Rabindranath Tagore | Found in translation

In 1912, Ezra Pound famously wrote how the poet Rabindranath Tagore had sung Bengal into a nation. And sing the poet certainly did as he composed thousands of songs, setting them to tune that continue to resonate with the Bengali speaking peoples. And yet despite Pound’s enthusiastic endorsement of the English version of the poet’s work, Rabindra Sangit (literally Rabindranath’s songs and music) and its appeal remains elusive to non-Bengali language speakers. The latter are often told that the magic lies in the poetry, in the lyrics that index a unique sensibility fashioned by landscape, seasons, metaphors passed down from experience that escape the outsider. But does this need to be so? Lal’s project suggests the contrary and argues that the poet was after melody and music and that words followed this deep quest. Lal’s work is a deeply sensitive and measured treatment of the poetry and melody of the poet’s songs, while showing up several shortcomings of our understanding of Rabindrasangit in the process. The exercise involves an excellent introduction, a fine translation of a profound essay by Satyajit Ray on Tagore’s songs and a detailed translation and transliteration of 40 songs with notation. It is a compelling read and readers at the end will at least try and search for these songs even if they do not hum them spontaneously.

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