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Musings Tagore Translations

Two Birds: Musings on Tagore

Ratnottama Sengupta muses as she translates Tagore’s song, Khachar Pakhi Chilo (1892, The caged bird was)

TWO BIRDS

In a coop of gold, lived Cage Bird,
In the forest dwelt Free Bird --
How did the twain meet on a dawn?
What had Fate ordained?

"Dear One in cage," Free Bird called out,
"Come, let's fly into the wood."
"You come inside," chirped Cage Bird,
"The enclosure can be our home!"
"No!" Free Bird cried, "the chains are not for me!"
"Alas!" Cage Bird sighed, 
"How can I live in the holt!"

Free Bird sat outside and sang
All the forest songs he loved.
Cage Bird parroted all 
The tricks it had been taught -
'Twas as if they spoke two tongues!
Free Bird pleaded, "Dear one!
For me sing one Forest song!""
Cage Bird said, "You better rote
Songs of the cage, loved one!"
"No!" Free Bird wailed, 
"I do not parrot cliches!"
"Alas," sobbed Cage Bird,
"How do I sing what I've never heard!"

The Free Bird chimed, "Deep is the blue 
Of the sky above,
There's no bar in its expanse!"
"See!" Cage Bird twittered,
"How well-netted is the aviary
on all its four sides!"
"Let go of yourself!" Free Bird whistled,
"In the clouds above, just once!"
"This cosy corner is so very tranquil!"
Cage Bird chirped, "Why not 
Submit to its peace?"
"No! Where will I then fly?"
"Alas! Where in the clouds 
Will I find a perch?"

Thus the two birds loved each other
But could not unite.
Through the gaps their beaks would kiss
Their eyes bespoke their longing
But neither could understand
Nor express to the other
Their biding constraints.
They flapped their wings
They stretched their arms
"Come to me dear, let me
Hold you to my heart!"
"No!" the Free Bird feared,
"The door might snap shut!"
"Alas!" lamented the Caged Bird
"I have no might to fly!"
Birds in a large cage in Saratchandra’s home. Photo Courtesy: Ratnottama Sengupta

Growing up in a Vaishnav family where kirtan was a part of daily life, I had always loved this song Rabindranath Tagore composed in the kirtan style. In my later years I thought the Universal Poet had penned the Natya Geeti — song drama — in the context of the Freedom Struggle. No, I learnt in an essay by the poet: it was penned in 1892 to put into words a more universal philosophy — the duality that is part of every human existence. 
Difficult to comprehend? Perhaps not, once we obliterate the sameness of the two birds and attribute gender markers to them. Tagore himself thought of the caged bird as the woman in every man, and the free bird as the man in every woman. Perhaps that is why it is structured along the lines of the traditional Shuk Shari samvad — a conversational song between between two birds (parrots perhaps?) — wherein Shuk is a follower of the masculine, Purushottam Krishna, and Shari of Radha, the essence of femininity. However, I was prompted to look up the poem recently when I saw a large birdcage in a corner of Saratchandra Chatterjee’s house in Deulti some 60 km from Kolkata. It was pretty routine, apparently, for households then to have aviaries ‘domesticating’ finches, canaries, parakeets, cockatiels, lovebirds and other feathered pets — much like today’s people with pet dogs and cats. But I was struck by a different thought: Did the two birds represent the two stalwarts of Bengali Literature who lived at the same time? Did one look inside homes and scan woes besetting the happiness of their human relationships? And did the other take off from his perch on a branch of the tree rooted in terra firma, to swim in the boundless ocean above? Even today, one draws you out into the vast expanse while the other pulls you homeward. Together? They give us a  universe…

Notes:

Kirtan is devotional music.

Tagore (1861 to 1941) and Saratchandra (1876-1938) were contemporaries. While Saratchandra wrote stories based on real life to expose and reform social ills, Tagore’s work was more philosophically inclined, though he has written of such societal issues too.

In 1894, Rabindranath wrote in Aadhunik Saahitya while commenting on the works of the poet Biharilal Chakraborty –

“… There is an independently moving masculine entity within our nature, which is intolerant to bondage alongside a feminine one which preffers to be enclosed and secured within the walls of the home. Both of them remain united in an inseparable fashion. One is eager to develop significantly his undying strength in a diverse way by savouring ever-new tastes of life, exploring ever-new realms and manifestations and the other remains encircled within innumerable prejudices and traditional practices, enthralled with her habitual deliberations. One takes you out into the vast expanse and the other seems to pull towards home. One is a forest bird (or the free bird of the translation by Ratnottama Sengupta) and the other is a caged bird. This forest bird is the one that sings much. Although, its song expresses with its diverse melodies the whimper and its craving for unrestricted freedom.”

Rabindranath Tagore was a brilliant poet, writer, musician, artist, educator – a polymath. He was the first Nobel Laureate from Asia. His writing spanned across genres, across global issues and across the world. His works remains relevant to this day.

Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. 

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