The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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One Hundred Poems of Kabir Translated by Rabindranath Tagore, Chronicle, Rs 295

The translator of One Hundred Poems of Kabir happens to be the greatest poet Bengal, and India, has produced. So this is a kind of interaction between two great minds separated by four centuries.

The book is, in fact, a reprint of Rabindranath Tagore’s translation into English of Kabir’s poems which he undertook with Evelyn Underhill. It was published from London by India Society in 1914. Later in 1917, Macmillan reprinted it from London and New York. This reprint contains a well-written introduction by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, the former vice-chancellor of Visva Bharati university.

The reprint is a timely addition to the corpus of Tagore’s writings, especially because many of the most die-hard among Tagore enthusiasts were not even aware of the existence of this work. In spite of the Macmillan reprint in 1917, it had remained either unknown or was not well-received by readers in India.

The translation of Kabir’s poems opens up a new window to Tagore’s personality. It is also likely to raise a number of questions in the mind of the reader. Why, for instance, did Tagore choose Kabir and why did he translate Kabir’s poems into English rather than into his native Bengali' Tagore himself is silent about it. A more important question relates to the latest reprint: why did it take 87 years to undertake the project of reprinting this work' Finally, what relevance, apart from an academic one, does the book have for a generation fast losing interest in the written word itself'

Bhattacharya’s introduction provides some insight into these questions. There is nothing unusual about the fact that Kabir, who fired the imagination of all and sundry, should also inspire Tagore. All the poems of Kabir translated by Tagore revolve around the theme of the poet’s ceaseless search for truth. It is interesting to note how Kabir explains an idea over and over again without ever repeating himself.

The first poem in Tagore’s translation is the oft-quoted one: “I am neither in temple nor in mosque: I am neither in Kaaba nor in Kailash:/ Neither am I in rites and ceremonies nor in Yoga and renunciation./ If thou art a true seeker, thou shalt at once see Me: thou shalt meet Me in a moment of time.” Only the first lines of the original poems are provided in the volume.This makes it difficult to compare and see how faithfully the poems have been translated.

Tagore’s stress was probably on making the ideas in the poems clear to the Western readers, unfamiliar with Indian mystical thought. What goes amiss in this reprint is the introduction written by Tagore for the 1914 edition. Nonetheless, readers will have gained immeasurably from the retrieval of this book, which will find pride of place among Tagore’s literary works.

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