Bengalis, scattered over two countries and elsewhere, are full of contradictions. They were never a martial race, but were at the forefront of violent struggles to dislodge the British, and later, during the Naxalite movement. Hindus and Muslims lived largely in peace over centuries there, but one of the worst communal riots in history happened in Bengal. Bengalis are often brilliant individually, but are collectively marginalised in most spheres.

This blog is an attempt to understand the people and their mind.

Friday, 11 March 2011

The Magical Spell

Santanu Dasgupta

[In popular perception, rocket science stands for the ultimate, unfathomable, and mysterious frontier of science. If we wish to convey something is not really complex, we say: It’s not rocket science! By extension therefore, rocket scientists are amongst the most brilliant, profound, and creative people. Thanks to my years in Thiruvananthapuram, I have come in close contact with some rocket scientists of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). And I believe they belong to the intellectual cream of their generation.

Dr. Santanu Dasgupta, one of them, is highly regarded by his peers. But unlike most of them, he wears several other hats too. He is an accomplished singer, a brilliant story teller (a field in which his wife Shyama gives him a good run for his money), and regularly pens plays that are staged by the Trivandrum Bengali Association. After retirement from the ISRO, he has been teaching at an engineering college in Thiruvananthapuram.

Here is a sample of his writing. I thank Santanuda for allowing me to publish this story.]

Whenever Tagore songs are being talked of, it is a cliché to say: “Oh! There is a kind of magic in them.” Much has been written and said about the magic of Tagore’s songs and poems, but I have been fortunate to have witnessed real magic woven by a Tagore song.

It was the morning of Rabindra Jayanti a few years ago. Even inTrivandrum, we could feel music in the air. Duly dressed and armed with books like Geetobitan, Sanchoita etc., we, the Bengali families had gathered in Tagore Theatre in Vazhuthacaud for yet another celebration of Rabindranath Tagore’s birth anniversary.

Children ran up and down the dark aisles of the auditorium chasing each other. Mothers sat in groups, most of them in animated conversation. Men moved around looking bored and showed interest only when their wife or children were on stage. All waited for the next event, politely clapping after every song or dance. … Generally speaking, Tagore was far from any serious thought of most, except one ….

As I learnt later, his name was Ashokan. Of about seventy years, he was very frail, had unkempt hair and he carried a small book of Geetanjali with him. He had translated it himself from Bengali to Malayalam, he said.

I had heard of translations of Bangla literature into Malayalam by many eminent scholars and poets of Kerala. Ashokan was certainly not one of them. Had he learnt Bengali? I wanted to find out.

‘A little, just to translate some of the poems,’ he said apologetically. Would I care to read his translations?

My knowledge (rather, ignorance) of Malayalam even after being in Kerala for over forty years is well-known. But courtesy demanded that I accept a copy of the book offered by the author himself. And I did.

‘I see that many of you can sing. Will you please sing one particular song for me?’ Ashokan was very polite in his request. The song he wanted to hear was Ami rupe tomay bholabo na (I will not entice you with my looks, but with my love)Rupe tomay is a difficult song to sing and I was not surprised when none of our singers could oblige him. I explained to him that without proper notations this song cannot be rendered and hence the reluctance of our singers to sing it in public.

His face paled and I could almost hear one of his ribs crackling in pain. He had come here hoping to hear that particular song. ‘Where can I go to listen to this?’  He despaired. Turning to me he said. ‘Will you please come to my home and sing it for me? I have the notations in Bengali.’

A stranger invites me to his house and wants me to sing one of Tagore’s most beautiful compositions for him. ‘Trust not’ said my intellect, for he is a stranger. ‘Why do you feign love and admiration for Rabindranath if you can’t fulfill this humble request?’ said my soul.

Soul prevailed over mind and soon I was ushered into a small dingy room laden with books and dust. Amidst the clutter and papers strewn all over the place stood a harmonium. It was an ancient piece in desperate need of overhaul.

Ashokan fumbled his way through the clutter. He was in a state of excited anticipation, much like a child about to be handed over an ice-cream. As I turned the pages of the book of notations to trace the right page, his eyes lit up. I bellowed the first two notes of the song which were a serene sa nicorresponding to the words ami …. His eyelids slowly came together and by the time I reached bholabo na … tears welled up behind those closed eyelids. I knew only the first few lines of the song but I sang them repeatedly for him. Tears rolled down his chapped, wrinkled cheeks in meandering lines.

For a long time after I had finished my song, Ashokan sat in a trance. We sat in silence until he woke up with a smile of bliss written on his face.

As he held my hands to bid good-bye, a realisation dawned upon me. What chord the song struck in Ashokan’s heart I may never know, but what I did witness was a magical spell that can only be cast by a Tagore song!

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