Standing in the middle of the room at the IIC, Delhi, clad in his signature crisp white kurta and pants, Gulzar saab exuded a meditative serenity that comes with decades of observing — and writing about — the world. Having grown up reading his ghazals, poems and short stories, I was inquisitive about the writer in him, his muse and inspirations, and how — if at all — his words are affected by the sociopolitically charged surroundings, like the one the country is currently experiencing. “That’s a discussion for some other day,” he smiled, bringing the focus on to the launch of his latest works — translations of children’s poems by Rabindranath Tagore.
The renowned lyricist and poet has translated 60-odd Bengali poems by Tagore into Hindi that have been published as two books — ‘The Crescent Moon’ and ‘The Gardener’. Catching up with him at the Delhi launch, Gulzar spoke to IndianExpress.com on how the whole thing came about — and, apparently, it all began with “the first book I stole”.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
What inspired you to translate Rabindranath Tagore’s poems for children into Hindi, and when did you start working on them?
I started working on these books in 2010. I was keen to translate Tagore but couldn’t gather the courage to do so, especially jab aap thoda jante ho, tab badi mushkil hoti hai (especially when you know little of him, it becomes very difficult). Over the years, I could read, speak and write Bangla…I even married a Bengali. I had a Bengali guru in Bimal Roy. I started my whole turn of life from Tagore, my education in childhood included. So, Tagore was a fascination. And I had the urge to translate the book that had fascinated me in my childhood, The Gardener.
Finally, after a circle of 60-70 years, I started reading Tagore up to this point when it was boiling inside. The urge I can’t explain… unke gaane suno tab, fiction, drama padho tab (whenever I listened to his songs, read his fiction and drama).
I also realised that another problem we have in the country is that there are no good writers to write solely for children. This was another tragedy which I thought demanded attention. To write for children is not easy…And the spontaneity I found in Tagore is marvellous, how can he possibly write so well for and about children. These are taken from real life, observations by someone who has indulged with children.
Baba baithe pustak likhte rehte hain
unko to tum kuch nahin kehti
naav banana ko main ek utha lun to
keh deti ho nasht nahin karte.
Q. What is your opinion of Tagore’s translations of his own poems?
I already knew his English translations were not good. Being an author, he would re-edit his poem then shorten them and change images at places because his vision was for the West, thinking they wouldn’t understand otherwise. For instance, how would they understand “panghat” (river bank), so he changed the image.
I felt people were deprived of the original Bangla version because that’s three times more. The English version is one-third of the original and Tagore’s translations were like rewriting a poem or making a twin poem. That’s why one feels a certain sense of distance in understanding.
I also wanted someone to publish it the way it has been published now, Bengali, then Hindi alongside so I don’t miss out on any meaning, any image; so that it gives me the feel. When you are reading, it should not feel like a translation, it should feel like a poem with poetry imbibed in it, with the emotion, the nuances of a Bengali village, a Bengali home. All that should be there.
What he manages to put forth beautifully in just two words, I have tried to bring out that emotion. But when he takes the image out from the poem in translation, I was like ‘what are you doing to the poem, this is not what you’ve said’. So, when you read the poems, you can see I am complaining to him about his own poems!
Q. Tagore is such a great poet, did you have any inhibitions while working on his poems? How was your experience while translating his works?
Not inhibitions, fears. Tagore is a great poet. Touching the works of Tagore is not easy. For instance, one hesitates even before praising Ghalib. You have to know Ghalib, his life, the era he lived in, his contemporaries and everything that happened in his time, socially and politically. And translations are not easy. To explain the meaning in a line is easy. You are not translating a word, it’s the meter and then shades of those words. A word has many shades and you have to choose the correct shade out of it. You won’t find that meaning in a dictionary.
The language I have used is Hindustani, because that’s my language, the one I write in. But more importantly, to capture the nuances of Bangla was important, the flavour of the local dialect, that helped. For instance,
“Gaaye ke than hathon main lekar
balti ghutnon main rakhke
vo jo tum dho rahe they gaye ko
aur tumhare hathon ke kade balti se lagke khanakte they
main to khadi dekhti rahi
maine tumse kuch kaha nahin”.
Can you imagine translating this image, unless you feel it, visualise it? You can’t translate, if you have not seen this, experienced this, unless you can bring that image alive like he has done. That’s the effort I have put in.
Q. It’s a different Tagore we see in these poems, not the stern and serious face that we see in Geetanjali.
Tagore ko padhte hue hum is bhool mein rehte hain ki Tagore dhaadi ke saath hi paida hue they (While reading Tagore, we tend to forget that he wasn’t born with a beard). One must go through his romantic poems and that is why it is the period of his young age that I have chosen. Not his Geetanjali, which was his experience of spirituality that he wanted to put before the West. People know about it.
I was looking at the young Tagore, who was an actor, who used to sing English songs from Hollywood movies. He was an active, jolly and handsome man. That’s why I took up these poems.
Another interesting point is how he expresses the feeling of the female. Jo uska aks apko Hindi shayari mein milta hai, jab hum radha banke radhe ke bare main likhte hain. (The essence of which you get in Hindi poetry when the writer becomes Radha and write about her). That’s the quality he has in describing the women of his village.
“Vo dono behne kyun hasti hain jab bhi paani bharne aati hain
vo do behne hain jo jab bhi aati hain, haste hue aati hain ghat pe
kya vo janti hain ped ki aad se koi unko dekh raha hai.”
I try to bring it as easily as he did.
Q. Tagore is world famous, but people’s understanding of his works is limited, given the huge volume of Bengali literature he has produced. Do you think there is a need to translate Tagore in more languages?
One of the reasons I started working on this was because I was jealous of Bengalis. They didn’t let Tagore out of Bengal because Viswa Bharti had rights over his works. Bengali literature is very rich and I am glad it’s out of the bondage of Viswa Bharti. It’s reaching out to people now. New publications are coming out and now his music is even being produced in a very modern way.