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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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