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Sriniketan: Tagore’s “Life Work”

In Conversation with Professor Uma Das Gupta, Tagore scholar, author of A History of Sriniketan: Rabindranath Tagore’s Pioneering work in Rural Reconstruction published by Niyogi Books, 2022

Tagore (1861-1941) has been celebrated as one of the greatest poets of the world, a great philosopher, a writer, an artist, a polyglot but what did the maestro himself perceive as his greatest ‘life work’?

He wrote: “My path, as you know, lies in the domain of quiet integral action and thought, my units must be few and small, and I can but face human problems in relation to some basic village or cultural area. So, in the midst of worldwide anguish, and with the problems of over three hundred millions staring us in the face, I stick to my work in Santiniketan and Sriniketan hoping that my efforts will touch the heart of our village neighbours and help them in reasserting themselves in a new social order. If we can give a start to a few villages, they would perhaps be an inspiration to some others—and my life work will have been done.” This was in a letter in 1939 to an agricultural scientist, Leonard Elmhirst (1893-1974), who helped him set up Sriniketan, a craft and agricultural development project for the villages which fell under the purview of the Tagore family zamindari.

To Tagore, his ‘life work’ lay in the welfare of humankind and poetry was just one of the things he did, like breathing. He told a group of writers, musicians, and artists, who were visiting Sriniketan in 1936: “The picture of the helpless village which I saw each day as I sailed past on the river has remained with me and so I have come to make the great initiation here. It is not the work for one, it must involve all. I have invited you today not to discuss my literature nor listen to my poetry. I want you to see for yourself where our society’s real work lies. That is the reason why I am pointing to it over and over again. My reward will be if you can feel for yourself the value of this work.”

Uma Das Gupta

These are all incidents woven into a book called A History of Sriniketan by historian and Tagore biographer, Uma Das Gupta, who did her post-doctoral research on the maestro and the history of the educational institutions he founded at Santiniketan and Sriniketan. She moved out of Oxford and pursued her studies in Calcutta. She has highlighted Tagore uniquely as an NGO (Non-governmental organisation) operator and also an educator. Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016) in her book Our Santiniketan, recently translated by Radha Chakravarty, focussed on his role mainly as an educator who sought to revive values, a love for nature along with rigorous academics to create thinkers and change makers like the author herself.

A History of Sriniketan is about his work among villagers to bridge gaps. Often, his poetry and writing expresses the empathy he felt for pain and suffering, his need to instil beauty and well-being into humankind so that they could evolve towards a better world — an ideal which he described to an extent in poems like ‘Where the Mind is Without Fear’ and India’s national anthem.

Dasgupta did this by not only delving into Tagore’s own writings but by devoting her life to unearth the depth of the maestro’s commitment and the hard work and money he invested in the project he described as his ‘Life’s work’. She even visited the villages and talked to the beneficiaries and workers. Her book is peppered with photographs of the Tagore in Sriniketan. It is amazing to see pictures of the poet with people from Sriniketan sitting on the ground or celebrating festivities.

Tagore, Das Gupta tells us, poured all his Nobel prize money, into the Sriniketan Bank project which was led by his son, Rathindranath. The project hoped to free the peasant from debt. How well were these experiments received by Tagore’s contemporaries? Das Gupta writes in her book: “It would not be an exaggeration to say that Rabindranath had to encounter all of those things, that is, to ‘overcome opposition’ and to ‘conquer space and time’, in no uncertain measure. In short, he had to drive hard to do anything good for a better village life. As a first step, he insisted that Indians should unite to provide nation-building services to the village and not look to the State for doing what was our own duty towards our people. For him, this had to be the more important function of the Swaraj being sought from alien rule.

“In Rabindranath’s view, what had misled society in our transition to modernity was the introduction of the Western concepts of private property and material progress. What this led to was that mankind, though never free from greed, now crossed the limits, within which it was useful rather than harmful. What came about as a result was that property became individualistic and led to the abandoning of hospitality to our people and loss of communication with them. As a consequence, there was an increasing divide between city and village. He found all that to be the reality, when trying to bring about changes, both in his family’s agricultural estates and in the villages surrounding Santiniketan-Sriniketan.”


Tagore, Nandalal Bose & Leonard Elmhirst are together in this picture taken in 1924. Lord Elmhirst, then Tagore’s secretary/assistant stands at the back with Nandalal Bose between him and Gurudev. Courtesy: Creative Commons

To bridge this divide, Sriniketan was created with the involvement of more of the Tagore family, agriculturists, scientists from all over the world, like Leonard Elmhirst whom Tagore had invited in 1921 to lead the Sriniketan work, and artists, like Nandalal Bose. It was a path breaking experiment which found fruition in the long run. They adapted from multiple cultures without any nationalistic biases. Rathindranath brought batik from Indonesia into the leather craft of Sriniketan. We are told, “One of the early influences was from Santiniketan’s association with a group of creative thinkers from Asia, who were spearheading a Pan-Asian Movement that questioned Western hegemony in art and artistic expression. A pioneer of the Pan-Asian Movement was Kakuzo Okakura (1863–1913, Japanese scholar and author of The Book of Tea). He came to Calcutta in 1904, when he met Rabindranath, and they became friends. Okakura admired and supported Rabindranath’s Santiniketan school. Nandalal’s Kala-Bhavana syllabus included Okakura’s artistic principles of giving importance to nature, tradition, and creativity, which were the same as Rabindranath’s artistic principles.”

That Tagore’s effort was unique and overlooked by the mainstream is well brought out through the narrative which does not critique but only evidences. For instance, Das Gupta contends: “He (Tagore) wrote the same to Lord Irwin, the Viceroy, in a letter dated 28 February 1930, when appealing for a government grant towards agricultural research. ‘I hope I shall have the opportunity on my return for another talk with Your Excellency in regard to what has been my life’s work and in which I feel you take genuine personal interest.’ Lord Irwin had come for a visit to Sriniketan at the time and Rabindranath was told of his favourable impression of what he saw during his visit to Sriniketan. In his letter, Rabindranath wrote how he was doing the work ‘almost in isolation’, without any understanding from his people or from the government.” Does that often not continue to be the story of many NGOs?

Sriniketan by Dasgupta is a timely and very readable non-fiction which brings to light not just the humanitarian aspect of Tagore but the need for the world to wake up to the call of nature to unite as a species beyond borders created by humans and live in harmony with the Earth. It all adds up in the post-pandemic, climate-disaster threatened world. To survive, we could learn much from what is shared with us in this book. I would love to call it a survival manual towards a better future for mankind. Scholarship has found a way to connect with the needs of the real world. The book is reader friendly as Das Gupta writes fluently from the bottom of her heart of a felt need that is being voiced by modern thinkers and gurus like Harari — we need to bridge borders and unite to move forward.

Das Gupta retired as Professor, Social Sciences Division, Indian Statistical Institute. She was Head of the United States Educational Foundation in India for the Eastern Region. Recently, she has become a National Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IAAS), Shimla, and a Delegate of Oxford University Press. Her publications include Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography; The Oxford India Tagore: Selected Essays on Education and Nationalism; A Difficult Friendship: Letters of Rabindranath Tagore and Edward Thompson, 1913–1940; Friendships of ‘largeness and freedom’: Andrews, Tagore, and Gandhi, An Epistolary Account, 1912–1940. In this interview, she focusses mainly on her new book, A History of Sriniketan, while touching on how Tagore differed from others like Gandhi in his approach, his vision and enlightens us about a man who created a revolution in ideological and practical world, and yet remained unacknowledged for that as in posterity he continues to be perceived mainly as an intellectual, a poet and a writer.


Uma Das Gupta in the corridors of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (IIAS), Shimla, where she was visiting as a  National Fellow (2012 – 2014) to advise on a permanent exhibit on Tagore’s life and work. The project was sponsored by the Ministry of Culture in celebration of Tagore’s 150th anniversary. This Institute is housed in the erstwhile Viceregal Lodge of imperial times. Photo provided by Uma Das Gupta

You are a well-known biographer of Tagore and have done extensive research on him. What made you put together A History of Sriniketan?

Grateful for your kind appreciation.

Writing a history of Sriniketan has been a priority for me. As a Tagore biographer, my dominant theme is about a poet who was an indefatigable man of action. His work at Sriniketan is of prime importance in that perspective. The secondary theme is of him as a poet and writer of many a genre, lyric, poetry, narratives, short stories, novels and plays. I had to make a choice of emphasis between the two themes since I did not intend to write a full-scale biography covering all aspects of Tagore’s life, equally.  My choice was to explore his educational ideas and to examine how he implemented them at his Santiniketan and Sriniketan institutions. His work as an educator and rural reformer is even today hardly known because his genius as a poet and a song writer overshadowed his work as an educator, rural reformer, and institutional builder. That area of research was quite virgin when I started it as a post-doctoral project in the mid-1970s. For perceptions about his poetry and his large oeuvre I have drawn on the work of the scholars who know the subject better than I do.  

My focus is on the concerns that featured persistently in Tagore’s writings and his actions. These were about the alienation in our own society between the elite and the masses, about race conflict and the absence of unity in our society, India’s history, nationalism, national self-respect, internationalism, an alternative education, religion, and humanism as elaborated by him in his collection of essays titled The Religion of Man (1931).

A History of Sriniketan is a detailed presentation about his ideas and his work on rural reconstruction. The idea of doing something to redeem neglected villages came to him when he first went to live in his family’s agricultural estates in East Bengal. His father sent him as manager in 1889. The decade that he spent there was his first exposure to the impoverished countryside. He was then thirty, already a poet of fame, and had lived only in the city till then. The experience played a seminal part in turning him into a humanist and a man of action. The closer he felt to the masses of his society the further he moved from his own class who were indifferent to the masses. His independent thinking gave him the courage of conviction to work alone with his ideas of ‘constructive swadeshi’. 

As a pragmatist he knew there was not a lot he could do given his meagre resources as an individual in relation to the enormity of the needs. But he was determined at least to make a beginning with the work. His goals were a revitalized peasantry, village self-reliance through small scale enterprises, cottage industries and cooperative values. He wrote, “If we could free even one village from the shackles of helplessness and ignorance, an ideal for the whole of India would be established…Let a few villages be rebuilt in this way, and I shall say they are my India. That is the way to discover the true India.”

Disillusioned with nationalist politics he turned to his own responses to the many troubled questions of his times. Tagore was convinced there could be no real political progress until social injustices were removed. He pointed repeatedly to the sectarian elements of Indian nationalism which kept our people divided. He hoped that the Santiniketan-Sriniketan education would create a new Indian personality to show the way out of the conflict of communities. He thus brought a different dimension to nationalism by arguing for universal humanity. It led to doubts about his ‘Indianness’ among his contemporaries. He had the courage to defy the idea of rejecting the world as a condition for being ‘Indian’. In fact, he tried continuously to break out of the isolation imposed on his country by colonial rule. He had the foresight to sense that the awakening of India was bound to be a part of the awakening of the world.  

What is the kind of research that went in into the making of this book? What got you interested in Tagore in the first place?

I am a historian by training. Historians have to back up every statement they make in their analysis by written documents. That is why the historian’s main source is the archives. Likewise, my research for this book has been mainly archival. I searched for written documentation from 1922 when the Sriniketan scheme of rural reconstruction work was officially launched. The documentation included the minutes of meetings, memoranda exchanged among the workers of the Institute of Rural Reconstruction, official notes, and annual reports written and filed.

In addition, I used to visit the villages in which the scheme was implemented to get an understanding of the ground reality. The work was started with six villages in 1922, extended to twenty-two more villages in the first ten years, and to many more villages afterwards. When the work was being run on a small scale, the Institute tried to post a village worker to stay in the village itself and work along with the villagers to implement the Sriniketan scheme. Some of these villages actually kept notes and records of their work which I could use as part of my local level research. I also interviewed some of the workers who had retired but who were still living around Sriniketan in their old age though their number was small. I have used those oral interviews in my documentation. Some of the Village Workers had their own private correspondence to which they gave me access.

There is also extensive personal correspondence in the Rabindra-Bhavana Archives between the leaders of the Sriniketan work. Among them first and foremost are Rathindranath Tagore and the British agricultural scientist, Leonard Elmhirst, whom Tagore had invited in 1921 to lead the Sriniketan work. Elmhirst had been to India earlier as a Wartime Volunteer during World War 1. When Tagore came to know of him through another British agriculturist working in Allahabad, Sam Higginbottom by name, he contacted Elmhirst with a request to come to Santiniketan and to lead the Sriniketan work. One of Tagore’s prime targets was to implement Scientific Agriculture in the villages. In fact, many years earlier, in 1906, he had sent his son Rathindranath and another student of the Santiniketan school, Santoshchandra Majumdar, who was Rathindranath’s classmate, to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne to study Agriculture with the view that they would bring back the expertise for the Sriniketan work at the completion of their studies.       

Leonard Elmhirst & his wife: Courtesy: Creative Commons

Elmhirst was in Sriniketan from 1922 to 1924 after which he returned to his work in England. He worked closely with the Sriniketan team even from far through the letters they exchanged. Rathindranath consulted Elmhirst regularly over Sriniketan’s work in progress and this correspondence is in the archives.

There is also a very charming body of personal letters between Tagore and Elmhirst. Tagore’s originals are among the Elmhirst Papers in the Dartinghall Hall Trust archives in Devonshire, UK, and Elmhirst’s original letters are in the Rabindra-Bhavana archives, Santiniketan. This correspondence has been published.  

Another very important source of documentation is available in the Diaries of Leonard Elmhirst which he wrote from the start of the Sriniketan work in 1922. Elmhirst’s Diaries were published by Visva-Bharati titled Poet and Plowman. There are some day-to-day accounts of how the work was being done on the ground by a group of senior students from Santiniketan who had chosen this field for training and of course by the Village Workers who had been appointed by the Institute. There were other leaders who helped with the work throughout like Kalimohan Ghose who later carried out the pioneering Surveys of the Villages. I have included some of these path breaking Surveys in the Appendices of A History of Sriniketan.   

Last but not the least important for my research were Tagore’s ideas of education and rural reconstruction about which he wrote several essays in two important collections, namely Palli-Prakriti (Countryside and Nature) and Sikshya (Education). Some of the essays were autobiographical as to how he started the rural work in his family’s agricultural estates in East Bengal where his father sent him in 1889. He stayed at Selidaha, the Estates’ headquarters, with his family till 1900 when he moved to Santiniketan in South Bengal’s Birbhum district where his father had founded an ashram and called it Santiniketan, the ‘Abode of Peace’. It was not a monastic ashram but one for householders to spend some days in prayer and meditation away from their household responsibilities. This is where Tagore and his young family moved in 1900-01 with his plans to start a school for children in the heart of nature. It was to be a school where the children could learn to creatively assimilate the knowledge imparted to them instead of in the classroom that characterised colonial education. This was how his Santiniketan school was founded in 1901.

Santiniketan was located within two miles of the Bolpur Railway Station on the East Indian Railway Line. It was situated on high ground, in the middle of a wide plain, open to the horizon on all sides. There, father and son had planted noble groves of mainly mango and sal trees. There, in the heart of nature not far from a big city, Tagore had the advantage of being able to draw upon both raw materials and cultural products in equal measure as it were. There was the influence of trees, open fields, and the seasons changing so starkly on the one hand; on the other hand, there was the inspiration of artists, science teachers, libraries, and hand-made, machine-made, equipment.        

You ask why I got interested in working on Tagore. There is a very personal story to share. When our son was born in Oxford where my husband and I were working with University Fellowships during 1972-73, we decided to move to Visva-Bharati on an invitation from the then Vice-Chancellor, the eminent historian Pratul Chandra Gupta. We were of course attracted to the possibility of being at Tagore’s institution and also to the prospect of raising our child in its pastoral environment. We did thus move to Visva-Bharati in 1973 leaving our Calcutta jobs at Presidency College, where my husband was Professor of History, and Jadavpur University, where I was teaching. Once we went Visva-Bharati, I began to explore the possibility of doing post-doctoral research on Tagore rather than on colonial history as was the area of my doctoral dissertation at the University of Oxford.

What would be the purpose of such a book? Do you think Tagore’s model would work if multiple NGOs adopted his ideas?

As I have already mentioned I am a biographer of Tagore’s educational ideas and the history of his institutions at Santiniketan and Sriniketan. To me writing this book on a history of Sriniketan was an integral part of my research. But at a personal level, I was concerned that the history of that practical and experimental work that Tagore did under the most difficult of circumstances might get completely forgotten if it were not documented. That was a genuine concern because of two reasons. Firstly, while Santiniketan has retained its charm as a popular tourist spot, and as Santiniketan’s oldest buildings of exceptional architecture had become heritage buildings, Sriniketan did not have anything to show or display for outsiders to connect with its one-time strident presence in bringing life and action to the villages. Secondly, Sriniketan never reinvented the wheel but just carried on from the 1950s as a unit of Visva-Bharati University to fill in for routine bureaucratic and funding purposes. Even its beautiful and thriving craft work that brought acclaim to Sriniketan from well beyond its precincts, would slowly but surely erode.  

Therefore, the primary purpose of this book is to document a pioneering humanistic enterprise for posterity, and also for the next generations who were expected to be engaged in the field of rural development even though the original model was not necessarily practically and theoretically viable in today’s socio-economic scenario. The book is also for the scholar and for the generally interested person. When I was starting my work in the mid 1970s, there was no doubt in my mind that Sriniketan was becoming less visible.   

As for whether multiple NGOs could use the Tagore model is for the NGOs to tell us, but I do know that in its neighbourhood, Sriniketan remains an important inspiration for mobilizing villages non-politically.  There have been one or two such movements in the vicinity of Santiniketan-Sriniketan which are continuing to work actively at grassroots. One is Pannalal Das Gupta’s ‘Tagore Society for Rural Development’. Founded in 1969-70 as a registered society, the Tagore Society specialises in motivating villagers to take on environmental self-help projects. There is also the ‘Amar Kutir Society for Rural Develoment’ located very close to Sriniketan which was once a shelter for runaway political prisoners. Founded in 1923 by Susen Mukhopadhyaya, a young revolutionary freedom fighter then, who was attracted to Tagore’s work in rural reconstruction. We learn from his writing that he kept observing the work while coming in and out of jail himself.  ‘Amar Kutir’ developed the work of organising local crafts persons, upgrading their skills, training them in design, and in marketing their products for economic rehabilitation. The Birbhum district had several families of traditional weavers. Some of them had been engaged in trade by the East India Company.     

Another such non-governmental private initiative for rural development has come up more recently in 1984 in the outskirts of Sriniketan called the ‘Elmhirst Institute of Community Studies’, (EICS), whose members are working mainly in the areas of women and child development including family counselling, family adoption, de-addiction and rehabilitation, HIV/AIDS education and intervention. They were started with substantial moral and financial support from Elmhirst who was interested in spreading Sriniketan’s pioneering enterprise and taking the ideas further to meet the needs of the later day.    

In other parts of India individual leaders were drawn to the work of building village self-reliance and a few had dedicated themselves to the cause in post-independence India. For his Ashrams at Sabarmati and Wardha, Gandhi himself kept closely in touch with Sriniketan which he visited several times even after Tagore’s passing and knew it well. Gandhi’s follower, Baba Amte, in Madhya Pradesh was a key worker in the field. More contemporarily one reads of the utopian commune ‘Timbaktu Collective’ in rural Andhra Pradesh where a husband-and-wife team, Bablu and Mary Ganguly, have organised the hapless farm labourers of Anantapur district to work for the regeneration of wasteland and start projects on organic farming, soil conservation, propagation of traditional food crops and have also taken steps for women’s and Dalit empowerment and rural health. Most of these ideas were at one time born and nurtured in the holistic laboratory for socio-economic development that Sriniketan was. Bablu Ganguly acknowledges Fukuoka as his mentor. Being Bengali by birth, it would not be surprising if he was aware of Tagore but perhaps only as a poet and songwriter.      

Tagore withdrew from the national movement to develop villages, which is where, he felt lived a large part of India. Gandhi had a similar outlook. So, where was the divide?

With his deepening sympathy for the suffering millions of his country, Tagore became increasingly critical of the changes that Britain had brought to India. But he also felt strongly for the West’s ideas of humanism and believed they were of benefit to Indian society. Revolutionary changes were inescapably entering into our thoughts and actions. This was evident in the proposition that those whom our society decreed to be ‘untouchables’ should be given the right to enter temples. The orthodox continued to justify their non-entry into temples on scriptural pretexts, but such advocacy was being challenged and resisted. The people’s ‘voice’ had put out the message that neither the scriptures nor tradition nor the force of personality could set a wrong right. Ethics alone could do so.   

There were important factors that led gradually to this new way of thinking. The impact of English literature was one such. Tagore pointed out that acquaintance with English Literature gave us not only a new wealth of emotion but also the will to break man’s tyranny over man. This was a novel point of view. The lowly in our society had taken it for granted that their birth and the fruits of their past actions could never be disowned; that their sufferings and the indignities of an inferior status had to be meekly accepted; that their lot could change only after a possible rebirth. Society’s patriarchs also held out no hope for the downtrodden. But contact with Europe became a wake-up call. It was no surprise that in his landmark essay Kalantar (Epoch’s End) Tagore recalled and endorsed the British poet Robert Burns’s unforgettable line, “A man’s a man for a’ that.

It was in that longing to bring hope to the deprived people that Tagore and Gandhi felt really close. They were both carrying out rural reconstruction work because they knew that the majority of Indians lived in villages and wanted to bring awakening and national consciousness to the villages as the prime goal to freedom. Both men focused their attention on the peasantry as the largest class within Indian society who were paralysed by anachronistic traditions and weighed down by poverty and the absence of education.

The major issues on which Tagore and Gandhi differed were debated nationally. Before discussing the specific issues in the controversy, it would be useful to examine their general positions on freedom and nationalism. In The Religion of Man (1931), Tagore developed the position that the history of the growth of freedom is the history of the “perfection of human relationship”. Gandhi applied the same principle to resolving India’s racial conflict. Tagore took the idea further and challenged the credo of nationalism. Tagore argued that the basis of the nation-state was a menace to the ideal of universal harmony or to the “perfection of human relationship”. But to the nationalist leadership all over the country, including Gandhi, political self-rule or swaraj came to be understood as a necessary phase of spiritual self-rule, or swarajya, and nationalism as the first step towards attaining free human fellowship.

Tagore alone spoke out against that trend. He argued that the crucial stumbling block in India’s future lay in the social problems of the country such as the absence of human rights for the masses and the alienation between the educated classes and the masses. He emphasised what the country needed most of all was constructive work coming from within herself and the building of an ethical society as the best way for rousing national consciousness. The rest would inevitably follow, even political freedom.

In his novel, Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1916), Tagore seemed critical of Gandhi’s call for Khadi and burning of mill cloth imported from England. Yet, Sriniketan was a handicraft forum for villagers to find a way to earn a living through agriculture and craft. So, why the dichotomy of perspectives as both were promoting local ware? Where was the clash between Gandhi’s interpretation of Khadi and Tagore’s interpretation of selling indigenous craft?

There was never any conflict in their perceptions or feelings for the poor, Gandhi’s and Tagore’s. Other issues were stirred in relation to the Khadi campaign and the burning of foreign cloth. For instance, the Congress in 1924 moved a resolution under Gandhi’s recommendation enlisting its members to spin a certain quantity of cloth on the charka (spinning wheel) as a monthly contribution. The idea was to give the movement country-wide publicity, and also, to make spinning a means of bonding between the masses and the politicians.

Tagore was wholly opposed to the idea of using the charka as a political strategy for swaraj and explained his position in his 1925 essay titled ‘The Cult of the Charka’. He argued that there was no short-cut to reason and hard work if anything was to succeed; that nothing worthwhile was possible by mass conversion to an idea; that our poverty was a complex phenomenon which could not be solved by one particular application such as spinning and weaving Khadi. Tagore raised the question if our poverty was due to the “lack of sufficient thread”, or due to “our lack of vitality, our lack of unity”?

On burning clothes Tagore’s position was that such a method hurt the poor by forcing them to sacrifice even what little they obtained from selling those clothes. He concluded that buying and selling foreign cloth should be delegated to the realm of economics. In his reply Gandhi wrote, that he did not draw “a sharp or any distinction between economics and ethics”. He added that the economics that hurt the moral well-being of an individual or a nation “are immoral and therefore sinful”.     

Is Sriniketan unique? Can it be seen as Tagore’s model for rural development?

To the best of my knowledge there is no parallel institution in India.

I am not aware if Tagore was ever talking of a ‘model’ that he expected others to follow. He was certainly hoping, as he wrote, that his work will help to establish an “ideal” [his word] for the rest of the country.

My own sense is that an “ideal” has been established given that empowerment of the villages through the Panchayats has become a nationwide project. Of course, the government’s approach is not fully in character with Tagore’s holistic vision for the individual’s humanistic development. Today the individual hardly counts, politics and economics are what matter. All the same it has to be said that the villages are getting some attention and are not left to rot as had been the case in the earlier century.       

You have said that Tagore faced criticism for the way he used Nobel Prize money. Can you enlighten us on this issue? Tell us a bit about the controversy and Tagore’s responses.

As anyone would surmise the Nobel Prize money was very precious also to the Santiniketan community because the teachers and workers there had to struggle over the resources for the institution. But contrary to the community’s expectation, Tagore decided that the Prize money would be given to the cause of rural credit. He had started the Patisar Krishi (farmers’) Bank in 1906 followed by the Kaligram Krishi Bank. According to Tagore’s biographer, Prasanta Pal, the total investment in the rural banks in 1914 amounted to Rs 75,000 of which Rs 48,000 was invested in the Patisar Krishi Bank at 7% interest per annum and Rs 27,000 at the same rate of interest in the Kaligram Krishi Bank. Tagore decided that only the interest from those investments could be used to pay for the maintenance of the Santiniketan school. The actual purpose of the fund was to give loans to the poor peasants so as to relieve them from exploitation by moneylenders and some unethical landlords too. In order to repay their loans, the peasants had to sell their produce at a rate lower than the market price immediately after drawing the harvest. This phenomenon was causing them perpetual indebtedness. The Krishi Banks were to loan money to the peasantry at a lower rate than the money lenders and relieve them from the age-old exploitation.     

Tagore was firm that the primary beneficiary of his Nobel Prize money would be the poor peasantry of his family’s estates, and the Santiniketan school would be only the secondary beneficiary. He tried thus to balance his two main concerns when settling the future of his Nobel Prize money.  

It cannot be said there was a ‘controversy’ over this as Gurudev (which was how the community addressed Tagore) was too revered for a controversy to be raised about a decision that he had taken. But there was disappointment.  It seemed strangely that even his inner circle had not realised his deep emotional attachment and ideological commitment to the cause of the impoverished peasantry. Perhaps, my response to your earlier question may explain why. 

Tagore had noticed the gaps between the different strata of Indian society. Sriniketan was an attempt to bridge the gap. How far did his ideals succeed?

There was tremendous societal gap between the different strata of Indian society.  With all of Tagore’s will and effort, it cannot be said that the Sriniketan ideals could bridge the gap. Even today, a perceptive visitor, who visits Santiniketan and Sriniketan, located only within two miles of each other, can tell the difference between the two. Santiniketan looks bright and thriving, but Sriniketan looks neglected.    

Community life in the Indian villages was seen to break for the first time with the emergence of professional classes among the English-educated Indians. The city began to attract them away from the villages. Those Indians were happy to let the government take over guardianship of the people and relinquish to it their own traditional duties to society. The result was a widening gap between town and country, city and village.  Tagore knew from his life’s direct experience that none of those who dominated the political scene in his time felt that the villagers ‘belonged’. The political leadership apprehended that recognising this vast multitude as their own people would force them to begin the real work of ‘constructive swadeshi’. They were not even interested to try. That was where the Sriniketan effort was invaluable to Tagore. He saw that the endeavour built at least a relationship with the village, if nothing else.

The Sriniketan scheme sought to bridge the gap by bringing to the village a combination of tradition and experiment. Tagore knew that a civilisation that comprises of only village life could not be sustained. “Rustic” was a synonym for the “mind’s narrowness”, he wrote. In modern times, the city had become the repository of knowledge. It was essential therefore for the village to cooperate with the city in accessing the new knowledge.  One such vital area of expertise was in agriculture. His study of “other agricultural countries” had shown that land in those countries was made to yield twice or thrice by the use of science. A motor tractor was bought for Sriniketan in 1927 because he believed that the machine must find its way to the Indian village. He wrote,If we can possess the science that gives power to this age, we may yet win, we may yet live.”

Your book tells us that Sugata Dasgupta’s publication, A Poet & A Plan (1962) showed that Sriniketan had benefitted the villages it adopted decades after Tagore’s death. Has there been further development of these communities or is it status quo?

No, it cannot be said that it is status quo from the 1960s. There have been changes for sure. There have been benefits to the villages from the Government’s projects. Indeed, the government had adopted some of their early projects from Sriniketan’s original work.

More interventions are needed of course but it has to be said something is being done. Of course, the changes I can mention that have benefitted the condition of the villages and therefore the villagers’ lives came well after Sugata Dasgupta’s publication. The three that I can mention are communications, roads, and electricity. Today there are more long-distance buses than ever before transporting people to and from the villages. Totos and cycle rickshaw-vans take passengers from the bus stands to the interior villages. Roads are another major development.  Besides the highways, the mud paths in the villages are now being converted to metalled roads. There is electricity in the villages.

I should mention one other significant change which is that secondary education is now fairly common to the present-day rural populace. College education has also come within their reach.

What is the current state of the present day Sriniketan? What do you see as the future of Sriniketan?

Presently, Sriniketan runs as a department or unit of Visva-Bharati University and works according to the University’s requirements. I am not acquainted with the requirements. I continue to be a regular user of the University’s Rabindra-Bhavana archives even now. But I have not been connected with the University in any official capacity after the 1980s which is a long time ago.

Thank you for your time.

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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Author Page

Somdatta Mandal

Somdatta Mandal is a former Professor of English and ex-Chairperson, Department of English, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India. A recipient of several prestigious fellowships like the Fulbright Research and Teaching Fellowships, British Council Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship, Rockefeller Residency at Bellagio, Italy, Salzburg Seminar and Shastri Indo-Canadian Faculty Enrichment Fellowship, she has been published widely both nationally and internationally. She has also an award from Sahitya Akademi for the All India Indian Literature Golden Jubilee (1957-2007) Literary Translation Competition in the Fiction category for translating short stories series ‘Lalu’ by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya.

Interview

Where the Whole World Meets in a Single Nest

In Conversation with Somdatta Mandal, a translator, scholar and writer who has much to say on the state of Santiniketan, Tagore, women’s writing on travel and more. Click here to read.

Translations

Travels & Holidays: Humour from Rabindranath

Translated from the original Bengali by Somdatta Mandal, these are Tagore’s essays and letters laced with humour. Click here to read.

Letters from Japan, Europe & America

An excerpt from letters written by Tagore from Kobi & Rani, translated by Somdatta Mandal. Click here to read.

Letters from Tagore

An excerpt from Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore, translated by Somdatta Mandal, showcasing Tagore’s introduction and letters. Click here to read.

A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das

An excerpt from Somdatta Mandal’s translation of A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das (1885). Click here to read.

Book reviews

Somdatta Mandal reviews Wooden Cow by T. Janakiraman, translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Kannan. Click here to read.

Himadri Lahiri reviews Somdatta Mandal’s ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore. Click here to read.

A review by Meenakshi Malhotra of Somdatta Mandal’s The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs, a translation from a conglomeration of writings from all the Maestro’s caregivers. Click hereto read.

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Tagore Translations

Morichika or Mirage by Tagore

Morichika or ‘Mirage’ is one on Tagore’s early poems. It was first published in 1886 in a collection called Kori O Komal (Sharp and Flat).

Mirage
Come, leave your bed of flowers, O friend —
Beat the hard ground with your foot. 
How long will you isolate yourself weaving 
Dreams of starry blooms in an unreal sky!
Look, a storm is brewing in the distance —
Your world will be washed away with tears.
Flames of God’s lightning jinx will ignite the 
Fires of purity to arouse you from stupor. 
Come let us both go and live with people,
Enlightened by their joys and sorrows —
Let us share their laughter and sadness
Holding hands, stay fearless when in doubt. 
Let us not dwell in this redolent mirage as
It terrorises with its transient evanescence. 
Tagore’s translation on ‘Morichika’ in Poems. Source: Bichitra

Later Tagore translated this poem to English himself. That was published in 1942 by a collection entitled Poems edited by Krishna Kripalalni, Amiya Chakravarty, Nirmal Chandra Chattopadhyay and Pulinbehari Sen published after his death by Visva Bharati.

Here is an excerpt of what Tagore wrote about Kori O Komal in his Jibonsmriti (1912, autobiographical memoirs by the poet) which reflects his outlook and the mood of the poem.

Translation: Man falls into a stupor when due to his own reluctance to make an effort, he can neither understand himself nor face reality. I have always struggled to emerge out of this stupor. I cannot reconcile myself to the current situation where nameless intellectuals are inebriated with patriotism and are involved in spineless political rallies and news campaigns which exhibit both the lack of a national identity and concern for mass welfare. (Excerpted from a screenshot of Jibonsmriti sent by Anasuya Bhar)

(These translations for Borderless Journal are by Mitali Chakravarty, edited by Sohana Manzoor and Anasuya Bhar. Also, thanks to Anasuya Bhar for the images from Bichitra and Jibonsmriti and the extensive research on the poem.)

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Interview

Where the Whole World Meets in a Single Nest

In Conversation with Somdatta Mandal

Professor Somdatta Mandal

Somdatta Mandal, an eminent academic, has translated so many books and writers that it is difficult to pin her down as a doyen of one great. Her extensive work amazes with its variety intercepted with humour. Reading through her translations, Nirmalakumari’s account of how Tagore was manipulated by Mussolini, is like comprehending and living through history. It adheres and makes an impact to lead to the realisation that history is often repeated, only the cast of characters and locations change. That Tagore could put that behind him and rise above this incident (hyped by the media then) to connect with his vision reflected not just in his writings but also in the institution (Santiniketan) he created and which he reached out for help to keep intact. All this is brought home to us through just one of Mandal’s many translations, Kobi and Rani.

She talks more of her extensive findings while translating and experiencing the world from writings across the ages. She reflects on how Tagore’s vision for Santiniketan remains to be yet realised. Her answers showcase a scholar who shines in any setting not just with reflected light of others she translates but with her own inner convictions laced with a rare sense of humour. She has much to say and share in this extensive interview. We are happy to project her voice to you.

You were teaching in Santiniketan. Tell us a bit about the legendary university. How is it different from others? Has it lived up to what the Kobiguru visualised?

I retired from Visva-Bharati two years ago after teaching in the English Department there for about eighteen years. My area of specialization has been American Literature, Film and Culture Studies and Diaspora Literature. I started teaching in Santiniketan initially thinking of it as a new job at a university, but soon realised that away from the cacophony of life in Kolkata where I was born and bred, working and living all that while, the place would gradually exert its own idyllic charm upon me. Now in my retirement I want to live there in peace and use the place as a writer’s retreat. In spite of being in the news at present for all the wrong reasons, Santiniketan has its own charm, lifestyle and culture that grows within you and cannot be imposed from outside.

I think most people know, but nevertheless let me reiterate a few facts about Santiniketan. Kobiguru had visualized the institution to be different from other standard ones so that away from rote learning methods, students could imbibe the fresh ambience of studying in the lap of nature. As publicity pictures still project it, the classes in the school section are still held open air under the trees, but the university section is similar to other standard institutions.

In fact, ever since Visva-Bharati was established in 1921, it was considered to be a special place of learning inviting teachers and students from all over the world. The poet selected for its motto an ancient Sanskrit verse, Yatra visvam bhavatieka nidam, which means, ‘where the whole world meets in a single nest’.“Visva-Bharati,” he declared, ” represents India where she has her wealth of mind which is for all. Visva-Bharati acknowledges India’s obligation to offer to others the hospitality of her best culture and India’s right to accept from others their best.” The institution has excelled in areas of fine arts, singing, painting, dance, different Indian and foreign languages, and especially in the idea of rural reconstruction.

Tagore laid great emphasis on universal humanism, internationalism and trans-culturalism. He sought a positive outcome from the East-West encounters. This syncretic culture imbues the vast oeuvre of his work: it has propelled his activism and lives in his pragmatic projects today. His vision was to ultimately strengthen the fundamental conditions of world peace through the establishment of free communication of ideas between the two hemispheres.

Since 1951, when Visva-Bharati was considered as an institution of special eminence by an act of Parliament and was turned into a Central University, problems started creeping out gradually from Pandora’s box. On the one hand, it had to abide by the rules laid down by the University Grants Commission (UGC), follow its basic dictates of syllabi formulation etc. and on the other, the old ashramites and others consistently worried about the institution losing its special character to become like any other run-of-the-mill university. This dichotomy has not been resolved till date and sometimes the conflict between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ takes an ugly shape. Apparently, Tagore had made a special rule that in order to generate local employment people residing within the radius of twenty kilometres of the university should be given jobs but according to Central Government dictates, it should have a pan-Indian profile and recruit people from all over the country. This turmoil has resulted in a sort of stalemate for the past few years.

I mention all this to emphasise that the glory of erstwhile Santiniketan and Visva-Bharati has diminished greatly in the process, and it is no longer the experimental school that Tagore had initially wanted it to be. Even during his lifetime, he went from country to country delivering lectures to generate funds for his dream project and had realised how difficult it was becoming to sustain the institution financially. There is the famous saying that he had even requested Mahatma Gandhi to help and run the institution in his absence. In 1940 a year before he died, he put a letter in Gandhi’s hand,

“Visva-Bharati is like a vessel which is carrying the cargo of my life’s best treasure, and I hope it may claim special care from my countrymen for its preservation.”

Anyhow, after joining Visva-Bharati, I realised that apart from some cursory reading, I hardly knew anything about this great man, this polymath, someone who queried some interpretations of his life and work through a holistic perspective. Also, interdisciplinary seminars and interactions with faculty members of other departments made me aware of many new areas that I was oblivious of. It was quite unconsciously that little by little the spirit of Tagore, his work, his culture, seeped into my veins as it did into that of many of my city-bred colleagues.

My impetus to read and translate Tagore also gained momentum when we had to work for the academic excellence of our department by working for the UGC SAP (Special Assistance Programme). The thrust area of this Departmental Research Scheme was “Tagoreana” – we started visiting libraries and academic institutions all over India and began compiling all available material on Tagore in English. It gave us a clear picture that in reality very few critical books had been written on him in English and the plight of translated volumes was even worse. It seemed as if the work done till date was equal to a few pebbles lying on the vast seashore of knowledge. Along with this comprehensive checklist, at the end of each year, we organised a seminar on different perspectives related to Tagore and his work. Also, in order to justify the seriousness of the project, we started bringing out a book publication every year, with each teacher contributing to it. This was when I got interested in reading and translating Tagore’s non-fiction, his selected letters, his humorous pieces of dramatic skits known as Hasyakoutuk, and different essays and travel narratives. It was a vast gold mine in front of me just waiting to be explored. Here was a man of all seasons and gradually by default, being in Visva-Bharati, all of us gradually veered away from our initial area of expertise and got seeped into reading, writing and translating him. I remembered how in a light vein a professor of the Hindi department saw our first publication on ‘Tagoreana’ and told me, “Even you English professors have now got stuck in the old man’s beard!!”

You have translated lot of Tagore. What got you interested in translation — and as tough a writer as the maestro in English?

Before coming to my translation work on Tagore and how it began, I need to mention here that my role as a translator began in a strange way with a commissioned piece of work many years ago. Professor Sukumari Bhattacharya had an interesting Bengali book entitled Ramayan O Mahabarater Anupratik Jonopriyota (The Comparative Popularity of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata) and she wanted it to be translated into English. Her daughter Tanika Sarkar had begun doing the first few chapters but could not complete it. So, she was looking for a competent translator whose style would not clash with the earlier section already translated. I was given a sample chapter to work on and had to literally go and face her in a serious interview before being assigned the job. She went through my translation meticulously, pencilled a few changes, and gave me the green signal to go on. Translating very difficult Sanskritised Bengali was a real challenge in my life which very often had to be combatted armed with a thesaurus and dictionary. Sometimes, I found that after a whole afternoon’s labour I had proceed only two sentences. Anyhow, after I eventually submitted the entire work, the file somehow got lost. In a bed-ridden state Professor Bhattacharya went through the entire manuscript and approved it, often suggesting a few changes in the use of words. A few months later she passed away and nothing was heard of that translation anymore. For almost five years I would brood over the fate of my unborn first child. Fortunately, when her house was being cleaned and vacated, the lost file was recovered, and the book was published by Anustoop under the joint names of Tanika Sarkar and me.

That difficult initiation as a translator gave me tremendous moral boost and confirmed my capability as a serious translator. Tagore was no longer a problem. The only fear that I had was being too close to the original text as taking liberties with such a canonical writer was unthinkable for me. But times changed. I realised that readability of a translated text was a very important criterion than mere literal translation. So gradually I started becoming even more colloquial with Tagore’s texts. It should read as if it was written in English itself and not in the convoluted style of late 19th century or early 20th century. Contributing to The Essential Tagore volume brought out by Harvard University Press and Visva-Bharati in 2011, to commemorate the sesquicentennial anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, was also an eye-opener for me. The extremely meticulous editors Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty made me revise my entries several times in order to make the text read not like a vintage piece but a living vibrant text. Translating some of the skits from Hasyakoutuk was challenging and fun at the same time, as we could come across a different Rabindranath, full of pun, wit and satire, and quite different from the serious philosophical poet he is usually considered to be.

Again, teaching the very poor quality of translation of Tagore’s Home and the World done by Surendranath Tagore during the poet’s lifetime to graduate and undergraduate students at the university made me realise why so many of my non-Bengali professor friends spoke so badly about the text.  Gradually I found myself translating many more different areas of Tagore’s writing. The essays of Pother Sonchoy (Gleanings of the Road) that Tagore wrote during his 1912 visit to England were not travel pieces per se and often ventured into philosophical musings. Niyogi Books readily brought out the volume and it was released in Kolkata at the Oxford Book Store with a lot of fanfare by Sankhya Ghosh and many others.

In the meantime, along with many lesser-known letters, early essays on travel by Rabindranath, Visva-Bharati Publications Department brought out the book Wanderlust: Travels of the Tagore Family that contains entries of travel essays written by nineteen members of the Tagore family beginning from Dwarkanath Tagore to Sumitendranath Tagore. Incidentally, among these nineteen entries, nine were by women of the Tagore family. So you see, translating travel writing and Tagore somehow overlapped without any conscious effort on my part.

Again, translating two travel narratives by Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis (aka Rani) is equally important because they are memoirs based on her travels with Tagore. Kobir Shonge Europey (With the Poet in Europe) and Kobir Shonge Dakshinnatey (With the Poet in the South) narrate the incidents of the poet’s tour to Europe in 1926 and to South India and Sri Lanka in 1928 respectively. Incidentally, though written many years later, the first narrative is the only account of the important seven-month trip that Rabindranath undertook to Europe where he met Mussolini and many important political and social stalwarts of the day. Both these travelogues are included in my present volume of translation entitled Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore.

Other than Tagore, you have translated more writers from colonial times to English. Why do you translate mainly travel-related writing from the past? What got you interested in this period and in travel-writing?

My interest in travel writing began many years earlier when it was not even recognised as a canonical enough genre. In a seminar on ‘Travel Writing’ that I had organized in our department, I received a great impetus when Mushirul Hasan, the famous historian and then Vice Chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, attended as the chief-guest and delivered the keynote address. He had already worked and edited several volumes of travel narratives especially in Urdu and made it clear that this area of study upheld immense possibilities.

Now let me mention how apart from the writings of Tagore and his family members, my interest in travel literature grew. After work hours, I started spending the late afternoons in our university library and found immense treasure of travel books in Bengali among the unkept dusty stacks, books which had not been issued for as long as fifty years. No one gave me any computerised list of what texts were available and this manual hunting revealed many unheard names of writers. I just picked them up, issued them and dumped them in my car. Some of the books were brittle, some never issued at all. In this way I had picked up Paschimjatriki by a lady called Durgabati Ghose who went for a tour to Europe with her husband in 1932. I liked the text very much and translated it and Orient Blackswan published it as The Westward Traveller with a foreword by Ashis Nandy. Anyhow, in due course of time, I had developed a handsome collection of travel texts and my interest increased with time. In the meantime, to digress a little, I have edited three volumes on Indian Travel Writing, and one special issue of an online journal, the first one in 2010 and the last one in November 2020. The number of abstracts that flooded my mailbox everyday was unusual and in spite of strict deadlines, I had to reject many good papers due to lack of space. I remember the publisher of the first volume returned 90 copies of the book as he said that since travel writing was not included in any university syllabi or course, they were not selling, and he lacked space in his warehouse. Within a span of a decade, the genre has gained a lot of popularity and many scholars are now keenly pursuing their research in this area. 

Speaking about translating writers from the past I find it safer as in most cases the copyright period is over and seeking permission is easier. Also, I must confess how I underwent a personal trauma after translating a living writer. Let me be a bit more specific. Nabaneeta Deb Sen’s Koruna Tomar Kone Path Diye is an excellent narrative about her visit to a seminar in Hyderabad and her sudden decision to travel to the Kumbh Mela. This book interested me a lot and I went through a publisher seeking her permission to translate the text. She asked me to submit two sample chapters and then gave the green signal to go ahead. I completed the entire translation within the stipulated time and sent it to her. Now began the difficult part. She did not like certain sections (“I don’t see myself in it as I should”, she explained) and the manuscript went through innumerable revisions and alterations, often with the consultation of family members and other editors. The cheeky, colloquial tone of the original Bangla text was lost – one perennial problem of translation for sure. Anyhow, the publisher introduced two more editors and in the end the book did come out under a different translator’s name with a due acknowledgement in the foreword for all my effort! So, it was a wise decision on my part henceforth to stick to older writers from the past.

Also, though for a long time, travel writing had been relegated as an inferior form of literature, I found in many texts what I call little nuggets of history. For example, in Durgabati Ghose’s text there is a hilarious incident about her going to meet Sigmund Freud in Vienna. As the daughter of the famous psychoanalyst Girindra Sekhar Bose, she went to meet Professor Freud who was her father’s friend, and what emerged in that meeting is something unusual when Durgabati felt that Freud himself should be psychoanalyzed for his excessive love of dogs. When I mentioned that incident, Ashis Nandy regretted that if he knew about this incident earlier, he would have definitely included it in his book, The Savage Freud. Again, in Crossing Many Seas, Chitrita Devi tells us how she went to visit the British Parliament in 1947 and on that very day saw the white paper of independence being granted to India. Many other such interesting historical events and significant people are often found in very ordinary travel narratives.

What are the challenges you face while translating Bengali to English? How do you solve them?

Basically, I still consider mine as literal translations and do not venture out into bringing in radical changes. The basic challenge I face is maintaining a readable sentence structure as the English and Bengali have different methods of composition. I don’t translate directly into the computer, rather I prefer to do it in long hand. Though it entails more work, I find that I end up usually reversing the order of the sentence when I am correcting and keying it in the computer. If possible, I then ask any friend of mine to read the translation and offer any necessary suggestions for change. This system works well for me. Also, now I usually try and translate everything in the past tense and that makes it more readable. Breaking up long, convoluted sentences into shorter readable ones is another method I tend to adopt. With time and experience, I feel more confident in making such alterations.

Why do you think translating is important? What is the role of translations in a world with 6500 languages?

In spite of all its drawbacks, translation is the only way in which we can open out to other people, whether in regional languages in India or in other languages across the world. Let me give you an interesting example. Recently I reviewed a book called Rebati: Speaking in Tongues. ‘Rebati’ is a famous short story written in 1898 by the famous Odia writer Fakir Mohan Senapati. It is a tragic tale in which the dream of self-actualisation of a young girl through education comes crashing down as much due to a rampaging epidemic as due to a mindset deeply hostile to change. In this particular book, the editor, Manu Dash, has managed to bring in 36 different incarnations of the story. Arranged alphabetically, ‘Rebati’ is presented in twenty-four Indian and twelve foreign languages in all. As the editor informs us, most of the writers commissioned to translate it in different languages have taken the English or the Hindi version as their source text. For the lay reader therefore, it is not possible to vouch for the quality of the translated text. But that we are able to understand the significance of this late nineteenth century story across so many countries and cultures across the globe is what is more significant than the actual quality of the translation.

Is it possible to have cultural exchanges among languages without losing out nuances in translation?

Translation and its problems, especially when the translated pieces are twice or thrice removed from the original source text, is nothing unique and hence even labelled by terms like ‘transliteration’ and ‘transcreation’. In one of his earlier semiotic investigations, ‘The Search for the Perfect Language’, Umberto Eco argued that the Book of Genesis charts the decline of humanity into the chaos of Babel. The poly-linguistic world we live in is one more punishment from God for our baseness and general nastiness. In ‘Mouse or Rat?: Translation As Negotiation’, Eco is back on the subject of this post-lapsarian movement between different tongues, the perilous attempt to express concepts from one language into another. He suggests that translation is a negotiation’ not just between words but between cultures – “Translation is always a shift, not between two languages but between two cultures. A translator must take into account rules that are not strictly linguistic but, broadly speaking, cultural.”

As a translator I am very conscious about this kind of cultural exchange. Maintaining culture-specific words within the translated version, but at the same time making its meaning clear for the reader to understand, is probably one way of retaining this culture specificity. The lesser the use of glossary the better. Jhumpa Lahiri in her latest novel Whereabouts which she self-translated from Italian into English attests to the fact: “Translation shows me how to work with new words, how to experiment with new styles and forms, how to take greater risks, how to structure and layer my sentences in different ways.”

Which is your favourite writer to translate? And why?

None in particular. I just sometimes happen to like a piece of work and feel it should be translated for a greater pan-Indian readership. Sometimes the reverse is also true. In the summer of 2004, I was residing at Bellagio in Italy on a Rockefeller Fellowship when the latest issue of the New Yorker magazine published a new short story by Jhumpa Lahiri called ‘Heaven-Hell’. Upon reading the story about the protagonist called Pranab-Kaku, I was so taken aback by its Bengaliness, I felt that every Bengalis who usually do not read English fiction and yet basked in the glory that a Bengali girl had recently won the Pulitzer prize should immediately read it.  Without a second thought or even seeking any permission from anyone, I instantly sat down and translated the story into Bangla. Later when I returned to Kolkata and gave it to a senior professor to read. he was so impressed that without even informing me he sent it to the magazine Kali O Kolom which published it. I am lucky that no one sued me for copyright violation.

Recently I read a short story called ‘Barnabaad’ (Casteism) by Manoranjan Byapari in the Sunday supplement of Pratidin newspaper called Robbar and felt the urge to translate into English immediately. Dalit writing in Bengali is slowly gaining academic attention and I immediately asked someone to seek permission from the writer to allow me to translate it into English. Byapari, busy with his own electioneering campaign at that time, was thrilled and immediately gave me the permission. The translated story has been accepted by the international journal Transnational Literature and will see the light of day soon. So, you see there is no special or favourite writer for me to translate. Way back in the nineties, I remember I had voluntarily translated some essays on cinema that Satyajit Ray published in Bishoy Challachitra, but I was too naïve to know then that you needed his wife’s permission to do so. The translated pages therefore travelled to the wastepaper basket in due course.

Was it different translating Bengali women from translating Tagore? How did the experience differ?

Usually, the tone of Bengali women’s writing that I have translated to date is much more colloquial and homely, but we cannot always make generalisations. Many women wrote their travelogues at the request of family and friends and not for public consumption. But some women like Krishnabhabini Das took her job of imparting knowledge rather seriously. Also, we should not make the mistake of assuming that all Tagore’s works are of high philosophical and moral content. There are many pieces of Tagore’s writing which are also simple, homely, easy to translate and again there are places where he often quotes from the Upanishads and one needs the help of Sanskrit scholars to understand the real meaning of those quotations. So, there is no such hard and fast rule, and it all depends on what particular work and by which writer we are translating.

Were the Bengali women, like Krishnabhabini Das, you translated any different from the women associated with Tagore? How and why?

This question is more or less a repetition of the last question. Each woman’s writing has a different aim and purpose and so they cannot be clubbed together under some general definitions. The reason for the travel and the target readership is different in each individual case. Published in 1885, Krishnabhabini Das’s England-e-Bongomohila (A Bengali Lady in England) was published in Calcutta originally without her name in the title. Her identity was just that of a Bengali woman who chanced to go to England along with her husband. Her book was not a travelogue in the true sense of the term, but her aim was to seriously convey the social conditions of England at that time and to educate her sisters back home who were still in fetters and did not know much about female emancipation. Her writing is serious in nature, and she took the help of other sources and books to authenticate and explain everything in detail.

For Hariprabha Takeda, a Bengali Brahmo woman, who went to Japan in 1912 for four months along with her husband to meet her Japanese in-laws there, it was a totally personal affair.  Thus, even though language was a big bar, Bongomohilar Japanjatra [The Journey of A Bengali Woman to Japan] is more intimate in tone and narration where she tries to define the idea of ‘home’ to her readers. For Chitrita Devi, sister of Maitreyi Devi, Onek Sagor Periye (Crossing many Seas) narrates travels to different places in the world in seven different segments. As a member of the P.E. N. network, her outlook and narration is much more erudite and polished than others.

I can go on citing more examples but the basic point I want to make is that the social class and status of the woman narrator is different in each case. For women associated with Tagore, this becomes even more clearly marked. Rabindranath’s daughter-in-law, Protima Devi, wrote Nirbaan (Nirvana) immediately after the poet’s death. This text is very different from the four other women who narrated the last days of their association with Rabindranath. Though the incidents are the same, each woman’s narration comes in different styles. Thus, Rani Chanda or Maitreyi Devi or Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis’s narration have to be read side by side to understand what I mean as to the relationship of the subject to the narrator. My book The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs does exactly that. Translating each woman’s narration separately was a challenge no doubt but when they are juxtaposed together, the point-of-view of each narrator becomes clearer.

Why do you stick to women and Tagore only? Have you ever thought of exploring translations of other writers like Nazrul or Jibonanondo?

As I have already mentioned, this was not a deliberate choice. I am not a feminist as such but somehow at the end of the day I find that I have translated the works of more women than men. Since none of the translations that I have done till date have been commissioned projects by publishers or authors themselves, I just translate what and when I fancy reading and feel inspired to translate. You know translation has often been called ‘transcreation’ and this creative process is something that interests me very much. Though not a creative writer per se, the translating process also gives me liberty in selecting words, style and that grants me a lot of freedom which is no less important than creative writing. About translating Nazrul or Jibonanando, I must admit that I am not very comfortable with translating poetry. I prefer to stick to prose, whether fiction or non-fiction. The more difficult the prose style, the more challenging the translating process becomes. Also, in hindsight I feel since women were marginalised in the creative process and often not taken seriously at all, as a woman myself, it is my duty to explore and translate the writings of women even more.

Have you ever thought of writing yourself?

I have written a lot of critical essays and articles but when it comes to creative writing, my contribution is negligible. However, for a long period of time I wrote small features for the ‘Now and Again’ column published in the Op-ed section of The Statesman. These pieces made me quite popular as often when introduced to strangers for the first time, I would be asked whether I was the same person who wrote that column. Occasionally, I wrote several short entries about any and everything in life that interested me or I experienced first-hand without any false attributes in them. They were written primarily to divert myself from boring academic schedules and I called them ‘Vignettes of Life’when it was first published. Later it expanded into another edition called ‘More Vignettes of Life’ and the last one being called ‘Vignettes of Life Once More’. They contain any and everything that happened to me and in places around me, I am the narrator and the protagonist, and the result is that I have been able to make people laugh. In this troublesome and problem-ridden world, pure laughter and fun are vanishing so fast that I consider these short entries to be really cathartic. As for serious creative writing like writing short stories or poems, I never attempted to do that. Perhaps I am too prosaic a person you might say with very little imagination. 

What is your next project? Tell us a bit about it.

I am at present involved in a voluminous project which I began at least five years ago about different Bengalis from colonial times travelling to Vilayet or England and narrating their experiences in different genres of writing. Though I had to be selective in choosing the travellers over their two-hundred-year time span, sometimes unavailability of the primary texts made things more difficult. I am at present working on approximately forty such travellers, some of whom had written their memoirs in English. For those who wrote in Bengali, I am translating selected portions of their work for the purpose. So it is a quite laborious and time-consuming work but at the same time, very interesting because the multifarious reasons for each person’s travel to the coloniser’s land is mind-boggling. The structure of the book includes a brief bio-note of each traveller along with several sample pages from the actual narrative so that the reader can savour their experiences first-hand. I hope it sees the light of day soon.

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty)

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Categories
Essay

The Idea of India

Anasuya Bhar explores the history of the National Anthem of India, composed by Tagore in Bengali and translated only by the poet himself and by Aruna Chakravarti. Both the translations are featured here.

1700 AD: An illustrative map of the world in the early colonial period. The Mughal Empire in India was at its greatest territorial extent. Courtesy: Creative Commons

The national anthem and the national song of India are both parts of a post-colonial narrative and did not originate prior to the British colonisation of the country, which happened effectively, from the middle of the eighteenth century. India has been broadly classified as a civilisation and a cultural phenomenon, rather than a race or a territorial presence prior to the British colonisation.

India has remained an idea ever since the ancient times, perhaps even prior to the advent of the Classical Graeco-Roman civilisation of the west. The historicisation of India’s past has been a much debatable issue, with European historians representing India from their perspective. Much damage was done, for instance, by James Mill’s The History of British India (1817), which rubbished the country as thoroughly debased and wanting the civilisational touch of the European west. The reality of India, or more correctly Bharat, inhered in the local and regional historical specificities, its literature, culture, myths and legends. The historical perspective of our inhabitants was that of the Puranic history whose chronology, order and narrativity depended on a time scale different from the idea of time in the western rationale for chronology. In other words, the European west’s rationale consequent of the enlightenment, and the enlightened concept of history, was a later addition to the Indian consciousness.

The concept of a distinct nation, and as an individual entity in the consciousness of a socio-political presence in the history of the world, was also, a comparatively belated concept in our country. In fact, it was not earlier than the Mughals that the country was conceptualised as a unified entity from the North to the South, from the East to the West. The Indian sub-continent is strategically guarded by the geographical presence of the Himalayan range, the Indian ocean, the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. Hence, the territorial boundaries which become crucial in determining the political borders of the European or the American west are not of much consequence over here. The borders that are present in the former continents are a result of political aggression and imperialism. The borders that ensued in the Indian subcontinent and eventually created Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Burma, Bangladesh and also Sri Lanka, are, however, a result of the European and, particularly, British intervention.

The consciousness of India’s nationalism was, as mentioned in the beginning, a later one and quite clearly a colonial aftermath. Among the first to mention the lack of an indigenous history was Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay (1838 – 94), the celebrated novelist and intellectual of nineteenth century Bengal, who himself attempted to write, through his various essays, a historical consciousness for his country. The writer of our national song ‘Bande Mataram’ (in Anandamath, 1882), Bankimchandra was also the first to think of a ‘jatiyo’ or a nationalist consciousness, and attempted to take a fresh look at the puranic history based on myths and legends. He rewrote the narrative of Krishna, and also looked afresh at the fundamentals of the Hindu religion.

The nationalist consciousness was given a fresh lease through the several attempts for promoting indigenous products and enterprises by the Tagores of Jorasanko in Kolkata. The Hindu Mela (Hindu fair), begun since the mid-1860s by Dwijendranath Tagore (1840 – 1926) was among the first to strike concepts of an indigenous nationhood, by giving impetus through homespun fabrics, cultivation of rural handicrafts and traditional food items like pickles or ‘bori’, such that a space could be created independent of the parameters used by the colonial masters. Rabindranath (1861 – 1941) also refers to several attempts of his elder brother Jyotirindranath (1849 – 1925), in creating the matchstick factory or even striking a competition in the ship trade with their English counterparts in the waters of Bengal in his autobiographical Jibansmriti (My Reminiscences, 1911). He also mentions the latter’s attempt at designing a national dress for the country, trying to fuse various drapes of traditional clothing. This is again very interesting because, a distinctive sartorial appearance would help in identifying the Indian from the European, even externally. The sari  as we wear it now, was first conceptualised by Jnanadanandini Devi (1850 – 1941) of the Tagore household. She gave the Indian women a dignified attire by fusing the styles of Parsis and Gujaratis, and also by improvising on the styles of the European gown to give us the blouse-jacket. The unification of various styles automatically veered towards a oneness in the same territorial boundaries and the nationalistic consciousness came first through cultural means.

The Tagores of Bengal were also among the first, after Rammohan Roy (1772 – 1833), to venture beyond their homes. Dwarakanath (1794 -1846), grandfather of Rabindranath, not only stayed in England for a substantial period of time, but also endeared himself to Queen Victoria as the ‘Prince’. Debendranath (1817 – 1905), his son, was in the habit of touring the Himalayas extensively, and even took his youngest son Rabi along with him. Satyendranath (1842 – 1923), another of his sons, was the first Indian to qualify in the Indian Civil Service; he too, extensively toured several parts of India and abroad. Rabindranath was a frequent traveller from a very early age. The women of the Tagore household, beginning with Jnanadanandini Devi also moved out of their antarmahal  (inner quarters) and into the other parts of their country and even the world. Indira, Mrinalini, Sarala, Pratima along with Jnanada were frequent travellers both within and outside the country. Hence, the country and the ideology of India as a nation were familiar concepts to the members of this remarkable family from Bengal. Of course, there were other influential households in nineteenth century Bengal, but none so extensively influential.

The formation of the Indian National Congress (INC) in 1885, marked the culmination of several isolated and scattered attempts at nurturing a nationalist consciousness. I have, however, given a few instances from Bengal. I am sure similar attempts were made in other states as well. Even in the formation of the INC, we see the pivotal role played by Janakinath Ghosal (1840 – 1913), husband of the well-known litterateur Swarnakumari Devi (1855 – 1932), elder sister of Rabindranath. According to the memoirs of his elder daughter Hiranmayee, Janakinath was a key presence at the time of the formation of the Congress. Later, Sarala (1872 – 1945), their younger daughter, not only became a part of the Congress, but was also among the foremost figures in Bengal to enthuse young men into the national struggle through cultivation of physical fitness programs. Sarala also worked closely with Swami Vivekananda and Sister Nivedita in some of their philanthropic programs.

Jana Gana Mana, now venerated as our National Anthem, was most possibly first composed as a hymn, by Rabindranath Tagore. This hymn was first recited on the second day of the annual session of the Indian National Congress on 27th December 1911, by none other than Rabindranath himself. This was followed by a second performance of it in January 1912, in the annual event of the ‘Adi Brahmo Samaj’ or the Brahmo Congregation, and then it was published, for the first time in the January edition of the Tattwabodhini Patrika, which was the official journal of the ‘Adi Brahmo Samaj’, with the title ‘Bharata Bhagya Bidhata’ or ‘the determinant of Bharat’s destiny’. The journal was, at that time, edited by Rabindranath himself. The original song, composed in Bengali, has five stanzas. The Anthem makes use of only the first of the five and usually covers an average time of 52 seconds when sung. The original language has been retained, although its intonation is Devanagiri.

The Song in Bengali. Photo courtesy: Anasuya Bhar

The song is a hymn to the all-pervasive, almighty, and the maker of the country’s destiny, the power of whom presides over her natural boundaries of the Himalayas and other mountains and the rivers, and where resides individuals of all races, cultures and religions. It has been the benefactor, through thick and thin, assimilating the good with the bad, and when the country has been lying destitute in trouble and pain, has extended its hand in empathetic wonder. The sun of Bharat’s destiny will rise again and the pall of darkness shall be drowned in the light of a new dawn – a new beginning and a new hope. Rabindranath did not live to see this dawn, but his visions were realised and honoured by the makers of the Constitution of the Republic of India.

The hymn that originated in the poet’s fiftieth year, perhaps had its germs planted in him through his entire life as the beginning of this essay tries to elaborate. It was only time and the political needs of the country that expedited its utterance in the year 1911. The poet’s vision found embodiment in other and similar creations as well. His Gitanjali (1912) contains the well-known poem, ‘Where the mind is without fear’  (XXXV) –

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action —
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father let my country awake.

The year in which he composed and first presented Jana Gana Mana, that is 1911, was in many ways a very crucial year in his personal history. As mentioned earlier it was his fiftieth birth-year, and he was gradually beginning to be acknowledged for his poetic greatness in his own land. The following year, that is 1912, he would go to England, with some of his own translations into English, and which would, introduce him to the world as a major poet, among other poets. 1911, was also the year which marked the coronation of King George V and the transfer of the British capital from Calcutta to Delhi. In fact, Rabindranath’s hymn was initially mistaken to be sung in honour of the new Emperor of the British dominions, but was later clarified to be otherwise, and was acknowledged to be a ‘prayer’ for his own native land and independent of such intentions.

The period that we are considering is also a very significant one in Rabindranath’s own consciousness of the nation and his concept of nationalism. In 1910, he published his novel Gora where he underlined the irony inherent in religious exclusivity and bigotry. His protagonist, a staunch votary of Hindu values and virtues, ironically emerges to be an Irish foundling reared in a Hindu home. Through him Rabindranath proves the efficacy of such conservative religious bigotry. His song ‘Bharata Bhagya Bidhata’ pledges to go beyond external divisions of religion and politics, and endorses the value of humanity; nor does it discount the importance of the west, but believes in the fruitful coming together of the best of all worlds. His school at Santiniketan, later to be identified as Visva-Bharati, exemplifies this coming together of the best of all the worlds. In 1919, he delivered a series of lectures on nationalism, which came together in a single volume called Nationalism, and further endorsed his beliefs in finding the nation through culture, history and habits rather than through and in territorial, narrow parochial walls.  In Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1916), published around the same time, he offers us a critique of the Swadeshi Movement that dominated colonial politics in the first decade of the twentieth century in Bengal. He subtly interweaves a tale of the ‘personal’ with the ‘political’ in the triangular narrative structure of Bimala, Nikhil and Sandip, only to expose the petty hypocrisies that inhere within the grand narratives of ‘nationalism’, ‘patriotism’ and even ‘swadeshi’ at the cost of the common good and humanity at large.  

Jana Gana Mana was sung by Sarala Devi Chaudhuri, Rabindranath’s niece and daughter of Janakinath, in 1912, and who had distinguished herself as one of the earliest women nationalists of the country. The song was, then, performed in front of veteran Congress leaders. Outside Bengal, the song was perhaps performed for the first time by Rabindranath in the annual session of Besant Theosophical College in Madanapalle, Andhra Pradesh, on 28th February 1919. The Vice-Principal of the college, Margaret Cousins, was so enthralled by the song that she asked the poet to translate it for her. This Tagore did, and the translation is called ‘The Morning Song of India’. A facsimile image of the same is shown here.

The Morning Song of India in Rabindranath’s handwriting. Photo courtesy: Anasuya Bhar

‘Jana Gana Mana’ has been translated into English by noted writer, academic and translator, Aruna Chakravarti. She is perhaps the only person to accomplish this beside the poet himself. The following is the translation made by her, along with the English transliteration of the Bengali original (Songs of Tagore, Niyogi Books):

Leader of the masses.
Lord of the minds of men. 
Arbiter of India’s destiny.
Hail to you! All hail!

Your name resounds through her sea and land 
waking countless sleeping souls
from Punjab, Sindh, Gurarat, Maratha
to Dravid, Utkal, Banga.
Her mighty mountains—Himachal, Vindhya, 
her rivers—Yamuna, Ganga,
the blue green sea with which she is girdled; 
her waves, her peaks, her rippling air
seek your blessing, carry your echoes. 
Oh boundless good! Oh merciful! 
Hail to you! All hail!

At the sound of your call the people assemble 
from myriad streams of life.
Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain.
Christian, Parsee and Sikh.
East and West stand by your throne 
hands held in amity,
weaving a wreath of fraternal love; 
of empathy, unity.
Oh you who bring us all together! 
Hail to you! All hail!

Nations rise and nations fall
on the perilous path of history.
And you Eternal Charioteer
guide the world’s destiny.
Through day, through night, your wheels are heard 
renting the air with sound,
dispelling terror, banishing pain;
blowing the conch of peace.
Oh true arbiter of India’s fate!
Hail to you! All hail!

In the deep dark of a turbulent night, 
when our swooning, suffering land 
lifted her eyes to your face in hope, 
she saw your unwavering gaze
raining blessings, alight with love,
banishing evil dreams.
Like a loving mother you held out your arms 
and changed her destiny.
Oh you who wipe out the pain of the masses! 
Hail to you! All hail!

A new day dawns; a new sun rises
from the mountains of the east.
Song birds trill; new sap of life
is borne on the holy breeze.
India awakes from aeons of slumber
to the strains of your lofty song.
Head bowed to your feet oh King of kings! 
Hail to you! All hail!

(Republished with permission from Songs of Tagore, Niyogi Books)

Outside of the country, the song was also performed as the ‘national anthem’ of independent India, under the leadership of Subhas Chandra Bose on the occasion of the founding meeting of the German Indian Society on the 11th of September 1942, in Hamburg, Germany. The Indian Constituent Assembly allowed the performance of Jana Gana Mana on the midnight of 14th August 1947, marking the close of the historical session in the Parliament. It was on the 24th of January, 1950 that only the first stanza of the song was accepted as the National Anthem of independent India. The paeans of a land millennia old, perhaps heading the dawn of all human civilisation alone, is sung through glory to the world over, till date, bearing the torch of an all tolerant, enduring land, by the name of Bharat. Perhaps we still need to be in quest of its  philosophy of oneness.

A full rendition of Jana Gana Mana by Swagatalakshmi Dasgupta

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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