A Hindsight at Tagore Translation

A. Explanation of the title of my book “The Eclipsed Sun” (TES) published in January 2002.

In the cover page of the book, a face of Rabindranath Tagore is largely covered by a map of West Bengal and Bangladesh. Now, the Indian names generally have a dictionary meaning and, accordingly, Rabi means the Sun and the talent of Tagore with its true international dimension should have normally illuminated the entire mankind, as the Sun lights up the whole Earth, but for the linguistic barrier for which he is largely confined to the above mentioned regions where Bengali is the lingua franca, indeed a tiny part of the world. The picture tries to depict this eclipsed state of Tagore’s vast talent from which it can be liberated only by the translators.

B. My beginning with the website

I started contributing my Tagore translations to the above from early September 2011 on introduction to it by my friend Mr. Sharbaniranjan Kundu at Delhi who is in touch with it for years. I am thankful to Sharbaniranjan for linking me with this site which I soon discovered to be host of oeuvres of a large number of  highly eminent littérateurs which may nourish my mind immensely depending on how much good use of those I’ll make eventually. I am particularly thankful to learned Mr Rajender Krishan who has taken the responsibility of editing my pieces I have posted from time to time and sometimes, to my surprise, he annexed thereto beautiful pictures appropriate to the different ‘themes’ of my postings which has enriched the appeal of some poems at least wherever Mr Krishan has provided such annexation. However, at this fag end of my life when I’m soon to step into the octogenarian club, I’ll try my best to upload my entire oeuvre on the dynamic as possible which obviously is frequently visited by eminent persons all around the globe. Before that, I like to state a decade’s history of my book of Tagore translation “The Eclipsed Sun” (TES) from which I have planned my uploading to Besides my work, I would take this opportunity to briefly touch upon the history of Tagore translation particularly during the last decade of the 20th Century, as I had observed it. Incidentally, TES was published in January 2002 and then, a decade after, its Internet edition was released from Jakarta (Indonesia) with effect from 15th April 2011, by a website supervised by an Indian team there, with the lead of Ms. Poonam Sagar, particularly its literary wing.

This Internet edition of “The Eclipsed Sun” (TES), may appear to be the old wine in a new bottle while the contents of the original edition, published in January 2002, largely appear here including the foreword and letters of compliment I had from a few highly eminent luminaries at that time. Yet, there is a profound difference between the two as elaborated below.

The original edition had to be printed in Calcutta only in a few hundred copies by a small publisher friend of mine while I became victim of a very frustrating situation in spite of the fact that a Banker client (‘Foreword’ of whose Chairman is available in this volume) of mine (professionally I am a Chartered Accountant) were themselves keenly interested in this publication and assured me to fix up a big publisher for my book. I need not mention, all industries including the publishers, would kowtow to their Bankers to ensure their financial accommodation which is life line of their businesses.  So, any big publisher they might hook-up, would willy-nilly rush to oblige their Bankers. But, to my dismay, I gathered eventually that the publishers wanted a clearance of Viswa Bharati (VB =’The World university’) to my script as they were enjoying copyright on Tagore’s works at that time (around 2000 A.D.). VB is the University of Tagore at Santiniketan (=’Abode of Peace’) 4-hour train journey from Calcutta). Not being familiar with the nitty-gritty of the Indian Copyright Act as an audit professional at that time, my clients communicated me the publishers’ wisdom that Copyright applies to translation also and not merely to reprint of an author’s original work, of course not to my jubilation and, thus, the process initiated at Delhi nipped in the bud, Tagore’s works are mostly in Bengali and the Copyright vis-à-vis VB would not spare me of its penal provisions if I had published my translations of our great Poet’s works  defying VB, however unwittingly, as the solemn maxim goes that “ignorance of law is no excuse”.

However, recording of Tagore’s music etc. were subject to permission of VB. To look back, normally the Copyright expired in 1991 i.e. 50 years after the death of Tagore in 1941 under the Indian laws. VB being taken over by the Central Govt. (CG) soon after India’s Independence in 1947, the decision in this respect vested in the CG. In 1991 VB had an extension of their copyright, on its lobbying with the CG, for 10 years i.e. up to 31st December 2001. While this date was quite a few months away, controversies started heightening if the copyright should be further extended, for whatever period, while VB kept up its vigil with the CG to protect its fiefdom which appeared to be eternal at that time. ‘The Statesman’ of 17th December 2001 reported –

“The Centre and Unesco are examining the issue of conferring the status of ‘national heritage author’ to Rabindranath Tagore. This could protect the copyright of the Poet’s works permanently, the Union HRD minister, Mr. MM Joshi, said here (Calcutta) to-day.”

I vividly remember the evening of 31st December 2001, with all my attention glued to the pros and cons of the TV debates in which the then Vice-Chancellor of VB Dr. Sujit Kumar Basu mentioned that last time (in 1991) the extension order of the Copyright came from Delhi at 8.30 p.m. in the evening on the last day (i.e. 31st December 1991) and, thus, up to midnight VB had hope for the second extension too. However, while next morning i.e. on 1st January 2002 the whole city (Calcutta) / Bengal were rubbing their eyes, the incredible headline in the newspapers was that VB’s copyright was not extended further!

The fact is, already luminaries by virtue of their own creative literature, some highly eminent persons took to Tagore translation in the last nineties, to question whose work would raise eyebrows all around. It was naturally safe for VB to lie low in their cases. Lack of such precedence was precisely my inhibition, particularly when I ventured into the formidable task of Tagore translation as a hard core audit professional who could not be anything but a literary pariah!

How bleak was my prospect about getting clearance of VB  may be better realized from the following quote from the Editorial in ‘The Statesman’ of 17th August 2000 captioned “Free Tagore”  -

“...Nor is Dr. Dilip Sinha (former Vice Chancellor of VB) very convincing when he sounds a warning that ‘Tagore should not be made a victim of the open market economy’. If VB achieved anything , it was to confirm a monopoly that added to the University’s coffers without corresponding benefits to the society. The task of taking Tagore to the masses has gone by default. The least the University could have done was to bring out affordable translations ……The administration at Santiniketan makes it worse by objecting to others producing a new awareness as if evil forces are all set to grab parts of the legacy.”

The letter dated 12 January 2002  by  Mr. Sumit Mukherjee of Cooch Behar addressed to The Editor, ‘The Statesman’ published in their issue of 17th January 2002  takes us closer to the ground realities at VB at least in case of music recording which is quoted as follows –

“VB has set an example of unprincipled, motivated and partisan mode of functioning, paying only lip service to the ideals of Tagore. While the injustice done to Debabrata Biswas , has justifiably gained publicity, a greater injustice done to Pankaj Kumar Mallick, has somehow remained obscure. Pankaj Kumar Mallick’s contribution in popularizing the songs of Tagore beyond the narrow enclaves of Santiniketan, was inestimable. It was he who brought about a revolutionary change in the manner of rendering of Tagore songs, making it free from any artificial inhibitions and affections, and introduced in it, an element of masculinity for the first time. Yet, this versatile genius had the mortification of having two of his songs recorded in memory of Tagore after the poet’s death, rejected by the music board on the flimsy ground of superfluous music accompaniment, when he had used no other instrument but the organ for prelude and interlude music. It is therefore little wonder, that Debabrata Biswas met with the same fate many years after, though numerous records with far greater music accompaniment, were approved readily. Indeed a ‘splendid’ example of impartiality!

The hypocrisy of the music board was unmasked after the death of Debabrata Biswas when a number of cassettes containing songs by him at public functions and also in private, were published by various cassette companies with approval of VB. ….The unpleasant truth is that, in his heydays Debabrata Biswas was the best sellers in the record market and some of those who failed to compete with him, were the henchmen of the music board and thus devised nefarious ploy to eliminate him from the scene.. Ironically, even to-day, the cassettes of Debabrata, are best sellers according to recent disclosure by the ‘Music World’. It is thus quite natural the VB would prefer to reap rich harvest of monetary benefit by approving the cassettes of Debabrata published posthumously.
The crocodile tears being shed by VB on the issue of termination of Tagore’s copyright, can no longer deceive us, because it is allurement of money rather than any commitment to the ideals of Tagore, which determines the stand of  the VB. The lapse of copyright means that Tagore at last stands emancipated. After all, it is the listeners who are the best judge of the success or failure of an  artist, rather than a coterie of motivated experts. The public did not cease to adore Pankaj Mallick even after the step motherly treatment he received from the VB. The popularity of Debabrata Biswas increased manifold after he paid the price for rebelling against what he rightly called ‘cultural dictatorship of the music board’ in a letter dated 16 August 1969.

“……..…1st of January 2002 should be celebrated as the day of deliverance, when Tagore for the first time became the property of the people rather than the private property of an institution. The people’s voice is the greatest bulwark against any kind of anarchy and the sole guarantor of cultural world ‘where the mind is without fear, and the head is held high’.”

Side by side with this high handedness of VB, the lofty ideal of Tagore on which it stood, started its irreversible nose dive from sometime after the Poet’s death which touched its nadir in and around 2005 A.D. when to our great disgust we had to see one of its former Vice Chancellor behind the bar and Tagore’s Nobel medallion stolen which is still under wild goose chase with no clue in sight yet for its salvage. Of course, a duplicate Nobel medallion was obtained from the Nobel authority after a few years, but that was hardly a fig leaf for the colossal scandal.  Such incidents were of course only tip of the iceberg of the severe contamination underneath plaguing whatever noble VB stood for. To expect VB’s serious scrutiny of my work, as a literary pariah, for the purpose of my first publication in this scenario would be a wild fancy only to stoop me deeper into my agony which obsessed me since early 2000 A.D. compelling me to make the said arrangement in Calcutta for printing in modest number of my book, as said at the beginning.

While dwelling upon pollution in the noble ideals of Tagore in VB, I would conclude with the observation of Dr. Martin Kampchen, a German scholar translating Tagore in German language, published in ‘The Statesman’ of 9 January 2001 where he reports about the Institution ‘Ecole d’ Humanite’ in Switzerland –

“Its founder Paul Geheeb and his wife Edith were in touch with Tagore for about 10 years, almost until Tagore’s death. The impression these educationists made on each other was deep and lasting. Anybody who is aware of Rabindranath’s educational vision, can make out similarities between Santiniketan and this Ecole d’ Humanite in Switzerland except that the vision is still thriving at Ecole, but, alas, is it still alive at Santiniketan?”

Cruel reality is, VB, once upon a time the Mecca of Tagoreana, does not live to-day much above its brick and mortar identity, keeping the pace of its all-round downslide in tandem with West Bengal’s, the state where it situates. Let us hope, with the change of Govt. in mid-2011, this downslide will reverse its trend for better future of West Bengal encompassing VB..

I have tried to explain why I had to give our “World Poet” (=’Biswa Kabi’, the appellation spontaneously conferred on the Poet by his admirers in Bengal) a very “local”, if not shabby, treatment in early last decade, quite to the contempt of the Poet’s enormity, I am afraid. At my heart I was always apologetic to the Poet’s noble soul in heaven for this.
However, in this Internet edition (from Jakarta) I have added a chapter of excerpts from Tagore’s letters/diaries sparkling the Poet’s brilliance, not having place in my original publication in 2002 which was partly published in the bulletin of Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, a prestigious monthly with worldwide circulation, in their May 2010 issue. Another addition is, an essay authored by me which was also published in the same bulletin in their May 2007 issue. Besides, English rendering of a few poems and songs of Tagore, which were not in my original edition, have found place here, while quite a few of the old ones have been re-annotated also. Thus, the said ‘old wine’ has been diluted more or less by 30% by virtue of these additions / shuffling.

Again, my modest arrangement in Calcutta toward the end of the last century yielded results very much out of its proportion. Firstly, this enabled me to push out my book in the market within a week after the termination of VB’s copyright on 31st December 2001. Secondly, my friends in Delhi sent copies far and wide to earn me compliments from a few top literary and cultural institutions at home and abroad a few of which may be seen in the “Compliments” chapter of the said Internet edition from Jakarta ...‘Raja Rammohan Roy Library Foundation’ under Central HRD Ministry who support a few hundred libraries all over India, lifted a bulk of  my TES thus promoting ‘Tagore literacy’ at least within India. A few copies reached USA also and its impact has been elaborated in my ‘Acknowledgements’ chapter of the said Internet edition, the link to which is found in my personal profile page of the few pieces published so far by And this Internet publication, along with’s support, is a superb culmination of this backdrop and may be counted as exemplary in the Cyber world which has shattered all penury of my publication from Calcutta as aforesaid.  It can now reach the remotest corner of the Earth and it is anybody’s guess how many copies (hard or soft) of my oeuvre or part thereof will be made in course of time as against the few hundred with which TES saw the light of the day in Calcutta while Internet is the “Global Copying Machine” [courtesy, a wag quoted by Dr. N. D. Batra (see “Acknowledgements” chapter)]. And, which luminaries deserve more this ‘Global’ platform cutting across all boundaries than our “Viswa Kabi” (=World Poet)? Further, appearance of this publication at this time, it may be noted, has been at a historical juncture while we are celebrating the Poet’s 150th Birth Anniversary starting 8th May 2010 and the Centenary Year of his Nobel accolade in 1913 is round the corner.

I am yet to answer the query of the “Pennywise Pound Foolish” fraternity  – “What about the hefty ‘Royalty’ that is eluding me in the process?” My answer is, if I have been able to project even a slender ray of our ‘Rabi’ (=Sun) to the posterity through the garbage of history, is it not by itself a rich euphoric dividend? If so, it will be my great pleasure to share that with those who are behind this publication (not forgetting our great Bill Gates & Co.). The ‘Net Savvies’ will multiply rapidly and learn to assimilate knowledge and wisdom over Internet sitting at home rather than toiling to go even to their nearest bookshop. Thus, it is a question of time (not very distant) when Internet will cast doomsday on our age-old publication industry when knowledge and wisdom will cease to be a ‘commodity’ more or less freely available as air and water which are our life line. This eventuality is already on the horizon.
One question may be raised here, why in spite of  the said Internet edition from Jakarta, I am depending on for circulation of Tagore? The fact is, the Jakarta website is a very busy one with 50,000 hits per day. But this, I am afraid, is due to its high commercial orientation where its ‘literary wing’ remains relatively obscure. But, is ‘literature exclusive’ and, naturally attracts literary people at once, rather than any website which caters a multiple blend. And gratifyingly, gives the ‘link’ to my Jakarta edition on my ‘personal profile’ page where one has to just click the words ‘Internet edition’ (which will glow on placing the ‘mouse’ there) to reach my complete oeuvre of TES at Jakarta.

C. The Bengali stasis

All round decay in VB has already been discussed exhaustively and needs no repetition. However, remarkable is, the VB’s custodians were dominantly Bengalees, notorious for their lethargic and self-erosive wont. Advent of Tagore among them, a rare historical accident,  bewilderingly uplifted the VB team to the world stage overnight. But they hardly realized the enormous challenge Tagore had left behind after his death. It was mostly to spread out his vast literary, aesthetic and spiritual treasure of unprecedented qualitative height ever achieved in human history, to the entire mankind, of course mostly by translation into other languages. This was too daunting a Himalayan task to be welcomed by the Bengalees with their inertia to break out of their inane vanity as a direct heir of the Tagore legacy without the realization of the obligations attached to it. While it was obvious that Tagore should transcend all narrow boundaries, they emotionally conferred on him the appellation “Biswa-Kabi” (=World Poet) hardly realizing that to reach the ‘World’ the most difficult barrier is language. Did they expect that Tagore, besides gifting us his noble and lofty heritage, should take up the onus of translating his entire oeuvre also? It appears so as after the Poet’s self-translated ‘Gitanjali’ which had won him the Nobel there was no big addition to his translated oeuvre to create awareness about our Poet’s enormity outside his Bengali confinement. Without this, it will be appreciated, the said appellation of the Poet is a mockery. We may recall a few episodes, as follows, to bring home the deplorable Bengali shortfall in this respect.

In mid-nineties of the twentieth century, Mr. Khuswant Singh, an Oxon and renowned  scribe of North India, stirred the hornet’s nest of the Bengali literati with his remark that Rabindranath Tagore did not deserve all the accolades he had, for which Khuswant had his due share of Bengali wrath. But, how poor Khuswant not knowing Bengali with his very limited exposure to Tagore through the precious little translations available at that time and disgusted with the Bengali hype (as Khuswant deemed) of their Biswa-Kabi (=World Poet) could give a better compliment to the Poet? However, soon thereafter, a British, e.g. William Radice, came to Tagore’s rescue who is famous for Tagore translation and also a poet of his own. Khuswant admitted on reading Radice that his previous opinion about Tagore was wrong to the great elation of the Bengalees. We should not miss, Radice is a scholar in Bengali literature and had translated Tagore from his original Bengali works to be able to yield his high quality English renditions of Tagore. His bi-lingual mastery (Bengali & English) with a poetic inspiration is a rare combine and is a rare specie in the English world. However,  once evolved the bizarre idea of ‘collaboration’  between a English speaking scholar/translator and an authority in Bengali/Tagore literature for the purpose of Tagore translation, maybe on the ridiculous assumption that while Radice’s said integrated mastery was not abundant the fragments thereof occurring among different individuals could be assembled together to make a Radice. But, two and two really didn’t add up! Maybe, the idea also evolved from the spate of the worldwide collaborations for industrial growth without realization that the most important ingredient for purpose of translation of a poetry at least is, ‘poetic inspiration’, from which the industrial collaborations are poles apart. In case of translation of a poetry, however convenient the idea may be for the truant Bengalees, will be a sure recipe for flop. The idea, however seemingly sensible, came from a very responsible quarter, might be from our Raj heritage during British rule, and it needs serious contradiction as it borders fundamentalism and will only stand on the way of quality translations. Bengalees seriously concerned with good translation of Tagore’s poetry should realize, the onus here should be primarily with the Bengalees of course with high grasp over literary English (though it may not necessarily be one’s mother tongue) and such persons are aplenty among the Bengalees while English is the global lingua franca in the modern world, and  if the concerned persons have a flair for poetry translation, there is no reason why they will hopelessly fall short of the rare Radice specie. This is because, writing a poetry or even a translation thereof, is a creation of high aesthetic  perceptions of an individual, where none of the two parties in the contemplated collaboration may be gifted with such virtue notwithstanding their high level of learning, and attempt of division of labor here will mostly yield uncouth results. Here, academically lesser persons with the said gift may be more effective. In sum, taste of the pudding here should be in its eating and the idea of collaboration should not be misplaced where it is a matter of sole dedication of an individual. [This view of mine is based on correspondence I had with an institution in some Western Metropolis, presumably engaged in promotion of Tagore awareness in the West, in early 1998 i.e. more than a decade back while I offered them a couple of my debut translations for their magazines. Lot of water has flown down the Thames, or any other river in the world for that matter, since then. Maybe, this fundamentalism has been diluted over these years.]

D. Tagore deified

Also, the Bengali tendency to deify Tagore as infallible in all his feats, including translation of his own work, very much stood on the way of ‘Tagore literacy’ drive started by the modern translators. In the nineties of the 20th Century a good number of articles came out in the media, some of those arguing that Tagore’s own translations were ‘insipid’ etc. by which Tagore did injustice to himself. I fully agree with this view and feel that this has been the reason for the poor assessment of Tagore outside the Bengali circle. However, in all fairness, Tagore should be excused for this failure as he had to divert to translation amidst his enormous preoccupations, naturally at the cost of quality and quantity of his translations, while he could handle only a small fraction of his vast work. One may recall the episode of installing a bust of Tagore at Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon Avon, with Tagore’s poem ‘Shakespeare’ (from his book ‘Balaka’) inscribed on a plaque beneath it. It was a gift from the West Bwngal Govt. and the State’s the then Chief Minister Mr. Jyoti Basu inaugurated the bust towards the end of the last century. A few renowned translators offered their English version of the poem for this inscription but, eventually, Tagore’s own was chosen. It very much appeared to me that the choice was ‘political’ as the Chief Minister would not play with the Bengali sentiment by ascribing a secondary rank to Tagore below somebody else by any means and jeopardize his vote bank. However, out of all the translations of ‘Shakespeare’ offered for this purpose, I read Joe Winter’s which was published in The Statesman on the 27th November, 1996. It appeared to me superb and I pasted the newspaper cutting of this translation in my copy of ‘Shakespeare’s Complete Works’ (Publisher- English Language Book Society & Collins, London and Glasgow edition 1964). A few ‘Odes to Shakespeare’ appear at the preamble of this publication. So far as my copy is concerned, I think the said pasting is the best of all the ‘Odes’, very likely appearing in my copy alone, unfortunately. My suggestion is, henceforth the publishers of Shakespeare may consider inclusion of this Joe Winter’s translation of Tagore’s ‘Shakespeare’  (or anybody else’s if considered better) in their future publications. Thus, the Western literary circle may savor Tagore through Shakespeare which they keep at their elbow. The said publication of Joe Winter’s “Shakespeare” appears at the end of this Preface.

Continued to Whither Tagore translation? 

More By  :  Rajat Das Gupta

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