De-Anglicizing Tagore

Aug 5, 201619 min read

De-Anglicizing Tagore could begin by calling him Gurudev Rabindranath. If we have accepted Rabindra-sangeet, instead of Tagore-sangeet, we are not creating a new precedent in calling him Gurudev Rabindranath, and his writings as Rabindrasahithya, and he too probably would have been happy to be accepted by this name. If we do not need a family name for Valmiki or Kalidasa, why do we need a family name for Rabindranath?

Anglicization of Rabindranath had probably begun with the adoption of the name 'Thakur'. Rabindranath's lineage dated back to the 8th century, to the first group of learned Brahmins that came from Kanauj and settled in Bengal in the eighth century. They served as priests, and were addressed as Thakurmoshai, and Thakur had then been anglicized to further convenience the British, by changing it to Tagore. In our country, Sarachchandra and several other writers always used the name 'Thakur' instead of Tagore. We are fortunate that Europeans did not try to change Rabindranath to fit their tongue. Had they done so, like the way Greeks changed Chandragupta to Sandrocottos, we would have had something like Robbingnuts for Rabindranath.

In his presentation speech Harald Hjarne, Chairman of the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy, introduced Rabindranath Tagore as an Anglo-Indian poet1 but there is no trace of any English or European blood in him. We do not find any record that Gurudev had objected to the statement. Fortunately for us, it is now almost forgotten.

One hundred and three years after Gurudev Rabindranath was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, we can still celebrate his greatness, as a leading literary giant of the 20th century in the world, and among all 112 Nobel laureates of the past 114 years. Some of the Nobel laureates never got into World Literature, and not many into Vishvasahitya. Many have been forgotten after a few years, but "Rabindranath had composed more than two thousand songs, thousands of poems, many novels, drama and short stories."2

What Karl Ragnar Glerow of the Swedish Academy said in his presentation speech on the award of the 1971 Nobel to Pablo Neruda is more valid for Rabindranath. "No great writer gains lustre from a Nobel Prize. It is only the Nobel Prize that gains lustre from the recipient - provided the right one has been chosen."3 We have to honour our Gurudev not because he won the Nobel, but because of all his contributions to the world of arts and for the well being of mankind.

Gurudev Rabindranath's third visit to Sri Lanka, in 1934, and the subsequent journeys by our artists to Santiniketan, resulted in their de-anglicizing their own names. In 1939 Baddeliyanage Joseph John, changed his name to Sunil Santha, within one month of arriving at Santiniketan. Eustace Reginald de Silva changed his name to Ediriweera Sarachchandra, George Wilfred Alwis became Ananda Samarakoon, and Albert Perera became Amaradeva.

Even if de-anglicizing the name may not be so important, we have to seriously think of de-anglicizing 'Tagore literature' as Rabindrasahitya, to fulfill Gurudev's dream of a Vishvsahitya. To Rabindranath, Vishvsahitya was not 'world literature'. It transcends geographical, racial, language and political boundaries.

Rabindranath wrote, "The word 'Sahitya' is derived from the word 'sahita'. Thus etymologically there is a sense of unity inherent in the word 'Sahitya'. It is not merely the unity of thoughts of language or books. Nothing but 'Sahitya' can create an intimate link between peoples, between past and present, between far and near."4 It is this togetherness we need and why we have to bring Rabindrasahitya to the world.

Unfortunately in India they translated sahitya as literature in the late 19th century, and we in our country too re-translated 'literature' as our Sahitya.

In our part of the world, we try to anglicize everything, like we now use the term 'Lord Buddha', probably because Europeans wanted to bring Him to an equal footing with YHWH, who became Lord God in English, even though Buddha does not need any epithet. Indians, while retaining the name India, instead of calling it Bharat Varsha, have been de-anglicizing the names of their cities, to Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Bangaluru, while we still retain our anglicized names for Colombo, Galle, Kandy. The only name we dropped, to my knowledge, is Kernigalle for Kurunegala.

While we Indians and Sri Lankans became anglicized in many ways, we in our country have been suffering a colonial mindset for over two millennia, when we became indianized. This indianization was disguised as aryanization very often, which was once again used by the Europeans who attempted to justify their invasion and occupation of our countries by showing ancestral links.

People around the world have a right to read Rabindrasahitya in their own language, without any deletions, distortions, misinterpretations. We in Sri Lanka need to read Rabindrasahitya in Sinhala and Tamil. To achieve this the writings have to be translated by committed writers, who have mastered their own mother tongue and Bangla, or Vanga, as we call it, but without anglicizing or indianizing them. The SAARC Cultural Centre started a very ambitious project, to translate the great literary works by South Asian writers, to share them first with all South Asians, and then the world. But unfortunately it has come to a standstill. They should take the initiative to translate Rabindrasahitya to all major South Asian languages.

A very sad situation is that we had to read Gitanjali only as Sinhala translations of the English prose translation by Gurudev. We in our country ended up with eight such translations of Gitanjali. It is only now that Prof. Upul Ranjith Hevavithanagamage has undertaken a translation from the original. The first verse from the original Gitanjali (which had not been included by Rabindranath in his translation), is published in the CCIS publication, 'One Hundred years of Gitanjali',. This should convince us of the need to translate all Rabindragita direct from Bangla, because of the similarities of the two languages and what we have in common.

Prof. Sandagomi Coperahewa has listed 50 translations of Rabindranth's works into Sinhala, which includes 7 translations of Gitanjali, and 4 of Gora. Some of them are said to have been translated directly from Bangla original writings.

It often comes to my mind, how rich our songs could have been, if our great lyricists like Mahagama Sekara, Dalton Alwis, Arisen Ahubudu had a real Gitanjali translation available to them for inspiration. Sunil Santha may not have been able to master Bangla well enough to read the original Gitanjali, as he had spent only six months at Santiniketan. But he was able to grasp the essence of Rabindra thoughts, and his music, that he was able to not only use Rabindrasangeet, but also develop his own Sunilsangeet.

Coming to the present day, I have been searching for a Sinhala writer who has also mastered Bangla, who could translate 'Purno Chobir Mognota' by the Bangla Academi Award winning Bangladeshi writer Selina Hossain, into Sinhala. It is a biographical novel woven around the time Gurudev Rabindranath spent in Shahjadpur, Shelidah and Patisara and the river Padma. It had been written after researching this subject for over ten years, reading all the stories and poems Gurudev had written while he was looking after the Tagore family estates, and also his notes and letters. It is the Padma river and the river basin which turned a Zamindari into the Gurudev and it is the story Hossain is telling us here. She puts these words into the mouth of the village postman, Gagan, "Padma flows inside my body....I feel the river coursing through my veins". It is the same river which flowed through Rabindra's veins, and that is what would have made him feel one with the people there.

I had the good fortune to read the English translation 'The Painter's Palette' by Dr. Debjani Sengupta. Even though she has done an excellent job, it is still not the original which Hossain had created. The original Bangla work, which in translation into Sinhala would be very much closer to 'Purno Chobir Mognota', than The Painter's Palette.

Thinking beyond this small island, still more unfortunate is that most of the Gitanjali translations into other major languages in India and Europe too had been from the English version and not from the Bangla original. In India access to his works was also limited. Gurudev wrote in Bengali, which is spoken only by about 8% of the total Indian population. The others had to read his work in translation in their own language or in English, and it would not have been the same as reading him in his own writing. There could have been many variations in the translations too, because translating Gurudev is not an easy task. There are 38 different translations of Gitanjali in Hindi, and 6 in Kannada.5 William Radice claims that not only the translations into German, Russian, French but even most of the translations into other Indian languages had been from the English translations and not from the original Bengali.6

One reason why Rabindrasahitya did not survive for long after the initial popularity with the award of the Nobel, could have been the not very successful translations into English.

In a way Gurudev became his own enemy, with his attempts to translate his own writings. But I believe that Yeats and other poets like Ezra Pound are also responsible. They praised, and promoted Rabindra translations, and then suddenly decided to drop him and criticize him. Harold M. Hurwitz, writing about Yeats and Tagore had said that Yeats had introduced Tagore to London literati, "I know of no man who has done anything in the English language to equal these lyrics". The same Yeats, two decades later had said "(Tagore) knows no Indian knows English. Nobody can write with music and style in a language not learned in childhood and since then the language of his thought". (quoted by Buddhadeva Bose in Kabi Rabindranath).

Whether this change in attitude was political or out of naked jealousy we would never know.

Michael Collins says that Gurudev had been thinking of translating his works into English for some time, and most interestingly he had been encouraged since 1908, by Ananda Coomarawamy, to translate his works into English.7

"....I do believe that the changes that Yeats made - to the order and selection of the poems, to the paragraphing, to the punctuation, and above all to Tagore's choice of words and phrases - would have contributed to Tagore's growing feeling over time that in the English Gitanjali, as presented and edited by Yeats, he had betrayed his true self....The subtle relationship between poetry and song; the careful way in which he had chosen representative poems from a number of contrasting books; and the creative pleasure that in a mood of confidence he described in a letter to J. D. Anderson of 14 April 1918 as 'a magic which seems to transmute my Bengali verses into something which is original again in a different manner'; all that had been spoiled." (Rothenstein)

William Radice, who translated Gitanjali, using the original Bengali poems and the Rothenstien manuscript, found that Yeats had made "many unnecessary and faulty changes in the manuscript", that Yeats had changed the sequence which Gurudev had carefully designed, that the sequence and punctuations "made it sound very biblical.....the published book has as many small paragraphs like the Bible....For one hundred years no one has objected to this text....All translations of Gitanjali have been based on this text. But actually it's a bad text, very bad text.....but Rabindranath's genius is actually there, in the manuscript."8

Partha Pratim Ray, librarian, Institute of Education, Visva-Bharati, had done a study of the different editions of Gitanjali. The first publication of the Gitanjali in Bengali was in September 1910. There were 157 songs and poems, of which 20 had been previously published 'Sharodutsav' (1908) and 'Gan' (1909). The other 137 poems had been written between August 1909 and August 1910. The English translation had only 103 poems, "These translations of poems contained in three books, 'Naivedya', 'Kheya' and 'Gitanjali' , but the collection had really been from 10 other books. Only 53 of the 103 poems in the English Gitanjali was from the original Bengali Gitanjali. 16 were from Gita-malya, 15 were from Naivedya, 11 from Kheya, the other 8 from Chaitali, Kalpana, Smaran, Shishu, Utsarga and Achalayatan. The Bengali Gitanjali had been reprinted 40 times from 1910 to 2007.9

For the past 100 years, we have all been imprisoned inside the English Gitanjalie, translated by Gurudev for the Western reader, and claimed to be edited by a man who did not understand Gurudev or India.

Tagore is needed now, in the 21st century, perhaps more than when he wrote Gitanjali, or when he won the Nobel Prize. Sitakant Mahapatra and Prafulla K. Mohanty, sums it up in their introduction to 'Tagore and Nazrul Islam Vision and Poetry', where they write, "Tagore's poetry brought a humanist universalism with abundance and amplitude of the traditional soul of India...(p.14)...The 21st century reader living in the post-modern world encounters only demystification and decentering to lose hope in life. For such readers Tagore offers hope for life and confidence in living. p.21)

One probable reason for the failure of Gurudev's own translations could have been that he had first written in Bangla, and when he attempted to translate them into English, he would still have been thinking in Bangla. It is a very difficult task for a writer to attempt translation of his own writings which have been created in his mother tongue. Writing first in a second language could give better outcome, as the writer could think in the second language and put them into words. Translating such a work into the mother tongue would be easier because it would be easier to switch into thinking in the mother tongue. That is my personal experience too.

Ediriweera Sarachchandra has shown us how an author could translate his own works successfully. Sarachchandra improved on his original work, 'Heta Echchara Kaluwara ne' in 'Curfew and the Full Moon', and more so in 'Foam Upon the Stream', where he combined 'Malagiya Etto' and 'Malawunge Avurudu Da'. Gurudev Rabindranath could have done it himself, or he could have collaborated with a native English user with a good mastery of Bangla to do the translations. Rabindranath would have done all his creative writing, as the thoughts came to him, unmindful of who would be reading them. Sarachchandra would have done the same, when he first wrote in Sinhala, and also when he rewrote them in English, but Rabindranath had manacled his creativity in his English writing, because he wrote them for the western reader in mind.

Basudeb Chakraborti's study of Gurudev's play Rakta Karabi, (The Unrecognized Work of Tagore as Translator: An Assessment of Red Oleanders), covers most of the issues faced by Rabindranath himself, and other translators, in their efforts to bring the Bangla writings into English.10 He quotes Sisira Kumar Ghose, "the problem, hard to avoid, is that the 'Englished Tagore' is not the same as the Bengali Rabindranath."11

Most of the Indian critics only commented on Rakta Karabi, ignoring Red Oleander. The western critics, almost everyone, could not find anything noteworthy in the English translation.

However all the adverse comments by western critics affected Rabindranath very badly. Chakraborti sums up the situation, "The unkind comment on Red Oleanders by Western critics shocked Tagore so much so that after this translation, Tagore never ventured to publish anything in English for the West. Perhaps Tagore realized that it would be futile to make the Western reading public familiar with the imagery and symbols, which are interwoven with the themes of his writings, until the people of the West internalize the composite understanding of Indian life, religion and philosophy, which are intrinsically connected with one another. Perhaps Tagore realized the problem of an unhappy mismatch between the theme of his plays in Bengali and the rendering of those into the linguistic framework of English. Ananda Lal's comment in this regard seems to be pertinent here: 'Understandably, Tagore never published any other play in English translation in the West after this disaster".12

Radha Chakravarty quotes from Gurudev's own letter where he admits that he has misrepresented himself to the Western Reader, that he has done gross injustice to his original productions.13 This is not the place to discuss the fidelity of translation, or Vishva Bharati's attempt to ensure true to the original translations, or if an author could translate his own works.

Asru Kumar Sikdar, poses the question, 'Why did Rabindrnath translate his works to English?' in his paper published in 'Contemporarising Tagore and the world'. The first poem Gurudev had translated had been from his 'Manashi' at the request of an English surgeon, in 1888. Later he had started his historic translations while convalescing in Shiladaha. Many of his early works had been translated into English by fellow Bengali writers. Ananda Coomaraswamy, was perhaps the first non-Bengali to have translated Rabindranath into English. Sikdar mentions Maud MacCarthy as the first native English translator who had produced 'My Father's Home' from 'Tomari gehe palichho snehe', in 1911.

In the same article Sikdar writes, "these translation were made in unbelievable haste. The translation of 'Sharodotsab' as 'Autumn Friends' was done in less than two days. Rabindranath's English translations thus became a commodity. In the commercial interest of the publishing house the fact that the works were originally in Bangla was suppressed." Sikdar continues, "The publishers could continue with such irregularities with impunity because Rabindranath was a member of the subjugated Indian nation, and they were white men belonging to the country that had colonized India."14 And again, "In order to be acceptable to the western readership, he (Rabindranath) ended up presenting through his English translations only a pale and lacklustre reincarnation of himself. "(p312). "He wanted to reach out to them (western readers); to be accepted by them; to be understood by them. In order to be acceptable to the west, he failed to be faithful to his original works. He was unconsciously under the pressure of colonial 'cultural hegemony'. And as a result, he presented in English a denuded, meagre, mutilated form of his work." (p314)

Subas Sarkar gives one example, of the translation of 'Āji jharer rāte tomār abhisār'. Rabindranath "takes liberties with the original and spoils the poetic charm with the patent view of reaching out to the average English or European reader. Here Tagore was hardly a translator; he was more of a purveyor of his merchandise to customers of other lands who took a fancy to his wares." (P 164)

(Studies in Translation. ed. Mohit K. Ray. Tagor in Translation: A Case for Revaluation. Subhas Sarkar. )

One person from the west, who really understood Rabindranath was Alex Aronson, who came to know Bengal and Rabindranath so well, during his seven year stay at Santiniketan and later at the University of Dhaka. But the world and Vishvasahitya lost a great opportunity to have Rabindrasahitya translated into English, and perhaps German too, because Aronson had not made an attempt to learn Bangla. Yet the German readers are fortunate that Prof. Martin Kampchen has taken up the challenge to introduce Gurudev Rabindranath to them, in place of the 'Englished Tagore'. We in Sri Lanka are unfortunate that we could not produce our own Martin Kampchen, though many had been at Santiniketan, and learned Bangla, and admired and venerated Gurudev.

It is 75 years since Gurudev passed away. Copyright is over, but that should not give the liberty for anyone to translate Gurudev, anyway they wish. A translator should not be given a poetic license, specially if his interest is in riding on the fame of Gurudev or to earn filthy lucre.

'The Essential Tagore' edited by Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarti is a good start to de-anglicize Rabindranath. However let such English translations be for the Western readers, but for us in South Asia, let us have our own translations in our own languages, which would be definitely much closer to the original works of Gurudev.

Rabindrasahitya does not need any awards, or any added publicity. But we need translations which will be with us even for many generations to come. It would be wonderful if we could all lean to read Bangla, if it is only to read Rabindranath. But we cannot all of us become polyglots.We have to depend on translations.

Our children today have an opportunity to learn many languages, but unfortunately not the Bangla language. It is time for India or Bangladesh high commission to set up a facility to teach Bangla to our children, and for our universities to include Bangla also as a subject, because our two languages have so much in common.

While de-anglicizing Rabindrasahitya, we should also ensure that we do not continue to indianize our sahitya and our culture.

What is needed is Rabindrasahitya to enrich Vishvasahitya.


  4. Rabindranath Tagore, Sahitya (Vishva-Bharati 2004) p. 112
  9. Partha Pratim Ray, Publications of Rabindranath Tagore: A Bibilometirc Study. 2015
  11. Sisir Kumar Ghose, Rabindranath Tagore. 1986 p.6
  12. Ananda lal, Rabindranath Tagore Three Plays, p. 74
  13. Sikdar p. 306-7
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