July 18, 2015
by Ansuman

Our next event…An Evening of Rabindrasangeet, London

Sunday 26 July, 6.30pm start

A celebration for all the family featuring poetry reading, dance and sketches stemming from or about Rabindranath Tagore and his work.

Whether you’re an academic on Tagore or a complete novice, please don’t miss out on this evening.

Tickets £10

Rudolph Steiner Theatre
35 Park Road
London NW1 6XT
(Tube: Baker Street)
Tel: 0207 723 4400

For tickets, please call:
The Tagore Centre 0208 444 6751
Sandra (Admin) 07806 770991
Dr K Kundu (Chairperson) 0208 368 4302

May 7, 2015
by Ansuman
1 Comment

Mindful Education

Nuala Dalton is one of the researchers who has been working with the Tagore Centre UK for several months. She has been focusing particularly on Tagore’s ideas on education and has been applying them to her own experience as a schoolteacher. Here she outlines some of the concerns she has been grappling with and reflects on the many questions that arise.



Mindful Education


As part of my Tagore project I wanted to spend some time focusing on education. I had worked for nine years in education, initially for a music service and subsequently as a mainstream music and drama teacher and during this time I used meditation in various ways through my music workshops and in my classes. I have been meditating for 12 years, on and off, alternating with yoga, it has been a very important part of my life. I decided that as a part of my project this year I would develop this interest further, as a school project.


Theatre Project:

However before I did this, I decided to take a break from the school system and focus on developing a short theatre piece. My idea was to get away from a ‘teaching mindset’ and the process of designing the show helped me do this, and so I created an immersive project prioritising sensory experience, diametrically opposed to the usual school requirements of skills and knowledge acquisition and the evaluation of that. I submitted my proposal in July for a short festival being held in October at The Lyric Hammersmith, the piece was received with a lot of enthusiasm by the production team and though it was not chosen for use on this occasion, the process was very useful to me in clarifying what I was interested in creating and why.



After this foray into theatre, I returned to the school project idea, the development of the theatre piece now formed the basis for my approach to the schools project, firmly centring it on creating a sensory and receptive experience.


In the course of designing the brochure, I looked up other projects that use meditation as well and I came across a vast array of ‘mindfulness’ workshops. In one workshop I saw a man in a suit and tie showing primary school children a powerpoint. Most of the information I found online was of businesses that used a corporate style in their packaging, the wording and structure of what they were offering was also very corporate in format – perfect for interacting with the business side of schools buying in a product – but to me it lacked all the mystery, artistry, magic and gentleness that I associate with meditation.


Indeed when it comes to these type of businesses that trade in the corporate world, I felt echoes of the positive thinking industry and the countless ‘get rich quick’ programmes that are touted online. There are a million websites selling the same ‘mind over matter’ techniques that have been around for years, alongside the ever-popular success-in-business books such as the 1936 book ‘How to Win friends and Influence people’.   Mindfulness is not this, however mindfulness as a technique to make you more effective in the business world, does seem like a new wave on that older theme, even if it is a more sophisticated and healthy approach.


Indeed there is nothing wrong with anyone trying to better themselves, or using a technique that will help them be more effective in the workplace, but I knew the associated advertising of ‘effectiveness’ and ‘attainment’ were not qualities I wanted to focus on in my project. So I asked myself if I aspired to be a part of the mindfulness market, or were my aims different to these other businesses? Is ‘mindfulness’ just too generic a term to use meaningfully, does it actually encompass a wider range of approaches than I had first assumed? So I put the project on hold and sat with my questions, waiting for clarity, as to whether to invest my energy in the project or not.


Reservations clarified:

In time I came across a comment that summed up my uncertainty about the mindfulness industry in relation to education. I was happy with the content of the schools project, but it was important for me to clarify what position it occupied in the larger scheme of things. I wondered to myself, what would really impact schools? What would make a real and noticeable change? Hardly some workshops, though that would be better than nothing of course.


The comment was by a Mr. David Cooper on an article on mindfulness called How two minutes of mindfulness can calm a class and boost attainment’ in ‘The Guardian’, it went as follows: ‘The better cure is to change the school system, so you don’t have so much damage to undo in the first place. Children’s lives are squandered for them by an oppressive system which teaches them in the most stressful and inefficient ways known to mankind… ‘Mindfulness’ as a means to improve school is like applying a sticking plaster to an amputated head’


I agree with these sentiments and I believe Tagore probably would too. I’m keenly aware however, that the solutions are not simple, teachers work under intense limitations, with on average thirty primary children in their care, or in the case of secondary teachers, several hundred passing through their classroom weekly, they are automatically dealing with a baseline of stress before any targets, evaluations, special needs or challenging behaviour enters the mix. There is also the fact that children are not blank slates, but carry with them a huge variety of issues.


I then came across another article in the ‘Financial Times Magazine’ (March 14th/15th) called ‘All in the Mind?’ by Antonia Macaro and Julian Baggini. This article was exploring the phenomenon of mindfulness training in business, health and education. They made a point that echoed my own misgivings: ‘For those who value mindfulness as a spiritual or ethical path, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of concern that something traditionally subversive of mainstream values and goals is being used in support of them.’   and ‘..the danger is that once you remove that [the Buddhist] framework is that you reduce it to something that is just about you, one of simple utility.’ One utilitarian use mentioned was by the US military.


I do accept that teaching mindfulness will add a positive skill to students lives, but I also fear it will act as a substitute for examining the entire school structure and experiences of those who live within it. As Mr. Cooper said, it may ‘act as a sticking plaster’ and distract from more fundamental changes that are needed. Without the well-being of children and teachers becoming a genuine priority, one that includes the implementation of fundamental practical changes, mindfulness will remain a 2-minute add-on, in a system that stays exactly the same. It may in fact just aid becoming ‘well adjusted to a profoundly sick society’ to use the words of Krishnamurti, or increasing one’s ability to cope with stressful structures – when the structures should in fact be changed instead.




This brings to mind another buzzword popular in education in recent years, creativity, it promised a similar energy of change. Perhaps what had turned me off the other businesses was their overly scientific or businesslike approach to mindfulness? While my project would naturally gravitate towards a more creative route. The rational approach has its place, but it has traditionally been given an unhealthy emphasis. Indeed the core function of my schools project was to counter-balance the analytical excess that is the norm in schools, to create an at least momentary oasis for feeling, listening and receptivity. Yet just as with the term mindfulness, creativity is a very broad label with many facets and interpretations.


Creativity as a term in education has become overused. What tends to happen is a surface rehashing of ‘creativity is great’, many agreeing that yes ‘creativity is great’, but the detail of practical application in the school context can often be overlooked. Numerous education bodies and theorists praise the power of creativity, yet so much is simply not practical to implement and often a thought-out practical application hasn’t even been developed.


Adding creativity as an evaluation category can be counter-productive. Adding it as a category for writing schemes of work can become just another box to fill in. Creativity can also mean a huge amount of extra work for teachers and can become over-whelming. Allowing pupils more freedom and choice is great in theory, but it must be balanced with the reality of thirty children in a small space. Creativity and mindfulness theorised about separately from the practical realities of school life, becomes meaningless. Meaningful initiatives must incorporate a solid understanding of the workloads of those who are expected to create the magic – the number of schemes of work, the planning and paperwork, marking, school trips, meetings, extra curricular and supervision duties etc. Creativity should raise energy and be a pleasure, not a logistical headache.


That’s why I believe in the importance of non-assessed units, modules, classes, time allocated into schemes of work, the school day and the school year for experiencing the subjects without having to analyse, be tested on or feed back. Many teachers would love to be more creative, but the tight constrictions within which they must work simply mean they have neither the time nor freedom to do so.



Speaking of the practical realities of school life, schools face huge pressures to provide data. The paperwork schools are required to do and the data they collect came from good intentions, to improve standards in schools. However the time needed for this must naturally be taken from other areas. Paperwork takes up an inordinate amount of school time, time which would otherwise be spent engaging with the students. In order to provide this data children must be frequently evaluated. Indeed schools seem to measure everything – except how long it takes to measure everything, but of course they don’t really have the choice not to.


Therefore it’s the government who should be measuring the impact of their requests for data, the regular implementations of change and the time used up by these. As well as testing and tracking their students, teachers have a large range of other paperwork to keep up to date with – but if anything aids a child’s development, surely it’s got to be receiving a teacher’s time and attention?


Who analyses and measures how long it takes for each of the many expectations teachers are required to fulfil? Do system tests take place? Are time studies ever done? If something is added, what is taken away? If any of this is happening, judging by teacher feedback and union actions, it’s not being effective. The reality is this, if the expectations are unrealistic, then it’s got to crack somewhere, the teacher, the student or both. Unfortunately education seems to be subject to the type of fantasy thinking prevalent in the banking crisis. In neither case has pushing to the limits led to anything useful. Perhaps education needs to be protected from political involvement. Teachers up and down the country are putting in hours and hours of extra work trying to follow through on policy set by the government, yet at the end of the day is it achieving the outcome we want?



I was able to find little literature in English on Tagore and education, so I purchased one of the few books I could find in English called ‘Rabindranath Tagore. Adventure of Ideas and Innovative Practices in Education’ by Kumkum Bhattacharya, which gives a comprehensive overview of Tagore’s involvement in education. The colonial background of education in India, is interesting to note and is something that is echoed through many nations across the world. Education acted first as social reform and later as a system to claim back identity and national pride, including language and culture.


Tagore’s sensitivity allowed his view of education to go beyond society and into the world of the child – he saw Nature as having a vital role in nurturing children ‘he felt that Nature herself would bring up the children with a little help from him’ (p40) however the gritty details of grouping children together in a formal environment became apparent ‘The school went through many rough patches – not enough students, not enough teachers or teachers who did not fulfil Tagore’s ideas; instead of freedom of the students, there were too many rules and regulations..’ (p41) The author also notes here how in the first decade of the school there was a quick turnover of teachers, I wonder if the experience was not that enjoyable for those teachers that left quite quickly.


The principles and philosophies which guided Tagore’s education work are truly powerful and inspirational, but coming from the perspective of a classroom teacher – I’d love to know what the experience of the teachers was, in terms of preparing and managing the learning process of this wide and varied curriculum. I also wonder if assessment was a part of the system and if the school was inspected by a state body. Tagore had ‘devolved the power of school management to a body of teachers who coordinated the administration and management’ (p50), I wonder how this aspect of the school was influenced and sustained by his philosophies – if the school succeeded in being an organised, calm and joyful environment for the staff, as well as for the students? The book provides an intriguing glimpse into a pioneering educationalist, whose philosophies are more relevant today than ever and that deserve to be re-explored.


To return to education today, let me be sure to emphasise I believe amazing work goes on in schools every day and teachers deserve more respect and appreciation for the vital work they do. They certainly deserve more support. It is important to note that approximately half of UK secondary schools have the intense reality of student numbers of 1,000 to 1,500, often in quite restricted space. Depression, mental health problems and suicide is becoming an increasing problem among young people today and bullying and behaviour issues have become key areas of challenge in many schools. Education is a complex topic, with many interested parties, but I do believe ultimately everyone involved would prefer calm, happy students to anxious and stressed students. With the will to do so in place at government level, more steps could be taken in that direction.


Here ends my reflection on education that I began in order to contextualise my schools project idea. I don’t consider myself an expert on anything more than my own experience, but what I’ve learnt from this reflection, is that I see paperwork expectations and the lack of management of teacher’s, manager’s and school’s workloads, as big barriers to creating calm, creative and nurturing environments for students. My workshops would not solve that, but at least they would contribute to redressing the imbalance of the Ida and the Pingala, of the analytical and receptive experiences. I will now sign off with a few questions that I’m reflecting on:


How can schools become more sensitive environments?

How can receptivity be understood and valued as much as activity?

Can non-doing be balanced with doing?

How would non-doing work in schools with poor student behaviour?

What are the negative sides of evaluation and assessing?

How can non-assessed experience be valued more?

How can schools experience more regular contact with art, music and theatre –

not to analyse, but rather absorb it as an essential vitamin?

How can teacher health be valued more?

How can teacher and manager workload be more accurately assessed and balanced?

How can student mental and emotional health and student behaviour, become as important as academic targets?

How can the above be valued as a foundation for academic excellence rather than a distraction from it?


Phew I think it’s time for some meditation. That was a lot of analysis!










April 17, 2015
by Ansuman

Book Launch

Thursday 14th May, 6.30pm

The Nehru Centre

8 South Audley Street

London W1K 1HF


Book LaunchRabindranath Tagore: One Hundred Years of Global Reception

Edited by Martin Kampchen and Imre Bangha; Editorial Adviser Uma Das Gupta


The editors of this book asked Tagore experts worldwide to narrate how the Bengali author has been received from 1913 until our time. The idea for the book was conceived by the editors during the International Conference held by the Tagore Centre UK at London University in 2011, and the UK entry was written by the Chairperson of the Tagore Centre. We would be delighted if you can join us for the UK launch at the Nehru Centre, where all of the editors will be present and refreshments will be provided.


December 20, 2014
by Ansuman

Words, Listening, Waiting

Here are three new pieces of writing by one of the Tagore Centre resident artists, Nuala Dalton. Her empathetic responses to Tagore might give clues to our own creative practice.








September 22, 2014
by Ansuman

Dancing around Tagore

By Fiona Harvey

18th September 2014

As I sit down to write this next part of my exploration, I am distracted by the thought that it is Referendum Day in Scotland. Will we live in a different country tomorrow ? And it reminds me of all the many separations and mergings of nations in other parts of the world, in particular Partition of India in 1947.

Back to my voyage round the Archive. I had hoped to look at some of Tagore’s dance-dramas on video at the Centre, but they are unfortunately in too fragile a state and need to be transferred to a more robust medium.  So I was able to read about them in some of the English language writings in the archive.



Only about one third of Tagore’s writing has been translated into English so I was glad to learn that there were also some commentaries in English. And, of course, there are inummerable posts on Youtube showing different dancers’ interpretations. I particularly like this one :


because it includes some introductory explanation about the work. I am a keen dancer myself, pursuing Contemporary and Ballet primarily, although I have performed a variety of Indian folk dance with a group at Lohri Festival in Ahmedabad.

Fiona in Ahmedabad

I wondered how feasible it would be to develop some kind of crossover piece of work which blended Tagore’s style with a contemporary European approach. My aim would be to sever the boundaries of time and place, consolidating and developing the heritage.

September 21, 2014
by Ansuman

The Many Meanings of Tagore’s Bird Leitmotif

by Aurogeeta Das

Rabindranath Tagore - Plate290

Rabindranath Tagore – Plate 290

In the second part of my exploration of Tagore’s birds, I would like to first pick up some of the recurring themes that I saw emerging in his poetry, for example the ephemerality of life as hinted at in the following verse from Stray Birds:


Stray birds of summer come to my window to sing and fly away.

            And yellow leaves of autumn, which have no songs, flutter and fall there with a sigh. (1)

Rabindranath Tagore – Plate 243a

One sees this in other verses too, all of which I quote here from The Jewel That is Best, a collection of beautiful translations by William Radice. The following two are from the section Jottings:


Ragged dusty feathers lie,

Forgetful of how they flew in the sky. (2)

Rabindranath Tagore - Plate306

Rabindranath Tagore – Plate306


No trace of my flight

            Shows in the sky,

But what a delight

            It was, to fly! (3)

In the first one, the ragged feathers speak of past glory; one senses a melancholic note here, but in the second, the ephemeral nature of flight is celebrated.

Aurogeeta Das – Untitled [Bird2]

In other verses by Tagore, as pointed out previously, there is something of yearning, of wanting to be what one is not. Generally, Tagore’s bird is a symbol of nature, a metaphor for song, or freedom, or something else even (faith, for example), but seldom does Tagore name specific birds in his poetry. When Tagore does identify particular birds as he does with the tailorbird, the peacock, the koel and the crow below, there is something of irony that creeps in.

Rabindranath Tagore – Plate 300

A subtle variation of the ironic theme is a more overt form of envy, articulated in the first poem here as misplaced pity (both poems are from the section Particles):

  1. Glory’s Burden

The tailorbird said, ‘O Peacock, I feel

Such pity for you when I see your tail.’

Said the peacock, ‘Really? Please tell my why

Seeing me brings a tear to your eye.’

The tailorbird said, ‘It looks so funny

Your tail is much greater in size than your body.

Just watch how I dart lightly about!

Your tail must be such a burdensome weight.’

‘Don’t,’ said the peacock, ‘grieve for me falsely.

Burdens must rest on those who have glory.’ (4)

Aurogeeta Das – Untitled [Bird5]

  1. Plain Speaking

The forest blooms with the coming of Spring:

All that the koel does is sing.

‘I suppose,’ says the crow, ‘you’ve nothing to do

But flatter the Spring with your hullabaloo.’

Pausing for a moment, the koel looks round:

‘Who are you? Where do you come from, friend?’

‘I’m the plain-speaking crow,’ the crow replies.

‘Delighted,’ says the koel, and politely bows.

‘Be free to speak plainly all the year long.

I’m happy with the truth of my own sweet song.’ (5)

Radice explains in a footnote that ‘the koel has a shrill, dominating call, rising up the scale, ending with a softer, cooing sound.’ It may be relevant to add that the koel is of the same family as the cuckoo and in the popular Indian imaginary, is often revered for its song.

Aurogeeta Das – Untitled [Bird1]

Tagore has several verses where birds are clearly regarded as sentient beings of the natural world and these are among my favourites, as they situate birds in a larger eco-system, as it were. All three poems below are taken from the section Sparks:


When a bird sings a song

It does not know that it worships

            The sun’s dawning.

When a flower blooms in the wood

It does not know that it makes

Its pūjā offering. (6)

As Radice’s footnote explains, pūjā is Hindu worship or ritual, where ‘it is customary to offer flowers to a deity’.


Night becomes day:

            Birds, wake up,

Follow light’s path

            To heaven’s cup. (7)

Curiously, an additional theme that is clearly a major preoccupation for Tagore is the continual cycle of night and day. Itself a symbol of the ephemerality of life, the progression of day turning into night and night dawning as fresh day recurs time and again in his poems, including the ones I am quoting here, which evidently suggest this in myriad ways:


Rain in the night runs riot

            In the tamāl branches.

It drums at the nests of birds:

            ‘Wake up, wake up,’ it urges. (8)

From the section Jottings, the following verse shows the same preoccupation, but here, day and night seem to additionally symbolise the presence or absence of faith:


Faith is a bird at dawn

            Whose song says, ‘Light, light!’

Before night’s dark is gone. (9)

Rabindranath Tagore – Plate 301

In my first blogpost exploring Tagore’s birds, I asserted that it would be reasonable to interpret Tagore’s feelings about birdsong being largely joyful. In the following verses (the first taken from the section Jottings and the second from Sparks), we see this and more — specifically, that Tagore equates the joy of birdsong with the joy of flight:


O flocks of ducks in the wind in winter,

The wine of flight inspires your wings!

            Ecstatic with dreams of remoteness,

            Drunk with the sky’s blueness,

Tell me, how can I fill my songs

            With that same liquor? (10)



            In the joy of its flight

            The bird seems to write

Letterless words in the sky.

            When my flying mind sings

            My pen is borne high

            On the same joyous wings. (11)

Aurogeeta Das – Untitled [Bird3]

Taken from the section Sparks, the following poem is a rare exception where Tagore seems to censure the bird for its incessant song:


‘Answer me, answer me, wife!’

            The more the bird sings

The more its own racket

            Drowns the answers

                        The woodland brings. (12)

Radice explains that the Indian nightingale is colloquially sometimes referred to as ‘Bau kathā kao‘. ‘Bau‘ meaning ‘wife’ in Bengali, this would explain the term ‘wife’ being used here. It would almost seem as though Tagore wishes that the bird would occasionally be silent enough to hear the responses of the woodland. This is unusual, in that Tagore almost always seems to delight in birdsong.

Indeed, judging by the number of verses Tagore penned which mention birds, birdsong, bird flight or even just feathers or nests, I cannot help but feel that Tagore perhaps even endowed the symbolic bird with qualities that he aspired to. This yearning, to possess a talent that the all encompassing bird is graced with, is felt in the following poems from the sections Sparks and Jottings respectively, articulated in the first poem not as the poet’s desire but the longing of the sky itself:


                        Springtime bird,

You give the woodland shade the gift of tongues.

            Sky wants to sing with your voice

                        Its own songs. (13)


The songs in my heart

Are a flock of birds

            Whose eager quest

Finds in your voice

            A nest that is best. (14)

Furthermore, while the poems above refer to birdsong, one can sense through the many poems of Tagore where the bird appears as a leitmotif, that in fact, the qualities of the bird that Tagore aspires to are variously expressed as the articulation of song, the freedom of flight or even the realisation of unfulfilled dreams. In some poems, the bird represents these unattainable or as yet unattained qualities; in others, the bird is a metaphor, often a fairly cryptic one, such as in the following verses quoted from the sections Jottings and Sparks respectively:


Dreams are nests that birds

            In sleep’s obscure recesses

Build from our talkative days’

            Discarded bits and pieces. (15)



In the sky of the mind

            Along its horizon

The world-weary dream-bird

            Hastens on. (16)

I have tried in this post to underline the significance of Tagore’s ‘bird’, especially as seen in his poetry. In subsequent posts, I look forward to further exploring this leitmotif in his longer poetry, his drama, his other prose writings and his art.

AurogeetaDas – Untitled [Bird 4]


(1) Tagore, Rabindranath, Stray Birds, Rupa & Co., New Delhi, 2002, p.3

(2) Tagore, Rabindranath, The Jewel That is Best: Collected Brief Poems, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2011 (translated by William Radice, First published as Particles, Jottings, Sparks: The Collected Brief Poems by Angel Books, 2001), p.80

(3) ibid, p.82

(4) ibid, p.37

(5) ibid, p.43

(6) ibid, p.139

(7) ibid, p.157

(8) ibid, p.157

(9) ibid, p.94

(10) ibid, p.100

(11) ibid, p.121

(12) ibid, p.143

(13) ibid, p.132

(14) ibid, p.85

(15) ibid, p.71

(16) ibid, p.152

Note on illustrations

Tagore’s paintings that I’ve reproduced here are from the following publication:

  1. Siva Kumar (Ed. and introduction), Rabindra Chitravali: Paintings of Rabindranath Tagore, Pratikshan, Kolkata, 2011 (in association with Visva Bharati, Santiniken and the Ministry of Culture, New Delhi)

I have also included some of my paintings of birds.

September 15, 2014
by Ansuman

Fiona Harvey at the Tagore Centre

So, I have now visited the archive at the Tagore Centre several times. I enjoy the feeling of space and light and quiet here, something to do with the curved expanse of glass making up more than half the wall space, and being above a library.

I was interested to discover the breadth of Tagore’s endeavours, unaware previously that he wrote dance-dramas in addition to the poetry, music and other writings that he is most known for. I knew he had painted, but had not looked at this work before, and spent a few happy hours browsing around 2,000 of his collected works in Kumar’s 4 volume edition. The work here is grouped into types of image : landscapes, figure, patterns, flowers, erasures and so on.

He started with doodles which turned into more complex images, sometimes abstract, sometimes as fantasy creatures, before training in more conventional styles of figurative and landscape painting. Whilst he makes accomplished enough works in these spheres, I feel they loose some of the imagination and uninhibited air of the earlier works. His extended drawings over his own manuscripts in both Bengali and English, sometimes covering large chunks of text, at other times merely linking it into a decorative trail, strike me as more profound and forward looking than his more conventional paintings.




Despite Tagore’s many talents, I found the arrangement of a photograph of him, adorned with vases of fresh lilies either side and having the appearance of an altar, a little disturbing. But perhaps this is down to cultural misinterpretation : maybe this arrangement is a mark of respect and not deification.

September 15, 2014
by Ansuman

Of Tagore, Reznikoff and Brevity

by Aurogeeta Das

In my previous post, I used the word ‘aphorism’ to describe Tagore’s poetry in Stray Birds. Before I continue my exploration of Tagore’s exploration of birds in his writing, I feel that this term requires some clarification. After all, an aphorism is not generally understood to be poetic. In the The Jewel That is Best, William Radice discusses the pros and cons of using the word ‘aphorism’ to describe Tagore’s poetry and understandably questions what word should be used, if not aphorism. He states,

Some people have called them epigrams; but the gnomic, ironic, often malicious connotations of the epigram… are not, for the most part, appropriate for Tagore. ‘Aphorism’ is better, and may be valid for Tagore’s own English translations of his poems of this sort, but the term is not usually applied to poetry, and every poem in the present volume is most definitely a poem, not a prose maxim or pensée. Moreover, the worldly yet subversive motive behind many aphorisms, particularly in the French tradition, is again not present in Tagore.” (1)

Radice ends by concluding that the best way to refer to these pieces is as ‘brief poems’.

Tagore himself seemed to derive considerable delight in being asked to write something ‘brief’. In his correspondence, we find explanations of the origins of the pieces that ultimately constituted the slim volume Stray Birds. Chief among these seemed to be a demand among his Japanese and Chinese admirers to jot something down on a hand fan, for example. This was during his travels to these countries. The brevity here is therefore not only occasioned due to pragmatic reasons — i.e. the space available, but also by the ‘moment’, if one may call it so — a brief moment of encounter between Tagore and an admirer, during which Tagore gifts a few lines written swiftly. Tagore writes of his pleasure that Chinese and Japanese admirers, unlike Indian ones, appreciated brevity, no doubt in part due to their tradition of the haiku. To me, a good haiku, despite being brief, seems to be characterised by reflections on a broader scale, suggesting through its little moments and brief words, things of greater — even perhaps, of universal — significance. A kind of mysticism permeates many of Tagore’s ‘aphorisms’ in Stray Birds:


There are tracts in my life that are bare and silent. They are the open spaces where my busy days had their light and air. (2)

It is this quality in Tagore’s brief poetry that is hard to emulate. I know, because I have tried in vain! It is possibly due to my own frustrations in this area that I wanted to share here some modern examples of haiku-like poetry. It is not so much as a comparison to Tagore’s sublime thoughts on nature that I offer these here, nor even as a linguistic or cultural parallel. It is more due to the beauty of the formal parallel that I quote Charles Reznikoff. Some of Reznikoffs poetry also provides an example of brevity suggesting something more. You might say that these are also poetic nuggets of sorts. These examples are from The Art of Hunger, a collection of non-fiction prose by the American writer Paul Auster:


The stiff lines of the twigs

Blurred by buds.


                  Moonlit Night

The trees’ shadows lie in black pools in the lawns.


                  The Bridge

In a cloud bones of steel.



While Tagore wrote so beautifully about nature, some of Reznikoff’s poetry seems to me to comment with elegant irony, on urban New York, by using images of nature:

This smoky winter morning —

do not despise the green jewel among the twigs

because it is a traffic light.


I do not know why it is that I recalled Reznikoff’s poetry when I read Tagore’s brief poems in Stray Birds. After all, Reznikoff’s poetry would seem to bear no resemblance whatsoever to Tagore’s. Indeed, beyond the fact that they both wrote poetry, it appears inappropriate to refer to both men on the same page. Reznikoff was a Jewish poet who lived in New York; his work drew upon legal testimonials and commented significantly on war and the Holocaust; he was known as an Objectivist, and therefore as a poet whose work would have been stripped of, for example, metaphor. Yet, it is Reznikoff’s work I thought of when reading Stray Birds. Perhaps it is merely my eclectic reading of poetry that is to blame. I read poetry without discipline, with no informed agenda. I derive great pleasure in browsing seemingly random volumes, so my apologies if it seems like I am indulging in what may well be a haphazard connection. But perhaps it is because I struggled to emulate Tagore’s quality of philosophical reflection and sought to remember when I had last felt like this that Reznikoff sprang to my mind.

To write this sort of brief poetry demands a range of special talents such as a facility with words and a skill for brevity, not to mention a poetic soul, a taste for philosophy and an ability to conjure images. Yet, it also requires something more ephemeral and therefore harder to grasp: an ability to be calm, to be so still that the reflections, like a gentle breeze, brush you for a brief moment. If you are agitated, if you so much as breathe a word during this moment, it passes you by and the breeze that might have left you with a few words of insight and beauty may have been nothing but a mirage. This ability to turn into an observer extraordinaire in order to write gems of poetry seems impossible to achieve without embracing absolute stillness and quietude; indeed, it seems unattainable unless one becomes quiet and still to the point of effacing oneself. Auster writes with penetrating insight, in relation to Reznikoff,

If the poet’s primary obligation is to see, there is a similar though less obvious injunction upon the poet — the duty of not being seen. The Reznikoff equation, which weds seeing to invisibility, cannot be made except by renunciation. In order to see, the poet must make himself invisible. He must disappear, efface himself in anonymity. (5)


Auster sees Reznikoff’s efforts to efface himself articulated in the following words by the poet:


I like the sound of the street —

but I, apart and alone,

beside an open window

and behind a closed door.


While I shall enjoy consolidating the research I have carried out on Tagore, I feel that I must begin to be quiet and still to be able to create work in response to Tagore’s art and writing. It appears to me impossible otherwise, to say anything of significance.



(1)Tagore, Rabindranath, The Jewel That is Best: Collected Brief Poems, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2011 (translated by William Radice, first published as Particles, Jottings, Sparks: The Collected Brief Poems by Angel Books, 2001), p.3

(2) Tagore, Rabindranath, Stray Birds, Rupa & Co., New Delhi, 2002, p.77

(3) Reznikoff, Charles, quoted by Paul Auster The Art of Hunger: Essays, Prefaces, Interviews & The Red Notebook, Faber and Faber, London, 1998 (first published by Penguin Putnam Inc, New York, 1997), p. 36

(4) Reznikoff, Charles, quoted by Paul Auster, The Art of Hunger: Essays, Prefaces, Interviews & The Red Notebook, Faber and Faber, London, 1998 (first published by Penguin Putnam Inc, New York, 1997), p. 40

(5) Auster, Paul, The Art of Hunger: Essays, Prefaces, Interviews & The Red Notebook, Faber and Faber, London, 1998 (first published by Penguin Putnam Inc, New York, 1997), p. 38

(6) Reznikoff, Charles, quoted by Paul Auster, The Art of Hunger: Essays, Prefaces, Interviews & The Red Notebook, Faber and Faber, London, 1998 (first published by Penguin Putnam Inc, New York, 1997), p. 38

September 10, 2014
by Ansuman

Tagore’s Birds

We are happy to present a new contribution from Aurogeeta Das which is now available in our Features section. It picks out a few words and images of birds in Tagore’s work.

Tagore’s Birds: Of Word and Image, Song and Silence

Let this whet your appetite for Aurogeeta’s presentation at the Tagore Centre this Sunday, September 14th 2014. There she will be opening up for discussion the rich inter-relationships Tagore perceived between human beings and nature.

Sunday Events