A tale from Shantiniketan



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The ferment of greatness, once in a hundred years, produces an idea, a song that wafts over spans of soil and sea and stirs the souls of swarming multitudes. A sweep that awakens sagging, shrivelled spirits and brings joy amidst the dreary desert of dead habit.

Like the scent of musk that cannot be secreted, the voice of truth is a rapture that finds resonance in the innermost recesses of every being. Rabindranath Tagore was such an intellect whose words captivated our imagination and whose utterances and hymns continue to flourish and conquer hearts.

Just as he found trees to be the attempts of earth to reach out to the skies, his poetry, music and philosophy sought out people of all races and creed.

This is a story of a young Hungarian girl, who in a dream saw a white-robed seer passing on the numinous light of learning to her. Incredibly, her artist mother soon after received a letter from the shores of faraway Bengal in the mystic land of India written by Tagore inviting them to visit Shantiniketan.

From the moment they set their foot on the Promised Land, the young Elizabeth Brunner found her Gurudev. Nurtured under his benevolent gaze, she blossomed into an internationally well known artist who lived long enough to tell her tale to all of us who had the good fortune of being considered her family.

Elizabeth spent her formative years of girlhood in the small university town set up by the Nobel Laureate. While her mother often meditated, Elizabeth entranced by the sights and scenes of the strange country captured them on the canvas. She also sketched students and Tagore interacting with them. While mostly she painted him when in the company of others, she was occasionally allowed to visit him at home.

One fine afternoon, she went up the stairs of Gurudev’s house called Uttarayan and found him engrossed in penning a composition. He was sitting in his study room all by himself. Sensing a chance, Elizabeth tip-toed to an open window with her painting paraphernalia and settled on its wide sill, where she got a rare direct view of Tagore immersed in his work.

She narrated, “Gurudev loved working in quietude, particularly when he wanted to pen something special. That day, he was sitting at his table working on a composition. Sometimes he would put down his pen, lean back on his chair and listen to the music scrawling up from his grand-daughter’s piano downstairs. Then he would pick up his pen again and start writing.”

Sitting cross legged, Elizabeth painted his portrait almost breathlessly, lest he was disturbed. Tagore noticed the young Brunner only after the painting was already complete.

“He was shocked that someone else had been in the room. He got up from his chair and walked towards me. He seemed tall like a mountain to me who was squatting on the floor. He came over, saw my painting, observed it silently for a few minutes, smiled and walked away,” she recounted.

Soon after, Tagore went to drink tea while Elizabeth followed him downstairs. Turning to his daughter-in-law he said, “I have been painted all over the world by famous artists, but this chit of a girl caught me!” (This particular painting is displayed at the National Museum in Delhi.)

Tagore then called Elizabeth over and gave her permission to come over to his house and paint him whenever she liked. This blank chit afforded her several rare glimpses into his profound persona. Like him sitting on his verandah chair sometimes reading, sometimes snoozing. He would once in a while walk on the terrace, deep in the night watching the changing face of the moon as the cool breeze caressed his solitude.

When she moved and settled in Delhi, Pandit Nehru offered Elizabeth a residence in Rabindra Nagar, something she really cherished.

This narrative may be small account tucked away in a small nook of timeless memory, but in actuality it is much more. It removes the veil from a hidden gem of Tagore’s already revered personality. That he was a multi-talented genius is already known; but his actions reveal his genteel presence, expose the sensitivity of sage and humility that only a spiritualist can possess.