Translating Between Media: Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray
Saturday, 21st October, 2000
University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, IL
In a sense, all expression, particularly what we call artistic expression, is translation. The artist translates her or his ideas into a verbal expression, in the case of the writer; or into a visual, verbal, and auditory expression, in the case of the filmmaker; or into a visual and possibly tactile expression, in the case of the sculptor; or into an auditory and maybe verbal expression, in the case of the musical composer -- and so on and so forth. I could mention other specific sorts of artists -- painters, playwrights, and potters, for instance -- but I think my point is clear: all art, though we like to think of it as an act of creating, is from one perspective an act of translating. It is the act of translating an idea into some medium, that is to say, into some perceptible form. If artistic expression, in the terms just described, is translation, then the activity that we commonsensically refer to as translation is, or at least can be called with equal validity, an act of artistic creation.
I am emphasizing the creative aspect of translation, for the very reason that current dictionary definitions do not. Three meanings for "translate" in a modern English-language dictionary are the following: (1) to turn from one language into another; (2) to change the form, condition, or nature of; and (3) to explain in simpler terms. The last of these definitions, "to explain in simpler terms," I shall ignore, for that meaning does not pertain at all to my use of the word "translating" in the title of this talk. The first definition, "to turn from one language into another," is possibly the most obvious rendering of the word "translating" and the first to come to mind. It is the sort of translating that Rabindranath Tagore himself did in 1912 with some of his own Bengali poetry in order to produce the volume in English known as Gitanjali, for which, as we all are well aware, he received the Nobel prize for literature the following year. It is, however, the second definition of translate, "to change the form, condition, or nature of," that I mean to evoke by my title. Again, I can turn to Tagore to illustrate this second definition of the word translate. Tagore published his drama Citrangada, titled for the central female character, in 1892; more than four decades later, he translated -- that is to say, changed the form, condition, or nature of -- Citrangada, his play, into Citrangada, his dance-drama. One could argue that Tagore's original drama Citrangada is, in fact, a translation of -- a changed form of -- the tale found in the Mahabharata whence comes, quite obviously, at least some of the inspiration for Tagore's drama. These are all, in one way or another, examples of translation, in the second definition of that word. That is to say, the subsequent work changes the form of the precursor that it is translating. All of the above-mentioned translations, moreover, are in some sense original artistic creations, just as all of the them are in some sense derivative. A further case in point is Tagore's short story Nastanir (The Fouled Nest, published in 1901) and Ray's translation of it into the film Charulata, completed in 1964, released in 1965.
I would like to consider today three aspects of these last two works, Tagore's and Ray's: first, the autobiographical/biographical nature of both and how Ray's translation forces us to acknowledge that fact; second, how Ray, the creative artist, translates Tagore's words into images, some with accompanying words, some without; and third, the manner in which both the short story and the film function as a Tagore apologia. More on each of these later.
Let me reprise very briefly the subject matter of Tagore's story for those non- Bengalis here who might not know it. It tells of Charulata, a woman in her early twenties who had been married as a child to a husband, Bhupati by name, some ten to fifteen years her senior. She grew to maturity in her husband's household, benignly ignored by him. Bhupati has his own interests, in fact one all-consuming interest, that of publishing an English-language political newspaper in colonial Calcutta. He seemed almost oblivious to the presence of a wife who has, at the time of the story begins, become a mature young woman. Also living in that household, while he attends college in the city, is Amal, cousin-brother of Bhupati and someone with aspirations of becoming a writer. Charu and Amal are close in age, closer by far than Charu and her husband. The two near- contemporaries bond in many ways, like brother and sister, like intellectual equals, like young adults excited and at times overwhelmed by the literary culture of Calcutta of that day. Charu, confined by the then current mores to the house, albeit a very richly furnished upper-class house, gets to live in part vicariously through her brother-in-law who brings to her life some of the thrill of a fuller intellectual outside world. Eventually, it becomes evident to Amal that this relationship with his sister-in-law may have crossed the emotional boundary into forbidden territory. Amal withdraws; Charu is heartbroken, devastated; Bhupati feels sadly betrayed. End of story.
Once, when I was about your age, I suffered a devastating sorrow, similar to yours now. A very close relative of mine committed suicide, and she had been my life's total support, right from childhood onward. And so with her unexpected death it was as if the earth itself receded from beneath my feet, as though the skies above me all went dark. My universe turned empty, my zest for life departed. 
In the reminiscences entitled Jiban-smriti (1911-12), Tagore wrote in a similar vein. His mother's death, as it occurred when he was quite young, did not affect him strongly, he tells us. Part of the reason for this was Kadambari Devi, who immediately assumed the role of surrogate maternal figure. Kadambari was herself a young girl at this time and, as Tagore's biographer informed us above, Tagore's playmate. It is her passing that traumatizes him or, as he put it, "It was my acquaintance with death at the age of 24 that left a permanent impression on me."  Kadambari Devi's death is that to which Tagore refers here, though he was actually 22 at the time, just a couple of weeks shy of his 23rd birthday, not 24.
There are a number of poems by Tagore that speak to or about the deceased
Kadambari Devi, as the editor of Tagore's collected works calls to our
after her death, Tagore in his mid-twenties calls out to her. I'll read
only bits and pieces
of this poem entitled "Where" (kothay):
Alas, where will you go!
None of us will be there for you
We shall sit here and shall weep,
And then some 30 plus years later, Tagore composed the following equally poignant piece. I shall first read the entire translation into English, untitled, that Tagore himself made.
I was walking along a path overgrown with grass, when suddenly I heard from
some one behind, "See if you know me?"
The Bengali original was published in 1919 in the magazine Sabuj Patra and then in the volume called Lipika (1922), which is a collection of prose poems or in some cases actually short, short stories. The Lipika version of the piece corresponding to what I just read is entitled "First Sorrow" (pratham sok). There are a number of lines in the middle of the original work left out of Tagore's English poem. In fact, nearly half of the original has been omitted. I cite here the entire Bengali poem,  as printed in Tagore's collected works, with an accompanying translation, his English in italic type and my rendering of the elided passages in plain type.
I was walking along a path overgrown with grass, when suddenly I heard from
some one behind, "See if you know me?"
He speaks in the original of his youth of age 25, and asks whether she has kept that youth of his with her. She replies by calling attention to the garland around her neck, a garland that is as fresh now as it was back then. His, however, has dried up in the intervening years. She then takes the still fresh garland from her neck and places it around his.
Above, I called your attention to the fact that Tagore says he was 24 when his sister-in-law died when in truth he was 22 going on 23. Here, in a piece written in 1919, almost a decade after his reminiscences Jiban smriti, he specifies 25 as his age when Kadambari Devi committed suicide. There are two easy explanations for these deviant numbers. One is to reiterate the adage that to err is human. The other is to remind ourselves of the various calendric systems current then and now in Bengal and of the fact that birth certificates there are of fairly recent origin.
Flower garlands, mention of which is not found in Tagore's English translation, are used in many ways in Bengali society. They are offered as a sign of respect, to a dignitary, for instance. They are also exchanged by a bride and bridegroom during a Hindu wedding ceremony. The other person in this poem, the one who is not the narrator, when she takes the garland from her own neck and places it around the neck of the narrator, adds, "Don't you remember? You said then you longed not for solace but for sorrow." Our narrator, chagrined, concedes that he had once uttered those words, but that with time, he had forgotten. And she replies, "He who is the bridegroom of my inner thoughts, he had not forgotten. Since then, I've sat here secretly beneath the shadows. Accept me now."
Another of the Lipika collections, called "Seventeen Years" in the Bengali
untitled in Tagore's translation, begins as follows:
Who was this woman who Tagore, in his own English in 1919, says "created him again for herself during those seventeen swift years," the years between when she entered the Tagore household as Jyotirindranath's child bride and 1884, when she took her life? A partial answer to that question is to be found in Tagore's short story "The Fouled Nest," which may be read as a histoire a clef, a translation from real life, a story keyed into real-life characters and real-life events. There are, of course, incongruencies between the fictionalized rendering and the actual characters and events to which the work of fiction supposedly conforms. The names are changed, quite obviously. Familial relationships are altered somewhat. Bhupati, who would correspond to Jyotirindranath, and Amal, who would be the Rabindranath counterpart, are cousins in "The Fouled Nest," not brothers as they were in real life. Other discrepancies are there, no doubt, but a fundamental question to be asked is this: Though we may do so, why should we at all read "The Fouled Nest" as a histoire a clef corresponding to events in the lives of Jyotirindranath, Rabindranath, and Kadambari Devi? The simplest answer to the question is that Ray in his film Charulata has done so. Once one has seen the film, Tagore's short story perforce takes on that deeper, richer meaning. What, then, is the justification for Ray's translating of Tagore's story thus?
Marie Seton, in her 1971 book on Satyajit Ray entitled 'Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray', writes that Ray, when he was doing research on Tagore during the later 1950s in preparation for turning "The Fouled Nest" into film, came across, as Seton puts it, "Tagore's marginal notations linking the name of Rabindranath's sister-in-law . . . with that of Charu, the novel's central character."  Seton adds parenthetically that Bengal believed the sister-in-law "committed suicide following 'Rabi's' marriage."  Andrew Robinson, in his 1989 book called 'Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye', reiterates Seton's finding and elaborates, stating that Ray had seen "a very early manuscript of Nastanirh with marginalia which refer many times to Hecate [hek-it]," Tagore's nickname, we are told, for Kadambari Devi.  Hecate, the name of Greek goddess identified with several other goddesses including Artemis, and thereby associated with the moon but also with Persephone, and thus connected with the netherworld, witchcraft, and magic. It is this latter aspect of that goddess which informs the several appearances of the Hecate character in Shakespeare's dramas. The nickname speaks to a close and teasing relationship Tagore had with his sister-in-law; it also speaks to erudition, on Tagore's part, certainly. The manuscript Ray saw, moreover, had a sketch of Kadambari Devi in profile, Ray told Robinson. It convinced Ray that Tagore's sister-in-law was on his mind as he wrote his story "The Fouled Nest."  Consequently, Ray sets his translation of Tagore's story at a time, 1879-80, when the Tagore character, named Amal in the story, could have been a youthful college student, several years prior to Tagore's actual marriage in 1883. With that 1880s setting, Ray has reaffirmed the idea that "The Fouled Nest" should indeed be read as a histoire a clef with the corresponding real-life characters being Tagore himself, his sister-in-law, and her husband, his brother. And, I suggest, knowing what we know of the fate of Kadambari Devi, the tale in both its written and film version becomes, if read as a histoire a clef, that much more powerful.
The relationship explored in "The Fouled Nest" is that of bouthan and thakurpo, to use the Bengali terms of address, which correspond to "elder brother's wife" and "husband's younger brother." The term of reference for the thakurpo is debar. Charu is Amal's bouthan, also called boudi in more modern Bengali; he is her thakurpo or debar. The bouthan-thakurpo relationship is completely sanctioned in Hindu Bengali society and is considered exceptionally sweet. Whereas a married woman in a traditional household may not be allowed to appear before other men in the family, and certainly not before strangers, she can mix freely with her thakurpo and is encouraged to do so. But such a relationship is fraught with danger. There are three rather basic categories of love in Bengali, represented by the three words sneha, bhalobasa, and prem. The first, sneha, designates the sort of love a parent feels for a child. The third, prem, speaks to amorous love, of a romantic nature, unless specifically couched in terms of love for a deity. Bhalobasa is the least specific of the three terms and can mean "love" in both the sneha and the prem sense and also in a more generic meaning of strong positive emotions. The sanctioned bouthan-thakurpo relationship should be one of sneha, particularly with respect to the emotions felt by the woman, the bouthan, for her husband's younger brother. The danger with this relationship is that it might evolve out of sneha and into prem, which is what happens to Charu in "The Fouled Nest." Neither Charu nor Amal, and certainly not Bhupati, realizes that the limits of sneha have, unbeknownst to them, been transgressed. There is irony throughout, and particularly leading up to here. Charu, who supposedly can "see" what is amiss in the relationship between Manda, who is her brother's wife, and Amal, cannot in fact see at all. Charu and Amal do not see their own relationship for what it has become. They don't see it, that is, until the moment when awareness comes to Amal, but to Amal only at first. He knows something is terribly wrong with his and Charu's relationship. It is his epiphany and the turning point in the story.
Leading up to this turning point are several crises within family, all
upon Bhupati most directly. Two of these are conveyed by Tagore through
similes of a similar sort, having to do with the presence of terra firma to
stand upon or the
lack thereof. In the first, Bhupati finds out that Umapati, Charu's
brother, has been
embezzling from him. When comforted by Bhupati, Umapati vows to repay every
swearing upon his own name. In the translation by Mary M. Lago and Supriya
read of Bhupati's reaction:
In order to save his beloved newspaper, in jeopardy due to Umapati's
goes to an acquaintance named Motilal to whom he had lent a considerable
money some time ago. Bhupati now asks for it back. Motilal at first feigns
recollection of the loan, then a moment later declares that it was long
Bhupati reacts as follows:
But of course, Charu does deceive him, in a relatively small way at this
moment. She immediately, almost involuntarily, hides from him the notebook
she has been writing. The notebook represents that little literary world
she seeks to share
with only Amal. Tagore comments:
Shortly thereafter Amal returns to the house. He encounters Bhupati. Amal notes that his elder cousin-brother does not look well, that Bhupati is choked with emotions and on the verge of tears. Amal asks Charu what is wrong. She replies that she had not noticed a thing and then eagerly proceeds to try to engage Amal in matters pertaining to their private world of literature. It is then that Amal has his epiphany.
Charu had made up her mind that Amal would demand to see her new piece. She even turned its pages a little. But Amal looked very sharply at her face for a moment -- who knows what he thought, what he understood? Startled, he stood up. When clouds suddenly lift on a mountain road, the traveler is alarmed to find himself on the verge of stepping off into a ravine a thousand feet deep. Amal left the room without a word.
Charu could not fathom his unprecedented behavior.
We are at this point less than two-thirds of the way through Tagore's short story. Amal will appear only twice more in the remaining one-third plus, and then only with Bhupati present, never in Charu's company alone except very briefly and quite formally to bid farewell to his sister-in-law. Thereupon Amal leaves the household altogether and for good.
What Tagore conveys to us through the words of his omniscient -- but interestingly not completely omniscient -- narrator, telling us that Amal's feelings are like that of a traveler upon a mountain path with one foot extended over a deep ravine, Satyajit Ray shows us in a scene wherein words give context to what Amal is thinking. Preceding this scene, Bhupati has found out from his newsprint supplier that Umapati has been cheating him. The Motilal character in Tagore's short story disappears completely from Ray's film. But Bhupati is no less despondent in Ray's depiction of him. At the epiphanic moment, when Amal has some sort of realization, Ray shows us a shot Amal, then of Charu. The camera is positioned as though over Amal's shoulder. We the viewers are, as it were, seeing Charu through Amal's eyes. She appears at a distance, then disappears from our and Amal's view. Her glance had been cast in the direction of Amal, and she seemed -- and in fact was -- completely unaware of the calamity that Bhupati has so recently learned befell him. The simile of the traveler stepping off a mountain path into the ravine is completely missing in Ray's translation. Instead, Ray has Bhupati speak the words Tagore wrote to Amiya Chakravarty, cited above, about the earth receding from his feet. Tagore meant to convey with that conceit the emotions he felt after Kadambari Devi's death. Ray has Bhupati use that same image to express Bhupati's feelings after learning that Charu's brother has deceived him. The nature of that verbal image is, of course, comparable to the epiphanic extended simile in Tagore's short story. The verbal message, spoken by Bhupati, is not lost on Amal. The facial expression of Soumitra Chatterjee, the actor, conveys all we need to know of Amal's state of mind and, in fact, maybe more than Tagore's words can say. Like Tagore's original, Ray's translation has Amal appear but briefly after this, even more briefly than Tagore allows him to stay. Amal then vanishes during the rest of the film, except for his voice reading his own,.
Though the Amal character makes a noble retreat, disengaging from Charu,
in real life returned again and again emotionally, through his writings,
even through his
paintings, according to Nandalal Bose, to what must have been a most
exciting and loving Kadambari Devi, whom he in return loved dearly. I shall
reading yet another piece by him about her, again in his own translation:
Alas, where will you go!
1 Probhat Kumar
Mukherji, Life of Tagore, trans. by Sisirkumar Ghosh (Thompson,
InterCulture Associates, 1975), p. 35.
Illustrations: Computer-art by Nilanjana Basu, cut-out by Supurna Sinha.
Published July 15, 2001