliss
will appear any minute, with a smile upon its lips.
Scents, touches, sounds, snatches or songs
brush us, pass us, give us delightful shocks.
Then peradventure there’s a flash of lightning,
whomever I see that instant I fall in love with. [On the Nature of Love, 1896]

He writes thus about his mother:
“I cannot remember my mother
only sometimes in the midst of my play
a tune seems to hover over my playthings,
 the tune of some song
 that she used to
hum while rocking my cradle.” [I cannot remember my Mother]

 Well, it’s not as though I cannot remember my mother, but let me confess, whenever I remember her, I always recall this profoundly sensitive poem of Gurudeb, and her memory comes floating to me on fragile petals of tenderly fragrant flowers.
It is as if I can smell the fragrance of his poem, and through the simple, sensitive words, touch his love for his mother, and feel my own love for my mother.

Paper Boats, from his collection, [The Crescent Moon.1913] was an integral part of my growing up years. Which child has not floated and launched paper boats in childhood, fantasizing that angels and fairies are sailing in them?

When the present topsy -turvy world stops humming hopeful songs, and sounds of gunfire and drones callouses the ear drums, I quickly launch my own imaginary paper boats in rain puddles of my own making, and in ‘big black letters’ write the word PEACE on them.
When night comes,
 I bury my face in my arms and dream
that my paper boats float on and on
under the midnight stars”. [Paper Boats]

Miraculously, peace reigns in my heart and also around the world, and the paper boats sail on, lending succour to a restive world.
Yes, Gurudeb did have a magic wand. He could create magic, and the world acknowledged it.
In Beggarly Heart, he pleads [and I add my voice to this plea],
“When desire blinds the mind with delusion and dust,
O thou holy one, thou wakeful, come with thy light and thy thunder.

Gurudeb’s words, be they sonnets, odes, narrative poems, short stories have soothed my frayed nerves in all seasons, be it the ‘frenzy of May, or the fullness of golden autumn’. I keep waiting for that inner light to be ignited in me so that I can sing that unsung song, that lies hidden somewhere.
“The song I came to sing
remains unsung to this day.
I have spent my days in stringing
and unstringing my instrument. ”
[The Song I came to sing- Gitanjali].
In my utter naiveté, I believe that someday, in the near future I will definitely sing that unsung song. Hence, I continue stringing and unstringing my instrument. Waiting.


Bio: Santosh Bakaya:
Academic, essayist, poet, novelist, biographer, and TEDx Speaker, Dr. Santosh Bakaya has been acclaimed for her poetic biography of Bapu, Ballad of Bapu [Vitasta, Delhi, 2015]. Some of her books are:
Only in Darkness can you see the Stars
 [A Biography of Martin Luther King Jr. Vitasta, 2019]
Songs of Belligerence [Authors Press, 2020] 
Morning Meanderings, [e-book Blue Pencil, 2020] 
Her other two collaborative e-books: Vodka by the Volga [with Dr. Koshy, Blue Pencil, 2020]
From Prinsep Ghat to Peer Panjal [ with Gopal Lahiri, Blue Pencil, 2021] have been Amazon bestsellers.
Runcible Spoons and Pea-green Boats [ 2021, Authorspress] is her latest book.
She runs a popular column Morning Meanderings in Learning and creativity. com


  1. This is indeed a brilliant piece on Tagore.

  2. A lyrical, sensitive, intense and beautiful written piece on Tagore! Utterly delightful read!


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