Archive for May 22nd, 2010

Some Reflections on Rabindranath Tagore

Suppose that, in a book of translated poems, one comes across this:

Oh, how I would love a glass of wine 
That has been chilled for a long time in a deep cellar.
 Its taste would be redolent of flowers, and of the countryside,
It would have associations of dancing and of merrymaking in the sun,
And of songs from the South of France. 

This doesn’t read like poetry. It doesn’t even give any indication that the original could have had any poetic qualities. And yet, the original reads like this:

 O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
 Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth!

Now suppose that Keats’ reputation through most of the world is based upon translations such as the one above. Imagine how deeply embarrassed any lover of Keats’ poetry would feel.

This hypothetical situation describes precisely how any lover of Tagore’s poetry feels about Tagore’s international reputation. When he is spoken of in admiring terms, we wonder what anyone could possibly see in the translations (including his own) to elicit any admiration at all; and when he is spoken of in dismissive terms, we despair that the work of so major a poet could be judged on this basis.

(Edit made on12th July 2011: please see later retraction of comment above.) 

Indeed, many will say that all translations into English are bound to be inadequate. English and Bengali are such different languages, with such different sonorities, syntax, and rhythms, with such different grammars, that finding the English equivalent of a Bengali poem is, perhaps, doomed to failure from the very beginning. For how can one convey even a small fraction of the qualities of the originals? How can one convey Rabindranath’s haunting verbal music, that subtlety and intricacy of rhythm, that absolute mastery of language that can communicate to perfection any possible shade and nuance of any possible emotion?  

Some time ago, I was asked by someone who recognised my Bengali origins from my name whether I liked Tagore. I replied that as an educated Bengali, I didn’t really a have a choice in the matter. The stature of Tagore in Bengal’s cultural landscape cannot be overstated, and is not easy to explain, since there is no real equivalent in the West: neither Cervantes in Spain nor Goethe in Germany, nor even Shakespeare in England, occupies the position that Tagore does in Bengal.  

Albert Einstein & Rabindranath Tagore

He was a prolific poet for over 60 years. And yet, he never repeated himself: each new collection broke new ground, both stylistically and thematically. The sheer variety of his poetic output is breathtaking, and makes nonsense of any attempt to comment in general terms on the nature of his work. On top of this, he was also a novelist, an essayist, a dramatist, and a writer of short stories. (These short stories do, it must be admitted, vary in quality, but at their best, they are as fine as any I’ve come across.) He founded a university. He even exhibited paintings. The man was an entire culture in himself.

And, perhaps most importantly of all, he wrote songs. Literally thousands of songs. He composed the melodies, and wrote the most exquisitely beautiful lyrics. These songs are effectively the national music of Bengal, and there is possibly no Bengali who would not be able to recognise at least a few dozen of these. They are part of a Bengali’s mental furniture.  

My family left India to settle in Britain when I was five years old, but even by then, the image of that man with a long white beard was as familiar to me as the images of various Hindu gods and goddesses, or, for that matter, images even of members of my own family. Even by the age of five, I knew some of his simpler poems (and, as I remember, a few not-so-simple poems) by heart. And while I was becoming acquainted with my new, adopted culture in Britain, Tagore was always present at home: it did not matter that I was no longer receiving Bengali lessons – the culture of Tagore entered my consciousness by some mysterious process of osmosis, and is now firmly lodged in there. In one’s teenage years, one revolts against such gross cultural imposition; but, like those lapsed Catholics still in thrall to the church they thought they had left behind, one cannot really escape. A strain of a melody remembered from childhood, a few words expressing the most heartfelt of emotions, and, rebel or no rebel, I find myself once again under that spell.