Rabindranath’s Monsoonal Music

Professor Fakrul Alam brings to us a discussion on and translations of Tagore songs on the season that follows the scorching heat of summer months

Art by Sohana Manzoor

A rough count of the songs collected in Gitabitan in the section titled “Prakriti” or “Nature” reveals that Rabindranath Tagore composed about sixteen songs of summer, more than 100 monsoonal ones, 33 songs of Sharat or early autumn, five of Hemonto or late autumn, and a dozen or so songs of winter. In addition, he has left us around 93 songs of spring. For many decades, I kept wondering how Rabindranath managed to end up with such a lopsided list as far as his songs of the six Bengali seasons are concerned. After all, late autumn and winter are enjoyable seasons when Bengal is blissfully heat-free and the weather quite mild and bearable; why, then, did he show such fondness for the wet monsoonal months and the rapidly warming and (at its end quite unbearably hot) springtime? But I am puzzled no longer by his preference for our Borsha, for it now seems clear to me that he had good reasons to prefer the monsoonal months over all else. In recent decades, now that I fancy I have something of what Wordsworth calls the “philosophic mind” (and in this age of global warming as well!), I can appreciate fully why the monsoonal months stimulated Rabindranath so continuously into songs.

Think of the summer months. From mid-April till the second week of June, the weather torments us all over Bangladesh with stifling heat and unbearable humidity. Who in these weeks of scorching sun, steadily frying dampness and seemingly immobile and incredibly muggy air does not yearned for an ever-increasing cloud cover leading to sudden bursts of showers and rainy conditions? Isn’t the monsoon a huge relief after the summer months, despite the flaming krishnachuras [flame of the forest] and the seemingly endless stream of summer fruits that arrive in our market then?  Don’t we all look forward to the pitter patter of raindrops, even if accompanied by thunder and lightning, when hot and dry ourselves? And isn’t the fresh green look of nature after a burst of rain so very soothing?

As in his devotional and love poems, Rabindranath captures feelingly in his monsoonal song-lyrics a variety of moods.  One such mood is the longing for relief from an oppressive presence. Registering the cruel heat and humidity of our late spring and summer, his songs often exult in the respite that the monsoons afford us. Hear him thus dramatise the excitement all life forms feel just before, during and after the coming of the monsoons, in the opening two stanzas of the song-lyric ‘Oi Ashe Oi Oti Bhairob Horoshe’[i] [The Clouds Arrive Amidst Joy]

There, there they come — monsoonal clouds—
Exhilarating, awesome, moisture-laden,
Fragrant, earth-soaked, dense, rejuvenated
Dark-hued, somber, glorious— ready to burst!

Their deep rumblings quiver dark-blue forests
Tense peacocks out on strolls cry out,
The whole world is thrilled, overwhelmed. 
Intense, amazing—monsoon is on its way!

Indeed, song after song of Gitabitan record Rabindranath’s fascinated melodic outburst after a dramatic monsoonal outburst. Here is another example, ‘Prochondo Gorjone Ashile Eki Durdeen’, [Amidst Thunder comes a Dreaded Day].

Such a dreadful day, so full of rolling, thundering sounds
Disquieting cloud buildups, ominous endless outbursts!
Such a thick cloud cover; serpentine lightning, scarring night
Making the sky stream tears despite its totally blinded eyes!
But abandon all your fears; stir O scared and slothful ones.
Cheerfully, build up within yourself ample strength
To behold with resolute and wide open eyes His serene presence 
Behold Him seating superbly on his throne –defying death, fearless!

Completely committed to the notion of a Supreme Being in his works, Rabindranath conveys his wonder at the monsoonal drama of clouds, thunder, and lightning and rain in many a song, inspired by scenes that he sees in the last analysis as embodying the power and inspirational presence of the deity.

A sizeable number of Rabindranath’s song-lyrics are in this religious vein, but not all. In other monsoonal song-lyrics Rabindranath presents to us not only the awe-inspiring/ sacramental signs of the deity embodied in such seasonal storms, but also the frightening and intimidating aspects of our rainy season. He is well aware of the deep unease the monsoonal storm’s power and intemperate outbursts can cause, and the way it can scare all things in nature and make them aquiver. The foreboding created by the approach of an overwhelming and apocalyptic force is thus apparent in the concluding lines of the song ‘Hridaye Mondrilo Domoru Guru Guru’ (A Drum Rumbles in the Heart): 

The night is full of thunder and lightning;
The clouds are intense, startling.
Jasmine creepers tremble and rustle in melancholy notes
Woodlands fill with insects chirping in alarm!

In fact, Rabindranath is acutely aware of how the monsoon can disrupt lives, particularly those of people out in the open or men and women who have to travel in inclement weather despite the thunder, lightning, rain and flash floods that the monsoons invariably bring. His concern for such vulnerable people and concern at such intemperate weather comes out clearly in Jhoro Jhoro Boreshe Baridhara [The Rain Streams Incessantly]:

Rain streams down incessantly
Alas wayfarer; alas disabled, homeless ones!
The wind moans on and on.
Who is it calling out to in this immense, deserted, dismal landscape?
The night is pitch dark,
Jamuna restless; its waves agitated, endless; its shores have disappeared!
Dense dark rain clouds hover in the horizon, rumbling continuously.
Lightning darts restlessly, dazzlingly—no moon or stars in sight! 

On the other hand, the monsoons are also seasonal visitations for Rabindranath that induce in him desire for romance or romantic cravings that need to be fulfilled.  Note how intensely the yearning of a lover anxious to impart his feelings to his beloved in a rain-stirred mood is articulated in Emono Dine Tara Bola Jai [On Such a Day, They Say]:

On such a day she could be told
On such a dense, dark, wet day!
On such a day to her I could my mind unfold,
On such a cloudy, thunderous, showery day
		On just such a sunless, dense, dismal day!

I’d tell her what no one else would know
	Silence would us probably surround,
We’d face each other, each sobered by a deep wound.
	Incessant rain would from the sky flow; 
	Surely, no one then would be around.

	Societal and family life would feel unreal
	The hullabaloo of life too would feel surreal
What would only matter are eyes feeding on each other
	And two hearts savouring one another;
	All else would merge with darkness.
If in a corner of the house on such a rainy day,
	I had then a thing or two to tell her 
Why would anyone have anything to say?

	The wind blows with great force today;
	Lightning keeps flashing away
What I’ve been storing in my mind till this day
	Is something that I’d like to tell her today—
	On just such a dense, dark, wet day!

Not a few of the song lyrics collected in the ‘Borsha’ [Monsoon] part of Gitabitan depict such brooding and passionate thoughts and the intense yearning for the beloved brought on by the turbulence of the monsoonal breeze. Here is another such song, Mor Bhabonere Ki Haowa [What wind is it lilting my thoughts so amazingly]:

What wind is it lilting my thoughts so amazingly?
Its caress swings, swings my mind unaccountably.
In my heart’s horizon moist dense new clouds swarm,
			Stirring a shower of emotions.	
I don’t see her—don’t see her at all
Only occasionally in my mind I recall
Almost indiscernible footsteps sounding
And ankle bells tinkling, oh so tunefully!

A secret dreamscape spreads
Across the wet wind-swept sky—
A new and ethereal azure shawl!
Shadowy unfurled tresses fly,
Filling me with such intense disquiet
On this far-off ketoki-perfumed wet night.

All in all, Rabindranath’s inspired lyrical responses to the monsoons remind one that he is in some ways a poet following in the footsteps of William Wordsworth. One remembers, in this context, the English romantic poet’s lines in Book I of The Prelude where he conveys his ardent and positive response to the coming of the English spring after the English winter’s life-shrinking barrenness. Wordsworth sees the English spring ushering in a “correspondent breeze” that gives rise to poetry. To make the point somewhat differently, just as the spring breeze is Wordsworth’s metaphor for the muse, Rabindranath finds in the monsoons endless inspiration for composing song-lyrics and poetry. Here is a translation of one of his most popular ones Mono Mor Meghero Shongi [ My Friend, the Cloud]:

My mind is the clouds’ companion,
Soaring to the limits of the horizon
And crossing wide open spaces to sravan’s music 
Of rain falling pitter patter, pitter patter!
	My mind soars on crane-like wings
	To startling, streaking, lightning flashes,
	And rumbling, terrifying,
	Tumultuous, deafening sounds
	Responding to apocalyptic summons!
The wind blows from some eastern sea
Surging, rippling waves crest endlessly
	My mind is fascinated by their frantic motion
	By palm-fringed, dark-tamal tree forests
	And to branches fluttering frenziedly!

Space will not permit any more long extracts, but on the subject of inspiration I can’t resist including the concluding stanza of the much loved song lyric, ‘Hriday Amar Nachere’ (My Heart Dances):

Like a peacock dancing, my heart dances this day.
Showers stream down on newly sprouted branches,
Cricket songs stir forests,
The rampaging river roars over banks and floods villages,
Like a peacock dancing, my heart dances this day!  

No wonder then this monsoon-stirred poet has articulated for all Bengalis so melodically the many-sides and wonders of the season as no other writer has; no other writer from our part of the world has been so mesmerised by our rainy season and so stirred into unforgettable songs and poems by it!

[i] All translations from the Bengali song-lyrics are that of Professor Fakrul Alam.

(First published in Daily Star, 2019)

Fakrul Alam is an academic, translator and writer from Bangladesh. He has translated works of Jibonananda Das and Rabindranath Tagore into English and is the recipient of Bangla Academy Literary Award (2012) for translation and SAARC Literary Award (2012).


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