Language barrier

Published : Jan 13, 2012 00:00 IST

The bulk of Tagore's poetry is available in translation in different languages, but the ambience of the original fails to come through in translation.

His songs will endure. Here lies the tragedy, for they will endure only for those who are not only born in the language, but also continue to be faithful to it. Any scope for hope for Tagore and his songs to be more than a totem rests with the Bangladeshis, who have clung to Tagore's language.

A quantum of cynicism is in order. The year 2011 happens to be 150 years since Rabindranath Tagore's birth. A spate of commemoratory celebrations, under both official and other auspices, is taking place. Some courteous gestures are forthcoming from foreign embassies and consulates too. In quite a few countries, either the Indian diaspora or this or that international body is organising events to offer homage to Tagore's memory. Why not be candid; much of all this is pure ritual. And it is particularly so in our own neighbourhood. This nation is currently in an obsessively globalised mood; its priorities and concerns have turned topsy-turvy.

When the man once hailed as the Father of the Nation is now little more than a half-forgotten totem, Tagore could hardly expect a better treatment. He, in any case, never had the same emotive appeal across the entire nation as Gandhi had, and is at most a regional icon. Still he was the first Indian to be awarded the Nobel Prize. That fact cannot be passed over; the colonial hangover is uber alles. After all, the ethereal beauty and intense spiritualism embedded in Tagore's poetry came to be recognised in the country only after the nod arrived from the West. He was immediately rendered into a deity. That status continues. Deities have dates when they are to be dusted and feted. Tagore is being duly feted this year: obeisance to a ritual.

Indians, however, love to convert every ritual into a carnival. The Tagore anniversary has been reduced to a potpourri of songs, plays, dances, dance dramas, seminars, workshops, learned-sounding discourses, exhibitions of his paintings and manuscripts, films on him or based on his themes, and whatever else can be thought of. At the end of the year, the sum total of all these events could well be a grand confusion. Carnivals, besides, have a magnetic attraction for racketeers. The Tagore season is proving to be no exception. Globalisation has imparted the lesson that the cardinal objective in life is to make money whatever the means; so what is the harm if a few fast bucks are made by way of pretending to pay homage to Tagore too?

Such frivolities apart, there is one big difficulty for the world at large to appreciate Tagore's creativity or his message that enriched humanity. He wrote almost exclusively in Bengali, which is not an easy language to enter into. The language has a mixed-up heredity with derivatives from Sanskrit, Pali, Persian, Arabic and, later, Portuguese and English. No matter, it has acquired a structural maturity and a specific identity and has built a climate for itself which is doggedly insular with its subjective symbols and codes. For those aspiring to familiarise themselves with Bengali, it is therefore a case of hit or miss: should one be lucky, one might succeed in breaking the barrier and going inside the language, but most of the time one remains the frustrated outsider. Learning the script, the grammar, the vocabulary and the syntactical idiosyncrasies may not be enough; the totality of the sectarian mystique could still be beyond grasp.

Perhaps, Tagore's humanistic passages get faithfully transmitted through renderings in other languages. The philosophy of eternal quest buried in his works also had, once, a clientele in the West. Most of that is now pass; mystic thoughts do not grip the West any more. Maybe some of Tagore's short stories, despite their roots in the Bengal milieu of the times, have a certain ubiquitous appeal. His novels mostly deal with contemporary problems and are generally reckoned to be no longer of any relevance. The great bulk of his poetry is, of course, available in translation in different languages. But the ambience of the original poetry fails to come through in translation. The delicate whisper of thought, the depths of passion or devotion and the cadence in the crafted texture refuse to get transplanted in other languages. No fault lies with those who do the translations, the problem is an organic one that even a linguist can only mull over but cannot resolve.

The passage of time has bared another harsh truth: most of Tagore's poems appear to be overwritten; to state it more plainly, they talk too much. The language of words and the architectural arrangements enchant; the sonorous expression of thoughts and ideas flows on and on, but we are stuck at a still point of cognosis. The absence of rigour, Tagore was acute enough to realise, made poetry vulnerable to the moodiness of seasonality. It was a dilemma. He had beauty to convey and ideas to unload. He could, he was sanguine, reach out to the unarticulated yearnings of the human soul, and he had total command of the language which was his medium. The greater challenge, though, was of compression of what he desired to convey. Whether it was spirituality or passion or any other instinct that nudges the poet, its expression has to be within the bounds of restraint.

Tagore discovered his salvation. He took to composing songs. In this genre, it is important to surrender to the sovereignty of discipline, collect one's ideas within a limited ambit of words, and simultaneously marry the poetry with the appropriate music. There is no question that his songs have a magnificence that reduces the worth of all his other works. He himself was confident that this was indeed so. The 2,000-odd songs he composed are to be enjoyed, savoured, played with, prayed with; they are often guiding stars to negotiate the tortuous course of daily existence, or otherwise solace at the moment of crisis and sufferings. They take one along the meandering trajectory of feelings and emotions, via a fusion of language.

The themes range from passion to counter-passion, blind faith to threadbare reasoning, soul searching to revelry, love of nature to love of women. The music embellishing them is wondrously freewheeling, derived from classical Indian ragas, Irish lullabies, Scottish ballads, the otherworldly chant of Bengali bauls, the bhajans chanted by Rajasthani damsels while fetching water from distant villages, the deep resonance of Carnatic music, and, on occasion, even pickings from haughty military bands. Tagore plays the great innovator, he turns odds into evens, the assorted refrains are frequently made to coalesce and merge into one another and something devastatingly original, quintessentially Tagore, reveals itself.

His songs will endure. Here lies the tragedy, for they will endure only for those who are not only born in the language but also continue to be faithful to it. As of this moment, Bengalis in India are in general keen to walk away from their native tongue. The reference here is to the Bengali middle class, who really matter in the polity and the economy. They are sure of what they want; they are in a scampering hurry to swim in worldly prosperity. The Bengali language offers no help towards attaining that goal; why waste time on it, better shift to foreign languages valued in global transactions and, above all, the language of information technology. Tagore, for this money-fixated species, is a dispensable embarrassment. They do not mind participating in carnivals organised on the pretext of Tagore as long as such involvement has commercial possibilities; that is all.

The story is different in Bangladesh. They have shed blood to win their war of liberation. One of the passions at the root of their revolt against Pakistan was their fierce love for their mother tongue, from which the authorities wanted to detach them by firman. Nothing doing; they clung to Tagore's language and wrested their freedom. Tagore is an integral part of their ethos. Not that the blight of globalisation is not affecting them either, but if there is any hope for Tagore and his songs to be more than a totem, that hope rests with the Bangladeshis. For the rest of the human race, they will be polite towards Tagore, but sorry, he will remain hugely irrelevant.

As told to Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay
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