was a memorable day. Four poems by Rabindranath Tagore which I had
translated into German and published earlier were set to music by a
contemporary German composer, and they were premiered on that day. The
composer was Matthias Bonitz and the premiere was held in the city of
Münster in the north of Germany. In the almost 30 years that I had been
translating Rabindranath's poems and songs, I have constantly been
reflecting on what these volumes of translation - they number quite a few -
would do to my readers. Was the Indian poet read as a reminiscence of the
conversations readers had with their grandparents who, in the 1920s, had
been swept off their feet by the poet's dramatization of the mystical? Was
his poetry taken as a mere accompaniment to Hindu scriptural studies? Or
was he being newly discovered - as I so fervently hope - as a contemporary
figure who is able to shed light, in the Indian as well as the European
context, on our modern condition?
three decades, I have criss-crossed Germany and Austria giving dozens of
public readings of my translations. A few times, I first introduced the
poems and the recitation was then entrusted to an experienced actor. But I
was rarely satisfied with their rendition. When I recite Tagore, I 'hear'
the sound of the Bengali original in my mind. So my spoken German
inadvertently becomes mellower, more declamatory, there is stronger
emphasis on alliteration. However, I cannot quite recite my translation the
way the original Bengali is customarily recited, and, indeed, the way
Rabindranath himself has done it, namely in a sing-song high pitch with a
rather pathetic drawl to it. This does not 'work' in Germany: people would
chuckle at my pathos and not take the poems seriously. Showing emotions so
directly is not 'cool', is not part of the modern lingo.
I am regularly being requested to recite first a few lines of the Bengali
poem and after that the German translation. I have resisted this adamantly.
"Let me do what I can best - that is reciting my own translation,"
I say. Only once have I become weak, and that was recently, not in Germany,
but in Calcutta when the producers of the TV show 'Dadagiri' quite
stubbornly coerced me to recite a stanza from Shishu. I am not sure
how it was received, nobody uttered a word of either praise or criticism.
these translations, I see it as an effort to integrate Tagore's poems more
deeply into the texture of German culture, more deeply than the mere
published text could achieve. A step further is to set the translated poems
to music as it happened this year. Tagore's poems have attracted European
composers right from the time his poems were published in Tagore's English
version, that is from 1912 when Gitanjali stunned European readers.
Some of the best-known composers of the early 20th century tried their hand
at Tagore's English texts or in the German translation done from Tagore's
English. Most of us agree that Tagore's English paraphrases do not nearly
match the power of his Bengali originals. Thus, the early compositions
suffered inherently from the weakness of the texts they used.
recent times, competent translations - from Bengali and fashioned into
proper poems - have been done by William Radice, Ketaki Kushari Dyson,
Sukanta Chaudhuri, Ananda Lal and several others. These translations have
again incited composers to use these texts. William Radice told me that his
translation of Ananta Prem has been used already by five composers.
Their songs are routinely performed during weddings and burials. With the advent
of genuine translations, the arena for compositions of equal quality is
Bonitz chose five love poems, none of which was originally songs in
Bengali, to transform them into songs for soprano voice. Among these poems
are " Ananta Prem", and also "Nirjharer
Swapnabhanga". Is this a love poem? Yes, it is the breakthrough of
divine love into human life. With Tagore, a love poem does not only and
merely address relationships between man and woman, but it always
transcends erotic feelings by an overarching consciousness of cosmic
connectedness and empathy. Matthias Bonitz, himself for decades the member
of an orchestra and a professor of music, has written these songs for
soprano with the accompaniment of piano and cello. The songs are melodic,
they are lyrical and, sometimes, rapturously dramatic, expressing the
nuances of feeling afresh line by line. Not surprisingly, the performers
were multicultural. The German composer had engaged a Japanese soprano, a
South Korean pianist and a German cellist to interpret the nuances of love
expressed by an Indian poet.
audience applauded enthusiastically I wondered how a performer of
Rabindrasangeet would feel now. Would he/she view these pieces as yet
another truthful expression of Rabindranath's universality? Would he/she,
like myself, accept that Rabindranath offers exciting revelations whenever
he crosses the barriers of literary genres and cultures?