The Journey Inwards: First Light
Every year, when the occasional kaalboshekhi (thunder clouds) roll in to bring momentary relief from the sweltering heat of Kolkata or the fragrance of cherry blossoms gives way to the rapturous color of azaleas around my home in New Jersey, I know it’s the time for self-evaluation. This is like those annual reviews at workplace, except the effort is solely for what I want to do as opposed to what I have to. And what I want is to continue my journey deeper into introspection in the hope of rediscovering me.

I have always wondered about this annual gravitation towards ‘rediscovery’ (without journeying) and I may not be the only Bengali harboring such a feeling. Perhaps, it starts with those phone calls or Facebook posts wishing everybody “Shubho Nababarsha” (Happy Bengali New Year). Soon it is Ponchishey Baishakh (the twenty-fifth day of Baishakh, the first month in the Bengali calendar), and Facebook News Feed gets no less crowded! This year, the day with its special significance has returned to the Bengali calendar for the one hundred fifty fourth time. Along with it has arrived my self-evaluation moment.

I grew up in a Kolkata where weekday morning radio programs would almost always begin with Rabindra Sangeet (Rabindranath’s songs) and weekend programs would feature on-air Rabindra Sangeet instructions. Even the neighborhood Bijoya Sammelani (cultural events following the Durga Puja) would not miss including recitations of Rabindranath’s poems. Ponchishey Baisakh would invariably find me trekking to Rabindra Sadan in the early morning to stake out a convenient spot for the Rabindra Jayanti (anniversary celebration) proceedings. As in most middle-class Bengali families, our bookshelf proudly featured the entire set of Rabindra Rachanabali (the works of Rabindranath) – the birth centennial edition – as a testimony to our Bengali cultural heritage.

Okay, I did receive my dosage of Rabindrayana (aspects of Rabindranath) at an early age and it should not be surprising that on every Ponchishey Baisakh I would have the urge to reconnect with my past. But where did the indulgence in Rabindrayana lead me to? Indeed, I memorized many of Rabindranath’s songs and poems, read several of his essays and plays, watched (over and again) his dance dramas, and witnessed his stories unfolding on the silver screen.

Those intellectual ventures exposed me to the expressions of a great mind. I came to appreciate Rabindranath within the confines of certain rigid structures – the musical notations, the printed materials, the dance forms, and the stylized acting. Indeed many of these vehicles were his own creations, rooted in his fear of the posterity ‘misinterpreting’ his work.  However, I never knew how that great mind functioned or felt the aspirations that created his Rachanabali. My understanding of his soul made no headway since the day when I became aware of his name. This deficiency posed a serious challenge on one occasion.

Knowing a persona would bring one no closer to the person. I had this realization, somewhat vividly, about a decade ago. A group of theater enthusiasts from New Jersey, led by my friend Gautam (Garry) Dutta, decided to stage a play based on Sunil Gangopadhyay’s epic novel Prothom Alo (First Light). By then, Gautam was already known as a poet in the Bengali literary circle. He had come up with a script for the play, and he had staged a coup. He got his dear friend and mentor, Sunil Gangopadhyay, and his wife Swati to partake in the production. The group had planned for several road shows along the East Coast, from North Carolina to Massachusetts.

The play focused on Bengal Renaissance during the latter half of the nineteenth century and prominently featured such historical figures as Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath, Girish Ghosh and Nati Binodini. I was selected for the role of Rabindranath after a round of audition. Prior to that, I had acted in a few plays at typical community events. However, those were in small roles, none as demanding as playing Rabindranath on stage. Imagine being the person with whom most Bengalis associate with!
A scene from Prothom Alo
(Courtesy: HT City, July 2002)

I was to portray the polymath during his formative years, from the age of eighteen years to forty-two. To our knowledge, there was no precedence of personifying him in live theater till that moment. Only his moving images, mostly from his later years, were available in grainy filmstrips. Besides, the play was to depict the sage as envisioned by the author, who was sharing the stage with us.

The portrayal of the poet in his younger days proved to be the most demanding of this amateur.  The greatest challenge came in the scene where the twenty-year old composed his first “breakthrough” poem, Nirjharer Swapnabhanga (‘The Awakening of the Waterfall’).  Rabindranath has described the poem, which launched his adult career, as “the Introduction to my entire poetic corpus” (“amar shamasta kabyer bhumika” – Jibansmriti, 492).  I, for one, had no creativity to handle the demands of that scene.

Most individuals, poets in particular, enjoy a deep delight in nature. In Rabindranath, this appreciation has been accompanied with vigor. All the beautiful and variegated expressions of the natural world filled his inner being with a single grand whole. The sensation ("anubhuti") of this mysterious innermost one ("antaratma") suddenly touches the poet’s soul making it restive and frantic for no apparent reason. The world of nature vibrating within the poet’s heart seeks itself out in the outer world. That was the focus of the scene.

After several attempts and frustrations on all sides, I realized that I had to go beyond the script and find a way to connect with the character’s soul. The actor-character barrier had to break down on this one occasion, a situation often proscribed by most acting techniques. I had to embark on a journey inwards just as the poet had realized that any appreciation of the outer world could only come through a profound intimacy (“nigudha atmiyata”) of the innermost one with the universe. I began to read and reread the poem, Rabindranath’s own notes about the moment of its creation, and Sunil Gangopadhyay’s interpretation of those notes.

Written in one sitting over the entire afternoon and evening of a day of extraordinary experience, Rabindranath has immortalized the poem not only on its own merit, but also upon the basis of revelation on which it was sourced. It was an experience of whose importance he oft repeated. Describing the sensation in Jibansmriti (My Reminiscences), he wrote:

“The end of Sudder Street, and the trees on the Free School grounds opposite, were visible from our Sudder Street house. One morning I happened to be standing on the verandah looking that way. The sun was just rising through the leafy tops of those trees. As I continued to gaze, all of a sudden a covering seemed to fall away from my eyes, and I found the world bathed in a wonderful radiance, with waves of beauty and joy swelling on every side. This radiance pierced in a moment through the folds of sadness and despondency which had accumulated over my heart, and flooded it with this universal light.

That very day the poem, The Awakening of the Waterfall, gushed forth and coursed on like a veritable cascade. The poem came to an end, but the curtain did not fall upon the joy aspect of the Universe.”

As a new life dawned within him, the poet looked at the creation with a new vision. Attaining that revelatory joy, which was the poet’s most sustained and powerful experience among many other similar instances in his childhood and life, was the key component of the scene as well as its main challenge.

The scene also featured Kadambari, Rabindranath’s sister-in-law and confidante, in whose residence at 10 Sudder Street, the poet was staying at that time. According to the script, both were recuperating from illness. Thus, the instance of creation could be the moment of their rejuvenation. Rabindranath’s character slept into a trance-like state and teetered on the verge of delirium while attempting at “piercing the veil.” It was an expression that Rabindranath himself used repeatedly as the way of seeing beyond the everyday (“pratyahik”), which to him was impermanent (“anitya”). Once that feat was achieved in the deepest of emotions, the character could break into “supernormal rapture” and be filled with a heightened joy of wonder.

Later, I sought Sunil Gangopadhyay’s opinion about the staged character and its likeness to the one he penned in his novel. He felt that it did not transgress the realm of probability; after all, each of us was trying to portray Rabindranath to the best of our consciousness of him. The play did end up with successful road shows, while it became a footnote in my lifelong quest for the innermost one. On every Ponchishey Baisakh, I pause to reflect on my progression and where the journey is leading me to. Would a morning arrive when the deep intimacy of the innermost one with the universe would reveal itself in such a thunderous way? Could there be a true awakening of the soul in its reconciliation with the infinitude:
“How have the sun's rays in my heart
Entered this morning! How have the songs
Of morning birds into the dark cave broken!
Who knows why, after long, my soul has woken!”

– The Awakening of the Waterfall, Morning Songs

The journey continues...



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