Poems by the Sun Lion

1875 was an exciting year in Indian literary circles. A prominent Calcutta-based journal of arts and literature, Bharati, was to begin serial publication of a hitherto undiscovered treasure trove of poems by an unknown seventeenth century poet, Bhanusimha. Written in Brajabuli, a dead dialect of Bengali favoured by Vaishnava bhakti poets, the poems portrayed love and longing through the songs of Lord Krishna’s lover Radha and her fictional confidante Bhanu.

More poems were unearthed and published over the next few years until a compilation of twenty-one poems was published in 1884. Curiously, a short biography of Bhanusimha by Rabindranath Tagore appeared in the journal Navajivana to coincide with the launch of this anthology. In its discussion of Bhanusimha’s provenance, it stated mockingly “there is a rumor spread among several of our dear friends and relatives to the effect that Bhanusimha, that ‘Sun Lion’, illumined this world with his effulgence by taking birth in the Christian year of 1861.”

As Tagore himself was born in 1861, the tongue-in-cheek essay made it clear that the Bhanusimha poems started as an elaborate pastiche by fourteen-year-old Rabindranath. Stung by embarrassment at their gullibility, the scholarly establishment quickly turned their focus on the precociousness of the young poet, hailing him as a literary successor to Thomas Chatterton, an eighteenth century English poet who forged medieval poetry at the age of twelve.

To overlook Bhanusimha’s poems as a spoof or parody, however, would be a grave misjudgement. Not only is it pitch-perfect in its invocation of Brajabuli, but its sentiments reveal a mystical mind that was far mature for its age and foreshadowed future writings like Gitanjali and Naivedya. Almost all the poems in this short collection surround the pain of viraha, or separation, from one’s beloved—Radha’s unrequited yearning for Krishna here is an allegory for the soul’s longing for union with an equally elusive God.

The poems could also reflect Tagore’s relationship with his coeval muse, Kadambari Devi. Wife of Rabindranath’s elder brother Jyotirindranath, Kadambari had an important influence on Tagore’s life, inspiring his poetry and encouraging their publication, and partly filling the void left by his mother’s early demise. While contemporary critics belatedly recognised that Tagore’s pseudonym Bhanu was a synonym for Rabi, it was less known that Kadambari used to affectionately call him by the name Bhanu. The compilation was dedicated to Kadambari Devi, although she did not live to see its publication.

Much like Leonardo da Vinci, who refused to separate himself from Mona Lisa during his lifetime, Tagore remained fascinated with his childhood Bhanusimha poems, revising them frequently—even a few months before his death—suggesting that they had a deep personal meaning for him and, in the process, causing them to neatly bookend his bountiful literary career.


We write long books where no page perhaps has any quality to make writing a pleasure, being confident in some general design, just as we fight and make money and fill our heads with politics—all dull things in the doing—while Mr. Tagore, like the Indian civilisation itself, has been content to discover the soul and surrender himself to its spontaneity.

William Butler Yeats, Introduction to Gitanjali