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‘Revisioning’ Tagore’s masterpiece

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh | Updated on August 21, 2021

A man and an idea: Tagore continues to belong to every Bengali-speaking person — appearing in the consciousness in poetry, song, story, ideas, or a picture on the walls   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s Sing of Life crafts a novel way to approach the Nobel Laureate’s Gitanjali

* A poet, translator and writer, Chabria has worked with Sanskrit and Tamil Sangam poetry as a translator. But her approach with Tagore is quite different

* The Gitanjali in English was translated by Tagore himself. While the Bengali version had 156 poems, for the English version he decided to redo them as prose translations

* I was interested to see how Chabria overcomes particular problems while retaining the beauty of the original

****

Couple of months ago, as the world around us was limping its way out of a bruising phase of the pandemic, I was on the phone, listening to my father recite Rabindranath Tagore’s iconic poem Nirjhorer Swapna Bhanga. As I listened to his voice articulate those well-known and well-loved lines, not for the first time, was I immensely moved by the power of poetry. The poem is one of regeneration, an awakening to the endless possibilities life has to offer. The imagery is fiery and dramatic, and the vision of nature evoked is one of energy personified. Yet, if I tried to translate the lines, I know I will fail miserably. Gone would be that passion, dissolving in words that cannot exactly evoke the wonder that the poet writes of — and therein lies the conundrum of Tagore’s works. He continues to belong to almost every Bengali-speaking person — appearing in the consciousness in poetry, song, story, ideas, or even as just a picture on the walls. And while he also remains one of India’s most beloved and towering intellectual figures, many Bengalis are hard put to explain exactly how much his words can move when read in the original context.

In this scenario, Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s ‘revisioning’ of the Gitanjali in Sing of Life makes for a rewarding reading. A poet, translator and writer, Chabria has worked with Sanskrit and Tamil Sangam poetry as a translator. But her approach with Tagore is quite different. Instead of a line by line or word to word translation, she looks at the poems as a connoisseur of words would, and plumbs the depths of its meaning, savouring the thoughts and emotions behind the lines. In her detailed introduction, she writes of a magical day in the mountains when she happened to come across a copy of the Gitanjali, and started reading it. “I am tingling with elation,” she says. “As I read, or rather plunge into it, certain words from each of the Songs lift like swans into my mind.” She proceeds to note these “risen phrases” down in a notebook. And from there births a novel way of approaching Tagore.

The Gitanjali in English was translated by Tagore himself. While the Bengali version had 156 poems, for the English version he decided to redo them as prose translations. As Chabria writes, the Gitanjali that most of the world read — in English, and for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, was itself one that had undergone a remaking already. She also writes, “...a great poem is one that often serves as a draft or raft for someone else’s poem... A spark or a shift in another’s subconscious.” Clearly, this is the point from which she approaches this text. The poems of the Gitanjali can move one immeasurably. Whether it is the lines of “Where the mind is without fear” that almost every child can recite, or the joyful celebration of the light divine in “Light, my light, the world-filling light...” can lift the heart or fill one with melancholy. Long after the words have been read or spoken they remain, floating in the bloodstream “like an electric eel” is how Chabria describes it quite aptly. Yet, it is also true that the English version often reads wordy, even archaic, the language at times an impediment, obscuring the vivacity of the lines that have withstood time for over a century.

Wider meaning: Instead of a line by line or word to word translation, Priya Sarukkai Chabria approaches Tagore’s poems as a connoisseur of words   -  VV KRISHNAN

 

And so I was interested to see how Chabria overcomes these problems while retaining the beauty of the original. She describes her process in some detail in the beginning, where she shows how she picked out words and phrases from Tagore’s versions and used them in a first version of her recreation. This she further distils to create a second version, which is even more spare, consisting of only a few words and lines each, where the very heart of the poem beats to life. The book has an interesting structure, and each poem can be read in a number of layers. There are Chabria’s two visions of each of the poems, and if one wishes to, then Tagore’s English creation, which has also been included in a section in the end.

Sing of Life : Revisioning Tagore’s Gitanjali / Priya Sarukkai Chabria / Westland / Fiction / ₹599

For instance, here is, once again, my beloved ‘Alo Aamar Alo’, or ‘Light, my light’:

World-filling light

Eye-kissing light

Heart-sweeting light

Light dances

Light strikes

The sky opens

Wind runs wild

Laughter passes over

earth

And in its even freer version:

Butterflies spread sails

On the sea of light

Jasmine & lilies surge

On waves of light

Light shatters gold on cloud

& scatters gems

Heaven’s river has drowned

its banks

--

my darling

at the centre

Sing of Life is a book that one can keep dipping into, reading a poem now, finding an emotion there. It is all about the heart, as most poetry is, particularly Tagore’s. Yet there is clearly a sharp poet’s mind at work that can discern the movement of words through the page and how they imprint on the consciousness. Chabria is able to, in most instances, capture that ineffable feeling of wonder and melancholy mixed with joy that accompanies reading or listening to the words of Tagore. The beauty of the poems of the Gitanjali, with its movement in the poet’s thoughts as he almost traces his entire life’s course within the hundred odd poems, is an experience everyone should be able to savour. With this revisioning, it reaches a new readership — perhaps younger, perhaps more modern — while keeping intact the eternal and the immortal in its lines.

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh is a Bengaluru-based editor

Published on August 21, 2021

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