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Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva

Poem by Rabindranath Tagore, translated by William Radice


YEAR: 1988

ORCHESTRATION: six solo voices: SSMsTBarB (each singer requires a pair of crotales)


LANGUAGE: English and Sanskrit

COMMISSIONED BY: London Sinfonietta Voices

DEDICATION: my mother Khurshid Mehta

PREMIERE DATE: May 21, 1998


London Sinfonietta Voices conducted by Terry Edwards
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London


An image of Shiva from popular Indian calender art.

A choral version of this work is now available. HE BEGINS HIS GREAT TRANCE is a substantial reworking of this music for SSAATTBB. Send a message if you are a choral ensemble interested in this work. 

This is a setting of Tagore’s famous poem for six solo voices, accompanied by crotales played by the singers. I was drawn to it not only for its direct and dramatic account of creation, preservation and destruction, the principle attributes respectively for the three gods featured in the poem, but equally for its pointed and vivid imagery involving sound and music. The musical references in which the poem abounds are not all surprising, coming as they do from a poet who was also a renowned musician.

The dramatic shape of the poem is that of an inverted arch. The most active and frenzied passages of Brahma and Shiva at the beginning and towards the end form the pillars which cradle the central Vishnu section, where the “roar of Creation” subsides to quietest expression in a passage for crotales, organised polyrhythmically to give metaphorical allusion to “the discipline of metre and rhyme”.

I have used, for this setting, the English translation of the poem by William Radice. To frame Tagore’s poem, and also to offer it an oblique commentary, I have super-imposed on it the ancient Rig-Vedic Creation Hymn Nasadiyawhich, because it is removed from the epic, cataclysmic drive of Tagore’s narrative (maintaining instead the quiet, serene presence of a Sanskrit chant) directs us to more fundamental and searching questions about the nature and origins of Creation.

Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva is dedicated to my mother, to whose early inspiration and example I owe my music.

© Param Vir, 1988


In a worldless timeless lightless great emptiness
Four-faced Brahma broods.

nasad asin, no sad asit tadanim;
nasid raja no vioma paro yat.
kim avarivah? kuha? kasya sarmann?
Ambhah kim asid, gahanam gabhiram?

na mrytur asid, amrtam na tarhi.
na ratria ahna asit pratekh.
anid avatam svadhaya tad ekam.
tasmad dhanyan na parah kim canasa.

tama asit tamasa gudham agre;
apraketam salilam sarvam a idam.
tuchyenabhu apihitam yad asit,
tapasas tan mahinajayataikam.

Of a sudden sea of joy surges through his heart –
The ur-god opens his eyes.
Speech from four mouths
Speeds from each quarter.
Through infinite dark,
Through limitless sky,
Like a growing sea-storm,
Like hope never sated,
His Word starts to move.

Stirred by joy                  his breathing quickens,
His eight eyes quiver with flame.
His fire-matted hair        sweeps the horizon,
Bright as a million suns.

From the towering source of the world
In a thousand streams
Cascades the primeval blazing fountain,
Fragmenting silence,
Splitting its stone heart.

kamas tad agre sam avartatadhi
manaso retah prathamam yad asit?
sato bandhum asati nir avindan
hrdi pratisya kavayo manisa 


In a universe rampant
With new life exhalant,
With new life exultant,
Vishnu spreads wide
His four-handed blessing.
He raises his conch
And all things quake
At its booming sound.
The frenzy dies down,
The furnace expires,
The planets douse
Their flames with tears,
The world’s Divine Poet
Constructs its history,
From wild cosmic song
Its epic is formed.
Stars in their orbits,
Moon sun and planets –
He binds with his mace
All things to Law,
Imposes the discipline
Of metre and rhyme.

In the Manasa depths
Vishnu watches –
Beauties arise
From the light of lotuses.
Lakshmi strews smiles –
Clouds show a rainbow,
Gardens show flowers.
The roar of Creation
Resolves into music.
Softness hides rigour,
Forms cover power.

tirascino vitato rasmir esam:
adhah svid asid, upari svid asit?
retodha asan, mahimana asan;
svadha avasat, prayatih parastat.

Age after age after age is slave to a mighty rhythm –
At last the world-frame
Tires in its body,
Sleep in its eyes
Slackens its structure,
Diffuses its energy.
From the heart of all matter
Comes the anguished cry –
‘Wake, wake, great Shiva,
Our body grows weary
Of its law-fixed path,
Give us new form.
Sing our destruction,
That we gain new life.’


The great god awakes,
His three eyes open,
He surveys all horizons.
He lifts his bow,             his fell pinaka,
He pounds the world with his tread.
From first things to last    it trembles and shakes
And shudders.
The bonds of nature are ripped.
The sky is rocked by the roar
Of a wave of ecstatic release.
An inferno soars –
The pyre of the universe.

Shattered sun and moon, smashed stars and planets,
Rain down from all angles,
A blackness of all particles
To be swallowed by flame,
Absorbed in an instant.
At the start of Creation
There was a dark without origin,
At the breaking of Creation
There is fire without end
In  an all-pervading sky-engulfing sea of burning
Shiva shuts his three eyes.
He begins his great trance.

ko adha veda? Ka iha pravocat,
kuta ajata, kuta iyam visrstih?
arvag deva asya visajanena:
atha ko veda yata ababhuva?

iyam visrstir yata ababhuva;
yadi vasa dadhe yadi van na:
yo asyadhyaksah parame vioman
so anga veda, yadi va na veda.

[Brahmā, Vişņu, Śiva from RABINDRANATH TAGORE: SELECTED POEMS, translated by William Radice (Penguin, 1985) Copyright © William Radice, 1985. Used by permission of Penguin Books Ltd.]



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