Clues to the Mising link - In an unusual exercise, students bridge cultural gap

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  • Published 23.04.10

Calcutta, April 22: It’s not everyday that the emotions and drama that unfold along the banks of the Brahmaputra can be felt and simulated on the lapping waters of the Hooghly. But thanks to the efforts of the students of Jadavpur University and experts from the Sahitya Akademi, the song of a Mising ollung dunê (boatman) can now be enjoyed and distinguished from that of a bhatiali (boatman’s song in Bengal) in Calcutta.

The Centre for Translation of Indian Literatures, Jadavpur University, and Sahitya Akademi, Calcutta jointly organised a Mising-Bengali translation workshop in Calcutta recently to bring the two cultures in contact with each other.

The students had previously translated Jiban Narah compilation Listen My Flowerbud: Mishing (sic) Tribal Oral Poetry of Assam from English to Bengali. Listen My Flowerbud is actually the English version of Narah’s Assamese compilation Shuna Mor Phul Koli.

Aveek Majumder, co-ordinator of the course, pointed out that translation from one language to another always leaves a “cultural gap”. “What we did was a translation of a translation. We figured that there had to be a double gap,” he said. To overcome this, we invited experts from Sahitya Akademi to sit with us for a three-day Mising-Bengali Translation Workshop, he added.

During the first two days, the director of the translation workshop, Mising scholar Tabu Taid, along with other indigenous experts, interacted with the students and reviewed the scripts, which included several poems.

“It brought a sea change in the translations. They showed us where we went wrong,” Majumder said.

The third day of the workshop was a reading session where the students read out the drafts and final changes were suggested. “The book itself will be published by the yearend,” Majumder said.

According to Taid, “this effort was limited in a sense as the collection itself had its limitations. It is not the most representative example of Mising folksongs. However, the honest effort put in by Jadavpur University students helped get the best out of it.”

For example, the compilation overlooks the songs based on a shaman (a witch doctor) — a very intrinsic yet dying aspect of Mising oral tradition. The Rhapsodic Chants of the Shaman is one poem Taid felt was missing from this compilation.

“What was challenging was the transcription — putting the right word for every translated word. What I wanted to point out was folksongs and such poetry must be simple and while translating they (the students) should not use many high-sounding words. But Bengalis being inherently poetic by nature, this could not be avoided in some places,” Taid added.

Asked why such an arduous project had been undertaken, Majumder said: “Till now we have looked at Europe and beyond, and in the process, overlooked our own rich folk literature. We, the people of Assam and Bengal, share similar cultures, values and mores. Language is nothing but expression of culture — it is a way of life. We have already done a similar Lepcha-Bengali workshop on a collection of short stories by Tamsang Lepcha a few years back.”

To the participants, the workshop was a revelation. “It taught us a lot about the indigenous people. Their engagement with life exudes a typically local phenomenon — something we can identify with. For example, one of the poems dealt with a ollung dunê (boatman) thinking about a woman while rowing. A Bengali will quickly identify with this and recognise the nuances of the setting and the depth of emotion involved, because our cultures are so similar. It would, on the other hand, be totally lost to an American,” Majumder said.

“We need to integrate our cultures and make Indian literature richer by the day. It must be made popular. We live in the same reality that shapes our future. A part of our culture cannot be ignored or left forgotten. But we lack the infrastructure to actively pursue our goal,” he added.

Regional secretary of Sahitya Akademi Ramkumar Mukhopadhyay echoed Majumder: “We know our mother tongue, but not our neighbours. We celebrate Independence Day and Republic Day, talk about unity in diversity, but fail to recognise other cultures of India for the rest of the time.”

This workshop, Mukhopadhyay said, was just the first steps compared to what must be done in future. “Our work does not stop here. Some of us must learn the Mising language and form a permanent link of sorts. We must visit them and this flow of culture must be continuous,” he added.