In Memoriam: Smaran and Palataka: Tagore’s Elegiac Poems | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 27, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:09 AM, February 27, 2021

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In Memoriam: Smaran and Palataka: Tagore’s Elegiac Poems

Tagore has remained ceaselessly relevant to us not just for his contributions to Bengali literature but also for issues relating to society, politics, gender, education and even environment. He has been the centre of many intellectual discourses including translation studies, more for the English renditions of his own verses put together in Song Offerings, the title that made him the first non-European Nobel Laureate. Recently, a fresh volume of the translations of his two not-much-widely-discussed books of verses, namely, Smaran & Palataka, has been published by Sahitya Akademi, India. And the translator is no less a person than Sanjukta Dasgupta. Herself a poet, Dasgupta is a reputed figure in the Indian intelligentsia for her exercises in translation and critical engagement with Rabindranath. Her analysis of Tagore as a "radical" in the perspectives of "nation, family and gender" excited many to review the traditionally held responses. Dasgupta's translation of the lyrics included in the Swadesh category of the Geetbitan bears her keen interest in Tagore.

Reading this new volume containing the English versions of Smaran & Palataka poems is a pure pleasure. The last cover of the book, to which often we usually offer a primary look, in this case too stuffy in words though, guides us to the re-reading of the poems as elegiac interpretations rooted in the mortal departure of Tagore's wife and his eldest daughter. This is a rediscovery. Dasgupta offers a critical and instructive introduction to the poems, wherein she refers to 'the irrational, ruthless and non-negotiable' inevitability of death. A professor of English, Dasgupta ties John Donne's sonnet "Death be not proud" to explicate her point. Dasgupta's references to sundry biographical details of Tagore in relating to the loss of dear ones underline the thematic concerns of death that the two books represent. The profile of a pedantic professor can further be identified as she drags in four Tagore biographers to elaborate and defend her observations.    

Congratulations, Sanjukta Dasgupta. A marvelous enterprise accomplished with mastery. The 27 brief poems of Smaran (1902) constitute a poetic and contemplative document of Tagore's inner and subjective world. Many readers will be able to understand the depth of emotions and realization that the bard transcendentally incorporates in this book. The present translator's focus is on this particular aspect. I am a somewhat Tagore-addict. But I must confess that I had no experience of reading these particular poems in the English version. Surely, the basic question of authenticity may also be raised. In the fastidious search for the nuances and the exact effects of some of the very exclusive Bangla words, the Bangali readers may become disappointed at certain places. And this is commonly applicable to all the languages of the world.

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I started reading the poems in this book without taking out the original volumes from the shelf. The scholarly introduction was the starter and I felt more curious to identify within the body of the poems the points raised by the translator. I found the poems extremely pleasant to read, I could find my Rabindranath too, his essential spirit as caged in the words, in a different language though. That's where the beauty of Sanjukta's translation lies. It was a happy and smooth reading all through.

And later as I had to consult and re-read the original Tagore poems since I decided to embark on a review of this volume, I located some areas, which I might have done a little differently and also felt that a third person would have preferred even some different synonyms. However, I went back to the text that Dasgupta has re-produced to assess how would one English-speaking person without any knowledge of Bangla be able to fathom the contents of the verses and get a taste of the poetic flavor of the elegiac mood of Tagore. Going through Dasgupta's translations with my emotional and intellectual affiliation to Tagore as the explorer of the human mind at times of broken bondage, solitude, loss, longing, repentance and compulsive rehabilitation set the trajectory of my thoughts beyond the borders of language. I felt that the readers in English will be able to discover as the translator desired- "Tagore's life in his inner space, as a loving husband and father" as reflected in these two slim volumes of verses represent. I could justly evaluate the contents of Dasgupta's introduction. I must say readers will largely benefit from this. But I would have felt happier if some commentaries in the footnotes could have been provided on the "feminine" beauty of some Bangla words like  palataka or porarmukhi to convey the especial nuances of Bangla to the English-speaking readers. There are some more words like Lakshmi and Saraswati, allusions to which are necessary for such readers. Dasgupta concludes her introduction with the assertion that "English translations of vernacular texts are more about gain than loss." I fully agree with her and highly appreciate Sahitya Akademi's efforts in such enterprises.

In these two volumes, particularly in Smaran, Rabindranath followed a popular pattern of versification in those days. He excellently handled the late 19th or early 20th century styles of rhyming and rhythm that often combined some distinctly audible-cum-visual stanzaic formula. The visual of these texts in the traditional structures presents a very different look which even today deserve our admiring recognition. But translating those texts for the modern-day English-speaking readers in faithful conservation of the original structure will never be the right way to present Rabindranath. No one should be a puritan in this respect. I specially commend Sanjukta Dasgupta for her cultural and intellectual responsibility to cater Tagore's poetry to the overseas readers. With the inclusion of the critical introduction, this book becomes an important addition to Rabindra studies. On the one hand, it unfolds some biographical slices of a privately desolate and meditative poet and on the other, it upholds the lyrical beauty of Tagore's poetry.    

Dasgupta has taken recourse to an artistic and rhetorical riddle with her borrowing from the famous Tennyson poem In Memoriam. "In Memoriam" has been justly appropriated here, in spite of the Tennyson hangover. However, the artistic problem hangs on. Dasgupta has deliberately prefixed these two words from English and they have been made commonly applicable to both Smaran & Palataka. This becomes a bi-lingual reconstruction converging Anglo-Bengali vocabulary. It appears on the first cover (in the same font and points, without the: & in the spine and the inner pages with:). That produces an ambiguity of primary impression. The question gets complicated right from p.1. There, the original title of the first book is given all in the upper case, followed by "In Memoriam'' within parenthesis denoting as well as connoting the English version of this particular title. But inside, the headers of all the right-hand pages show "In Memoriam" and the original Bangla titles of the book in italics. It is then a new title that conjoins Tagore and Sanjukta, sounding a little aphoristic. I think that having committed to translate two of Rabindranath's books dealing with the predominance of personal grief and the terminal fact of death, for Dasgupta, the choosing of the English title became very challenging and she had to give in. It has been a fine artistic dilemma for her. If asked whether this has earned a synthetic character, I prefer silence. But no catalytic effect has visually taken place for the use of both the target and source languages on the cover of the title.

But I feel constrained to critique the editorial team. The original Bangla titles of the Palataka poems have been put in English literatim within parenthesis, but not in italics. The poem Mukti has it, while the others appear in the common "Times" font. Two poems have been deprived of the Bangla form and one bearing the title-"The Mother's Honour" has the Bangla somman as "Sanman," which is a silly yet unpardonable mistake. There are some other places which should have deserved more care from the editing team.  


Shafi Ahmed is a former Professor of English, Jahangirnagar University.

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