An audio extract of the poem read by Sugata Bose
from the audio CD accompanying the book.
‘Now, tell me, what is the title of the poetry book you dedicated to me?’ Victoria Ocampo to Rabindranath Tagore, 8 June 1940.
‘It is named Puravi (the East in its feminine gender)’.
Rabindranath Tagore to Victoria Ocampo, 10 July 1940.
The volume of poetry, Purabi, was dedicated by Rabindranath to Vijaya (the Bengali name given to Victoria) in 1925. Fourteen years later – on 14 March 1939 – Rabindranath wrote to Vijaya of ‘some experiences which are like treasure islands detached from the continent of the immediate life, their charts ever remaining vaguely deciphered’ – adding, ‘my Argentine episode is one of them’.
The elusive memories of those enchanting days had been ensnared in the web of some of his verses – ‘the best of their kind’. The ‘fugitives’ had been made ‘captive’ and ‘they will remain’, the poet was confident, ‘though unvisited by you, separated by an alien language’.
Seventeen poems from Purabi form the core of this volume of translations of fifty-two selected Tagore poems and songs. Purabi not only signifies ‘the East in its feminine gender’, as the poem put it, but also is the name of a wistful evening ragini whose spirit and mood seem to pervade this remarkable phase of Rabindranath’s poetic life. This phase reveals a very different Tagore from the one the West came to know with the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature for Gitanjali in 1913.
We open this volume with two poems written late in the nineteenth century and at the turn of the twentieth, when the poet was still in his thirties. ‘Urvasi [pronounced Urbashi] crowns his first great period. ‘wrote Edward Thompson. ‘. . . which in the opinion of many represent his genius at its highest and greatest. If we cannot subscribe to this opinion, remembering the more open-air thought and emotion of Kshanika . . . and the giant’s strength and superbly easy poise of Balaka - a far greater book than Chitra – nevertheless in Urvasi . . . certain qualities showed . . . Never again does he attain this sweep and magnificence of naturalistic poetry, unfettered by any darker questionings of life and fate and unsobered by religious reflections.’ Having assigned her the name of the Pauranic Urbashi, Rabindranath had paid a ‘compliment’ in this poem to someone who had been for a long time receiving compliments from many poets. ‘Whom Goethe had called Ewige Weibliche – The Eternal Woman,’ the poet explained, ‘I have incarnated her in the image of Urbashi to bring her floral offerings. She is not attached to us in any kind of relationship . . . Arjun had invoked his forefathers to try [and] establish a relationship with her, that was Arjun’s mistake – she had no ties with anyone.’
There is little doubt that Rabindranath’s ‘woman’ was the creative imagination of a male mind. Yet it is often supposed that the mind of Rabindranath Tagore had an ‘androgynous’ character. This is to confuse the keenness of observation and empathy with which he generally nurtured the female characters in his fiction with the nature of his thinking. The metaphors and descriptive imagery he used in relation to women in both his prose and poetry make it amply clear that, while he could speak in a feminine voice, his mind was not privy to feminine sensibility. ‘Urbashi’ without doubt had been a male fantasy. That the woman in ‘The Call’ was the product of male imagination was indirectly acknowledged by Rabindranath himself. The day before he wrote this poem, he had written in his diary: ‘When he [man] loves a woman, he wants to see her in the complete form of her individuality with the vision of his soul, with the vision of his imaginative mind. We have seen this in the poems of men over and over again. Shelley’s “Epipsychidon” is a good example.’ In his ruminations on man and woman Rabindranath was not above broaching his own essentialized views on the difference of gender. He engaged in polemical disagreements with ‘the worshippers of solid realism’ for their discomfort with ‘the disturbing ghost of this unreal woman’ and their false faith that ‘once the woman is freed from illusion, solid truth will be found’. Rabindranath for one was not sure that there was ‘anything that can be called solid truth in the creation’ or, if there was, that a ‘pure unwavering mind’ could be found to ‘reflect its pure print’. The way in which he then connected the power of illusion with poetic creativity is best given in his own words: ‘Man’s imagination . . . finds its freedom . . . in a woman. The orb that surrounds a woman is made up with all the suggestivities of the indescribable; a man can enter there without difficulty with his imagination coloured by the hue of his own emotion and taking the form of his own thought. In other words , he finds there a scope for his own creation, which gives him a special pleasure. A man who is totally devoid of illusion may laugh at this, but then a man without illusion never knows the calamity of the creative urge, he lives in the midst of calamity.’
Not a mother, not a daughter, not a bride
You are, beautiful and fair,
O Urbashi, denizen of heaven!
When evening descends on the pastures-
You do not in the corner of any home
Kindle your evening light.
You do not in the still middle of night
With hesitant steps and a trembling heart,
With soft downcast eyes,
And a smile on your lips,
Go forth bedecked
Bashfully to meet your lover.
You are unveiled as the coming of the dawn
And no embarrassment you suffer.
When did you blossom out of yourself,
Like a stemless flower?
You arose out of the foam of the sea
In the earliest dawn of Spring
With a pot of poison in your left.
The surging sea fell at your feet
Like a serpent charmed
Lowering myriad of its spread-out hoods.
As white as a lily, in naked beauty, and
Admired of the gods
Blameless you are.
Weren’t you ever a budding teenage girl?
O Urbashi, eternally young?
In whose home under the dark sea
You played with gems and pearls
Your childhood’s games all alone?
In whose arms did you sleep
Lulled by the murmur of the sea
With an innocent smile
On a bed of corals in a room lighted up
By lamps of gems?
You woke up in the world a woman,
Full-grown and young.
From ages and ages
Only you are the world’s heart’s desire
O resplendent Urbashi!
Ascetics leave their meditation
And lay their spiritual gains at your feet.
At your sidelong glance
All the world becomes restless
With the longing of youth.
The unseeing wind carries
Your maddening aroma all around
And the charmed poet with his wild songs
Wander about tempted like a honey-drunk
Your anklets tinkle
As you move in dishabille robes
Quick as a lightning flash.
When you dance before the assembly of gods
O Urbashi, in a delectable swing,
With the rhythm of your dance
Waves come up dancing on the sea,
Draperies of earth shiver in the stalks of corn
And from the necklace on your breasts
Stars shoot out in the sky.
On a sudden, the heart of man loses itself
Within his breast
And in a twinkling on the horizon
Your girdle comes undone,
O loosely robed one.
You are the dawn herself at sunrise in paradise
O Urbashi, Temptress of the World!
The glow of your body is washed
In tears of the world,
And the tint of your toes
Is painted in the blood of its heart.
With your braid hanging l;oose, O Naked One,
You have put your feather-light foot
Within the full-blown lotus of the world’s
In the paradise of the world’s heart
You exude infinite charm
O Companion of Dreams.
Listen, there is wailing for you everywhere
O Urbashi, cruel and deaf,
Will you come back again
To this old and primeval world?
Will you rise again with dripping hair
From the boundaries and bottomless abyss?
When your body will first emerge
On the first dawn of that day
All your limbs struck by the gaze of the world
Will weep in dripping drops of water.
And all of a sudden
The vast ocean will swell in waves
In a burst of wonderful song.
No, no, she will not come back again
That glorious moon is set forever
And Urbashi’s sun is set.
And so on this earth a sigh of eternal
Mingles and blows with the cheer of spring
When on a full moon night
All around is full of laughter
A distant memory brings from somewhere
The song of a wistful flute
And tears in abundance flow.
Yet hope lives within the sorrows of life,
You are free from all ties.
Excerpts from Purabi: The East in its Feminine Gender by Rabindranath Tagore
Translated by Charu C. Chowdhuri
Edited and Introduced by Krishna Bose and Sugata Bose
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Seventeen poems from Purabi (1925) form the core of this volume of translations of fifty-two thematically arranged poems and songs by Rabindranath Tagore. Purabi not only signifies ‘the East in its feminine gender’, as the poet put it, but also is the name of a wistful evening ragini whose spirit and mood seem to pervade this remarkable phase of Rabindranath’s poetic life.
An audio CD of sixteen poems and songs accompanies the volume. Click here to listen to an audio extract.