The Telegraph
Friday , June 13 , 2014
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- Tagore, Mahler and their songs of the Earth

On most Sundays, a friend and I switch off our phones in the morning to sit and read together a few pages from Rabindranath Tagore’s Chhinnapatra. Translation’s impossible choices begin, in this case, with the title. It could mean scattered leaves, torn-out pages, or torn-up letters. In this cunningly weightless volume, a middle-aged Tagore is going back to a set of letters he had written between his mid-twenties and mid-thirties — most of them to a niece, who was then in her teens. He arranges fragments from these letters in a sequence that creates a delicately balanced effect of randomness. Published in 1912, a year before the Nobel, Chhinnapatra is an elusive mix of diary, travelogue, anthology and novella, unfolding in what feels like an endless afternoon between prose and poetry, autobiography and fiction.

Written by an eminent public figure looking back on his less-exposed youth and its arts of escape, it is a work of necessary truancy. It inspires in the reader a peculiarly rigorous abstractedness. On Sunday mornings, our house and neighbourhood are quiet, except for the sweet-makers next door, listening to songs from old Bengali films on the radio as they stir huge cauldrons of milk on ancient ovens. Taking turns to read aloud from the book and from our scribblings on it, my friend and I sit on the ground-floor veranda, between my study and a walled patch of green. This in- between place between outside and inside, between half-wild nature and a room full of music and writing, between escaping from and escaping to, feels like the right sort of place in which to read, and talk about, Tagore’s inexhaustible little book.

A few years ago, I had begun translating it in earnest. Yet, every time I got into the work, I found myself succumbing guiltlessly to the “delicious diligent Indolence” it inevitably produced. (This is a phrase from one of Keats’s very chhinnapatraesque letters.) In this active state of inactivity, I would find myself not only dwelling on my immediate environment and inward state, but also taking the latter along the garden-path of Tagore’s methods of free association in the letters. This is a vital trail of memories, reflections, feelings, glimpses and allusions that led me always to a web of stories, poems, songs and pictures. Yet, none of these movements and connections demanded to be set down and fixed as ‘knowledge’ — least of all, as academic learning. “O fret not after knowledge,” Keats imagines the thrush in his garden to be singing, in his letter on Indolence, “I have none/ And yet the Evening listens — He who saddens/ At thought of Idleness cannot be idle,/ And he’s awake who thinks himself asleep.” For Tagore, as for Keats, the gift of Indolence is earned only through the never- ending labour of reading, thinking, looking, listening and writing — of relentlessly honing one’s capacity for life, and for turning life into art. But the fruit of this labour must not show the labour. It must sing, like Keats’s nightingale, “in full-throated ease”. This ease — an effortlessness at once artful and artless — is part of the artist’s ambiguous generosity. It provides us with a set of beautiful excuses for not doing the work that we ought to be doing as diligent readers.

Yet, last Sunday, during our reading, we came upon something that made me sit up and go back to my work of translation. In a letter of December 2, 1892, Tagore actually uses the Arabic-Bengali word for ‘translation’ — torjoma (rather than the more literary onubaad). He had gone up to visit his friend, the dilettante maharaja of Natore. “In the evening, we all went out for a stroll,” he writes to his niece, and I found myself being compelled to start translating again: I rather liked the path with fields on either side. These vast, desolate stretches of grassland in the Bengal country, and the sun setting among the trees at the outermost limit of the fields — what a great sense of peace and tender pity! What a dim, silent feeling of union — bent with the weight of love — with this Earth of ours and with that far-off sky! The immense and eternal sadness of separation dwelling within the Infinite reveals itself fleetingly on the Earth, lying abandoned in that abstracted evening light. In land and water and sky, what a silence full to the brim with language! Gazing fixedly for a long time, I think that if this silence lying wide across the Earth is not able to bear itself any longer, and cleaves to let its ur- language out suddenly, what a deep, sombre and serene music, full of beauty and pity, would be heard then, from the Earth to the realm of the stars! This is actually happening. If we sit still and try to concentrate a little, we will be able to translate the vast harmony of the world’s gathered light and colour into an immense music. The tremulous sound of this current of seeing that flows through the world has to be heard with the mind’s ears and with the eyes shut, just once. But how many times will I write of this sunrise and sunset? It is possible to feel anew over and over again, but how do I express anew again and again?

I was struck by how Tagore uses translation — the word and the idea — not to describe a linguistic operation, but as a metaphor for a mode of perception, in which the language of music is used to depict a vision of the created universe. ‘Harmony’ is the English word that Tagore also uses at this point, but written in Bengali. (He does this frequently in the Chhinnapatra text, where one can get a sense of the voices and textures of fin-de-siècle bilingualism by making two very interesting lists: English words and phrases printed in English, and those printed in Bengali.) Through this half-metaphorical, transliterated, but untranslated, use of ‘harmony’, the idea of translation is taken beyond its immediate linguistic and literary realization towards the exploration of a different kind of relationship between East and West — a theme that runs through Chhinnapatra like a hidden stream. This is the culturally contrastive yet — at a deeper psychic-emotive level, where polarities meet and translate into each other — mutually complementary relationship between Hindustani music and European music.

At a theoretical and structural level, this relationship becomes, generally in Chhinnapatra and particularly in this letter, one between melody and harmony — between the linear elaboration of a raag or progression of a shur, on the one hand, and the European symphony with its harmonized architectonic ‘space’ trying to break free from the classical sonata form, on the other. (Beethoven appears in one of the letters with his “shabdoheen shabdojagot”: wordless world of words, or soundless world of sound, depending on whether you translate shabdo as word or sound.) But, typically with Tagore, the template, ‘melody versus harmony’, expands conceptually and intuitively into something larger, without losing its original particularity. It becomes a vehicle for understanding a whole range of psychic, social, historical and cosmic dualities: the solitary and the sociable, the individual and the collective, the rural and the urban, the pastoral and the industrial, the landscape of desolation and the landscape of human habitation.

Of course, the key operator of these dualities, and of the correspondences among them, is always the solitary figure of the writer looking at a landscape, and then sitting down to write about it to his correspondent. And already, with that gesture of turning away from the landscape towards writing and its absent addressee, solitude is both affirmed and complicated — translated into a relation or set of relations.

When Tagore writes about European “shongeet”, he could, of course, be referring to both music and song. So, ‘harmony’ could be pointing not only to the Western symphonic tradition but also towards opera, Lieder (poems set to music for voice and piano), and — to me most interesting — the orchestrated song, which pits the solitariness of the singer to the collectivity of the orchestra and the sociability of the concert-hall. I have always felt that, in what Rilke had called the Herzraum or ‘heart-space’ of music, Tagore and Gustav Mahler, born just a year apart from each other, are profoundly contemporary. They were parallel lines that never met, before Mahler fell away from this unwittingly shared time-line in 1911, a year before the publication of Chhinnapatra. And 1892 — the year in which Tagore is writing this letter about the translation of silence and sensation into music — is positioned exactly between Mahler’s first two symphonies. The terminal dates of the Chhinnapatra letters, 1887-95, coincide almost exactly with the composition of the First Symphony and the première of the Second, in which Mahler marries the melody of the solo voice and the polyphonies of the chorus to a stupendously ‘modern’ expansion of the harmonic possibilities of the orchestra. For Mahler, the evolution and, with that, the disintegration of symphonic form and texture, are inseparable from the growth of the cycles of orchestrated songs for solo voice — two of them already completed by 1884, with his last great cycle, The Song of the Earth, to come in 1909. Into this chronology, we could work in other post- Wagnerian contemporaries — Richard Strauss, Debussy, Stravinsky, Wolf, Berg, Schönberg, Janácek — who were Tagore’s true peers in the musical, and musical-philosophical, avant garde.

It would be silly if we asked, at this point, whether Tagore and Mahler had met, known about, heard or read each other — although we have no reason to dismiss the last two possibilities simply because we have no ‘historical’ evidence yet. In order to put Tagore back where he belongs, the cosmopolis of Modernist music, art, literature, philosophy and learning, we have to work with a much larger understanding of what constitutes contemporaneity for geographically distanced coevals than we manage to summon up now. In freeing ‘translation’ from an exclusively linguistic understanding of the relationship between the Mother and the Other, Tagore — a reluctant nationalist and natural cosmopolite — was on a philosophical, political and existential journey that had isolated him from a great many readers and audiences of his own times. If we fail to go with him all the way even today, the problem — the parochialism — remains entirely ours.