Rabindra Sarobar Lakes: The many interweaves of nature, poetry and humanity

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By Sreemati Mukherjee

It may be hard to find poetry in the city of Kolkata. Of course, during Basanta or Spring, Kolkata is grand, with its Palash trees providing new and subtle geographies, and the map of the city may be temporarily redrawn along points of Palash trees. A journey to the Barisha Math (RKM), for instance, travelling along James Long Sarani, may become remarkable for the flaming presence of three of these trees at different points of the journey. The cross section at Rash Behari Avenue, close to the Bhawanipore Cemetery, the Victoria Memorial, La Martinière School, along  Red Road, the Governor’s House and Akash Bani Bhavan, these trees waylay the passer-by with a beauty that is spectacular and almost brazen for a very brief period of two to three weeks. Nature almost seems to be stalking beauty starved eyes, and shocking them into awareness of exactly how magnificent and dazzling Kolkata/Bengal can be.

If however one travels to the Rabindra Sarobar Lakes at this time, then one’s thirst for natural beauty, and the poetry of nature, is richly satisfied, because here, as Keats says in “On the Grasshopper and Cricket”, ‘the poetry of earth is ceasing never’. One notices new leaves in an infinite variety of shapes, sizes and colours vying with each other to lace, envelop and garland trees. Rich green symphonies, that match the kokil symphonies of Basanta or Spring, find resonance in various kinds of human aspiration and agency, as in the efforts of a twig-gatherer who gleans twigs so that she can cook for her children at home, a teenage granddaughter who wants to give her grandfather quality time as he walks in the park, or a young artist who is learning to paint tree whorls. These interweaves are endlessly resonant, setting up ‘call’ and ‘response’ structures that recast and redefine the Nature-human interface in magical and profound ways. Poetry and its validation may be found all the year around at the Rabindra Sarobar Lakes, but especially in Spring, the season having been magnificently invoked in Rabindranath’s Basanti He Bhuvanamohini (1931).

In Basanta the potential for regeneration and renewal through contact with natural beauty is most potent through the soprano melodies of one of Nature’s finest and most unforgettable musicians: the Koyel or Kokil. That the music of the Kokil has truly haunted generations of listeners, is borne out by the number of songs that have immortalized the Kokil:

Koyeliya gaan thamao ebar (sung by Begum Akhtar)

Kuhu kuhu kuhu kuhu koyelia ( composed and sung by Sachin Dev Burman)

Ajo kande kanone koyelia (Kaji Nazrul Islam)

A variant of the Kokil family is Keats’s ‘nightingale’, whose music the poet feels has always created a rich continuum of listening and responding and has cut through social divides. As Keats says, ‘The voice I hear this passing night was heard/ In ancient days by emperor and clown.’ I am sure it is like that at the Lakes too, where all human beings with an ear for music, are literally trapped within a musical orbit that is as inexplicable, because it is outside Culture, as it is irresistible, suggesting cosmic centers where music resides. As Rabindranath asks his God, ‘Tumi kemon kore gaan koro hé guni/ami abak hoye shuni’ (I wonder how you sing/I just listen in amazement and wonder).

As one comes to know from S.S. Kumar’s book Rabindra Sarobar Lakes (2014), the year for the ‘conception and excavation’ (6) of the Lakes was 1920. Launched under the initiative of The Calcutta Improvement Trust, Civil Engineer Probodh Chandra Chatterjee was the main architect of this project, although working under the stewardship of Chief Engineer of CIT, M.R. Atkins (6-7).

The many social groups that converge at the Lakes create a fascinating kaleidoscope of ethnic, sub-ethnic and multiple class layers that come to the Lakes for different reasons, and also respond to nature in different ways. Some do not see it at all. Walking in the lake at evening allows opportunities for a rich study of multiple interfaces, which include the sociological, predicated on class, ethnicity and gender, and their many varied interfaces with nature. For instance, there are the twig-gatherers, who meet their needs for fuel at home by gathering twigs. They sometimes work in groups, all the while chattering among themselves. I was able to take the picture of one such person, who offers a rich dramatic comparison, say, to the young woman who comes only to jog in the park, dressed in leotards, with earphones and totally oblivious of her surroundings. On the face of it, she certainly seems removed from the immediate cares of carrying on a life of basic subsistence, like the woman in the picture below:

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When I asked this woman in the picture above, how she would get her bags of twigs home, she said that she would now walk from Rabindra Sarobar to her home at Baruipur. Her face was smiling and radiant. She has sons who study at City College. Everybody likes me for my cheerful ways, she informed me.

Hence, multiple class narratives are generated which intersect in interesting ways. During the evening hours when I walk, the walkers, are from both Bengali and non-Bengali background. The non-Bengalis, mostly women, are usually upper class, well-dressed, speak Hindi, and walk in large groups. Their ages veer from thirty to fifty. It is possible that many of them are housewives. They seem boisterous and gregarious, among themselves. Bengalis, both men and women, are generally from the middle class, mostly above 50, in twos, threes and often alone. I once heard a group of three men who went past me, robustly discussing an upcoming cricket match. One must perforce mention the young people, mostly from poor Bengali background, use the Lakes for physical proximity to each other, an opportunity denied in their homes or neighborhoods.

And some like me who are happy that nature and people provide them with so much food for thought.

Mothers from multiple ethnicities, including foreigners, bring their children to play at the Safari Park, run by the Lions’ Club. This well-maintained children’s park area has slides and swings, bars, a jungle gym and also a donkey ride, if one wants one. I once saw a young white mother, with three children, urge her oldest child to reach a hanging bar that was just a little out of reach for the child. Western cultures seem to have the embedded cultural imperative urging attention towards fitness, physical strength and endurance of the body. The Safari Park also contains in neat engraved tablets, good advice to adults regarding both psychological and physical health!

Along with mothers, one also finds grandmothers walking with grandchildren, old persons with attendants, and some also in wheelchairs. Some old persons hold the hands of attendants, some prefer to walk alone, but are closely followed by attendants, some have a visiting grand- daughter accompanying them. Once I met a group of Class III children, mostly from middle class backgrounds, studying at La Martinière School, whose mothers had brought them to the Lakes as a prize after their Class III second semester Mathematics examination. Their trilling voices were very much like the cries of Kokil.

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As a study in contrast one also sees sometimes poor mothers who drag their children through the park on their way to some rich residence, where they work as maids.

I ran into a French group the other day. Parents had come to visit children. They spoke French.  The couple had had a very young daughter, whose antics everybody watched. May be her parents teach at the Alliance Française. I also once saw a young white man, in late morning, in kurta and pajamas, come and sit by the side of the water, simply by himself.

The Rabindra Sarobar Lakes offer rich fusions of the natural and human, creating fascinating kaleidoscopes of ever changing shapes, forms and sounds, which include green leaves, kokil call and other bird parties, colors of human clothes, bird chatter and human chatter, superficial talk of in-laws and dinner menus, to more heart-breaking ones of how a jhal muri wallah, who walked all the way from pre-Partition East Bengal to Kolkata, has never been able to rehabilitate himself within social fabrics that clearly favor the rich and privileged. He told me how in the 1940s, when he first started selling muri or puffed rice at the Park, the British Park police did not forbid him to sell muri on the Lake grounds.

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The very old jhal muri wallah who walked all the way from East Pakistan

Then there is the story of the tea-seller (below), who began his life by selling drinking water at Vivekananda Park, in small plastic cups, from water he obtained from Corporation taps. He lives in the tenements close to Vivekananda Park and is in the Lake grounds every day from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. He makes the tea at home.

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These people gather on the fringes of the middle class and rich walkers, who sometimes stop for a makeshift cup of tea, but remain mostly invisible to them, except for certain moments of functionality.

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The picture above is that of another muri wallah who regularly feeds crows (picture below) and who advises me to do the same. I had given him fifty rupees once for that purpose.

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I feel that these persons mentioned above give me a fuller context for my city, and enrich my life with their stories. I have noticed that people from humble walks of life, sometimes care far more deeply for the plants and animals around them, than people for whom privilege and an assured life, are a given. Those who struggle are more aware of the struggles for survival in others. The muri wallah, for instance, cares whether the birds are fed or not.

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A park cleaner employed by the KMC.
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A woman who makes her living out of collecting recyclable material from the lakes

The efforts of leaf-gatherers, jhal muri wallahs, balloon sellers, sweepers and plastic bottle salvagers, may sometimes be far more eloquent than those of well-to-do and the privileged, who mainly come to the lakes to walk and get their daily exercise, in beautiful natural surroundings. Their relationship to the Park is far more immediate and urgent. Their narratives intertwine with the various forms of eloquence that the trees, leaves and birds proffer, creating an incredible polyphony.

The Rabindra Sarobar Lakes offer bird paradises, bird havens, bird orchestras, bird ballerinas and bird plays, if one cares to listen. In Spring, as I already mentioned, the Kokil’s call creates a kokil orchestra if you like, with many kinds of ‘call’ and ‘response’ between them from different trees and branches in which they are perched, to make one attentive and listen with rapt attention, to both their jabbering and their high soprano singing. Well-known dancer Alokananda Roy came to the Lakes to perform Balmiki Prathibha, where the cast comprised of inmates of Correctional Homes, as part of Roy’s outstanding effort to integrate such inmates with society, using Art and Culture as a bridge. In this context, I would like to point out that the kokil too is a splendid artist, who performs without tabla and harmonium, completely spontaneously, joyously, untiringly and abundantly.

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Alakananda Roy as Saraswati in Balmiki Pratibha

One also often runs into artists who are learning to perfect a line, design and colour and are students of Birla Academy of Art and Culture. One sees them painting trees, their whorls and their mysteries, which are as eloquent as the earth herself. ‘Copy Nature’ or ‘imitate nature’ has been mantras that visual artists and sculptors have had to live by. For instance, in the figure of the young man below, painting on an easel just outside the Lake Kali temple, adjacent to Birla Academy of Arts, one notices his superb concentration, diligence and devotion to his task.

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There are also photographers who wait in reverence and awe hoping that a rare bird will make an appearance from behind a heavy screen of leaves in a large tree. Students of photography also come to the Lakes to find suitable subjects.

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At the Chakra Baithak above, a building of the most fascinating historicity and heritage value, monthly addas on literature, culture and the arts are still carried out. Begun in 1939, in the home of D.C. Ghosh, the name Chakra Baithak was given by Rabindranath Tagore. This building dates back to 1940 and has been graced by the presence of Kalidas Nag, Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay, Buddhadev Bose, Premendra Mitra, Naren Deb, Radharani Deb, Hemanta Kumar Mukhopadhyay and other distinguished personalities of Bengal. Sumita Dutta, its current Cultural Secretary, said that ‘sanskriti seva’ or ‘the service of culture’ was the motto of this organization. Attention needs to be paid to this heritage site so that a very significant cornerstone of metropolitan Kolkata cultural life of almost 80 years may be preserved.

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Lakes are home to him part of the time: Nomo Nomo Nomo Janani Bangabhumi…

The Rabindra Sarobar Lakes make poetry in the city of Kolkata possible, by drawing in plants, leaves, trees, birds and humans into endless combinations, associations and melodies, providing opportunities for many more combinations, associations and melodies.

Bio:
Dr. Sreemati Mukherjee, Professor, Department of Performing Arts, Presidency University, Kolkata, India.

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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.

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