Amita Ray provides a brilliant introduction to Tagore’s songs for the non-Bangla speakers

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Amita Ray provides a brilliant introduction to Tagore’s songs for the non-Bangla speakers

Amita Ray reviews Selected Songs, a compilation of Tagore’s songs translated into English by Aditya Kumar Deva Majumdar.

The Bard of Bengal, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), was a prolific writer, equally at ease in exploring all genres of literature. The ‘mystic’ poet from the East received the Nobel Prize in 1913 for his book Gitanjali (Song Offerings), a collection of his poetic songs which he himself translated into English from Bengali. It is intriguing that though Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize for translation of his songs in as early as the year 1913, Bob Dylan’s winning the same in 2016 sparked off a debate whether song lyrics could qualify as a subject of consideration for the highest award. Born in an illustrious Brahmo family with rich cultural heritage, Rabindranath was initiated into the world of songs and music at a very early age, his mentor being his elder brother Jyotirindranath Tagore. Tagore penned his first song when he was barely twelve years old and scripted a total of two thousand two hundred and thirty-two songs till his old age. The songs are compiled in the book Gitabitan which has six parts. They are Puja (worship), Prem (love), Prakriti (nature), Swadesh (patriotism), Anushthanik (occasion-specific), and Bichitro (miscellaneous). The poet also composed music for his lyrics. He experimented with a breathtaking range of music starting from Indian classical music, to Carnatic music, Western tunes, and folk music, taking from both India and the West. The evocative essence of his music transcends all barriers of time and space binding the heart of different generations and genres of music lovers.

Aditya Kumar Deva Majumdar’s book Selected Songs introduced and edited by Gopal Lahiri is a compilation of Rabindranath Tagore’s songs translated into English. In his introduction to the book, Gopal Lahiri observes, “The dualities of infinite and finite, the mood and feeling, the heart and soul are some of the characteristics of Tagore songs. Each song has an appearance, a cadence, a texture, a solemness, a consistency, but its triumph is the sum of all those parts all together.” To depict and transcreate the nuances of a spread of such diverse fare, thereby touching the soul of the poem as well as the heart of the readers, is a daunting task.

Born in Allahabad (1882—1978), Aditya Kumar Deva Majumdar served as the Head Master in a government High School in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh. He was erudite and passionate about Tagore’s poems and songs. A compulsive urge drove him to translate as many as one hundred and fifty-three songs of Tagore. It is worth mentioning that Aditya Deva Majumdar was engaged in translating Tagore’s songs when poet Rabindranath Tagore was alive and had received the Nobel Prize for translating his own poems. It also needs to be recalled that during those days translation was not a popular literary exercise and Translation Studies were a discipline unheard of. It was his sheer love for the poet’s work that inspired him to translate. He wrote them in a diary and kept it as a personal treasure. He gifted the handwritten manuscript to his nephew Chittaranjan Mazumdar who had kept it in his custody for about half a century. His daughter Mita Das Mazumdar, heir to this treasure decided to liberate it from hibernation and publish it for the benefit of the readers. The book Selected Songs is therefore a posthumous publication that is now sure to make its presence felt in the world of translation literature.

From the oeuvre of one hundred and fifty-three translated songs, fifty songs have been selected for this slender volume. It is a precious bilingual publication remarkable for the way the songs are arranged. Each song in the target language is juxtaposed with the original poem in the source language so that the bilingual readers get a taste of both the songs simultaneously. Another striking feature of the translations is that the translator has given a suitable title to each lyric keeping in mind the inherent significance. He has chosen songs from all the parts of Gitaban encompassing the entire gamut of human emotions. Patriotic songs, spiritual and devotional hymns also find a place in the collection. His translation, fluid and lyrical, keeping pace with the rhythm, merge seamlessly with the essence of the songs in the source language only to strike a chord in one's heart. The songs ‘To My Motherland’ (from Swadesh), ‘A Prayer’ (from Puja), ‘Before the Peep of Dawn’ (from Prem) ‘O Shady Green’ (from Prakriti), ‘The Picture’ (from Bichitro) are only a few of the songs included in this volume. The songs of Rabindranath Tagore are subtle and deep, especially the lyrical evocations which resonate with his realization of the Divine, the Supreme Consciousness. W. B. Yeats had rightly remarked that poetry and religion are the same thing in Tagore’s songs. In his transcreations, Aditya Kumar Deva Majumdar attempts to be true to this innermost deep significance of each lyric. Here is a slice of its reflection in the translation of a popular song (Aji Bijono Ghore, Nishitho Rate…):--

If on this dark and dismal night
You come with empty hand,
Can that, O friend, frighten me?
I know there is your hand
Spent so far hath been my time
Begging and receiving,
Now is the time when I should bring
Myself ‘fore Thee, smiling
I know, my friend, I know
There is your hand I know.

Again, another very popular song (Tumi ki keboli chhobi…) he translates thus:-

Art thou a mere picture, painted
On Canvas and no more?
The far off nebula, crowded
With stars in the heart of sky;
The planets and stars in great bands
Nightly across the vault of sky,
Travel with torches in their hands
O thou pretty one, tell me pray
If thou art not as true as they,
Or a mere picture and no more!

One of Tagore’s modern-day translators, William Radice, observes that songs can never be adequately translated even by Tagore. To justify it he said, “Let me say simply here that I do not believe that you can translate songs. That is because their tune and melody cannot be translated. They have to be sung and performed and you have to hear and feel them…” The truth of this statement cannot be underestimated. In fact, Tagore himself was perturbed by the “faded meanings” in his translations amounting to an element of loss. This book promises to be a rewarding read for the lovers of Tagore, irrespective of whether one’s mother tongue is Bangla or not and definitely is a brilliant introduction to Tagore’s songs to the non-Bangla speakers.


Amita Ray is a former associate professor in English, and lives in Kolkata. An academic of varied interests, she is a translator, short story writer, and poet. She has two published books of translations to her credit. Her short stories have been published in The Sunday Statesman, Cafe Dissensus, Setu, and other e zines. She has a passion for writing poems and many of her poems have been featured in anthologies and journals.

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