KOLKATA can be measured in song. The small lane of Rabindra Sarini is lyrical and deceptive — humble grille doors and shops bear no allusion to the last signpost here.
As the car crawls to Hemant Kumar’s Bengali numbers on the radio, there stands a colossus of world cultural history in red with deep green windows and balconies. Smug in absolute grandeur, Jorasanko Thakurbari was home to Rabindranath Tagore, the Bard of Bengal, and Gurudev to Bengalis.
Built as a family home in 1784 by the exalted thinker’s grandfather, Thakurbari with its interconnected houses, apartments and courtyards continues to serve some descendants as an abode; a portion has been converted to the Rabindra Bharati University and Museum.
Verdant gardens sprawl between lofty iron gates and the edifice of progressive thought; strains of Rabindre Sangeet or Tagore Song pour out from Sangeet Bhavan; its circular balcony beneath an imposing frangipani from Tagore’s time cuts a poetic picture.
Further down the path, at the doorstep stands an iron bust of the iconic scion. Tagore’s tunes infuse the structure with its own past; I tread on it with due awe. Treated as a shrine, shoes are left at the threshold of the first floor where the first stop is the Japanese-style dining room furnished with a low, unusual table cut into an open rectangle with stools. In the centre sits Tagore’s chair with extended arms that carried him through the many stairwells at the age of 80. A vast painting with scenes of a Bengali wedding covers the central wall; a cabinet holds his crockery and a hazy photograph of him amid a large traditional family floor meal casts a shadow of bygone days.
The red and cream corridor with green banisters meanders into the Maharshi Bhavan — Tagore’s wife, Mrinalini Devi’s private kitchen where she prepared his favourite meals has a large clay oven, and overlooks a wrecked piece of land where servants’ quarters, communal kitchens and family areas were recently demolished.
The neighbouring door opens into Tagore’s bedroom — his picture in sepia stands on a sizable plank of a bed, flanked by his chairs and bookshelves; his three robes hang in the dressing room — the crimson floor is a happy relief from an overwhelming solemnity.
From here, the inner architecture and colour takes on an almost Grecian tone. The character of Jorasanko is aptly captured by Edward Thompson in Rabindranath Tagore: His Life and Work, published in 1921. He describes this architectural virtuosity as “vast, rambling congeries of mansions and rooms, representing the whims of many generations”.
Hence, the magnificent Thakur Dalaan (assembly courtyard) in pristine white, surrounded by arches and commanding columns, was the sparkling cauldron of family rituals and merriment. My guide, Gopal, explains that “Gurudev’s father moved away from idol worship, and Brahmo became the household’s way of life. The imprint above the platform in the courtyard conveys this, it reads: There is only one god that prevails.”
We enter the room of Tagore’s passing to the tunes of his renowned ‘Ekla Chalo Re’ (move forward alone). The mosaic of its floor is in fine Alpana style, and his final poem hangs in a quiet corner — “Your creation’s path you have covered”.
Outside, the endless, chasing corridor bursts into Tagore’s paintings such as ‘A Veiled Woman’and ‘The Wizard’. And an anteroom opens where the anniversaries of Mrinalini and Rabindranath’s five children are observed — rose petals and incense play out the rites of remembrance for his daughter.
Through a short passageway appears Ram Bhavan, in deep green marble with cantilevers of stained glass, where a red family maternity room retains many ancient relics such as the old door of the birthing enclosure. Other areas have enclosures showcasing Tagore’s connections with Japan, artefacts and bequests from China and a US gallery.
A few steps up is Vichitra Bhavan with his life in photos, extending into Mrinalini Devi’s living room decorated with her portrait in water colour, imprints of family moments and her carved dresser.
Across from her is Rabindranath’s study, a room in character. His leather-bound works, shelves of writings and translations along with a mirror and coat hanger.
His father’s simple, austere chamber is preserved upstairs from here.
Jorasanko Thakurbari is perhaps the finest beholder of a conversion from convention to modernity; it stands as a testament to the Bengal renaissance when its men and women set out in prolific participation for the movement.
As I return to the gates, Tagore’s last remnant, a huge, black Humber, WGF-91, is parked in its garage behind the gatepost.
And then, Presley belts out ‘The Wonder of You’ on the radio; a befitting farewell.
The writer is a journalist and author.
Published in Dawn, March 25th, 2016