WKND Special: Dubai resident documents Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore's musical influences on Russia
The story of Tagore’s contribution to the song remained unknown for 37 years for a wider audience beyond Russia, till Suvra Chakraborty and his significant other, Paramita, who have been Dubai residents since 2012, came into the picture
Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the polymath and a litterateur par excellence, still remains the tour de force behind the bilateral ties between his native India and the erst-while Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the world’s largest country that had ceased to exist on December 26, 1991, as a Dubai resident stumbled upon fortuitously a few years ago.
Dubai is the backdrop of the literary bonhomie between India and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
The bilateral cultural bonding over Tagore was made known to a wider audience because of Suvra Chakraborty and his significant other, Paramita, who have been Dubai residents since 2012. Tagore, who is Asia’s first-ever Nobel laureate and won the coveted prize in 1913 in colonial India, had written more than 2,000 songs and touched the hearts and souls of millions across the globe. However, about three decades after the multi-faceted universalist passed away, Alexey Rybnikov, a young Russian composer, who was then 25 years old and later went on to scale dizzy heights in the course of an illustrious career, found the perfect words for his magnum opus song, Poslednyaya Poema, or The Last Poem (turn over for a summary) that have distinctive literary echoes of Tagore’s writing. Rybnikov created the most magical song of his life that became a chartbuster in the erstwhile USSR and remains a cult classic after four decades.
The story of Tagore’s contribution to the song remained unknown for 37 years for a wider audience beyond Russia. Suvra, who — like Tagore — belongs to Kolkata, has been a Russophile since his formative years. (He had left for the then USSR for higher studies in 1985 and has also lived in Ukraine, now a part of the CIS, for over two decades.)
In 2017, on a business trip to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, a central Asian nation and a part of the CIS, he connected the fascinating dots between Tagore and Poslednyaya Poema by a simple twist of fate.
As luck would have it, he gatecrashed a party at Tashkent, where Poslednyaya Poema was being played, and whose linkage with Tagore’s last novel was a music to the Russophile’s ears.
An excited Suvra came back to Dubai and plunged himself headlong into research on Tagore’s tryst with Russia. He found out that Tagore had visited Moscow in 1930 but the then Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had taken umbrage to the litterateur’s critical assessment of the Communist regime and had barred a Russian daily from publishing his interview.
It came to light that on the orders from Stalin, the daily, Izvestia, did not publish Tagore’s interview in 1930, which was later printed by the same publication in 1988, because of the then Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, which was the reformist policy to restructure the political and economic system of the Communist regime.
These and many other hitherto unknown or little-known facts have come alive in Suvra and Paramita’s labour of love, a 20-minute-long documentary, called Last Poem, which is predominantly conceived and shot in Dubai amid the last year’s Covid-19-induced lockdown restrictions and as a tribute to the strong Indo-Russian cultural ties.
The documentary, which has been primarily shot on iPhone 8, is an evocative narrative of how a timeless song, which transcended geographical and cultural barriers, has evolved through the decades to a totem of highbrow art form and universalism.
What made Suvra and Paramita make Last Poem?
“It has been our relentless pursuit to find the genesis of the soulful creation. It became the focal point of our lives. In hindsight, the creative exercise also helped us keep our minds off the raging contagion that was disrupting normal life,” said the happy couple, who have been married for 25 years, in unison. Suvra went around connecting the dots as he painstakingly did the research work, including tracing Rybnikov, who is now 71 years old and was living in a dacha (cottage) in a Russian country-side, where the Internet connectivity was dodgy.
The documentary also features Uzbek national and cultural icon, Farrukh Zokirov, one of the first performers of the song in the erstwhile USSR. Zokirov’s rendition underscores mu-sic, like truth to power, has transcendental abilities and is a great leveller. Zokirov, who went on to become the cultural minister of Uzbekistan and has been an artistic director of the folk-rock band Yalla since 1976, is a superstar in his home country.
Suvra and Paramita have been urban gypsies, who drew on their immediate and extended family’s talents to lend the documentary an authentic and artistic touch.
Their sons — Rajarshi and Saptarshi are pursuing higher studies in the Neth-erlands — were involved in post-production, including composing background musical scores and lending voiceovers. The deft touches of Bhisma Pratim, Lagnajita and Abhishek — Suvra’s cousins — are on show in the documentary. Bhisma Pratim’s crisp editing and artistic use of archival footage are ad-mirable. Abhishek, who graduated from the Maharaja Sayajirao University, Vadodara, India, last year, did the pencil sketches depicting the Tashkent sequence of the documentary since travel to the location was out of bounds because of the Covid-19-related restrictions.
In an ode to the vibrant Indo-Russian cultural ties, Lagnajita, a prominent playback singer in her native Bengali and in Bollywood, sings a Russian song as the end credit rolls on.
The documentary’s maiden screening was held in Dubai on June 9 at Para-mount Hotel in Dubai.
Altogether, six consul-generals in Dubai from Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Belarus and India were present on the occasion.
Plans are afoot to organise a screening of the film at the Indian Consulate in Dubai on July 9, which will also kickstart the celebrations for the 75th anniversary of Indian Independence.
The story behind Tagore’s the last poem
Shesher Kobita, which loosely translates to The Last Poem in English, is the last novel by Rabindranath Tagore that was published as a series in the Bengali magazine Probashi in 1928. The literary masterpiece was published as a book the following year.
The novel was written in verse and used the iambic pentameter, a metrical foot in poetry and a common rhyming pattern of the Greek classics.
Shesher Kobita is a happy blend of two-line rhymes, four stanzas, and, at times, even blank verse, underscoring Tagore’s command over both the literary form and content. Allegories and similies abound the classic, which some literary critics have pointed out to be self-referential and charted a new course for Bengali literature. Tagore, who wrote the novel when he was in Ban-galore in southern India under the then colonial British rule, had delved into his inner recesses to conjure up a mesmerising love story, where conflicting human emotions such as marriage, unrequited love and platonic relation-ships collide.
The plot goes somewhat like this: the setting is salubrious Shillong in undivided Assam in North-east India during the British Raj and recounts the love story of Amit Ray, and Labonno.
Amit hails from a wealthy family and was educated as a barrister — one of the most sought-after callings in early 20th century India — at Oxford University. However, he wants to break the ritualistic shackles of an ortho-dox and caste-ridden Hindu Bengali society, a sign of the times. Fortuitously, he meets the ravishing Labonno during a car accident.
Amit and Labonno express their mutual feelings through a series of dialogues, and poems.
The vivid description of Labonno’s beauty sets the character apart from con-temporary women’s characters.
Contrary to popular perception of the era, Labonno is not an object of desire and her personality, which exudes self-pride, self-respect, knowledge and wisdom, attracts Amit towards her. Tagore, the social reformer, portrayed Labonno as an epitome of feminism and women empowerment, which are still burning issues for the Indian society at large.
Shesher Kobita is the defining love story like no other in Bengali literature that continues to capture the hearts and minds of its readers around a century later it was published.