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Long live literature

Soft-spoken and light-footed, Gulzar walked into the auditorium of Bhasha Bhavan at National Library on a sultry Saturday afternoon in his trademark crisp white kurta-pyjama. Smiling at the adulating audience, nodding at acquaintances, yet being firm with the eager beavers, Gulzar, the poet, the lyricist, the film-maker and the advocate for Indian literature was not sure “who was popularising who” as he spoke on adapting literature in films and other media.

The seminar titled Popularising Indian Literature through Other Media was presented by Natun Alo, an NGO which while working on environment and making biogas plants in Birbhum and Murshidabad, started working on culture and literature. Apart from Gulzar, on the panel were author Nabaneeta Dev Sen, poet Prabal Kumar Basu, JU film studies professor Sanjay Mukhopadhyay and publisher Nirmal K Bhattacharya.

Gulzar picked up two case studies, one of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali and Apur Sansar, where he believes “people came to know of Bibhutibhushan’s stories through Ray’s films”. The other was the curious case of Devdas which Gulzar said had been filmed “150 times over” and yet “those films did not have the story of Sarat Chandra in it”.

Gulzar launched into a spirited argument that literature cannot be replaced by any other media. “Just like you cannot teach painting through writing, similarly you cannot replace literature with cinema or any other media.” His prescription for popularising Indian literature was through literature itself and “it can take many forms”.

While lamenting that the literacy rate in the country had not reached that optimum level where everyone would be able to read literature, Gulzar said: “Let them read first and then see it in other forms.... Cinema also trips when it tries to wear the shoes of literature. Ramayana, for example, when televised or Ramayana in comics is not literature.”

Speaking of translation, Gulzar agreed with others like Nabaneeta Dev Sen, that it was one way of popularising Indian literature. “I would not have learnt Bangla had I not read the translations of Tagore which made me want to read them in the original,” said the poet.

Gulzar felt translating regional literature into Hindi will popularise them among the masses. “Hindi is still more popular than English in our country and even down south Hindi is understood,” said the lyricist, who has translated poetry into Hindi from 30 to 35 languages and “each language carries with it its own culture”.

Both Gulzar and Nabaneeta came down heavily on literature fests for their focus on English. “At the Bangalore Literature Festival, however, we got to meet authors of Kannad, Tamil, Telugu and a wealth of languages from the south. Calcutta should have a literature festival of eastern languages, including the languages of the Northeast. There is very vibrant poetry in the Northeast,” Gulzar said.

Nabaneeta dismissed diasporic literature as “not being Indian”. A Bengali author who taught Indian literature, she feared: “My children’s children will not read me. We will only be read by researchers.” Not one to give up, the octogenarian advocated ways and means to “bring back the runaway children home”. Be it through graphic novels, comics, translations or films “so long as you did not meddle with the content or the form”.

Citing the instance of Charles Lamb’s Tales of Shakespeare, she suggested: “Why don’t we rewrite Bankim in simple language?”

Poet Prabal Basu talked of the role of media in popularising Indian literature while Sanjoy Mukhopadhyay said he understood the angst that Indian literature was losing its popularity but wondered “can we really afford to have translations instead of originals”.

Nirmal Bhattacharya spoke of the government’s efforts of forming an Indian Literature Abroad Cell which has designated authors popularising Indian writers abroad.

Remembering the most ardent advocate of regional literature, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Gulzar said: “He used to say all the regional languages are national languages.” The poet-lyricist paid an ode to the novelist with his own poetry: “Kitab ondhi padi hain maiz par, rehne do usko...”