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A bridge across cultures

October 4 was a memorable day. Four poems by Rabindranath Tagore which I had translated into German and published earlier were set to music by a contemporary German composer, and they were premiered on that day. The composer was Matthias Bonitz and the premiere was held in the city of Münster in the north of Germany. In the almost 30 years that I had been translating Rabindranath's poems and songs, I have constantly been reflecting on what these volumes of translation - they number quite a few - would do to my readers. Was the Indian poet read as a reminiscence of the conversations readers had with their grandparents who, in the 1920s, had been swept off their feet by the poet's dramatization of the mystical? Was his poetry taken as a mere accompaniment to Hindu scriptural studies? Or was he being newly discovered - as I so fervently hope - as a contemporary figure who is able to shed light, in the Indian as well as the European context, on our modern condition?

During these three decades, I have criss-crossed Germany and Austria giving dozens of public readings of my translations. A few times, I first introduced the poems and the recitation was then entrusted to an experienced actor. But I was rarely satisfied with their rendition. When I recite Tagore, I 'hear' the sound of the Bengali original in my mind. So my spoken German inadvertently becomes mellower, more declamatory, there is stronger emphasis on alliteration. However, I cannot quite recite my translation the way the original Bengali is customarily recited, and, indeed, the way Rabindranath himself has done it, namely in a sing-song high pitch with a rather pathetic drawl to it. This does not 'work' in Germany: people would chuckle at my pathos and not take the poems seriously. Showing emotions so directly is not 'cool', is not part of the modern lingo.

In Germany, I am regularly being requested to recite first a few lines of the Bengali poem and after that the German translation. I have resisted this adamantly. "Let me do what I can best - that is reciting my own translation," I say. Only once have I become weak, and that was recently, not in Germany, but in Calcutta when the producers of the TV show 'Dadagiri' quite stubbornly coerced me to recite a stanza from Shishu. I am not sure how it was received, nobody uttered a word of either praise or criticism.

Reciting these translations, I see it as an effort to integrate Tagore's poems more deeply into the texture of German culture, more deeply than the mere published text could achieve. A step further is to set the translated poems to music as it happened this year. Tagore's poems have attracted European composers right from the time his poems were published in Tagore's English version, that is from 1912 when Gitanjali stunned European readers. Some of the best-known composers of the early 20th century tried their hand at Tagore's English texts or in the German translation done from Tagore's English. Most of us agree that Tagore's English paraphrases do not nearly match the power of his Bengali originals. Thus, the early compositions suffered inherently from the weakness of the texts they used.

In more recent times, competent translations - from Bengali and fashioned into proper poems - have been done by William Radice, Ketaki Kushari Dyson, Sukanta Chaudhuri, Ananda Lal and several others. These translations have again incited composers to use these texts. William Radice told me that his translation of Ananta Prem has been used already by five composers. Their songs are routinely performed during weddings and burials. With the advent of genuine translations, the arena for compositions of equal quality is thrown open.

Matthias Bonitz chose five love poems, none of which was originally songs in Bengali, to transform them into songs for soprano voice. Among these poems are " Ananta Prem", and also "Nirjharer Swapnabhanga". Is this a love poem? Yes, it is the breakthrough of divine love into human life. With Tagore, a love poem does not only and merely address relationships between man and woman, but it always transcends erotic feelings by an overarching consciousness of cosmic connectedness and empathy. Matthias Bonitz, himself for decades the member of an orchestra and a professor of music, has written these songs for soprano with the accompaniment of piano and cello. The songs are melodic, they are lyrical and, sometimes, rapturously dramatic, expressing the nuances of feeling afresh line by line. Not surprisingly, the performers were multicultural. The German composer had engaged a Japanese soprano, a South Korean pianist and a German cellist to interpret the nuances of love expressed by an Indian poet.

While the audience applauded enthusiastically I wondered how a performer of Rabindrasangeet would feel now. Would he/she view these pieces as yet another truthful expression of Rabindranath's universality? Would he/she, like myself, accept that Rabindranath offers exciting revelations whenever he crosses the barriers of literary genres and cultures?

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