Categories
Interview

In Conversation with Radha Chakravarty

Radha Chakravarty

Radha Chakravarty has, for many of us, been synonymous to translations that we read – excellent translations of Tagore, Bankim and Mahasweta Devi – major names from Bengal in Literature. A well-respected academic who specialises in translations, Tagore, Mahasweta Devi, Women’s Literature, South Asian Literature, Subaltern Writings and Comparative Literature, in this exclusive she talks to us of the multiple journeys in her development as a translator, critic and writer.

You are an eminent translator, editor, critic and writer. What started you out on this path?

These are separate yet interlinked roles, different journeys yet part of the same narrative of my involvement with the world of words. I started writing when I was a child, but came to think of publishing my creative work many years later, when journal editors began to solicit my poetry for publication. My poems have now appeared in many books and journals, in India and internationally. It was a wonderful collaborative experience to contribute to Pandemic: A Worldwide Community Poem (Muse Pie Press, USA), nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2020. 

My work as a critic evolved through engagement with research. Feminism and Contemporary Women Writers (Routledge, 2008) for instance, emerged from my doctoral research, a cross cultural study of writers such as Mahasweta Devi, Anita Desai, Doris Lessing, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood and Buchi Emecheta. Novelist Tagore (Routledge, 2013) draws upon my research on gender and modernity in Tagore’s novels. My essays and reviews come from my areas of specialization, including Tagore Studies, women’s writing, South Asian Studies, Comparative Literature and Translation Studies.

As an editor, my work is inspired by the idea of sahitya, the Bengali word for “literature” that Tagore interprets as “being with” or “being together”. This idea of collaboration and dialogue across heterogeneities fascinates me. My edited volumes, such as Bodymaps (Zubaan, 2007), a collection of South Asian women’s stories on the body, Vermillion Clouds (Women Unlimited, 2010), an anthology showcasing a century of fiction by Bengali women and Writing Feminism (co-edited with Selina Hossain; UPL, 2010), containing selections of South Asian feminist writing, are inspired by this principle. My most exciting collaborative project as an editor, so far, was The Essential Tagore (Harvard and Visva-Bharati, 2011), where my co-editor Fakrul Alam and I worked with thirty reputed South Asian translators located in different countries, on the largest anthology of Tagore’s writings across ten genres. The volume, named the ‘Book of the Year’ 2011 by Martha Nussbaum, has since become a standard reference for Tagore scholars worldwide.

As for translation, I started dabbling in informal translations, across Bengali, English and Hindi, even as a child. My grandfather, who taught me advanced Bengali at home, often involved me in these linguistic experiments. My first published translation happened almost by accident, in the 1990s. A friend, an Israeli art historian, asked me to explain the lyrics of the Bollywood song daiya re daiya re charh gaye papi bichhwaa (the poisoned scorpion climbed on me), because she was researching the scorpion motif in the Khajuraho scultpures. I ended up translating the entire song into English, in verse! My friend was amazed. She included my translation of the song with due credit, in her essay on the scorpion, published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of India. As for my early books in translation, I must thank my friends, the editors and publishers who urged me to take up those projects. They saw in me a potential I had not fully recognised myself. Later, the overwhelming recognition that these books received transformed my self-image. I began to think of myself as a translator, among many other things.

You started by translating Mahasweta Devi. When and why did you start translating Tagore? What moved you from Mahasweta Devi to Tagore?

At the turn of the century, I was immersed in the challenge of translating into English the heterogeneities of contemporary Bengali fiction. Crossings: Stories from Bangladesh and India (2003), my first published book of translations, included the stories of twenty living writers. Alongside, I was working on In the Name of the Mother, my translations of some powerful, unusual stories about motherhood by Mahasweta Devi. The volume appeared soon after Crossings.

Meanwhile, I received a sudden call from Rani Ray—once my teacher, now a friend, mentor and figure of inspiration—urging me to translate Tagore’s Chokher Bali (A grain of Sand) an important but neglected text. I remember the shock and awe I felt at that moment. I protested that I was no Tagore expert, much as I loved and admired his work, but Rani di was adamant.  “I think you are the right person to translate this novel,” she insisted. I found myself promising that I would try. And that was how my journey as a Tagore translator began. I read the novel, was struck by its boldness as a path-breaking modern text, and felt daunted but also tremendously excited at the challenge of trying to translate this hundred-year-old text that was at once so rooted in its context, and yet so far ahead of its time. Translating Chokher Bali was an immersive experience. It transformed me, drew me into a lifelong relationship with Tagore, and there has been no looking back.

Was translating Tagore different from translating Mahasweta Devi or Bankim? How was it similar/ different?

As I said, I first translated contemporary writing before turning my attention to Tagore. My translation of Bankim’s Kapalkundala came in 2005, after I had also translated Tagore’s Shesher Kabita as Farewell Song. So the transition from Mahasweta and other contemporary figures, to Tagore’s early twentieth century texts, and then to Bankim’s nineteenth century novel was like a journey back in time, delving further and further into the Bengali literary past. Of late, I have been translating parts of the Chandrabati Ramayana, a sixteenth century composition. Each step in this journey has been a process of exploration and rediscovery through translation, of familiar and much loved texts that I had read avidly in my early life, never dreaming that I might one day aspire to translate these literary jewels.

After working with living writers, the transition to Tagore was not easy. When translating Chokher Bali, I felt the need to evoke the flavour of a bygone age, even in a contemporary translation for the twenty-first century reader. This involved complex creative experiments with style and vocabulary that stretched my abilities as a translator. One felt the importance of bringing to life the cultural ethos of Bengal in the late nineteenth century, a world in many ways unfamiliar to readers of our time. Simultaneously, I recognized the modernity of Tagore’s novel, the new element of interiority that transformed the Bengali novel at his magic touch. That needed to be brought to life too.

Moving from Tagore to Bankim offered a fresh set of challenges. The lyrical, Sanskritised cadences of Kapalkundala are far removed from the more modern idiom of Tagore’s novels. Bankim’s text is set in the Mughal period. Hence the translator must actually negotiate the past at a double level, to bring to the modern reader the late medieval ethos as represented through Bankim’s nineteenth century sensibility. Crossing these temporal and cultural divides demanded daring experiments with language, as well as considerable research to contextualize the source text. It was a learning process for me.

Working with the Chandrabati Ramayana is a different experience altogether. A radical text for its times, and one that challenges the mainstream literary tradition, it remains a text worth returning to in our own context, because it destabilizes monolithic conceptions of our premodern religious and social traditions. Finding in English an idiom that will capture the poetry as well as the content is a hard task though.

These adventures in translation have compelled me to read the Bengali literary tradition from a different angle, from a writerly perspective, as it were. I have realized that translation involves a creative element, but also works as a form of interpretation. It has become clear to me why translation can be described as the most intimate act of reading.

In the Jaipur Literary Festival (2017), you made a very interesting observation that if one does not get into the skin of a writer, one cannot capture the essence of the writer in entirety. Are all good translations more of transcreations that literal translations?

Translation often appears to me a form of ventriloquism, the translator’s voice making itself heard through the voice of the source text. It produces a double-voiced text. My endeavour, when translating, is to bring to life the spirit rather than the literal vocabulary of the source text. One struggles to apprehend, interpret, and then, through one’s own creative ability in the target language, to approximate the impulse behind the original. A doubleness comes into play here, due to the gap in time, location, language, culture and context that separates the translation from the source text. In this tension resides the dynamic potential of translation to simultaneously recognize and displace the original. The success of a translation often depends on the translator’s creativity, as well as the author’s.

What is your opinion of Tagore’s own translation of his works? Can you expand on that?

Tagore’s English translations of his own work shot him to international fame and led to the Nobel Prize. Yet he was diffident about his own command of English, and unsure about the quality of his translations. Some of these translations resorted to archaisms and a rather stilted style that did not weather the test of time very well. They were partly responsible, I feel, for the fluctuations in Tagore’s international reputation after the initial flush of success. Certainly, they are not close copies of the original Bengali texts; rather, they are re-creations in a different language, for a different readership. While some readers may cavil at the gap between the source texts and their English versions, these translations, in my opinion, remain important instances of the ways in which translation can connect different cultures through dynamic border crossings. The Kabir translations for instance, drawing upon the work of Kshitimohan Sen, and produced by Tagore in collaboration with Evelyn Underhill, provide a fascinating instance of the translingual and transcultural border-crossings that were involved in this process.

Sometimes Tagore adopted unorthodox collaborative measures when working with translations.

We know about the English translations of course, but it is worth remembering that Tagore also translated numerous premodern poets into Bengali and English, from a range of different languages, often drawing upon eclectic sources and relying on the assistance of others more knowledgeable about the languages and literary cultures of the source texts. I have recently published an essay on Tagore’s translations of medieval poetry, where I argue that these should be read, not as literal, faithful renderings that seek to cling close to the source texts, but rather, as transcreations that resituate these early texts in new, unfamiliar contexts. What takes place in his translations of Bhakti poetry, for instance, is also a meeting of different faiths, across diverse histories and geographies.

Can a translation be done from a translated piece into the same language? Would such a revision be of value?

Intralingual translations can be found in many literary cultures. Sometimes, texts in formal or classical versions of a language get translated into a modern, colloquial idiom, to reach a wider audience in a different time period. Often, these can be read as democratizing moves, arising from dynamic historical shifts that bring about an interrogation of social and linguistic hierarchies. The bridging of gaps between “high” and “popular” cultures can be attempted through such processes. These translations imagine into being new readerships for older texts, giving them a new and altered “afterlife”. The market also dertermines some of these things, especially when it comes to promoting modern versions of enduring texts that are regarded as classics. Intralingual translation can blur the borderline between translation and adaptation.

Can a translation to another language be done from a translation say in English, and still have the authenticity of the original writer?

It is currently a widely prevalent practice to use English translations as source texts for re-translation of texts into other languages. English as the language of global currency provides a useful medium for such translingual, often transnational interchanges. In India, despite our multilingual culture, there is dearth of translators who can work across Indian languages without taking recourse to English as a via media. This is part of the colonial legacy, which transformed our premodern polyglot culture through the compartmentalization and codification of the “modern Indian languages”. Today, bilingual and multilingual Indian scholars and translators are scarce. Hence, traffic across Indian languages tends to take place via English. The need of the hour is to regenerate a culture where the true potential of our multilingualism can be acknowledged, through a revaluation of polyglot scholarship.

Collaborative translation also holds immense possibilities for South Asian cultures, where diverse forms of linguistic and literary expertise can be harnessed, to work directly across our many languages, without always using English as a crutch. We already possess a rich history of collaborative translations in our literary past. This can inspire us to develop models for translation that involve mutual relationships between translators working in different languages.

How do you deal with translating multiple languages used by a writer into English? How would you indicate the presence of dialects or another language in the text you are translating from Bengali to English?

This question is particularly pertinent to the writings of Mahasweta Devi, where we find extraordinary instances of heteroglossia and multilingualism, in ostensibly monolingual texts. In a single story, such as “Draupadi”, we find chaste and colloquial Bengali, Santhal song, Hindi words and phrases, and English expressions, as well as quotations from various sources. Such texts challenge the monolingual paradigm to indicate that our cultural ethos, and also our sensibility, is always already multilingual. The idea of “pure” language is destabilized, to dramatize, in the words of the text, the dynamic interaction of various languages and linguistic registers. The social and political hierarchies that underlie this interplay of languages come to the fore through the rhetoric of the text. In such instances, the translator faces a tremendous challenge, especially with English as a target language so far removed from South Asian linguistic cultures. This tests the translator’s imagination and creativity, and demands the ability to summon up suitable strategies to deal with the challenges posed by the source text.

In my own translations, I prefer to highlight the forms of otherness operational in the source text, instead of erasing these markers of difference in order to create a smooth and easy style that would comfort a reader unfamiliar with written Bengali or South Asian cultures. To a great extent, I try to retain “untranslatable” cultural elements such as kinship terms, or names of trees, flowers, food and clothing. The use of italics also needs to be rationalised, depending on the demands of the source text, as well as the context, purpose and target audience for the translation. I prefer to keep notes and glossaries to a minimum, wanting instead that the reader engage actively in making meaning of the translation. In other words, I like to foreground the “translatedness” of the translation, as a text from elsewhere. At the same time, though, I don’t carry the process of defamiliarization so far as to completely destroy the readability of the target text. After all, I translate in order to be read. And I translate for the general reader, because I want my translations to have as wide and eclectic a readership as possible. It is my mission to bring writers from our own culture to the rest of the world, not just for a select coterie of erudite scholars.

Has translating all these writers impacted your own writing and thought processes as a critic? How?

As a critic, one reads a book from the outside, as it were. It is the analytical faculty that comes to the fore, even in close reading. When translating, something different happens. Translation, like literary criticism, involves close reading, interpretation and contextualization. But the actual process of translating also involves other faculties beyond the rational and intellectual. A feel for language is required, an element of emotion, and a creative ability to find strategies that will make the text viable in a new language for a new audience. One gets drawn into the source text through the process of rewriting or reinventing it, instead of striving for critical distance. Elements of affect, and the pleasure of the text, bring the process of translation alive. Criticism treats the text as a stable entity to be interpreted and analysed, while translation destabilizes the fixity of the “original” and makes us aware of its potential mutability. As a practising translator, I think I have become more sensitive to the “writerly” aspect of the texts that I read as a critic. I have also become more sharply aware of the way canons are formed, and the ways in which translation can trigger transformations in prevalent literary and linguistic hierarchies..

How do you find the time to juggle between academics, translations and writing?

It can be a tightrope walk. But if something matters enough, one tries to make time for it. Always, one is up against the feeling of racing against time. So much to do, and so little time. A lifetime is too short.

What are your future plans? Do we have anything new in the offing?

I find myself immersed in many different adventures with words. Currently, I am working on The Tagore Phenomenon (Allen Lane, forthcoming), a giant anthology that showcases Tagore’s works as a polymath whose oeuvre covers an extraordinary range of subjects, including nationalism, internationalism, education, social issues, nature and environment, spritituality, science, literature and the arts, rural reconstruction, religion, philosophy and humanism, to name a few. A new translation of Char Adhyay (Four Quartets), Tagore’s last novel, is on the way.

Our Santiniketan, to be soon published by Seagull, is my English translation of Mahasweta Devi’s recollections of her days in Santiniketan as a little schoolgirl. An entire ethos, a bygone era, comes to life in these memoirs, invoking the world of Santiniketan in the living presence of Rabindranath Tagore, during the 1930s. Mahasweta Devi: Writer, Activist, Visionary, an edited volume, will bring together scholarly essays and translations showcasing the writer’s life, work and critical reception across cultures. I am also translating selected essays by Kazi Nazrul Islam, whose prose deserves far more attention than it has so far received.

Alongside, my poetry continues to appear in print, in diverse forums. Translations of my poems have also been published. Drawing my poems together in a collected volume is a long overdue project, waiting to happen …

Thank you for giving us your time Professor Radha Chakravarty.

Click here to read Tagore’s prose translations by Radha Chakravarty.

Click here to read Tagore’s poetry translations by Radha Chakravarty.

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(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty on behalf of Borderless Journal.)

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Essay

When West meets East and Greatness blooms

Debraj Mookerjee explores how syncretism permeates between the West and the East — how the two lores do meet

Cultural influences travel at the speed of human imagination. In the modern world it is easy to plot the journey of cultural influences across the planet, thanks to the seamlessness created by communication technologies. The Internet links us all. But we also know cultural influences travelled through the globe since the earliest migration of humans.  We know the Chinese invented paper some 2000 years back. We know potato came to India from the new world through the Portuguese and became widely popular only around the 19th century. We know Marco Polo brought pasta from China to Italy. These are things we know. We also know because these are things. But along with things, ideas also travelled, as did poetry and song. Philosophy travelled, and ways of knowing and experiencing the world travelled. How many of us know for example that Ibn Rushid, an Andalusian of Arabic descent born in Islamic Cordoba, Spain, in 1126, translated Aristotelian philosophy into Arabic? Or the fact that these translations were further retranslated to Latin by Thomas Aquinas, a mediaeval scholar who was influenced by, though he differed strongly with, Ibn Rushid? Such is the power of ideas. Ideas are borderless. That is their power.

Within the context of the so-called East-West encounter, there are so many cross-cultural influences we are unaware of. Influences that travelled to and fro the West and India seeped into the cultural experiences of either worlds. History and society can be viewed in many different ways. Politics often invents a vocabulary that insists on differences. Art on the other hand weaves patterns that merge into each other, producing beautiful new forms. Art and the philosophy surrounding it bring different cultures into play with each other. We will walk around some examples of such cross-fertilisation. And in the process perhaps expand the borders of our own minds and how we look at the world. I shall dwell on two such instances of cross-cultural influences. First, I shall look at Gandhi and the influences he shared with the West and the sharing of political ideas and philosophies they produced. I will explore the diverse trajectories his core ideas of nonviolence and civil disobedience took in shaping up to what they eventually became, and even the influences they have had after him. I shall thereafter present Tagore and begin by looking at the shaping of his world view as a thinker and as an artist, reading closely into his specific interactions with particular milieus in England. Finally, I shall look at Tagore iconic music (Rabindra Sangeet) and trace the influence Western (especially Welsh) music had on his works.

 “You can love a person dear to you with a human love, but an enemy can only be loved with divine love.”
“Let us forgive each other – only then will we live in peace.”

Who would you imagine might have spoken these words?

Gandhi? Almost, but not quite. These are Tolstoy’s words. Tolstoy was a writer, a philosopher and a religious thinker. Gandhi was particularly influenced by Tolstoy’s ‘The Kingdom of God is Within You’ and his essay on ‘Christianity and Patriotism’. Tolstoy’s ideal of “simplicity of life and purity of purpose” had a deep and abiding impact on Gandhi’s core thinking. In ‘Christianity and Patriotism’, Totlstoy writes: “Patriotism may have been a virtue in the ancient world when it compelled men to serve the highest idea of those days — the fatherland. But how can patriotism be a virtue in these days when it requires of men an ideal exactly opposite to that of our religion and morality — an admission not of the equality and fraternity of all men but of the dominance of one country or nations over all others? But not only is this sentiment no virtue in our times, but it is indubitably a vice; for this sentiment of patriotism cannot now exist, because there is neither material nor moral foundation for its conception.”

Gandhi had carried Tolstoy in his heart for the longest time. But shortly before Tolstoy passed  away in 1910, as Gandhi began the active phase of his fight for human rights for Indians in South Africa, and thereafter his struggle for India’s independence, he wrote to Tolstoy, prompted by the writer’s ‘Letter to a Hindoo’, in which he paves a path for freedom sans violence. The letter from Tolstoy was addressed to Tarak Nath Das, editor of Free Hindustan, who advocated the violent approach. Gandhi apprised Tolstoy about the Indians’ ‘passive resistance’ against racial oppression in Transvaal. He wrote that nearly half of the total Indian population of 13,000 in Transvaal had left Transvaal rather than submit to the degrading law, and ‘nearly 2,500 have for conscience’s sake allowed themselves to be imprisoned, some as many as five times. Tolstoy’s letter explained why non-violent resistance and a resolve by Indians to become free were the only solution. Gandhi sought Tolstoy’s confirmation of the referred to above being written by him, and his approval to his friend printing 20,000 copies of the same for distribution and having it translated. He had ‘taken the liberty’ to write the letter ‘in the interests of truth, and in order to have your advice on problems the solution of which you have made your life-work.’ Gandhi quoted Tolstoy thus, as he introduced his letter, when indeed it was widely distributed: “Do not resist evil, but also do not yourselves participate in evil: in the collection of taxes, and in the violent deeds of the law courts and (what is more important) the soldiers. Then, no one in the world will enslave you.”

But there is a bigger symmetry at work here than just the transfer of wisdom from Totstoy to Gandhi. Thiruvalluvar was the legendary Tamil poet who lived some time between the fourth and first century BCE. His work Thirukkural is an unparalleled treatise on ethics, communicated in verse. The first translation of the Thirukkural in a European language was done in Latin by Constanzo Beschi, a Jesuit Missionary, in 1730. Beschi himself was a Tamil scholar and poet, known as Viramamunivar. Tolstoy is said to have read a German translation of the work. And his ‘Letter to a Hindoo’ was apparently inspired by what he’d read in the Tamil saint-poet’s work. Around the time, Gandhi wrote an article, ‘Tolstoy’s Satyagraha’, showing how thousands, acting on his views ‘advising people not to obey the laws of the Russian Government, not to serve in the army, and so on’, were going to jail. Tolstoy’s writings, though proscribed, were being published, leading to the imprisonment of his agent. Tolstoy thought that ‘my views are true, and that it is my duty to propagate them.’ Gandhi concluded: ‘True freedom is to be found—only in such a life. That is the kind of freedom we want to achieve in the Transvaal. If India were to achieve such freedom, that indeed would be swarajya.’

Gandhi had told Rev. J.J. Doke, his first biographer (1909): “It was the New Testament which really awakened me to the rightness and value of Passive Resistance. When I read in the Sermon on the Mount such passages as ‘Resist not him that is evil’, I was simply overjoyed, and found my own opinion confirmed when I least expected it. The Bhagavad Gita deepened the impression and Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You gave it a permanent form.”

When we imagine Gandhi, along with perhaps Asoka and the Prophet Mohammad, as among those historical figures who imagined society and politics through the prism of morality, we ought to know the influence of Tolstoy’s thoughts. Tolstoy thought of morality as a category that steps beyond politics. Gandhi could not afford that luxury. India needed freedom. So he introduced morality into politics. 

Gandhi harvested patriotism through the principles of Ahimsa and Satyagraha — Non-violence and truth force. The latter was the goal and the former the means. In these he drew influences from ancient Indian philosophy, and from thinkers like Tolstoy and the transcendentalists of America — more on the latter in a bit. So, we find a saint-like figure, a Russian aristocrat and also among the more celebrated writers of his time, conversing across time and space with one whom Churchill infamously labelled the ‘Naked Fakir’, but who went on to become the Father of a Nation.

Here is the interesting thing, and we need to frame this in the context of the Cold War that was to commence soon after the assassination Gandhi – that the other major influence on Gandhi came from, of all places, the United States of America. The Transcendentalists were radical thinkers of the early 19th century who rejected organised traditional religious belief systems. They believed in the ‘oneself’ of the self and the universe. Ralph Waldo Emerson, thinker, poet, writer philosopher, and the most famous of the transcendentalists, once wrote: “Within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty; to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE.”

Emerson took interest in Hindu texts thanks to his aunt Mary Moody. His idea of the over-soul, the universal oneness can be read as a derivative of the idea of Brahman – the singular force signified by the chant ‘Aum’. In this poem by Emerson entitled ‘Bhrama’, the oneness mentioned above is emphasised, as an idea subsumed in the concept of ‘Brahman’, which goes beyond this or that or even the specific injunctions of scripture:

 If the red slayer think he slays,
 Or if the slain think he is slain,
 They know not well the subtle ways
 I keep, and pass, and turn again.
  
 Far or forgot to me is near;
 Shadow and sunlight are the same;
 The vanished gods to me appear;
 And one to me are shame and fame.
  
 They reckon ill who leave me out;
 When me they fly, I am the wings;
 I am the doubter and the doubt,
 I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.
  
 The strong gods pine for my abode,
 And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
 But thou, meek lover of the good!
 Find me, and turn thy back on heaven. 

A contemporary of Emerson and one deeply influenced by him was Henry David Thoreau, who advocated both self-reliance and civil disobedience, elaborately discussed in his book, Walden Pond, which is an account of his experiments with asceticism. His practices were motivated by his encounter with yoga. Thoreau seldom was ecstatic. And yet he wrote: “What extracts from the Vedas I have read fall on me like light of a higher and purer luminary, which describes a loftier course through a purer stratum, free from particulars, simple, universal.” 

He was fond of quoting from the Bhagwat Gita, as was Gandhi. Gandhi was significantly influenced by Thoreau experiments and ideas. Gandhi, in his 1942 appeal ‘To American Friends,’ wrote, “You have given me a teacher in Thoreau, who furnished me through his essay on the ‘Duty of Civil Disobedience’ scientific confirmation of what I was doing in South Africa.”

At the Second Round Table Conference in London in 1931, the American reporter Webb Miller, a long-time admirer of Thoreau, asked Gandhi, “Did you ever read an American named Henry D. Thoreau?” Gandhi replied: “Why, of course I read Thoreau. I read Walden first in Johannesburg in South Africa in 1906 and his ideas influenced me greatly. I adopted some of them and recommended the study of Thoreau to all my friends who were helping me in the cause of Indian independence. Why, I actually took the name of my movement from Thoreau’s essay, ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,’ written about eighty years ago.” 

Miller noticed that Gandhi, a “Hindu mystic,” adopted from Thoreau the philosophy which was to affect millions of Indians and inspire them to defy the powerful British Empire. “It would seem,” Miller concluded, “that Gandhi received back from America what was fundamentally the philosophy of India after it had been distilled and crystallized in the mind of Thoreau.”  

The back and forth does not end here. We all know how Martin Luther King Jr was influenced by Gandhi. He once wrote, “While the Montgomery boycott was going on, India’s Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.”

So ancient Indian philosophy influenced the transcendentalists. The transcendentalists influenced Gandhi. And Gandhi went onto influence King Jr. Kipling might have written that “East is east, and the West is West. And ne’er the twain shall meet”. At the cost of sounding frivolous, perhaps he had not read Mark Twain’s famous poem, ‘A passage to India’.

Gandhi and Tagore were in conversation in the deepest sense of the term, both captured by the tight frame of history, yet never ever contained by it. It is apposite, therefore, to try and capture within the rubric of the larger argument, the influences and intellectual trajectories of both Gandhi and Tagore. Tagore, India’s iconic poet, the first non-European to receive a Nobel Prize, who travelled to England in 1912 clutching a collection of 103 self-translated English poems, became a world phenomenon in a little more than a year. Though Tagore is revered among Bengalis and indeed all Indians as ‘Kavi-Guru’ (Poet Guru, as it were), his development as an artist was syncretic. 

As a young boy, he spent a month in Amritsar with his father and was greatly impressed by the devotional songs sung inside the Golden Temple, with his father often joining in. While a landlord in East Bengal during the 1890s he became familiar with the great Baul tradition of Lalon Shah. He absorbed Western influences, especially in his poetry, but also influences as diverse as the paintings of specific communities in islands as far-flung as New Ireland in Papua New Guinea! Tagore took to painting later in age and was never quite sure of his own work, but they have a magical haunting quality that is all too difficult to pin onto a singular culture.  

One of the first persons whom Tagore wanted to know was Stopford. Tagore, being a prominent member of the Brahmo Samaj, which was closely allied to Unitarianism, had heard so much of him, and had perceived an alignment of convictions. Sir William Rothenstein,in his account of Tagore’s days in London, says “Stopford Brooke asked me to bring Tagore to Manchester Square; ‘but tell him’, he said, ‘that I am not a spiritual man’.” Soon Tagore would become quite the toast of young poets, who would seek him out, Ezra Pound being prominent among them. Among others whom Tagore met were Shaw, Wells, Galsworthy, Andrew Bradley, Sturge Moore, and Robert Bridges. In a 1915 letter to Robert Bridges, Tagore wrote, “I know what this war is to you… Please let Mrs. Bridges accept my heartfelt sympathy and reverence [for one] whose son is fighting for the cause of liberty in one of the greatest wars in the history of mankind.” Bridges included Tagore’s poems in his Anthology The Spirit of Man in 1915. On his part, Tagore was struck by the breadth of view and the rapidity of thought that he found among his new friends. Addressing his English audience, he said: “Those who know the English only in India, do not know Englishmen … All you people live, think and talk while a strong, critical light is constantly focussed on you. This creates a high social civilisation. We in India, on the contrary, live secluded among a crowd of relations. Things are done and said within the family circle which would not be tolerated outside; and this keeps our social standards low.’ 

Tagore famous novel, Ghare Baire (The Way of the World, 1916; tran. 1919) presents his disquiet with insular nationalist sentiments, to the exclusion (of what he believed) larger humanist imperatives. His protagonist, Nikhil articulates liberal universal values and is willing to sacrifice his life to ensure peace in his domain (he is a landlord). His fiery friend, the nation (as mother) worshipping ultra-nationalist radical Sandeep, stokes the violence that ultimately consumes Nikhil, but from which he himself stealthily slinks away.

Tagore absorbed more than just ideas from the West. His music, especially the scores of many of his songs, was influenced by his interactions with the West. On his 2012 visit he’d heard the music hall songs and folk tunes that he later incorporated into his distinctive musical genre, Rabindra Sangeet. As a child, he’d heard his siblings play myriad instruments. His older brother Jyotirindranath, significantly, played the piano and violin. From him, Tagore developed an early ear for western musical lilts. Lively English, Irish, and Scottish folk tunes impressed Tagore, whose own tradition of Bhramo hymnody was subdued. Tagore confesses: “At seventeen, when I first came to Europe, I came to know it intimately, but even before that time I had heard European music in our own household. I had heard the music of Chopin and others at an early age.”

Of particular note is Robert Burns, whose poetry and music were quite widely known in metropolitan Bengal. His work was particularly popular with Bengali students in the early days of Hindu College (now Presidency University), Calcutta. The Scottish missionary to India, Alexander Duff, remembers students in Henry Derozio’s (poet and assistant headmaster of Kolkata’s Hindu Collge) discussion group reciting Burns’s poetry and singing his democratic anthem ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’. Two of Burns’s sons served for many years in the Company army, and one of them, James Glencairn Burns, was later appointed judge and collector of Cachar (in Assam), and became an expert in Hindi, instructing company cadets in the language on his return to England in 1839. Burns’s songs pervaded 19th century British India and were well known to many Indians: Rabindranath Tagore adapted at least three of them and set musical scores to the Bengali versions of the original melodies.

Tagore created one of his most popular songs, ‘Purano shei deener katha’, on the model of the old Scottish folk song collected by Robert Burns: ‘Auld lang syne’ (1788). Whereas the Scottish is in dialect, its Bengali counterpart in the standard tongue. There can be no literal translation in songs transcreated, as it were in a different language, since the nature of the two languages is different. And yet, there are great similarities between the songs. The original communicates the eternal sentiment of nostalgia for old friends, memories of good times and longing to revive the same. Tagore communicates the same basic sentiment. One should remember that even though Tagore adapts the tune of the western songs, he very often varies the tempo and the rhythm to suit his own creative needs. The mention of ‘dola’ (swing), ‘banshi’ (flute) and ‘bokuler tolay’ (beneath the bokul tree) introduces interesting indigenous cultural symbols. These words introduce the concept of the god Krishna and his worldly amour divesting them of both divine and erotic connotation. The Bengali song stands as an eternal paean to reunion of friends of all categories.

Tagore’s ‘Phule phule dhole dhole’ is a transcreation of Burns’ ‘Ye banks and braes of bonny Doon’ (1792), the tune of which is based on ‘The Caledonian Hunt’s delight.’ The first four lines of Tagore’s song evokes faint sweet breezes, rippling gurgling stream, cuckoo song and an undefined longing. It is close to the mood of the ‘Ye banks and braes,’ though more mystic and abstract. In Burns’ original version, the nostalgia and longing are rooted in unfulfilled love. In the Bengali, there is no hint of narrative, though the narrative is obviated when sung in its proper context. Sung independently, it appears as a universal romantic desire for an unattainable ‘something,’ intensified by the beauty of nature. 

But Burns was not the only one to influence Tagore’s music.  In 1885, much before his heydays, Tagore composed ‘Kotobar bhebechhilnu’, using the tune of Ben Jonson’s ‘Drink to me only with thine eyes’. The tune of the original English song is adapted to his original Bengali lyric. Tagore’s song raises interesting cultural issues. The words are radically different, though the mood of love is dominant in both, the English song is much more sensuous, redolent of physical and Petrarchan appeal. Tagore’s Indianisation is romantic, idealistic and self-effacing, but with a witty twist in the last two lines: “Now that you yourself have come to ask me/ How can I explain how much I love you?” Another Irish folk song that inspired Tagore was ‘Go where glory waits thee’ (1807), which was collected by Thomas Moore (1779-1852) and was based on ‘Maid of the Valley.’ Tagore’s songs ‘Ohe Dayamoy’ and ‘Aha aji e basante’ (O Kind One and It is Spring Today) are based on these two originals. 

There is a general consensus that Western and Indian songs are essentially different in that in the former the rhythm may change many times within the same song, while it remains the same in most Indian songs. Tagore nevertheless finds the change of rhythms ideally suited to express different facets of feeling (see Tagore’s essay ‘Sangeet o Bhab’). One cannot be entirely sure as to the exact source of his musical preference, whether it comes from Western music, or even from his ear for ‘kirtan’ (popular Bengal devotional music associated with the Vaishnavite tradition). But what is certain is that his music comes from a syncretic imagination, which was able to discern beauty and form beyond the restrictions of nation and culture.  

Debraj Mookerjee has taught literature at the University of Delhi for close to thirty years. He claims he never gets bored. Ever. And that is his highest skill in life. No moment for him is not worth the while. He embraces life and allows life to embrace him.

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