Caged Bird and the Free Bird
Rabindranath Tagore's Lyrical Ballad on Freedom and Confinement
Translated by © Monish R Chatterjee 2020
[Here is a relatively recent performance of this dichotomic ballad by Lopamudra Mitra and Iman on YouTube:
Click Here ]
The caged bird was in the gilded cage, the free bird in the wood
Perchance, once, the twain met each other, perhaps a quirk in the Maker's mood.
Said the free bird, "Caged bird, dear, come to the woodland let us fly."
The caged bird replied, "Free bird, dear, join me in the cozy cage, you can if you try."
Said the free bird, "Nay, I shall never accept any bonds or chains."
The caged bird bemoaned, "Alas, how shall I brave the woodland's wild trails."
free bird, perched outside, sings woodland songs galore
The caged bird sings the parrot-vocabulary, different their language and lore.
Said the free bird, "Caged bird, dear, let me hear you sing a woodland song."
The caged bird replied, "Free bird, dear, come learn my cage songs, short and long."
Said the free bird, "Nay, parrot-songs, still and rote, I want not."
The caged bird bemoaned, "Alas, how shall I sing woodland songs freedom wrought."
the free bird, "Yonder sky is deep blue and limitless, nowhere any barricade."
The caged bird replied, "My cage is so tidy and sheltering, barriers nicely laid."
Said the free bird, "Let yourself go free entirely in the world of the cloud."
The caged bird replied, "Secure in my cage's safe corner, tie yourself and be proud."
Said the free bird, "Nay, where in the cage would I unfurl my wings?
The caged bird bemoaned, "Alas, in the cloud I find not my perch or the joy it brings."
hence the two birds, in love with each other, forever remain apart-
Their beaks meet 'twixt spaces in the cage's bars, furtive glances and a broken heart.
Try as they might, neither understands the other, explain their selves in vain-
Lonesome and sad, they flutter their wings and cry, "Come to me, dear, ease my pain!"
Says the free bird, "Never! If they bar the entrance to the cage I will die."
The caged bird bemoans, "Alas, I have not the strength to fly."
[Commentary: Rabindranath Tagore wrote a number of
balladic poems addressing numerous social and philosophical issues relating to
human society and existential dilemmas. They are invariably deeply reflective, and brilliantly crafted- in the
Bengali language they are simply unmatched and can never be equaled for their
lyrical beauty, and are transcendentally uplifting for their inner message. In many cases, as in this balladic interchange
between two metaphorical birds, Tagore, who often delighted in both bondage and
freedom ("Deliverance is not for
me in renunciation;
I feel the embrace of freedom in
a thousand bonds of delight.")- always in the metaphorical sense, since he felt
deeply bonded to the earth, its inhabitants, and also his motherland and his
own oppressed people, yet his entire philosophy of life revolved around freedom,
of which he wrote copiously. For him,
freedom is often best epitomized by the free bird, soaring to great heights in
an unbounded sky.
most curious aspect of Tagore's take on issues which are conflicted is that he
is not invariably unipolar in his outlook (except for those matters which in
his mind are ethically and humanistically indefensible). Thus, even in the inherently polarizing issue
(at least from the social context) of freedom versus bondage, Tagore takes
a sympathetic view of the caged bird, and in this balladic composition, which
has received much attention worldwide since Tagore's boom years following the
Nobel Prize (1913), he offers points and counterpoints on behalf of both the
free bird and the caged bird. While his
personal inclination is (in a subtle way) towards the free bird, he absolutely
does not hold the caged bird in contempt.
above equanimity on matters of polarizing perspectives is very characteristic
of Tagore, whose poetic sensibility enabled him to see all issues from
different planes of observation. It must
be pointed out here that this particular balladic poem was written relatively
early in Tagore's literary career (1892), when he was 31 (incidentally, this
was a year before his contemporary luminary of the Bengal Renaissance, Swami
Vivekananda, had acquired worldwide acclaim as the messenger for the Universal
message of Hinduism, following the 1893 Chicago World Parliament of
Religions). And notably, long before his
own worldwide acclaim post-1913, Tagore was already both vocal and far-sighted
on critical social issues. Here, for
instance, is a sampling on his views pertinent to The Caged Bird and the Free Bird from 1894:
"... There is an independently moving masculine entity within our nature, which is
intolerant to bondage alongside a feminine one which prefers to be enclosed and
secured within the walls of the home. Both of them remain united in an
inseparable fashion. One is eager to develop significantly his undying strength
in a diverse way by savo(u)ring ever-new tastes of life, exploring ever-new
realms and manifestations and the other remains encircled within innumerable
prejudices and traditional practices, enthralled with her habitual
deliberations. One takes you out into the vast expanse and the other seems to
pull towards home. One is a forest bird and the other is a caged bird. This
forest bird is the one that sings much. Although, its song expresses with its
diverse melodies the whimper and its craving for unrestricted freedom"." Tagore,
Adhunik Sahitya (1894).
to reading Tagore's views as quoted above, this translator himself felt from a
reading of the ballad that the tone of the poem, while not overtly identifying
the genders of the two birds, somehow the Free Bird was based on a masculine
interpretation, while the Caged Bird was feminine. Tagore's personal views confirm this
instinct, and in this translator's view, probably offer a better summary of the
conflict than anything he (the translator) may offer. Tagore's Caged Bird is closely allied with the
role of womanhood (definitely from Tagore's time in the late 1800s, and to a
certain degree, even today) in society.
Women are seen in society (and also taught accordingly) as home-builders
and home-makers (the latter word being even more prevalent today in especially
conservative circles)- which are rooted upon the ideas of shelters and "safe
corners." Men are the seekers, the
adventurers, the ones in the wilderness. Thus, the freedom to be wild and unfettered is
a very masculine impulse; the seeking of shelter and wishing to be tied to a
safe corner is very feminine. In some
ways, these are worlds of opposites, and yet society must draw a line of
equilibrium between them.
beyond 100 years since Tagore wrote this ballad, the polar planes of femininity
and masculinity are still very much in conflict, and sometimes the prevailing
politics manipulates these to (in this translator's view) further subjugate
womanhood (which Tagore believed, and MRC agrees, is definitely the gentler of
the genders, and is hence prone to exploitation).
Caged Bird feels safe in the security of the cage, the traditions of memorized
songs and ideas, the stationarity of stability. His Free Bird, by contrast, likes the boundlessness of the sky, the
spontaneity of his woodland songs, the freedom to spread his wings for the
unknown. This is a timeless dichotomy,
and both preferences have their place in the play of life. This translator maintains that Tagore
ultimately aligns himself with the freedom principle, but does not entirely
discount the validity of boundaries and security. The human spirit forever seeks to find a balance
between these two.
the modern context, the embedded psychological divergences within the masculine
and the feminine gets even more stratified when intermediate gender identities
(usually disregarded or overlooked in conventional history, until very recent
years) are mixed in.
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