Rabindranath and the Etchings of His Mind

Anasuya Bhar explores the various lives given to a publication through the different edited versions, translations and films, using Tagore as a case study and the work done to provide these online .

Rabindranath’s first efforts at writing poetry, what he refers to as padya or rhymes, were made when he was merely a boy of seven or eight years. This is what he has to say about his maiden experience, the magic and the awe with which it surprised him –

“I had, until then, only witnessed rhymes in printed books. Without any scratches, mistakes, nor any signs of thought even – there seemed to be no sign of any of the earthy weaknesses either. I dared not imagine that these rhymes could be produced by one’s own efforts. … But when the skilful mixing of a few words gave rise to the rhythm of the ‘payar’, the magic of making rhymes remained no longer an illusion. “(My translation from Jibansmriti ‘The Poetry Beginnings’, VB, 27)

The above excerpt from Jibansmriti is significant in many ways. The memoir was written when Rabindranath was in his fiftieth year, in 1911. A careful study reveals that there are three manuscript versions to the text of Jibansmriti and the one available on print (and published by Visva Bharati), is the third and the latest version. Jibansmriti (My Reminiscences) is a piece of Rabindranath’s own life writing, along with two other pieces in book form: Chelebela (My Boyhood Days, 1940) and Atmaparichay (The Self Revealed, 1943).  

Rabindranath was a reluctant biographer of himself. Perhaps his first conscious efforts at autobiography is to be found in an essay called Atmaparichay that was first published in 1904, wherein he had consistently defended his wishes to not fuss over his life. In fact, he had wanted to keep separate his jiban and brittanto, that is the biological nitty-gritty of his life and the descriptive and analytical of his creative life. He believed that a poet’s life inheres in his poetry; that there is no need to separately concern oneself about his life details. This was re-iterated in more than one places. Nevertheless, although Rabindranath was reluctant of a conscious autobiography, he has revealed much of himself in his letters, and other non-fiction and travel essays. He was a self-conscious writer with a great emphasis put towards self-expression as well as expression of the self.  To know about him one needs to scour through these writings.

My intention in this essay, however, lies not in the history of Rabindranath’s life writing. I would, instead, like to dwell on those scratchings, mistakes and etchings of the poet’s mind that made Rabindranath ponder about the final version of any of his manuscripts. He was a relentless revisionist of his own writings. My interest lies in that branch of study, quite recent in academic scholarship, which tries to examine the various changes that each text suffers before being available for the final print. The changes might take place in the manuscript or during the correction of proofs. The successive texts, the manuscripts, the proofs, and finally the printed text all seem to have their own dynamics and seem to possess an autonomy and character of their own. This seems true of all texts of all writers and those of Rabindranath are no exception. Between the ideas and their writing, between the manuscript and the print, between the printed text and its translation into other language(s), a particular text seems to have many distinct lives. Until a short time ago, these fell within the purview of textual criticism and editorial scholarship of a text. Now, they may be considered under the rubric of ‘alternative readings of a single text’. Walter Benjamin (1892 – 1940), the German Jewish philosopher, talks about the ‘afterlife’ of a text in his essay ‘The Task of the Translator’ when it is translated, that is to say, a text assumes a different and separate life, with its own dynamics and dimensions when it is translated, from the original. The lives of a text then, multiply when multiple translations take place.

If one studies the three manuscripts of Jibansmriti, one notices three separate beginnings: the first two distinctly pointing to his life proper and his unwillingness to share details of it, while the third and the printed version has a more abstract vision of a painter-like selection of memorable incidents from his life.  The text as it exists in Bangla now, begins in medias res, as it were, with the recollections of his early childhood, as becomes permissibly natural for the memory of a fifty-year-old person. What is interesting are the insights that time and aesthetic distance have provided. Editorial and textual scholarship of Jibansmriti as revealed in Rabindra Rachanabali (Volume 17, Visva Bharati), ‘Grantha parichay’ (introducing the text) cites the minute changes and differences in the three versions of the text. I enclose photographs of all the three versions of the text:

The first manuscript of Jibansmriti. Source: Bichitra

The second manuscript of Jibansmriti. Source: Bichitra

The third and final manuscript of Jibansmriti. Source: Bichitra

The different variations and all the manuscripts of not only ‘Jibansmriti’, but the entire Rabindranath Thakur corpus, including his plays, fiction, non-fiction, drama and poetry in English as well as in Bangla, are now available in the Online Tagore Variorum, Bichitra, which was inaugurated by the then President of India, (Late) Shri Pranab Mukhopadhyay, as a part of the Sesquicentenary (150 years) celebrations of Rabindranath Thakur’s birth, in the year 2011. The programme of the digital archives for Rabindranath was co-ordinated by Sukanta Chaudhuri, Professor Emeritus of English, Jadavpur University, and prepared by the School of Cultural Texts and Records, Jadavpur University. The digital archives bring together all the available versions of all his works and makes provision for their collation, thus allowing the researcher or anyone interested in the world-poet to look through the vast stretch and range of his works. Hence the aptness of its name ‘Bichitra’, meaning ‘various’. It is a unique venture of literary scholarship as well as of software engineering and has been put together by young members all below the age of 35, and academic degree holders mostly from Jadavpur University. It is a rare and pioneering achievement in the field of Digital Humanities in this part of the world.

Any given text may have three or four kinds of an ‘afterlife’. They may be interpretative or of the hermeneutic kind, for instance, those spelt by Rabindranath’s manuscript versions. Another may be achieved through translation, as mentioned earlier. The next may be when a text is being performed. The performance text, the play text, or even the screen play of any text, are effectively different texts in the new scheme of textual afterlives. Each of Rabindranath’s texts then, automatically have different autonomous afterlives as practically all of them have been translated and have several versions as well. Along with these familiar afterlives, the hypertext now, also adds a yet newer dimension. The study of afterlives of a text gains in an all-new dimension when a new text is created based on an older text, by retaining its title or its literary essence. For instance, Aparna Sen’s film Ghare Baire Aaj (2019), is not only an afterlife of Rabindranath’s text of the novel Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1916), but also one on Satyajit Ray’s 1984 film Ghare Baire. The study of the afterlives of a text is a never ending and rich treasure trove and affords endless intellectual curiosity and study. The English Gitanjali (1912), too, is a unique example of a text with many afterlives, even after a hundred years of its literary history. I have written about its complicated trajectory, elsewhere.*  

Sukanta Chaudhuri’s book The Metaphysics of Text (Cambridge University Press, 2010) provides significant and perhaps, pioneering insights on this newest aspect of textual scholarship.  Among other aspects of a text, Chaudhuri dedicates one whole chapter on Rabindranath’s ‘katakuti’ (pen scratches and crossings) which invariably were shaped into diagrammatical forms, which Chaudhuri identifies by the name of ‘doodles’. The printed texts do not showcase these pictorial designs or doodles.

A description of Rabindranath’s doodles in one of his manuscripts. Source: Bichitra

The visual aspect of these manuscript pages afford yet another dimension to the working of the poet’s mind while he was working on a poem or a song. They are creative outputs of a different kind, which remain hidden from the printed version of the text, thus disallowing the reader the privilege to dwell with the thoughts of the poet, his seemly and unseemly corrections, as it were. The digital archive Bichitra make all these easily available to us. Understanding, teaching and enjoying Rabindranath’s works become a more gratuitous experience for all of us. If translation is one way of making Rabindranath easily available to most corners of the world, this is yet another move to make his works and all his manuscripts available in every home of all corners of the world. A hundred and sixty years have passed and the magic of Rabindranath or his works remain undiminished and ever contemporary.


*Bhar, Anasuya. ‘The Many Lives of Gitanjali’ in Evolving Horizons, Volume 5, November 2016, pp. 20-27, ISSN 2319-6521


Dr. Anasuya Bhar is Associate Professor of English and Dean of Postgraduate Studies, at St. Paul’s Cathedral Mission College Kolkata, India. She has many publications, both academic and creative, to her credit.




In Praise Of Translations

Ratnottama Sengupta, eminent journalist and daughter of Bengali writer Nabendu Ghosh, has been a force behind translating Bengali literature and bringing it to the doorstep of those who do not know the language. In this exclusive, she discusses how translations impact the world of literature.

I have often been asked, “Nabendu Ghosh was a literary figure and a screenwriter. How much importance did he place on translation?” Truthfully, because he was a literary person, my father placed a lot of importance on translations which, as he once pointed out, has given us access to almost all the first books in a bevy of Indian languages.

Let me elaborate. Adi Kavi Valmiki, the harbinger poet in Sanskrit literature, composed the original – ‘mool’ – Ramayan long before the first century BC. But Krittibas Ojha’s 15th century rendition in Bengali ‘Panchali’ style is not merely a rewording of the original epic, it gives a description of Bengal’s society and culture in the Middle Ages. It also explores the concept of Bhakti which later contributed to the emergence of Vaishnavism in the Gangetic belt.

This is said to have had a profound impact on the literature of the surrounding region. In Bihar of 16th century Goswami Tulsidas heightened the Bhakti quotient as he retold Ramayan in Hindi, as Ramcharit Manas. The same happened in Orissa. Earlier it had been adapted, with plot twists and thematic adaptations, in the 12th century Tamil Ramavataram; 14th century Telugu Sri Ranganatha Ramayanam; several Kannada versions, starting in 12th century; Ramacharitam in Malayalam; into Marathi also around this time.

My father had inculcated in us this love for multiple languages when I was about ten. As we all sat around after dinner, he would read from these texts – Valmiki’s Ramayan, Tulsi’s Ramcharit Manas, The Old Testament from the Bible, Buddhist Jataka Tales, and Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita wherein Mahendra Nath Gupta recounts, word for Bengali word, the conversations and activities of the 19th century Indian mystic. Published in five volumes between 1902 and 1910, this work summing up the life philosophy of Ramkrishna Paramahans through simple anecdotes and parables, has been translated into English and Hindi.

Before that, at the young age of nine, I was also initiated into the crème de la crème of world literature – Tolstoy, Gorky, Mark Twain, and Shakespeare too – through translations into Bengali. Abridged versions of Crime and Punishment, Mother, Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Blue Bird, and Hamlet, Lear, Othello, Romeo and Juliet were published by Deb Sahitya Kutir — among other Bengali publishers — for young readers. Later in life, as a student of English Literature, I realized that our understanding of the ways and woes of our world would be so much poorer if Iliad and Odyssey had remained confined to Greek readers; if Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House had not crossed the frontiers of Norway; if Don Quixote were to be read only in the Spanish that Miguel Cervantes wrote in; if The Hunchback of Notre Dame was meant only for those raised in French, or if Faust were to be played only to German viewers.

And, talking of viewers: how would the world have known about the Russian Sergei Eisenstein, the Japanese Akira Kurosawa, the Greek Theo Angelopoulos, the Italian Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini, the French Jean Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, the Swedish Ingmar Bergman, the Polish Andrzej Wajda, the Czech Jiri Menzel, the Argentinian Fernando Solanas, the Turkish Yilmaz Guney, the Chinese Zhang Yimou, the Iranian Abbas Kiarostami, or our very own Satyajit Ray? Unthinkable, the world of cinema without subtitles in this day and age when Hollywood films come with subtitles in not just English and Hindi – the two official languages of India – but also in its umpteen regional languages to reach viewers in pockets that speak only Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi, Bengali…

The importance of translation is best exemplified by the Song Offerings. If Rabindranath Tagore had not translated the poems of Gitanjali, Asia would have had to wait longer for its first Nobel Prize. Incidentally the central theme of this work too is devotion – and it is part of UNESCO’s collection of Representative Works. And it is my belief that no other Nobel for literature has come to India because we have not come up with any worthy translation – say, of Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay? At least, not until recent years, nor in a big way.

Also, it is my own experience that only after Me and I — translated from the Bengali original, Aami O Aami by Devottam Sengupta — was published by Hachette India that a major international publishing house got interested in translating Nabendu Ghosh into French.


That brings me to the frequently asked question: “Why are you translating Nabendu Ghosh rather than publishing his Bengali originals?” The answer takes me back to 1940s when Baba’s Phears Lane was translated into Urdu and published in Lahore. Clearly Nabendu Ghosh was a ‘star’ in Bengali literature then. Allow me to quote Soumitra Chatterjee, the thespian who we lost so recently and was a Master in Bengali: “I had known about Nabendu Ghosh even before I took to studying Bengali literature, since Daak Diye Jaai (The Clarion Call) was a sensation even when I was in school. His writing was not confined to urban setting and city life. He went to the villages and wrote about the man of the soil too. His characters were always flesh and blood humans.”

But the Partition of India had halved the market for books and films in Bengali, dimming the prospects of even established directors and writers who sought a new opening on the shores of the Arabian Sea. Thus, when Bimal Roy – a celluloid star after his meteoric debut with Udayer Pathey ( In the Path of Sunrise, 1943) — left for Bombay in 1950 to make a film for Bombay talkies, Nabendu Ghosh joined his unit. However, in Bombay he found that his kind of writing did not have as much of a prospect in films which were made primarily for the entertainment of an amorphous mass. So, he decided to write scripts based on other people’s stories, and his own thought-provoking stories — which he described as ‘fingers pointing at what ails society’ — he continued to write as pure literature, in Bengali, and send to publishers in Kolkata.

This oeuvre bears the distinct stamp of his outlook towards life, society, or state. As a critic wrote, “There is deep empathy for human emotions, layers of meaning that add to the depth of the spoken words, subtle symbolism, description of unbearable life paired with flight in the open sky of imagination.” But this aspect of the writer got buried under the glamour of screen writing, and even in Bengal people thought of him only as the screen writer of successful films. Small wonder, since he wrote more than eighty scripts, for directors like Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Bhattacharya, Vijay Bhatt, Sultan Ahmed, Dulal Guha, Lekh Tandon, Phani Majumdar, Satyen Bose, Shakti Samanta, Sushil Mazumdar, among others. Most of them are considered classics of the Indian screen: Sujata, Bandini, Devdas, Parineeta, Aar Paar, Majhli Didi, Teesri Kasam, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Ganga Ki Saugandh, Khan Dost, Baadbaan, Insaan Jaag Utha, Lal Patthar …

But Baba was saddened that even his colleagues in the filmdom did not know his literary pouring as only a handful were translated into Hindi and none into English. This is what I have tried to rectify through Chuninda Kahaniyaan (2009), Me and I (2017), and That Bird Called Happiness (2017). Mistress of Melodies (2020) you could say is a part of a continuum that started with River of Flesh (2016) and comes after That Bird Called Happiness. Nabendu Ghosh would read up volumes — books, news items, dictionaries and encyclopedia — when he fleshed out his characters. Perhaps that is why they play out their lives before you, like moving images. It was no different when he was writing Song of a Sarangi/ Ekti Sarengir Sur, included in Chaand Dekhechhilo that won him the Bankim Puraskar.

But above all, the reason for putting my energy in this art is to take a part of my heritage to the world. Because, as the celebrated Bengali writer Shirshendu Mukherjee said about Nabendu Ghosh, he is a writer who deserves to be read. Allow me to finish with a quote from him as he talked about his senior’s continuing relevance, to readers of Bengali literature and outside.

“Nabendu Da’s use of language was remarkable. He starts one of his stories with the word ‘Bhabchhi / (I’m) Thinking.’ It is a single word, that is also a complete sentence, and it has been used as a para in itself. One of his stories, Khumuchis, explores the secret language used by pickpockets. Bichitra Ek Prem Gatha (A Wondrous Love) – published to mark 2550th year of the Buddha — uses a vocabulary that is devoid of any word that would not have existed before the advent of Islam.

“He had an amazing sense of the optimum in this matter — he never overdid it. Not many writers of his time were into such experiments. Nabendu Ghosh did. He stood apart from his contemporaries in this respect. A part of his mind always ticked away, thinking of how his characters would speak. This added to the readability of his novels and stories. It quickened the pace of unfolding the narrative. They were all so racy! So fast paced, so real, so full of conflict and its resolution… Exceptional is the only word to describe it.

“And this was because of his language/ vocabulary. He was always pushing the boundaries of the language. His ‘throw’ was such that it turns into an eternal emotion which continues to cast its spell.

The same focused development of a plot shorn of every trivial and expendable branch, razor sharp emotions, whirlwind passion — I feel writing itself was a passion for him. He did not write with his head alone, his heart bled for the human condition.

“And this is why he never dated. His writing is the stuff that makes a story universal, eternal. For today’s readers he is a lesson in how to write — they can master how to write a narrative that flows like a boat down a rapid stream. In terms of language, structure, characters and situation, he is a writer who would be relevant to the young readers of not only Bengal but worldwide.”

Ratnottama Senguptaformerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award.