Friday, August 7, 2015

The Living Dead

Honoring our poetic ancestors

                                                    Tagore at his painting desk

The Year 1400*

by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)

          A hundred years from today
Who are you, sitting, reading a poem of mine,
                     under curiosity's sway - 
            a hundred years from today?

              Not the least portion
of this spring's morning bliss,
  neither blossom nor birdsong,
     nor any of its scarlet splashes
 can I drench it in passion
      and despatch to your hands
      a hundred years hence!

Yet do this please: unlatch your south-faced door,
              just sit at your window for once;
basking in fantasy, eyes on the far horizon,
                figure out if you can:
              how one day a hundred years back
roving delights in a free fall from a heavenly region
            had touched all that there was -
     the infant Phalgun** day, utterly free,
                     was frenzied, all agog,
while borne on brisk wings, the south wind
had suddenly arrived and in a flash dyed the earth
               with all youth's hues
              a hundred years before your day.

There lived then a poet, ebullient of spirit,
                his heart steeped in song,
who wanted to open his words like so many flowers
               with so much passion
             one day a hundred years back.

             A hundred years from today
                     who is the new poet
whose songs flow through your homes?
                   To him I convey
            this springtime's gladsome greetings.
May my vernal song finds its echo for a moment
                     in your spring day
in the throbbing of your hearts, in the buzzing of your bees,
                  in the rustling of your leaves
            a hundred years from today.

(Translated by Ketaki Kushari Dyson )

*1400 is the Bengali calendar year which is actually 1993. The poem was written on the 2nd of Phalgoon (first month of spring) 1302 (1895-96) of the Bengali calendar.


It is very difficult to render the original in translation. We miss the music, the suggestiveness, indefinable associations clustering round words and phrases of the original version. This comes to mind especially when we read Tagore in any language other than Bengali.

Born in a family that was at the forefront of the Bengal Renaissance Tagore was the youngest of the thirteen surviving children of his parents. He lost his mother at a very early age and mostly raised by servants. That was the beginning of the trail of death that he would have to tread for the rest of his life. In his long life of eighty years he had lost a young wife (he never remarried) and brought up his children with utmost care only to lose three of them and the only grandson to illness. He accepted death as part of his life gracefully.

Sukumar Ray, a contemporary Bengali poet summed up Tagore's poetry in the following words: Rabindranath's poetry is an echo of the infinite variety of life, of the triumph of love, of the supreme unity of existence, of the joy that abides at the heart of everything......The objective of love is a constantly readjusted of a self-centered vanity, now of the youthful visions of life, of 'half a woman half a dream', now the sheer passion of living, now the supreme joy of renunciation, of selfish service.....And all this is a natural inborn process of emancipation. Tagore's poems on Death, as the 'last fulfillment of life', written at all stages of his career, are among the most remarkable of his contributions....'because I love this life I will love Death also', is the characteristic tone of his later works.

This remains as the fundamental principle of all his creations, be it poetry, short story, novel, play, music, dance-drama or even painting. He composed around 2230 songs creating a whole new world of music, Rabindrasangeet.

He passed away six years before India got Independence. So freedom is another aspect to be found in his works. He stresses upon the absence of external restraints while he also emphasizes on the inner freedom born of self-sacrifice, enlightenment, self-purification and self control. He wishes to set the spirit free.

In 1913 he received the Nobel Prize in literature for his anthology Gitanjali (Song Offerings) which contains his profound spiritual poems.

W B Yeats' introduction to Gitanjali is a most noteworthy read.

Tagore lived a life true to all the highest ideals.

Baishe Srabon that is 22 Shravan (the last month of the rainy season, this is 8th August this year) is the death anniversary of the poet, celebrated worldwide believing he continues to live with us in his creation.


  1. Tagore is such a brilliantly gifted poet - one might say a mystic, after the fashion of Rumi and Hafiz. His imagery is spectacular, and I love the idea of him wondering about a reader or another poet reading his work a hundred years hence - as people will be reading his work as long as there is an Earth, I'm certain. Sumana, thank you for this lovely look at a wonderful poet. I am wondering if you are connected to Sukumar Roy??

    1. I made a spelling mistake Sherry, it would be Sukumar Ray, he was an illustrious son of an illustrious father and also an illsutrious father of an illustrious son. His father was a friend of Tagore and a renowned writer of Bengal and Sukumar Ray, himself was a poet, story writer and playwright. His son Satyajit Ray was the noted Indian film director and also author of many books. I am not connected to Sukumar Ray.

    2. I will correct the spelling.

  2. What a fascinating poem, Sumana. If I understand correctly, his poem is written to the people who will read his poetry 100 years after they were written. He is asking the reader to look back and consider the poet who wrote them & to know that the poet wanted to open his words like flowers (and let them flow as poetry?) And it seems he is also asking the reader to consider the poet who will write 100 years in the future as well? I like the flow of years as expressed in this poem...the connection with past, present, and future.

    I see from your words that he was very prolific & wrote many different things. I was interested in his view that death is 'the last fulfillment of life.' So very true, I think, but something most people don't want to address.

    1. You have captured the essence of this verse Mary. He well knew his writings would be read by thousands across centuries and thus this poem...his curiosity and simplicity here touches our heart...I couldn't touch so many aspects of him...he's so VAST...I would like to say a few words about his songs, that there's no moment in our life for which he hasn't a song...they give us joy in our happiness and shelter us in our sorrow...the music and word combination is simply ethereal...

  3. Sumana, Thanks for introducing the eminent Bengali renaissance poet, philosopher, essayist, critic, composer and educator who dreamt of a harmony of universal humanity among the people of different origin through freedom of mind and spiritual sovereignty. Gitanjali found a vast audience in its many editions. In the tremulous months before the first world war, as well as during the war, its spiritual message and reverence for the world struck a chord. Yes, it contains the lines Owen wrote in his pocketbook, and soon had translations in many other languages... Thanks for sharing...

    1. The poem is so wonderful..... I wonder, where will the world be a hundred years from now ? It is so hard to imagine,.. so hard to conceive .

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    3. Your words remind me of Tagore's last speech "Crisis in Civilization"...he had that visionary imagination to foresee our present problems and he did give us his positive alternatives to counter the crises...He was truly an educational activist and he knew too well this shortsighted, self-defeating mankind...

  4. Thanks for this article, Sumana. I was guessing since the last week that you will write on Tagore as Baishe Srabon is on Saturday.
    What should I say about Tagore. When I heard the first Rabindrasangeet at the age of 3 or 4, I was mesmerized. From that moment, my relationship with Tagore's work started. He has continuously influenced my life through his poems, novels and songs. Recently when I read Shesher Kavita, I was totally lost in it. And Gitanjali is my all time favorite book. It is like home, where I return again and again. Thanks a ton for this article. I am really sensitive when it is Tagore. I guess all Bengalis are. He is my inspiration. Wish to spend the entire day listening to Rabindrasangeet today :)

    1. That's so true Purba, once we visit Rabindranath we feel like returning to him again and again...

  5. What a beautiful tribute to this great poet, and what a beautiful poem you have chosen. One definition of poetry (I forget by whom) is that 'poetry is that which gets lost in translation' and I am sure that is true. However, this translation is lovely, and we who don't speak Bengali can appreciate it without knowing what finer nuances we are missing. My parents introduced me to Tagore (in translation of course) while I was still in my teens, but those translations seemed ponderous to me, and I never really liked him until now. Translation is an art in itself, obviously! It was fascinating, too, to read about his life and philosophy. Thank you!

  6. Oh Rosemary it was so difficult to choose one translated poem of Tagore close to the original...this translation is excellent...

  7. Thank you, Sumana, for this introduction to Tagore. Although I obviously knew his name, I knew very little about him. You chose a great poem and I am glad you find it is one where not too much is lost in translation.

    1. Thanks Gabriella, I felt very much honored to do this topic on Tagore and Dyson chose to avoid archaic English & used everyday words in her translation....

  8. What a great perspective! Writers do not usually address readers in this manner and it is refreshing to see someone else break dogma and be original.

  9. An amazing, inciteful man. Great post!


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