Monday, September 01, 2008

Rabindranath Tagore's Song Offerings

I'm reading Joe Winter's translation of Song Offerings (Gitanjali). According to Winter, Tagore wrote Gitanjali from 1906-10, but mostly in the last three months of that period. These poems were written as poems to be read on the page. Tagore turned them into songs as or shortly after he wrote. Winter describes the relationship between poems and songs in this way: "It is as songs that they are known far and wide by Bengali-speakers; yet the text still has a spoken voice."

Winter also describes usefully the publication and reception of the English Gitanjali:

Tagore translated a number of the Gitanjali into English in 1912, at first, while recovering from illness and without the energy, as he put it, 'to sit down and write anything new'. He continued the exercise on a voyage to England that year, his first serious venture into English translation, and arrived with a manuscript made up half of Gitanjali re-creations and half of pieces from nine other of his books. (He wrote over fifty volumes of poetry in all.) Some material translated was in fact new. The exotic figure, as he must have seemed, with his haunting, prayerful and strangely authoritative offerings, was at once taken up. W. B. Yeats read from the manuscript to a distinguished gathering held in a private London house in Tagore's honour; and it appears Yeats was of some assistance in the selection of finished pieces for the final English text. A little misleadingly, this was given the title of the main contributory volume. The English Gitanjali was first published in 1912 and Yeats supplied the introduction, a powerful personal statement amounting almost to a confession, of the magic spun by the poems, the inner light woken in him. The magic worked apace: Tagore left for India in September 1913, after a little over a year in the West; and news of his award of the Nobel prize for Literature reached him in Santiniketan near Calcutta that November. 

I was already deeply impressed by Tagore's lyricism when I read William Radice's translations in a Selected Poems (which deliberately did not include any Gitanjali poems).  After reading the first twenty poems of Winter's translation (157 poems altogether), I felt my soul drawn out of me, and up into the air above me. The poems, in their devotional nature, remind me of the Hebrew Psalms, but harken to a radically different theology. The soul-drama here is not sin and redemption, but forgetfulness and remembering. 

The second stanza of No. 17 ("Where is the light? Where, where is the light?") is tremendously moving:

The messenger of grief sings, "For your sake
O Life, on your account God is awake.
xxxWhen pitch-black dark of night is falling
xxxto a love-tryst he is calling,
rich-honouring you by way of sorrow's ache.
O Life, on your account God is awake.

The recurring trope of awakening from sleep dramatizes the soul's movement from forgetfulness to remembering, in this case, remembering that sorrow awakes the divinity within us, and so rich-honour us. This is no mere intellectual formula;  Tagore's wife and two sons passed away within a brief period of 5 years, just before he began writing Gitanjali

The skill of the translation is most apparent in the repeating line "O Life, on your account God is awake." The assonance of "O" and the contrasting consonance of "k" make the line musically memorable. "Account," a word rich with meaning in this context, is linked to "awake" by the initial "a" sound, but both words come from very different semantic fields, and that juxtaposition jolts a recognition. 

Like the Psalms, the poems here cover a wide range of tones, expressive of the soul's various responses to the divine. There is the joyful wonderment in No. 8, of which I quote the first stanza:

Today I'll watch the paddy play
xxxhide-and-seek in shadow-light.
Who has floated in the blue sky
xxxa boat of cloud so white?
xxxxxxToday wild-circling in the sky,
xxxxxxits honey forgotten, a bee whirls by.
xxxxxxToday by the river why should a crowd
xxxxxxxxxof chokha-chokhi birds alight?

I love the idea of the paddy playing hide-and-seek, and of the bee whirling by. What playfulness in the name of those birds--chokha-chokhi! And the simple effectiveness of that image of a crowd of birds alighting by the river of the soul. 

There are prayers in here too, not just prayers for spiritual understanding, but also for spiritual doing, for Tagore was as much a doer in life as a dreamer. He was active in Indian politics, and founded a university. His spiritual ardor reaches outward to the world. In No. 15, in the second stanza, he asks:

When, at my eyes' new-opening,
xxxshall I be glad at heart?
To be of some small use to all,
xxxdown which road shall I start?
xxxxxxThat you are here--O when will this be
xxxxxxsure within my life and easy?
xxxxxxWhen of itself will your true name
xxxxxxxxxecho within each deed?

These last two lines utter a prayer I had not realized I have been praying. "O Life, on your account God is awake."

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