New Delhi: Sculpting Rabindranath Tagore’s prose-poetry in Gitanjali into intense poems with Sing of Life (published by Westland), Priya Sarukkai Chhabria revisioned the classic while keeping its essence intact. Excerpts:
Q. When and how you decided to ‘revision’ Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali? What is your take on revisiting and rewriting a classic which many people hold close to their hearts and consider as a sacred text?
A. It’s 2019. My husband and I are in a café in Bir, awaiting our coffee. He picks out a copy of the Gitanjali from the café bookshelf. I too began to read it, over his shoulder. Almost immediately, phrases from the book rise into my eyes like swans taking flight from a lake. I begin writing down the risen phrases.
Tagore 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. These texts are often in simultaneous circulation. I view Sing of life as an offering in this tradition.
Every 20 years or so new translations and interpretations of the classics are written to enrich a new generation’s understanding and appreciation. This also prevents great works from being obscured by gatekeeping tendencies. Most world classics continue their spiral through time in this manner. They need to avatar over and over again, even as the original remains a source of inspiration.
Q. How did you tread the tightrope between being a poet and a translator while working on Sing of Life?
A. Sing of Life is a work of translation – Tagore’s own. It is also a palimpsest, written over and remodelled by him and then revisioned by me. It is, in a sense, a collage too, as I rearranged chosen words.
Tagore’s reshaping of his Bengali poem Gitanjali into English prose-poems exemplifies his suppleness in even rewriting sections of the original. As a translator, I keened to this liberating knowledge. I attempt to intuit essences that hover within another’s text or remain unsaid. But I don’t stop being a poet when I translate!
Simultaneously, the poet in me responded to the liberal scattering of the beauty of thought and language in the Gitanjali. I chiselled into intense new poems the numinous creative substance of the Gitanjali, its mysterious and magnificent spiritual energy. Being both a poet and translator I walked on a doubly secure bridge.
Q. What are your views on the relevance of Rabindranath Tagore in today’s world? Tell us about how, during the course of immersing yourself into the Gitanjali, he turned into Gurudev?
A. Tagore’s nobility of thought, his prescience that patriotism could reduce into chauvinism, his insistence on being open to debate, and his fearless pursuit of the reason is of vital importance to us today. Also, if we’d heeded his call to respect “the harmony that exists between the individual and the universal” and not view the natural world as a resource to be plundered, we’d be better parents and ancestors.
The Gitanjali is a 20th-century extension of wisdom literature that asks us to align ourselves with cosmic harmonies. It’s also a work of ecopoetics for its plangently tender vision of nature — which includes the human.
However, the word ‘immerse’ suggests I submerged into the work and somehow emerged intact with the revisioning done. I didn’t. The truth is more like I dissolved into the Gitanjali. The work swallowed me, I wrote Sing of Life from a reconstituted consciousness. When I began, the beauty of Tagore’s thoughts and metaphors stunned me. I tingled with aesthetic delight. As I worked, the depths of the sacred that he sourced in himself and in life vaulted me into immense gratitude and joy. I was all me, and much more than ‘me’.
After completing Sing of Life I read up on him. Some incidents disturbed me. For instance, that he betrothed his daughter Renuka at age ten when he had condemned the practice. But this doesn’t negate the spiritual thrust of the Gitanjali. It’s unfair to expect writers to live up to their writerly personas when the best in them seeps out. Tagore was rendered as a writer graced. Gurudev.
Q. What did you intend to achieve with this linguistic experiment? Gitanjali seems to be creative meditation. Did you face any challenges while giving his work a fresh lease of life?
A. I didn’t intend to achieve anything in particular. There was no goal, no premeditation either. Rapture drove me. To quote from Tagore’s translation from the Mundaka Upanishad, “From joy does spring all this creation, by joy is it maintained, towards joy does it progress, and into joy does it enter.“
My response to Gitanjali‘s layered intensity was that two spatially and connotatively different poems emerged from each one of his prose poems. While his dazzling lauds invite one in, those on welcoming death made me question his position and mine, especially amid a pandemic. Take, for instance, these lines,
Last fulfilment of life
Death comes to me
I have kept watch.
I took a long breath before approaching Song 35, “Where the mind is without fear” which every Indian child reads in school. It seems like a prayer to an almighty Father. Decoded, it’s a hymn to the nation suffering under colonialism. It’s a secular prayer for freedom and reason. Here’s one of the bliss-filled poems:
This is nothing but love. This light these clouds this breeze on my forehead Light floods my eyes bends from above looks down on my eyes. This is your message
Q. Was it an intuitive decision to do away with punctuation in the poems and use succinct sentences?
A. Yes, I intuitively did away with punctuation to reach for stutters towards the sacred. For content invokes the form. Mystics streak like lightning on the horizon of the liminal, and we race after them to catch the significance of their words. If I recreated my version in complete sentences, this, to me, suggests hubris. It just wasn’t happening. Also, the spaces between words are silences, which I trust will summon reflective, participatory thinking from the reader. This is important to me.
Sing of Life is a tribute, so rigour and minimal intervention was my mantra. I did not add a single word of mine nor change the order of Tagore’s words though his prose embroidery fell away. In this sense, Sing of Life is an excavation. Archaic pronouns, valid in Tagore’s time, were substituted with the intimacy of address used by bhakti poets. I also employ present tense throughout.
Q. According to you what is the correlation between the Gitanjali and the Bhakti tradition? Can you tell us more about how his prayer songs reflect the act of seeking, intimately addressing and ultimately surrendering to the almighty?
A. Bhakti poetry has a levelling gaze; it sings of a porous and parallel universe of grace that is within each one of us as well if only we listen well and quietly. It miraculously decentres the self by reducing one to almost a molecule that is interconnected with all life forms. This is a magnificent gift.
In this universe, everything is animated, everything speaks; the address is lava-tongued and passionate, it burns boundaries including those of the self. We enter an energised and enchanted world — which does not mean it is devoid of darkness. Spiritual longing runs through the bhakti tradition like a chasm.
Gitanjali shares this amplitude and preoccupancy; it returns us to what I term, ‘the ever-present everyday sacred’. It bequeaths to us the wonder of the unfolding moment. Here’s beginning of Song 69 (i): The same stream of life that runs/ through my views runs through the world…