For a long time, the word kavi, Sanskrit for “poet,” was synonymous for me with a man named Kuvempu. He was the Rashtra Kavi, the national poet, of people who spoke Kannada, the language of the part of South India where I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s. Kuvempu’s verse—lucid, patriotic, nature loving—was taught in primary schools and sung on the radio; when you drove into the countryside, you found his poems painted near waterfalls and framed in the midst of rose gardens. Even as a boy, I knew that where Kannada-speaking territory ended, so did Kuvempu’s fame. Our neighbors spoke Tamil—a very different language—and they had their own national poet, a man named Subramania Bharathi. As far as I could tell, each of India’s many languages had such a Rashtra Kavi, around whose verse a powerful subnational identity had coalesced. Overarching all these Rashtra Kavis, however, was a man called the Vishwa Kavi, the universal poet, who spoke to all Indians.
Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) began his career as the poet of an Indian province—fertile, densely populated Bengal (divided today between India and Bangladesh); then, through a combination of exceptional talent and good fortune, he grew into something that no other twentieth-century poet could have hoped to be. Modern India’s first international literary celebrity, Tagore, in 1913, became the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. For many in the West and in India, his great silver beard and dreamy gaze made him a present-day incarnation of an ancient Hindu mystic; many Indians still call himGurudev, divine teacher. His song “Jana Gana Mana” is the national anthem, photographs of him hang in public libraries, and he is a key element in the liberal, progressive pan-Indian culture that is even more important than democracy or the army in keeping the country united. Tagore helped make modern India, but he also transcends it. When the part of Bengal awarded to Pakistan broke away to form its own nation, Bangladesh, in 1971, it chose a song by Tagore as its national anthem, thus making him the only man to have composed the defining patriotic verse of two nations.
Yet, as the writer Amit Chaudhuri notes in his fine foreword to The Essential Tagore, the poet has become a “static emblem” in India: worshipped everywhere, but not widely read outside Bengal. Like most Indians, I cannot read Bengali; Tagore’s verse came to my school in South India in an archaic and sometimes Orientalist English that left me with no desire to read more of his work. Young readers in other countries must have felt the same. One of the world’s most famous writers in the 1920s and ’30s, Tagore traveled from Argentina to Java to meet admirers; today, his international reputation has all but vanished. How surprising, then, in my mid-twenties, to watch Teen Kanya (Three Daughters, 1961) andCharulata (The Lonely Wife, 1964), two films by the Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray that were based on Tagore’s stories; to feel that the man who wrote those stories was not a silver-bearded bore but a restless young writer, someone I could have spoken to about my own worries about politics or love; and to wonder if, beneath the Tagore whom I had had to learn in school, there was another one, waiting to break out and speak to me. That is why this new anthology, edited by Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty, is so welcome, because it starts the process of freeing Tagore for a contemporary audience.
The first thing that strikes you about The Essential Tagore is the diversity of its subject’s talents: In a career that stretched over seventy-three years (he finished his first poem when he was seven, and was composing a story on his deathbed), Tagore wrote novels, plays, literary criticism, political essays on the iniquities of the British Raj, and descriptions of his travels in Persia and Japan. Yet it is to the poems that one turns immediately. The range is dizzying—Tagore composed devotional, patriotic, erotic, and nature verse—and is tackled here by a phalanx of gifted translators, including Chaudhuri. Most of the translations are lucid and lively, although it is only rarely we feel that we are eavesdropping in on the original Bengali:
Chaitra nights, I sit alone, once again, it becomes visible—
among trees and branches, the illusion of your curved hand
in new-sprouted leaves by some error they return your
To heighten the standard problems of translation, many of Tagore’s most famous compositions are lyrics; they have as much power in English as Ira Gershwin must have in Bengali. If the core of the poetry might never be retrievable for the non-Bengali reader, a wild, celebratory power keeps breaking through in the English translation, as when Tagore promises us, “Again and Again you’ll regain your right to be in the world.”
By ARAVIND ADIGA
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