We celebrate the great poet, philosopher, and social reformer Rabindranath Tagore’s birthday. Tagore visualized a modern, free India where people would think freely, and their minds would be without fear.
(A new series of articles, exclusively for Humanity College) _________________________________
This is the beginning of Rabindranath Tagore week: this year, May 9 is his birthday. I am writing a series of new, original articles on the great poet, philosopher, educationist, and social reformer.
Contrary to his West-imposed image of a “mystic poet from the Orient” who wrote devotional songs and received a Nobel Prize for “Gitanjali,” Tagore was a major social reformer who preached universalism, and actively rejected prejudice, dogmatism, fanatic religion, and ultranationalism.
He also had differences of opinion with Mahatma Gandhi — especially on his vision to free India of the British clutches. Gandhi took the line of appeasement, and his Congress Party took the steam away from revolutionaries who fought the British aggressors for nearly a hundred years before Gandhi came on the Indian science. Tagore also spoke about nonviolence, but did not support Gandhi’s conservative vision. Tagore was truly a symbol of modernity and free thinking.
But Gandhi and Tagore had respect for each other. However, they had differences. The primary difference in my opinion was that Gandhi was a traditionalist, who did not believe in a modern-concept gender equality, economic industrialization, and globalism. Tagore on the other hand was a strong believer of modernity, equal rights, and a border-less, universal human race. These are the principles on which Tagore built his university in Bengal — spending all his Nobel Prize money and personal assets. The university he built was named Vishwa Bharati — literally, the school of the world.
Vishwa Bharati University, located in Shanti Niketan (i.e., abode of peace), West Bengal is still functional. It runs on an exceptional way of teaching. Contrary to the British colonial educational system that indoctrinates students into following orders, teaching and learning methods at Vishwa Bharati are open-air, free-thinking, fair exchange, and non-punitive. In its golden days when Tagore was alive, noted educationists from across the world came on its faculty. They taught philosophy, foreign languages, art, music, science, and various hands-on skills. Tagore also built a satellite school nearby called Sri Niketan, a school that taught agriculture, pottery, textiles and such subjects — to help the local residents make a living.
Other than his world-renowned literature and music, Tagore wrote pioneering books on science and environment, and even ventured into making movies in the early years of films. He was one of most vocal environmentalists. He visited many countries including Soviet Union, and wrote about the major contributions of socialism. But Tagore did not believe in communism.
Especially in today’s pervasive social and political climate of hate, fear, violence, illiteracy and fascism, Tagore can answer our many questions. He actively preached against ultranationalism, religious bigotry, hate and violence, and conservative orthodoxy. Some of his major novels and plays highlight the above.
Rabindranath Tagore was a product of the now-forgotten “Bengal Renaissance” — a major historical phenomenon that took shape under the leadership of social reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833), brilliant young teacher Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (1809-1831), and Tagore’s father Maharshi Debendra Nath Tagore (1817-1905). This school gave rise to a new generation of Bengalis and Indians who challenged orthodox, ultraconservative Hinduism and Islam, and even created a religio-cultural sect called Brahmoism.
(A new, original series of articles — exclusively for Humanity College)
Part 1 ______________________________________
Hope you join us on this discussion. You can write in any language. _______________________________
Rabindranath Tagore (or, for a non-Indian audience, let’s make it simpler: Rabindra Nath Tagore) was born in the city of Calcutta (now called Kolkata) in 1861, and died in the same city in 1941.
A few years ago, many of us celebrated his 150th birthday. So, he is old. Very, very old.
Yet, he is new, modern, and contemporary. He is unbelievably relevant even today, in 2019. That is his brilliance. That is his genius.
I am not a big scholar, and do not know a lot of such names from various corners of the world — who can be put on the list of such rare personalities. With my limited knowledge and understanding, I can mention Charlie Chaplin, Picasso, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Victor Hugo, Tolstoy, Sartre, Bertrand Russell, or Mark Twain — who would perhaps feature such a list of genius literary, philosophical and artistic creators whose work is equally alive and pertinent in this millennium.
But I don’t know — can we name only one person who would be called a genius literary figure, as well as a genius philosopher, and a genius social reformer?
Honestly, other than Chaplin, I have not studied the personalities I’ve mentioned above. And I am sure I have missed some names that I should have mentioned. But I have studied Tagore somewhat extensively. With my limited ability, I have translated some of his poetry and songs, spoke and wrote about him at various media and forums (including Humanity College blog), and even dared to record some of his songs on a CD.
My family and I grew up in Kolkata, Bengal and India in an artistic and intellectual environment that was greatly influenced by Tagore and his followers. I know for the fact that millions of people both in India and Bangladesh have grown up in that cultural tradition.
In case you are not aware of it, national anthems of both India and Bangladesh are Tagore’s songs. But this is only a tiny measure of his influence on us.
I just got some bad news from Calcutta. Noted filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh suddenly died this morning. He was 49.
In some ways, Ghosh reminded us of Fassbinder. In their separate social contexts and possibilities, they both challenged the “normal” society and the larger limitations of humanity. Both had a “libertine” lifestyle. Both probably died of strange, out-of-the-ordinary reasons — prematurely.
Both Fassbinder and Ghosh were exceptionally talented and extremely hard-working. Both cut a new genre of powerful, artistic movies.
Art critic, film professor Dilip Basu at University of California at Santa Cruz wrote me: “He was an idealist/realist, and an iconoclast.”
Prof. Basu is right. Ghosh carried forward the bright torch of Bengali liberal intelligentsia, a torch passed on by the likes of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha and more recently, Buddhadev Dasgupta, Aparna Sen and Gautam Ghose. All these noted movie makers, Ray and Ghatak being the two globally-famous names, showed us how progressive thoughts and anti-status-quo intellectualism and politics can thrive — even in an extremely conservative and patriarchal society. Yes, they can survive an onslaught of MTV, Beyoncé, Spielberg, Titanic and Jolie.
The Bengali poets, artists, musicians and intellectuals have created an indelible path of free and futuristic thinking. Indian filmmakers and playwrights such as Ray, Ghatak and Ghosh as well as Badal Sarkar, Shyam Benegal, Girish Kasaravalli, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, M. S. Sathyu and Ketan Mehta vigorously put up a strong resistance against the quicksand kitsch of Bollywood. Millions of Indians and Bengalis are proud they have refused to be a part of the Bollywood imbecility. They drew inspiration from the vibrant, alternative, pro-real-life, anti-fantasy genre. They needed the inspiration now more urgently than ever before.
Ghosh’s sudden, untimely departure is thus truly difficult to grasp today.
Professor Basu wrote me: “A Bollywood friend told me once, ‘If you are looking for real innovation, you will not find it here as much as in Kolkata [Calcutta]. Where is a Rituparna Ghosh in Mumbai?'” For those who do not know, Bollywood movies are all made in Mumbai (previously Bombay — thus the name Bollywood: Bombay-Hollywood).
There was never a Satyajit Ray or Ritwik Ghatak in Mumbai Bollywood. There was never a Rituparno Ghosh or Aparna Sen in Bollywood Mumbai either. Especially if you think about the exquisite art Rituparno Ghosh held in his frames.
Especially, Ghosh was indeed an iconoclast. For India’s extreme, and often violent male chauvinistic society, his coming out as a gay/transgender was itself a revolutionary act. Some say, his sexual orientation and fiercely individualistic lifestyle made him a lonely man.
A Calcutta critic Yajnaseni Chakraborty wrote today: “…the jibes at the way he dressed and talked, the personal attacks on his films and those he acted in, the insensitivity of a society he was trying to change and educate, the seeming disloyalty of those he considered friends, and his inability to really, truly, trust anybody. Beneath his nonchalant facade, the hurt and the loneliness dug deep.”
I was not so much for his almost exhibitionist, somewhat bizarre lifestyle. In fact, as a movie enthusiast, I was not even one of his biggest fans. I never liked the way he filmed Tagore’s Chokher Bali (Eyesore) and cast Bollywood queen Aishwarya Rai as the lead, feminist character (Bollywood is polar opposite to women’s equality, in case you didn’t notice; and the Bachchan-Rai family has been one of the lead torchbearers of this anti-feminism street swear). I strongly disliked the way Ghosh distorted Tarashankar Banerjee’s novel Antar Mahal (Heart Quarters). I always thought Rituparno, in a zeal to break down any social norms, customs and traditions, took it too far too quickly, and did not do justice either to the original authors or to the core messages they wanted to pass on to us. His cinematography took over his body of work, not only from a film-language point of view, but also from a social message point of view. His much-pronounced individualism thus unfortunately alienated me from some of his otherwise memorable creations.
Indian Rituparno Ghosh, at the end, perhaps gave in to Western Ayn Rand’ism. Or, perhaps, to Fassbinder’ism.
But I still want to remember him as one of our greatest artists and filmmakers; Ghosh brought the Bengali-Indian audience back to Bengali-Indian cinema from kitschy-glitzy-variety Bollywood. I want to remember his movie Dahan (Crossfire), where Ghosh took on the rampant street violence on women in India as well as the cowardice of Bengali middle class failing to prevent it. He took it head-on. I want to remember how he used our beloved Tagore singer Suchitra Mitra as a major actress on the movie and brought the best out of her. I would want to remember Chokher Bali, not for the film interpretation as much, but for the celestial music Ghosh’s music director Debojyoti Mishra created for the movie. I would close my eyes and just listen to the music for its entire two hours — non-stop.
Again, I was not a major fan of Rituparno Ghosh the filmmaker. But even without blinking for once, I would rank him as one of the most important artists — a cultural icon — of our time, who defied kitsch-for-entertainment, and had opted for intelligence and humanism — the essence of Bengali-Indian identity.
Or, rather, the way I have always considered our Bengali-Indian identity. Or, for that matter, my present Bengali-Indian-American identity.
Rituparno Ghosh and his art are going to be dearly missed.
Today is the Bengali New Year’s Day — the first day of Baisakh, the first month in the Bengali calendar. Today is also the Punjabi New Year’s Day — Baisakhi.
In many other parts of India and Bangladesh, today is a very special day. On this day, small merchants and business owners — along with their employees — celebrate their trade with worshiping Lord Ganesha and Goddess Lakshmi, the two Hindu deities of wealth, success and prosperity.
Many parents decide to give the first formal education lesson to their children on this auspicious day. A Hindu or Muslim priest or an elderly in the family hand-holds the child and makes them write a vowel or a consonant with a piece of chalk or a pencil. Then, there is a sumptuous Bengali feast: the proverbial fish and sweets. Bengalis and Punjabis are both known for their food, fun and festivities. No fun festivity is full without food. Food. First! Food. Fast! 🙂
Today is also the day when at Vishva Bharati, Rabindranath Tagore’s university in the West Bengal village of Shantiniketan, they celebrate the birthday of the poet of all poets. It’s the tradition of the school to celebrate it today, even though Tagore’s real birthday is the 25th day of Baisakh, which normally falls on the 8th or 9th of May.
In Bangladesh also, many people follow Shantiniketan’s tradition and celebrate Tagore’s birthday on this day. In all, globally, at least a couple of hundred million people celebrate this day as their traditional New Year’s Day. Western media do not know or care to know. They never report it.
Regardless of the West’s ignorance, apathy and exclusion (I now call it Journalism of Exclusion OR Education of Exclusion), today is a very special day in our lives — lives of Hindu and Muslim and Christian and Sikh Indians and Bengalis across the world. It’s a happy day. It’s a day to forget about the ills of the past and move on to embrace the future.
I wish you all — my readers, friends and sympathizers all over the world. I wish you all a happy, prosperous and peaceful year ahead. May Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Ganesha bless you. May all your wishes and dreams come true.
The poet of all poets Tagore wrote:
“Jeerna ja kichhu jaha kichhu kheen Nabiner majhe hok ta bileen.”
“জীর্ণ যা কিছু যাহা কিছু ক্ষীণ
নবীনের মাঝে হোক তা বিলীন”
whatever is old ‘n doomed and whatever is low may they all vanish in the young and green’s glow.
I hope we can usher in a new era of knowledge, wisdom and insight. I hope we can learn from the mistakes of the past, and walk together on the shiny, glowing path of a prosperous, progressive future.
THE MASTER AS I SAW HIM. — “He believed that the one thing to be renounced was any idea of birth as the charter of leadership. He believed that the whole of India was about to be thrown into the melting pot, and that no man could say what new forms of power and greatness would be the result.” — Written by Vivekananda’s disciple Sister Nivedita (aka Margaret Noble).
For us who grew up knowing him, reading him, idolizing him — it’s a very special day.
For those of us who grew up in Calcutta, India, and that too, within half a mile of his residence, within quarter of a mile of the college he studied — it gives us goosebumps to imagine how this young monk who passed away at the age of thirty nine, turned Bengal and India upside down, by his rousing call to young India — to get rid of superstitions, castes, and all forms of social and religious dogmas.
Swami Vivekananda, a Ramakrishna-ordained Hindu saint who relinquished mortal pleasures to work to uplift the Hindu religion, used the religion to uplift the morality and soul of Indians. He dared to say: It’s better to play football than to study the Vedas. Indian revolutionaries who fought back against the British colonial tyranny idolized him, emulated him.
No wonder he was often fondly called the Socialist Saint.
Vivekananda’s disciple Sister Nivedita (aka Margaret Noble, an Irish woman) followed his footsteps, and worked among the poorest in Calcutta until her death at the age of forty four. She was also responsible for co-founding a major socialist movement in India — a “crime” for which Ramakrishna Mission (a nationwide, now international, organization her guru created) ostracized her.
India, unfortunately, did not follow the religion-based morality-upliftment lessons Vivekananda and Nivedita preached. Social patriarchs — including missions and monasteries — took their religion part and forgot about the upliftment part. Media selectively glorified some of their “innocuous” teaching and conveniently excluded the “controversial” ones. As a result, Vivekananda’s India is now one of the most corrupt, violent and immoral places on earth. The recent developments in the land of Tagore, Gandhi, Vivekananda and Ramakrishna are truly catastrophic, calamitous, ominous.
I want to say more about this great man whose life and teaching we can perhaps compare with those of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Both used spirituality to teach the downtrodden how to rise up and walk straight and tall. Both died at the age of thirty nine.
I’m including a famous poem Swami Vivekananda wrote and Sister Nivedita used in her writings on the guru. It may bring some special reflection on this dark and depressing time. At least, I hope it does.
Let us invoke the Holy Mother. Come, Mother, come!
It took me a long time to decide on the title. I thought about it and thought it over.
I read it once. I read it twice. I paused and read it again. Finally, I decided. This is it. This is the title.
No, I don’t want to make it sound corny. That’s not the purpose. I truly feel that it could be one last time I get to live on the 25th of Baisakh — Tagore’s birthday — which normally falls on the 8th of May. This year, it’s the poet’s one hundred fifty-first birth anniversary. This year, just like any other year, much fanfare is happening in West Bengal and Bangladesh, various Bengali neighborhoods of India, as well as cities across the world wherever there is a community of Bengali people — big or small.
There will be Tagore’s songs. There will be Tagore’s plays. There will be Tagore’s poetry. There will be Tagore’s dances. There will be talks about the poet-philosopher’s poetry and philosophy. More resourceful Bengali communities in places such as Calcutta (Kolkata) and Dhaka and London and Toronto will put out special literary publications to observe the special day. Some will try experimental music — using Tagore’s songs. Some will stage Tagore’s famous plays — Post Office, Land of Cards or Red Oleanders from a new, refreshing point of view. Some will perhaps have an exhibition of Tagore’s paintings.
I know here in New York, a group of Bengali musicians and artists is putting together an audio book of Tagore’s short stories — the Man from Kabul, Return of the Little Boy, the Postmaster — with help from young-generation, college-age Bengali-American boys and girls. Kudos to them.
I have no doubt there’s going to be countless other events, programs and performances all over the world to celebrate this occasion. Especially, Tagore’s 150th birthday was particularly celebratory; it is likely this year many places are perhaps completing their year-long observance with special wrap-up celebrations.
I could not be a part of any of the numerous gatherings — either in America or Bengal. I am not a part of any of the numerous Bengali clubs, societies and organizations — either in America or Bengal. I do not live in India anymore. I live in a Brooklyn neighborhood where there is a small smattering of immigrants from West Bengal; I know once they had an association that held Durga Puja and therefore, perhaps, Tagore Jubilee as well. But I know the group slowly dwindled, some old inhabitants left this unsung corner of New York City and some others went back to India. In any case, we never hear from them.
There is a large Bangladeshi community within walking distance of where we live in Brooklyn. In fact, working as an immigrant rights activist especially among the South Asians, once I had made an estimate that only this community counted about 30,000 people. It is a large community that has associations from many known and unknown districts of Bangladesh; they frequently host their picnics, street fairs and Eid dinners. But I am not sure if they ever hosted any Tagore birthday celebration. I learned from various friends that most of them came from conservative-Muslim areas in Bangladesh where “Hindu-liberal” Rabindranath Tagore was not such a household name. That is not to say all conservative Muslims are anti-Tagore or anti-Hindu.
In some other West Bengali and Bangladeshi communities in New York and New Jersey, there will be programs and performances. But these days, after working with and for especially the Bangladeshi community, it has dawned to me that inviting someone like me who is not from political Bangladesh is not a priority. After living in New York City for so many years, my family and I have accepted the fact that in spite of our desire to belong with a larger, undivided Bengali diaspora, we are not, in any real sense, part of either a “mainstream immigrant” Bangladesh or West Bengal. (Apologies for using an oxymoron.)
Chances are, we will not know if there were Tagore celebrations in New York or New Jersey where my long, post-9/11 activist experience once had an estimate of some two hundred thousand Bengalis — over eighty percent of whom were from Bangladesh. Practically all the weekend Bengali-language parochial schools and practically all of the two dozens of weekly Bengali-language newspapers and magazines operating and publishing out of New York are Bangladeshi.
For a long time, my family and I were actively involved with one of the weekend schools where I taught advanced-level Bengali to just-graduated students, and my family members participated in their cultural programs. For a number of years, especially after 9/11, as an important part of my immigrant rights activism, I wrote columns in a number of Bengali weekly newspapers and magazines — Thikana, Ekhon Samoy, Bangalee, Sangbad, Porshee.
With the schools and publications alike, I always did what I always do: educate the community about the difference between culture and kitsch, and speak and write about human rights and justice. When I worked professionally for two immigrant advocacy organizations — one in Jackson Heights, New York City and the other in New Jersey, I also worked with Bangladeshi immigrant families who bore the brunt of a terribly unjust and primitive immigration system here in the U.S. Among other activities, I worked with a few men and women who were in prison for a long time for minor immigration violations; I also worked with some others who were spared from prison detention or deportation because of our work.
I have many friends and acquaintances. I built precious connections with journalists, activists, writers, singers, playwrights and music teachers. I always felt proud to have thought I was a member of the larger immigrant Bengal and immigrant South Asia.
Yet, there is a strange disjunct — an insurmountable wall — between me and my family and the societies both in the Bangladeshi and West Bengali community. West Bengali immigrants do not know us well: we live in a not-affluent area in Brooklyn mostly inhabited by African-Americans, Jewish people, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis. Bangladeshi immigrants do not think we are one of them because we came from India — a country they do not know anymore. The conservative-Muslim Bangladeshis (the variety I mentioned above) do not like or understand a liberal-progressive, one-nation Bengal that Tagore and his predecessors from Bengal Renaissance envisioned. The young-generation, liberal-educated Bangladeshis do not know the common history and heritage of two Bengals shared over one thousand years before the British cut the land of Bengal in halves, erecting insurmountable, blood-soaked borders.
Yet, a very large section of Bangladeshi Bengalis (it’s a very strange term, in my opinion) — most are Muslims — are moderate in their religious and social views, avid music, theater and literature lovers, and are the biggest consumers of music and movies from Calcutta and West Bengal — even today. Strangely, however, some of them have a general apathy, indifference, ignorance and often anathema about political West Bengal and India. When they find out I am from India and not from Dhaka, Sylhet or Chittagong, they talk to me differently. Again, I’m not generalizing. How can I, when I have so many special friends from Dhaka, Sylhet or Chittagong?
There are quite a few other Bengali immigrants both from Bangladesh and West Bengal — highly educated, scholarly and erudite — who are satisfied with the small society they have and therefore do not feel any particular urge to invite outsiders like us. New Jersey or Long Island — where most of these more affluent, educated West Bengalis live — is like a group of islands only connected by long-distance, car-driven highways, creating more distances between people. We do not have the time or desire to go out of New York City to see either a Durga Puja or a Tagore performance, and return more depressed that we never felt truly welcome.
All of the above — the entire, personal, true story I told here — is a slow but sure recipé for death. If I was not a high-energy, activist, never-say-die-type personality who would go out of his way to find new friends, colleagues and communities and stay involved with newer and ever-challenging, creative activities — immigrant movement or labor education or Brooklyn For Peace or Durga Puja or Bengali New Year celebration (or even the Tagore-150 we organized in Manhattan last year with help from New Yorker) — death would have come much faster. In my twenty-five-plus years of living in the U.S., I have seen a number of people — a few of them being highly talented but decidedly loners — falling victims of this extreme alienation followed by depression, dark diseases and death. I always, always carry that fear deep inside that one day, I’m going to be a victim of a similar alienation and die untimely.
Every year, therefore, at this time when the rest of the world is celebrating the life and work of this incredible genius named Rabindranath Tagore, the question comes to my mind: am I going to live one more year to see the next Tagore birthday celebration? Which song would be the last Tagore song I hear before I die? Which Tagore poem would be the last one I read? Which short story would I translate the last before I perish — and perish prematurely?
I hope I didn’t make you too sad or perturbed and I certainly hope I didn’t make it sound too corny, as if I was trying to draw your sympathy — sympathy for a forlorn soul.
If you feel that way, I am sorry. I do not have anything to offer you to compensate for it — other than the two dozens of Tagore songs I recorded. I also have a few translations of these songs as well as translations of a few Tagore short stories.
I also have a YouTube of one of my talks on culture and Tagore — a talk I gave recently at an Indian university. And if I may say it, I have recently managed to compile a whole host of my essays on Tagore in relation to cultural erosion and globalized kitsch. I’m actually in the middle of writing a book on the above.
I hope you receive these gifts I leave for you, and forgive me for my personal, not-so-cheerful rambling.
Celebrate Tagore. He showed us an educated, modern, progressive way to live. He was not a perfect man. In fact, he had many flaws. I do not consider him a God. I consider him a very important, humanist philosopher-poet teacher who taught us human spirituality, universality and peace.
Tagore taught us the message of emancipation: in Bengali, the word is Mukti. It means inner freedom: liberation of the soul. Nandini showed us the way in Red Oleanders.
If this is the last Tagore birthday before my death, I want to remember him that way.
Today I’m writing to celebrate my birthday. But today is not my birthday. It’s tomorrow.
I’m writing today because tomorrow I won’t have any free time. Birthdays here in the U.S. do not wait for a free day (or a day when you can make yourself free), and just like some other days I love to celebrate — such as Durga Puja or Tagore Jubilee — they often fall on a busy day in the middle of the week, and I cannot celebrate them the way I want to.
That’s not what I call a free country. (But that’s a different story.)
I also want to celebrate those days I love to celebrate with a lot of people and family and friends, and that don’t ever happen either.
(But that’s a different story too.)
I really love to celebrate my birthday. I’ve always loved to do it. I’ve done it in our small, limited-means way both in Calcutta, Kolkata — where I spent the first half of my life when Ma cooked some of the best Indian-Bengali dishes you could ever get anywhere in the world (ask any of my old friends); and then here in the U.S. — where I spent the second half and where my wife cooked some of the best Indian and Bengali dishes you can ever get anywhere in the world. Believe me: I’m not making it up.
So, great food is not a priority no more on my wish list. I’ve been blessed with great food — homemade and heartfelt — all my life. I seek something else. My mind asks for something more. It’s a spiritual yearning.
Perhaps, my very special birthday wish this year is: would you be mine? (Now, I know that’s cheesy 🙂
This is a very special note at this very special time. I want to smile. I want to chime.
Would you remember today to smile and chime? Mr. Bright? Ms. Bright? (That’s also perhaps again not so cheesy, right? 🙂
I need to see a lot of smile. I need to hear a lot of laughs. I want to hear a lot of songs. Happiness has been in seriously short supply. Seriously. Recently, it’s reached a critically low level.
My family and friends — especially those who I know deeply care for me — often tell me these days that I have changed slowly but surely from a sprity, forthrighty, frothy, fizzy, frolicky, fun person always with a big smile and grin and loud laugh and sense of humor to a rather sad, glum and grumpy old man. Now, that’s major bad news. I want to change it.
This is a major tipping point.
So, on this very special day (like, starting from tomorrow), I want to remember the good things that happened to my life and be happy thinking about how lucky I am that those good things indeed, actually happened to me — things that do not happen to most people I know (and I know a heck of a lot of people — like, thousands, literally). I’ve sort of decided to come to a resolution that I shall, in my mind, focus on those positives and ignore, delete and de-focus the negatives.
Now, I know it’s easier said than done.
I also know it sounds like one of those Deepak Chopra books — comics that people actually buy and read and make-believe they are happy now. But Deepak Chopra or not, I know I ain’t got no more choice. Or, it’s gonna be fast and painful death for me. I don’t want to die fast and painful. More importantly, I don’t want to die and be remembered a sad and glum and grumpy man. Oh, no no no, man! Because, I am not a sad and glum and grumpy man. I never was. I never will be.
I’ve actually thought about it long and hard: what is it that pulls me down and makes me sad and angry?
I could perhaps post a long laundry list of those things in layman’s terms — events, experiences and feelings all of which happen to be true and raw and depressing and dirty — that could pull any human being with a heart and brain down. Like, deaths of loved ones — and way too many of them too untimely. Like, leaving India practically for good — out of compulsion. Like, being born too poor and seeing too much poverty and starvation too up close. Like, going through a hell of a lot of physical and mental injury and insult. Like, extreme verbal and physical abuse…like, sexual abuse. Like, hiding them all…way too many of them…and pretending they didn’t happen.
Then, there is more. Like, being forced to go through a social, educational, economic and political system that absolutely, totally, unquestionably cheated you. Like, not being able to use your delightful, lovable, warm personality and sprite, blotting-paper-like desire to learn and respect for your teachers, God-given talents, knowledge, experience, analysis and proven leadership to put to use to change the society and system in a significant way…and at the same time helplessly witnessing one of the darkest and dumbest and most exploitative and violent chapters in human history unfolding in your own life…one event at a time…like a bad, obnoxious movie…acted, directed, produced and promoted by some of the most corrupt and inefficient-yet-arrogant crooks in human history. Compared to them, yes, Caligula or Nero or Kissinger or Cheney is like child’s play.
I’ve come to a major resolution. I can never be president of the United States. Heck, I know I can never even be the chief minister of West Bengal. Only people with tons of money, a Bush-like one-of-a-kind predecessor, a major-media-sponsored genocide or a despondent-hopeless-pathetic regime and equally hopeless electorate could make you a president of the U.S. or a chief minister of West Bengal. I’ve therefore given up on those secretest desires.
That’s sarcasm, as you can see.
But truly and cross-my-heartly, I’ve resigned to believe a few other not-so-idiosyncratic thoughts. Like, the two Golden Bengals will never be reunited and Bengalis will forever be blasted and looked-down-upon by the West and East alike as a failed race (and nobody will read the history book and know either the Pala Dynasty, Sri Chaitanya’s Bhakti movement, Raja Ram Mohan Ray, Derozio, Vidyasagar, Lalan, Swami Vivekananda, Sister Nivedita, Tagore…and of course, on the flip side of history, the British barbarism). Nobody would ever know how prosperous Bengal was where after the Battle of Plassey, Lord Clive and his women looted so much gold and jewelry that they went absolutely wild berserk. (Read about Clive’s atrocities here.)
I’ve resigned to believe that at the London Olympics of summer, 2012, there will be no demand from the millions of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants-turned-British citizens for an official apology and reparation for the British Raj’s two centuries of occupation, brutality, mass-killing and mass-looting. I’ve resigned to believe that in India, the same illiterate and feudal-chauvinists who were responsible for a bloody partition, riots, refugees and famines will keep in power for many years to come. I have resigned to believe that very few people even in the so-called enlightened West would ever care to know exactly how many hundreds of thousands of Bengali women were raped and killed by the Kissinger-backed Pakistani army in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.
I have resigned to believe that people who I thought would care would not care. I have a number of examples of that disillusionment. Obama has been the latest example on that list.
I have resigned to believe that Tagore’s Nobel Prize, stolen from his own Vishva Bharati University’s national museum, would never be found. I know the British monarchy would never return Koh-I-Noor and numerous other treasures they looted from India. I now know the British government would never tell us how Subhas Bose — whom Gandhi sabotaged — perished in exile. (Am I digressing too much?)
Okay then. I’ve come to realize that nobody in the elite academia in the “free-thinking” West — especially those in the seat of power — would ever care to learn or promote philosophers and intellectuals outside of what Harvard, Columbia or University of Chicago asks of them to freely think. They would not want to know Tagore. They would not know Bengal Renaissance. They would refuse to know or teach anything majorly un-Euro-American.
I know for the fact that none of the above would ever read my blog.
So, as you can see, I have my reasons to slowly but surely transform from sprity, fun, frolicky to sad and glum and grumpy. But at this rather critical juncture of my life, I refuse to be a victim of their doing and die and be remembered a sad, glum and grumpy, bitter man. I shall not give in to their grand plan: destroy the thinking mind, dumb-down the non-thinking others, keep the trouble makers on the edge, and kill all the smiles.
No, I won’t die their prescribed death.
I want to celebrate this birthday. I want to celebrate it with a smile. I shall live on the many positives that happened to me.
I hope you do too.
Smile with me.
Let’s celebrate life. Let’s celebrate it together.
That is my very special birthday wish today…and tomorrow.
Foreword: I am renewing my blog after quite a while. It is quite surprising — and pleasantly so — that OneFinalBlog is getting a substantial size of hits every single day even though I have not been posting new stuff. Maybe, maybe, my readers, friends and sympathizers keep finding my articles worth exploring. So, a BIG thank you. Please send your comments.
The following article is the first part of a long chapter — one of more than a dozen chapters — I just wrote for my new book project on Rabindranath Tagore. It’s about my feelings about the great poet and musician, and that too, sitting here in the U.S. for over twenty-five years. These feelings are real, they are precious, and they are raw too. I invite you to let me know what your feelings are — after you read it.
P.S. — I’m also inviting you to listen to the Tagore songs I just recorded in December-January when I was in India. You can get a copy of my double-CD album Aro Ektu Bosho at major music stores in Calcutta, or if you’re in the U.S., from me. Thank you. (You can click on the link Aro Ektu Bosho to hear a few of my recorded songs.)
It was three in the morning. Long Island, New York.
Last night, music came upon me But you were not there to see
There was a big rainstorm. Wind was blowing like crazy. The American flag atop the high pole was swinging in fierce motion. The normally calm ocean was roaring restlessly.
I came to teach my usual, weekend labor workshop and stayed over at this simple retreat – the way I do it every weekend. This year, I’m teaching my American students global economics. It was three in the dark, eerie morning. I woke up dreaming about a song – a Bengali song. It was a Tagore song.
Make me anew, with new adorns on me Adore me, adorn me, adore me too
It was a song from the famous dance drama Chitrangada – the Tagore-adopted Mahabharata tale of the warrior Manipur princess and her mind-body transformation. The couple of lines kept coming back…over and over again…as if I was sitting in a crowd of audience where the drama was happening…as if I was taking part in the drama…singing…in front of me beautiful, young Bengali women were dancing away on the stage…with their silvery ankle-bells jingling… make me anew…with new adorns on me…as if I was hearing in my dreams the celestial voice of Suchitra Mitra the great Tagore exponent – her magical, pure, clear, fountain-like voice.
And it blew me away and woke me up.
I sat there on my bed for the next few minutes … as if I was possessed. And I loved it.
Why would it happen this way? Why would such emotions rock me back and forth, every now and then? Why would they drift me off reality? Who would care to know about these emotions, these flooding-over dreams? Reality sank in…or did it?
The next morning, just before class, when my American students stood up to say the pledge of allegiance, “One nation under God,” etc., I stood up too. But in my mind the song was still swirling around…make me anew, with new adorns on me…adore me…adorn me – I almost laughed. So glad they didn’t get to see what was going on in my mind! It’s nothing new.
These emotions taking over my mind, living here in America, are nothing new. I sang many such songs while driving on the high-speed highway – with my fingers tapping away the rhythms right on the steering wheel. My car was speeding at sixty, seventy, even eighty miles per hour – one hundred twenty…thirty…forty kilometers – with absolutely no scope for mistakes, when it’s a question of life and death – the emotions and the songs came over and seized me. My eyes were spot on reality; yet my mind was drifting away in the paradise of Tagore – in his words and his tunes. Unseen tears kept flowing in an unexpressed pain; yet there was so much happiness, so much bliss – flowers bloomed, flutes blew, and harps harped.
Throughout this entire exile from India, Rabindranath Tagore’s songs, Jibanananda Das’ poetry, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s stories and Satyajit Ray’s movies always gave us refuge – as if a big and strong, full-foliage banyan tree in the middle of a huge, barren, waterless field. They filled our hearts, they fulfilled our lives, and they gave us shelter. They kept our souls alive. And Tagore has always been the primary shelter among all the shelters.
Not just in this quarter-century immigrant life; he has been like it ever since I was a child playing rubber ball on the dusty streets of Kolkata. I still remember a little about Tagore’s centenary celebrations in India. I was barely a child. I vaguely remember my kindergarten school Shishu Niketan – perhaps – staged Tagore’s the Land of Cards at Subhas Bose-founded Mahajati Sadan auditorium. I was there – a dhoti and kurta-clad child – holding onto my parents. Thrills came upon me, just the way a child gets thrills over his entire body – to know the unknown, to feel a little bit of love in his little heart. He gets the first sense of romance. He starts believing – in something good, great, divine. He starts to understand the beautiful.
Could it really be that “without me, your love would be meaningless?” Am I really this precious?
But, nobody had told me about it before! Who knows, maybe, it’s true! I feel amazed – what if it is really true?
There would be a small Tagore birthday celebration on the rooftop of a spiral-alley, dank-dingy Kolkata house. A cluster of tuberoses in an old, discolored brass urn, a bunch of incense sticks, and on a bedsheet-covered chair stood a garlanded, framed painting of a pensive Tagore in his familiar, long robe. We had dances, we had poetry, and we had his songs. In a totally unknown, falling-apart neighborhood of North Kolkata – a place that nobody wants to know about – small children coming from small, poverty-stricken families sang Tagore’s finest songs; they performed parts of his internationally-known dance dramas with the highest possible dexterity – Chitrangada, Land of Cards, or Game of Illusions.
There was a group of some twenty-five or thirty audience members sitting on palm-leaf mattresses laid down on the rooftop. They were all parents, siblings, cousins and friends of the performers. A local college principal took the coveted position of the event’s ceremonial president. A fatherless, teenager boy from an extremely impoverished family put icing on the cake by reciting Tagore’s celebrated, long poem Bring Me Back Now – straight from memory. What an upright way to chant, what a firm, clear pronunciation! He didn’t have enough to eat – that’s how poor they were. His poor mother literally begged from door to door for some rice to feed her young son; she managed to admit him to a middle school where the college principal agreed to pay his monthly school fees.
Where did this destitute boy get this strength and courage to recite Tagore’s major verse of strength and courage? Who would ever remember such talents, who would ever search for such hidden treasures? Amazing that this poor, underfed boy from a penniless family got to know Tagore; he was able to take a fearless dip in the unending ocean of Tagore’s words.
The sun and the moon and the celestial stars All my life they sent me their light Rays of your blessings, and beautifully bright Oh Lord! Oh Lord!
All my life your words sent me bright rays
Your songs gave me reasons to live.
So, my Tagore recording began, the esraj and flute and sitar and piano churned out the great poet’s music from paradise, and I couldn’t hold back my tears in front of some unknown people sitting in the studio.
Embarrassing! Geez! I said. Then I thought, heck, so what, I’m not doing anything wrong! In fact, I’m doing it just right. This is exactly how it should be. Anything else would be disrespectful and phony.
Yeah. But that was later. Early in the morning, when it was quite unusually cold and foggy, I arrived right on time at the doorstep of the North Kolkata studio — only to find out that the local cable company already had dug a long trench off the concrete alley to repair some faulty fixtures underground; they said it would take at least a week to finish the work and cover up the trenches. Dirt and debris piled up on the two sides of the trench, and you’d have to walk like a rope walker over and along the hill, balancing yourself every step of the way to reach your destination.
Which meant that the musicians and their instruments would have to walk the entire length of the alley — about a quarter mile off the main road — to enter the studio; given some of these musicians and their instruments are very expensive and famous (and heavy too), they would not like it a lot. Great! I’m definitely in Kolkata now, it seemed.
My friend, brother and director of the entire recording project Alak Roychoudhury took me inside Jupiter Studio — a few ground-floor rooms remodeled and insulated out of an old-fashioned, half-dilapidated house on Beniatola Street — and to our surprise, we found out that the lead composer of my music accompaniment was already waiting, along with his chief hands. Astonishing! (And they always complained that Kolkata was sloppy and Bengalis didn’t know professionalism!)
Rahul Chatterjee — the young lead composer and an eminent sitar player — and I had a phone conversation a couple of nights before on some of the ideas I had for my Tagore singing. I found his thoughts on arranging Tagore music to be overlapping with mine. I was brimming with confidence; I was settled down with reassurance.
In a few minutes, defying Kolkata’s infamous lack of punctuality, all the musicians showed up right on time: the keyboard, tabla, percussion, sarod, and the flutist who was probably a teeanger (at least he looked like one — the second day, another noted flutist took his place). Alak whispered to me that the kid was now one of the top three flutists even in this culturally light-years-ahead city where you could find at least one famous musician almost on every other block. The tabla and percussion players, they said, were regular accompaniments to celebrity singers like Swagata Lakshmi Dasgupta and Ajoy Chakraborty. The keyboard player frequently worked on major TV shows.
Now, I was feeling a little bit…like…you know…nervous.
And then, the bespectacled, young, modest, I-mean-business-looking owner of the studio and digital sound-recordist-cum-editor Mintoo Babu took his seat at the console, and after a small message of greetings to me, Alak and the group, turned on his complex equipment.
Click…tick…tock…Click…tick…tock…the 3×3-Dadra…at a 148-clocked-speed…the electronic click to keep the perfection rhythm set off, the humble esraj player put his head down, and pulled his wow-bow across the strings; then, Rahul Chatterjee immediately assumed his commanding position on the floor of the studio, and Alak flipped the pages of his Swara-Bitaan (Tagore’s own musical scores) because he would initially dub the songs along with the tracking of the arranged accompaniment. It was decided that I’d rest my voice for the actual dubbing when the tracking would be all done. (That was in itself celebrity status for me).
It was decided that the first song would be Tagore’s “Amar je gaan tomar parash pabe…” (the song of mine that touches you). Alak, Rahul and I pre-selected twenty Tagore songs, out of which four would be ad lib. The rest were more structured based on various talas (beats): three-three-beat Dadra, four-four-beat Kerwa, three-four-beat Tewra, or six-six-beat Sashthi. You could of course exercise a small latitude of poetic freedom even in his more structured songs (and eek out a few unscored voice modulations), according to liberal exponents like the famous maestro Debabrata Biswas…or…me; however, there is major controversy and debate on that. Ask anyone in this Tagore-loving city.
So, here it is one more time. Now, my Tagore recording really began, the esraj and flute and sitar and piano churned out the great poet’s music from paradise, and I couldn’t hold back my tears in front of some unknown people sitting in the studio.
I have heard and sung these songs many times…practically since my childhood. But sitting here in this studio, with these fantastic musicians going out of their way to arrange and play the accompaniment for …ME (!)… so that I could sing my best possible rendition of Tagore music…and that it would be a lifetime privilege for someone like me who lives twelve thousand miles away from this city of art, music, culture, society and friends…who would die for a reason to die for art, music, culture, society and friends…but there’s no reason to do it over there…at least not for Tagore or Bangla language…and therefore, now it’s a pressure-cooker emotion ready to “explode” any time…
So, it “exploded.” But it was restrained, subdued, subtle. Because we had already been simmered, cooked and softened in Tagore. We could not be wild, extravagant and loud. We were not Bollywood or Hollywood. We were civilized and progressive and humane. We refuse kitsch. We embrace the soul.
Tears flew freely. I took a dip in that sacred river of emotion.
And then, I was ready to interpret and express the celestial music and message of Tagore…musically…with love…with great care…with respect…and passion.
Here’s my first song…I hope it touches you…
Click…tick…tock…Click…tick…tock…there begins a deep, voluminous, heart-wrenching orchestra with the deep tabla and soft percussion…the vibrant vibe off the keyboard…the essential chord off the esraj…rising up and above from the studio floor…filling up the air…completely overwhelming mysenses…
Oh God…how can I thank you for this moment!
(Now in Kolkata — the city of Tagore, Vivekananda, Sister Nivedita, Ram Mohan Ray, Derozio and Satyajit Ray)
This is about the often-strange state of my mind, I presume. But it’s about music. It’s about my daily meditation, my Bhakti Yoga, my trance.
I report it to you.
Judge it, if you please. Adore it, if you can. Chastise it, if you must. But this is me. This is what it is: another shameless confession. I told you my blog would be about one hundred percent, heartfelt, honest feelings. I can’t hide it anymore.
I won’t hide it anymore.
Every morning, a different song comes to my mind. Often, I dream about it. Last week, I dreamed of a Tagore song based on a morning raga and a slow, seven-beat rhythm.
nutan pran dao sakha…
(this new beautiful morning
give me a new life
Today, I dreamed of a Nazrul Islam song.
Mor ghumoghore ele manohar
shiyore bashi chupi chupi
(you came to me in my dreams
you sat by my head, silently,
and kissed my eyes…)
The songs appear in strange ways. As if I’m singing a few lines, somewhere – a friendly gathering here in America where suddenly two of my pretty Calcutta cousins show up with a big smile, cousins I haven’t seen in twenty years. Or, as if I’m performing at one of the Bengali New Year or Tagore birthday celebrations I organized in Southern Illinois or upstate New York. Or, a new-generation Calcutta poet and I are having a pleasant conversation talking about the new trend of cerebral Indian music; we both happily decided that Bollywood was pure trash. Or else, maybe it’s an unknown, uncanny, turbulent river where I’m in sole charge of the oars, and I’m nervous, but still singing, a little incoherently.
Then I wake up.
The song stays with me for the rest of the day, and I sing it in my mind, silently, as if I don’t want to let the others know about my new secret today. Not even to the woman who’s sleeping next to me, and waking up together with me. Sometimes she knows because I’m singing it just a little louder, either in the shower or in the kitchen downstairs, making tea. Sometimes a new song – similar to the original one, perhaps based on the same raga, carrying a similar mood – hijacks the tune and takes me over, and I sing the new song from that point on, only to be taken over by a third song, and then perhaps by a fourth. Often, I forget the original one that I began my day with: I can’t seem to remember it at all, however hard I try. In fact, the more I try, the more it slips away. And I know I don’t like the new song I’m singing now because I want to get back to the first one – the one that came in my early morning dream.
As if I’m trying hard to remember the face of my very first crush: way back when, on the early-Spring balconies of North Calcutta.
Then I stop singing altogether, and trivial, mundane things take my day over. Like, I ride the bus and there’s an argument between the cranky driver and an attitude passenger. Or, it’s a Christian preacher screaming on the crowded subway calling everybody a doomed sinner (and nobody questions). A poor, homeless man is sleeping covered head to toe on the crowded, morning train taking up an entire row of seats. Two old women are talking to each other in their own language at a pollution-level decibel. A Hispanic singer plays nylon-string guitar on the platform. Or, a line of cheerful kids goes on a field trip with their teacher, chortling. I forget my song.
Then, at night, in the quiet comfort of my bed, while reading a favorite book I’d read thousands of times – maybe one of those Satyajit Ray, Saradindu Banerjee or Parashuram stories – it suddenly crawls back, as if it was waiting all day to return to me – the real me.
It says, “Hi, I’m back, see?” It says, “Now sing me secretly again, deep inside your heart, before you fall asleep.” It says, “Close your eyes now, and think about me. I’m all yours.”
And I very gently caress it, make love to it, and sleep with it.
I don’t know how it all began. But I remember I sang since I was very little, as far back my memory can go – maybe when I was only three or four. At the Montessori school Shishu Niketan, we stood up in a line in the semi-dark assembly hall and our music teacher Sister Ela would play on her small, ancient, decrepit piano and lead us on:
amar hiyar majhe lukiye chhile
dekhte tomay pai ni ami
dekhte tomay pai ni
bahir paane chokh melechhi
ami tomar kachhe jai ni…
(You were hidden in my heart
I couldn’t but see you
I couldn’t but see you
I looked out to the outside world
Yet I didn’t return to find you)
Or, she’d sing something more cheerful:
amra sabai raja
amader ei rajar rajatwe
noile moder rajar saney
milbo ki sattwe
We’re all royals
in this kingdom of our King
or else, how can we
how can we greet
with no treasures
Did we understand the meaning of the songs? Hardly; but it didn’t matter. It was fun. Deep-voiced yet mellifluous Sister Ela would sing Tagore tuned in simple talas: the three-beat Dadra, four-beat Tritala, or three-two-three-two-beat Jhampaka. She’d sing three or four songs, taking fifteen minutes or so, and we the little crickets would happily chirp in, slowly settling down. Morning songs, and then fun games, Bengali and English rhymes and reading. Then, after lunch from our small tiffin boxes we brought in from home, it’s time for an afternoon nap in the dark and quiet nap room wrapping in our homespun quilts, supervised by junior teachers. At three thirty, it’s time to run. Ma would be waiting outside the school gate along with the other mothers and sisters, to pick up their precious little ones. The Nepali gatekeeper Bahadur would carefully let us out, one cricket at a time.
Ma and father both could sing. Father mostly sang patriotic songs, and he sang rather well. I’ve seen our relatives, especially his cousins, requesting him to perform at small family gatherings. Ma would sing quietly, when nobody else is home, and she’d sing in a strangely soft and artificial contralto, as if she’s stifled to sing normally. She would not sing in front of anybody else; I was her exclusive audience. Sometimes I made fun of the way Ma sang and she’d pretend to be upset. In a few seconds, though, she would laugh it away. She couldn’t be upset with me. She wouldn’t be unhappy with me.
It was music. I has always been music.
[I shall return and write more. I hope you return too. Thank you, my friends.]