He spoke the Language of the rivers: Rabindranath Tagore

This was one of the last poems written by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. Bard of Bengal, Kabiguru, Bishwakabi: world knows him by many names. He revelled in life with the curiosity and wonderment of a child. In the Preface of Gitanjali (1912), Collection of poems which made him the first non-European to receive the Nobel in Literature, W. B. Yeats says, “Pearl fishers dive for pearls, merchants sail in their ships, while children gather pebbles and scatter them again. They seek not for hidden treasures, they know not how to cast nets.” This was for Tagore as much as the children. Poet, musician, novelist, painter, educator, freedom fighter, rationalist, modernist: the world was his canvas.
In many senses, Tagore and his monumental work is the manifestation of those slippery terms: Culture and civilization. Indian and Bangladeshi bhavtaal is infused with his poems, songs and thoughts.
India and Bangladesh both adopted his songs as National Anthems. Bangladesh’s National Anthem is remarkable: Devoid of any call-to-duty or chest-thumping pride, Amar Sonar Bangla is a love-song for the land, its ripening paddy, mango blossoms and green river-banks. It sounds out of place on a military beat, like a child lost in the middle of a busy street and yet, it evokes longing for a land I haven’t even seen. This is a hallmark of the poet whose sensitivity was as razor-sharp as his intellect.
But what makes me visit Tagore, again and again, is the way he speaks the language of rivers.
Many times, people who spend their early childhood on the banks or in the vicinity of a river carry a river within them always which emerges through their expression in curious ways. Bengal is literally Nadi Matruk, river-born land. Unsurprisingly, rivers have permeated into the works of most artists of the region. We have written about Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Adwaita Mallabarman and Jibananda Das.
But while I devoured the translations of several Bengali riverine works, I shied away from Tagore. In Marathi households like ours, it was P.L. Deshpande, an artist as joyous and talented as Tagore, who introduced Gurudev through his speeches, books and translations. And yet, Tagore seemed too big, too revered, too loved. There was hardly anything untouched about his works which I could stumble upon here. The effusive worship of my Bengali friends only made things worse.
And then, I came across, not Gitanjali or Chhinna Patra, but Amader Chhoto Nodi: Our Little River. A poem taught in fourth grade.
The simple grace and feather-like joy of the poem talked of a real, living river. The momentous loss between the musical original that trips like a river and its translation is evident even for a non-Bengali, like me. Tagore’s poems for children inevitably talked of rivers, boatmen, ferries and had an unbridled joy infused in them like a bubbly drink. They were untouched by the wistfulness of the boatman across the river in Gitanjali.
“The river has its everyday work to do and hastens through fields and hamlets, yet its incessant stream winds towards the washing of thy feet.”
“Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit.
Where the mind is led forward by thee
into ever-widening thought and action.
In to that heaven of freedom, my father,
Let my country awake.”
It is difficult, even erroneous to hold a kaleidoscopic talent like Tagore’s to one single metaphor. And yet, it is undeniable that he evokes a river with an old familiarity for each human experience. From love to heartbreak, from rationality to spirituality, from reason to epiphany.
As an artist, image of a river arises at the cusp of each of his iconic creations: his first short story Ghater Katha, the first time he composed “My own tunes for my songs” looking at river Sabarmati in moonlight, to the poem which marked his arrival as a serious poet Nirjharer Swapnabhanga, the culmination of his decade-long sojourn on the river when he wrote the collections Padma and the Golden Boat. At the journeys end, he again looked at the river (Janmadine) as a source of solace and a bearer of incompleteness. Some of his most productive works took form when he was on a river. In a not-very surprising coincidence, he talked of a young mountain stream breaking its shackles in his early youth and just a few months before his death, he talked of a weary, meandering river spreading out into the delta.
Tagore’s first (or one of his first) short story “Ghater Kotha”, Tale of the Riverbank, published sometime in 1885 when he was in his mid-twenties, announces of a writer who would forever speak in river tongue. The stepped Ghat on Ganga is a narrator in this story. It says,
“Every day the Ganga moves a step further away from me;
every day I too become a step older”.
From here on, it is difficult to find a work from Tagore where a river does not feature: Padma, Ganga, Jamuna, Bhagirathi, Kopai, Ichhamati, Gorai, Atreyi, Mayurakshi, Dhanashri, even Sabarmati, KaliNadi from Karnataka, rivers of Pune!
His incisive poem Nirjharer Swapnabhang (1882) (A Spring’s Awakening), which, in his words, “bore the stamp of his own individual voice with a certainty and clarity not evident so far and inaugurated his adult career as a poet” is an ode to flow, to pravah, that one quality which defines a river. The poem is about a spring breaking its bonds and flowing, gurgling and roaring over the rocks that shackle it. It can be the anthem of dammed rivers. A small part of the poem, in the want of a longer translation:
“After many days has one ray
Appeared in the cave,
Upon the dark waters of my heart
Has fallen a single trace of light.
I cannot contain my heart’s ardour
The water trembles, it trembles,
It talks and sings a complicated tune.
Today in this morning I don’t know why
My heart has awakened”
For Tagore, river and flow were inseparable.
His seminal play “Muktadhara”: Free Flow, [x] written in 1922 deals with damming a free-flowing stream “Muktadhara” by King Ranajit of Uttarakut. Ranjit dams Muktadhara to establish his authority over the downstream region of Shiu Tarai, where “people look different” and have a “rotten religion”. His intent is led by his engineer Bibhuti, who does not care for the thirst of the people or their crops in the downstream, but only his creation: The dam and the machine. “God has given them the water, but He has given me the power to bind that water.” People of Shiu Tarai in the downstream cannot believe this. “The water to quench your thirst is in Bibhuti’s hands! If he withholds it, then you will dry up, like toads in a time of drought!”
“Our water in Bibhuti’s hands? Has he suddenly become a God?”
In what can be one of the earliest sagas of dam decommissioning, it is the Crown Prince of Uttarakut himself, Abhijit, who breaks open the dam to allow Muktadhara to flow freely again.
Abhijit’s allegiance is not fettered to a political region. It lies with the people, with his own self and finally, with Muktadhara. Like Nirjharer Swapnabhaga, Tagore talks of shackles and freedom: of the mind and of the flow.
“Is it a small thing, to control the turbulent power, whether it is outside us or within us?”
“Every man has the mystery of his inner life somewhere written in the outer world. The secret of my own life has its symbol in that waterfall of Muktadhara. When I saw its movements shackled I received a shock at the very root of my being. Where there is an obstruction, there can be no rest. The dam seems to be built on my life’s current. And I have come out into the road to set free its course.” Crown Prince Abhijit does set the Muktadhara free and in doing so, lays down his own life.
“Hark! What is that? What is that sound? It is laughter, bubbling up from the heart of the darkness. It is the sound of water. The sound grows in strength! My God! There is no doubt of it. The water of Muktadhara is freed!”
Many metaphors emerge from the play: That of jingoist Nationalism, fearing the “other”, hegemony of water, man vs machine: though not as a cliché. Tagore was a modernist.
He did not oppose mechanisation just for the sake of it. As a rational mind, he did look at the cost-benefit with open eyes, much, much ahead of the time. No wonder, the saga of a free-flowing river is performed in Bangladesh even today as India dams and diverts the Padma through Farakka Barrage. He wrote Muktadhara even before the advent of the age of Large Dams in India before he could see the shackled fate of Teesta, Padma and Ganga. His “Chhoto Nodi” Kopai is desiccating near Shantiniketan. Ichhamati is choking with silt and hardly has any freshwater.
As we dam and dry more and more rivers and convert life-giving systems into taps, Tagore had grasped something which we struggle to understand till date.
Tagore’s river was inseparable from flow: unshackled, unbridled and a true Muktadhara. Remembering Tagore is also remembering the rivers he loved… the rivers he would have liked us to love, disregarding political boundaries. His stories talk of a very fragile love, but also a very clear-eyed and strong love, which can break high walls to make rivers flow again.
There are many forms of remembering. We can read a book of his poems. And we can work towards restoring the limpid fluidity of the rivers he loved, and hear his song.
~ Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP (parineeta.dandekar@gmail.com)
‘Padma, I have seen you many, many times.’
Part 2
Anna Akhmatova, who translated Rabindranath Tagore’s poems into Russian in the mid-1960s, described him as “that mighty flow of poetry which takes its strength from Hinduism as from the Ganges.”
Although he explored the beauty of Upnishads and revered the “sacred current of the Ganges”, Tagore was not tied to them. A beacon of Hindu-Muslim unity, his poetry took strength from myriad precious details.
While he talks of Padma’s might, he also returns with a sense of belonging to smaller rivers like Kopai and Ichhamati.
In a much-loved passage, he writes,
“Idly my mind follows the sinuous sweep of the Padma roaming under a distant sky. On the further side of hers stretches the sand-bank, insensitive to the living world, defiant in its sublime inutility. The whole village stands shuddering in constant fear of the heartless stream. The proud river has her name in the venerable texts; through her veins runs the sacred current of the Ganges.
She remains remote. The homesteads she passes by are tolerated by her, not recognised; her stately manner has a response in it to the majestic silence of the mountain and the large loneliness of the sea.
Now at the end of my young days, I have come away to this plain here, grey and bare of trees, allowing a small detached spot for the swelling green of the shadow-sheltered Santal village. I have for my neighbour the tiny river Kopai.
She lacks the distinction of ancient lineage. The primitive name of hers is mixed up with the loud-laughing prattle of the Santal women of countless ages.
There is no gap for discord between the land and water in her intimacy with the village and she easily carries the whisper of her one bank to the other. The blossoming flax field is in indulgent contact with her as are the young shoots of rice.
Where the road comes to an abrupt break at the brink of her water, she graciously makes way for the passers-by across her crystal-clear garrulous stream.
Her speech is the speech of the humble home, not the language of the learned. Her rhythm has a common kinship both with the land and the water; her vagrant stream is unjealous of the green and golden wealth of the earth.
Slender is her body that glides in curves across shadows and lights, clapping hands in a tripping measure. In the rains, her limbs become wild like those of the village girls drunk with the mahua wine, yet she never even in her wantonness breaks or drowns her neighbouring land; only with a jesting whirl of her skirt sweeps the banks while she runs laughing loud.
By the middle of autumn, her waters become limpid, her current slim, revealing the pallid glimpse of the sands underneath. Her destitution does not shame her, for her wealth is not arrogant, nor her poverty mean.
They carry their own grace in their different moods, even as a girl when she dances with all her jewels aglimmer, or when she sits silent with languor in her eyes and a touch of a tired smile on her lips.
The Kopai in her pulsation finds its semblance in the rhythm of my poet’s verse, the rhythm that has formed its comradeship with the language rich in music and that which is crowded with the jarring trivialities of the work-a-day hours.
Its cadence fails not the Santal boy lazily tramping along with his bow and arrows; it times itself to the lumbering market cart loaded with straw; to the panting breath of the potter shouldering earthen-wares in a pair of hanging baskets tied to a pole, his pet pariah dog fondly following his shadow; it moves at the pace of the weary steps of the village schoolmaster, worth three rupees a month, holding an old torn umbrella over his head.
Same sentiment is repeated for the Ichhamati, (not the Jessore Ichhamati immortalized by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhay, but a much smaller Ichhamati near Shelaidaha, as my friend from Bangladesh Sheikh Rokon pointed out)
“I am gliding through this winding little Ichamati, this streamlet of the rainy season. With rows of villages along its banks, its fields of jute and sugar-cane, its reed patches, its green bathing slopes, it is like a few lines of a poem, often repeated and as often enjoyed. One cannot commit to memory a big river like the Padma, but this meandering little Ichamati, the flow of whose syllables is regulated by the rhythm of the rains, I am gradually making my very own.”
Religion of the Forest
Tagore’s affinity towards nature, recurrent motifs of rivers, boatmen, forests, solitary trees, rain, etc. were not a literary ploy. They emerged from a deeper love and a clear-eyed philosophical position about which he wrote much later in “Religion of the Forest”. From Ramayan, Mahabharata to Kalidasa, Tagore draws out the very central place of wilderness in ancient Indian literature.
“In the Western dramas, human characters drown our attention in the vortex of their passions. Nature occasionally peeps out, but she is almost always a trespasser, who has to offer excuses, or bow apologetically and depart. But in all our dramas which still retain their fame, such as Mrit-Shakatika, Shakuntala, Uttara-ramachanta, Nature stands on her own right, proving that she has her great function, to impart the peace of the eternal to human emotions.”
Glimpses of Bengal
There are some occasions when one can find Tagore’s writing overtly romantic, bordering to sentimental. His oft-repeated comparison of women and rivers (a topic where many great writers slip) can make me cringe sometimes. And yet, references to rivers in Tagore’s work are never idle, they are never embellishments. He talks of floods and drought, ebb and tide, dams and erosion, grasses and birds with deep authenticity. It is not a second-hander’s knowledge, but here is a person who has experienced a river at close quarters and for long.
As Uma Das Gupta writes in Seminar, 2019, “For more than a decade, in the years 1889-1900 Rabindranath Tagore spent more time on the river than on land. The river was the mighty Padma, a tributary of the Ganga. Rabindranath was 28 years old and went to take charge of agricultural estates along the river Padma in East Bengal and also in Cuttack district of Orissa. Tagore was stationed at Shelaidaha but travelled to the other estates in the family houseboat called the ‘Padma Boat’.” By his own admission, Padma witnessed “the most productive period of my literary life … when, under the shelter of obscurity, I enjoyed the greatest freedom my life has ever known.”
He completed several works here, including the translation of poems which turned into Gitanjali. The vast river and a small bajra boat witnessed creation of collections like Chaitali and Sonar Tari (The Golden Boat) and Tagore witnessed the changing moods of Padma, “Padma aamar tomaye dekha shoto shoto bar” (Padma, I have seen you many, many times).
“Truly, I love Padma River very dearly, it is so wild, so undomesticated. I feel like riding on its back and patting it caressingly on its neck…I feel like doing my duty in silent solitude amid these transparent days we live here. Here man in insignificant, but nature great and imposing. The things we see round us are of such nature that one cannot create today, mend tomorrow and throw them off the day after. These things stand permanent, amidst birth and death, action and inaction, change and changelessness.
He met his characters along banks, rivers, floodplains, wetlands, islands and estuaries over and over again. He loved to live on the water more than the land. In a letter to his daughter Ranu after returning from Shelaidaha to Santiniketan he writes “…I love the river. Shall I say why? The land on which I live does not move…the river flows days and nights. It has its own echo. Its rhythm corresponds with rhythms of our movements. The flow of our conscious mind has similarity with the flow of the river so we have deep intimacy with river…” (Mukhopadhyay, 1961, p. 115).
I envy him for the phenomenon he witnessed over the years, from fish jumping out of the river to new freshets bursting under his boat, floods and droughts and desiccation of river channels. And each phenomenon gets a metaphor all of its own, like a fragile insect immortalized in golden amber.
He writes about his experiences to his niece Indira Devi and these letters, later published as Chhina Patra (Torn Letters) (1912) or Glimpses of Bengal [v] are a repository of a jewelled mind and the many hued-rivers of Bengal. You can access the complete Glimpses of Bengal at Project Gutenberg here: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/7951/7951-h/7951-h.htm
A few excerpts:
“The river scattered its current in many directions, and spread out, finally into a beel, with here a patch of grassy land and there a stretch of transparent water reminding me of the youth of this globe when through the limitless water, land had just begun to raise its head.
The river winds in and out, an unknown little stream in the inmost zenana of Bengal, neither lazy nor fussy; lavishing the wealth of her affection on both sides, she prattles about common joys and sorrows and the household news of the village girls, who come for water, and sit by her side, assiduously rubbing their bodies to a glowing freshness with their moistened towels.” ~ Nearing Shazadpur, January 1891
“Today I’ve been drifting all day on the river’s course … sitting alone, silent – on both sides of the river the villages, the landing-ghats, the fields of crops present ever-shifting scenes, and the boat drifts, the fishermen catch fish, the waters murmur ceaselessly as though in affection. But in the evening the vast spread-out mass of waters falls still, like a tired child falling asleep, and all the stars wake and gaze at me from the unbounded sky above my head … as I view all these changing pictures, the stream of imagination flows on, and on its two banks, like the distant scenes by the river, new desires are painted.”
“The landing-place at Balia makes a pretty picture with its fine big trees on either side and on the whole, the canal somehow reminds me of the little river at Poona. On thinking it over I am sure I should have liked the canal much better had it really been a river.”
“The river is getting low, and the water in this arm of it is hardly more than waist-deep anywhere. So it is not at all extraordinary that the boat should be anchored in mid-stream. On the bank, the ryots are ploughing and cows are now and then brought down to the water’s edge for a drink. To the left, there are the mango and coconut trees of the old Shelidah garden above, and on the bathing slope below there are village women washing clothes, filling water jars, bathing, laughing and gossiping in their provincial dialect. The younger girls never seem to get through their sporting in the water; it is a delight to hear their careless, merry laughter.” ~ Shelaidaha April 1892
“Shall I be reborn under this star-spangled sky? Will the peaceful rapture of such wonderful evenings ever again be mine, on this silent Bengal river, in so secluded a corner of the world?” ~ Shelaidaha May 1893
“The river is rising daily. What I could see yesterday only from the upper deck, I can now see from my cabin windows. Every morning I awake to find my field of vision growing larger. Not long since, only the tree-tops near those distant villages used to appear, like dark green clouds. To-day the whole of the wood is visible.
Land and water are gradually approaching each other like two bashful lovers. The limit of their shyness has nearly been reached—their arms will soon be round each other’s necks. I shall enjoy my trip along this brimful river at the height of the rains.”~ Shelaidaha July 1893
“What a store of water must have been laid up in the sky this year. The river has already risen over the low chur-lands, threatening to overwhelm all the standing crops. The wretched ryots are cutting and bringing away in boat sheaves of half-ripe rice. As they pass my boat I hear them bewailing their fate. It is easy to understand how heart-rending it must be for cultivators to have to cut down their rice on the very eve of its ripening.”~ Shelaidaha July 1893
“Coming through these beels to Kaligram, an idea took shape in my mind. Where the waters cover cultivated tracts the rice grows through, often from considerable depths, giving to the boats sailing over them the curious appearance of gliding over a cornfield, so clear is the water. Elsewhere these beels have a peculiar flora and fauna of water-lilies and irises and various water-fowl. As a result, they resemble neither a marsh nor a lake but have a distinct character of their own.
The water loses its beauty when it ceases to be defined by banks and spreads out into a monotonous vagueness. In the case of language, metre serves for banks and gives form and beauty and character. Just as the banks give each river a distinct personality, so does rhythm make each poem an individual creation; prose is like the featureless, impersonal beel. Again, the waters of the river have movement and progress; those of the beel engulf the country by expanse alone. So, in order to give language power, the narrow bondage of metre becomes necessary; otherwise, it spreads and spreads, but cannot advance.
The country people call these beels “dumb waters”—they have no language, no self-expression. The river ceaselessly babbles; so the words of the poem sing, they are not “dumb words.” Thus bondage creates beauty of form, motion, and music; bounds make not only for beauty but power. Poetry gives itself up to the control of metre, not led by blind habit, but because it thus finds the joy of motion. There are foolish persons who think that metre is a species of verbal gymnastics, or legerdemain, of which the object is to win the admiration of the crowd. That is not so. Metre is born as all beauty is born the universe through. The current set up within well-defined bounds gives metrical verse power to move the minds of men as vague and indefinite prose cannot.
This idea became clear to me as I glided on from river to beel and beel to river.” ~ Patisar August 1893
“Last night a rushing sound in the water awoke me—a sudden boisterous disturbance of the river current—probably the onslaught of a freshet: a thing that often happens at this season. One’s feet on the planking of the boat become aware of a variety of forces at work beneath it. Slight tremors, little rockings, gentle heaves, and sudden jerks, all keep me in touch with the pulse of the flowing stream.”~ Shelaidaha August 1894
One day I was out in a boat on the Ganges. It was a beautiful evening in autumn. The vast expanse of water was without a ripple, mirroring all the changing shades of the sunset glow. Miles and miles of a desolate sandbank lay like a huge amphibious reptile in shining colours. As our boat was silently gliding by the precipitous river-bank, riddled with the nest-holes of a colony of birds, suddenly a big fish leapt up to the surface of the water and then disappeared, displaying on its vanishing figure all the colours of the evening sky. It drew aside for a moment the many-coloured screen behind which there was a silent world full of the joy of life. It came up from the depths of its mysterious dwelling with a beautiful dancing motion and added its own music to the silent symphony of the dying day. I felt as if I had a friendly greeting from an alien world in its own language, and it touched my heart with a flash of gladness”
One of Gurudev’s iconic poems during his abode on Padma is Sonar Tari, The Golden Boat. It reads like a shining parable whose meaning is swathed under its shimmering surface.
“Come to the bank, moor your boat for a while
Go where you want to, give where you care to,
But come to the bank a moment and smiling,
Take away my paddy as you sail.
Load as much as you can take.
Is there more? No, none, I have put it all abroad.
My intense labour here by the river
I have given all, layer upon layer:
Now please take me as well, take me abroad.
No room, no room, the boat is small,
My gold has filled it all.
Across the rainy sky clouds heave to and fro.
On the bare river-bank I am alone. The golden boat has taken everything; all I had is gone.”
Tagore detested dissecting his poetry. But about the Golden Boat he says, “Those who have built up man in many ways through the ages, have their work immortalized among us; but they themselves, with their names and addresses, their joys and sorrows, have been lost in oblivion. Yet each of them had said to the world: Take all I have. But do not cast me aside, do not forget me: preserve my impress in my work.”
His impress is not only his words but also his love for the rivers.
As a humanist who holds the hearts and minds of two nations and many religions, his strong opposition to jingoist nationalism is eerily relevant today. He was also a doer, an environmentalist whose love for rivers did not stop at poetry. He talked about dams, irrigation, river erosion, held tree plantation drives along river-banks, much ahead of his time. When he likened humanity to an ancient river, it was not an easy comparison. If we find him overtly sentimental today, perhaps it is because we have become numb towards subtle realities, common people and smaller rivers.
When Tagore found shimmering riverine metaphors for each shade of human emotion, today I use a few crude four-letter words for all of them. Perhaps wilting natural world has led to a desiccated imagination too.
Like Gurudev, may we find living rivers again to infuse our thoughts with their being.
Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP (parineeta.dandekar@gmail.com)
End Notes:
[ii] Uma Das Gupta, From Glimpses of Bengal, Seminar, November 2019
[iii] https://caravanmagazine.in/reviews-essays/torn-leaves
[iv] The Dial, Literary criticism, Discussion and Information, 1915
[v] http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/7951
[vi] Rabindranath Tagore, Sadhana The realization of life, 1914
[vii] http://www.theenchantingverses.org/chapter-5rabindranath-tagore.html
[viii] https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1913/tagore/article/
[ix] http://www.tagoreweb.in/Render/ShowContent.aspx?ct=Verses&bi=72EE92F5-BE50-40C7-6E6E-0F7410664DA3&ti=72EE92F5-BE50-4EE7-6E6E-0F7410664DA3
[x] Rabindranath Tagore, Glimpses of Bengal, 1920

He Spoke the Language of the Rivers: Rabindranath Tagore