• Parabaas
    Parabaas : পরবাস : বাংলা ভাষা, সাহিত্য ও সংস্কৃতি
  • পরবাস | Rabindranath Tagore | Essay
  • Tagore's Unfinished Experiment : Nandan Datta


    Unusual transformations

    Over a life of 80 years, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) wrote poems, plays, novels, short stories, essays, travelogues; composed songs by setting his own lyrics to tune and created musicals that combined song, dance, and drama;  and painted pictures. Beyond his literary, musical, and artistic contributions, Tagore enriched the zeitgeist of the 19th and 20th century India through his involvement in educational, social and political issues. Even as his literary appeal remains largely confined today to those who can read him in the original in Bengali, the vastness and variety of Tagore’s oeuvre finds few parallels in world literature.

    A glance at a randomly lifted page from Tagore’s manuscripts is likely to reveal what a compulsive refiner he was. At the micro level, his constant scratching and polishing led to his doodle art. At the macro level, Tagore has taken his own completed pieces and refined them into new incarnations, often decades after they were originally published. Some such instances are Pujarini (1899) being turned into Notir Puja (1926), Ekti Ashare Golpo (circa 1895) being reborn as Tasher Desh (1939), and Porishodh (1899) being morphed into Shyama (1936). In these examples, the latter forms are more adorned with drama and music, and more amenable to collective exposition.

    There is one interesting exception to this pattern. The poems of Shanai (1940) were mostly written in Tagore’s 78-79th year. “Written” is not a wholly accurate description of all the poems in this collection. Out of the 62 poems in Shanai, 21 are transformed versions of songs Tagore had himself composed earlier.

    Tagore’s song-making was a complex chemistry of cues and circumstances. From his own recollections, some of his early songs were assembled by applying tunes on prefabricated words, often with one of his elder brothers playing the piano. As he matured as a composer, sometimes he took a poem he had written earlier and set it to tune. His associates have recalled how bouquets of songs often seemed to arrive at him like a flock of birds, in later life. In one of his songs, Tagore summarizes his song-making process with silken élan: কাল রাতের বেলা গান এল মোর মনে (Last night, a song came to my mind.).

    By all accounts, it seems there was hardly a linear progression in the way Tagore composed his songs.  However, in the 21 transformed poems in Shanai, Tagore has deliberately removed melody from his past compositions, as if trying to reignite the beauty of bare words. Some of the poems are longer than their parent songs; in some, new words have been introduced, or turns of phrases are subtly different, or whole new motifs are evoked. In quite a few, the liquid rhythm of song has changed to the staccato rhyme of poetry.

    Given Tagore’s firm belief that his songs represented the most enduring element of his oeuvre, this enterprise of re-engineering songs into poems seems quite intriguing. In this essay, I will offer a perspective on this unique tinkering Tagore undertook in his twilight years. The 21 transformed poems in Shanai do not constitute a statistically significant sample. The very fact that these transformations involve a miniscule fraction – only around 1% of Tagore’s nearly 2000 songs – appear to me to be especially significant in terms of the insights they can offer in their particular contexts. Poems and songs speak to each one of us in our own ways. This very subjectivity – and the attendant flexibility of interpretation – makes such literary forms so appealing. Accordingly, this essay conveys my own observations, opinions, and speculations on a very small portion of Tagore’s corpus. To avoid pedantry, I have eschewed footnotes and references. If any reader points out any factual inaccuracy, I will stand gladly corrected.

    Some examples

    Each of the 21 transformed poems in Shanai are drawn either from the Prakriti or Prem category of Gitabitan, barring a single song from Natyageeti; all the Prakriti songs are from the Barsha sub-category. Let us take a closer look at a selection of five out of these 21 transformations. To better understand the incremental changes that effectuated these transformations, I sought song-poem pairs that represent minimal syntactic change between the song and the poem. Out of those, I selected two songs each from Prakiti and Prem, and the single song from Natyageeti, to arrive at the selection of five. Five is an arbitrary number, and my selection is naturally biased by my own liking for particular songs. However, this small selection allows us to closely observe some of the instruments of transformation Tagore used.

    The five transformations are presented below in figures, with related discussion. The sequence of presentation loosely follows the quanta of diminishing syntactic change across the song-poem pairs – the first one being the highest, and the last one, the least. In each figure illustrating a transformation, I present the song version on the left, and the poem version on the right. I have used the following color codes to highlight differences: words/phrases that appear in the song but not in the poem are marked in blue; word/phrases that appear in the poem but not in the song are marked in yellow; and word/phrases that have been changed within the same semantic context between the song and the poem are marked in green. This color coding will enable readers to get an indication of the quanta of change in each song-poem pair at a glance. While discussing specific changes, I use italics to draw the reader’s attention to specific words or phrases.

    I present the changed words between each song and the corresponding poem in the original Bengali and discuss their implications in English. Bilingualism proves to be a very effective tool here; it allows me to examine the elements of transformation within one language, from the neutral vantage of another language. Readers who are unfamiliar with Bengali can look at the figures in this section for a visual sense of the change in each song-poem pair, then skip the text of this section altogether and move to the next section, without any loss of continuity. In all other sections of this essay, whenever I have quoted Tagore in Bengali, I have included my English translation of the original.

    The song, এই উদাসী হাওয়ার পথে পথে মুকুলগুলি ঝরে (গীতবিতান: প্রেম – প্রেমবৈচিত্র্য) was composed in 1939, and soon thereafter, transformed to the poem named যাবার আগে (সানাই). As is evident from the colors of Figure 1, many words of the song have been removed in the poem, which in turn has many new words.

    Figure 1: উদাসী হাওয়ার পথে মুকুলগুলি ঝরে যাবার আগে (সানাই)

    Interestingly, among the changes, উদাসী has been changed to উদাস; a subtle shift from the feminine to the masculine when qualifying the wind that fells the buds. In another change, কুড়িয়ে নিয়েছি of the song is কুড়িয়ে নিয়ে এনেছি in the poem; while the former suggests an easy – almost carefree – picking-up of the buds, the latter hints at a careful collection. In the change from আভাসগুলি পড়বে মালায় গাঁথা to স্মৃতির ডালায় রইবে আভাসগুলি, a conscious collection of the vignettes gives way to mere remembrance. And tellingly, অলস দ্বিপ্রহরে changes to নীরব দ্বিপ্রহরে, turning languor to silence.

    We find rich metaphors of the amorous in the song. Tagore invokes the call of the bou-katha-kao, the full moon of the Dol night, the backdrop of whispered conversations, the fullness of longing, and concomitant bitter-sweet pain. In the poem, with near surgical precision, all such allusions are either removed (, , , ), or reconstructed to a different sense (বউকথাকও তন্দ্রাহারা বিফল ব্যথায় ডাক দিয়ে হয় সারা to merely বউ-কথা-কও ডাকবে তন্দ্রাহারা).

    Tagore named the poem যাবার আগে, which literally translates to before departure. In the transformation of the song to the poem, amorous longing seems to morph into a longing for the living world. Every departure can bring the beckon of another arrival, to the beloved; but Life can move to its only denouement. Yet, while Life is in motion today, it creates memories for tomorrow. The poem ends with শিরীষ-পাতায় কাঁপবে আলো / নীরব দ্বিপ্রহরে; the transience of departure is echoed in the leaves and light.

    Figure 2: বাদল-দিনের প্রথম কদম ফুল to দেওয়া-নেওয়া (সানাই)

    I now turn to the song বাদল-দিনের প্রথম কদম ফুল (গীতবিতান: প্রকৃতি – বর্ষা). The song was composed on 30th July 1939 and the corresponding poem, named দেওয়া-নেওয়া, is dated 10th January 1940 (Figure 2). The first line of the song (and the poem) is evocative enough for Bengali readers to have been used in the title of a popular novel by one of Tagore’s junior contemporaries, Achintya Kumar Sengupta.

    আমি দিতে এসেছি in the song becomes আমি তো দিয়েছি in the poem; while the former suggests an intention of giving, the latter confirms having given. Another changed word is মেঘের in the song, vis-à-vis সজল in the poem. Both words are used as adjectives qualifying ছায়া; the word in the poem underscores that the clouds are indeed gravid with rain, reiterating the fullness of the monsoon pointed out in the previous line ভরা শ্রাবণের মেঘমল্লারগান. It is very telling that the poet chose to specify the raag of the song alluded to in the poem as megha mallar. The tune of the song this poem is derived from, is also set in mallar. Even as Tagore banished the tune from his song to arrive at the poem, perhaps he sought to leave a tell-tale trace of what was. সুরের ক্ষেতের প্রথম সোনার ধান in the song becomes সুরের শ্যামল খেতের / প্রথম সোনার ধান in the poem; a subtle juxtaposition of senses that emphasizes the verdancy of the field of crops. As the song moves to its coda, তব বিস্মৃতিস্রোতের প্লাবনে incarnates as স্মৃতিবন্যার উছল প্লাবনে in the poem – currents of forgetfulness in the one who has received have given way to waves of lively remembrance. And fittingly, ফিরিয়া ফিরিয়া আসিবে তরণী বহি তব সম্মান is now ফিরিয়া ফিরিয়া বাহিবে তরণী/ভরি তব সম্মান; no longer a passive arrival of a boat laden with laurels, but an active voyage to convey the honors. While the song predominantly celebrates having received, the poem is an assertion of having also given, in return. The song is about reception, while the poem is about interaction. With just a few changes, Tagore has transformed a one-way flow into a two-way exchange.

    Figure 3: আমার প্রিয়ার ছায়া to ছায়াছবি (সানাই)

    The song আমার প্রিয়ার ছায়া (গীতবিতান: প্রকৃতি – বর্ষা) was composed on 25th August 1938 while the corresponding poem ছায়াছবি (সানাই) was written in the same year; the exact date is not available (Figure 3).

    In the song, an expression of despair – হায় – is repeated several times, and is underscored by a melancholia, even in breath (বিষণ্ণ নিশ্বাসে). The poem has none of this gloom. What was আমার প্রিয়ার ছায়া in the song, is আমার প্রিয়ার সচল ছায়াছবি in the poem. The poet chooses to convert a mere shadow into a motion picture, and names the poem ছায়াছবি, the very word used in Bengali for a movie. Tagore was not wholly unfamiliar with the cinematic medium. In 1932 he had directed and acted in the film Notir Puja – his only foray into film direction – based on his eponymous dance drama composed in 1926. As mentioned earlier, Notir Puja itself was derived from the poem Pujarini (1906). This is perhaps the only narrative in world literature which has been given expression in three distinct forms – poem, dance drama, and cinema – by the same creator. The movie Notir Puja won some critical acclaim but was not successful commercially. However, directing and acting in the movie had offered Tagore a sense of the possibilities of this medium. He invokes the key element of a movie – its movement (আমার প্রিয়ার সচল ছায়াছবি) – when transforming the song into the poem. A merely static shadow in the song is a dynamic presence in the poem. While a shadow offers a mere hint, a motion picture provides a richness of experience that long remained unparalleled. Tagore leverages this richness in the poem. While the evanescence of the shadow had colored her presence with gloom in the song; the poem delivers her into the fullness of life. With minimal intervention, Tagore turns the static into the dynamic. By calling the poem ছায়াছবি, perhaps he also indulged in a little word play – although ছায়াছবি is the Bengali word for a movie, we see much more than the pictures (ছবি) of shadows (ছায়া) in a movie. We see an enactment of Life, and if done well, what seems like Life itself. This vitality is at the heart of the poem that is called ছায়াছবি; and perhaps that is why the song’s melancholia vanishes in it.

    Figure 4: যে ছিল আমার স্বপনচারিণী to গান (সানাই)

    On 8th December, 1938 Tagore composed the song যে ছিল আমার স্বপনচারিণী (গীতবিতান: প্রেম – প্রেমবৈচিত্র্য). On the very same day, he transformed the song (Figure 4) to a poem named গান (সানাই). Using his poetic license to the hilt, he chooses to call a poem a song.

    The song starts off as, যে ছিল আমার স্বপনচারিণী / তারে বুঝিতে পারি নি। / দিন চলে গেছে খুঁজিতে॥; whereas in the poem, it is যে ছিল আমার স্বপনচারিণী / এতদিন তারে বুঝিতে পারি নি, / দিন চলে গেছে খুঁজিতে। The introduction of এতদিন somewhat dilutes the finality of the unsuccessful search that the song’s start echoes.  This is emphasized by the “,” (comma) at the end of এতদিন তারে বুঝিতে পারি নি in the poem vis-à-vis the “ | ” (period) at the corresponding location in the song. Tagore removes the indulgent accent in লজ্জা আমার ঢাকিলে গো in the song, to merely লজ্জা আমার ঢাকিলে in the song, and immediately follows it with the removal of the hint of easy understanding in তোমারে সহজে পেরেছি বুঝিতে to simply তোমারে পেরেছি বুঝিতে. What was কাহার প্রেমের বেদনায় আমার মূল্য আছে in the song, becomes কাহার প্রেমের বেদনার কাছে,/ আমার মূল্য আছে in the poem, perhaps to balance the cadence of the words; or may be more deeply, to accentuate the very subtle difference between one’s worth being inherent to the other’s pain, vis-à-vis one’s worthiness being perceptible in the other’s pain. The hint of despair in এ নিরন্তর সংশয়ে হায় পারি নে যুঝিতে in the song is less intense in এ নিরন্তর সংশয়ে আর / পারি না কেবলি যুঝিতে – the replacement of হায় with আর, and the addition of কেবলি indicates a sustained effort at understanding, in spite of lasting qualms. This effort finds fruition in the last line. তোমারেই শুধু সত্য পেরেছি বুঝিতে in the poem was originally আমি  তোমারেই শুধু পেরেছি বুঝিতে in the song. A true realization awaits at the end of the journey, in the poem.

    Figure 5: কোথাও আমার হারিয়ে যাওয়ার  to রূপকথায় (সানাই)

    The next and last example I will look at, is কোথাও আমার হারিয়ে যাওয়ার নেই মানা (গীতবিতান: নাট্যগীতি). The song was composed in 1939 to be included in the play Dakghar – but was subsequently left out of it. On 10th January 1940, Tagore transformed this song to a poem named রূপকথায়.

    A cursory read seems to suggest the song has been turned to the poem almost word for word, barring some minor representational variations such যাওয়ার vs যাবার; রূপ-কথার vs রূপকথার; চুপ্‌-কথার vs চুপকথার; আকাশ-কুসুম versus আকাশকুসুম. As is evident when the song is heard or sung, these variations support particular melodic cadences; such as the hyphens indicating the momentary pause between রূপ and কথার, and similarly for the other words. সাত সাগরের ফেনায় ফেনায় মিশে / আমি  যাই ভেসে দূর দিশে in the song becomes সাত সাগরের ফেনায় ফেনায় মিশে / যাই ভেসে দূর দিশে; the first person singular in the song has been deemed redundant in the poem. But, the most telling instrument of transformation for this song is not even a word or a phrase. It is a mere punctuation.

    To me, কোথাও আমার হারিয়ে যাওয়ার নেই মানা the song, brings back the boundless fantasy of childhood, when life is a lore of possibilities. But কোথাও আমার হারিয়ে যাবার নেই মানা, read as a poem – with the conscious erasure of tune – is redolent of the old age of a life well spent; where willingness of the spirit is fettered by weakness of the flesh, yet all worlds are still tractable to the mind. This difference in the spirit of the song vis-à-vis the poem is captured in the single punctuational difference in the very first line: কোথাও আমার হারিয়ে যাওয়ার নেই মানা মনে মনে! versus কোথাও আমার হারিয়ে যাবার নেই মানা / মনে মনে। In a life lived to the full, exclamation (“!”) turns to culmination (“|”). So little change; yet so much effect. 

    I am inclined to speculate that by naming the poem রূপকথায়, Tagore sought to indicate how the trajectory of the poem has moved away from that of the song. রূপকথায় translates to as it happens in a fairytale. From the vantage of a life coming to its full, weighed down by dotage, the expeditions described in the poem can only be in a fairytale, alas! In transforming the song to the poem with the boundless brevity of essentially one punctuation mark, Tagore’s takes his linguistic felicity to a new level.

    The examples illustrated above are unique in their own ways, as are the remaining transformed poems in Shanai. In each of the Shanai transformations, the poem has an identity that is distinct from the song. Tagore seems to be playing with the very definition of a song in these transformations. By removing music from the words, and often making small but significant changes in the words, he is re-examining what it means to be a song, vis-à-vis what it means to be a poem. Just as in Lipika (1922) almost two decades back – Tagore had rattled the boundaries between prose and poetry, in the transformed poems in Shanai, he is moving across and around the line separating song and poetry.

    These transformations are congruent with a pattern of experimentation Tagore consciously engaged in, throughout his life. Such experimentation often started out as mere tinkering; with the aim of exploring boundaries between forms, and how one form begets another. In his thirties, when Tagore was just establishing himself on the literary scene, he tried his hand at a form of narrative largely unknown then to the Bengali readership – the short story – and cemented its place in posterity. In his fifties, already a towering cultural icon, he supported the fledgling Sabujpatra movement by words and action; a decision which came to deeply influence the way Bengali was subsequently written and spoken. In his seventies, at the height of renown, he shunned the habit of a lifetime to start writing poetry that did not necessarily rhyme, started painting and exhibiting his pictures, and dabbled in movie direction. Not all experiments succeeded enough for further engagement, like movie direction; yet the experimentation continued.

    Tagore seemed to revel in such experiments with form, and often also content. In 1931, in a poem dedicated to Nandalal Bose – pioneering artist at Shantiniketan and more than 20 years his junior – Tagore exudes infantile excitement while alluding to his new found interest in painting – তোমারি খেলা খেলিতে আজি উঠেছে কবি মেতে,/ নববালক জন্ম নেবে নূতন আলোকেতে (The poet is excited to start playing your game/Heralding a new birth in a new light.). Tagore even recognizes the constraints of the literary forms that have bound him so far, and pines for a new lens to look at Life – ভাবনা তার ভাষায় ডোবা--/ মুক্ত চোখে বিশ্বশোভা/ দেখাও তারে, ছুটেছে মন তোমার পথে যেতে (His thoughts have been suffused in words / With unfettered vision / Show him the world in all resplendence / The mind longs for your path). In another context, a conversation recalled by Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis offers a rare glimpse into the outlook that fostered such experimentation. The short story Laboratory was published in the penultimate year of Tagore’s life. Through one of the central characters – Shohini – Tagore provokes his readers to re-examine extant mores of morality. Laboratory radically departed from the themes that had come to typify Tagore’s fiction. Tagore – supremely aware of this departure – was eager to know how the story was being received. Soon after Laboratory’s publication, Tagore asked Prasanta Chandra about the public reaction, even enquiring whether readers were asking if Tagore has lost his mind in his 80th year, as if he quite expected them to. At the time of this conversation, Tagore was recovering at Kolkata after having just survived a sudden and serious illness at Kalimpong. But his physical frailty did not cause him to be any less engaged with the reaction to Laboratory. He remarked that even as he knew many readers would say it was unbecoming of Tagore to create a character like Shohini and treat the narrative of Laboratory the way he did, he did so deliberately. As this anecdote reflects, Tagore remained interested in how his experiments were being received; but he was determined to experiment, reactions notwithstanding.

    The transformations of songs to poems in Shanai come as a continuation of a trend Tagore cultivated throughout his life, of trying out things he had not done before, even if that meant breaking out from time-tested frameworks. However, these particular transformations hint at something else, which none of his earlier experiments did.

    Tagore wrote poetry since early adolescence. Abounding innate talent and relentless practice made poetry-making something like breathing to him; organic and effortless. Indeed, in the galaxy of his gifts, Tagore identified himself principally as a poet. Incidents recollected by Nirmal Kumari Mahalanobis indicate how Tagore considered his poetry-making as a hallmark of his very life force.  Looking to assuage Tagore's concerns about the impending surgery during his final illness, Jyoti Prakash Sarkar – one of the attending surgeons, and personally known to Tagore for long – told him that it is quite possible Tagore will recite his own poems even as he being was operated upon under local anesthesia. Tagore seemed to have taken the assurance to heart, perhaps as it had (deliberately!) touched a key chord of his identity. In the hours after surgery, he asked whether Jyoti Prakash was indeed disappointed at not having heard a poem from him during the procedure.

    Tagore makes some interesting observations in a very short preface (dated 1938) to the first single-volume Gitabitan edition. This was most likely the last Gitabitan edition to be published in his lifetime, which makes the remarks even more definitive. He highlights how the songs have been thematically arranged in this edition, vis-à-vis earlier editions. And then emphasizes that this arrangement is supposed to facilitate readers (he used the word পাঠক instead of শ্রোতা, so he was specifically reaching out to readers rather than listeners) to follow the songs as lyrical poems, even without the accompaniment of tunes.  Given that the book embodied his lifelong song-making, the suggestion that the songs be read without their melodies is quite unexpected. At the time Tagore wrote this preface to Gitabitan, it is very likely he had already started experimenting with the song-poem transformations that would be published in Shanai.

    I think all this points to a poet-composer duality that was unique to Tagore. Given his poetic prowess – and his consciousness of it – it may have bemused Tagore to some extent that songs were set to become the most lasting of his legacy. Words seemed to reach the deepest recesses of his audience, only when they rode on tunes. While the beloved reception his songs received among the Bengali speaking peoples – in his lifetime, and presciently, beyond – must have gratified Tagore, it may also have piqued his poetic persona. Thus, in the transformed poems in Shanai, it seems Tagore was challenging himself to test whether his poems could indeed transcend his songs, when tunes were deliberately shorn off the latter. What he merely suggested in the preface to Gitabitan, he sought to demonstrate through these transformations in Shanai.

    In a very different context, one may be reminded of Arthur Conan Doyle, contriving to push a certain resident of Baker Street into the Reichenbach Falls, so that his historical novels received the attention he believed they deserved! Prolific creators across multiple genres are often concerned about what comes to define their legacies.

    Another Prequel?

    Momentous turns in Tagore’s odyssey have often been preceded by tentative forays in similar directions. Published in 1881, Europe Prabasir Patra was Tagore’s first major work in colloquial Bengali prose; and he fully adopted this writing style several decades later. His first book of “modern” poetry in the prose style was Punascha (1932). But as he himself mentions in the preface to Punascha, some of the pieces of Lipika – published a decade earlier – were his first engagement with this new poetic form. With such interesting precedents, let me delve for a moment into something that the computer scientist and philosopher Judea Pearl would call a “counterfactual”: Had Tagore lived – in full command of his creativity – beyond that early August day of 1941, which way would the experiment he started with the Shanai transformations have gone?

    Recollections of close associates such as Nirmal Kumari Mahalanobis, Sudhir Chandra Kar, and Rani Chanda suggest that even as Tagore’s health was steadily declining in the last few years of his life, he retained close attention to refining pieces he had already written, and had new writing plans. He insisted on checking his proofs himself, often reading out the lines aloud to check how they sounded to his ear, and kept on making changes on the proofs, substituting words until he hit the mot juste. Buddhadeva Bose has recalled Tagore telling him in the summer of 1941 that he wanted to start writing the second part of his novel Jogajog. When an aide read out to him what was to be his last poem – verbally composed and dictated on the morning of July 30, 1941, the day of his surgery – Tagore asked for the poem to be brought back to him after the procedure was over, so that he could make the changes that still needed to be made, with a clearer mind. One endowed with such zest for the writerly life must have felt quite enthused with the opinion of a section of doctors, that a successful surgery can enable him to continue his cerebral work for another decade. That was not to be.

    Counterfactuals allow us to explore what might have been. Tagore named this collection of poems "Shanai", after the musical instrument which evokes the start of a new journey. This, along with the facts that Tagore’s breaking of new ground often had harbingers, and he still had much creative vitality, tempts me to speculate that the transformations in Shanai were a prequel to a new genre. Had he lived longer, Tagore may have expanded this tinkering to a whole new level of experimentation, turning many of Gitabitan’s songs into poems, venturing beyond the Prakriti and Prem categories that the Shanai transformations are drawn from. That could have added yet another dimension to Tagore's singularly multi-dimensional oeuvre. Thus, with a breadth of possibilities, this remained Tagore’s unfinished experiment.

    Journey of innovation

    The transformations in Shanai offer a unique insight into the underpinnings of literary creation.

    Contrary to what the media would have us believe, innovation is not merely the monopoly of Silicon Valley start-ups. Defined in the online Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary as “the introduction of new things, ideas or ways of doing something”, innovation stretches across disciplines. New often comes from variations of the existing, through incremental change.

    Ford’s Model T – the first affordable automobile that heralded a new era in human locomotion – carries the 20th English alphabet in its name because the car passed through a series of incremental changes starting with Model A, before arriving at the iconic edition. Similarly, several iterations went before Apollo 11 enabled that giant leap for mankind. And surprising as it may seem, the shining devices we hold in our hands today have arisen out of more than a century of incremental change, starting from such atavistic origins as the electric bulb and the Morse code. Incremental variations on a common substructure is one of the underlying mechanisms of innovation, in natural as well as artificial worlds. This is manifested in species branching off in the biological tree of life, and engineering artifacts improving upon their precursors.

    At the heart of the engineering process lies something we appreciate all the time, but hardly ever recognize. Engineers do not merely build; they also refine what they have already built. Every engineering artifact we use undergo many cycles of refinement, and many are refined even as we use them. Our computers become smarter in a year, our cars faster in a decade, and our lights brighter in a century. To engineer is to continually refine, to improve relentlessly on the past.

    Tagore was no engineer. Indeed, given his views on formal education, he would have loathed the minutiae of an engineering curriculum. It is fortunate that no effort was expended to make him an engineer, as was done to make him a barrister. Engineers build their “things” with bricks, steel, polymersf, and increasingly, algorithms and bytes. Tagore built his “things” with words, rhymes, melodies, and paint. Just the act of building does not make an engineer a Tagore, or Tagore an engineer. However, the transformed poems in Shanai offer a rare and fascinating glimpse into how innovation through refinement and incremental change can be at play in literary creations too. Perhaps somewhere deep inside, the birth new forms from old connect diverse streams of human ingenuity.

    In his thirties, Tagore had written in a letter to Pramatha Chaudhuri that if he lived long enough, he was sure of leaving behind a legacy. When he died, Tagore had lived longer than twice the life expectancy for Indians at that time.  Yet, it is not merely in longevity that his legacy lay. The transformed poems in Shanai stand testimony to the foundational traits that define Tagore and his creativity: ever ready to innovate, and unafraid to disrupt himself. 

    Published in Parabaas September 15, 2019.

    Illustration: Dipankar Ghosh

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