Tagore's poetry plays with sound like magic. Did you ever notice?

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Tagore's poetry plays with sound like magic. Did you ever notice?

'It is the scattered sounds and thoughts that bring together Tagore, Tennyson, Shelley and Yeats,' writes Papiya Bhattacharya.

As we celebrate Rabindranath Tagore's birth anniversary, it needs to be remembered how as a poet he made ample use of his knowledge of music and rhythm, his true love for nature, his deep emotions and philosophy in his poetry. Perhaps not consciously; as a bit of the artist almost always creeps into his creations. That is what makes us connect to them, a stray word here or a portrayal of an emotion there, that makes a reader feel connected to his writing.

Alliteration to make music and using Onomatopoeia, a figure of speech that uses sound to explain actions, is used liberally in Tagore's poetry.

Mono mor hansh balakar pakha jay ude
Kochito kochito chokito todito aloke
Jhan jhan manjiro bajay jhanja rudra anonde
Kala - kala kalamandre nirjharini......

The above lines are from the song 'Mono mor meghero sangi' in Gitanjali by Tagore on nature, written in 1939 later were set to music based on Raag Malhar.

The first line of the poem 'Mono mor meghero sangi' can be translated into 'my heart is a companion to the clouds'. The refrain, 'rimi jhim rimi jhim rimi jhim,' is used after every verse to bring home the sweetness of the monsoon rains. Then the poem says, 'My heart soars on the wings of a swan with the words, 'Mono mor hansha balakar pakhay jay ude’ followed by ‘kochito kochito chokito todito aloke', meaning ‘sometimes they glow in the thunder and lightning’. The words ‘kochito’ and ‘chokito’ illustrate the flight of the swan to faraway heights with the wings moving to the rhythm of the sounds the words make even if they just refer to an abstract sound of the wings folding.

In line after line, the poet brings us nature's sounds with the use of different words that make us feel we are in the midst of nature, now near the increasing beats of a jhanjha which is a thunderstorm and then near a gentle stream that flows with the sounds of 'kala kala kala mandre nirjharini."

William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats

'I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore' wrote W B Yeats in 1888 in his well loved Lake Isle of Innisfree.

The alliteration of the letter 'l' brings to us the gentle sounds of the water in a lake on a summer evening. The sounds of the lake and the word ‘lapping’ bring the sounds of the gentle shores of the lake with the water playing on them and we are transported to a serene lake with bean rows around, birds swooping in and out catching fish.

This brings to mind the following lines from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ballad, The brook written in 1886.

I wind about, and in and out,
with here a blossom sailing,
And here and there a lusty trout,
And here and there a grayling,
And here and there a foamy flake
Upon me, as I travel
With many a silver water-break
Above the golden gravel

Reading the lines aloud (the entire poem is meant to be read aloud for its sheer music.) The feeling is like making love in one’s thoughts with your lover, without meeting him. The whole poem is punctuated by the refrain, ‘For men may come and men may go, But I go on forever.’ True, the brook makes music for us in Tagore’s and Tennyson’s creations.

The second verse of Tagore’s song uses alliteration and Onomatopeoic sounds to bring home the sounds of water.

'Ucchala chalo chalo tatini tarange

Even if one is not familiar with the language Bangla that Tagore wrote in, one can feel the sounds and the music that the words make. Especially in the second line where the words 'kochito' , 'chokito' and 'todito' suggest the flight of a swan towards light while creating a soft music and rhythm of their own with alliteration of the 'ch' which is a letter in the Bangla alphabet.. While the words 'jhan jhan' makes music like a manjira that is a musical instrument and 'kala kala' suggest the soft flow of water in a mountain stream.

Another song, again composed on Raag Megh Malhar -

Sawana gagane ghor ghana ghata

is another example of alliterative sounds used to enhance the mood of the poem. The song has been set to the monsoon raag and the sounds illustrate the rains perfectly.

Unmada pawane Jamuna tarjit
Ghan ghan garjit meha
Damkat bidyut pathtaru lunthit
Thara hara kampit deha.....

The verse perfectly illustrates the state of Radha's heart that is trembling in fear on seeing the mighty Yamuna in spate but she has to go to Krishna in the night.

Read the words aloud to hear and feel the sounds of thunder, the fury of the rain, the flooded Yamuna and the terror it all brings to Radha’s heart.

Tagore wrote the song as a part of Bhanusingher Padaboli, a collection of songs in Brajabhasha about Radha and Krishna at the age of nineteen, around 1877.

Alfred Lord Tennyson
Alfred Lord Tennyson

I am reminded of Tennyson. If read loudly,

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

In the above poem, 'The Charge of the Light Brigade,' the music evokes scenes from the battlefield and the drum rolls suggest soldiers marching on. The poem was about the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War, written in 1864.

Percy Bysshe Shelly
Percy Bysshe Shelly

There is another poem/song written by Tagore ‘Ami path bhola ek pothik eshechi’ that echoes similar thoughts as in Shelley's Ode to the West Wind. Both talk of death and a new birth and while Tagore talks of a lost vagabond tramping through life alone looking for a companion, Shelley's spirit is the west wind. Hark to the magic of the words.

'Jakhon biday bnaashir sure sure shukno paata jaabe ure
Songe ke robi.'
'Aami rabo, udaas habo ogo udaasi,
Aami torun karobi.'
'Basonter oi lolit raage biday byatha lukiye jaage -
Phaagun dine go
Knaadon-bhara haasi hesechhi.'

The song goes, “When I leave like a dry leaf to the tune of the flute that bids farewell, who will be with me?

I will be with you and be sad. I am the young oleander. In this song of spring, I have laughed with my tears.”

And I am reminded of the following verse of The Ode -

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither'd leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

While Tagore did meet Yeats and Yeats is known for recommending Gitanjali to the west, I wonder if Tennyson and Shelley joined in; what would they talk about? Scattered sounds and similar thoughts that resonate in their poetry bring them together in a rare camaraderie.

Rabindranath Tagore
Rabindranath Tagore


Papiya Bhattacharya is a published journalist and poet. She is a science writer with a Masters in Biochemistry, and has been a journalist and writer for twenty years. She has worked with Deccan Herald and The New Indian Express in the past, and currently works as a freelance writer. The publications she writes for include Scroll, Wire, Leonardo Reviews, Femina, The Week, Planet Earth, SciDev.net, Current Science, Wire.in, The Statesman, The Hindu, Women’s Features Service, Health & Nutrition, Kyoorius Design, Sakaal Times, 24k etc.

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