Twinkle, Twinkle: It’s more than just a lullaby

  • Gopalkrishna Gandhi
  • Updated: Mar 25, 2016 23:23 IST
Starry night over the Rhône, Vincent van Gogh (1888) (Wikimedia Commons )

Over the last week of March, Chennai has had stunning skies. And its growing moon has been sporting with a solitary star that seems to be saying something into its ear. It has to be ‘its own thing’, that star, loving its nearness to the silver orb but not awed by it. And conscious in some strange way of its place in the sunless sky. Those two celestials, all but hugging each other, couldn’t care if the rest of the world was looking at them or, for that matter, even existed.

The spectacle, for that is what it was, brought Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star back to me in a mist of star-talc. And for the rest of my beach side walk that late evening, I thought of little else than the lullaby’s creator, Jane Taylor (1783–1824), and of Mozart (1756-1791) who, among others tuned it along the melodies of a French folk-song.

Twinkle Twinkle is the world’s child anthem, sung on all continents in the original and in translations with the tune kept in tact, just as ‘We Shall Overcome’ is the world’s protest anthem, translated into all languages (two, in Bangla) with the music held in place. It was published in 1806.

The lullaby’s first ‘diamond in the sky’ stanza is understandably a world favourite. Unfortunately, most parents and teachers teaching it to the young stop with those gripping opening lines and so miss out on a nugget of an image with a rather unexpected turn and meaning that follows:

When the blazing sun is gone,

When he nothing shines upon,

Then you show your little light,

Twinkle, twinkle, all the night.

Then the traveller in the dark

Thanks you for your tiny sparks;

He could not see which way to go,

If you did not twinkle so.

If we emphasise the two ‘Thens’, the in-folded meaning comes powerfully through. Twinkle Twinkle is not just about an asterism that sparkles brilliantly but about a tiny being which, when the ruling deity of the sky, the sun, is absent, does that deity’s work, quietly but to stunning effect. Then the traveller in the dark sees which way to go.

Seeing metaphors in images and hidden meanings in words can be overdone. But it does not overstrain imagination to see in the following lines of the song a meaning beyond lulling sleep-luring tones :

In the dark blue sky you keep,

And often through my curtains peep,

For you never shut your eye

Till the sun is in the sky.

A stressing of ‘never’ and of ‘Till’ is about stardom in a firmament of solar and lunar magnetisms. It is about the debt owed by the dark of gloom to sparks in the interval between sunset and dawn, night and light. It is about those which ‘hold the fort’ for the giants of the night and the titans of the day. These ‘sparks’ are invariably nameless, unknown and — indispensable.

The lullaby ends with:

As your bright and tiny spark

Lights the traveller in the dark,

Though I know not what you are,

Twinkle, twinkle, little star.

Jane Taylor herself is little known. She and her writer sister Ann lived in Essex, England, where Jane died at 40 of breast cancer “teeming”, it was said “with unfulfilled projects”. But her ‘star’ is for ever.

It is not unlikely that she was led to her great image by the legend of the Three Wise Men or the Magi who in Biblical lore had been led by a star to Bethlehem. Nor is it unlikely that Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) had heard the lullaby as a child and held it in his sub-conscious as he wrote, in 1833, the grear hymn, ‘Lead Kindly Light’ with the words so redolent of Jane Taylor’s traveller in the dark:

Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,

Lead Thou me on!

The night is dark, and I am far from home,

Lead Thou me on!

Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see

The distant scene; one step enough for me.

In 1861, the British Raj devised the great Order of the Star of India and the accompanying ensign. Not Jane Taylor’s lullaby but the Magi and Cardinal Newman must have influenced the design, a spectacular ‘five pointed star encircled by a blue ribbon all surrounded by a gold sunburst’. But its motto belonged unmistakably to the same mental sky-scape as Taylor’s: Heaven’s light our guide. Not the light of the ‘Heavens eye’, the sun, but Heaven’s.

An astonishing number of national flags the world over have the star, a four-pointed single star as with Aruba, off the coast of Venezuela, five-pointed single starrers as in several African and Latin American countries, five-pointed multiple starrers in others like the US, a six-pointed one as in Israel, some with a crescent facing up, facing right or, as with Pakistan, facing diagonally up. The star twinkles on most of the world’s national flags and even ensigns. The province of Balochistan in Pakistan has a truly wonderful emblem of its own, showing two camels silhouetted white against a night sky, with a left-turned crescent under a twinkling single star. The camels are rider-less and facing the same direction as the Crescent — towards Mecca, a detail that adds to the bewitching beauty of the design.

As I rounded my walk, the moon and star were still in dalliance, with the star now above, not beside the burgeoning sphere and I thought of Lata Mangeshkar’s immortal song ‘Chamka Chamka Subah Ka Tara’ from the 1952 film ‘Subah Ka Tara’. The V Shantaram film was about loneliness, that of a young single woman (Jayshree) and a man (Pradeep Kumar) who has lost his mind. And I could not but think that the abandoned woman in India and those suffering from mental disease have to be the kind of persons Jane Taylor must have thought of as being in need of guiding light.

And all those people across the world who live under starry flags but in fear of flag-bearers.

Twinkle Twinkle will remain a lullaby. But not babes alone need reassurance of a Light above.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is distinguished professor in history and politics, Ashoka University

The views expressed are personal

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