Tagore for Beginners

01 July, 2011

THE REPUTATION Rabindranath Tagore enjoys as a literary figure in India has never been in doubt. He towers over the national imagination as the exemplary man of letters, whose astounding versatility as a writer encompassed everything from short stories, novels and plays to poems, songs and essays. And yet, while his stories, plays and poems are enshrined in syllabi, performed in colleges and sung every day by thousands of people in West Bengal and Bangladesh, it has always been somewhat difficult for those who do not speak or read Bengali to fully appreciate his genius. As several commentators have noted, Tagore suffers greatly in English translation.

Many of these translations are, of course, Tagore's own. But Tagore himself was long unsure of his texts: "I am sure you remember with what reluctant hesitation I gave up to your hand my manuscript of Gitanjali, feeling sure that my English was of that amorphous kind for whose syntax a schoolboy could be reprimanded," he wrote to his friend William Rothenstein, an artist who first sent the Gitanjali poems to the poet WB Yeats. Even Yeats, who worked with Tagore on the English version of Gitanjali and was at least partly responsible for the initial rave reviews that Tagore got in the West (leading to the Nobel Prize in 1913 and a knighthood in 1915, which he later renounced in protest against the Jallianwala Bagh atrocities), later made public his distaste for Tagore's translations of his own work. "Tagore does not know English, no Indian knows English," Amartya Sen cites Yeats as having written. Even if one leaves aside Yeats' somewhat extreme positions, it is undeniable that most English translations of Tagore had a florid, often overwrought quality that doesn't merely camouflage the power and beauty of Tagore as a literary stylist, but actually turns the modern reader away from him.

While the task of the translator remains crucial (and some of the newer English translations may well achieve what previous efforts have not), one rather pleasurable way in which the non-Bangla reader may enter the world of Tagore is by circumventing the literary route altogether—in favour of a cinematic one. Over 100 filmic adaptations of Tagore's work have been made over the years, and the National Film Development Corporation's recently-released DVD box set, ‘Tagore Stories on Film', is the perfect introduction. The NFDC brought out this commemorative collection to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Tagore on 7 May.

Of the five feature films in the set, three are in Bengali and two in Hindi. Of the Bengali films, the first is Khudito Pashan (Hungry Stones, 1960) directed by Tapan Sinha, while the other two are directed by Satyajit Ray—Teen Kanya (Three Daughters, 1961) and Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1984). Teen Kanya is a triptych, consisting of three unrelated stories: The Postmaster, Monihara (The Lost Jewels) and Samapti (The Conclusion). The Hindi films are Kabuliwala, Hemen Gupta's 1961 remake of Tapan Sinha's Bengali film, and Kumar Shahani's Char Adhyay (Four Chapters, 1997), based on Tagore's novel of the same name. The set also contains a high-quality English-language documentary on Tagore made by Ray in 1961, and a 34-minute-long film called Natir Puja, essentially the surviving portion of a silent film based on a stage play that Tagore made in 1932, which really has only archival value.