AMONG THE THINGS prohibited to me as a child, there are three I have yet to undertake: touching paper with my feet, eating kül (Bengal berries) before Saraswati Puja and singing Rabindra Sangeet in the bathroom. I must confess that I was therefore embarrassed to read about young Sandeep’s Chhotomama singing a Tagore prayer song—“Bahe nirantar ananta anandadhara”—in the bathroom in Amit Chaudhuri’s novel A Strange and Sublime Address. Tagore songs, like Wimbledon, demanded a certain dress code. That had been broken. The other moment in the delightful novel when Chhotomama sings Rabindra sangeet mercifully ended with the words, “That is why I sing without cause.” Why else would a bathroom Rabindra Sangeet-singer sing? I have since discovered an anecdote that I now narrate as filial revenge: “I have heard him humming to himself in the bath-room, then suddenly call his Banamali ... and say: ‘Fetch Dinubabu immediately and tell him to stand outside my bath-room window and be ready to take down a new song, words and tune together.’” The words are Leonard Elmhirst’s about Rabindranath Tagore, his longtime friend.
A Bengali drawing room figure, Tagore is often invoked in moments of conversational unease and boredom, sometimes emerging from a Bengali girl’s voice as song in the prologue to her arranged marriage; he would also, when the aesthetic demanded, hang like a lizard on the wall and gaze tirelessly from a Batik wall-hanging produced at Santiniketan’s Amar Kutir. It is interesting, therefore, to see Tagore’s recent emergence in unfamiliar places, both ghare and baire: in the bedroom, and at traffic signals in Kolkata, blaring out from loudspeakers as part of a government programme to celebrate his 150th birth anniversary.