Of Word and Image, Song and Silence
by Aurogeeta Das
Tagore frequently refers to birds in his writing. They appear again and again in his art too. I’d like to share here some examples of both. In the writing, the birds can represent just birds; at other times, they seem to point to the broader theme of nature. In Stray Birds, my favourite aphorisms are those that give a glimpse of Tagore’s reflections on the relationship between humans and birds (and by extension, humans and nature). That said, occasionally Tagore uses birds, their wings or their nests for poetic effect, for the imagery they evoke. These metaphors are invariably beautifully written; they make me appreciate anew Tagore’s poetic ability to paint an image through the use of words. This is evident in numerous aphorisms in Stray Birds, such as in the following (taken from the New Delhi-based Rupa & Co.’s 2002 edition):
Things look phantastic in this dimness of the dusk — the spires whose bases are lost in the dark and treetops like blots of ink. I shall wait for the morning and wake up to see thy city in the light.
The aphorisms and other passages I have chosen below, unless mentioned otherwise, are also 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.
The above perhaps refers to the ephemeral nature of life: birds that fly away, leaves that fall and wither. However, there is something else that strikes one here — Tagore’s mention of birdsong, and the leaves, which have ‘no songs’.
Indeed, silence — the absence of sound, noise or song, seems to be a recurrent theme in Tagore’s writing. He was after all a playwright, a composer and a singer himself so he was no stranger to the written word being spoken or sung aloud. Surely, his exposure to and enjoyments of performance arts gave him that extra ability to ‘hear’ the words he wrote.
In other words, one can see here that his experience in other forms of art find expression in his writing, which is not only evocative in terms of conjuring a visual, but makes us reflect on the respective qualities of sound and silence. This can be seen for example in the following:
Silence will carry your voice like the nest that holds the sleeping birds.
The nest, pictured here as a ‘silent’ (not just ‘silent’ in terms of audio but in terms of inconspicuousness, perhaps) receptacle, appears to be used as a metaphor for the human voice travelling through silence.
In the dusk of the evening the bird of some early dawn comes to the nest of my silence.
The fish in the water is silent, the animal on the earth is noisy, the bird in the air is singing.
But Man has in him the silence of the sea, the noise of the earth and the music of the air.
One can sense that Tagore does not really define silence merely as the absence of sound, although if one takes his words at face value, this may seem so. Instead, he gives silence it its own volition, like the spaces between words, which are not truly blank spaces, but characters in their right, just as silence has a character. In a poem I wrote 15 years ago, I too distinguished silence. I said, “the silence grows loud”.
The last aphorism above, XLIII also hints at humans’ capabilities, which — if not superior — are at least more diverse than that of the fish, the animals and the birds. Again, we see here Tagore’s preoccupation with sound and silence. Occasionally, one recognises what may be another recurring preoccupation: a reflection on life in the water, in the air and on land and the relation between them, as for example here:
The bird thinks it is an act of kindness to give the fish a lift in the air.
The bird wishes it were a cloud.
The cloud wishes it were a bird.
In the second one, there is something of irony too, of yearning to be what one is not.
But in others, Tagore seems to use the bird as a symbol of nature:
The bird-song is the echo of the morning light back from the earth.
They light their own lamps and sing their own words in their temples.
But the birds sing thy name in thine own morning light, — for thy name is joy.
In the second one, it is hard to say whether ‘thine’ and ‘thy’ refer to a divine presence, the earth or life itself, but it seems logical to assume that birds here are seen as sentient beings of the natural world. It is probably equally reasonable to interpret Tagore’s feelings about birdsong being largely joyful:
Love’s pain sang around my life like the unplumbed sea, and love’s joy sang like birds in its flowering groves.
In this last aphorism below, however, we see a hint that Tagore also sees birds as being symbols of freedom:
Set the bird’s wings in gold and it will never again soar in the sky.
Among the wonderful material available at the Tagore Centre is the impressive 4-volume set, Rabindra Chitravali: Paintings of Rabindranath Tagore, introduced and edited by R. Siva Kumar, published by Pratikshan in Kolkata, 2011, in association with Visva Bharati, Santiniken, and the Ministry of Culture, New Delhi. To anyone interested in Tagore, I highly recommend this definitive catalogue raisonnée of Tagore’s art, which is beautifully produced, and excellently introduced and contextualised by Prof. Siva Kumar. Tagore’s paintings, which I have shared here with you, are reproduced from Volume 1.