Selected Poems of Buddhadeva Bose: A Review by Sibnarayan Ray[Parabaas Translation]



Selected Poems of Buddhadeva Bose

Sibnarayan Ray

Selected Poems of Buddhadeva Bose, Translated and Introduced by Ketaki Kushari Dyson; Oxford University Press, India; 2003; Pp 206+lxxxv; ISBN:019566335-7

In Bengali literature Buddhadeva Bose (1908-74) was truly a phenomenon. There is hardly a literary genre in which he did not excel. Primarily a poet of the highest order who kept changing and growing almost to the end, he was also a complete master of Bengali prose which he plied to serve a multiplicity of ends. Novels, short stories and plays (in both verse and prose), literary criticism and scholarly expositions, memoirs, travelogues and a variety of belles-lettres, tales and translations for children - for each he found the right style. The variety is breath-taking as is the totality of his corpus, which ran to over a hundred and sixty titles. Literature was to him like his personal religion - it was inconceivable that anything fake or slip-shod could cross its precinct.

This, of course, should not be taken to mean that everything Buddhadeva Bose composed was a perfect gem. Such a claim would be absurd even in the case of Goethe or Rabindranath. The main point is that he was an amazingly multifaceted literary artist, and against all odds and hindrances, he never allowed his integrity as an artist to be affected by other considerations. As a writer he was the ablest successor to Rabindranath’s multisplendoured genius. The latter was both his supreme mentor and the object of his ceaseless re-appraisal.
Samar Sen, Buddhadeva Bose, Rabindranath,
Protiva Bose, Kamakshiprasad Chattopadhyay,
and Buddhadeva-Protiva's daughter Meenakshi
Buddhadeva made his first appearance on the Bengali literary stage as an outspoken rebel against Rabindranath’s all-pervasive influence, but while he did lead the new movement in modern Bengali poetry away from the Master’s penumbra, to the very end he was himself engaged like a Jacob in wrestling with the latter’s angelic embrace. Not only did he write extensively on Tagore in both Bengali and English, both in his own poetry and prose his absorption in Rabindranath is as evident as is his uncompromising affirmation of personal authenticity.

At 18 Buddhadeva made his debut as a writer with a story ‘Rajani Holo Utala’ (The Night Became Restless) which appeared in an avant-grade literary journal Kallol, and stirred up a hornet’s nest. The absurd charge of obscenity made against this tale of adolescence would pursue him most of his life - at twenty-five a collection of his stories would be banned on this charge and at sixty-one he would be hauled up by the police for a most exquisitely written psychological novel, Raat Bhorey Brishti (Rain Through the Night, later translated under that title by Clinton Seely of Chicago). Throughout his life, the odds were quite often very much against him - poverty and insecurity, unappreciative employers and exploiting publishers, hostile groups of hidebound critics and a mostly indifferent reading public. Nevertheless, not only did he fully maintain his creativity and keep refining and recasting himself as a literary artist to the very end, he also succeeded in launching and sustaining a most fruitful new movement in Bengali poetry through his unique journal Kavita (1935-1960). To this journal he drew all the major new poets in the language - Jibanananda Das, Sudhindranath Datta, Amiya Chakravarti, Bishnu Dey, Subhash Mukherji et al - and then by writing about them appreciative and illuminating essays, he created a new taste among the true lovers of Bengali poetry. And all the time he kept growing himself - “from the romantic ebullience of his youth and the taut, dark and introspective poems of his middle years to the wonderfully sensitive, humanistic story-poems and meditative philosophical poems of his later years.”

The last quotation is from the introduction to Ketaki Kushari Dyson’s Selected Poems of Buddhadeva Bose published very recently by Oxford University Press. It speaks volumes of the world we live in today that a multi-faceted writer of genius like Buddhadeva Bose still remains hardly known to lovers of literature outside the two Bengals and the Bengali-speaking diaspora. Bose founded the Department of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University, and went abroad a few times to teach on invitation at several universities and colleges in the United States, but I do not know that this in any way helped to make his works known in the West, or even in other parts of India. The sad fact is that modernity which came to India from the West and contributed decisively to the stirring of both the creative and the critical spirit among a section of educated Indians, was also from the beginning inextricably enmeshed in the corrosive system of imperialism and foreign rule. The dominance which the English language enjoyed for more than a century in comparison with potentially rival languages was principally due to the immense power and extension of the British Empire. Now the sun has set over that Empire, the British Empire has been reduced to little England, but under the guise of globalisation nearly absolute power has come to be assumed by the United States of America and the language of this new authority is also English, albeit of the American variety. Thus English has virtually become the indispensable key that alone can open world readership to writers who are born to languages other than Mammon’s own. In terms of the number of people who claim it to be their mother tongue Bengali may be the fifth most widely spoken language in the world. But that is little help, for that impressive number is backed by neither power, nor money, nor even by an active and sizeable readership from among the Bengalis themselves. Nearly a hundred years ago, the greatest literary genius of modern India, Rabindranath Tagore, had to reconstruct his own Bengali songs and lyrics into English to win recognition and then acclaim from the literary cognoscenti of the Western world. This blatantly unfair situation has hardly changed even after the passage of so many decades.

Thus it is that we in Bengal who loved literature and had the windows of our minds opened to the world, grew up to appreciate Yeats, Eliot and Auden, and in a few cases in the original, but in most cases in English translation, such twentieth century masters as Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Eluard, Nikos Kazantzakis, Salvadore Quasimodo, Anna Akhmatova, Federico Lorca or Pablo Neruda. But in the world outside Bengal very few Bengali poets after Tagore are known either in the original or in translation. Anthologies do appear from time to time of modern post-Tagore Bengali poetry in English translation; but much of the translation is of a rather poor quality, and very few ever reach the world outside. This is true not only of Bengali but also of other major Indian languages which have produced modern poets of considerable stature. Not surprisingly such modern Indian writers as have lately found an access to the world market are those who write almost exclusively in English - mainly because they were born and brought up in a milieu where English became virtually their mother tongue. However, nearly all of them write prose fiction, mostly about India. Cleverly crafted, sometimes nostalgic, sometime severely critical, they possess little depth. Poetry seems to spring from a deeper subsoil from which they are cut off by their very special milieu and upbringing.

It is indeed paradoxical that in an age when revolution in communication technology has virtually brought the whole world next door to each one of us, the majority of the world population would continue to remain dispossessed of a great part of their rich and ever-growing universal cultural inheritance - the harvest of poetry, for example, in the many vernaculars of the world. The only way this unacceptable situation may in the long run be made tractable is through competent translation on a universal scale. However desirable it may be to translate directly from one vernacular into another, this will not provide global reach to such work. We have to accept that willy-nilly English has established itself as the language through which any part of the world may have access to any other part of the world. Hence what is involved is a vast and virtually unending programme of translation of modern classics in the innumerable vernaculars of the world into English in the first place. The idea is reminiscent of Max Mueller’s grand project of the Sacred Books of the East which he so very diligently and competently executed in collaboration with some of the finest scholars of his age. But the scope of what is suggested here is much vaster. While the past is largely a closed chapter, the present which embraces the whole world in its infinite variety is constantly changing and replenishing itself.

Translating poetry, of course, has very special requirements of its own. It not only requires that the translator is almost equally at home in both the source language and the target language, it is also necessary that the translator is a poet, or at least possesses a poet’s sensibility, and is capable of transmitting into the target language much of the shades and nuances of the structure and meaning of the original. For as Bose, himself an outstanding translator, made clear (and his translator, Dr. Dyson, fully shares this view), “the act of translation is at once creative and technical”. His own translations from such diverse poets as Kalidasa, Baudelaire, Hölderlin and Rilke, were outstanding examples of how competent translations not only replenish the poet-translator’s own creativity and leaven his poetic style, but also effect a sea-change in the sensibility of other contemporary poets and readers in the target language.

Thirty years after his death Buddhadeva Bose has at last found the perfect translator to introduce his poetry to the non-Bengali lovers of good literature. Ketaki Kushari Dyson is herself a distinguished poet in both Bengali and English; she is completely at home in both the target and the source language; like Buddhadeva, while being a cosmopolitan in outlook, her psyche is deeply rooted in Bengal, its language, history, landscape and culture. Like Buddhadeva too she is a formidable scholar and original thinker, but these acquisitions have enriched their poetry instead of proving to be any hindrance. Born too late to take part in the movement launched by Buddhadeva’s poetry journal Kavita, she nevertheless absorbed the influence radiated by it, and she came to undertake the translation with a strong sense of empathy and dedication and necessary technical equipment, and she has produced a work which may very well serve as a model for future translators.

Selected Poems of Buddhadeva Bose opens with a long and illuminating introduction (50 pages) which examines the literary rebellion against Tagore, and the beginnings of the new modernist movement in Bengali poetry, in which Bose played a central role; highlights the distinctive features of the major poets who were involved in this movement; then concentrates on Buddhadeva’s life and developments, the twists and turns he went through and survived; and finally concentrates on the distinctive qualities of his poetry and their different phases. In selecting the poems for translation from the large and various corpus of his oeuvre, she has striven to meet three objectives : “to give readers an idea of his range and variety, to give adequate representation to each important phase in his poetic development, and to make sure that I selected poems which I could re-incarnate as poems in English”. Thus she starts with “Bandir Bandana” ( “A Prisoner’s Song of Praise”), a poem that after seventy years, stands as a “sign-post marking the direction of modern poetry”. [See Love and Life, from Bandir Bandana, published in Parabaas and also included in this volume.] Here the young poet puts himself up as God’s rival. God created him as “a perpetual prisoner in the instincts’ inescapable cage”, but he, being a poet, “a seeker of the immortal”, has “fashioned” himself, bestowed upon himself a new birth, has “created this music in exalted delight” and thus “rectified” God’s “mistakes”. But even in his early poetry he was much more than a tormented rebel; he was a romantic lover, a keen catcher of “the moment red-handed”, a vivid recollector of lost events and objects. Then he went through a period of darkness and despair, heard the howling of wolves, but not in vain, for out of this experience emerged a new phase of poetry, terse, with a tinge of melancholy, a certain obliqueness, meditative yet vibrant. For a time this great lover of life experienced a strong sense of kinship with Baudelaire’s ennui transfigured into crystalline art. From Kalidasa’s Meghadutam to Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal is indeed a long journey. However, Buddhadeva’s poetic odyssey which had begun with Rabindranath met on the way not only Kalidasa and Baudelaire but also Hölderlin and Rilke, shared their varied experiences and made them his own. He remained nonetheless to the end very much himself, a sailor of many islands and oceans who always carried in the core of his heart his true and only love, the language of Bengal. His integrity and constant vigilance as a poet ensured that this true love was not dimmed or enfeebled, but strengthened and enriched, by his daring adventures in so many dark and distant seas. Ketaki Kushari Dyson has managed most impressively in her translation to communicate to the reader with a genuine taste for poetry much of the splendour, variety and finesse of the original poems of Bose. She had performed this virtual miracle once before in her book of translations of Rabindranath’s poetry. In her selection she has included 92 poems from fourteen books of Buddhadeva’s poetry. I think quite rightly she has given more space to poems of the later period than of the earlier; they have luminous and passionate intellectuality which only the most mature poets ever achieve. If I miss a few of my favourite poems from the earlier period (for example, from Damayanti and Draupadir Sari ), I immediately remind myself of the declared objectives of the translator. Not only has she met these objectives with an extra-ordinary degree of success, she has also laid under much obligation readers who do not know Bengali and/or are not familiar with the Bengali literary background, by providing the Selection with a valuable introduction, an exemplary testament on the problems of translation and her own approach to these problems, and a very useful body of notes to the poems. There is also a select bibliography, and translation of an essay by Buddhadeva Bose given as an appendix under the title “Language, Poetry and Being Human”.

This pioneering work of introducing through English translation a very major modern Indian poet to readers who are unfamiliar with the source language - made by some one who is herself a poet in both English and Bengali, and whose competence and dedication are writ large on every page of this work - should, one hopes, reach those for whom it is primarily intended. It is a book to be kept in every decent library and to be included in the literature syllabus of every good university. Hopefully, it may inspire other competent translators to undertake similar work in other modern Indian languages. But more than anything else, it should be on the shelf of every true lover of poetry, sharing the companionship of such modern poets as Robert Frost, Henri Michaux, George Seferis, Eugenio Montale, Osip Mandelstam or Rafael Alberti. Once good translations remove the boundary walls, the world’s common literary inheritance begins to become accessible to all mankind.

(December 28, 2003)

Published in Parabaas February 15, 2004

Reviewed by Sibnarayan Ray born in 1921, has several published titles in Bengali and English. After a distinguished career as a university teacher, ....(more)

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