Musical and Lyrical Elements in Rabindranath Tagore’s “Gitanjali” (Song Offerings)

Rabindranath Tagore once declared that his own country would best remember him for his songs, and indeed he is seen by an over whelming majority of his countryman not merely as a poet  but doubled with a singer. The essentially musical charter of the lyrics in Gitanjali was clearly indicated by the title which Tagore gave to the English version Songs Offerings. The pieces included in it were prose renderings of a selection of poems from the Bengali Gitanjali, Naividya, kheya, Gitimalya –all titles which reveal the song –like character of the poems. The accent in all these anthologies is as much on the music as on the poetry. As K.R.S Iyengar says; “the stillness is suddenly disturbed by a dance of rhythm; the ear is charmed and enraptured, there is a quick passage through the doors of sensibility and the chords reach the soul’s sanctuary at last.” This is evident even is the translation, though many feel that Tagore defies translation into English even when the attempt is made by the author himself. 

However, as Buddhadeva Bose has said, the English Gitanjali is “the quintessence of Rabindranath and a miracle of translation”. The miracle is not that so much has survived; but the poems are reborn in the process, the flowers bloom a new on a foreign soil. Denuded of the sensuous material arrangements of the original and the more than Swinburnian rhymes, they are more quite in the Eng; more docile. The song offering are more of song in the original and more of an offering in the English. We in Bengal find in the English a strange freshness, a beauty not as ours; we, who are steeped in the Bengali, are newly moved by certain passages, as if the original did not exit.  

            There are moments when the translations surpasses the original, such as the passage which Ezra Pound thought “like some pure Hellenic”; “there comes the morning with the golden basket in her right hand bearing the wreath of beauty, silently to crown the earth”. The advantage of the English Version is obvious. ‘Basket is a better visual image than the “girl and on the plate” in the original Bengali; ‘right hand’ sound better than ‘dan hat’ and the compression of the English is admirable. The original is loose –knit, weakened by ‘poetry diction’ we may take another example, a poem which celebrates the atmosphere of sravana. It is a little poem of two stanzas, four parts corresponding to the four divisions  of our music, hunting in metre, rhymes and alliteration, a perfect lyric. We should have though it untranslatable, like Shakespeare’s songs but here in the English: “in the deep shadows of the rainy July, with see ret steps, thou walkest, silent as night, clouding all waters”. The translation is almost literal. Deviations from the originals are small, as if the poem never suffered the grille of translation, but came straight from the poet’s heart. As Buddadeva Bose elegantly puts it, “my mind hums with the Bengali and yet, as I copy out the Eng. Words, I tremble to their subtler rhythm.”Bose therefore concludes that Gitanjali is more than a great work in English; it is the work of a great English poet.  

Yet Tagore was not entirely happy with his own translation and admitted that the music of the original Bengali lyric could not be reproduced in his own English translation. In a better to his Eng. Biographer, Edward Thompson, Tagore said, “I timidly avoid all difficulties, which has the effect of making my translations smooth and thin”. This is a clear acknowledgment of the fact that the music of the original poem becomes slurred in the translation. Tagore was not showing false modesty when he accused himself of “falsifying my own coins”. Poem after poem in the English Gitanjali seems to distill an atmosphere of ‘rose water’, according to Hallam Tennyson. As the Bengali knowing English. Critic says, to poems which were vigorous and masculine in the original, Tagore gave a ‘mawkish note ‘in the English Translation more resent translation of Tagore’s poetry, such as William Radice, Ketaki Kusari Dyson, must have similarly felt that Tagore’s Translations are Inadequate.    
          But it is still possible to suggest that something of the lyrical Splender and melody of the original Bengali poems comes through in the English Rendering; otherwise how could W.B. Yeats claim that travelers will hum these poems and lovers will sing them as the generation pass? We know that the Gitanjali songs were set to music and also that the music is generally of a quilt, Serene, soul stirring kind. It is the kind of music which comes out loud and clear in such poems as song 96(XCVI): ‘I have lasted the hidden honey of this lotus that expands on the ocean of light and thus am I blessed let this be my parting word”. But something the music can rise to a passionate crescendo as in song LI: “open the doors, let the coach shell be sound; in the depth of night has come the king of our dark, dreary house”.   

          Gitanjali in English is on a superficial view only a prose rendering of songs that by their very nature are almost untranslatable. Yet, as we have seen, Tagore accomplished a miracle. Father fall on maintains that the western Gitanjali, although backing much of the musical beauty and evocative power of the original Bengali, is yet “a jewel of English Religious poetry”. To western readers the music may sometime sound strange and distant; but every Bengali reader knows that Tagore recreated the Bengali lands cape with its sight and sounds as the Elizabethan poets of England recalled on lands cape of their country. Tagore’s lyrics, even In translation, have the musical power of suggesting the features of the lands cape which he which he wants to evoke-magnificent storms, sea – storm and river storm, the sounds of river and waterfalls as well as the muted sound of the enumerable birds of Bengali. Such sounds clear away forever the insipid ‘rain clouds’ and ‘trilling flutes’ which had marked the poetic face of Bengali before Tagore, as we open the little book more than 80 years after its first publication, the very first line seem to have the power to set the heart ablaze:”thou hast made me endless, such is the pleasure”. Tagore’s little flub can still breath melodies eternally new. How can we forget such melody as we find in song (V): “today the summer has come of my window with its signs and murmurs; and the bees are plying their minstrelsy at the court of the flowering grove”? The lines convey the gentle melody of spring, even though they do not employ the alliteration and assonance of the original Bengali version, when the poet wants to suggest fearful rather than gentle sounds, even in English translation his lyrical genius is up to the task:  “The thunder roars in the sky. The darkness shudders with lightning”.   


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