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Here I get him closest to my heart –
As close is the earth beneath my feet
As are close to me
The fruits, flowers and the air and water.
Here I love him too
As I love the songs of birds
The murmur of streams
The mellowness around
The light of dawn and the greeneries of trees.
Here I find him beautiful
As the evening is beautiful
As the fragrance of flowers filling the night
And the dew-drenched morning
With its clean air
And a lone star in its sky.
Here he is dear to my heart
As the rain water dropping from the sky
The sweet sleep of night
The water of rivers
And the cool shade of trees.
Like the tears trickling down my eyes
Here my songs flow with ease.
Here his love fills my heart
As life fills all my limbs.
This is how Rabindranath felt when he lived at Silaidaha where he composed this poem Palligrame. Such a place was the most obvious choice of the poet and he retired there to recoup his health. He felt so exhausted that he found himself incapable of doing any heavy work either physical or mental. His doctors had also advised him to take complete rest and forbidden to undertake any strenuous work. It was springtime. In a languid mood he only wished to enjoy his leisure amidst the beauty and the peace and tranquility of his favorite country retreat. It was in this mood instead of doing some original and creative writing which involved mental exertion he wanted to do some light work to keep himself occupied. He took up the translation of some of his lyrics and songs. His friends had long been pressing hard for this. But according to the poet’s son Rathindranath ‘the immediate incentive came from the encouraging remarks made by Ramsay MacDonald’ who, during his visit to Santiniketan, had been shown some of the translations which had appeared in the Modern Review. Unfortunately this is not correct. The news of the Nobel award reached Santiniketan on 13th November, 1913. Ramsay MacDonald visited Santiniketan next month. The real incentive came from Rothenstein who went on asking for more translation of the poet's works.
As he explained in his letter of 6th May, 1913 to his niece Indira, the poet did this not ‘in a spirit of reckless bravado’ but from ‘an urge to recapture through the medium of another language the feelings and sentiments which had created such a feast of joy within me in the days gone by’. [Those who are interested may read this letter in the crisp translation of Indira Devi Chaudhurani herself reproduced in Uma Dasgupta’s ‘My life in my words.’] That he did not do these translations ‘in a spirit of reckless bravado’ is obvious. Throughout his life he had been very apologetic about his English. In the same letter to his niece he had written, ‘That I cannot write English is such a patent fact that I never had even the vanity to feel ashamed of it. If anybody wrote an English note asking me to tea, I never felt equal to answering it.’ But he did not do it in the militant patriotic zeal of his native friends either. As a poet he had become famous among his own people. They had given him a reception only a few days ago in a public celebration of his fiftieth birthday – the first Bengali poet ever to have been given such a reception. Yet he never boasted about his poetizing prowess. How could such a man have the ‘vanity’ to present himself as a great poet before the non-Bengalis either Indian or foreign, that too through the medium of a foreign language? He could say with the English author John Bunyan –
‘I did not think
To show to all the world my pen and ink,
…….. nor did I undertake
Thereby to please my neighbour; no, not I;
I did it mine own self to gratifie.’
His poetry was the expression of ‘a feast of joy’ he experienced within himself.
His very selection of the kind of songs and lyrics for translation also bear out this fact. They did not include those poems in which his poetic power is in full display. Take for example those marvellous poems of Sonar Tori, Manasi, Chaitali, Kalpana etc., he had written so far. And his narrative poems, particularly of Katha O Kahini, are unique and have few parallels in world literature. The effect of their themes, their elegant style, their melody and the rhetorical skill employed is overwhelming. In comparison the poems of the English Gitanjali are simple and are lacking in so-called poetical embellishments. Here the author appears to be more a devout man than a poet. The majority of the poems are devotional. Why did he select them? In the first place they were his most recent compositions. Secondly, he was a devout man. Third was the state of his mind at that time. Recently he had suffered many tragedies which, strangely, did not turn him into a revolting Job but seem to have reinforced his devotion. Above all there was the influence of the locality and its common folk culture. This is apparent in the patriotic songs which the poet composed during the swadeshi movement. Most of them were set to the folk tunes and today one of them is the national anthem of Bangladesh. The poet’s son mentions in his memoirs On the Edges of Time that when the poet was engaged in this work of translation a Vaishnavi – a female devotee belonging to the Vaishnava sect – occasionally visited the poet. ‘The ease with which this illiterate woman talked about philosophy and religion and her simple and devout faith moved father deeply.’
What happened next may as well be told in the poet’s own words in the letter to his niece quoted earlier. ‘The pages of a small exercise book came to be filled gradually, and with it in my pocket I boarded the ship. The idea of keeping it in my pocket was that when my mind became restless on the high seas, I would recline on a deckchair and set myself to translate one or two poems from time to time. And that is what actually happened. From one exercise book I passed on to another. Rothenstein already had an inkling of my reputation as a poet from another Indian friend. Therefore, when in the course of conversation he expressed a desire to see some of my poems, I handed him my manuscript with some diffidence. I could hardly believe the opinion he expressed after going through it. He then made over the manuscript to Yeats. The story of what followed is known to you. From this explanation of mine you will see that I was not responsible for the offence, which was due mainly to the force of circumstances.’
But in the poet’s narration there is an omission. At the last moment there was a hitch which could jeopardize everything – there could have been no Gitanjali at all.
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