During his visit to the then Soviet Union in 1930, Rabindranath Tagore recited two of his poems at a cultural event organised in his honour by a trade union forum. One of the poems was ‘Nababarsha’ (New rain) that compares the poet’s heart to a peacock dancing in joy at the approach of the rainy season. Introducing the poem he said: ‘You know in our agro-based country the first shower of the rainy season makes people feel ecstatic. Clouds cover the sky end to end, and a feeling of happiness spreads from one heart to another and across villages. This poem depicts the joy that the poet feels when he comes across the first monsoon clouds after a spell of dry summer weather. Here he speaks of the way his heart dances just as a rain-loving peacock does spreading its colourful plumes’ (Soviet Union E Rabindranath
; 1961). Though a poet’s interpretation of his own poetry need not always be given full credence, particularly in these times when deconstructionists are up in arms over the pre-eminence of authorial intentions, Tagore’s testimony in this case merits some attention. The poem is steeped in agricultural imageries as we find in these lines: ‘Rice-plants bend and sway/As the water rushes,/Frogs croak, doves huddle and tremble in their nests, O proudly/Storm-clouds roll through the sky, vaunting their thunder’ (trans. William Radice
). In fact many of Tagore’s poems, songs, short stories and letters are replete with images from a peasant world drenched, fertilised and inundated by rain – a world in which inky clouds mass quickly in the monsoon sky, heavy downpours swamp the aus
paddy-field and those who go to work there get marooned, the young cowherds are lost for the whole day, and the cows grazing in the field keep mooing helplessly to be taken home.
This vision of the rains fits nicely into Tagore’s overall attitude to nature which, as observed by an astute critic like Ketaki Kushari Dyson (I won’t let you go
; 1991), was ‘shaped essentially by peasants’ India.’ Dyson goes on to add that ‘The passion with which Tagore addresses the earth as a mother, in whose womb he once was and whose milk he has drunk… was born of the close connection between the earth and the peasantry in his milieu…’ Though he was born and brought up in the city of Kolkata, located as it is in a relatively arid part of undivided Bengal, his exposure to the riverine landscape of rural eastern Bengal where he had to come and stay in his youth to look after the Tagores’ landed estates, helped him gain deep insights into the agrarian way of life and the workings of the elemental forces. He has beautifully painted the landscape and rural life of eastern Bengal in many of his works, but he does not stop there and goes far beyond.
In one sense the oeuvre of Tagore is an endless reiteration of the organic link between humans and nature. In fact few poets and writers in the world have been able to surpass Tagore in their awareness of the interconnectedness of all things in the cosmos. His holistic view of the universe enabled him to have a deep sense of how the human mind responds to the way nature operates – even to the fall of a leaf from a tree or the sudden rise of a cloud in the sky. The six seasons in Bangladesh come alive with all their colours, sounds and smells in the huge corpus of his works. Of all the seasons the rains appear to have stirred his poetic imagination most productively. If we just turn to the nature songs in Geetabitan,
the collection of his songs, we can see that the rainy season has been allocated the maximum space. There are 115 songs on the rainy season as against 96 on spring, 30 on autumn, 16 on summer, 12 on winter and 5 on Hemanta
. Apart from their highest number, the monsoon songs stand out for the depth and variety of feelings they convey. In his book Chhay Ritur Gaan
(Six Seasons’ Songs
; 2009) Ranajit Guha argues that these songs superbly enunciate Tagore’s philosophy of being that translates into a deep sense of loneliness, and then again manifests itself in various shades of feelings of separation and remembrance. Here he finds a lonely soul waiting for someone and passing into ever shifting moods of joy, sadness and reminiscence that heighten when it rains.
Some critics have attributed this sense of loneliness and separation in Tagore to his debt to Sanskrit poetry and the devotional poetry of the middle ages, particularly to Kalidasa, Chandidas and Vidyapati. In Kalidasa’s poetry the monsoon cloud serves as a messenger for a pining lover separated from his beloved. In Vaisnava
poetry the rains go one step further and raise expectations of union of the lover and his beloved in the backdrop of rainy nights filled with the chorus of croaking frogs and singing birds. As we know, many literary and philosophical strands went into the making of Tagore’s world, and he certainly made use of the Indian classical and folk traditions in weaving his rain poetry but his great creative genius transformed his inheritance into something unique. While drawing on the rainy season to depict life in harmony with its natural environment in rural Bangladesh and to convey the feelings of love, separation and desire at one level, he made it a conduit for an intense longing for something higher and beyond, at a deeper level. While one may like to characterize such a longing as patently romantic – and Tagore would not probably object to such a characterization – the diversity in the world of his ideas makes it almost impossible to pigeonhole him as a poet or writer of a particular hue.
When the poet asks plaintively in a song: ‘Clouds have gathered on clouds,/ darkness descends./ Why do you keep me sitting alone by the door?’ (trans. Ketaki Kushari Dyson) these simple words, much as they echo the pain of a long-waiting lonely lover, set the stage for a search for something more. The later stanzas make the wait look more unbearable and suggest something sublime that is aspired to: ‘If you slight me,/if you don’t show yourself,/how will I pass such a/day of the monsoon blues?/My eyes wide open,/I can only stare at the distance,/while my soul weeps and wanders/with the storm-wind’s roar/Why do you keep me sitting alone by the door?’ In another beautiful, familiar song the poet addresses these moving words to who he is waiting for, much in the same vein: ‘The sky weeps like/someone in despair/my eyes know no sleep/Beloved, I throw open my door/and look out again and again/O my friend, my soul-mate!’ The rainy and stormy night makes his mind travel far – ‘Along the bank of/ what distant river/skirting the edge of/ what dense-knit forest’ -- in search of his ‘soul-mate.’ The questions asked can also be read as part of a dialogue between two selves – one smaller and the other larger – of a person who seeks to transcend himself and go beyond restricted time and space, and they need not be reduced to a conventional search for God as is sometimes done. This fruitful dialogue endlessly recurs in Rabindranath Tagore’s writings, and is central to understanding his quest for higher forms of truth.