The original Bengali Gitanjali was published on 14 August 1910 by Indian Publishing House, 22 Cornwallis Street, Calcutta. For this, he [Rabindranath Tagore] wrote fifty new poems, culled the rest from his works, Naivédya, Khéya and Gitimala, and added some poems which had earlier appeared in periodicals. The English Gitanjali was first published in November 1912 by the Indian Society of London.
The Bengali poems, numbering 156 or 157 – depending on how one looks at it – were whittled down to 103 prose translations. He edited out fifty poems. But why the confusion about the number 156 or 157? He fused two separate poems, 89 and 90, of the Naivédya into one, which we now know as 95. The work was his to transform. Re-make. Re-present.
“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change” states the quantum physicist Max Planck. William Blake shifts the focus somewhat when he says, “As a man is, so he sees.” Both these reflections stay with me as I work on the Gitanjali.
Initially, I was briefly persuaded to term a published excerpt as my “erasure” poems of the Gitanjali. Though erasure is a form of contained writing, its reductionist connotations didn’t agree with me, for mine is a tribute. Besides, I believe a great poem is one that often serves as a draft or raft for someone else’s poem. Or that is how it should be: A spark or a shift in another’s subconscious.
A friend suggested I was “vivifying” Gurudev’s twentieth-century prose translations into twenty-first-century poetry. But wasn’t I, smitten by the work, simultaneously getting vivified? After completing all 103 poems, I re-read the Gitanjali. It still swam in me like an electric eel; it had more to offer. I found “remainder” poems floating within each of the Song Offerings.
The intense longing that swarmed through Gurudev when he was writing surged in me too, almost beyond articulation. These fragments are, to me, not an exercise in asceticism, rather an intensification of emotion. They are not sundered, they are rather sculptural offerings. Stammers towards the sacred. Song 34:
“Macmillan’s are urging me to send them some translations of my short stories,” Tagore writes to his friend, the influential critic and lithographer William Rothenstein. “They require rewriting in English, not translating.” Almost 70 years before the term “translation studies” was coined, Tagore was a largely unacknowledged pioneer in theorising the field. He saw it as a “thing” worth studying, an independent discipline rather than an exercise in learning a foreign language; as a creative process rather than a mechanical practice.
In the Preface to The Gardener (1913) which Tagore dedicated to Yeats, he declares, “Most of the lyrics of love and life, the translations of which from Bengali are published in this book, were written much earlier than the series of religious poems contained in the book named Gitanjali. The translations are not always literal, the originals being sometimes abridged and sometimes paraphrased.” Again, The Gardener is a work of self-translation, doubly so, for it is translated from one language into another and because, for him, translation necessitated rewriting sections as well as condensing the original.
In this, Gurudev was true to the Indic tradition of translation and transmission which acknowledges that diverse versions of a source text do not lack fidelity but each is held as equally valid. As I read his words, I felt a deep comfort.
Similarly, after completing my work on the Gitanjali, I found another serendipitous connection in this passage from Glimpses of Bengal. These are letters he wrote between 1885 and 1895, in particular to his niece, Indiradevi Chaudharini, as he travelled, often in his family’s luxurious houseboat, on the slow, sparkling river Padma, to inspect the outlying areas of his ancestral properties.
BOLPUR 19th October 1894.
We know people only in dotted outline, that is to say, with gaps in our knowledge which we have to fill in ourselves, as best we can. Thus, even those we know well are largely made up of our imagination. Sometimes the lines are so broken, with even the guiding dots missing, that a portion of the picture remains darkly confused and uncertain. If, then, our best friends are only pieces of broken outline strung on a thread of imagination, do we really know anybody at all, or does anybody know us except in the same disjointed fashion? But perhaps it is these very loopholes, allowing entrance to each other’s imagination, which make for intimacy; otherwise each one, secure in his inviolate individuality, would have been unapproachable to all but the Dweller within. Our own self, too, we know only in bits, and with these scraps of material we have to shape the hero of our lifestory – likewise with the help of our imagination. Providence has, doubtless, deliberately omitted portions so that we may assist in our own creation.
What we know is partial, of ourselves and others. For what we perceive are dotted outlines. Specks of light are outlined by imagination and grace. Wholeness is only a suggestion.
We assist in our own creation, and creations. Each one, individually, creates.
Dotted outlines of personalities across oceans and positions taken on various cultural questions connect Gurudev to several of his contemporaries, among them, Romain Roland, Yeats, Coomaraswamy, Einstein and the Mahatma.
Below is Gurudev’s Song 96. Phrases in bold comprise my first poem, the underlined sections become my second poem.
When I go from hence let this be my parting word, that what I have seen is unsurpassable.
I have tasted of the hidden honey of this lotus that expands on the ocean of light, and thus am I blessed – let this be my parting word. In this playhouse of infinite forms I have had my play and here have I caught sight of him that is formless.
My whole body and my limbs have thrilled with his touch who is beyond touch; and if the end comes here, let it come – let this be my parting word.
When I go
let this be my parting word
what I have seen
Am I blessed
In infinite forms I have caught
sight of that formless
with his touch
who is beyond
In its last poem, Song 85 of The Gardener, Gurudev prefigures my urge to remake his words a hundred years later.
Who are you, reader, reading my poems an hundred years hence?
I cannot send you one single flower from this wealth of the spring, one single streak of gold from yonder clouds.
Open your doors and look abroad.
From your blossoming garden gather fragrant memories of the vanished flowers of an hundred years before.
In the joy of your heart may you feel the living joy that sang one spring morning, sending its glad voice across an hundred years...
Excerpted with permission from the Introduction to Sing of Life: Revisioning Tagore’s ‘Gitanjali’, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Context.