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When the British became our rulers it was soon found that the mastery of their language was the chief means to succeed and prosper in life. The grandfather of our poet had amply proved this by his phenomenal material success. Even our early modern creative writers adopted English as the means to earn their literary fame – our first modern poet Madhusudan wrote his first epic, The Captive Ladie, in English, our first modern novelist Bankimchandra wrote his first novel, Rajmohan’s Wife, also in English. But the father of our poet, Debendranath, chose a radically different course. To know what is best in the western civilization we must learn English but in every walk of life we must use our mother tongue. On this there could be no compromise. In this respect the Tagore family and its friends and associates were veritable fanatics. This was also our poet’s inheritance. In his case it was further reinforced by his elder brother Hemendranath who oversaw the early education of his youngest brother.
His learning of the English language in the school was not at all happy but it was not neglected at home. Competent tutors were engaged and as a teenager he had to translate English authors like Shakespeare. This gave him free access to the vast European literature. He feasted on them when the chance came. And it came when he stayed with his ICS brother in the Bombay Presidency to prepare for his first voyage to Britain. He avidly browsed through his brother’s vast collection. He wrote many critical essays on many masterpieces which were published in the family journal Bharati.
At this time he had to learn English manners too from a girl of an Anglicized Marathi family with which he was living for the purpose. [Incidentally, this exquisitely beautiful girl Anna fell in love with our young poet who was however very shy and failed to respond to her overtures.]
In Britain he lived with an English family and studied in the University of London. [Here again a girl of that family fell in love with the poet and the result was the same.] He attended not only the university but also parties and performances of western music and operas. In social gatherings he was in great demand both as a singer as well as a dance partner. His pronunciation was immaculate.
Syed Mujtaba Ali, a famous Bengali writer and a product of Tagore’s school at Santiniketan, mentions that in 1929 as a student of philosophy in the Berlin University he once entered into its Phonetic Institute by mistake and attended a class there. In the course of his introductory lecture on phonetic science the teacher played recordings of various languages to show their perfect pronunciations. The very first model recording played was - ‘Through ages India has sent her voice, “Shrinvantu visve amritasyaputra” …’ Mujtaba Ali readily recognized the voice – it was the voice of none other than his Gurudev. He again mentions that in 1921 when the college department was opened at Santiniketan he was one of the first batches of students there. And his Gurudev used to take classes on poets like Shelley, Keats, Byron and other English poets and writers. He repents that none kept the notes of those lectures which were unconventional but superb as critical appreciation of those writers.
Who would take at its face value what such a man in his characteristic modesty said about his knowledge of English? One man vehemently protested against such protestations. His name is Ramananda Chattopadhyay. Born in a traditional Brahmin family of Bankura he was a brilliant student and a proud nationalist. After his matriculation he went to Calcutta for higher studies and soon became a Brahmo. After his graduation he became the editor of the Indian Messenger, the mouthpiece of Sadharan Brahmosamaj, which opened up his career in journalism. He completed his M.A in English in 1890 and in 1893 joined the City College as a lecturer. He chose teaching as his profession but journalism became his passion. And in time he came to be known as the father of Indian journalism. Jointly with the eminent scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose he started the children’s magazine Mukul and edited some small magazines also. In 1895 he moved to Allahabad with a teaching job but he did not forget his passion. Here he became the editor of a Bengali literary journal Pradip in which he published the writings and reviews of Tagore. He became personally acquainted with the poet when in 1900 the latter called on him during a visit to Allahabad on some family business. Thus started a friendship between an editor and an author which lasted till the poet’s death in 1941. In 1901 Ramananda left Pradip and started his own Bengali journal Prabasi. Henceforth there was hardly an issue of this monthly which did not carry something from the pen of the poet. Two years later Ramananda came back to Calcutta and continued to publish his Prabasi. Here the poet became his regular visitor. He devoted his whole time to journalism now and in 1907 he began another monthly journal – this time in English – The Modern Review. Through his vernacular monthly with probably the largest circulation he had helped spread the poet’s name among the Bengalis. Now through his English monthly he began to do it outside Bengal.
We have seen that the first publication of the translations of Tagore’s works began in this journal. It was undoubtedly at the initiative of Ramananda. He was not satisfied with others’ translations; he wanted the poet to do the translations himself. He pressed hard but failed to persuade the poet who as usual argued that he did not know English well. The most he conceded was to submit for publication the translation of his poem Nisphal Kamana done not by himself but by his friend Lokendranath Palit!
We have seen how Tagore wrote many of his short stories at the request of his scientist friend Jagadish Chandra Bose. This friend also began to press the poet to translate his works. In his letter of 2nd November, 1900, written from England, he wrote, “I won’t allow you to remain hidden in an obscure village of Bengal.” He even tried hard to find good translators. Returning home Rothenstein was regularly enquiring about more translations from Indians like the philosopher Brojendranath Seal and others who were residing in England at that time. At this time also another friend appeared on the scene. Son of a Ceylonese Christian and an English mother Anand Kentish Coomerswamy was trained as a geologist but had developed an interest in art. His mother tongue was English. It is not definitely known how and when he became a friend of Tagore; it was most probably through Abanindranath and Gaganendranath. When according to his request Rothenstein could not visit Santiniketan for want of time in February 1911 Coomerswamy alone went there. He expressed his desire to publish some poems of Tagore in translation. The poet agreed to undertake translations of his own works provided Coomerswamy, a native speaker of English, saw that the language was correct. With the help of Ajitkumar Chakraborty Coomerswamy translated the poem Janmakatha from the collection Shishu. Biday, another poem from the same collection, was translated by the poet himself which he agreed to publish only after its revision by Coomerswamy. These two poems were published in the April, 1911 issue of Modern Review. Nine more poems were translated which were revised and published in 1912 by Coomerswamy as ‘Poems of Rabindranath Tagore’ in his Art and Swadeshi. Most of them were translated by Tagore himself and were later included in a modified form in The Gardener and The Crescent Moon. Only one poem – ‘The Way of Salvation’ – was retranslated and included in the Gitanjali (73).
About this time two more persons, Jadunath Sarkar, a professor of English in Patna College who later became a famous historian and was knighted and Sister Nivedita, the famous disciple of Swami Vivekananda, started to translate the prose works of Tagore. Tagore in his letter of 20th February, 1911 to Ramananda wrote about Nivedita’s translation of two of his short stories – ‘Kabuliwalla’ and ‘Chhuti.’ She is said to have translated another short story, ‘Dan Pratidan’. Only ‘Kabuliwalla’ was published in Modern Review of January 1912 after Nivedita’s death. Other two translations have been lost.
Thus far human persuasion could succeed in persuading the poet to translate only a handful of his poems among which there was only one solitary poem for the Gitanjali that won him the Nobel Prize. No other poem for that collection was translated till the date of his proposed voyage to England on 19th March, 1912. He had to wait for that as if for some kind of divine intervention. We shall tell about it in our next blog.