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The Arts

The House Which Rang With Rabindranath's Voice on His Birthday, 82 Years Ago

Two houses in the hills bear memories of Rabindranath Tagore, whose musings on life, death and illnesses are even more resonant today.

We had decided that in Kalimpong, our first port of call would be the Gouripur House. As we were checking in at the tourist lodge, we asked for directions to the place. These sounded simple enough, but when we tried to reach Gouripur House a little later that day, we couldn’t find our way.

Google Map showed me that we were very close, yet we went around in circles, unable to cut through to the middle despite repeated efforts, till a kindly gentleman on a motorcycle offered to help.

We then found out that there no longer exists a motorable road to the sprawling property where Rabindranath Tagore came often on summer holiday.

Gouripur House, or what is left of it, stands on the shoulder of a hill which is scarcely visible from the road running below it, or from the upper reaches of the hill. Today, you have to clamber down a craggy hillside, through a scrubby undergrowth, to reach what should have been one of our country’s important cultural monuments.

Also read: The Relevance of Rabindranath Tagore’s Politics on His 158th Birth Anniversary

For not only did Rabindranath spend extended holidays here – on at least four occasions between April, 1938 and September, 1940 – but it was also here that he was taken critically ill in September, 1940. This was to be his final sickness, from which he never fully recovered. His passing on August 7, 1941, followed upon that bout of illness.

But Gouripur House also gifted us some of Rabindranath’s great last poems, one of which, Janmadin (‘Birthday’), he recited live on All India Radio on his 78th birthday (in 1938) from this same house:

The plaque says Tagore broadcast live from the Gouripur House for AIR. Photo: Anjan Basu

Today is my birthday.
Only just it has emerged
From the dark depths of stupor on to the
Very edge of life, the pass of death in hand.
It seems as though the past year’s
Garland of flowers, all shrivelled and shrunken,
Lies in tatters now, even as a fresh garland
Is being strung for a new birthday.
At this festival of new birth, I am
But a passing guest, waiting for death
To anoint me with its kindly hand,
When the light of a new dawn
Marks my time to leave.         

The poem looks back to another episode of serious illness. One day in September, 1937, in Shantiniketan, the poet had passed out suddenly and lay in a coma for several days thereafter. (Hence the mention of the ’dark depths of stupor’. Recovery took a very long time, and his health was never quite the same again.)

The poem goes on to evoke the striking image of the waning moon greeting the morning star, as death meets life, to together ‘share the same seat’. A marble plaque on the exterior wall of the now abandoned house reminds the occasional visitor of that sunlit day in May, 1938 when Gouripur House resonated to the poet’s mellow voice as he read those rich, flowing  lines aloud. 

Gouripur House was the summer resort of the Roychowdhurys, the zamindars  of Gouripur in Mymensingh, now part of Bangladesh.

Kalimpong was, by all accounts, a wonderful holiday destination then, unspoilt, sylvan and charming. Evergreen forests of pine, fir, birch, maple and alder crowded around the visitor and an abundance of jaunty rhododendrons and exuberant varieties of  orchids made early summers and autumns magical. There was a gargling little waterfall near Gouripur House, the garden surrounding the house was lovely and well-tended, and the wide and tall French windows and the quaint balconies of the house  looked out on the majestic Kanchenjunga.

Gouripur House today. Photo: Anjan Basu

The poet soaked in the colours, the light and the bird-song all day, sitting at one of the upper-floor balconies most of the time, either writing or just looking on. In course of his last visit here, in September, 1940, he wrote another sparkling little poem that pulsates with the animated enjoyment of all the beauty around him:

The blue of the hills and the blue of the sky
Sing in unison their enchanted song.
The autumn sun bathes the woods in golden light.
The violet honey-bee flits around
In bushes of yellow flowers.
Amidst all this I sit, looking on,
Even as the sky around me
Claps its hands in silent greeting.
Seeping into my delight are colour and song,
Unknown, alas, to Kalimpong…

Pratima Tagore (the poet’s daughter-in-law), who was with Rabindranath on his last holiday at Kalimpong, recalls how deeply the poet was moved by the beauty of the hills and the woodland around Gouripur House that autumn.

Indeed, those were the last few days of  his unbounded joy in nature seeming to possess the poet’s heart completely, as though he was in a trance. Rabindranath’s health suffered a grievous setback the very day he wrote the poem we just quoted from, and only three days later, on September 28, 1940, a team of doctors needed to rush the poet to Kolkata for emergency treatment.

Pratima Tagore’s exquisite little memoir, Nirbaan (‘The Exit’), captures the spirit of that bitter-sweet holiday memorably.

September, 1940 was the only time that Rabindranath went back to Kolkata from Kalimpong without spending some days at Mungpoo, a charming little hamlet barely 20 miles away, where Maitreyi Devi and her husband, Dr Manmohan Sen, hosted the poet several times between 1938 and 1940 at their lovely cottage perched on the edge of a hill.

Dr Sen was the director of the Government Cinchona Plantation around which the tiny habitat of Mungpoo had evolved and Maitreyi, the daughter of an outstanding teacher-philosopher friend of the poet’s, was later to emerge as an accomplished writer of Bengali prose.

Mungpoo. Photo: Anjan Basu

Her memoir, Mungpoote Rabindranath (‘Rabindranath at Mungpoo’), is a classic in more ways than one. It is the story of one of the world’s greatest creative artists seen from up close, perfectly at his ease in small talk, not above gently chaffing others, playing his favourite parlour game of charades with gusto, now mimicking someone good-humouredly, now again reeling off impromptu droll verses.

The poet reads his poetry and his stories aloud to others, also sings for them, but when he sits down to write, which he does every single day of his vacation, mornings and afternoons, he is so completely absorbed in his work as to look like one of the solitary hilltops in the far distance.

Maitreyi marvellously captures the tone and flavour of Rabindranath’s voice, the brilliant wit of his repartee, the easy, yet often intensely poetic, manner in which he discussed questions about his own work, and about art in general. Few reminiscences sound as true and authentic as Mungpoote Rabindranath does, and the author’s own English adaptation of the book – titled Tagore by Fireside – does an excellent job of preserving the spirit of the original, no mean job considering how extraordinarily rich the poet’s vocabulary, his facility with  the spoken word, was. 

We travelled to Mungpoo from Kalimpong on a clear day in November, along the road that the poet himself took many times eighty years ago.

After the derelict Gouripur House, the beautifully-restored Mungpoo bungalow was a balm for our souls. It is now a museum dedicated to the poet’s association with the place, thanks largely to the unwavering resolve of Maitreyi and Dr Sen to preserve the cottage (meant to be the official residence of the director of the Cinchona plantation-factory, and to be occupied as such by Dr Sen’s successor to the post) as a memorial to the poet.

The Mungpoo house is now a museum. Photo: Anjan Basu

The original furniture, including the poet’s bedstead and his writing table, is on view, as are some manuscripts and copies of his writings and many fascinating photographs from those years. The desk and the chair Rabindranath worked at are placed at the exact same place where, eighty years ago on June 10, 1938, he sat to write his playful homage to this idyllic Himalayan village:

Even as the mists over Mungpoo lifted,
In a riot of colours the hills erupted.
The ancient wizard, rapt in his game,
Not a care in the world, no worry to his name.
Sitting here, as I peer into the past,
As ever the sun and the clouds flit past.
How many kingdoms rose and fell,
How many heroes – only the bard can tell…
The tree there, forever like an overgrown child,
Looks on as the sun rises, and sets each night.
The slope of those hills, so parched and bare,
Evening chants her prayers there.
Down in the valley, like a ribbon blue,
The Teesta lightens the arid gloom….

As incredible as it may sound, the sago palm tree (the ‘overgrown child’) which stood before the poet’s window as he looked out on the hills is there still.

But, try however hard we might, we could not catch a glimpse of the Teesta from the patch of green grass leading up to the edge of the hill: an unruly mass of birch trees blocked the view.

A stone bust of the poet adorns the garden, but the quinine factory next door lies closed today. Mungpoo has changed, inevitably so, but the place still retains some of the unspoilt beauty that so fascinated Rabindranath, drawing him to this quaint little village with an irresistible magnetism.

His 80th birthday, on May 7, 1940, was celebrated here, an occasion immortalised by the three poems he composed that day (later anthologised in the book Janmadiney orOn My Birthday’ which came out early the next year), each an exquisite creation, but each different from the others in idiom and tone.

The Sens had invited the workers of the plantation and the factory to the birthday, and these simple hill-folk filled the garden with colour, gaiety and song.

In one of the poems Rabindranath records his gratitude to them, while in another, he pays his own tribute to the Buddhist monks from the monastery near Mungpoo who had come to greet the poet on his birthday.

Tagore’s desk at Mungpoo. Photo: Anjan Basu

The third inevitably talks about death, but also about the great drama of life on earth, and of his own part in that drama – that of raising a tiny portion of the curtain on the great stage.

The play of light and shade, of high wind and the stars, of  the bottomless seas and the towering mountains, exercises on the poet’s mind the same joyous wonder that he had felt at ‘the first light’ of life, and he celebrates that wonder one last time. The next day the crushing news would reach him of the death of Surendranath Tagore, a very dear nephew, and yet, even in the outpouring of his grief, Rabindranath manages to remind himself that

In this light appears
Unbounded life, where death merges seamlessly with birth,
A deathlessness illumined by the brilliant light
Veiled by the everyday of our niggardly fate. 

The same day that he wrote these lines, Rabindranath Tagore bade farewell to Mungpoo, this time for ever.

Anjan Basu freelances as literary critic, commentator and translator. He can be reached at [email protected]. The translations from Bengali in this piece are by the author.