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Images And Imagery: A Poet’s Engagement With Moving Images

December 29, 2011 | By

Sometimes Tagore made improvements on the scenario and the dialogues. But he did not suggest radically alternative treatments to the films

Rabindranath Tagore in Natir Puja

Tagore got an opportunity to be captured by the movie camera many more times later, but his intellect did not stop at the primordial attraction that this contraption offered.
(Pic: Youtube)

Rabindranath Tagore was born in 1861. The first test runs of moving images started three decades later, almost simultaneously, on both sides of the Atlantic.

The first public screening of these moving images were held at the Grand Salon in Paris in December 1895. Historians acknowledge this event as the birth of cinema.

Cinema hit the shores of India in 1896. Six short films by Lumiere Brothers were screened at the Opera House in Bombay. Screenings in Calcutta were soon to follow. This new ‘attraction’ captured the imagination of Indians as it did of people all over the world – and it could not have escaped Tagore’s attention.

Rabindranath Tagore died in 1941. The same year, Citizen Kane was released. In half a century of its existence, cinema overcame its teething troubles, its adolescent edginess and reached a state of maturity – first in the silent era and then in the talkie era.

Propagandists, storytellers, entertainers, sorcerers, journalists, record keepers, researchers and the avant garde artists discovered the usefulness of cinema and unlocked its potential in many different directions. Cinema flowered in the hands of artistes like Griffith, Flaherty, Eisenstein, Dali, Bunuel and Orson Welles.

How did this maverick medium touch the poet? What kind of cinema was he exposed to in India and during his foreign tours? Two scholars – first Arun Kumar Roy and then Dr. Someswar Bhowmik, have turned their attention to Tagore’s engagement with cinema. They  have painstakingly dug into his writings – letters, essays, stories – and the archives at Viswa Bharati, and have presented to us Tagore’s response to cinema at various points of time.

This essay is based on the facts unearthed by the two authors and is an attempt to understand how the poet, artist, musician and educationist in Tagore responded to this new techno art form.

The first recorded close encounter between Tagore and cinema comes from an interview given by the noted filmmaker Nitin Bose and it dates back to 1917. Nitin Bose had been requested to record a dance drama performance on the terrace of Uttarayan, Tagore’s residence at Shantiniketan.[1] Tagore himself had a role in this performance.

After a few days, when Nitin Bose went back to Shantiniketan with the celluloid print of this recording, Tagore expressed a childlike joy after watching it and wanted to watch it again and yet again. It is interesting to witness how easily a poet of Tagore’s stature succumbed to the primordial attraction of cinema.

It is this primordial attraction that made the cinematograph so popular all over the world immediately after its first public performance at the Grand Salon in Paris. Kings and commoners alike were mesmerized by their own moving images captured by the cinematograph and projected on the screen. They had not seen such close likeness of themselves represented in any other medium.

Rabindranath Tagore on cinema

(Pic: Youtube)

The movie was like a mirror that reflected their image. It was also a medium that perpetuated their existence. It was this primordial attraction for cinema that won Robert Flaherty the complete co-operation of Nanook and his tribe during the shooting of Nanook of the North.

Nanook instinctively understood that the ‘aggie’– the name the Eskimos gave to cinema, was an instrument of their self gratification and self perpetuation. It is this attraction that urges so many people in the crowd to stick their face into the frame during a location shoot of a documentary.

Tagore got an opportunity to be captured by the movie camera many more times later, but his intellect did not stop at the primordial attraction that this contraption offered. In 1898 he wrote in a letter:

The windows of my houseboat are closed. I have pulled up the shutters to take a look at the scenery outside. My mind’s eye is like the camera eye. It is taking impressions of fragments of scenes. Circumscribed by the shutters, each scene is coming under sharp focus. [2]

These lines clearly bring out the poet’s understanding of a ‘frame’. It is the framing that makes the camera eye different from a human eye. It is the frame that gives an aesthetic quality to a photograph.  In 1898 the poet could not yet have had his encounter with a movie camera.

So here he is alluding to the camera eye of the still camera. One wonders why he never had an urge to practice still photography. Was this owing to technophobia? Or was there some other reservation more fundamental? The following passage may throw some light.

On his way to Europe, sitting in a Japanese ship called Haruna Maru, the poet wrote:

In the private garden of my childhood, every sunrise was a wonder. Every morning, nature decked the Sun in a new attire and presented to me in an azure blue tray. I have apprehensions, some day my future biographer may come and take photographs of my private garden. Would his camera capture the primeval garden of Eden that this private garden meant to me? [3]

Natir Puja by Rabindranath

Natir Puja was released on March 22, 1932 at Chitra movie theatre. (Pic: Youtube)

So the poet had little faith in photographic reality. His magic reality could not be captured in a photograph. Perhaps he found his words to be more efficient and more dependable in bringing out his subjective reality. Later in life, he took to the paint brush – but never to the camera.

In 1925, the poet returned to India from Italy in a ship called Cracovia. Passengers were shown movies on board – fast paced American slap stick comedies. Tagore was not amused. He wrote,

‘these days, in all spheres of life, showmanship and spectacle have become more important than art.(Mone hochhe shokol bibhagei bortoman juge kolar cheye kardani boro hoye uthechhe)’ [4]

Yet, through these slapstick comedies, he got an idea about filmic time as opposed to real time. He wrote:

Cinema plays acrobatics with time. An event that gives a certain impression by the clock (in real time), presents a completely different experience when time is speeded up or slowed down. Something that is restless in a short span of time, looks still when time is stretched out. [5]

The film industry in India has been active and quite prolific from the early years. Yet, one does not come across theorizations on space, time and other aspects of cinema in any literature on cinema of that time. Tagore’s theoretical musings went unnoticed. Neither he, nor his readers and disciples paid much heed to these thoughts.

Interestingly, the filmmakers who adapted Tagore’s work, came to him to discuss the scenario and the casting. Sometimes Tagore made improvements on the scenario and the dialogues. But he did not suggest radically alternative treatments to the films based on his work. Perhaps he did not have enough exposure to classics in world cinema to develop a deeper understanding of the language of pure cinema; although there is little doubt that he had grasped the essence of cinema.

One may note here that in Europe and America, theoretical musings on cinema had started in the second decade of the 20th Century. The early theorists claimed that cinema was the equal of the other arts because it changed the chaos and meaninglessness of the world into a self sustaining structure and rhythm.

Soon after the phenomenon of ‘Griffith’ unlocked the commercial, dramatic and artistic potential of cinema, an American poet called Vachel Lindsay published a theory of film (The Art of the Moving Picture. 1916), where he specifically showed that cinema enjoyedthe properties of all other arts, including architecture.

In France, the leaders of the avant garde film movement wanted to see cinema regarded as an independent art. They even coined a new word photogenie to mean that special quality of cinema which can transform both the world and man in a single gesture. Cinema, they said, is photography, which has been raised to a rhythmic unity and which, in turn, has the power to raise and uplift our dreams. [6]

There is no record that Tagore came across these writings. But in his letter to Murari Bhaduri, he has effortlessly, perhaps instinctively, given the status of ‘art’ to cinema – something that the early scholars of cinema in the West struggled to establish. If the French filmmakers coined the name ‘pgh filmmakers coined the name ‘pgletter represents, because the focus hifts to otogenie’, Tagore was not far behind.

When Tagore was invited to inaugurate a new movie hall, he not only christened it Rupabani, but also wrote the following verse to bless the new born: ‘Bor Dilam. Hara roop dhora debe/ kaya mukto chhaya ashbe alor bahu dhore/ Tomar drishti utsabe’. Roughly translated, these verses would read something like this: ‘May your wish come true/Lost images be held in captivity/The shadow, dismembered from the body/May arrive hand in hand with light/At your celebration of vision’. [7]

When Tagore was having close encounters with cinema and people involved with the craft of cinema, he was already a celebrity. As a celebrity he did not have the freedom of spontaneity and the freedom to speak his mind. And his mind was occupied by too many other things to give closer attention to this demanding medium.

When Tagore had first set sail to England as a seventeen year old teenager, he imbibed a lot of western culture that left a lasting impression in his mind and on his work. But cinema was still in the womb of future.  So his young impressionable mind missed out on the chance of coming under the spell of this magic medium.

And I would like to believe, Bengal missed out the opportunity of enjoying a ‘cinema studies’ department at Kala Bhavan. Viswa Bharati has been a pioneer in so many fields of learning. If only Tagore had diverted his intellect in a little more organized way towards cinema, India could have been one of the first countries, after Soviet Union, to give cinema the status of an academic discipline.

When Tagore visited the Soviet Union, he had a tour of the cinema studios and the cinema school. As we know, Soviet Union was the first country to start a cinema school (VGIK). Lenin had famously said, ‘cinema is the most important of all arts’.

During Tagore’s visit of Soviet Union, special screenings of Battleship Potemkin and Old and the New were arranged for him. Eisenstein’s wife personally supervised these screenings.

It did not escape Tagore’s notice that a lot of emphasis was given to cinema by the present Soviet Govt. He noticed that there were movie halls even in small towns. Alas! Even this did not inspire Tagore to start a cinema department in his own University.

But cinema was always in the poet’s subconscious. It came out in different ways in different writings. Sometimes he made metaphorical allusions to cinema, such as: ‘In the darkening canvas of the Western continents, the turbulent scene of politics looks like a cinema projected on a huge screen’.

Sometimes he was vexed by cinema’s celebration of the banal and the low brow. He strongly disapproved the way cinema created larger than life icons out of ordinary people.

During one of his tours of England, he witnessed the mob going crazy to get a glimpse of the Hollywood stars Doughlas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. In an interview to The Daily News, Tagore commented that only a sage or a saint deserves to have that magnitude of public attention. He added that such public euphoria over a ‘star’ was an indication of the superficiality and hollowness in the lives of the people. One day, the same public might go crazy over a boxer or a sportsman. Does that sound prophetic?

The poet was already uncomfortable over the growing influence of the media over the lives of the people. Tagore makes repeated allusions to cinema in his writings. In his childhood reminiscences “Chhelebela” or ‘Childhood memories’, Tagore writes:

Sometimes the snake charmer walked into our backyard; sometimes the man with his pet bear. Sometimes the magician came to surprise us with his tricks. Their drums are not heard any more in our Chitpur Road house. They have saluted cinema from a distance and turned their back to the city.[8]

Perhaps the most remarkable direct contribution of Tagore to the world of cinema was a screenplay in verse he wrote at the request of UFA Studios of Germany. During his visit to Munich he had an occasion to watch a passion play on the life of Christ. A few days later he shut himself up in his room and wrote ‘The Child’ – his only original writing in English.

More often than not, the sacred and the profane are found to be two sides of the same coin. After the Child came a disastrous misadventure – Tagore’s directorial venture at the age of 70. Tagore was increasingly dissatisfied with the screen adaptations of his work. He alleged that the filmmakers were missing out the essence of his stories. When he refused to give permission to adapt some of his work, the proprietor of New Theatres Studio, BN Sarkar, invited Tagore to direct his own poem Natir Puja.

For a person who had never held a still camera in his life, directing a film at the age of 70 proved to be disastrous. He did not know the technicalities of direction, he had no idea about shot divisions. Working with so many people under the studio lights drained him out easily.

Natir Puja was released on March 22, 1932 at Chitra movie theatre. Misdirection of Natir Puja is not a loss to posterity. After reading the two books “Rabindranath O Chalachitra” by Arun Kumar Roy and “Ruper Kalpanirjhar” by Dr. Someswar Bhowmik, what haunts me is that, if only Tagore had applied his intellectual rigour to his instinctive understanding of cinema, we could perhaps have boasted of a Tagorean film theory today – a vision of cinema born out of the oriental wisdom of Universalism, of synthesis, of harmony.

Indian academia had to wait for five decades after Tagore’s death before ‘cinema studies’ was introduced as an academic discipline in Indian universities. In spite of being the second largest producer of films after Hollywood, India still lacks a comprehensive film theory of its own.


[1] to [5]: Arun Kumar Roy, Rabindranath O Chalachitra, Chitralekha Prakashani, 2005 (2nd ed)

[6]: Dudley Andrew, Major Film Theories, Oxford University Press, 1976

[7}: Arun Kumar Roy, Rabindranath O Chalachitra, Chitralekha Prakashani, 2005 (2nd ed)

[8]: Rabindranath Tagore, Chhelebela, Rabindra Rachanabali, Vol 13, Viswa Bharati, 1995

All the translations from Tagore’s original Bengali have been done by the author. 

More to read

The Light-ingles (4 female characters from Indian cinema who shined in the darkness)
Saluting Indomitable Human Spirit: Tribute to Tapan Sinha
From Kolkata to Dublin via Kabul: Tagore’s Internationalism And Cinema
Chokher Bāli: Unleashing Forbidden Passions

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Subha Das Mollick is a media teacher and a documentary filmmaker. She has made more than 50 documentary films on a variety of subjects, most of which have been aired on the national television. She had been the head of the Film Studies and Mass Communication Deptt. at the St. Xavier's College, Kolkata.
All Posts of Subha Das Mollick

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2 thoughts on “Images And Imagery: A Poet’s Engagement With Moving Images

  • Subha Das Mollick

    I have recently made a film on B.N Sircar, the founder of New Theatres Pvt. Ltd. The name of the film is “Remembering an Exemplar”. In this film I have discussed the production of Natir Puja. It was New Theatre’s second production venture. – Subha Das Mollick

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