Translating Between Media: Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray
Clinton B. Seely
Keynote Address Delivered at the Twelveth Annual Tagore Festival
Saturday, 21st October, 2000
University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, IL
Tagore, in terracotta (artist unknown, obtained from the Paus melaa, Santiniketan); computer art (by Nilanjana Basu), and in cut-out (by Supurna Sinha)
In a sense, all expression, particularly what we call artistic expression, is translation. The artist translates her or his ideas into a verbal expression, in the case of the writer; or into a visual, verbal, and auditory expression, in the case of the filmmaker; or into a visual and possibly tactile expression, in the case of the sculptor; or into an auditory and maybe verbal expression, in the case of the musical composer -- and so on and so forth. I could mention other specific sorts of artists -- painters, playwrights, and potters, for instance -- but I think my point is clear: all art, though we like to think of it as an act of creating, is from one perspective an act of translating. It is the act of translating an idea into some medium, that is to say, into some perceptible form. If artistic expression, in the terms just described, is translation, then the activity that we commonsensically refer to as translation is, or at least can be called with equal validity, an act of artistic creation.
I am emphasizing the creative aspect of translation, for the very reason that current dictionary definitions do not. Three meanings for "translate" in a modern English-language dictionary are the following: (1) to turn from one language into another; (2) to change the form, condition, or nature of; and (3) to explain in simpler terms. The last of these definitions, "to explain in simpler terms," I shall ignore, for that meaning does not pertain at all to my use of the word "translating" in the title of this talk. The first definition, "to turn from one language into another," is possibly the most obvious rendering of the word "translating" and the first to come to mind. It is the sort of translating that Rabindranath Tagore himself did in 1912 with some of his own Bengali poetry in order to produce the volume in English known as Gitanjali
, for which, as we all are well aware, he received the Nobel prize for literature the following year. It is, however, the second definition of translate, "to change the form, condition, or nature of," that I mean to evoke by my title. Again, I can turn to Tagore to illustrate this second definition of the word translate. Tagore published his drama Citrangada,
titled for the central female character, in 1892; more than four decades later, he translated -- that is to say, changed the form, condition, or nature of -- Citrangada,
his play, into Citrangada,
his dance-drama. One could argue that Tagore's original drama Citrangada
is, in fact, a translation of -- a changed form of -- the tale found in the Mahabharata
whence comes, quite obviously, at least some of the inspiration for Tagore's drama. These are all, in one way or another, examples of translation, in the second definition of that word. That is to say, the subsequent work changes the form of the precursor that it is translating. All of the above-mentioned translations, moreover, are in some sense original artistic creations, just as all of the them are in some sense derivative. A further case in point is Tagore's short story Nastanir
(The Fouled Nest,
published in 1901) and Ray's translation of it into the film Charulata,
completed in 1964, released in 1965.
I would like to consider today three aspects of these last two works, Tagore's and Ray's: first, the autobiographical/biographical nature of both and how Ray's translation forces us to acknowledge that fact; second, how Ray, the creative artist, translates Tagore's words into images, some with accompanying words, some without; and third, the manner in which both the short story and the film function as a Tagore apologia. More on each of these later.
Let me reprise very briefly the subject matter of Tagore's story for those non- Bengalis here who might not know it. It tells of Charulata, a woman in her early twenties who had been married as a child to a husband, Bhupati by name, some ten to fifteen years her senior. She grew to maturity in her husband's household, benignly ignored by him. Bhupati has his own interests, in fact one all-consuming interest, that of publishing an English-language political newspaper in colonial Calcutta. He seemed almost oblivious to the presence of a wife who has, at the time of the story begins, become a mature young woman. Also living in that household, while he attends college in the city, is Amal, cousin-brother of Bhupati and someone with aspirations of becoming a writer. Charu and Amal are close in age, closer by far than Charu and her husband. The two near- contemporaries bond in many ways, like brother and sister, like intellectual equals, like young adults excited and at times overwhelmed by the literary culture of Calcutta of that day. Charu, confined by the then current mores to the house, albeit a very richly furnished upper-class house, gets to live in part vicariously through her brother-in-law who brings to her life some of the thrill of a fuller intellectual outside world. Eventually, it becomes evident to Amal that this relationship with his sister-in-law may have crossed the emotional boundary into forbidden territory. Amal withdraws; Charu is heartbroken, devastated; Bhupati feels sadly betrayed. End of story.
Shifting from literature to life, I shall similarly reprise as briefly and selectively events in the Tagore household seemingly pertinent to Tagore's tale. Kadambari Devi came into the Tagore extended family at a young age, as the child bride of Jyotirindranath Tagore, one of Rabindranath's elder brothers. Rabindranath was the fourteenth and youngest living child of his parents. Jyotirindranath was thirteen years his senior. Concerning Kadambari Devi and Rabindranath, who was close to her in age, Tagore's most authoritative biographer, Probhat Kumar Mukhopadhyay, writes: "He had been her playmate and companion ever since her marriage." [1
] On December 9th of 1883 at the age of 22 Tagore himself was married to a girl of 11, whom he renamed Mrinalini and with whom he had five children. One of them, Rathindranath, as this Tagore Festival audience is well aware, studied at the University of Illinois. Tagore and wife Mrinalini lived happily together until her premature death in 1902. In the words of biographer Mukhopadhyay, Tagore's marriage at the end of 1883 had been "sudden and unexpected." [2
] In late April of the following year, slightly more than four months after his wedding, Kadambari Devi committed suicide. Why she took her own life, if known, has never been made public. Biographer Mukhopadhyay writes of Kadambari Devi's death: "The reasons are shrouded in mystery. But that there was some family misunderstanding, it cannot be doubted." [3
] Krishna Kripalani -- a relative of Tagore's; he married Tagore's granddaughter -- tells us bluntly in his own biography of Tagore not to speculate on the cause of the suicide.
That Kadambari Devi's death was profoundly felt by Tagore can be readily established through Tagore's own words. To a young Amiya Chakravarty of about 16, who would a decade or so later become Tagore's literary secretary for a period of time, Tagore wrote in 1917, and I translate:
Once, when I was about your age, I suffered a devastating sorrow, similar to yours now. A very close relative of mine committed suicide, and she had been my life's total support, right from childhood onward. And so with her unexpected death it was as if the earth itself receded from beneath my feet, as though the skies above me all went dark. My universe turned empty, my zest for life departed. [4
In the reminiscences entitled Jiban-smriti
(1911-12), Tagore wrote in a similar vein. His mother's death, as it occurred when he was quite young, did not affect him strongly, he tells us. Part of the reason for this was Kadambari Devi, who immediately assumed the role of surrogate maternal figure. Kadambari was herself a young girl at this time and, as Tagore's biographer informed us above, Tagore's playmate. It is her passing that traumatizes him or, as he put it, "It was my acquaintance with death at the age of 24 that left a permanent impression on me." [5
] Kadambari Devi's death is that to which Tagore refers here, though he was actually 22 at the time, just a couple of weeks shy of his 23rd birthday, not 24.
There are a number of poems by Tagore that speak to or about the deceased Kadambari Devi, as the editor of Tagore's collected works calls to our attention. Shortly after her death, Tagore in his mid-twenties calls out to her. I'll read only bits and pieces of this poem entitled "Where" (kothay
Alas, where will you go!
In that endless, unknown land, and you alone, all alone,
How will you find your way!
Alas, where will you go![6
None of us will be there for you
None of us to chat and talk to
We shall sit here and shall weep,
Gazing off into the void, we'll call to you;
Amidst that vast, that lonely place perhaps our lamentations
You might chance to hear from time to time,
Alas, where will you go!
Edited by Qwest - 07 January 2007 at 6:11pm