Three Crown Jewels ~ I and II (“The Statesman”)

Three Crown Jewels ~ I
The Entire Pictorial Oeuvre Of Tagore

The Statesman (Calcutta)  Sunday, September 4, 2011

Martin Kämpchen

IT cannot be disputed that the Ministry of Culture in Delhi makes a concerted effort to establish Rabindranath Tagore in the public mind internationally on the occasion of his 150th birth anniversary. Unfortunately, it has been impossible, as many had hoped, to get Santiniketan declared a World Heritage site during this anniversary year. Santiniketan is not Rabindranath. It is not easy to provide documentary proof that Santiniketan as a geographical area and receptacle of pedagogical ideas has radiated an influence into the world which is still noticeable today. Of Rabindranath’s works, this can be established any time. But do his ideas on education, nationalism and universality continue to have palpable currency? An attempt is being made to establish this.
However, many events have happened and are about to happen, initiated and subsidised by the government, which give sparkle to this anniversary. Let me begin by giving my full-hearted congratulations to the team which made the four stout volumes of  Rabindra Chitravali happen. This is a world-class publication by Pratikshan Publishers in collaboration with Visva-Bharati and the Ministry of Culture. It collects excellently faithful reproductions of Rabindranath’s paintings in large format. The editor, Kala Bhavan’s art historian, Prof R Siva Kumar, has spent his entire working life researching the Bengal School of Art, especially the Santiniketan crop of painters. This is the crowning achievement in this hard-working and self-effacing scholar’s career. Hailing from Kerala, he made Santiniketan his “nest” three decades ago. We all know how difficult teamwork is in India, especially in West Bengal. Here, some of our country’s best minds in art history, photography, editing and publishing have combined their expertise to bring before us, for the first time, almost the entire pictorial œuvre of Rabindranath Tagore. Leafing through these four books, I felt exhilarated and could hardly sleep the next night for joy.
All paintings available at the Rabindra Bhavan and Kala Bhavan of Visva-Bharati as well as at Rabindra Bharati, the Indian Museum in Kolkata and the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi have been included. Private collections have been left out. Even then, not less than approximately 2000 paintings are reproduced! A separate brochure provides documentary data for each picture.
The first volume brings before our amazed eyes the manuscript doodles, starting with Purabi (1924). As Siva Kumar’s Introduction affirms, these lines embroidering the words and lines of a manuscript were first inadvertent, intuitive scribbles while the mind groped for an appropriate word or phrase. Then they gradually expanded into symbols and emblems, faces and bizarre figures, mostly bird figures. Painting independently from manuscripts began in 1928, and already two years later, Rabindranath felt ready to show the world his new creations. In 1930, in Paris, he mounted the first exhibition which he took along with him wherever he went in Europe and America.
The second volume of Rabindra Chitravali presents one genre in which the poet was passionately interested: in the human face which sometimes freezes into masks. The third volume contains a collection of pictures of the human body. Although in traditional Indian art, the human body is not neglected, R. Siva Kumar confirms: “Rabindranath played a seminal role in getting the human body written into modern culture.”
The fourth volume shows what Rabindranath’s art is known for best: his landscapes and flowers as well as his black-and-white drawings which were mostly illustrations for his own books. As we can see, the editor has opted for a thematic division of the material. With this, the viewer becomes a bit overwhelmed by hundreds of very similar pictures and designs one after another.  The individuality of each picture may have more easily emerged with a mixed arrangement. However, the alternative sensible organising pattern, a chronological sequence, would have been fraught with potential mistakes and may have become a guessing game as many pictures are undated. However, within the thematic groups a chronological order has been attempted. As Siva Kumar was bringing together these paintings, he realised that the projected four volumes did not contain all the material that had come to the fore. So a fifth volume, ready to come out in a year’s time, is being prepared with miscellaneous pictures, with textual documents and a few scholarly essays.
The important feature is that with the Chitravali, the world can experience Rabindranath face to face, without the mediation of translations, without the distraction of sombre black robes or beautiful eyes and oriental clichés. It is, one may argue, not the whole of Rabindranath we get in these paintings. True, neither do Bengali-speakers get him wholly in his writing and his songs. There is an uncanny symbiosis in Rabindranath’s forms of expression which we, who love this creative genius, have not yet fully gauged.
The second gem is a collection of DVDs, called Tagore Stories on Film, with five classic feature films based on Tagore’s stories and novels, then Satyajit Ray’s famed documentary on the poet, and the remnants of a stage play, Natir Puja, which was directed as a silent film in 1932 by Tagore himself. The leaflet attached to the collection (which, alas, should have been done more professionally and comprehensively) tells us that over a hundred feature films have chosen Tagore narratives as their plot. Of them we here have three Bengali films of which two (Tin Kanya and Ghare Baire) are by Satyajit Ray and one by Tapan Sinha (Khudito Pashan), further, two Hindi films (Kabuliwala by Hemen Gupta and Char Adhyay by Kumar Sahani). All these are rather recent as the early films have, unfortunately, all been lost or destroyed due to improper storage.
This very reasonably priced collection was brought out by the National Film Development Corporation in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Within a few weeks it has become a collector’s item; I could get a borrowed copy only after some begging and pleading. Will the publishers not please release more copies? Here we have two sides of the poet, the painter and the provider of cinematic plots, which we are, globally, less familiar with and which are, at any rate, not part of the “Tagore myth”.
(To be concluded)
The writer is a Tagore scholar based in Santiniketan; he can be contacted at




5 September 2011

Three Crown Jewels ~ II

A Book That Defines Celebrations

Martin Kämpchen


RABINDRANATH’S Gitanjali poems, both the Bengali book as well as his English rendering, form the core of the “Tagore myth”. It is a lucky coincidence that this myth is being corrected and put into perspective in this jubilee year by a book which may well be remembered as the one book defining our celebrations in India. (Rabindranath Tagore: Gitanjali, a new translation by William Radice. Penguin Books India, New Delhi 2011).
Between the two covers we really have two books. The first is the English translation in verse of all those poems culled from the Bengali Gitanjali as well as from several other collections of poems and songs which Rabindranath himself translated into lyrical prose in 1912 and then  collected and organised into the English Gitanjali. For the first time a translator has the guts to publish his own translation side by side with Tagore’s iconic translation. William Radice himself calls it “audacious”, fully conscious of the fact that his translation may go against the grain of many a Tagore-lover. It needed an experienced translator-poet like him for such an experiment to succeed. He did it, obviously, not to devalue Tagore and upstage himself, but rather to give to his readers a taste of the original poems and, at the same time, to record what Tagore had done to his poems in his own English paraphrases.
All along it had been a matter of speculation whether the Irish poet, W.B. Yeats, had a hand in the brushing up of Tagore’s English text or not, and if so, how much he had changed. Some scholars asserted that Yeats’s textual contribution was minimal, others that he needlessly anglicised and even distorted the text. Yet, no comprehensive proof of either assumption had so far been offered.
Radice is the first researcher who put two and two together and carefully compared the so-called “Rothenstein manuscript” of Gitanjali with the printed version. The Rothenstein manuscript, which is preserved at Havard University, was the one Tagore’s British artist friend William Rothenstein submitted to Yeats and from which Yeats effected his alterations. Radice’s findings are astonishing and will slowly, as they sink into public consciousness, revolutionize the view that is held on how Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize.
The “second book” combines an 84-page Introduction and several Appendices, running into 113 pages, which minutely and, I should say, passionately show how Yeats altered the original English Gitanjali ~ the “real Gitanjali”, as Radice perfers to call it, and thus twisted the original intentions, the mood and the literary quality of the book. Yeats, in fact, did not merely correct or change the wording of the text and the punctuation. He also deleted the paragraphing of many texts and, indeed, totally shook up their sequence.
William Radice emphasises that by deleting the break-up of the texts into paragraphs their rhythm is altered, and rhythm is the forte of Rabindranath’s English Gitanjali. It holds the texts together and gives them their soul. Radice takes pains to show that Rabindranath’s sequence added up to a deliberate composition and amounted by no means to a haphazard heap of texts. Yeats misunderstood or disregarded this, or vainly wished to improve on it. Yeats veered towards an orientalising vision of Tagore: “…in Tagore, Yeats found what he wanted to see.” Radice draws up elaborate charts in which he tabulates and evaluates these changes and adds long notes with his own views. Some may reject this as a school-masterly way of dealing with Yeats. However, this critical corpus needs to come into the public domain so that a comprehensive discourse may be initiated.
Yeats himself exaggerated his changes in a letter, calling them “exhaustive”, while Rothenstein, among others, played them down.
Tagore, initially unsure of his English, probably had to give in to many changes of which he was not convinced. Rabindranath, who “believed that the poems he selected for translation represented his deepest self”, (Radice), must have felt betrayed by the form in which Gitanjali was finally published. Its immediate success and the “rapturous reviews” may have numbed that feeling, but not forever, and later it gave way to a sense of disenchantment and disappointment. The poet lamented in a letter: “I am convinced that I myself in my translations have done grave injustice to my own work.”  In the translations that followed Gitanjali, Tagore managed to extract himself from the suffocating influence of Yeats, but fame made him hasty and careless; the result were translations, starting with The Gardener, which were, in Radice’s words, “increasingly slipshod”.
Whoever does not understand Bengali but wishes to enter into the spirit of the one book which made Tagore a Nobel Laureate, may now read these translations and compare them with Tagore’s prose paraphrases. Faithfully imitating verse and rhyme and emulating the “musicality” of the originals, Radice wants to bring the non-Bengali readers as close as possible to the experience of the “poetic reality that the poems have in Bengali”. Others will be interested in the historical processes which allowed an Irish poet to meddle with the award-winning literary creations of an Indian poet. This book feeds the interests of both groups. At a later stage, Penguin may possibly sever the Siamese twins and publish two separate books.
By presenting his translations, Radice takes up a delicate fight against numerous English phrases which, whether poetically meritorious or not, ring in our ears since our adolescence. “Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure” ~ becomes: “You’ve made me limitless, / it amuses you so to do”. Improvement? I wonder. “If it is not my portion to meet thee in this my life…” ~ becomes: “If in this life I am never to see you, lord…” Improvement? Yes, certainly. The popular “Leave this chanting and singing and telling of beads! Whom dost thou worship in this lonely dark corner of a temple with doors all shut?” ~ becomes: “Prayer and worship and rite ~ / cast them aside. / In a nook of the closed temple, / why hide?” This is crisp and has punch ~ a clear improvement. Or, a last sample: “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; where knowledge is free; where the world has not been frittered into fragments by narrow domestic walls; …”. This is rendered: “A fearless place where everyone walks tall, / Free to share knowledge; a land uncrippled, / Whole, uncramped by any confining wall; / …” This, too, has a form firm and strong. But, I wonder, is “a fearless place” proper English? Maybe it is. Radice has moulded Rabindranath’s somewhat arcane use of language into modern, more dynamic English, apart from presenting a faithful verse-translation of the original. Of course, every reader will discover his or her likes and dislikes in both versions. I personally regret that Radice did not, as in his earlier poetry translations, add annotations for each poem. For me they had been a distinguishing feature of his Selected Poems of Rabindranath Tagore. I am also not totally convinced by his method of including all the repetitions in the song-texts. There are many which read well as poems; in that case reading the repetitions (of the singer) disturbs. Other song-texts do not really read well, they sound vapid and bland ~ they unfold their essence only as songs. Well, this is my personal stand. This book is a watershed in Tagore studies and must inspire a debate. Seminars should be held on it. It deserves praises and prizes.

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