Kitaab Review: Tagore and the Feminine: A Journey in Translations

by Dr. Usha Bande


tagoreMalashri Lal (ed) Tagore and the Feminine: A Journey in Translations. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2015. Pp 332. Rs. 995/-

Rabindranath Tagore’s literary output can well be compared to a perennial source; the more you use it, the more it gushes out. On the same analogy, no new book on Tagore is one too many, nor is it saturating. The work under review, Tagore and the Feminine: A Journey in Translation, is a welcome addition to the scholarly discourse on Tagore that attempts to locate the “feminine” in his oeuvre. The volume offers selections from his memoirs, Gitanjali, travelogues, poems and songs, epics and mythology, letters, essays, lectures, and short stories, and in that, it becomes a journey of re-discovery and a not-so-easy exercise in translation. The contributing translators are all renowned scholars in the field with command over both Bengali and English. That speaks for the quality of the work.

Initially, the word “Feminine” in the title appears problematic: why search for the “feminine” when the sensibilities of the age are attuned to “feminism”? And again, why search for the “feminine” in the works of a patriarch? Malashri Lal’s deep and intense “Introduction” provides a logical answer to these queries: “Revisiting the oeuvre of Tagore through critical sensibilities nurtured by feminist theory and gender studies, it becomes possible to read Tagore in new ways since his words are multivalent, the images mercurial and the emotions brilliantly nuanced” (p.xv-xvi). Prof Lal further opines that Tagore shows a unique ability to enter a woman’s “imagination, experience and language with amazing perspicacity” (p.xvi). This takes me back to my first reading of his story “The Postmaster” and my awe at the subtle and suggestive nuances of a woman’s heart.

Commenting on Tagore’s androgynous vision, Lal observes that “to understand the feminine principle and give dignity to the woman’s mind and body, a writer must be gifted with an androgynous imagination” (p. xxiii). His play Chitrangada (transcreated by Rabindranath Tagore and included in the book) amply illustrates this aspect. He invests Chitra with the duality of male and female characteristics — a warrior not conscious of her unsightly looks and a female wanting to be beautiful the moment she encounters the archetypal male, Arjuna.

Chitraganda’s firm assertion at the end — “I am Chitra. No goddess to be worshipped, nor yet the object of common pity to be brushed aside . . . ” (p.181) — is of a self-determined woman. Her portrayal goes beyond Tagore’s mythical imagination and becomes a pointer towards his awareness of the social reality of women’s existence — a reality he presents in his short stories. “Profit and Loss”, “The Wife’s Letter” and others included in this selection (eleven in all) challenge the institution of marriage, devaluation of women as non-entities and the exploitative social traditions and customs. His women protagonists are empowered yet feminine.

The feminine face of spiritual longing finds expression in the six songs from Gitanjali. These extracts are in the Bhakti tradition in which the overlapping interplay between emotions of the female and the male lovers, and the imagery of longing, pining, waiting have both feminine softness and male robustness. “Oh, dip my emptied life into that ocean, plunge it into the deepest fullness” (No 87); when God, the lover, leaves his sword on the bed on his departure in the morning, the beloved accepts its symbolic import, “Thou hast given me thy sword for adornment. No more doll’s decorations for me!” (No 52).

By and large, to translate emotions and subtle cultural nuances from one language to another is an arduous task, more so in poetry. The poems and songs of Tagore, loaded as they are with rich and elaborate imagery, pose a challenge to the translator and can elude even bilingual experts. Radha Chakravarty’s write-up, “Re-writing Tagore: Translation as Performance” discusses some of the tricky aspects of translating Tagore because, as she observes, translation involves much more than linguistic transfer; it is cultural transfer, “re-presentation” as well as “re-creation” and it “remains premised upon the idea of repetition with difference” (Pp.1-8).

Despite these consternations, the translators of these pieces have skillfully maintained the flavour of Bengali suppleness in English idiom. In poems like “Woman Unclothed”, “Bodily Union” and “Breasts”, the physical and spiritual union is conveyed through rich imagery. Love becomes an aesthetic experience and the feminine body a source of ecstatic joy conveyed through images such as the woman “shyly veiling herself with sari-end” or the lover appealing to the beloved to “let gentle dawn see thy pristine purity”. These poems do not express longing for a non-body, non-entity, non-existent being; it is the real woman he addresses, as in “The Last Spring” wherein Victoria Ocampo has been addressed. In “Santhal Girl” the deeply sensitive poet upbraids himself for employing the woman to slog for his family thereby stealing her “valued self/ with a bit of wealth”; in “Krishnakali”, he admires the dark eyes of a village belle derided by others for her dark skin and gives her a poetic name “Krishnakali”.

The editor has given us a fairly representative and rich assortment from Tagore’s massive body of works. The extracts from his “Memoirs” show young Rabindranath as the man in the making: responding to the humane “touches of friendship and affection”; silently questioning the segregation of male and female sections in the house; and experiencing the tenderness of the Earth through the tender touch of his mother. Mythology is represented by Kunti, Devyani, Gandhari and Urbashi – women of love, beauty and frank assertion. His letters to his wife Mrinalini Debi (translated by Malashri Lal) and to Victoria Ocampo reveal two sides of his personality, while his public addresses and essays are of a man much ahead of his times. He recognized a promise in women’s passive qualities — promise and potential to build a world of human relationships. What the feminist psychologists and eco-feminists are discovering today, Tagore discerned a century back.

With a brilliant Introduction which merits special attention, a piece about translation as performance, an ably translated Epilogue and an Index, the book is complete in itself. In the process of bringing forth the “feminine” in Tagore, Professor Lal has revealed within the framework many facets of Tagore’s intellectual and cosmopolitan personality. Sage Publications is impressive with flawless editing, a pleasant cover design and quality paper; however, I have a quarrel with the print that is too small for comfortable reading; of course this can be rectified in the next edition (and I am sure the book will run into many more editions). This work can be of particular interest to non-Bengali readers and it will be a valuable addition to the shelves of libraries in India and abroad.