If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Thursday, 10 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 in Trivandrum, 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 ni corresponding 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!


  1. If you still are in contact with the gentleman, you could point him in the direction of this Youtube version

    I'm sure that Kanika's version tails very closely with what she learnt from Kabi Guru himself (based on its similarity to Tabu Mone rekho). But it must have been the words, not the tune, in my opinion, that charmed your friend.
    I prefer the ones with the stronger classical undertones, like Anondodhara bohiche bhubane, Poth diye ke, etc.

    P.S. Tagore Theatre is in Vazhuthacaud, not Kowdiar.

  2. ...This was moving.But this also reminds me of a Bengali tv serial called 'ganer o pare' (dont know if you have seen this )-which portrays the hypocracy of a highly sophisticated ,cultured and educated bengali family who want to live their whole life clutchinh on to Tagore as their private property and almost making business out of it!.Tv serials do not interst me much,but I did watch this for sometime as Rituporno Ghosh(one of my favourite film directors) is supposed to have scripted it .
    And yet again there is still a magical spell in Tagore's song and even students of my age can still remember thier first childhood crush being an awesome Rabindrasangeet singer. This dichotomy regarding Tagore's songs inside the Bengali society itself is very strange,isn't it?

  3. As Sujatha has kindly pointed out, in the original post, there was a mistake about the location of Tagore Theatre. Sorry, it was I who had moved it from Vazhuthacaud to Kowdiar. The error crept in while I was preparing the text for publication. The author is in no way responsible for the howler. I have corrected the error.

    Thanks for pointing it out, Sujatha. And thanks very much for sharing the link to the song. We are fortunate. Mr. Ashokan surely did not enjoy the privilege of connecting to the YouTube.

    Thanks Shubhranka, you are here for the first time. Pl do come back.

    I have watched the serial you have mentioned from time to time and I cannot agree with you more. Our great men are often usurped by the greedy and corrupt. Whenever a crook counts their ill-gotten money, Mahatma Gandhi smiles his benign toothless smile at him from our currency notes. Gandhi should be spared of this torture.

  4. A beautiful post after long... :) Mon-ta bhore gelo go, Jethu. :)

    Thank You! :)

  5. Sorry, I was out of station .. so I could not read it earlier. As you know, this particular "Buro"is having an immense sentimental effect on ordinary mortals like us for decades together... I can not count how many times he had made me cry.. After reading this post... I cried once more .. In fact He made me cry again...

    Thanks for sharing this fascinating episode.

  6. I loved the post. One of your readers here mentioned 'gaaner opare' and I couldn't agree more. I heard this song for the first time in this soap itself and was thoroughly moved.
    Coming back to Tagore's songs, we have all grown up listening to and chanting this man's songs. So have I. But back then it was more of a ritual for me, I didn't have much of a penchant for the same, then. Mom wanted me to participate in singing competitions and I had to oblige. My vocal trainer didn't coach me on anything apart from classical music, so the tough job was on my fragile shoulders! But when Cupid turned His spell on me for the first time and I took up the pen to scribble my thoughts, dreams and secret wishes on the heart of my diary (my secret keeper), it was then that I realised that nothing but this old man's words can do justice to the crux of a teenage's newly born L.O.V.E.!! After several years now, I have started nourishing my voice, by this "buro's" songs. It's his songs that have given me another jerk to come back to life, my life, which has always been incomplete without music.

    Thanks a ton for sharing this post, Santanuda. And if I may add here, once again, I will miss you in Council!

  7. Dear Sayantani, Bimochan, and Debarati, you are such good friends, I don't think I should thank you. Nevertheless, I should share my feelings ... it has been wonderful reading your comments.

    Debarati, my mother often said, "I don't know how, but Rabindranath apparently knew what every single moment of my joy or sadness would be like. And he wrote a poem or song just to give life to that moment." I am sure many a girl of Bengal, while they turned into women, would have had Rabindranath as an eloquent but silent companion. Isn't it great that the "tradition" continues ... since my mother's time to the time of someone who's my daughter's age? Keep singing, Debarati.

    Bimochan, Sayantani, I am happy to share this piece. I knew it would touch a chord in you.

    And Santanuda, you have just told us a mystery story, but we would never find the answer: What moved Ashokan?

  8. You are absolutely right Santanuda, and so was your mom. Rabindranath has indeed been a silent companion all my life. It sure does sound like a tradition. And yes, I surely will continue living, I mean, singing!
    Thanks again.


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