Browning in one of his poems asks: “Did you see Shelly plain?” – I did see Rabindranath ‘plain’, for the first time, fifty-five years ago. His name at the time was familiar to me, but not his writings. In the summer of 1886 he came to see my late brother, Ashutosh Chaudhuri, who had just returned from England. We were living in Krishnanagar at the time, and it was in our house there, that I first saw him.
My brother and Rabindranath started for England in the same boat in 1881, and it was as fellow-passengers that they came to know each other. Rabindranath was accompanied by his nephew Satyaprasad Ganguly, and they both came back from Madras for some reason or other; while my brother proceeded to England. But in these few days my brother had become an intimate friend of Rabindranath. That is why the poet came to Krishnanagar, and I had the opportunity of seeing him. I was then in my teens, and Rabindranath was twenty-five.
I was immensely impressed by his appearance. From my boyhood I was unusually sensitive to physical beauty. When I saw him, I felt that I had never before set eyes on a handsomer man. He was fair and tall, and had a splendid figure and a remarkably beautiful face. His eyes were large, his nose was straight and his forehead broad and high. Such a combination of strength and beauty I had never seen before. I also noticed that his whole person was informed with exuberant vitality.
On this occasion I had no opportunity of talking to him. I had just recovered from a serious illness, and with my shaven head and emaciated face, I did not like to appear before strangers. Even if I had been my usual self, I would not have dared to engage in conversation with him. But I heard Rabindranath talk with my brother and his companions from behind the purdah; and I was so deeply impressed by the cleverness and wit of his talk, that U felt myself a pigmy before this gigantic intellect. The coruscations of his spirit were as brilliant as they were effortless. I was overjoyed to find that he never used Calcutta jargon, that his language was as light as it was bright, and as refined as it was captivating. He impressed me from the very first as a superman, both in body and mind. I am not prone to admiration by temperament, but Rabindranath compels one’s admiration. His personality is so overwhelmingly superior to that of the average man. We all pass in the crowd, but not he.
I am talking of my original impression, which is still vivid in my memory. And the public has since discovered that my instinctive appreciation of his greatness was not unfounded.
I have known him rather intimately for fifty-five years, and have had no occasion to change my opinion. My impression of Rabindranath’s greatness was akin to perception. It was born of half-intuition and half-observation. In a word, it was revelation.
I have said that at that time I was not familiar with his writings. That does not mean that I had not read a line written by him. I came to Calcutta when I was a little over thirteen and stayed here for nearly three years. I had read his ভগ্নহৃদয় (Broken-heart) when I was a student of the Hare School, and I must confess that the book did not appeal to me. It struck me as a monotonous and sentimental Kabya (poetry), although it contained one magnificent passage about the starry heavens. No Bengali poet had hitherto portrayed such a vision of the infinite and its awe-inspiring character. It was as new as it was great. I speak from memory, and I hope it has not played me false.
Later in life I met in Leopardi a poem on the same theme, of great beauty and power. But in those days this Italian poet was unknown to me, and I believe Rabindranath was also wholly ignorant of Leopardi’s poems. I mention these facts to show that I first came to know Rabindranath in flesh and blood and not through his writings.
Today I shall refrain from saying anything about Rabindranath’s poetic genius. I began by saying that I saw Rabindranath plain, and I want to confine my mind, as far as possible, to this first impression. People may accuse me of saying more about myself than the poet. But that cannot be helped. I can only relate my own impressions, and not those of others.
I will mention only one other thing. At that time I also heard Rabindranath sing. In those days I was very fond of music, and used to associate with people who could sing and handle Indian musical instruments; and I knew the names of many Ragas and Raginis, and could also recognize them when sung or played.
Rabindranath sang a few songs, a Tappa of Nidhu Babu, one of his recently composed songs, and a Hindi song. His voice took me by surprise. It was a powerful tenor voice of extraordinary range. His style of singing was also quite different from that of others. It was practically free from interminable trills, and I felt that he had cultivated the Dhrupad style of singing.
Nowadays his songs are constantly discussed. That he does not care for the classical style of singing Kheyal and Tappa is obvious. Vocal acrobatics are repugnant to him. But if Dhrupad and Thumri are considered to be classical, then his songs can also be called classical. Remember that I have used the term “classical”. That this style is absolutely different from the newfangled styles of Kheyal and Tappa, must be obvious to all lovers of Indian music. Bhajans are never sung in the manner of Kheyal and Tappa, because in Bhajan the words have a value of their own. Rabindranath’s songs are full of significant words, and the Dhrupad style lends itself to their singing. Like his whole personality, his songs are characterized by indomitable vitality.