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:

I.

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:

46.

Ragged dusty feathers lie,

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

Rabindranath Tagore - Plate306
Rabindranath Tagore – Plate306

56.

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:

102.

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’.

168.

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:

169.

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:

117.

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:

146.

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)

 

34.

            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:

116.

‘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:

75.

                        Springtime bird,

You give the woodland shade the gift of tongues.

            Sky wants to sing with your voice

                        Its own songs. (13)

77.

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:

4.

Dreams are nests that birds

            In sleep’s obscure recesses

Build from our talkative days’

            Discarded bits and pieces. (15)

 

146.

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]
References:

(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.

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