My heart struggles for voice: Sing of Life – Revisioning Tagore’s Gitanjali by Priya Sarukkai Chabria

Around the world, many so-called literary classics are worked into educational curricula long before most students have the depth of life experience to fully appreciate them. How often have we heard (or said) I was put off this author or that work because we were forced to read it in school? But years later a revisit can open new doors, allow new light to enter. Even a piece of literature remembered as well received when one is young, will be met  with entirely new eyes decades later. Living informs the reading, alters the experience.

For countless students growing up in India, Rabindranath Tagore is one of those authors who might well be met with a mix of youthful admiration and obligation. I could not help but smile, then, when I read Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s account of her unexpected reunion with Tagore’s classic Gitanjali (Song Offering) when her husband picked it up off a bookshelf in a café in the village of Bir in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Before long, as she describes it, the small book was “spreadeagled” between the two of them on the table. With the Himalayas rising in the distance, she felt the words rise off the page and enter into her mind. Now, I must admit that I do know Priya and her husband, and that privilege that makes this image that much more endearing—the vision of a shared rediscovery, that will, in time, lead to the very text I now hold in my hands, her thoughtful and spirited new book Sing of Life: Revisioning Tagore’s Gitanjali.

The original text, subtitled A Collection of Prose Translations Made by the Author from the Original Bengali with an Introduction by W.B.Yeats, was first published in 1913. It is comprised of 103 short pieces adapted from a longer version originally composed in verse. The Indian poet, writer, composer, painter and social reformer is, as are many great figures, a complex and cherished individual. In her Introduction, Chabria provides a succinct overview of his political/historical context, offering a key to understanding his philosophical and artistic importance before examining some of the key poetic and spiritual features that come through, for her, in Gitanjali:

To my mind, Tagore is a modernist bhakti/devotional poet. Cosmic harmonies ring through the love that souses this collection, at once familiar and mysterious as the changing lines on one’s palm. A blessed geography of space is summoned from within the body’s cells and outside, and in every time, whether recollected, in the present, or yet to come.

There is an inherent intimacy and longing in these prose poems combined with imagery and voicing—including an “osmosis of gendering”—that draws on a long tradition of Indian devotional love poetry. To someone unfamiliar with the genre such as myself, it feels exotic and mysterious. Are they to be understood as love songs or prayers? To whom are we listening? My own modest Dover edition copy of Gitanjali, read rather haphazardly without guidance, could hardly be said to have put me on familiar terms with its magic. However, in moving between the haunting revisions and the original songs, I found myself drawn into a sort of conversation of echoes, bridging a century, through which I was free to discover the songs that most clearly and personally spoke to me.

Enter my heart unbidden
even unknown to me

The steps I heard
in my room are

the same that echo
from star to star (from #43, Sing of Life)

It is clear from the Introduction that although the desire to engage, notebook in hand, was an almost immediate response to her chance reencounter with a classic, this was not a project entered into lightly. Chabria details her approach, her reasoning and her own reassurance that Tagore would not have been at odds with her intention and her desire to reimagine his poems, to pull the essence to the surface while remaining faithful to the intent, beauty and spirit of each piece. Her touch is spare, delicate. Key images and phrases are held, perhaps moved, gently rearranged or opened up, inviting space and silence into the telling. Tagore’s appeal to the Beloved, his lord, through his speakers—male, female, young, old—is an intimate one. They are filled with longing, gratitude, grief, peace. The energy and imagery is allowed to breathe fully in the revised imaginings, but they are not altered or lost. It is a remarkable feat.

To offer a taste, #39 reads:

When the heart is hard
come with a shower

When grace is lost
come with song

When work raises its din
come with peace

When my heart crouches
come with light & thunder

– –

lord

of silence

break

open

the door

For point of reference, the first two lines of the original prose version reads: WHEN the heart is hard and parched up, come upon me with a shower of mercy. / When grace is lost from life, come with burst of song.

Chabria notes that she was first encouraged to publish an excerpt as an erasure poem, but she felt that particular form did not apply “for mine is a tribute.” Great poems, she says, often serve as a spark or inspiration for another poet. She was not attempting to update Tagore either, for the original meditations still contain their fire for her and for us, as anyone turning to the text reproduced in the back of this book can instantly see and feel for themselves. The rhythms, images and moods shift throughout the course of Tagore’s Gitanjali, moving through joy and shame, anticipation and longing, darkness and light. As the sequence nears its close, an awareness of death holds more and more of the poet’s attention. In the revisioned songs of Sing of Life, images and phrases are distilled, sometimes reorganized, and visually spread across the page (each poem contains two sections, with the first sentences offered in verse form and the final sentence strung out across several lines). One senses that Chabria has listened closely, carefully, so her responses may honour the elements that seem most essential, highlighting their beauty and emotional depth.

Ever the mark of rewarding read, my copy of Priya’s latest book is now decorated with notes and sprouting coloured tabs. As a friend, her voice accompanied through my reading (and I resisted watching one of the readings or interviews she has recorded—many available on YouTube) before gathering my thoughts here. I have never known her to engage with any subject, be it over coffee or in the pages of her own books, without a passionate and heartfelt intensity (Yeats was wrong in this regard, by the way, sometimes the best are filled with a passionate intensity). With Sing of Life, this singular energy again comes through, pulling the reader into a double-stranded engagement with Tagore’s classic work. As today’s poet invites you in to her own essential revisioning of these rich prose pieces, be it for the first or the fiftieth time, where the encounter takes you—perhaps back to the original and forward again, or on some other tangent altogether—is your journey.

Sing of Life: Revisioning Tagore’s Gitanjali by Priya Sarukkai Chabria is published by Context, an imprint of Westland Publications in India, and widely available internationally.