There was nothing in common between ‘Bhanusingha Thakur’ and Thomas Chatterton. Thakur was said to be an “ancient Vaishnav saint” who wrote verses in praise of Lord Krishna, while Chatterton was an 18th-century British poet known for his Romantic poems written under the pseudonym of Thomas Rowley.
It was a teen growing up in late 19th-century Bengal who connected the two as he drew inspiration from them to start writing poetry in a language and style new to him.
“Gahana kusuma kunja maajhe, mridula madhura banshi baaje…” (In the dense forest of flowers, someone’s playing a soft and sweet tune on the flute…) — Rabindranath Tagore, who was only around 16 years old, scribbled these lines on a piece of slate on a cloudy afternoon.
“I was very happy after writing the lines. I read it out at once to someone who I knew wouldn’t understand a word. As expected, the person moved his head in appreciation and told me, ‘well done’,” Tagore said in Jiban Smriti (1912), his autobiography.
He continued writing and started filling up his notebook with songs in Brajabuli or Braj bhasha, a language that was descended from Shauraseni Prakrit and spoken in the Braj or Brij region of Uttar Pradesh, where Lord Krishna is said to have grown up.
Tagore later showed these poems to a friend and told him he found an old manuscript of one Bhanusingha Thakur in the Brahmo Samaj library and copied the lines from it. Impressed, the friend suggested they should be published, as he thought “even [medieval poets] Vidyapati and Chandidas could not have written such lines”.
Tagore then let his friend in on his little secret — that he had written these verses, copying the style of Vaishnav Padabali, a 15th-17th century Bengali literary movement that focused on the legend of Lord Krishna and his consort Radha.
Soon, Tagore was writing poems for Bharati — a Bangla periodical launched in 1877 and edited by his elder brother Dwijendranath Tagore — but under the pen name, Bhanusingha, stealing the idea from Thomas Chatterton, aka Rowley. “…his story had an element of drama, which gave wings to my imagination. I made up my mind to become the second Chatterton,” Tagore wrote in Jiban Smriti.
Bhanusingher Padabali or Bhanusingha’s Verses went on to become a genre in itself, to be enjoyed by generations to come.
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Who was Bhanusingha?
Tagore mentioned Bhanusingha Thakur in several of his writings, describing him as an “ancient Vaishnav saint”. But he would express his inability to share more details about him — which he once sarcastically blamed on the “absence of documented Indian history”, an issue that he felt strongly about.
“This writer accepts complete ignorance about him [Thakur],” he wrote in his Bangla essay, Bhanusingha Thakurer Jibani, in 1884. The essay, written in Tagore’s characteristic playful style, detailed his “extensive research” to find Bhanusingha’s antecedents, almost giving it away that there was no such person in history, but at the same time leaving the question of authorship open for wider examination and speculation.
It has been since established that Bhanusingha was only the result of Tagore’s imagination. Bhanusingha and Rabindranath are heteronyms — both Ravi (pronounced ‘Rabi’ in Bangla) and Bhanu mean the sun.
But what Tagore never shied away from accepting was that Vaishnav Padabali had a deep influence on him. “What gave me boldness when I was young was my early acquaintance with old Vaishnav poems of Bengal, full of the freedom of metre and courage of expression,” he wrote in The Religion of An Artist.
Tagore took keen interest in Prachin Kabya Sangraha, a collection of old Vaishnav poems compiled by Akshay Chandra Sarkar, poet and literary critic of the time, and writer Sarada Charan Mitra — both close to the Tagore family.
Young Tagore was drawn to Brajabuli. The Maithili-dominated language was “incomprehensible” to him, but it was also the reason he wanted to master it, he wrote in Jiban Smriti. “If I delved deep into the unknown treasure trove, I would definitely keep finding one poetic gem after the other,” he believed.
“Around the time that Tagore composed the Bhanusingher Padabali, Bengal was in the midst of unprecedented intellectual activity. Bengali scholars had recently collated the works of the great medieval Bengali poets Chandidas and Vidyapati, and compiled the Vaishnav Padabali,” author Amit Chaudhuri wrote in his book, Clearing a Space.
“It was the music of these poets with which the young Tagore fell in love, and he was moved to produce a comparable music through the persona of Bhanusingha.”
And he was able to make people believe Bhanusingha was real.
In Jiban Smriti, Tagore recalled how his poems had even deceived a noted Bengali scholar who went on to mention Bhanusingha Thakur in his thesis on Bengali poetry and earn himself a doctorate.
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The Thomas Chatterton connection
Tagore learnt about British poet Thomas Chatterton from Akshay Chandra Sarkar. Chatterton would attribute his poems to “15th-century Bristol priest” Thomas Rowley, a fictitious character he had created. What Bhanusingha was to Tagore, Thomas Rowley was to Chatterton.
The Romantic poets who succeeded Chatterton would say he epitomised the life of imagination. Publishers had, however, ignored Chatterton’s Rowley poems, and the young poet committed suicide at the age of 17, as a “victim of starvation and despair”.
Any similarity between him and Tagore ended there.
Fame happened to Chatterton only after he was dead. Bhanusingha, on the other hand, was only a part of Tagore, an established poet who owned his padabali when he deemed it fit.
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Essentially romantic, Bhanusingher Padabali, a collection of the verses published in 1884, describes an emotional interplay of divinity and submission expressed through the love between Radha and Krishna — a traditional theme of Indian poetry.
“Sometimes it is Bhanusingha giving in third person, detached but sympathetic commentary of Radha’s movements, sometimes it is Radha herself speaking in her own voice, with the poet’s comment as Bhanusingha at the end of the verse. Thus, there is an easy fluidity in the change of the narrative voice: from the author to the subjects, from the masculine self of the poet to the feminine self of Radha,” wrote Debashish Raychaudhuri in his essay in Tagore’s Ideas of the New Woman.
Tagore was, however, not too satisfied with Bhanusingha’s work.
In his foreword for the book, Tagore revealed that he owned up to this particular work of his rather with “hesitation”. He wrote, “…I didn’t keep in mind that while copying language you need to make sure the feel remains authentic. (Vaishnav) Padabali is not just any literature, the expressions in them are bound by specific emotions. My thoughts cannot move around freely and naturally within those limits.”
Tagore said his Bhanusingha poems weren’t Vaishnav at heart, and that he considered the works an instance of “unauthorised entry” into literature.
Tagore also said the poems had been written over a long period of time — from a very young age to when he was comparatively matured — and hence cannot be rated equally in terms of quality.
Bhanusingher Padabali as a genre finds a proud place in the hearts of Rabindrasangeet lovers. With a sound that is rather dissimilar to mainstream Tagore songs, it has a different appeal altogether — though written in a medieval style, the songs sound modern because of the way Tagore adapted the music.
There are only 22 songs in the collection, but they have been sung by artistes of successive generations for ages — from singers trained at Tagore’s Santiniketan to upcoming talent Jaan, son of Kumar Sanu.
A recent album, Tagore & We, by vocalist Soumyojit Das collaborating with Sourendro Mullick on the piano featured a few Bhanusingha numbers. With the singer adding a Hindustani classical touch, the songs gained a fan following.