Categories
Essay

The Kaleidoscopic World of Satyajit Ray

By Anasuya Bhar

Satyajit Ray in New York. Courtesy: Creative Commons

The last year and a half has seen exhaustive commemoration of the works Satyajit Ray (1921 – 92) as it marked his birth centenary. To us in India and to the world in general, Satyajit is now revered as a filmmaker, primarily. He has become a myth and a legend in the art of filmmaking, so much so that Akira Kurosawa has pleaded that the ignorance of the former’s art is comparable to not having seen the sun or the moon. Nevertheless, it would be highly unjust to his artistic persona if we study him merely as a film maker. He was a polymath intellectual who was versatile in several arts, where literature, visual art and music were only among a few of his talents apart from cinema. Satyajit had re-invented himself severally, in various times of his life and career.

The Beginnings

Born to the illustrious and talented family of the Rays of Gorpar in north Kolkata, Satyajit was grandson to Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury (1863 – 1915) and the only son of Sukumar Ray (1887 – 1923), whom unfortunately Satyajit lost, when he was merely two and a half years old. The vein of versatility ran high in the family. Upendrakishore distinguished himself as a pioneer in the art of photography and later also in printing technology. In fact, to him we owe the science of half-tone printing and photography. His research papers were published in the prestigious Penrose journals of England. Upendrakishore also distinguished himself as a writer of children’s literature and published not only in Bengali journals like Mukul, Sakha and Sathi (in the nineteenth century), but also founded his own magazine for children in 1913, by the name Sandesh – a name indicative, not only, for a Bengali sweet meat, but also for information and news. Sukumar Ray was primarily a student of science, with a double B.A in Chemistry and Physics honours from Presidency College Kolkata. He, however, went to England to study Printing Technology with the long term goal that he would assist his father in their own press, U. Ray and Sons. Sukumar too, got his research papers published in prestigious scientific journals. He was in England at a time when Rabindranath Tagore, too, had made his visit in 1912 and was a witness to some of the poet’s reading of his poems from Gitanjali (1912) in the company of many influential people in that country. Sukumar returned to Kolkata and was compelled to take up the editorship of Sandesh from 1915, after the death of his father. Sukumar had already started the ‘Nonsense Club’ and his hand written journal Share Batrish Bhaja (Thirty-two and a half Fried Savories) even before he went to England. The vein of the ‘nonsense’ tradition only perfected itself after his return; his own poetry and prose began to see the light of day from the time he began to edit Sandesh. However, and rather unfortunately, his life and career too, came to an abrupt end in 1923. It was only a few years after this that the magazine Sandesh closed down.

Satyajit Ray was largely brought up in his maternal uncle’s home in Ballygunge, from where he completed his schooling at Ballygunge Government School and attained his B.A in Economics (Honours) from Presidency College Kolkata. His mother Suprabha Devi, preferred that Satyajit follow up his education under the guidance of ‘gurudev’ Tagore and hence cajoled him to join Kala Bhavana in Santiniketan in the year 1940. The reluctant Satyajit actually wanted to study ‘commercial art’, but was denied that opportunity in Santiniketan. Nevertheless, he was struck with the brilliance of Nandalal Bose and Binodebehari Mukhopadhyay, whom he got as his mentors in Kala Bhavana. Satyajit was steeped in the nuances of western art, music, films and books; ever since his childhood he was an avid listener of western classical music and a keen viewer of foreign films as they appeared in erstwhile Calcutta.

Santiniketan, for the first time, afforded a glimpse of the beauty of rural Bengal, a gift that he would utilise later when he would make films. While here, Satyajit still felt restless and left after completing only over two years of the course. He returned to Kolkata and joined the advertising firm of D. J Keymar in 1942 as Junior Visualizer, where D.K. Gupta was then Assistant Manager. Among his colleagues were the talented artist Annada Munshi and the younger O.C. Ganguli and Makhan Dutta Gupta. It may be mentioned here that Satyajit, at that point, was rather keen on getting a job and procuring an independent residence for himself and his mother. The scourge of having to labour without a father was quite evident. In 1943, the Signet Press was founded by D. K. Gupta and Satyajit was assigned several books to design. Thus began a career in book designing, which marks an interesting chapter in his artistic career.

The Composite Artist

Satyajit Ray has designed as many as over 300 book covers. The repertoire of Ray book covers is extensive and varied; he continued to remain a composite and wholistic artist throughout the span of his career when he evolved as a writer, mainly for children, even while continuing to make films. He designed books for a host of writers beginning with Sukumar Ray to Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay, to Premendra Mitra, Jibanananda Das, to Lila Majumdar, while he worked for Signet, and later even for other publishers. Each of these covers were aesthetic statements linking themselves to the themes and the content within. The frontispiece as well as the illustrations inside, ranged from the linocut / woodcut designs to fine lines and geometric solid shapes. Each one of these designs proved beyond doubt his versatility, talent and uniqueness of vision. Some of Ray’s book covers found pride of place in internationally reputed journals like the Graphis (in 1950).

Book cover by Satyajit Ray from personal collection

Ray’s artistry found new space in the covers of Ekshan, a Bengali bi-monthly periodical edited by Nirmalya Acharya and actor Soumitra Chattopadhyay between 1961 and 1995. The periodical died an untimely death after the demise of Nirmalya Acharya. Satyajit designed several of its covers and each one of them is a masterpiece of visual jugglery. There are three letters in the title and Ray seems to act as a visual conjuror of these three letters using various planes, letterings, geometry and even characteristics of various art forms.

Ekshan journal, Photograph from Frontline Ray Commemorative Issue, November 2021

The 1950s saw Ray totally emerged in films and his own maiden attempt at a directorial venture took shape in 1955, with Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) Ray also designed his film posters, title cards and even fliers, apart from writing the screenplay himself. Later, he also graduated to composing his own music and writing his own stories; seldom do we see such a versatile artist.

It may be pointed out here that while we keenly study the various facets of Satyajit Ray, he was not alone in diversifying the art of design and illustration in books. One may mention here the works of Purnendu Patri, Pranabesh Maity and several others whose works are significantly remarkable in the history of book making. As mentioned earlier, Satyajit has constantly re-invented and adapted himself to the changing face of time. This has allowed him to survive several cultural and historical changes.

The Writer

Satyajit began writing consistently from his fortieth year, somewhat out of necessity. Before that he wrote sporadically. That year, 1961, saw the revival of the children’s magazine Sandesh under the entrepreneurship of Ray and his poet-friend Subhas Mukhopadhyay. The magazine, inactive since the thirties, saw a new lease of life when Ray and Mukhopadhyay decided to revive it in 1961. They were also the editors of the new Sandesh. Ray designed most of its covers and like the various letterings of Ekshan, he juggled with the masthead of Sandesh as well.

The magazine continues to be among the leading children’s magazines till date and is currently being edited by Sandip Ray, Satyajit’s son. In the first issue of the new Sandesh, published in May 1961, Satyajit decided to translate some of Edward Lear’s The Jumblies into Bengali, simply as a gesture of participation. The second issue of the magazine carried his first short story in Bengali along with his own illustration. That marked the beginning of a series intriguing literature primarily published in the pages of Sandesh in a Bengali that is modern, contemporary, smart, and attractive to the young and inquiring minds of children. Some of his works were also published in Anandamela, another children’s magazine in Bengali and Target, a children’s magazine in English, which was quite popular in the 1980s. The latter mostly published Ray in English translation, mostly made by himself. Some of his English translations were anthologised in Stories, published by Secker and Warburg in 1987. There are many more translations of Satyajit now available in English; those of the adventures of Feluda and Professor Shonku, and Fotikchand and many others are also published by Penguin.    

Satyajit Ray’s books were a staple to the children of the eighties in the last century. Most of us then, welcomed our teenage with the scientific adventures of Professor Shonku and those of the private investigator Prodosh Mitter alias Feluda. These books were the repository of a variety of knowledge – one emerged cleverer and better enriched after regaling oneself with the exhilarating laboratory experiments of Shonku, while on the other hand, one cajoled one’s brains with the cerebral magic of Feluda. For children like us, Ray’s identity as a filmmaker came second to his writing, as we understood less of that art in that age. In fact, his stories were a rage among our contemporaries then, and we marvelled at his plots, along with his accurate illustrations and cover designs, all of which made him a supreme artist-figure in our childhood. There were also occasions when we connected his films on children with respect to his books. Hence, the adventure tales around the ‘golden castle’ (Sonar Kella, 1974) or those around in Benaras (Joy Baba Felunath, 1978), were only a derivative of what we perused in the books of the same names.

The Ray Generation

It would, perhaps, not be wrong to say that Ray’s writing created a brand in the genre of children’s literature. As contemporary and the immediate consumers of his books, some of us identify a part of our childhood with the Ray literature. He was a master in the handling of the bizarre and the fantastic, the investigative crime thrillers and also the evolution of the science fiction. Again, Ray may not be said to be a pioneer in any of these genres, but he made them highly palatable and attractive to the young minds. One would be guilty of falsification if one does not mention Sukumar Ray himself, or Hemendrakumar Ray and Premendra Mitra, who made, perhaps, the earliest forages into the art of the bizarre, the supernatural or the sci-fi in their own times and generations.

Satyajit Ray’s repertoire as a writer for children is extensive. He is credited to have composed thirty-eight adventures of Professor Trilokeshwar Shonku. In him, Ray creates a familiar Bengali with extraordinary scholarliness who was once a teacher in Scottish Church College Kolkata, but now resides in Giridi. Although his only companions are now his valet Prahlad and pet cat Newton, he has an elaborate family history which the author creates as a back drop for his readers. Professor Shonku’s various travel destinations offer extensive scope for young minds to travel within the safety of their homes. In creating the several marvels of science Satyajit must have surely drawn extensively from the works of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells as well as The Chariot of the Gods (1968) by Erich von Dӓniken – works with which he must have been familiar ever since his childhood. Scholars also propound similarities between Professor Challenger of Arthur Conan Doyle (The Lost World) and Professor Shonku. However, there is also reason to believe that Professor Shonku has a distant antecedent in the character of Professor Hushiyar (Heshoram Hushiyerer Diary) created by Sukumar Ray. With time, of course, Shonku evolves as a more serious and responsible, internationally acclaimed scientist. Ray had also wanted to make a film on aliens, with a sound background on science fiction, but this dream remained unexecuted. The first ever film on Professor Shonku was made by his son in 2019.

The Private Investigator Mr. Prodosh C Mitter first made his appearance in the arena of Bengali detective fiction in the year 1965. The Bengali readership was already accustomed to private detectives created by Niharranjan Ray (Kiriti Ray) and Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay (Byomkesh Bakshi) before Ray launched the career of Feluda, who emerged as a highly identifiable neighbourhood man with his nephew and assistant Topshe and their elderly writer-friend Jatayu. One may again mark the presence of other detectives in contemporary literature like Kakababu (Sunil Gangopadhyay), Gogol (Samaresh Basu) and the boy group of Pandava Goyenda (created by Sasthipada Chattopadhyay), which were also available to the young readers along with the adventures of Feluda. All of them were simultaneously popular among contemporary children, although Ray scored higher because of his razor sharp intelligence and complete artistic and aesthetic package that his books offered. Some, made into films, made him the most popular among children and adults alike. Apart from his series characters like Shonku or Feluda, Ray has created a host of other characters in numerous short stories and novellas, over a period of thirty years or more. There is, quite interestingly, very little adult fiction written by Satyajit, with the exceptions of Nayak (The Hero, 1966), Kanchenjunga (1962) and Pikoo’s Diary (1980), all of which have been made into films.

Ray as Translator and maker of Children’s Films

Ray distinguished himself as a translator as well. The first major translation done by Satyajit Ray was, perhaps, those of a selection of Sukumar Ray’s Aabol Taabol (‘Nonsense Verse’, 1923). About ten such poems were translated / trans-created in the pages of a radical weekly called Now, edited by Samar Sen during 1967-69. These poems were then noticed by P. Lal of Writers Workshop, a pioneering publishing enterprise which patronised (and still does), Indian writing in English, since 1958. They were brought forth as an independent collection by this house in much admiration for Satyajit’s skill in rhyme and meter, in 1970. The edition has remained a popular one and has recently suffered alterations in the fourth corrected and expanded edition in 2019. The text is also prescribed for study in a course on Popular Literature in the undergraduate syllabus of the University of Calcutta, since 2018.

Satyajit also translated some works of Upendrakishore along with other works of Sukumar into English in various times of his career. These are now available with the translations of his own works, in a compendious edition titled 3 Rays (Penguin Books, 2021) and edited by Sandip Ray.According to Sandip Ray, these were mostly done with a view to popularise the works outside Bengal and to a larger audience, mostly as recreational activities, which Satyajit undertook between the shooting of his films.

In 1969, Satyajit Ray directed Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, a novella originally written by Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury about two rustic simpletons Goopy and Bagha and their careers in music. The occasion was the birth centenary of Upendrakishore and was a result of requests from his teenaged son Sandip, to create something for children. The film was an improvement on the literary text, and continues to be a marvel in the study of the fantastic, given the limited means with which it was produced. Satyajit introduced in the film a dance – the sequence of the ghosts’ dancing – which remains a marvel of cinematography and an example of ingenuous thinking, intelligent editing and deft execution within a limited budget. As always, Satyajit creates a family pattern for Goopy and Bagha, too. They re-appear after a hiatus of ten years in Hirok Rajar Deshe (1980). By this time, the duo has earned fame as extraordinary performers, with magical powers to transfix their listeners and with uncanny powers to unravel the mysteries of state politics. On the domestic front, they are also married to princesses as well as proud fathers.  Hirok Rajar Deshe or ‘The Land of the Diamond King’ is a study on an ugly regime of totalitarianism, where almost all are being brainwashed to worship a power hungry king. The film may be identified as a political satire under the garb of entertainment for children, where good eventually overcomes evil. Satyajit makes extensive use of fantasy and magic as well as creates a world where science is being used to destroy the good sense of people. It is the musical duo of Goopy and Bagha who re-affirm good sense and sanity in an anarchic and dystopian state. The duo returns in Goopy Bagha Phire Elo (Return of Goopy Bagha, 1991) and the setting now is influenced more by a sense of science fiction and fantasy. The last film of the trilogy was directed by Sandip Ray, who re-affirms his presence in a cyclical and metaphorical ‘coming of age’ marking himself as a filmmaker.

The cover page of the Commemorative Calendar celebrating 50 years of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne

The enormity of the Satyajit Ray papers, letters, manuscripts, posters, notebooks, sketches, as well as his film prints are now being collectively maintained and conserved by the Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives. The Society also organises regular lectures and exhibitions and looks to the publication of books on the maestro. It is significant that Penguin India has decided to dedicate a whole collection of books on Ray as ‘The Penguin Ray Library’. One must not fail to acknowledge the scholarship and hard work of his son Sandip Ray and Satyajit-scholars like Debashis Mukhopadhyay and Pinaki De, who mesmerise with their encyclopaedic knowledge on the master. The past year and half have seen innumerable lectures and scholarly interactions on Ray where the two have shone independently. The present author stands in awe of their scholarship.

( Note: All the photographs used in this article are taken by the author, except the one licensed under creative commons.)

References

  1. Frontline – ‘The World of Ray: A Commemorative Issue’, November 5, 2021
  2. Ray, Sandip (ed.). 3 Rays: Stories from Satyajit Ray. New Delhi: The Penguin Ray Library, 2021.
  3. Ray, Sandip (ed.). Sandesh. Festival Numbers 2020 and 2021. Commemorative issues on Satyajit Ray entitled ‘Satyajit 100’. Kolkata.
  4. Ray, Satyajit (trans.). Nonsense Rhymes – Sukumar Ray. Kolkata: Writers Worshop, 2019.
  5. Ray, Satyajit. Shera Satyajit. Kolkata: Ananda Publisher’s Private Limited, 1991.
  6. Robinson, Andrew. Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye – The Biography of a Master Film-Maker. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 1989.

Dr. Anasuya Bhar teaches English at St. Paul’s Cathedral Mission College Kolkata.

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Categories
Tagore Translations

A Hymn By Rabindranth

‘On This Auspicious Day’ is a trans-creation of a Brahmo hymn, Aaji Shubhodine Pitaar Bhabone, by Rabindranath Tagore. Written in 1883, this song was first published in TatwaBodhini Patrika, a magazine brought out by the splinter group from Brahmo Sabha led by Tagore’s father, Debendranath Tagore.

A Bengali Rendition of the song by Debabrata Biswas
ON THIS AUSPICIOUS DAY

On this auspicious day, let us go to our 
Father’s heavenly abode. 
Let us go. Let us go, you and I. 

The level of contentment in His blissful
Home is unfathomable to us. 

The three worlds are in ecstasy with
Festivities that spill over with joy.

Let us join the celestials singing in praise of him
Let us go there. Let us go, you and I.

Tagore like his father and grandfather was a Brahmo. The Brahmo festival, Maghotsav, is celebrated at the end of January, by the Bengali calendar on the 11th of Magh. Brahmo Samaj grew out of Brahmo Sabha. These were attempts at a reform movement on Hinduism initiated in the early part of the nineteenth century Calcutta by Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Dwarakanath Tagore, the poet’s grandfather.

(Trans-created for Borderless Journal  by Mitali Chakravarty with editorial support from Sohana Manzoor and Anasuya Bhar.)

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Categories
Review

A Discourse on ‘Freedom as Mobility’

Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra

Title: A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das (1885)

Translator: Somdatta Mandal

Publisher : Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Somdatta Mandal’s translation from Bengali to English, A Bengali Lady in England, is a first person account  of the first ever woman’s travel narrative written in the late nineteenth century when India was still under British imperial rule. Krishnabhabini Das (1864-1919) was a middle-class  Bengali lady who accompanied her husband to England for eight years between 1882 and 1890.Her narrative, England-e-Bangamahila was published in Calcutta in 1885. 

Women’s travel writing in Bengal circulated /proliferated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century through the popular form of serialized publications in journals such as Bharati (1877),  Prabasi (1901), Bangadarshan , Kalpataru, among others, but Krishnabhabini’s account was the first full length travelogue. Though there followed a rich output of travel literature, it would be a fallacy  to box the many writings as a single, homogenous genre. Travel writing in this time undergoes several generic modulations and modifications as it journeys through the turn of the century. For example, Krishnabhabini’s account could also be described as ethnographic writing  as she turns her gaze on British society, culture, customs , manners.

In addition to being a wonderful addition to the archive of women’s writing, Das’s account seems to reverse the gaze. It offers a fascinating glimpse into 19th century English life and culture, as she attempts to set the record straight in many ways. Krishnabhabini’s capacity for observation is admirable in its sociological detail, especially so when we consider that she was barely out of her teens when she wrote the book. A Bengali Lady in England also offers a wealth of ethnographic detail on English life, character, interaction between classes, marriage, attitude to work, family organisation and life.

As Krishnabashini responds to a spectrum of sights, sounds, affects during her extended stay in England, we come across many nuggets of information. The process of travel offers opportunities for emancipation where exposure to other cultures offers her a way of viewing and of gaining a perspective on her own experiences and that of her sisters in India. Krishnabhabini constantly refers to her Indian sisters and bemoans their sorry state and ignorance when she sees how active British women were in their families and societies. Her motive here is to overturn the largely negative view of British women that prevailed in colonised spaces like India, based on their view of the “memsahib” who were often stereotyped as being snobbish and indolent. Her endeavour seems to be to inform her Indian sisters that British women in England were more active than the colonial “memsahibs” they usually came across in India.

She is eloquent in lauding the virtues of British domesticity by pointing out the merits of companionate marriages, where the wife is active in being a true helpmate to her husband as well as being the custodian of the private domain. Her perception is that Indian women and men would benefit in emulating such models of domesticity, instead of remaining in segregation and separation. As the translator and editor Somdatta Mandal points out, Krishnabhabini’s opening of the veil as a means of freeing herself from the constraints of her family and society is probably the first step in “the discourse of freedom as mobility’’ that enables her to construct her own sense of self (Mandal p.xx). Though she deplores the materialism evident in English society, she is also acutely conscious of the difference between the two countries. Thus she writes, “the more I compare the two countries, the more I realise the great difference between them and looking at the poor condition of India, I keep on suffering within.”(150)       

The translation and commentary by Somdatta Mandal, a translator and academic of considerable reputation and experience, highlights Krishnabhabini’s keen and observant eye, both in her translation and her comprehensive introduction to it. Her introduction shows evidence of her scholarship as she contrasts Krishnabhabini’s narrative account with her husband, Devendra N. Das, who with “an Orientalist agenda”(Mandal xxiii) was trying to “educate his fellow Britishers with the myths, religion and lifestyle of Indians back in India-speaking about the jogee, the astrologer, the zamindars, the nautch girls, infant marriage, the matchmaker, the Hindoo widow, funeral ceremonies, et al-his wife was trying to educate fellow Indians about different aspects of British life-English race and its nature, the English lady, English marriage and domestic life, education system, religion and celebration, British trade, labour ”, cityscapes and rural life. Both the editorial commentary and Krishnabhabini’s narrative are peppered with delectable nuggets of information.       

Exposure to European literature, proliferation of print culture and ideas of romanticism percolated into the ‘Bhadralok” consciousness creating new modes of self-fashioning and new reading publics that made space for the publication of serialised travelogues . Much of the travel writing which did emerge and prove popular at this time were those authored by Hindu, upper class, western educated males, who were often renowned luminaries, scholars, or litterateurs in their own right. Several of the travel accounts are of men travelling outside India, usually to England. These works contained observations on western culture and a comparative study with India’s own. Romesh Chunder Dutt wrote Three Years in Europe: 1868- 1871, which was published in 1896. Both Rabindranath Tagore and Vivekananda authored various works on travel. An earlier account of travel writing was Bholanauth Chunder’s Travels of a Hindoo (1869) which chronicled his journey from Bengal to Punjab.

In contrast, socially sanctioned forms of travel for women till the mid nineteenth century was largely restricted to pilgrimage. However, with the advent of the railways and the opening of the Suez Canal, by the mid-nineteenth century we have instances of women, usually from educated Bengali upper-class families, travelling for entirely secular reasons—for convalescence, their husbands’ work, for leisure, or even for education. Aru Dutt and Toru Dutt went to England at around 1870 to pursue an education.

In 1871 Rajkumari Bandhopadhyay, wife of social worker Shashipada Bandopadhyay, became the first Indian woman to visit England. In 1877, Rabindranath Tagore’s sister-in -law, Jnadanandini , along with her children, travelled by ship to England to accompany her husband, Satyendranath Tagore(the first Indian ICS officer). This was against the wishes of her father-in -law, Maharshi Debendranath Tagore. In each of these instances, the act of travelling to a foreign land was deemed sacrilegious and transgressive, with the women facing extreme social backlash and, in the case of Rajkumari Bandyopadhyay, ostracisation. However, these acts set the way for further instances of travel, and more importantly, written accounts for the same. In 1894 Jagatmohini Debi set sail for England, and in 1902 published Seven Months in England (England e Saat Mash).

Krishnabhabini’s work is indeed a pioneering effort as far as Bengali women’s documentation of their travels, at home or abroad, are concerned. Yet her travel to England came at a personal cost; she had to leave her daughter behind with her conservative in-laws, resulting in lifelong estrangement. However, what ultimately makes this book unique it the quality of its specularity, its simultaneous awareness  of the self and other. It is this quality of self-consciousness or self-reflexivity which makes it  truly a  text of modernity.

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Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor of English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development in several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender, literature and feminist theory.       

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Categories
Travel

Planes, Trains & Automobiles

I should like to rise and go
Where the golden apples grow;—
Where below another sky
Parrot islands anchored lie...

-- Travel, RL Stevenson (1850-1894)

December is often a time when we look forward to a vacation and travel. Through the pandemic ravaged years, moving out of the house itself had become a challenge. Now as the world opens up slowly (hopefully the Omicron variant of the virus will be more benign), travel stretches its limbs to awaken to a new day with new trends and rules. Borderless invites you to savour of writing that takes you around the world with backpackers, travellers, hikers, sailors and pirates — fantastical, imaginary or real planned ones in a post-pandemic world. Enjoy!

Poetry

In the Honduran Dusk

Lorraine Caputo takes us on a visit to a small Garífuna village on Honduras’ Caribbean coast. Click here to read.

The Voyages of Caracatus Gibbon

Rhys Hughes time travels back to the first century voyaging vicariously with his imagination and a Welsh king who resisted Roman invasion. Click here to read.

Pirate Blacktarn gets Lost

Have you ever got lost while traveling like Pirate Blacktarn? Who can help the pirate find his way… Narrated by Jay Nicholls, click here to read.

Classics

Travel & Holidays: Humour from Rabindranath

Do you enjoy babysitting nieces, nephews on trips and have you ever traveled with ‘hundreds of pieces of luggage, a few coolies, five women and only one man’? Tagore did. Somdatta Mandal translates hilarious writings from young Tagore on travel. Click here to read.

The Witch

Travel through Bengal with Shorodhoni, a woman dubbed a ‘Daini’ or witch, in her quest to find a home in Aruna Chakravarti’s translation of Tarasankar Bandhopadhyay’s poignant story. Click here to read.

Gliding down the Silk Road

“Stories that tell us about human lives and human emotions highlight one simple thing: Humans are the same everywhere.” That is what Ratnottama Sengupta concludes as she vicariously travels through the famed route from the past. Click here to read.

Around the World

Antarctica

Click here to read Keith Lyon’s travels in Antarctica and savour the photographs he clicked.

Adventures of a Backpacking Granny

Sybil Pretious takes you on her adventures that start at sixty years of age with photographs and narration.

St Petersburg, Russia

Click here to read.

Mount Kiliminjaro

Click here to read.

Lake Baikal in Siberia

Click here to read.

Baoying, Rural China

Click here to read.

Volcanic Lake Toba. Photo Courtesy: Sybil Pretious

Philippines, Volcanoes & More

Click here to read.

Indonesia

Click here to read

Myanmar

Click here to read John Herlihy’s exhilaration with Myanmar in a pre-pandemic world in four-parts.

Australia

Click here to read Meredith Stephens’ sailing experiences between Adelaide and Kangaroo island.

Pandemic Diaries

Click here to read how Sunil Sharma moved continents, pausing in Maldives to find a new home in Canada.

Categories
Review

Letters between Tagore & Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis 

Book Review by Himadri Lahiri

Title: ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore

Translator/Editor: Somdatta Mandal; Foreword by Dipesh Chakrabarty.

Publisher: Bolpur: Birutjatiya Sammiloni.

Memoirs and correspondences constitute two alternative sources for reconstructing historical narratives. Generally kept outside the pale of mainstream history, memoirs, such as those included in the volume under review, can offer significant insights into the reading of important public figures and their activities. Despite the charges of ‘unreliability’ of memories with the help of which personal narratives are constructed, memoirs contribute to the understanding of a historical period with the help of small, apparently insignificant, details which can offer penetrating insights into reality. Personal correspondences with a public figure, preserved in family archives, too may contain interesting facts, figures and episodes which may help constructing their lives and recreating the social and intellectual environment of the time. Due to their very subjective nature, which mostly flouts the norms of objectivity, these genres may provide unique dimensions to the familiar historical narratives.

Somdatta Mandal’s book ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore (2020), selected, translated and edited by her, is an important source, particularly for non-Bengali readers, for comprehending Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Prize winning poet from Bengal who continues in global limelight. It unearths hitherto unknown facts, some activities of ‘small’ actors who played a role in history and ‘trivial’ details which help us view Rabindranath Tagore and his contemporaries from fresh perspectives.  Written from an informed woman’s point of view, the narratives offer us opportunities for discovering ‘the lighter’ and homelier aspects of Tagore’s life – this is something “which is sorely missed in other serious narratives and biographies” (Mandal xvii).

The publication of this book is timely for yet another reason. Tagore’s tirade against fascism, unfettered authoritarianism, aggressive nationalism and his advocacy for personal freedom, national independence, universal humanism and global understanding have much relevance in our times. Reading Kobir Shonge Europey (With the Poet in Europe, 1969) in particular, one understands how a public figure with an impeccable record of liberal philosophical practices and humanist activities can be duped by the machination of fascist agents and utilised for fascist propaganda to the consternation of liberal intellectuals and common citizens across the world. For this very reason we need Tagore more than ever before. This is a point strongly emphasised by historian Dipesh Chakrabarty in his ‘Foreword’ to the book.

‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’ anthologises English translation of two memoirs of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis — Kobir Shongey Dakshinatte (With the Poet in the South) and Kobir Shongey Europey (With the Poet in Europe). The European tour took place in 1926 while Tagore travelled to South India and Ceylon in 1928. In her valuable Introduction to the book, Mandal raises the question of difficulty of determining the genre of the narratives. These are, according to her, not just memoirs, they are travelogues as well. Through them, one gets the feeling of following the trajectory of the author’s journey. But a reader also feels how Rani’s journey, along with her husband, revolves round an iconic personality whom they revered and valued. From this point of view, the memoirs often read like hagiographies as well.

In addition to these two memoirs, the anthology includes Pathe O Pather Prante (On the Road and Beyond It),a collection of sixty letters Tagore wrote to Nirmalkumari whom he affectionately called Rani. In the Appendices, we find three other articles on Tagore written by Nirmalkumari: “Om Pita Nohosi,” “Tamaso Ma Jyotirgamaya,” and an essay written for children and originally published in Anandamela, a children’s magazine published by the Anandabazar Patrika. All these make the book voluminous and largely comprehensive. It may be mentioned here that Mandal has recently translated and edited another volume on Tagore entitled The Last Days of Rabindranth Tagore in Memoirs (April 2021). It includes memoirs by Pratima Thakur, Rani Chanda, Maitrayei Devi, Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis, and Amita Thakur.

Interestingly, all these memoirs were written by women who either belonged to the Tagore family or were in close contact with the poet. Dipesh Chakrabarty, in the ‘Foreword’ to Kobi  and Rani, raises the issue of his “friendship with women that Tagore sought and sustained throughout his life” (iv), and mentioned in this context the names of Ranu Adhikari, Maitreyi Devi, Hemantabala Devi and Kadambari Devi. He observes that “a feeling of respectful affection and concern for the poet finds a deeply gendered and womanly expression in this book. It oozes out of each page” (iv). The above statement is true of The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs too. Taken together, these two anthologies provide a very intimate and comprehensive account of one of the greatest poets of our time.

Tagore felt the need for recording the accounts of his travels in writing. That would be, in his opinion, a valuable source of literary and historical information in future. He was particularly sensitive about his European tour during which he met several well-known intellectuals. In the ‘Introduction’ to On the Road and Beyond It, he asserts, “the value of the narration of my European tour that has not been published anywhere is enormous” (391). Similarly, Tagore said in the Foreword to With the Poet in the South, “They [the details of his tour] should not be lost” (317). This sense of preservation of history is also present in Kobir Shonge Europey (With the poet in Europe). Here in the ‘Foreword’, Rani notes that Tagore, in a letter published in Prabasi, complained, “Those who had accompanied me during my foreign travel did not take the responsibility of protecting my travelogue, and that is why this chapter remains unknown to people, etc.” (3). As both her ‘Foreword’ and Prasantachandra Mahalanobis’s ‘Preface’ to the same memoir indicate, it was clearly the result of a misunderstanding for which Tagore apologised later.

The history of this misunderstanding goes deeper. The couple suspected the involvement of some insider in the loss of the file containing the manuscript of the despatches sent by Prasantachandra from Europe for publication in Visva-Bharati Bulletin. The file containing Nirmalkumari’s letters were also lost. Although retrieved afterwards, some valuable letters were never found.  Rani narrates in detail how the tour to Europe was mired in controversy and conspiracy right from the beginning. Rani’s narrative convincingly proves that Professor Guiseppe Tucci and Professor Carlo Formichi, two visiting professors at Visva-Bharati, functioned as Mussolini’s spies.

They were instrumental in Tagore being invited to Italy by Mussolini. Formichi who oversaw the arrangements of the tour conspired to exclude the Mahalanobis couple from the entourage. He also severely censored the list of Tagore’s visitors in Italy. How Benedetto Croce could meet Tagore with the help of Captain Rapicavoli reads like a detective story. Formichi wilfully misinterpreted Tagore’s messages to the press to create an impression that Tagore supported Mussolini’s fascist regime. The twisted versions were published in newspapers, and these spread across Europe, misrepresenting Tagore’s views.

When Tagore met Romain Rolland in Switzerland, Rolland was initially not well-disposed to Tagore because of the fake news stories in circulation. Nirmalkumari records all the details of Formichi’s machination in Kobir Shonge Europey (With the Poet in Europe). For this alone, if not for anything else, this book will provide invaluable materials to historians and common readers alike.

Although the narrative of the poet’s European tour will be of paramount interest particularly to non-Bengali readers who will try to visualize the poet from the East in the maelstrom of radical politics in Europe and to place him in the interface of East-West cultural encounter, his tour of Southern India will be of immense importance to readers intent on knowing the background history of two of his important novels Jogajog (Relationships) and Sesher Kobita (The Last Poem). This is provided in Kobir Shonge Dakshinatte (With the Poet in the South) which also brings to public knowledge intimate details such as how Tagore was affected by the Jalianwalla Bag killings, and how his interaction with Chittaranjan Das went on, C.F. Andrews’ meeting with Mahatma Gandhi as Tagore’s emissary, how intensely engaged Tagore himself had been in writing Lipika and so on. Tagore felt that all these should be preserved as “very important historical documents” (317). The poet’s meeting with Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry is also an important part of the memoir.

Trivial but amusing incidents such as the idiosyncrasies of C.F. Andrews, Tagore’s own obsessions and childlike behaviour – all come out with a touch of humour. These correspond to Rani’s power of observation and sense of humour evident in the descriptions in Kobir Shonge Europey (With the Poet in Europe). She describes how a fancy dress ball was arranged aboard the ship Orama which took the Mahalanobis couple to Europe (36), how Rani was initially afraid of a large shark swimming on the water near Port Said (37), how Rani and her female companions, dressed in typical Indian attires and decked with heavy ornaments, became a public spectacle in Naples (39-40), how the unhygienic packaging of chocolates in Turin caused repulsion in Rani (70), and several other incidents.

Mandal has done well by including On the Road and Beyond It, Tagore’s collection of sixty letters, in the volume. Tagore wrote these letters to Rani after his return from Europe. He observes in the ‘Introduction’ to the collection, “I continued to keep our relationship alive through letters” (390-91). It, therefore, is intimately connected in spirit with the memoir With the Poet in Europe. The letters, the best medium for conveying emotional exuberance, testify to Tagore’s great affection for, and dependence on, Rani.

The book includes some black and white photographs of important persons and places. Two images of the first edition of Bangla Pathe O Pather Prante (On the Road and Beyond It) have found their place in the anthology. Mandal’s criteria for selection of texts are quite appropriate, her translation is smooth and editing praiseworthy. Her erudite Introduction will help the readers contextualising the texts included in the volume. The paratextual components of the book are aesthetically pleasing. On the whole, the production of the book is superb. This volume will be a valuable resource for Tagore Studies.

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Himadri Lahiri is former Professor of English, University of Burdwan, West Bengal. Currently, he is Professor of English at the School of Humanities, Netaji Subhas Open University, Kolkata. Asia Travels: Pan-Asian Cultural Discourses and Diasporic Asian Literature/s in English (Bolpur: Birutjatiyo Sahitya Sammiloni, 2021) and Diaspora Theory and Transnationalism (Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, 2019) are his latest books. He writes book reviews for academic journals and newspapers. He also writes poetry.

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Categories
Essay

Tagore and Guru Nanak’s Vision

By Parneet Jaggi

Debendranath Tagore frequently visited Amritsar to pay obeisance at Shri Harimandir Sahib and also while on his way to Dalhousie hills for a summer retreat. He even spent a couple of months to learn Gurmukhi from the qualified teachers (Granthis) so that he could read and recite Gurbani (or the hymns of Guru) in original. Sikhism, being a monotheistic faith induced eagerness in him to gain the insights gifted by the ten Gurus.

Rabindranath Tagore accompanied his father, Debendranath, to Amritsar in 1872. This impacted his later writings. In his Jibansmriti, he mentions having a deep impact that the recitation of verses of Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh religious scripture) had on his mind. These recitations are said to have impacted the practice of recitation of Brahmo religious texts and the singing of Brahmo Sangeet at Shantiniketan.  As he witnessed the internal contradictions within the Indian society in his mature years, he turned more towards concepts of universal love, equality and unity preached by the poet saints, who had been allotted a revered place in Guru Granth Sahib. Many of his lectures like Seattle lectures (1916), Hibbert Lectures (1930), Kamla lectures (1933) mentioned Guru Nanak and Kabir for their words of unifying the nation by eradicating the ills of the caste-driven society.

Tagore believed that Guru Nanak’s vision envisioned a casteless, discrimination free society, which was a perfect model for carving out a new nation in India. His father encouraged him to read, understand and gain wisdom from gurbani. Rabindranath translated a few hymns from Gurmukhi to Bengali. As a teenager, he rendered into Bengali, several hymns (pauris) from the Japji, part of Guru Granth Sahib, some of which would then be sung at the Sunday prayer of Brahmo Samaj. One of the more famous translations is that of the Arti, a hymn that is part of the Sohila baani or Sikh bedtime prayers. It can be found in the fourth volume of the birth-centenary edition of Rabindrarachanavali.

 “Gagan mein thaal rav chand dipak bane, tarika mandal janak moti,

 The sky is puja thaal (platter used for the artis), in which sun and moon are the diyas (lamps), the stars in the constellations are the   jewels

dhoop malyanlo pavan chavro kare sagal banraye phulant joti,

The wind, laden with sandal-wood fragrance, is the celestial   fan/

 kaisi arti  hoye bhav khandna teri arti.”    (Guru Granth Sahib)

All the flowering fields, forests are radiance! What wonderful worship this is, oh! Destroyer of fear, this is your arti (prayer)!

Many other writings of Tagore substantiate his urge for a moral regeneration by following the wisdom of these saints. He read Janamsakhis that contained stories about the lives of the Sikh Gurus and the historical accounts of their lifetimes, and he wrote these stories in Bengali in the youth magazine Balak. The first of these was published in 1885 as ‘Kajer Lok ke’ (Bengali , meaning ‘For the Man who Works’) on the life of Guru Nanak. It unravelled the faqir in the temperament of Guru Nanak in contrast to the businessman-like character of his father who gave him some money to do a sacha sauda (a fair trade). Guru Nanak spent the whole amount on feeding hungry sadhus or mendicants and discussing the mysteries of the universe with them. He further narrates Nanak’s experiences at Sultanpur Lodhi and his travels and extensive tours to distant places like Haridwar, Mecca, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and some more which he could access by walking to spread his message. Guru Nanak settled at Kartarpur in the later years of his life, living the life of a farmer. Tagore’s views coincided with this role model of Nanak who pursued his mystical goals while leading the life of a householder as he himself found his image of mangal (well- being of all) and kalyan (universal good) in universal love and doing good to all.  

His next engagement was with the lives of Sikh martyrs and significantly with Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru. But he initiated his contribution to Bengali literature for children and youth in Balak  with a marked influence of Guru Nanak, his life and writings. Tagore realized that Guru Nanak’s disapproval of idolatory and his monotheism had stirred the elders of the Brahmo Samaj but that idealism would not touch children’s hearts. They would respond to a more lucid account in informal language. 

In the last paragraph of ‘Kajer Lok ke’, he tells his young readers: “The Sikhs whom you see around you today, men of sturdy built, handsome countenance, tough strength and unflinching courage, are the sishyas (disciples) of Baba Nanak.   There were no   Sikhs before Nanak. It was   his noble personality   and sublime spirituality    that brought   this race into existence. It   is through   his teachings that their   temper is fearless, they keep their heads erect, and their character and countenance are brightened with magnanimity” (Rabindra Rachanabali, vol.XV, trans. Amalendu Bose).

Today in times of uncertainty, proliferation of data-knowledge that lacks practical and spiritual wisdom, and the deadly pandemic, the world needs this vision of oneness of Guru Nanak and the inclusiveness of Tagore, who embraced everything that would work for the well-being of the individual and the nation, irrespective of any disparities and anomalies. The readiness to accept, imbibe and disseminate the best has been the quintessential attribute of Tagore.

Parneet Jaggi is Associate Professor of English, poet, critic, author of the historical fiction (co-authored) The Call of the Citadel.  She was declared ‘Poet of the Year 2019’ and ‘Critic of the Year 2019’ by Destinypoets, UK. 

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Categories
Essay

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.

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

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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.

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Categories
Tagore Translations

Tagore Translations: One Small Ancient Tale

Rabindranath Tagore’s Ekti Khudro Puraton Golpo (One Small Ancient Tale, written in September 1893) from his collection Golpo Guchcho ( literally, a bunch of stories, constituted of 95 short stories, published in five volumes between 1908-1909), translated by Nishat Atiya

Golpo Guchcho by Tagore

I am meant to start another story — a brand new one — aren’t I? It can be tiring at times, you see. I mean, truly.

I look back but can hardly remember who offered me the position and why. It was five of you who arrived in perfect synchrony one after another; and still, it is a mystery to me as to why I was the vassal of your keen interest in the first place and what made you choose me to carry this Daedalian of a métier as if it was nothing short of a child’s play? I wonder … and conclude that it must have been destiny itself to command your kindness in my direction and though minute and mortal, the endeavor is pursued with the same fervour now as it was in the beginning. At least I am inclined to imagine it thus.

Nevertheless, with due regard to the learned quintet, I would venture to propose that this grave burden does not quite suit the small and cowering casket that I am. Whether or not the individual in question here possesses the writerly tenacity required to prove true to his split-self, that is a different matter altogether, for I was created merely as a biological being with his infirmities ad infinitum. No amount of iron mantlets could persuade me otherwise. Therefore, to have to endure the overwhelming voices of elation from my readers is a mere torture as it was ordained by God that I will find peace in stillness. My very being breathes and lives that secrecy, the hour of glorious quietude. But I do recall my grandfather pushing me into the limelight of a fully packed theatre show (perhaps by divine irony or just a random set of occurrences), swaying lightly back and forth as he failed to muffle the waves of sneaky laughter that managed to slip through the fingers pressed tightly against his lips. I wanted to be a part of the audience as well and laugh at myself to fulfill the historical obligation of a fool, but could not.

I wondered if hiding was a probable option, of course. But that would be an attempt in vain, for when a paid soldier pledges to attend the frontline and is expected to perform as an active entrant, the fading comfort he might be enjoying in a no man’s land can turn out to be the very weapon ready to come back and interrupt his otherwise innocuous impulse to simply flee and survive. It will be a pleasant change of subject for once to hope that the Supreme Being knows better and since He does, perhaps it makes more sense if we comply and we comply diligently, with proper devotion and finesse.

It is my duty to entertain people from all walks of life who come and visit their storyteller of choice before they say polite goodbyes, exchanging sweet glances or occasional intellectual swordplay. They recognise me with great admiration which, nonetheless, is an episodic pretense play followed by a devious delight of unknown origin and an artful dismissal of what once used to be alluring but now is démodé. It’s only the way of the world and indeed, this is the primary reason behind auxiliaries of an apparatus denouncing the king component of all routine affairs called “commonality” and its questionable amusement principle. The sense that is common, thus, runs the risk of becoming suspicious and eventually, an easy prey for exploitation. And yet, the cascade of men begging or pleading for a story of ‘one’s own’ does not stop, making it tough for me to not believe that ultimately what I write becomes an end product of their imagination, not mine.

That being so, you can stop for a while if you want. Neither the tale will tire, nor shall I look for a desperate sparkle in your eyes. That is a promise.

If I am asked, however, a most ancient and quick airy storyline spread about the cosmos I do remember. It might not suit your fine palate at first but will definitely tempt you just enough to stay till the brief chain of charming events ends.

There was once an enormous woodland along the coast-side of a mighty waterway. A woodpecker and a snipe used to live there in separate abodes, the former inside the forest and the latter across a rivulet nearby.

Once the world was lush and fructuous, the feathered friends would be well-fed and pleased. Sublunary benefactions would gratify their appetite and to their relief, it had seemed as if their heydays were never to end.

Yet came a day when they found no mites, mosquitoes or any other vermin.

The bird by the riverbank addressed the one on the bough, “Brother mine, it all seemed particularly robust and radiant at first, didn’t it? The sparkle of life in its green folioles and soft hibiscus! But now that the times have changed this little realm of ours has never been more sterile and lifeless, revealing its hideous face once and for all.”

The bird on the bough replied to the one by the riverbank, “Brother mine, remember how they would praise to the skies about our once-splendid habitat and all it had to offer us? Even if you do, I say the wasteland is quite unforgiving and has been as such ever since it came into existence.”

Both felt it mandatory to prove that their mutual observation was true. Thereby, they immediately undertook an exploration of their respective territories which they felt were their personal possessions. First, the snipe dived deep into the murky purlieu of the earth and began to excavate long trenches inside its soft bosoms, desperate to verify his conviction about his ‘private property’ or so to speak, its ill-health. Likewise, the woodpecker on the other end of the forest kept drilling into the firm skin of tree trunks so their bare skeletons would unfold even an emptier stomach underneath.

Fully immersed in their common passionate goal, these disruptors of different feathers were unmindful of the greater confrontation awaiting them ahead — being songbirds and not singing. Consequently, as the springtime came and took over a dreary winter of discontent to replace it with florae and faunae of all sorts or nightingales recounting shared moments of ecstasy, the birds of woe continued their mournful quest for an imaginary resolution. The mute passerines thus pursued a shadowy sphere that neither existed nor surely expired.

I can go on, but you did not quite develop a liking for this one, did you? Perhaps, the story is not one of those kinds that you would easily find admirable after all. But the biggest virtue of it, you wonder? Well, a neatly finished exquisite product within five to seven paragraphs ready to be preserved in the pages of human history, which is mind-blowing in and of itself if you ask me!

Wait, you don’t even believe that the story is ancient and always has been so as evidenced in our blood, do you? Well, it is not entirely unlikely for one to have frequent amnesiac attacks as the very humanized notion of historicity has been exchanging the old with the new and the new with the old from times immemorial. Also, a great many days have passed since then. Not to mention, the ungrateful woodpecker has been carrying on his duty, causing significant damage to the earth’s interior by pecking holes into its subastral surface, whereas the ruthless snipe also can be found to enjoy invading the privacy of the aged planet and its mysterious watercourses. Both are trapped, indeed. Both are lost in their own ways.

Now, what’s the concrete tone of happiness or loss one can identify in this sort of authorial technicality, you ask? If you look closely you will find both in each other’s warm embrace, whispering sweet nothings in a magical melody. It does not matter whether or not the gargantuan universe has a tendency to connect humanities across borders, for what is more important is to understand the sheer delight the snipes across the world might acquire on a daily basis by hammering on the ground, happy to change into a parasite and manage meager meals once or twice a day. On the other hand, a small and seemingly ineffective glimmer of hope beacons forth as we dream of a better future, provided that green patches and pastures are somehow still around the cold and distant city dwellers who consider stomping on organisms a certified hobby. To conclude, a moment of silence for those unfortunates that envy and resent with no chance of redemption — and to catastrophize more — not a single living soul knows that they ever really existed!

I dread to assume correctly that you did not understand a single word of this garbled set of whimsies and whispers. I can only predict that someday soon, the impregnable walls of nothingness will crack into pieces, leaving only a trail of a void behind. Give yourself some time and see if you can come back to the story again, will you?

All in all, is it just as meaningless as I feared it would be? Is it a terrible beauty waiting to be reborn this way?

I guess time will tell.

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Nishat Atiya is a Lecturer in the Department of English and Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh, Dhaka. She is also a sub-editor at the Star Literature and Review pages of The Daily Star.

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A Tale of Devotion and Sacrifice as Opposed to Jealousy and Tyranny

Sohana Manzoor explores the social relevance of a dance drama by Tagore, Natir puja

Quite a few of Rabindranath Tagore’s dance dramas and poems develop around the idea of Buddhist philosophy that induces people to lead a simple life, to gain an understanding of the injustice and inequality prevailing in society, and to acquire knowledge and develop a deeper insight into the universe. Such a major problem reflected in Tagore’s work is the class and caste system of the Indian society.

It would be relevant to recall that one reason that Gautama or Buddha left home is because he recognised that the traditional religions practiced during his time were unable to absolve the dissatisfaction and frustration that abound in life. The class and caste system that divided and segregated people troubled him deeply. Little wonder that all the principal religions of the world rose for emancipation of people from such bondages.

Unfortunately, the corrupt human heart does not allow such practices to go unhindered. Even though at the root of any religious faith there is a high ideal to free people from evil practices and oppression, they also are used as ideological weapons to control mankind. In every age, therefore, figures like Christ and Buddha rise to remind humanity that there is a law beyond the one practiced through selfishness and pettiness of everyday life. Hence, peace and faith are required to be restored at the price of a sacrifice that shows the significance of selfless love, the futility of social class and caste. Actually, the truth is ever present, but sometimes it just takes one act to see that there is a truth higher than all the material wealth one can ever accumulate.

Tagore explored various perspectives of Buddhism in many of his works. Malini, Chandalika and Natir Puja are three dance dramas that deal with this theme. Natir Puja (Devotion of the Court-Dancer) has at its centre the pure soul of a mere dance-girl who is jeered at as a fallen woman, and who considers herself unworthy of even attending to the words of Buddha. But her humility reflects one of the core ideals of Buddhism and she is called upon by the devout followers of Buddha to perform the rituals of a priestess before the altar of Buddha. In the process, her devotion is preferred over the offerings of the royal princesses some of whom feel insulted.

One of them, the princess Ratnavali, takes measures to punish the court-dancer by throwing a choice before her — either to dance in front of the altar as an affront to Buddha, or to face death. The dance-girl Srimati accepts the royal order of dancing before the altar, but she succeeds in revealing herself as a devout follower of Buddha and embraces death. The storyline also focuses on the nature of the faith of Buddhism through the figure of Lokeswari, the wife of the former King, Bimbisar. Lokeswari’s only son Chitro had left home to follow the path of Buddha, and his mother, who used to be a follower of Buddha, emerges as a frenzied woman. She cannot accept that her only son had left home, and her husband renounced the throne when another son Ajatsatru wanted to be the King. For the first time in her life, she questions the validity of a belief that might want human beings to renounce all their precious possessions.

Through an intricate series of events Natir Puja unfolds and delves into several significant aspects of human dilemma. First, through the figure of Srimati and Lokeswari, the nature of devotion is explored. Second, the problem of caste system is brought out through characters such as Ratnavali who cannot accept that a lower caste man or woman could be considered more pious than the royal followers in the eyes of God. Third, that the gravest sinner could seek forgiveness and repentance is always a possibility.

Natir Puja is a tale elaborated from another longer poem by Tagore titled, “Pujarini” (The Worshipper). At the centre of both tales stands Srimoti, who claims to be “Buddher dashi,” or a handmaiden of Buddha. The term “dashi” should not be considered derogatory here but one that focuses on the nature of humility in Buddhism. The meaning of “Buddha” is teacher and in the traditional Vedic ideology, a teacher claims the highest status in society. Therefore, the chance of serving the teacher is indeed a privilege. And as Srimoti says, “My days of false modesty are over. I would not sing falsely, but you did not grasp what your eyes witnessed.” She points out how the faithful see and hear with their heart. The eyes might see, but they would not always recognise what they perceive.

Lokeswari, on the other hand, reminisces how once she was an ardent follower of Buddha, but it becomes clear from her words that she had thought more of distinction than salvation. And yet, Buddha preached freedom from avidya (darkness of ignorance and limiting of consciousness). A man living the life of avidya, spends his life in a spiritual slumber. Therefore, devotion to Buddha requires spiritual awakening, which Lokeswari fails to comprehend. Her very name, Lokeswari, actually suggests her dilemma — the Queen of the World — and naturally, she could not give up the ownership of the materialistic world. In the end, however, Lokeswari realises her error of judgment, and honours Srimoti’s sacrifice. After all, Srimoti is able to show that for faith and truth one should be ready to offer the highest price, one’s own life if necessary.

As a court-dancer, Srimoti might have received a lot of attention, but her position is still that of a high-class courtesan. There are quite a few references where the royal family members make fun of her. Even the elderly Queen Lokeswari scoffs at the idea that Srimoti might turn out to be a priestess of Buddha and the princesses will be her attendants: “Disciple of this dancing girl! That’s what will happen indeed! Now it’s up to the fallen woman to arise with words of salvation.”

From the onset, the Princess Ratnavali, too, makes fun of the calm and quiet nature of Srimoti who is frequently affronted by the princesses but rarely replies. It is almost as if Ratnavali senses her superior nature and takes her to task by insulting her in whatever way possible. The situation escalates when Srimoti is honoured by the Buddhist monks. At that point, Ratnavali makes snide remarks about the Bhikkhu Upali born of a barber family, or Sunado, the son of a milkman, or Sunit, an untouchable. She forgets that Buddhism is a faith that nullifies class and caste system. Her words also reveal that human psychology is deeply steeped in pettiness, jealousy and arrogance, and it takes sufferings and remorse to do away with them.

So, we come to the last point—the theme of repentance and forgiveness. The figure of Lokeswari is an everyman or woman. She is not an evil person, but nor is she convinced by the words of the bhikkhuni who attempts to make her see that there is a difference between the value of gold and that of the light. In today’s world this is where most of us stand. The materialistic ideology has taken over the ethical and philosophical aspects of life. As a result, we keep on asking for more and there is no end to our craving. In the process of worshipping Mammon, we overlook humanity and humility. We not only forget to look at the sufferings of other, but we choose to ignore them. Lokeswari’s humanity returns to her when Srimoti prepares to dance in front of Buddha’s altar. She offers her poison so that she dies before committing a sin. And when, Srimoti unfolds through her dancing that she never meant to insult Buddha but to honour him, once again Lokeswari joins her in reciting,

Buddham saranam gacchami
(I submit to the Buddha for refuge)

Dhammam saranam gacchami
(I submit to the Dhamma for refuge)

Sangham saranam gacchami
(I submit to the Sangha for refuge.)

Even the Princess Ratnavali, who had insulted Srimoti earlier and is responsible for bringing out the royal order, finally kneels down before the dead body of the dance-girl to pay respect. The play ends with Ratnavali chanting the words of Buddha. 

Tagore’s dance drama has played out beautifully to bring out a historical aspect of the Indian culture. The story of Bimbisar and his son Ajatsatru may not have been represented the way history records it, but the tale certainly brings out the tension and the hostility that poison the world at every age. The corrupt and selfish human heart tends to assume that property and wealth hold the key to success and happiness, but ends up in welcoming segregation, arrogance and jealousy. So, should we consider love, affection and sacrifice as mere human follies, or should we abandon the idealistic notions and consider wealth and control as our ultimate gain? Perhaps, the answer lies in the wasteland of our postmodern civilization, which has already sacrificed or butchered its saviours and is still waiting to be atoned.

Sohana Manzoor is Associate Professor, Department of English & Humanities, ULAB. She is also the literary Editor of The Daily Star, Bangladesh. This essay was first published in The Daily Star.

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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 2,000 years ago. 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 into 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.

 In 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 between the West and the East. India seeped into the cultural experiences of either of the two worlds. History and society can be viewed in many different ways. As E. M. Forster suggests in his essay ‘Art for Art’s Sake’, 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 that emerge organically. 

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 non-violence 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 worldview 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 ‘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’, Tolstoy 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 (in October, 1909) 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 for his letter to Das and his approval to print 20,000 copies for distribution and having it translated to Indian languages. 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 Tolstoy to Gandhi. Thiruvalluvar was a legendary Tamil poet who lived sometime 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 Muhammad, 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 as the ‘Naked Fakir’, but who went on to become the Father of a Nation.

Beyond the influence of Tolstoy  — and we need to frame this in the context of the Cold War that was to commence soon after the assassination of Gandhi—the other major influence on Gandhi came from 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 Bhagavad Gita, as was Gandhi. Gandhi was significantly influenced by Thoreau’s experiments and ideas. Gandhi, to correct the misperceptions (thanks to the British media) in the American mind about the Indian freedom struggle, wrote a letter (on October 3rd, 1942, while travelling to Bombay from Wardha, where the Congress had just held a session in which it had urged the British to withdraw from India in the interest of the Allied cause) that was to be sent via the India league, ‘To American Friends’. He wrote, very cleverly invoking Thoreau to buttress India’s cause (having already written separately to Roosevelt on the issue): “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 crystallised 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 on to influence Martin Luther 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 Walt Whitman’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 ‘Kobi 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 meet and know about in London was Stopford A Brooke[4]. 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. Rothenstein recounts that while addressing his English audience, Tagore 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; trans. 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 Brahmo 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 (Kolkata now). The Scottish missionary to India, Alexander Duff, remembers students in Henry Derozio’s (poet and assistant headmaster of Hindu College) 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 evoke 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 translation, 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 lyrics. 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 anothologised by Thomas Moore (1779–1852) and based on ‘Maid of the Valley’. Tagore’s songs ‘Ohe Dayamoy’ and ‘Aha aji e basante’ 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 came 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.  

Both Gandhi and Tagore were closely allied to the cause of India’s independence from colonial rule, and they were, therefore required to shape their thoughts and philosophy to serve certain political ends. Notwithstanding this monumental obligation that history chose to rest on their ever-exploring minds, they strove for an imaginative space “Where the world has not been broken up into fragments / By narrow domestic walls.” Both were deeply devoted to the idea of the Indian nation, but not by having to pay the price of a severed humanity. Most significantly they filtered ideas from great minds from around the world, allowing themselves to be suffused by the thoughts of distant thinkers, while also imbuing those thoughts with the inflection of their own greatness. Reading Einstein’s conversations with Tagore, you realise two things. Small things can separate small minds. When it comes to truly big minds, there is little that can separate them.

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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