I took this photograph one morning on my first trip to Hangzhou. I accompanied two friends who were eager to get a glimpse of the legendary West Lake early in the morning, before we were occupied with our two-day conference. The lake, which is Hangzhou’s principal attraction, has three causeways running across it, and it was on one of these that we took our morning stroll. A few people were out for exercise, some had come fishing (for sport). A few pagodas were visible in the mist. It was quiet and beautiful. We were chatting, perhaps about Chinese traditions, or about plans to visit one of the big pagodas when I photographed the boatman on the wide lake. I forgot about it after downloading it to my computer, and it was lost in the digital cornucopia until Tagore’s poem instantly led me back to it.
The day is no more, the shadow is upon the earth. It is time that I go to the stream to fill my pitcher.
The evening air is eager with the sad music of the water. Ah, it calls me out into the dusk. In the lonely lane there is no passer by, the wind is up, the ripples are rampant in the river.
I know not if I shall come back home. I know not whom I shall chance to meet. There at the fording in the little boat, The unknown man plays upon his lute.
[- Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali (Song Offerings)]
There is a little more to the connection between the photograph and the poem than the obvious fact that both contain a boatman. You see, it so happens that the causeways on West Lake were built by great Chinese poets. 200 years apart, Bai Juyi and Su Shi built the three roads, and lined them with peach and willow trees. We were on the Su causeway when I took the picture. Is it a coincidence that I am reminded about that scene while reading from a poem about a boatman on a river? My own petite madeleine ?
Incidentally, W. B. Yeats, who wrote an introduction to the book I am reading, is of the opinion that the man who plays upon his lute is God Himself. However, Somjit Dutt, writing about The Ersatz Tagore of the West, clarifies that “river” in the English translation is a (possibly intentional) change from “river of love” in the original.
When family women went to the adjoining river or pond to fill their pitchers, there often prowled by the wayside, and near the ghats, prospective or performing paramours waiting for a meeting with them. Few would fail to guess what such meetings resulted in. So irresistible was the appeal of such practices that folklore had received their imprint, social censure notwithstanding and Tagore had made a delicately nuanced and discreetly indirect reference to it in this song to create a pall of vague and languid amorousness hanging in the evening air. But in the English translation he had to alter the mood to make it suit Western moral demands; hence, river of love (figuratively, the emotion of love envisioned as a river, susceptible to ripples and waves) had to be curtailed to mere ‘river’.- Somjit Dutt.
Yeats was only partially correct in a vague, rather general sense. The boatman with the lute, according to the above reasoning, is the young Krishna, beloved in Indian mythology as a mischievous cowherd and a tormentor of milkmaids, who stole their clothes when they went out to bathe.