On translating Tagore

Robert Frost once famously quipped that what was left behind was poetry, what translated, was in fact prose. Judging by this austere parameter, you could very easily argue that attempting to translate poetry is a perilous act. Jorge Luis Borges took the diametrically opposite view when he asserted that translations of poetry are in no way inferior to originals, only completely different.

For the most part I am inclined to agree with Frost, in particular when it comes to the translation of poetry from Bangla to English. Part of the difficulty is inherent in the language and cannot be circumvented easily by any translator: for example, Bangla, like many other Indic languages has three forms of “you” (aapni, tumi, tui) complete with complementary verbs, but no pronoun or verb form that distinguishes between the male and female “him” or “her”. But there is more that lies beyond the nuances of language and the mechanics of meter and rhythm. Words in languages have meanings with specific cultural connotations; they tap into unique symbolism which cannot be transferred. For example, because Bengal is inextricably linked to its rivers, words associated with their waters are metaphors for life, love, sorrow, and loss.

The “problem” is compounded further when you audaciously attempt to translate Rabindranath Tagore, whose mastery of words and rhyme are unparalleled in the Bangla language. I have come to the conclusion that it is simply impossible to convey an iota of the feeling expressed in his original poems and songs in any other language. Should you then resist the temptation to translate Tagore?

George Steiner in After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation argues forcefully that since language can only imperfectly express thoughts and ideas, all speech, even speech considered original, is translation, and that “attacks on the translation of poetry are simply the barbed edge of the general assertion that no language can be translated without fundamental loss.” In essence, what he is saying is that translations provoke our sentiments because we emphasize territoriality over languages and their incipient totems.

This leads to an obvious question: is the act of translating poetry useful?

Well, it certainly is useful to the translator. If I experience the majestic grandeur of a sunrise from a mountain-top, I am not dissuaded from sharing a glimpse of it in a photograph, even though the photograph cannot capture the thrill of being there. I perceive translation done with integrity to be similar. I was there when I read the poem, and my translation is a snapshot of it. Of course, by translating it, I changed it: I added filters of words and connotations, but it gave me pleasure to share it, even though it pales in comparison to the original. Isn’t the desire to share what is perceived as beautiful, universal?

Songs have an added layer beyond words. They are masterful, even if you don’t understand the language. Nearly 100 years ago, Prince Wilhelm of Sweden visited Jorasanko, the home of the Tagores, and was fortunate enough to listen to a private concert put together in his honor. Of this experience he writes in a memoir, “Seldom or never have I been present at a moment so instinct with feeling; it actually brought tears to one’s eyes, and one scarcely dared to breathe for fear of breaking the spell.”

Lines linger and often serve as bridges between others. Repetition and cadence add richness to meaning. I am certainly not the first to say so, but I do think that it is appropriate to represent songs, even in translation, not as they are written in their original language, but as they are sung. In listening to one of Tagore’s songs that is very close to my heart, today I had the wild temerity to attempt to translate it. I encourage you to view it from my perspective- as Vasco Núñez de Balboa looking for the first time at the wonders of the Pacific Ocean. But if you understand Bangla, the language in which it was meant to be seen, you really should visit it firsthand instead of looking at my discolored snapshot.


Into the flow of this mournful breeze, tender blossoms wither

I have picked them up; I have placed them at your feet
Take them, take them in your caring hands

When I am gone, they will blossom in your lap
When I am gone, they will blossom in your lap
Let the fingers you use to weave garlands
Remember me in sweet sorrow.

Into the flow of this mournful breeze, tender blossoms wither

The four-note koel cries of futile pain on this enchanted, sleepless night
The four-note koel cries of futile pain on this enchanted, sleepless night
The two of us whispering carefree words
The two of us longing desperately to be united

Lost… All is lost in a stream of moonlight on this dol purnima night!
Their traces will remain to be woven into a garland
For another day, for an afternoon you will spend absentmindedly.

Into the flow of this mournful breeze, tender blossoms wither


(A version of this post appeared earlier as a column).

Manna Dey, Sudhin Dasgupta, and Bengali romanticism

Manna Dey, the maestro is no more. When I first heard the news around midnight, my mind wandered to all the songs that have inextricably become a part of my life. I thought about each memory associated with each of the songs I cherish so much.

Manna Dey sang primarily in Hindi and Bangla. In Hindi, he worked with many influential music directors like S.D. Burman, Salil Chowdhury, Shankar Jaikishen, Naushad, and R.D. Burman in lending his voice to songs that are loved to this day. But I remember his singing in Bangla – particularly for Nachiketa Ghosh and Sudhin Dasgupta, two music directors almost entirely unknown outside of Bengal- with even greater fondness. His long-standing association with Sudhin Dasgupta resulted in some of the best film-based Bangla songs ever created.

Sudhin Dasgupta composed the music for approximately 50 albums until his death in 1982, with an unmistakable style fusing elements of avant-garde Western jazz and lounge music with technically-demanding singing. Even in the occasional dance number, his music is seldom loud, instead melding a few musical threads seamlessly into an unobtrusive, melodious tapestry.

By my reckoning, Manna Dey sang around 50 songs in approximately two-dozen films for Sudhin Dasgupta out of his total output of over 1,000 songs rendered in Bangla. But because Manna Dey’s buttery yet technically-sound voice fit Dasgupta’s style perfectly, these are some of best. One of Manna Dey’s few duet songs with Lata Mangeshkar in Bangla was for Dasgupta (“Ke prothom kache eshechi” from Sankhabela in 1966). Two years later, Manna Dey sang a particularly memorable song “Aami taar thikana rakhini” for a non-film album composed by Sudhin Dasgupta. Manna Dey also sang a few humorous songs over the years for Dasgupta (think “Chatur naar” from Padosan standard) such as “Banchao ke ache morechi je prem kore” from Chadmabeshi (1971) and “Agun legeche legeche” from Basanta Bilap (1973).

But the pinnacle of the collaboration over the course of the Sixties and Seventies and led to a young, clean-cut Soumitra Chatterjee capturing the Bengali psyche as an urbane, romantic hero (mainly in a half-dozen films in which he was cast opposite one of two gorgeous leading ladies – Aparna Sen or Tanuja).

There is a successful pattern to how the scene would unfold in these films. An idealistic Soumitra would share an intimate moment with his beloved. They would walk by the side of a river or on a sea beach. The sequence would have Soumitra singing in Manna Dey’s voice or Aparna or Tanuja in Asha Bhosle or Arati Mukherjee’s voice (Sudhin Dasgupta’s two favorite female playback singers). Nothing would be rushed.

These are some of the most captivating moments in popular Bengali cinema –

And this…

And sigh! This…

Also, this…

And although, not a Manna Dey song, I’ll end this post with this-


Durga Puja through the ages

In Ovid’s famous Latin poem Metamorphoses, Pygmalion was a sculptor who fell in love with a statue of a woman he had created. On Pygmalion’s entreaty, this statue was granted the breath of life by Venus.  Western literature and art is filled with many variations of the Pygmalion theme, of which arguably, the most notable is George Bernard Shaw’s play by the same name.

I bring up the Pygmalion myth for one reason in particular. It is not uncommon for an artist to be emotionally attached to created art, and certainly aesthetically pleasing sculptures of the gods and goddesses used for worship during Durga Puja qualify a art. But just as the idols used in Durga Puja are brought to “life” when they are granted eyes through a formalized ceremony, they are also immersed after the tenth day of worship. The only exception, I know to this general rule applies to festivals held outside South Asia, where for practical purposes, new idols cannot be transported every year.

As Durga Puja ends, a familiar sight unfolds in which the clay idols of the goddesses and gods are transported to the banks of rivers and immersed to the beats of the dhaak and to the cries of “How long with Pujo last? The idols will be immersed”. After the lavishly-adorned idols are thus dispatched, the followers return to their homes promising to each other, “It will happen again next year; we will move forward every year.”

I recall reading a passage from Christopher Isherwood’s Ramakrishna & His Disciples in my childhood that recounted how easy it was even then to get emotionally attached to the ornate idols. The moral of the story, however, was that it was imperative for the idols to be immersed after worship to demonstrate their impermanence. And that is the general principle even today: no matter how beautiful the sculptures of the gods and goddesses, they are temporary. A Pygmalion-theme tailored to Hindu gods and goddesses would require the destruction of the idols in the end, regardless of whether or not the sculptor fell in love with them.

That is why the clay sculptures used in previous centuries in the autumnal worship of Durga no longer exist. The only way to “see “them is in two-dimensional drawings and photographs. Of course, Durga, in her most popular form, Mahisasuramardini, the slayer of the demon Mahisasur, is visible beyond clay idols used in the autumnal Durga festival. Stone icons of Durga are very popular and can be found in many Hindu temples, extending from southern India to Indonesia (for example, the friezes in Borobudur).

The Indian Museum in Kolkata contains numerous artifacts of special significance. Unfortunately, this museum has not fully digitized their collection, so there is no way to view the images of Durga in their holdings from the comfort of one’s home. The British Library, on the other hand, has a number of priceless holdings that shed light on the iconography of Mahisasuramardini through the ages, that can be viewed online.

One of the most arresting images in their collection is a photograph taken by Nicholas and Company in 1880 at Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu, showing a sculptural frieze of Durga seated on a lion, shooting arrows at Mahishasur.


Here, Durga is depicted in battle riding a lion crafted in classical style and Mahisasur has the head of a buffalo. Another photograph of Durga is from sculpture panel on the façade of the sanctuary of Baitala Deula in Bhubaneshwar, from the Archaeological Survey of India Collections (photograph taken by William Henry Cornish in 1892). Here also, Mahisasur, is depicted with the head of a buffalo.


Among other images, is a photograph taken by Joseph David Beglar in 1872-73 in Dulmi (in what is now Jharkhand).


In addition to sculptures associated with temples, there are quite a few paintings and drawings of Durga in public and private collections across the world. However, there are fewer artistic depictions the clay models of Durga Puja as the autumnal festival from previous centuries. One of the few images, a watercolor from 1809 depicting devotees during Durga Puja (created by Sevak Ram in the Patna style), is quite spectacular.


While researching the topic, I stumbled across one of the most interesting images of the idols of Durga Puja hidden away innocuously in a book by Charles Coleman (The Mythologie of the Hindus, 1832). The drawing featured in the book is a reproduction of clay models for worship of Durga, Kartik, and Ganesh crated by the Bengali sculptor, Chitta Roy. Saraswati and Lakshmi are conspicuously absent from the representation. Karthik resembles the Bengali gentleman of the day, and at least in my mind, Raja Rammohun Roy. But the most amusing icon in the drawing is Mahisasur, who with long noticeable muttonchops, looks like an officer of the East India Company!



Durga Puja Vignettes

It is late evening on Nabami. Assembled in front of the pyramid-shaped pandal of the Tarun Sangha Sarbojonin Durgotsav is a huge crowd of men, women, and children decked in their finest attire. This is no ordinary pujo: This year, Ma Durga doesn’t look like Mahua Roychodhury, Mahishasur doesn’t look like Lionel Ritchie, and the lion doesn’t look like Rameez Raja. No, the club has spared no expense in arranging an Egyptian themed-pujo with idols from Kumartuli and lights from Chandannagar. There are hieroglyphics on banners and festoons (courtesy of Bapi Poultry House). There is a temporary fountain in the form of a Sphinx with water coming out of its human mouth. Ma Durga has been meticulously crafted to resemble Queen Nefertiti, albeit with the traditional ten hands. And the gods, goddesses, demon, and associated animals are all dressed like pharaohs.

People have traveled for miles by bus, tekar, and shared taxi to see the pandal here. And indeed, a short while ago, an entire family of fourteen members disembarked from a compact car.

The crowd is being directed by two police officers and a club-member on the microphone, “Please enter only through the gate marked entrance. Men, please don’t use the women’s entrance. Please keep the peace.”

The pandal and the fountain occupy the centre of a large field repurposed for pujo festivities. Around the perimeter of the field is a ring of small shops selling items such as imitation jewelry, plastic toys, balloons, and bright buckets. There are shops with mounds of piping hot sweets such as jilipi, goja, baborsa, and dhakai-porota, strained straight from the oil. There are also busy benches lined up with people enjoying bhejitabil chop, ispeshal biryani, moton roll, and coldinks. In various strategically located parts of the field are small carts with moshlamuri, bhelpuri and roasted nuts.


In a corner of the field, there is makeshift stage, in front of which are rows of occupied, red plastic chairs. A man wearing a baseball cap is hosting the para cultural festival (sponsored by Adhunika Jewelry Museum). Now, the host is announcing in his best baritone Satinath Mukhopadhyay impression, “Our next performer is Mishtu Pramanik. Mishtu, wherever you are, come up to the stage. The audience is waiting for you.”

Seven-year old Mishtu steps on to the stage holding her father’s hand. She is wearing a new pink dress. She steps up to the microphone and starts to recite Tagore’s “Shonar Tori”. Although she has practiced the poem many times, she takes one look at the audience and freezes. Tears well up in her eyes. She does not remember beyond the first stanza.

In a few moments, Mishtu’s father will comeback up on the stage and escort her away. It is no big deal. Everyone is here to have a good time. Tonight, her father will console her by buying a very large bar of chocolate for her. Tomorrow, she will wear another dress that she hasn’t worn yet and they will go pandal-hopping. She will be happy because she will see more thakurs than anyone in her class.

While Mishtu is trying to remember the poem she memorized, Avik is in the audience. He isn’t looking in the direction of the stage. Instead, he is scanning the crowd for a familiar face. Pujo has not been going well for him this year.On Saptami, he did not see Paromita as he roamed the streets with his friends. He did not see Paromita during pushpanjali on Ashtami morning. Tonight is his last opportunity. After all,the clock is counting down to the end of another Durga Puja!

And just as he is about to give up all hope, Avik sees Paromita in the crowd. She is with her friends. His face lights up. He straightens his collar and walks up to her. She sees him too.

“Avik-da, how are you?”

Avik wants to say that he was not well until now, but he doesn’t. “Bhalo. Have you come to see the pandals?” Avik stops. What kind of an idiotic question is that? Of course, she has come to see the pandals. “Avik Choudhury you will forever be alone,” he thinks to himself.

Paromita does not answer rudely, but rather smiles and answers in the affirmative. They continue to talk for a while and then awkwardly go their separate ways. Avik is on cloud-nine. It has been a successful Durga Puja. Tomorrow, he will wear a bright floral shirt and dance to his heart’s content with the procession of idols all the way up to the river bank. He will stay until the idols are immersed and return in the early hours of the following morning, making sure to walk by Paromita’s house.


(This is an edited version of my column.)

A pin on a map

I woke up and realized that there were still a few hours until dawn. But instead of trying to get back to sleep, I decided to take a journey.  In those wee hours, I flew over hills, rivers, and cities. I did not need to leave my bedroom; what I did instead was use the wondrous aerial maps available digitally on Google Earth.

Traveling through online maps is a hobby of mine. Sometimes, I visit wondrous locations like the Grand Canyon, the Great Pyramid of Giza, or Angkor Wat. But more often than not, I roam through West Bengal, the state I call my own. In the morning, I navigate meandering rivulets of the lower Sundarbans. In the evening, I take a leisurely stroll along the Hooghly River, from the Gwalior Monument to Prinsep Ghat. Sometimes, I walk down familiar roads to check up on the homes I’ve lived in and on friends and relatives. I stop by uninvited to say “hello” and often stay for tea and snacks. At those times, looking at the screen of a computer, tablet, or smartphone becomes a way to connect, and I willfully overlook the fact that online maps are not updated simultaneously.

That particular night, however, I did not walk through Kolkata or boat down the Sundarbans. Instead, I took my rusty bicycle out from the space underneath the stairs of my old home, wiped the dust off, and began pedaling down a road a friend and I had first taken twenty years ago. Both of us were in college then. On afternoons, we would ride past the boundaries of our hometown to the bank of the river. Feeling adventurous one day,we decided that we would not stop there, but that would keep pedaling as far as we could go. The beauty of it was that neither of us had the foggiest idea where we were going. Purposely getting lost is an audacious folly of youth, but we were young at the time.

As the sun began to dip, we passed paddy fields, hills, and dense forests of saal. And so, we pushed ourselves for miles though the beautiful terrain of rural Bengal. Finally, when we were exhausted, we stopped at a tea stall in a village, asked for two glasses of tea and lero biscuits from a glass jar. We dipped the biscuits and slurped the tea greedily. Having had our fill, we asked the proprietor, “dada, where does this road lead?”

“There are more forests, fields, and then you will reach a river-crossing.”

My friend and I looked at each other, at our watches, and the darkening surroundings and decided to call it a day. Thick clouds had formed overhead. By the time we reached our town, we were drenched to the bone like soggy crows. That day, both of us promised that we would later find out where the road went.

Twenty years later, I know that it has gone in a different direction for me. It has taken me away from the town of my youth to a new life in another country. It had taken me far from my friend, who I had not seen or spoken to in more than a decade. But I had not forgotten my town, it people, or these serene surroundings. All these thoughts went through my mind as I traced the road on the digital aerial map on my screen.

Quite recently, I had started to look at buying a modest plot of land between the river and the hills- on the same road that my friend and I had first traversed in our youth. I honestly cannot say if I will live near my former home again, or how often I will be able to visit. But if for nothing else, one day I want to be able to drop a red pin on a map. In times of despair, if physically I cannot reach it, I can say in my mind “This land is mine. I am made of this soil.”

Even wanderers need to find their bearings.

(From an invited column previously published here).