Indian sitar legend Ravi Shankar once argued that had Rabindranath Tagore been born in the West, he would be as revered as Shakespeare and Goethe.
For the quintessential Bengali raised on a staple diet of Shishu, Shohoj Path and Rabindra sangeet (Tagore songs), that would be still be an understatement.
It is hard to think of any literary figure who commands such reverence and adulation among the 250 million Bengali-speakers as Tagore – think the collective fan following of Eminem and Justin Bieber and that’s somewhere close to Tagore!
Every Pochishe Boishakh (birth anniversary) turns into a glorious celebration of Tagore. And for probashi or expat Bengalis, that occasion evokes even greater nostalgia.
It’s therefore no wonder that a recent musical programme paying tribute to Tagore’s 157th birth anniversary saw hundreds of people turning up on a Friday morning at the Indian Consulate auditorium in Dubai.
Organized by Srishti – a Dubai-based music ensemble – and its founder Madhumita Dasgupta Roy, the two-hour long event also saw exponents from the UAE join in the celebrations. From the melodious strains of Sundar Bote Tobe Angad Khani to Bipul Torongo Re, the first half was a tribute to Tagore the song writer and composer, accompanied by dance presented mainly by the students of Srishti. Here is a quick glimpse of what happened:
Video: Pronomi Tomare
But it was the second half in the form of a shruti natak (sit-up drama) that stood out for its uniqueness of format and expression.
Notun Bouthan (My New Sister-in-Law) is a drama based on the relationship with and inspiration that a young Tagore derived from his sister-in-law, Kadambari Devi (Bouthan). The saga marks one of the most poignant phases of Tagore and is a harbinger of the dark tragedies that would befall the Nobel Laureate.
For Kadambari Devi – the inspiration behind much of Tagore’s early creativity, muse; intimate friend and playmate – committed suicide in 1884, four months after Tagore married.
In the performance, Roy as the voice of Kadambari Devi, Debayan as the young Tagore, and Dhrubatosh Banerjee as the narrator excelled in interpreting the ethos and nuances of the drama. The dance was presented by Puspak Mukherjee, a renowned danseuse from Tanushree Shankar Dance Academy, and Sreeparna Chatterjee, a leading danseuse from Mamata Shankar Dance Academy. But rather than restricting the show to a static performance, it was a mélange of dialogue, songs and dance presented in a perfect shell of dramatic narrative – lending it a unique dynamism that kept the audience spell bound.
Take a look at some of the memorable scenes:
Video: Notun Bouthan
“The expat audience, far away from the shores of India, had never experienced anything like this before and ended up emotionally supercharged – many had tears swelling up and in the end we all got a standing ovation,” says Roy, who conceptualised and initiated Srishti and was among the first to pioneer Bengali cultural activities in Dubai.
“When I landed in Dubai from India in the 1990s, it seemed to me that my entire world of classical dance and songs had come to a standstill. I was an accomplished singer in India, so I was quite dejected that there was hardly any scope to showcase authentic Bengali cultural activities in Dubai. And I noticed that children of Bengali expats were growing up in the UAE without any appreciation of their native culture and language. So I started out in 1999 — with the support of some very able and capable friends — trying to build a platform to promote Bengali music and culture here in Dubai and offer an opportunity for budding artists locally,” she says.
The initial response from the community was overwhelming and Roy says she has never looked since. However, she rues the fact that in trying to organize countless musical soirees and direct and support upcoming musical talents, she has lost track of her first love: singing.
“Srishti is a cultural effort that was built up so painstakingly over the years – so the success of concerts and programmes such as these are very gratifying,” says Roy. Another unique initiative by the ensemble and its choir is Aagomoni – the annual invocation of festivities for Bengalis in autumn, that precedes the biggest event of a Bengali calendar: Durga Puja. Srishti ran a very successful four seasons of the programme in Dubai. “As we look into the future, the key challenge is to find adequate support – corporate and logistical – to keep hosting programmes of such magnitude,” she says.
Tagore’s deep ties with Arabia
But while concerts like the birth anniversary celebrations of Tagore keep Roy and her ensemble busy, apart from the annual tokenism of celebrations, why is Tagore largely a forgotten entity in modern India and beyond? The literary giant who penned the national anthem of two countries, who became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, who has 28 thick volumes of books and 2,500 songs to his name, the man who described Taj Mahal as “a teardrop on the face of eternity,” the man who inspired British poet Wilfred Owen during war, and whose friendship with WB Yeats is legendary, remains largely unknown outside his native Bengal and India, apart from Bangladesh.
“Tagore’s vast universe of creativity is deeply centred around the Bengali language. His words are so important. Hence, efforts at translating his works into any other language have not been as successful – leave aside any foreign language, even in Indian languages,” says Roy. “We perhaps need another genius like Tagore himself to trans-create his works.”
Tagore was nevertheless also a true friend of the Arab world – with Egyptian poet Ahmed Shawki among the best of his friends. Tagore was received rapturously by Egyptians when he visited the country in 1926, with the then King of Egypt presenting him with a set of books in Arabic. Tagore spoke to packed houses of parliament in Cairo, and had a memorable encounter with Shawki, which transformed into a story of a friendship between two men of letters from different worlds. When Shawky passed away, Tagore sent a moving eulogy as a tribute. Tagore once said the genesis of his special relationship with Egypt was his grandfather, the well-known social reformer Dwarkanath Tagore, who visited Egypt in the mid-19th century. Things came full circle last month, when the Indian embassy in Cairo organized an exhibition titled Rabindranath Tagore: Rhythm in Colours at the Ahmad Shawki museum in Giza – originally the house of legendary poet.
In 1928, Wadi Al Bustani, a Lebanese writer and translator of Umar Khayyam's Rubaiyat to Arabic, travelled to Kolkata and stayed as Tagore's guest for two days. Al Bustani was perhaps the first Arab to meet Tagore after he had won Nobel Prize, and was the first to translate Tagore’s Gitanjali into Arabic.
And in more recent times, the choice of Emirati poet Shihab Ghanem as the first recipient of the prestigious Tagore Peace Prize in 2017 from the government of West Bengal is a further testimony to the close relations between Tagore and the Arab world.
At least in Arabia, Tagore’s vast canon of human experience is well preserved.