To say Rabindranath Tagore dominated the cultural mind of Bengalis would be an understatement. No single literary icon holds such sway over a language. You can take the Bengali out of Bengal, but you can’t take his Tagore love out, as evidenced by the scores of talented Bangladeshi singers across the border. Perhaps only Goethe (in German) and Shakespeare (in English) have left a cultural legacy that grand.
Tagore was such a prolific writer of poems, novels, short stories, essays et al that he makes Bob Dylan look like a dilettante songwriter who was goofing off. He took up painting later in life but was so brilliant that MF Hussain called him the father of Modern Indian Art.
Tagore established a university unique in its own way which had among other things a school of dance, one for painters and sculptors and other forms of art.
He singlehandedly modernized the Bengali language, and started a chain of thought that evolved from nationalism to internationalism to the extent that he would’ve been befuddled at the thought of people being attacked for refusing to stand up for the National Anthem.
While Tagore’s influence might have waned in the outside world, he lives on everyday amongst Bengalis, even after 15 decades. He lives in the hearts and minds of anyone familiar with the Bengali language, even though one wonders if he would’ve taken too kindly to the off-key Rabindra Sangeet recitals that are part and parcel of Bengali households, sounding like a bag of screeching cats being repeatedly hit against a brick wall.
Tagore’s songs must be classified in a way that would please the modern SEO gods.
The first category undoubtedly belongs to the role his songs played in the liberation of Bangladesh, with the people of Bangladesh finding inspiration in numerous works which evoke their deep love and attachment for the motherland. It was a reminder of Bengalis choosing their cultural identity over their religious one.
O Aamaar Desher Maati
Gram Chhara oi Ranga Matir
Aamar Sonar Bangla
Tagore wrote finest of the love song - pathos of separation of lovers and pangs of unrequited love found its zenith in his songs with heart-rending lyrics and unforgettable tunes. If they sound similar, know that a generation of Bollywood singers were ‘inspired’ by Gurudev’s words.
Aamar Paran Jaha Chai
Aamar Hiyar Majhey
Sakhi Bhabona Kahare Bole
Godhuli Lagane Meghedhekechilo Tara
Mone Ki Dwidha Rekhe
Tagore was deeply influenced by Upanishads and personal God permeates his songs in a way that it is impossible to separate human love for the lover and devotee’s love for God
Matha Nato Kore Daao
Tai Tomar Anando Aamar Par
Maharaj Eki Saaj
Je Rate Mor Duyar Guli
Nayan Tomare Payena Dekhite
While art does transcend linguistic and cultural barriers, translations can never truly capture the ethos proposed in the original. It’s only a rare ‘Where the Mind is Without Fear’ which is as moving in English as it is in Bengali.
Song lyrics can’t be translated properly, music tastes too are extremely localized, the best of Tagore never crossed the borders of Bengali cultural boundaries.
Tagore was seen by most as old school - faith in God full of love and care who does no evil, different form modern world view of absurd or life without meaning or purpose. It is not well known that towards end of his life, Tagore questioned the all-pervading goodness of God and expressed serious doubt – mostly through his paintings and through some of his last poems written on his death bed.
This doubt and lack of meaning in life and doubting his God is expressed in a few of his songs, one of them:
Tori Amar Hatat Dube Jai
And to sign off, as a bonus, here are the remaining stanzas for the National Anthem that didn’t make the cut: