My Encounter with Rabindranath - 3 by Kumud Biswas SignUp

My Encounter with Rabindranath - 3
Kumud Biswas Bookmark and Share

Continued from Part 2

Long years of government service had rendered me totally useless. So after retirement my problem was how to kill time till time killed me. I had devised a means to do it, but within a short while I had run out of my scanty resources. I have a good collection of Tagore songs recorded by many good singers. To kill my time I had transferred them to tapes, because the record player was going out of fashion. After coming of the compact discs I began to transfer them to CDs. At the same time for further postings in the website I also fell upon the inexhaustible store of Tagore literature. I began to translate his poems and songs. In the process I came to enjoy them more intimately in my endless leisure. They have always moved me, but now they began to move me more deeply. His poetry and music, superb as they are, have been a great love of my life. But so long I took him for granted. I thought as Bengali was my mother tongue I understood whatever he has written. Now I find that that is not the case. This translation has thus become a sort of discovery to me. I also discovered that I had not read much of his writings. While translating from him I came to read much that I would never have read and they are worth reading too. I was taken aback by another discovery. One day I received a mail from an Australian composer and movie maker requesting me to allow him to use my translation of Tagore’s famous poem that concludes his novel Shesher kabita which he had read from Boloji. He wanted to use it as a monologue in a new kind of film he was making. This poem entitled The Last Poem may be read here.  

In course of time the number of translations became considerable and Pradip started pestering me to publish them in a book form. At first I did not agree, for who reads poetry now a days? I myself am unable to understand much of what goes by that name, both in Bengali and English. At times I seriously doubt about my sanity and think that I have forgotten whatever little I have learnt of both these languages. Moreover these were someone else’s poems and though there was no bar on account of copyright I should not try to beautify myself with borrowed plumes. I also felt that people who consider Tagore as their exclusive property and themselves as the self-styled guardians with the responsibility and priestly duty to prevent any desecration of Tagore will not forgive my transgression. I got a foretaste of this from that Bengali gentleman settled in Canada. I however thought that it would give me another opportunity to kill my time. So I changed my mind. I knew that the poet himself translated his own works. But I never felt curious to read them because I could read them in originals. Now I came to know that the poet has been translated also by many others. Some of them are themselves poets and some are big guns in the academic world. I perused some such translations and found that a few of the pieces I have translated have also been translated by others, some before and some after me. But many have not been translated so far. So, good or bad, there was no harm in publishing them, I thought. Before doing that spending a considerable amount of my pension money it was prudent to know if the book would find buyers. In other words do people read Tagore today and do books on him have a demand in the market?

My mother tongue is Bengali and I am an average literate person. It should therefore very naturally be expected of me that my reading in Tagore in the original should be considerable   for the simple reason that he is the greatest man of letters that my race has produced. But unfortunately it is just the opposite. I have only a kind of nodding acquaintance with his writings. The centenary sets which passed through my hands must have been bought by literate Bengalis of my generation. If the manner in which they were used by their buyers be treated as a true indicator then the extent of their acquaintance with the poet’s works may be easily imagined. This beautifully produced set probably served their buyers more as an item to decorate their drawing rooms and show that they were ‘cultured’ people of the Bengali society. The reasons for my ignorance are not far to seek, I have explained them amply – I come from a very backward place where in those days new things and ideas used to take a long time to reach, my academic syllabus contained very little of Tagore, I led an unsettled life at its most impressionable and formative stage, the poet’s  works were not easily available – even today except some book shops in Calcutta, no bookseller can supply them from his ready stock; for an issue of the quarterly journal Viswabharati patrika I had to visit the College street sales counter of Viswabharati several times and failed to get it even after three months of its publication. Tagore’s works were first published mostly in periodicals, later in individual volumes and thereafter in a set of complete works, both in hard and soft covers. Their editing was good but there were no innovations in their production. This format was suitable for the scholars and academicians but not for the common readers. A few collections like Sanchayita, Gitabitan, Galpaguchha and Chhinnapatravali, published during the poet’s life time, have all along been very popular and have the highest sales even to this day. Till the publication of the centenary set of the poet’s works in 1961 by the state government no conscious efforts appear to have been made by Viswabharati for the works of the poet to reach the common readers.

Today the Bengali language itself is facing a new challenge. The literate section of the Bengali society is cultivating their mother tongue less and less. In my youth education through the vernacular medium afforded slim chances of employment. Once I got a job my relations with Bengali books virtually came to an end, I am reading Tagore because now I have nothing else to do. The study of humanities was already on the decline from the time when I was a college student 50 years ago. Meritorious students rarely opted for humanities in their academic career, now this position has become worse taking a heavy toll on the standard of their studies. Even the study of basic sciences is used now-a-days merely as a springboard for the acquisition of a technical degree which ensures one employment with fat salaries. It may therefore very reasonably be asked, how many of the present generation of Bengalis read Tagore? When I expressed doubts about the likely demand for the present publication – Bengali poems translated into English - one reputed bookseller assured me that it would be quite considerable among the young generation of literate Bengalis. They would read Tagore in English rather than in Bengali because most of them do not know their mother tongue well. During my student days English medium schools and colleges were very few, the students going to them were not many and belonged to a particular class popularly called ‘tash’ – a word coined from the word ‘trash’ with the intention of  giving it a bitingly derogatory meaning. Among other things they were snobs and preferred English to Bengali as their medium of expression, both written and spoken. Instead of classics they mostly studied soft cover ‘best sellers’ and very rarely Bengali literature and were proud of this ignorance. Today such schools are mushrooming like wild plants and they are choked with students who come from all classes of people. Earlier as a medium of instruction English was more or less a matter of choice, but today it has become a driving force. And there is no scope or time to learn the native tongue, however one may love it. The world has become a ‘big bazaar’ where people from all parts of the globe have assembled for vending their various wares. If that bazaar is a tower of Babel no business can take place. To do some business you have to learn the language in which you can communicate with the global customer.

The picture is more or less similar throughout the world. Economic globalization has claimed many victims which include national and regional languages and cultures as well. About a century ago Edmond Larforest, a writer of Haiti, tied a French Larousse dictionary around his neck and jumped off the pier to a watery death dramatizing the drowning of Haitian language and literature. According to a recent study made by the Living Tongues Institute based in Salem, Oregon, of an estimated 7000 languages spoken around the world today, one of them dies about every two weeks! Funded by the Australian government, U.S. National Science Foundation, National Geographic Society and grants from some other foundations, the study has identified endangered languages as follows – Northern Australia – (153), Central South America including Ecuador, Columbia, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia – (113), Northwest Pacific Plateau, including British Columbia in Canada and Washington and Oregon in the USA – (54), Eastern Siberian Russia, China and Japan – (23) and Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico – (40) languages respectively. In India the census of 1961 recognized 1652 languages, in 1991 census this figure came down to 1576. What happened to the 76 languages? Some, like Sanskrit, have long been dead. But the others were very much alive in 1961. A language may die with the extinction of its speakers, or like Sanskrit it may evolve into a new language or languages or again the speakers may abandon their native tongue and start using another language because in the prevailing circumstances the native tongue cannot meet their modern day requirements.

And worst of all, it may die through neglect because of deliberate policy. Of the one and a half thousand languages only 22 have found a place in the eighth schedule of the Indian constitution. In a vast country as multi-lingual as India – and of the 7000 living languages of the world India accounts for as many as 415 – it is arguable if one language should be imposed on other linguistic groups on the specious argument that it will help unify the nation. The self-immolation by the young Tamilian Chinnaswami in protest against the imposition of Hindi in Tamil Nadu could not prevent this. In all examinations for selection to All-India services question papers are set in Hindi and English only and only these and the other scheduled languages can be offered as subjects for these examinations. People who speak none of these languages are therefore clearly at a disadvantageous position. Most ominous is the fatal effect of this policy on the languages which are discriminated against.

If Darwin is to be believed, in prehistoric times many tribes became extinct, many were enslaved and absorbed by numerically stronger tribes and the languages of those hapless people also died as a result. This also meant the loss of their identity, their tradition and the wisdom and knowledge they had acquired and preserved in their mother tongue. This loss was not to a particular tribe alone but also to the human race as a whole. Is this one of the reasons why the tribals of India are up in arms under the banner of Maoism?

Of the two threats to languages the first, that is globalization, is by far the greater, because man made laws can scarcely prevail over the economic forces which mainly power it. With the advent of the European Renaissance in the 16th century the process of globalization became most effective. Revolution in maritime technology, geographical explorations and overseas empire building by the European nations brought the countries and societies of the world closer. Later the Industrial Revolution and the growth of international trade and commerce extended its sweep and accelerated its pace. The world began to shrink at an increasingly growing speed. There followed contacts and clashes between civilizations. The old civilizations survived by adoption and adaptation. In some cases their contact with the European culture gave them a new vigour. But culturally and technologically stagnant primitive societies, unable to keep pace with the changes, either perished or got absorbed in the victor’s societies and lost their identities. In the process their languages were also either marginalized or lost. As a part of this process when the British came to India they got their first effective foothold in Bengal in the 18th century. For the first time the Bengali language faced the challenge of the English language. The Bengalis met it successfully and were ultimately able to produce a Tagore whose genius made their mother tongue known to the whole world.

Tagore was born four years after the British had completed one hundred years as rulers of this country. His forefathers hailed from the district of Khulna where during the Muslim rule they were local court officials and must have been proficient in the court language of the time, Persian. During the early years of the British rule they settled in Calcutta, came in contact with the English and laid the foundations of the family’s material prosperity. It reached its zenith under his grandfather Dwarakanath whose phenomenal success was not only due to his enterprise but also to his knowledge of the rulers’ tongue, English. Dwarakanath’s friend Raja Rammohan Ray, the first modern Indian, was a good Persian scholar and learnt English by his own efforts. The poet’s father, Debendranath, appears to have been the last member of the family to learn Persian. All his sons went to English schools and colleges for their education. The womenfolk of the family learnt English either at home or at schools. The second eldest son became the first native member of the ICS. The East India Company initially patronized the cultivation of classical languages like Sanskrit and Persian. It was mainly through native efforts that the first College to impart English education, the Hindu College, was set up in Calcutta. Through this language the Bengalis came into direct contact with the Western civilization. It offered not only opportunities but also challenges. The initial impact of this contact however was not an unmixed blessing. It threatened to swamp everything native – religion, culture, way of life, including the native language and literature. On the socio-religious front there were two extreme reactions, one pro- and the other anti-Western till Raja Rammohan Ray began his Brahmo movement. The Raja not only showed that Hindu religion, encrusted by age old superstitions, was not polytheistic but monotheistic and stopped us from burning our widow mothers, sisters and daughters alive but also petitioned the foreign rulers for introduction of the study of English and science subjects. Along with his friend Dwarakanath and others he was the prime mover behind the establishment of the Hindu College. To the Bengalis English became the window to the world and since then they have been in love with it.

The first modern Bengali novelist Bankimchandra Chatterji wrote his first novel – Rajmohan’s Wife – in English and the first modern Bengali poet Madhusudan Dutt wrote his first epic poem – The Captive Ladie – also in English. The lecture Surendranath Banerji delivered in the meeting in the Westminister Hotel in London held to felicitate him by the British National Liberal Club was considered by his British audience as one of the best that had been heard in that country since Burke. The proceedings of the first political party, the Indian National Congress, used to be conducted in English and to a great extent a leader’s status and standing in the party depended on his command over that language and how well he could deliver lectures in it. In the ICS examination, in which the majority of candidates were English, Subhashchandra Bose scored highest marks in English. This early start in English education gave the Bengalis a primacy over others and made the 19th century Bengal Renaissance possible. And in time Tagore came to represent its full flowering.

The influence of English education was also far reaching on Bengali language and literature. In their passion for English the Bengalis did not abandon the cultivation of their mother tongue. On the contrary their knowledge of English inspired them to cultivate and improve their native language. Earlier there was no prose literature in Bengali. It came into being with the prose translation of the Bible by the Christian missionaries. But this prose had no logical syntax and it was almost unintelligible. Here again the Raja wrote his tracts and pamphlets in Bengali prose, started a periodical and for the first time set the rules of syntax. Thus he may be called the father of Bengali prose. Bengali newspapers and magazines began to be published and development of other genres – drama, novel, short stories, lyric poetry etc – also followed. Henceforth Bankimchandra wrote his novels and Madhusudan his epic in Bengali. Significantly they came to be known as the Scott and the Milton of Bengal respectively. But instead of being imitators they were original creators. Thus English education enriched the native language and literature like never before.  The educated Bengalis also became mostly bi-lingual. There was great demand for English education among the newly emerging middle class. To cater to this demand many schools were set up where English was taught mostly by natives themselves. Tagore went to one such school in his childhood and, among other things, the manner in which English was taught there seem to have shocked his supersensitive mind so much so that he does not appear to have overcome it in his whole life.

Political developments since the time of Tagore’s birth also seem to have given a fillip to the cultivation of the native language. In 1858, three years before the birth of Tagore, the assumption of the direct administration of the country by the British Crown brought about a change in the racial relationship between the British and the natives which culminated, by the close of the 19th century, in the administration of that great imperialist and xenophobe Curzon. During the movement against the 1905 partition of Bengal the Bengali middle class rose like one person and started the ‘swadeshi’ movement advocating the use of everything native in place of things British. Tagore composed a large number of patriotic poems and songs which have no parallel in world literature. Two of them are today the national anthems of two countries – India and Bangladesh. Contributions of the poet’s family to the cultivation of Bengali language and literature have also been unique. Reforming the Hindu faith and absorbing what is best in the Western civilization the Brahmo movement became a bulwark against the exotic cultural wave that threatened to sweep away everything native. With the death of the Raja it was destined to die an untimely death. Fortunately Tagore’s father became the spiritual heir of the Raja when he took over its charge and carried on the work of the movement. In his adolescence as a student of Rammohan’s academy he had already started a society with fellow students to defend the native culture from the onslaught of foreign culture. Now after taking over the charge of the Brahmo movement he made vigorous efforts to revive the interest in our cultural heritage. The medium used was the mother tongue. Quite a number of periodicals, both religious and literary, were published by the family in which almost all the members of the family, along with numerous friends and followers, regularly contributed. Thus began the literary career of our poet when he was still in his teens. At the age of 52 he received the Nobel prize. The language spoken by a handful of people in a corner of the globe overnight became globally known. His proud countrymen called him ‘viswakabi’ or the world-poet. His works were translated into many languages and the kind of reception he got internationally is unprecedented. 

This year when his 150th birth anniversary is being celebrated throughout the world it is reasonable to ask – What has happened to that international reputation? 
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