- lines of poems
- scratched out, erased to ink in —
- new shapes — art revealed
- gouache shade’s matt-blur —
- an outline of the psyche —
- subtle peek into soul’s eye
- rabindra sangeet’s
- nasal baritone — honey-
- tinged, monotonic
— Sudeep Sen
My emotional and aural response to Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry was slow in coming — especially his own English translations of the 1913 Nobel prize-winning Gitanjali/Song Offerings — in spite of being buoyed by a glowing introduction by W. B. Yeats, a poet whose pitch-perfect and sometimes sardonic English poetry I quietly admired. Tagore’s nectar-dripping ‘o’er-floweth-the-cup’ nasal-lyrical style, seemed incongruous and anachronistic and uncool (albeit perhaps misplaced), especially growing up in the cosmopolitan 1970s and 80s.
Intellectually however, I was always keenly engaged with Tagore’s wider art — in particular his wide-ranging master-skills in the fine arts, theatre, dance-drama, and short fiction. I was specifically attracted to his ‘erasures’, the wonderful way he made unique artworks out of erasing and inking-out sections and elements from his poems’ working-drafts as part of his overall editing and image-making process. It is said that “Tagore — who likely exhibited protanopia (colour blindness), or partial lack of (red-green, in Tagore’s case) colour discernment — painted in a style characterised by peculiarities in aesthetics and colouring schemes”. His sketches, pen & inks, oils, watercolours, and gouaches of a certain period — and even more significantly, works by Tagore’s other relatives such as Girindranath, Gaganendranath and Abanindranath — deeply interested and inspired me.
Of course, Rabindranath’s songs and dance-dramas were omnipresent during the yearly Durga Puja cultural programmes and other festivals in my city and elsewhere. Actually, a certain kind of Bengali does not need any excuse or occasion to stage Tagore’s works — and I was surrounded by many of them. And surrounded by a lot of Tagore paraphernalia too — beautiful editions of Rabindra Rachanabali and Gitabitan on my parents’ bookshelves, his official sage-like sepia-photograph modestly-framed in wood, his artworks and reproductions on their walls, and stacks and stacks of Rabindra Sangeet EPs, LPs, and audio cassettes by some of the finest exponents of this field. But my prized possession always remains the original ‘erasure’ tear-sheet from one of his workbooks, framed within double-glass panels on my library wall. My mother, in her younger days, was an active dancer-actress in many Tagore productions. As children, we learnt many of his Bengali verses by heart for recitation competitions.
So growing up in a Bengali family in metropolitan Delhi in the leafy neighbourhood of Chittaranjan Park’s probashi-Bangla diasporic topography, one could not possibly avoid Tagore. He was everywhere — his music; his poetry; local shops and houses bearing his stamp, symbol, nomenclature and even his name; his sculptures emblazoned in the form of bronze busts; his demi-god-like status; and more. As a child, I had the task of fetching milk from Mother Dairy every evening. And as I walked past the houses in my neighbourhood carrying my large aluminium pail almost grazing the tarmac, sonorous sounds of children practising Rabindra Sangeet and their footsteps learning Tagore’s folk-dance were audible. At the time of course I didn’t think much of all that beyond the fact that they were part of an everyday ritual. Of those days, I have sometimes provocatively and irreverently said, Tagore was pouring out of every orifice. This was often not appreciated by hardcore Bengalis who, perhaps missing the irony, sought to misguidedly reprimand me. All this was in my childhood, young adulthood, and possibly a little beyond that. At that age, I suppose as a fashionable act of adolescent rebellion, I perhaps even shunned Tagore. But what is obvious, especially now as a practising poet/literary editor/critic/translator, how much Bengali culture — and by its curious extension, also Tagore — subtly influenced me through the process of cultural osmosis in the received environment in which I was growing up in.
This is not to say that the other languages, literatures, political ideas and philosophies weren’t discussed in my home and amongst my grandparents, parents, friends, and their circles. They variously infected and informed me as well — and I am grateful for that. Also, I grew up with three mother-tongues — Bangla, Hindi and English — like many other Indians of my generation who are at least trilingual or more. So my loyalties were not necessarily monolithically fixed to the idea of Bengaliness, albeit a very important and significant strand in my tissue-system.
I was always a devout admirer of Jibanananda Das and Kazi Nazrul Islam’s poetry over and above Tagore’s; and admitting that was almost sacrilegious. I found their precise tactility, un-Victorian-Augustan phrase-making, use of contemporary idiom, the power of their oral structure, and in general, the best aspects of Modernism, much more appealing at the time. But equally, I also loved and worshipped Milton and Shakespeare, Pushkin and Tolstoy, Ghalib and Faiz, Neruda and Paz, Verlaine–Baudelaire–Rimbaud-Celan. In fact, when I think of the past, the list seems precociously expansive though delightfully centrifugal.
To reiterate, Tagore as a cerebral idea and its efferent discourse was always present in the milieu in which I spent my boyhood days — so he must have at least partially influenced me, whether or not I consciously acknowledged or rejected it at that time or even later. Furthermore, my five years living and writing in Bangladesh, in the late 1990s to mid-2000s, significantly enhanced my latent appreciation for Rabindranath. There I encountered Tagore as an everyday cultural idea, a living metaphor — unpretentious, earthy, and accessible.
It was such a pleasure to wake up in Dhaka and spend the entire day not having to utter a single word of English or Hindi, and only be immersed in the linguistic cadence and rhythms of Bangla. English as a tongue — except for the limited rarefied upper class — was almost entirely irrelevant and redundant, and thankfully so. In Bangladesh, I found renewed admiration and love for Tagore’s music and poetry, largely through hearing his songs sung and his poetry recited by highly-skilled and established singers and actors. Tagore’s discourse was aplenty too, as were those of other writers and artists of the two Bengals and beyond.
While in Dhaka, I translated three full-length books of selected poems by three Bangladeshi poets, wrote and choreographed a large-format literary coffee-table book titled Postcards from Bangladesh, edited The British Council Book of Emerging English Poets from Bangladesh, co-founded/co-edited Six Seasons Review, wrote several critical introductions and blurbs for books by local authors, and the Bengali editions of my own books — Rain/Barsha, and A Blank Letter/Ekti Khali Chithi were also published there.
I closely worked with Bengali poets, writers, academic, singers, artists, actors and lovers of Bengali culture, including of course Tagore’s. So my mature engagement with the Bengali language, literature and culture, including my new-found appreciation for Rabindranath was carried back to my home city of Delhi — completing a lovely unexpected arc. This osmotic presence of Tagore as the intimate ‘other’ — quite unbeknown to me — took root in its translucent avatar, widening the tonal registers of my poetic scales. In the slow-churning growth in my own artistic practice from analogue to digital, from vinyl to CD, from mono to stereo to 5.1 and 7.1, I am quite sure upon reflection that Tagore played his subtle part, sonically and textually.
To further illustrate the context of my early upbringing, background, and where Tagore — then and now — fits in my life as a writer and an artist, let me quote part of the introduction from my fledgeling book of poems, Leaning Against the Lamp-Post, that was first published as a limited edition in 1983 in New Delhi, and then later in 1996 in the USA by Triad/University of South Carolina:
“The poems in [the] collection Leaning Against the Lamp-Post, were all written between 1980 and 1985, while I was still in high school and subsequently an undergraduate in New Delhi. In 1983, relying on my incipient enthusiasm, I summoned up all my courage, typed out about fifty poems from a much larger batch I had written up until then, and with the aid of a modest donation from my grandfather, took it to a local printer. They were cyclostyled through one of those now-extinct, messy, gargantuan machines (photocopying was still quite expensive then) and hand-sewn at a bindery by an old man who until then had only bound thousands of legal manuals and commercial reports with ubiquitous red cloth or leather spines and with the titles stamped in gold. This was however the first time he had bound a collection of poetry, and he did it with genuine interest and with the care of a fine craftsman. He was a poet himself, and wrote and recited in Urdu. He also knew Bengali (my ‘official’ mother tongue) fluently, having spent his early life in what is now known as Bangladesh. Perhaps it was propitious that my early poems were blessed by the tactile touch of a true poet. It would only be fair to say of my grandfather that his patronage made him my first publisher. And as it turns out, this limited hand-assembled first edition of poems was to be my first ‘unofficial’ book of verse.
I was always convinced that writing poetry was extremely difficult (even though I thoroughly enjoyed reading it), and was best left to the masters themselves. Then one day in 1980 (I was in Class 10 at the time), daydreaming through a boring lesson in school, I penned, quite unknowingly, in perfect rhyme and metre, my first poem. Then followed those first few years when I wrote sheaves and sheaves of, what sometimes seem embarrassingly callow, and sometimes naive poems. But then, looking back I feel that there was a sense of innocence, idealism, seriousness, and honesty about them.
I grew up in a liberal and educated family with a lot of poetry and music around me. Art, literature, philosophy, and the world of ideas in particular, had always been a part of my upbringing. I learnt that our forefathers belonged to the aristocracy and could be traced back to the enlightened Raja Raj Ballabh Rai, famous in the margins of Indian history during the times of Sirajudaullah, the Nawab of Bengal in the late eighteenth century. As a child, my mother and grandmother would recite children’s verse and sing songs for me. I realise now that much of my interest in form, structure, sound pattern and rhyme scheme comes from hearing aloud the incantatory music of their prayers and songs, which I had obviously internalised over the years.
My parents and grandparents introduced me to the world of poetry. They would recite the great Bengali poets: Rabindranath Tagore, Jibanananda Das, and Kazi Nazrul Islam; also Shakespeare, Milton, the Romantics and the Victorians. I came to learn many of them by heart. In school and college, I explored Hindi and Urdu poetry, discovered the Russians, Latin Americans, as well as Japanese and Chinese verse. Some of my favourite poets included Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Irina Ratushinskaya, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Basho, Li Bai, and many more. My mesho [uncle] — through the now out-of-print precious Penguin Modern European Poets volumes edited by Al Alvares — opened to me a wondrous window, a hitherto unsighted world of modern European poets: Vasko Popa, Guillaume Apollinaire, Eugenio Montale, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Rainer Maria Rilke, Johannes Bobrowski, Horst Bienek, and so many others. Also the Metaphysical Poets and the French Symbolists, in particular Donne, Baudelaire, Mallarme, and Verlaine, fascinated me. Of course, growing up in the seventies, one could not miss Ezra Pound and T S Eliot. The congregation grew and grew, and through quiet osmosis, I was seduced into the world of sound, rhythm, word-patterns, ideas, syllabics, music, and language itself ….”
The direct influence of Tagore on my own work — however oblique and subtle — can be best seen in my two books Rain and Postcards from Bangladesh. Rain is landscaped in the two Bengals — West Bengal and Bangladesh — contains an evocative series of prose poems structured in three mock-sonnet sections, The First Octet, The Second Octet and The Only Sestet. Setting up the tone in the prologue that acts as an alaap [introduction], the volume importantly opens with a quote from Tagore:
- In the lap of the storm clouds — the rain comes —
- Its hair loosened, its sari borders flying!
Postcards from Bangladesh by virtue of its content contains many resonances of Rabindranath — among others, a piece on Tagore’s house Shilaidaha Kuthibari in Kushtia on the banks of the River Gorai. Here, he stayed many days at a time composing poetry and songs and writing his novel, Gora.
In my multi-media piece, Wo|Man: Desire, Divinity, Denouement, that blends poetry, prose, drama, dance and live music, Rabindra Sangeet has been used in the live stage production versions, sung variously by Vidya Rao, Jayati Ghosh and Averee Chaurey, as part of the India International Centre Festival of the Arts, and at The Attic in New Delhi.
More recently, I was commissioned to write specific poems, new English poetry in Tagore’s own voice for his marvellous Bhanushinger Padavali dance-drama stage production. The Kolkata and New Delhi productions were directed by the leading exponent, danseuse Padmashree Bharati Shivaji, Vijayalakshmi, and their repertory dancers of The Centre for Mohiniyattam. Here are the production-specific Tagore poems that I wrote:
after Bhanushiger Padavali
- Sudder Street, Kolkata
- Now back from England —
- lonely, and feeling low.
- What a time it was, there —
- grey and damp
- and drenched
- like slow-burning grief.
- My studies left incomplete—
- a Law degree unearned.
- What a waste, what a waste —
- what would people say?
- Jyotindranath Tagore & Kamdambini Devi
- So what a joy it was
- to move in with you both —
- under your care, love and grace.
- What happiness you gave me —
- something you didn’t even know
- My happiest days were here —
- with you both.
- But there was sadness as well —
- sadness at seeing
- notun bouthan pine
- for her husband, my brother —
- her endless wait for him
- to return home from work.
- During monsoon days,
- dark and clouded —
- empty and bereft
- at Jyotida’s absence,
- my notun bouthan
- plunged in sorrow.
- What could I do for her?
- How could I appease her?
- She, like Radha,
- waited endlessly for Krishna —
- notun bouthan and Jyotida —
- the fair maiden and the dark god,
- in life’s happy sadness.
- Oh such beautiful strains of Bhara Badar
- Bouthan’s dirge — melancholic, depressed,
- she loved listening to my lyrics,
- the ones I wrote, composed, and sung for her.
- But the moment she heard dada’s footsteps —
- her face lit up like a young glow-worm,
- her gloom erased by his arrival.
- Just like Radha would smile,
- asking her sakhis to dress her up, adorn her,
- anticipating, preparing, to finally meet her lover.
- I still remember Sajani Sajani
- After very very long, Jyotida is back home.
- He waits for bouthan to arrive, to join him.
- What would he be thinking, wanting, desiring?
- Was it about her graceful gait,
- her raven-black braided hair,
- or her elegant beauty?
- Or was it Mohini — the enchantress.
- A dream to dance to.
- Was it not like Abhisarika Radha
- on her way to see her lover.
- How happy I feel to see my dada with bouthan —
- how joyous, and how deeply blessed.
About twenty years ago, prompted by the fact that I was introducing my son Aria to the poetries and music of different cultures including Bengali, I realised that the children’s verse written by Tagore — as available in limited English translation — appeared stilted, staccato and academic. Also, the quirky-fun-witty aspects of the Tagore poems as those that appear in Khapcharra/Out of Sync were not adequately explored in those limited translations. It is first the joyful abandon and immediate emotional connect that has always attracted me to the best of poetry. It is much later after several readings of a poem that I tend to savour the poem’s subtle content, context, cadence, and craft. I found the former mostly missing in the available translations of Tagore’s children and humorous poetry that I had laid my hands upon until then.
So with the assistance of my baba [father], I started translating Rabindranath’s wonderfully illustrated volume of nonsense verse, Khapcharra. The Visva-Bharati Santiniketan hardback edition which I still possess, with its jute-coloured cover-weave, is priceless. Surprisingly, this book has not yet been fully translated — considering Tagore tends to be among the first Indian writers on the list of publishers’ translation series or academics’ priorities in the field of Translation Studies (vis-a-vis Indian literature of course). Hopefully, my now ailing father and I will be able to complete the translation of this entire book for publication in the near future.
Translating the complex rhythms and clever rhymes of the Khapcharra poems have been a particular challenge. In some cases, when I transposed the Bengali rhymes onto English, they tended to hit a flawed tonal register and sounded awkward in modern English diction. When I left out the rhymes altogether, then of course one missed out on the wicked-atonal-musicality and wit, at least to a certain extent. At the end however, I decided to dispense with the end-rhymes but kept the internal rhythms alive and reasonably true. This is because I wanted Tagore’s original Bengali poems in my translated versions to read as competent English poems, reflecting the sine-graph of the contemporary English-language idiom. I definitely did not want them to stutter and languish under the cast of a post-Victorian-Augustan shadow and its inherent dated inflections.
Here are four examples that appear in my book of translations titled Aria (India: Yeti Books, 2009 / UK: Mulfran Press, 2011). They also appear in The Essential Tagore, edited by Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty, published in the USA by Harvard University Press in 2011. The Indian edition published by Visva-Bharati, appeared in 2012. However, the page numbers mentioned after each poem refer to the recent Harvard edition:
BIRD-SELLER SAYS, “THIS IS A BLACK-COLOURED CHANDA.”
- Bird-seller says, “This is a black-coloured chanda.”
- Panulal Haldar says, “I’m not blind —
- It is definitely a crow — no God’s name on his beak.”
- Bird-seller says, “Words haven’t yet blossomed —
- So how can it utter ‘father’ ‘uncle’ in the invocation?” [page 743]
- In Kanchrapara
- there was a prince
- [wrote but] no reply
- from the princess.
- With all the stamp expenses
- will you sell off your kingdom?
- Angry, disgusted
- he shouts: “Dut-toor”
- shoving the postman
- onto a bulldog’s face. [page 743]
TWO EARS PIERCED
- Two ears pierced
- by crab’s claws.
- Groom says: “Move them slowly,
- the two ears.”
- Bride sees in the mirror —
- in Japan, in China —
- thousands living
- in fisher-folks colony.
- Nowhere has it happened — in the ears,
- such a big mishap. [page 744]
IN SCHOOL, YAWNS
- In school, yawns
- Motilal Nandi —
- says, lesson doesn’t progress
- in spite of concentration.
- Finally one day on a horse-cart he goes —
- tearing page by page, dispersing them in the Ganga.
- Word-compounds move
- float away like words-conjoined.
- To proceed further with lessons —
- these are his tactics. [page 744]
- [NOTE: All four poems were originally taken from the Visva-Bharati 1937 edition of Tagore’s nonsense verse, Khapcharra (Out of Sync). They are all untitled, so I have used the first line of each poem as their symbolic title. ‘In School, Yawns’ appears on page 4, ‘In Kanchrapara’ on page 5, ‘Two Ears Pierced’ on page 10, and, ‘Bird-seller says, “This is a black-coloured chanda.” ’ on page 11.]
These translations that were initially and largely meant for my son Aria and his friends — but to my pleasant surprise and pleasure, they found a much larger appreciative resonance with other fellow poets, writers, translators, lay readers, and even strict Tagore scholars.
Ultimately, unplanned and unintended acts of love and passion such as these come about as a disguised blessing — and that for me is the heart and essence of the joys of poetry, literature, art and music. Rabindranath Tagore, the polymath, sporting a wryly-elegant askance smile, would have done so, hopefully in agreement.
Barker, Wendy & Tagore, Saranindranath: Rabindranath Tagore: Final Poems (USA: George Braziller, 2001)
Bhatnagar, R. K. & Mukhopadhyay, Amit: Drawings & Paintings of Rabindranath Tagore (India: Lalit Kala Akademi, 1987)
Bose, Aurobindo: Later Poems of Rabindranath Tagore (UK: Peter Owen, 1974 / India: Rupa, 2002)
Chakravarty, Radha & Alam, Fakrul (editors): The Essential Tagore (USA: Harvard University Press, 2011 / India: Visva-Bharati, 2012)
Chakravarty, Radha: Gora (Penguin Classics, 2009)
—– : Shesher Kobita: Farewell Song (India: Srishti, 2005)
—– : Choker Bali (India: Srishti, 2004)
Chaudhuri, Sukanta: Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Writings for Children (OUP, 2002)
—– : Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Writings on Literature and Language (OUP, 2001)
—– : Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Short Stories (OUP, 2000)
Dutta, Krishna & Robinson, Andrew: Rabindranath Tagore: An Anthology (UK: Picador, 1997)
—– : Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Letters (UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997)
—– : Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man (UK: Bloomsbury, 1995)
Dyson, Ketaki Kushari: I Won’t Let You Go: Selected Poems (UK: Bloodaxe, 1991 / India: UBSPD, 1992)
Furrell, James W.: The Tagore Family: A Memoir (India: Rupa, 2004)
Ghose, Sisirkumar: Tagore for You (India: Visva Bharati, 1966/1984)
Haq, Kaiser, Quartet (UK: Heinemann, 1993)
Kripalini, Krishna: Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography (UK: Oxford University Press, 1962 / India: Visva Bharati, 1980)
Mazumdar, Dipak: A Poet’s Death: Late Poems of Rabindranath Tagore (India: Rupa, 2004)
Radice, William: Rabindranath Tagore: The Post Office & Card Country (India: Visva Bharati, 2008)
—– : Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Short Stories (Penguin Modern Classics, 1991)
—– : Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Poems (Penguin Modern Classics, 1985)
Rahman, Muhammad Anisur: Songs of Tagore (Dhaka: Pathak Shamabesh, 1999)
Rushd, Abu: Selected Songs of Rabindranath Tagore (Dhaka: Rabindra Charcha Kendra, 1992)
Sen, Sudeep: Aria: Translations (India: Yeti Books, 2009 / UK: Mulfran Press, 2011)
—– : The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry [editor] (HarperCollins, 2011)
—– : Atlas (UK/India), Six Season’s Review (Bangladesh) & World Literature Today (USA), ‘Tagore Poems’ (2005-2010)
Som, Reba: Rabindranath Tagore: The Singer and His Song (Viking Penguin, 2009)
Tagore, Rabindranath: Gitanjali: Song Offerings [introduction by W B Yeats] (UK: Macmillan, 1913)
—– : Rabindra Rachanabali (India: Visva Bharati)
—– : Gitabitan (India: Visva Bharati)
Thompson, Edward: Rabindranath Tagore (UK: The Augustan Books of Modern Poetry / Ernest Benn Ltd, 1925)
Winter, Joe: Rabindranath Tagore: Gitanjali (UK: Anvil / India: Writers Workshop, 2000)
NOTE: Earlier versions of his essay originally appeared in the Seminar magazine (No 623 / July 2011) special issue on ‘The Nation and its Poet: A Symposium on Rabindranath Tagore 1861-1941 | Life, Language, Legacy’, guest edited by Ananya Vajpeyi; and in the American Book Review (Vol 36, No 6 / Sept-Oct 2015), guest-edited by Saikat Mazumdar. Some of my individual translations of the Tagore poems in this essay have earlier appeared in Aria (India: Yeti Books, 2009 / UK: Mulfran Press, 2011), The Essential Tagore, edited by Fakrul Alam & Radha Chakravarty (USA: Harvard University Press, 2011 / India: Visva-Bharati Santiniketan, 2012). A Bengali translation of this essay is forthcoming in the Kolkata magazine, https://daakbangla.com/ | Copyright © Sudeep Sen, 2011, 2015, 2022.
SUDEEP SEN [www.sudeepsen.org] is widely recognised as a major new generation voice in world literature and “one of the finest younger English-language poets in the international literary scene” (BBC Radio). He is “fascinated not just by language but the possibilities of language” (Scotland on Sunday). At the 2004 Struga Poetry Festival (Macedonia), he received the ‘Pleiades’ honour for having made “a significant contribution to contemporary world poetry”. His prize-winning books include: Postmarked India: New & Selected Poems (HarperCollins), Distracted Geographies, Rain, Aria (A K Ramanujan Translation Award), Fractals: New & Selected Poems|Translations 1980-2015 (London Magazine Editions), EroText (Vintage: Penguin Random House), Kaifi Azmi: Poems | Nazms (Bloomsbury), and Anthropocene: Climate Change, Contagion, Consolation (Pippa Rann UK). He has edited important anthologies: The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry, World English Poetry, Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians (Sahitya Akademi), The Best Asian Poetry 2021-22 (Kitaab, Singapore), and Converse: Contemporay English Poetry by Indians (Pippa Rann UK). Blue Nude (Jorge Zalamea International Poetry Prize) and The Whispering Anklets are forthcoming. Sen’s works have been translated into over 25 languages. His words have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, Newsweek, Guardian, Observer, Independent, Telegraph, Financial Times, Herald, Literary Review, Harvard Review, Hindu, Hindustan Times, Outlook, India Today, and broadcast on BBC, PBS, CNN IBN, NDTV, AIR & Doordarshan. Sen’s newer work appears in New Writing 15 (Granta), Language for a New Century (Norton), Love Poems (Knopf/Everyman), Out of Bounds (Bloodaxe), Initiate: Oxford New Writing (Blackwell), and Name me a Word (Yale). He is the editorial director of AARK ARTS and the editor of Atlas. The Government of India’s Ministry of Culture has awarded him the senior fellowship for “outstanding persons in the field of culture/literature”. Sen is the first Asian honoured to read his poetry and deliver the Derek Walcott Lecture at the Nobel Laureate Festival.