Melodious renditions of Rabindrasangeet or songs of Rabindranath Tagore echoed in the air. Glowing in dim ochre light was the bronze bust of ‘Gurudev’ perched upon a pillar under a sprawling green tree. Oil-lit earthen lamps dotting the stage periphery of the open air theatre were adding to the effects of the warm starry evening on Sunday the May 9.
It had some inkling with the open outdoor university of Shantiniketan founded by Tagore in West Bengal but the scene was set in the heart of New Delhi’s Meghdoot theatre at Rabindra Bhawan.
The occasion was special — to give a tribute to Tagore on his 149th birthday. The three day-birthday celebrations, which began on May 7, has also ushered in year-long festivities to mark his 150th birth anniversary next year.
Tagore is the most prominent Indian poet and writer known abroad. He was the first Asian to win Nobel Prize for his collection of poems ‘Geetanjali’ in 1913. The poems written in Bengali have been translated in most of the world languages.
An iconic writer, legendary poet, novelist and educator, Tagore had become an institution in himself and his songs became part of every Bengali household music.
Those who grew up reading Tagore’s literature, the celebration was a chance to express their appreciation for the legend and to celebrate the life of the philosopher. People from different walks of life and different lingual communities had converged on the Meghdoot theatre to see modern musical interpretations of Tagore’s songs.
The cultural evening began with the Panchanjali or offerings of five elements-- air, water, earth space and fire-- each represented respectively by the blowing of conch shells, offering of water, flowers, burning incense and the lighting of lamps in front of the Gurudev’s bust in the backdrop of Rabindrasangeet.
Tagore’s works were represented through various classical dance forms like Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Kathak and Chhau or through non-classical dance performances.
The first dance, presented by three lady dancers draped in famous Bengali white saris with red borders, celebrated rain. Monsoon was Tagore’s favourite season and he expressed its various flavours through his songs. Monsoon winds, pitter patter of raindrops and their soothing effect after scorching heat, clouds, swaying of trees everything associated with the season found vivid mention in his works
While Tagore is known best for his contributions to literature and his philosophy of life, less is known about his contributions to political and freedom movement of India. His “image of a sage and a mystique has persisted even in 21st century,” said Pranab Mukherjee, India’s Finance Minister, who was present on the occasion, adding he was a reformer and a great advocate of “gender equality and individual freedom which he expressed through his poems, prose and literature.”
Tagore had a great influence on Mahatma Gandhi and India’s freedom movement. He is best known for his literary genius but he was conscious of his social surroundings and was a critic of colonialism.
In 1905 Bengal’s partition caused him much pain and it found an expression in his lyrics “Omador Jatra hole shuru” meaning our journey has begun and expressed his desire to shake off the yoke with the help of God as “karnadhar” or a helmsman.
Manipuri artistes represented the song by enacting as voyagers who began their journey in high wind. They invoked god as the helmsman to help not to deter from their path and also redress the problems of their countrymen suffering under the British Raj.
His growing discontent with the British rule led him to surrender the knighthood in 1919 four years after he received it as a “protest against the Massacre of Amritsar, where British troops killed some 400 Indian demonstrators”.
The evening facilitated reorientation with some of Tagore’s ageless songs. Born in an affluent family, Tagore completed most of his education at home as he could not adjust himself to the formal system of school.
Later, he went to England for his law degree but left it halfway to return to India to pursue his literary aspirations and to be with his people. He wrote about “3,000 songs, thousands of poems, and hundreds of short stories, novels, plays and essays, apart from painting thousands of pictures in his later years.
In spite of his rich background he remained rooted and involved with the common person’s cause. He influenced many youth. “Tagore had a great influence on me. I was brought up on Rabindranath’s works. The second best book in my life was his ‘Sahaj Path’,” said A Chatterjee, an editor with a publishing house.
As the days proceed there will be more events to remember Gurudev and his genius to capture various aspects of life and create magic through words and music. He revolutionized Bengali art, literature and music and opened its treasures to the world to experience.