Literature

New light on Tagore

Print edition : April 27, 2018

The concert at Victoria Memorial in Kolkata on March 21. Photo: Photographs: Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay

The hymn book containing three songs by Tagore.

The songs set to notation on the pages of the hymn book.

The songs set to notation on the pages of the hymn book.

Rabindrasangeet exponents Debashish Raychaudhuri and his daughter Rohini.

Two hymns in English composed by Rabindranath Tagore discovered in a Unitarian Church hymn book in the United States open up a fresh avenue for Tagore scholars to explore.

The discovery of two new hymns written by Rabindranath Tagore in English has not only become a cause for much excitement and debate in academic and cultural circles, but has also opened up a new avenue of research on the poet. The songs, “Now I Recall my Childhood” and “Your Mercy, O Eternal One”, though largely unknown to the world, have been in existence for apparently a long time in the pages of a hymn book of the First Unitarian Church in Pittsburgh, United States. While Tagore is credited with the words of “Now I Recall my Childhood”, the music is credited to Alfred Morton Smith (1879-1971). Interestingly, “Your Mercy, O Eternal One” has been set to the tune of a Scottish psalm dating back to 1615.

This remarkable discovery was made accidentally by Debashish Raychaudhuri and his daughter Rohini Raychaudhuri, both acclaimed exponents of Rabindrasangeet, during a concert trip to the U. S. in 2015. Debashish Raychaudhuri, a well-known scholar of Tagore songs, was at that time conducting research on the connection between the Unitarians of the U.S. and the Brahmos of India, which brought him and Rohini into contact with theological societies.

At the Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, they got to know that Tagore had composed hymns for the Unitarians. “The director of the institution told us this when he got to know that we were Rabindrasangeet singers and promised to send us a copy of the hymn book which contained Tagore’s songs . But it was while roaming around in Pittsburgh, where we had given another concert, that we found the hymn book Singing the Living Tradition inside this old Unitarian church called the First Unitarian Church. And to our delight and excitement, we found these songs by Tagore that we had never heard of before,” Rohini told Frontline.

Interestingly, “Now I Recall My Childhood” is a recast on the poem “I Remember my Childhood”, which first appeared in an anthology titled Crossing (1918). However, Tagore made a clear distinction between the song and the poem, and there are a number of structural changes, and in metre and language. The song version does not appear in any of his anthologies.

I Remember my Childhood (poem)

I remember my childhood when

the

Sunrise, like my play-fellow,

would

Burst into my bedside with its

Daily surprise of morning; when

The faith in the marvellous

Bloomed like fresh flowers in my

Heart every day, looking into the

Face of the world in simple

gladness;

With insects, birds and

Beasts, the common weed, grass

And the clouds had their fullest

Value of wonder; when the patter

Of rain at night brought dreams

From the fairyland, and mother’s

Voice in the evening gave

meaning

To the stars.

And then I think of death and the

Rise of the curtain and the new

Morning and my life awakened

In its fresh surprise of love.

Now I Recall My Childhood (song)

Now I recall my childhood when

the sun burst

To my bed-side with the day’s

surprise;

Faith in the marvellous bloom

anew each dawn,

Flowers bursting fresh within my

heart each day.

Then looking on the world with

simple joy,

On insects, birds, and beasts, and

common weeds,

The grass and clouds had fullest

wealth of awe;

My mother’s voice gave meaning

to the stars.

Now when I turn to think of com

ing death,

I find life’s song in star-songs of

the night,

In rise of curtains and new morn

ing light,

In life reborn in fresh surprise of

love.

As for “Your Mercy, O Eternal One”, Debashish Raychaudhuri said he was yet to find a reference to the song in any of Tagore’s other works. “I have been consulting many Tagore scholars, but so far nobody has yet come across a literary equivalent or any other reference in Tagore’s works to this song. My research is still on, but so far I have not found anything significant,” he told Frontline. But even if there are some connections between the songs and some of his poems, one thing that cannot be doubted is that, as song texts, these are absolutely new.

Your Mercy, O Eternal One

Your mercy, O Eternal one, by no

heart measured yet;

In joy, or grief, or shade, or sun I

never will forget.

I give the whole and not the part

of all you gave to me;

My goods, my life, my soul, my

heart I yield them all as free.

And when in silent awe we wait,

and world and sign forebear,

The hinges of the golden gate

move soundless at our prayer.

Dates unknown

When Tagore had written these songs, how they managed to find themselves in a hymn book of the Unitarian Church, and why he never catalogued them as he did his other compositions are still open to conjecture. Debashish Raychaudhuri thinks the poet may have written these songs in 1912-13 during his first visit to the U.S. Incidentally, on the day Tagore arrived in the U.S., November 1, 1912, Macmillan and Company released the English version of Gitanjali (Song Offerings) in London.“One of the reasons I think these songs were created around 1912-13 is because Tagore’s philosophy as reflected in these songs is very similar to that phase in his life when he composed Gitanjali and Gitimalya. But it is impossible to say anything with certainty yet,” he said. The book Singing the Living Tradition does not give any date of composition, nor is there any date specifying when this particular volume containing Tagore’s songs was first printed. Debashish Raychaudhuri hopes the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston, which published the book, will be able to throw more light on the period in which these songs were composed.

Whether Tagore was approached by members of the church to write a few hymns for them is not known. But what is known is that around 1912 he was in close touch with the Unitarians of the U.S., and was even coaxed by a certain Unity Club into giving his first lecture on Indian philosophy on November 10, 1912. The title of the lecture was “World Realisation”, which was changed in print to “The Relation of the Individual to the Universe”.

This was the beginning of his famous lecture tours, and the lectures became a part of the “Harvard University Lectures” and were published in book form as Sadhana, (1913). “It is quite likely that Tagore was approached by the church to write a few hymns for it, and it would not be unlike Tagore to be in touch with not just theologians, but also musicians from among the Unitarians,” said Debashish Raychaudhuri. Tagore had become a literary phenomenon in the United Kingdom after the publication of Gitanjali, and he was not unknown in U.S. literary circles. Several of his poems had already been published in Harriet Monroe’s Poetry, a leading poetry magazine of the period, and it was not long before news of his celebrity status in the U.K. reached the U.S. Publishers from the U.S. were also keen to bring out his lectures in a book.

Intriguingly, Tagore, who was known to meticulously annotate and preserve his musical creations, did not make copies of these English songs, which long remained unnoticed by the world. Debashish Raychaudhuri hazards a guess: “If indeed he did compose these songs around 1912-13, he was extremely busy with the impact of the publication of the Gitanjali; and once he came back to India and the Nobel Prize was announced [in 1913], his life entered a totally different phase. Even if he wanted to, he probably did not have the time to get back to his English songs, and his direct touch with the Unitarians may also have got thinner, as he became a world figure.”

Singing the Living Tradition also contained another hymn by Tagore titled “There are Numerous Strings in Your Lute”. The first stanza of the song is a free translation of the poem “ Tomar binay koto taar achhey koto na shurey” (poem number 18 of Utsarga, published in 1914); but after that they are two different compositions. The song, in its entirety, can also be found in Crossing (poem number 68). This song, whose words and music were both by Tagore, is not particularly well known outside liturgical circles and convent schools.

There Are Numerous Strings

There are numerous strings in

your lute,

Let me add my own among them.

Then when you smite your

chords,

My heart will break its silence,

And my heart will be one with

your song.

Amidst your numberless stars,

Let me place my own little lamp.

In the dance of your festival of

lights my heart will throb

And my life will be one with your

smile.

After remaining for years in relative oblivion, the songs were finally presented to the general public in a recent concert performed by Debashish and Rohini Raychaudhuri, backed by a full choir. The songs were also released in an album titled English Hymns by Rabindranath Tagore.

There have been murmurs from doubting voices against this discovery; it has also been pointed out that references to two of the songs can be found. However, it cannot be denied, even among the most ardent of Tagore’s readers and fans, that very few outside the Unitarian Church had knowledge of the existence of these song texts. For all their passing similarities with Tagore’s other texts, these stand alone as lyrics that Tagore had most likely composed specifically to be used as church hymns.

What is most exciting is, as Debashish Raychaudhuri says, this may just be the tip of the iceberg. “We have come across these songs, but there may be many more scattered all over the United States, which we do not know of; but again, I may be proved absolutely wrong,” he said.

It is a revelation that begs further research.

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