RABINDRANATH TAGORE (1861—1941) became an international figure when his Gitanjali, an anthology of lyrics, originally written in Bengali and translated into English by the poet himself, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature—the first ever to an Asian—in 1913. Since then he came to be known not only as a great writer but also as an able spokesman of modem India. Even today he is the most widely read Indian writer. Although his reputation outside the Bengali-speaking areas rests largely, if not entirely, on his English writings, no attempt had been made to put them together. Sahitya Akademi has decided to bring out a complete collection of Tagore’s writings in English—original as well as translations done by him — in four volumes. The corpus of Tagore’s English writings, large and diverse, forms a substantial part of his total work. The first volume includes most of the poetic works translated by Tagore and a few poems that he wrote originally in English. The second volume consists of plays and stories translated by him, as’-well as five prose works. The third volume is a collection of different genres of writings — prose works, lectures, addresses, statements, messages and conversations. This volume, the fourth, includes the remaining poems, plays, essays, lectures and addresses, conversations, writings on books and open letters, messages and tributes.
Nityapriya Ghosh (b. 1934) has taught English in colleges, served in the Military Lands and Cantonments Service of the Government of India and worked as a PR executive in private and public sectors. His writings on Tagore include seven books in Bengali: Svabhabata Svtantra Rabindranath (1981), Mukta Ekak Rabindranath (1983). Dakgharer Harkara (1988), Sukno Patti Maim Kusum (1992), Kshnakaler Lilar Srote (2000), Ranur Chithi Kabir Sneha (2005) and Sneher Bhikhari (2006). He has edited Hindu Musalman Samparka (2003), Tagore writings on the Communal Relations, Mukher Katha Lekhar Rhashay (2006), a collection of Tagore lectures published as essays, and Partition of Bengal (2005), a collection of documents on the 1905 partition. He has been a book reviewer, political columnist, TV columnist it Bengali and English newspapers and magazines. He has contributed Samar Sen (2001) to the Makers of Indian Literature series of Sahitya Akademi and translated Sanchez Ghose’s Kabir Abhipray into A Poet’s Intention (1994).
On 10 September 1937 Rabindranath Tagore fell critically ill, remaining unconscious for 48 hours and did not quite recover ever since. But there was no perceptible diminishing in his literary output. As many as 11 books of poems were published containing the poems written after his convalescence in 1937, 9 during his life-time and 2 after his death. The books were Prantik (18 poems), Smejuti (22 poems), Prahasini (14 poems written after 1937 illness along with other poems written earlier), Akaspradip (22 poems), Nabajatak (35 poems), Sanai (60 poems), Rogsayyay (39 poems), Arogya (33 poems), Janmadine (29 poems), Chada (12 poem) and esh1ekha (15 poems). As the names of two later books, Rogsayyay (On the sick-bed) and Arogya (Convalescence) indicate, the Poet again fell ill on 26 September 1940 at Kalimpong, remaining unconscious as in 1937.
It is well known that Tagore’s literary output was enormous. - Not so well known is the fact that Tagore’s English writings (original and translation) were equally voluminous. The three volumes edited by Sisir Kumar Das and published by Sahitya Akademi (The English Writings by Rabindranath Tagore) are a proof of that amplitude. Not by any means, those three volumes were comprehensive in their collection. This fourth volume has been necessary to collect the left-overs. Even then, the work is not complete. Tagore’s English letters require one separate volume, demanding patient scrutiny through journals and newspapers. Tagore’s interviews with newspaper reporters, statements on various subjects, messages and tributes, in Indian and overseas papers are yet to be collected. Some of these were published in EWRT 3 and some more in this volume. But these collections have been cursory Nepal Majumdar’s six volumes of Bharate Jatiyata O Antarjatikata Eban Rabindranath are replete with hundreds of these, but in fragments. Unless somebody goes through newspaper clippings kept in Rabindra-Bhavana, Santiniketan, it will be difficult to collate and give them a coherent form.
Enough has been written about why Rabindranath took to translating his own works, by himself and others. Once he became a national and then an international celebrity, there was a relentless demand on Tagore for his comments, contributions and lectures. Tagore had to respond to requests from friends. His sense of obligation to put forward India’s point of view made him write on his own and for obvious reasons, in English. What is apparently baffling is why he should translate too. May be, sometimes he ran out of ideas for his English writings and translated his Bengali essays which he thought were of universal appeal. And since he thought himself essentially a poet, he had to translate poems too, to meet the demands from outside Bengal.
It is noteworthy that Tagore wrote some Bengali poems and then English translations on the same day, viz., Sribijaylakhsmi and To Java, By a Pilgrim from India on 21 August 1927 at Batavia. Possibly, he made the quick translation far recitation at a meeting. All the four poems written during his trip to Java and other places in the Far East in 1927 were written and translated quickly, if not simultaneously and were published in VBQ in October 1927. The other three poems were Borobudur (23 September 1927), Siam, Pratham Darsane (11 October 1927), Siam, Bidaykale (11 October 1927). The need to translate here is obvious, for the understanding of a foreign audience.
Similarly when The Statesman requested the Poet for a Bengali New Year message, the Poet sent the poem, In the dream of a new age and its Bengali version Ore, nutan yuger bhore both dated 14 April 1939 and The Statesman published them in its Bengali New Year day supplement. The same paper requested a contribution from the Poet on the occasion of the 70th birthday of M. K. Gandhi. The Poet sent Gandhi Maharaj, (the Bengali poem written on 13 December 1940) the English version on 15 December 1940. The paper again asked for a contribution to celebrate the X’mas day in 1940. The Poet obliged on 6 December 1940 with a poem In the languid hour of midday in my half wakeful sleep which was a translation of a poem written a fortnight ago, the poem featuring now as no 22 of Rogsayyay.
The translations of these poems were obviously necessitated by demands of newspapers. But not always. Or perhaps we do not know yet the context of those translations. The last poem he translated was Ai Mahamanab Ase, written on 14 April 1941. It was written for a choral song to be sung by Santiniketan students on the Bengali New Year day, the day on which the Poet’s birthday used to be celebrated because of the summer closure of the school and university. On the same day the Poet intended to read what became his last address to people, Sabhyatar Sankat. He was not allowed to read it because of his serious illness. Even then he sat through the evening Mandir and rued that he was not allowed to read. The address got translated by others Crisis of Civilization—later Crisis in Civilization (EWRT3) for immediate publication in the next day’s newspapers. The Poet enlarged the address and revised it; the English translation also got revised and enlarged. Similarly the song Ai Mahamanab Ase got translated by Amiya Chakravarty and the Poet revised it1 Revisions such as these have caused trouble for us. Should these be considered translations by others and revised or authorised by the Poet or translations by the Poet himself? The extent of revision should determine the authorship but manuscripts with revisions are not available in most cases. That is why perhaps the song The Great One Comes has created confusion. The point has been discussed in the Sources section of this volume:
The editor of the Anthology of One Hundred Songs of Rabindranath (vol II) credited the translation to Tagore.
You are ready to create- the poem beginning with these lines was translated on the same day when the original Bengal poem was composed. This is evident from the facsimile of the two poems published in Rabindra-Viksha, vol 29. The simultaneous composition of the original and the translation can be easily explained. The original was written as a blessing for Nandini, the Poet’s grand daughter on her marriage. And the translation was made as the bridegroom was a Gujarati youth. Ajit Singha. The same marriage ceremony was also the occasion when the song of the union of two being (the Bengali original premer Milan dine) was written. Presumably, these two also were composed on the same day. It is interesting to not that the Poet composed another song to celebrate the occasion, sumangali badhu, but the translation, if ever the Poet made it, has not been traced yet. The Poet used to bless newly married couples with a song or a poem. The poem beginning with while in the ice-bound dungeon of the North, the Bengali original being Parinaymangal, was composed in 1927 on the occasion of marriage of Amiya Chakravarty and a Swedish girl, renamed by the Poet as Haimanti. The translation might have been done on the same day for understanding of the Swedish girl. Another Parinaymangal was composed on 10 February 1935 when his nephew’s daughter, Jaya, was married; this needed no translation for the bridegroom was also a Bengali.
Ever since he began his translation exercises, Tagore was always apologetic. He should not have trespassed into a foreign domain—that was the refrain. But he must have been confident about his English; otherwise he could not have delivered such a massive volume of English writings. It is significant to note a soliloquy recorded by Rani Chanda. In Alapcari Rabindranath Rani used to take down notes of Tagore’s conversations with others including herself, more often his soliloquies. The span of the book ran from the entry on 7 July 1934 down to that on 12 July 1941. The greater part of the book covers the period after the Poet fell ill in September 1937. The soliloquies were short, fragmentary, skipping from one theme to another. A translation for this volume of a part of the entry on 3July 1941.
My education since childhood — let that go; how can I say that I learnt English; I didn’t have an inkling of the grammar but I think I can carry on with English somehow. The use of language can be carried on from an instinct. This is very true. I will open up my bag before I pass out—I have nothing, I had nothing, I have gone on showing magic. I had done what I could do—I composed. For many days people who knew me couldn’t imagine that I knew English. They were surprised when they saw that I earned reputation in the use of English language. That was a miracle. I have seen how language is generated from within the mind. Some cannot do it even after learning much; some can do it learning little. That happened with me.
An entry on 17 April 1941 showed that he knew that he was not deficient in English even at the age of sixteen. He fondly remembered how Henry Morley of the London University was enthusiastic about the subject, style and language of his essay written to defend his countrymen and on the treatment given by the English in India.
Tagore came back, at the bidding of his father, disrupting his studies in the London University where he attended lectures only for three months. Back home, his creative energies found full expression in Bengali writings. He never ceased to read English books but he did not cultivate then his writings in English. That made him diffident about his translation of his own poems at the age of fifty and he allowed revisions of Gitanjali: Song Offerings, The Gardener, The Crescent Moon by his English literary friends. But when the rumour spread by Valentine Chriol, an English civilian in India, that Tagore’s English was not his own, Tagore put his foot down, refusing to let his manuscripts of Fruit-Gathering and Lover’s Gift & Crossing to be revised by anybody. He asked Rothenstein in a letter on 20 August 1915 to get these published, warts and all, because he did not want to enjoy a reputation by fraud.
Excepting his lectures abroad and messages or open letters to English Press, Tagore’s English writings owed themselves mostly to The Visva-Bharati Quarterly, that commenced in 1923, whose pages he had to fill by rewriting his own old Bengali essays or occasionally writing in English, not translating or paraphrasing Bengali essays, and also to The Modern Review, to whose friendly persuasions he had to respond. His correspondence with the editor of MR. Ramananda Chatterjee, had a fair share of references to his own English writings and we can guess what his attitude to these were. We shall quote, in English translations made for this volume, a few of these to illustrate the point.
29 March 1941
(Reaction to the publication of Tagore’s old letters in Bengali to Ramananda Chatterjee, serially published in Prabasi from April 1941 onwards):
“When I wrote those letters from England, there was a sudden intrusion of self-conceit. I feel ashamed now. If I were able to control my sentiments then, if hyperboles did not enter those letters, even if unconsciously, the letters could have been considered a true history. On the other hand, these might be considered constituting a history of psychology revealing the inevitable excitement of a newly famed writer, earning inconceivable praises on his use of the English language. That was why I did not feel it necessary to interfere with my own deeds.
“Readers, I hope, will pardon the taste of my hidden conceit expressed in those letters.”
6 May 1941
The language I used in England was a language familiar to them. The appreciation of my language was bound to fade out after the first surprise they felt. The literary language there is also fading out. My English, I knew, however surprising for a few days, would not be able to cast a permanent anchor. That is why I feel apologetic to have prided myself on my newly acquired honour. My countrymen who have meanwhile developed intimacy with the English literary circle might be able to convey to you my apprehensions in this matter. May be they are also secretly sharing disrespect to this (my use of English). But I did not crave favour in foreign language and literature. I did not imagine nor did I expect to carve out a place in the midst of their literary society. Therefore, the whole affair may be considered a fortuitous accident.
6 October 1937
I have not read Sita’s (RC’s daughter) English writings. I fear English writing itself. The contemporary English language for story-writing is beyond our reach— the model of English we had learnt has vastly changed now. That is the reason I did not dare to indulge in this difficult task. If I were in England these days, perhaps the spirit of the modern language would have permeated my consciousness without my knowing. But it is difficult to adopt the present literary English from afar. On the whole, this is my stand. In fact I have no attachment to English translations of my own writings—I know, every language treasures like a miser its literary wealth, not allowing to convey its flavour in alien language.
20 January 1937
I know it for certain that the English-educated in our country belong to the mid-Victorian age in their poetic language and style, which are obsolete in today’s literary market. They will take much time to qualify for the modern age. I have lost courage and interest in translating myself…
17 October 1935
Don’t expect me anymore to tighten my belt like a wrestler to translate. As water’s level in the well goes down in summer and one feels breathless in drawing water, I feel it equally arduous to supply words for the sake of writing. And more so when English is concerned. I sometimes forget that I neglected the study of English in my boyhood—but that neglected, uneducated, truant from the school was hiding but has escaped through the slack control of the old age. If I go to Europe and spend sometime there the truant boy may demonstrate some English skills. May be he will start it on the ship itself. I’ve observed several times that I have an instrument in my mind that responds to the wind, the wind brings out a variety of tunes from that instrument.
11 May 1934
I feel greatly unwilling when I take to writing lectures, specially in English. I have tested it, there was no caste distinction between the language delivered extempore and the written language…
15 November 1929
I have been invited to give a lecture at Baroda. (Man the Artist, included in this volume) I’ve been at it. I feel everyday that the easy flow of my composing power is getting slower. Perhaps my mind does not feel any enthusiasm to write with that flow. Specially my mind gets distracted when I get to write in English. The pen moves slowly. This happens every time when I return to India—perhaps the method of thinking in English language gets obstructed here. But I have something to say on the occasion of Hibbert Lectures…
28 October 1917
Some others also requested me to translate myself my essay Amar Dharma. I shall try The problem with me is, I can’t translate, I always write it anew. Because if I have to correctly translate I can’t afford to forget myself. But if I can’t forget myself I forget the words, the grammar, the style. . . . Those who say that it was not I who translated Gitanjali but somebody else, they are right. In fact Sir Rabindranath does not know English. I feel endangered when I am called upon to speak or chair at some English meeting, because the fellow who writes the English Gitanjali refuses to come with me to an English meeting—that is the reason why I invoke Chanakya the sage and say to myself ‘mum is the word’ even if! Go to those meetings. I can’t call on the translator of Gitanjali to write small official English letters—perhaps he is afraid that he will be deployed in some clerical job—but when it comes to big letters, I find him uninvited but ready with the pen…
In some of his lectures abroad (included in this volume) Tagore said that he took his first learning in English not before he was twelve. His memory must have failed him or he might have meant serious English learning. His biographer, Prasanta Kumar Pal, informs us in Rabijibani vol 1, p 105 (1982) that one Rakhaldas Datta was appointed to teach Tagore English at home because the school he attended at that time, Normal School, was a Bengali-medium school, not paying proper attention to English. Tagore was then 7 years old. Tagore writes in Chelebela (1940), the remembrances of his childhood days, the funny ways his classmate and he used to learn English. Aghornath Chattopadhyay, the English tutor at home, to whom he amusedly referred in one his lectures, was also appointed when he was eight. He was admitted to Bengal Academy where he studied for about a year and a half—at the age between eleven and twelve—may be that was why he said that he studied English not before he was twelve. It was again Tagore who took pride in the fact that he translated Macbeth when he was twelve (Jibansmriti), with the help of his tutor at home.
A question is sometimes asked, is Tagore as popular now as he was in the 1920s in Europe, is he still read outside Bengal these days? The question itself is jejune. What is the measure of popularity of a writer? How does one know if a writer is or is not read? Apart from that, it is a well-known fact that literary reputations have their ups and downs. No writer, not even Shakespeare, retains his reputation all the time. The Nobel Prize, which is the nearest standard accepted of popularity or literary merit, has been given over years to writers who are now merely names in the annals of Swedish Academy. The Swedish Academy itself keeps itself informed of the criticisms levelled against its awards as well as assessments of those writers, made individually and collectively. Kjell Espmark (1930-), the chairman of the Nobel Committee of Swedish Academy, when he wrote, basing on the minutes and proceedings of the Nobel Committee and other available materials, The Nobel Prize in Literature (1991), refers to some such surveys. About Tagore he writes, while assessing the merits of the award in the 1 920s (p 148):
“In certain recent evaluations of this period, Tagore has been labeled a similarly good [as good as Gerhart Hauptman] choice. The shorter critical appraisals tend to ignore him; he has on the whole been thought of as a little pale. In the literature of his own country, however, he has kept his place, and the specialist in the 1967 symposium, Albert Howard Carter, declared that if he were compelled to choose only one prize-winner from Asia or Africa, he would opt for Tagore. The recent publication of an English selection of his poems can be seen as an attempt at rehabilitation.”
To say in 1967 that Tagore was the best choice from Asia or Africa was not much, of course. The only other Asian to be given the Nobel Prize for literature till then was S. Y. Agnon (1888-1970) of Israel who was awarded in 1966. And citing recent translations as a proof rehabilitation betrays the writer’s belief that Tagore was eclipsed in the intervening period. Even Anders Osterling (1884- 1981) concludes his essay on Tagore, contributed to the Centenary Volume of Rabindranath Tagore, Sahitya Akademi (1961)—Osterling was then the Permanent Secretary of Swedish Academy:
“But how much of this charm is still alive for us to-day? This is a question that cannot be answered without some reservation, for Tagore, too, belongs to his epoch and along with his closest contemporaries among the poets of Victorian England he has been forced to share the fate that has caused so many bright and honey-filled creations from an earlier period to wither in the new storms of this iron age. The dreamer’s sacred white robe is ill-suited to a time with rains of soot and blood. But to visit his romantic Hindusthan is like getting up with the sun in the summer, on a morning before dawn, when everything is different and the dew sparkles in the grass like traces of an unknown, divine presence.”
It is evident that Osterling’s idea of Tagore did not go beyond a dreaming, a romantic Tagore. That Tagore was much more should be clear from Tagore’s English writings as collected in the three volumes published earlier and in this volume. And any reader of Tagore in his original Bengali knows that the English writings of Tagore do not reflect the writer in his totality, for translations have been sporadic and fragmentary and translation is by nature a pale shadow of the original, devoid of the cadence and rhythm and language-specific associations.
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