Remembering U. R. Ananthamurthy

URAM-portrait@800The year, 1997. Me, a freshly-pressed journalism graduate, itching to join the Indian print media. A dream that wouldn’t come to fruition. But I would get to scribble a few odd stories as a freelance writer. Ratnottama Sengupta, Times of India’s arts editor, would assign me stories on culture and literature–a “soft” beat I happily lapped up.

One of those stories was on Sahitya Akademi’s translation awards. U.R. Ananthamurthy was the Akademi’s chairperson at that time. What follows next is as hazy as the darkness of that early (or was it late) winter evening that swept the outside once the award ceremony was over. But not without light following it.

I don’t remember if it was part of my brief to interview him following the awards or if that was something I wanted to do. Nor do I remember how that interview was set up–did I ask him personally on the awards evening? Did I make a phone call to fix the appointment?

All I remember is I got some time to speak to him the next morning–he invited me to join him for breakfast at IIC–the awards venue and also his place of stay in Delhi. As I sat across him at the breakfast table, URA had enlisted his latest admirer. Given his stature, his manner of speaking–soft, respectful, involved–moved me at once. A light breakfast fare–idlys, coconut chutney, small uttapams, diced papaya–lay in the small table between us. He insisted I have some, despite my polite resistance. Introductions and breakfast over, we moved to his room for the interview. I had no recorder with me so longhand note-taking would have to do.

My knowledge of translations then was as limited as my knowledge of languages is now. As indicated above, my memory of our conversation is blurry. I do remember, however, the lambent beam of light streaming in through the window and the lush cover of green beyond it. When URA started speaking, his words seemed engulfed in a similar beam–gentle, yet radiant with insights and committed interest.

I remember him lamenting the fact that a lot of translation of Indian language works have to happen through a link language like English or Hindi. He wished there were more direct translations–from Kannada to Bengali, Marathi to Kashmiri and so on. His eyes lit up when he shared his vision of a day when school-going children in one region would learn a language from another region. And I wondered why wasn’t this happening already? Why could I not learn Malayalam or Assamese in school? And even then I understood, this wouldn’t just be about learning a new language, but also about making friends with a new culture and its people, if only through the solitary medium of books.

At the end of our conversation, I touched his feet (a mark of deference I  extend with considered discretion). He smiled and said, “We need more bright people like you.Thank you so much.” Even though I didn’t believe that about myself, the warmth and sincerity of his tone, the genuine spark of hope in his eyes made those words credible to me.

So long then, Sir.

Image source:

Guest Blog: Anandamayee Majumdar

Anandamayee Majumdar has been translating Rabindranath Tagore’s songs for a while now. Her translations are available on Gitabitan in English, where she and her friend, Rumela Sengupta, have transcreated more than 700 songs of Tagore so far.  Here Anandamayee shares the challenges and rewards of translating Tagore.

Translating Rabindrasangeet

I am deeply honoured and humbled by the fact that Bhaswati asked me to write something about translating Tagore songs, a topic she wanted to post in her own blog. Here I will describe the motivation and experiences that have been relevant to me in my work. I understand that this is nothing more than a personal experience.

Translation of Rabindranath’s songs is an arduous job, and often times a frustrating one. For one, those who are conversant in Bangla, know how difficult it is to educe similar resonance and melody (surely to be missing in a translation) of the song. It is hard enough to create the same aura of just the poem itself, let alone the rhythm or the melody. Therefore to the Tagore fan of Bengal, any transcreation can easily seem like a travesty.

I need to clarify that so far as records go, there have been two kinds of translations, serving two different purposes. Both are worthy of effort, in my opinion. One, in which the transcreator tries to weld the lyrical threads of the song into her work, creating a poetic essence of the song. The other kind of translation, is that which matches the beats and measures of the original poem. The aim of the latter, is to be able to read it, as well as sing to it.

I personally think, simply to be able to educe similar emotions as the original song can be tremendously difficult, with translated work. One can only try one’s best, and not be too complacent about it. Yet, the translator at some point finds her own wings. Nobody else can tell her what to do. Since similar to creation, transcreation too can become a work of art and ingenuity. Therefore, no two paths could be the same. And so, there could be different ways to transcreate the same song by two different people.

When I first came outside Bengal to the US, I was posed with a problem of sharing Rabindranath’s songs with my friends, who were not conversant in Bengali. I had to translate a few songs to my friends at University of Connecticut in 2001, so we could share them and sing them together. I found that these translations when shared, resonated with the English speaking community — specifically, with those that had spiritual awareness in their lives. Later I was also asked to translate some of Rabindranath’s famous operas, Chitrangada and Shaapmochon by a dance academy for their own performance. These were aimed at the participants and the audience, who were mostly non-conversant in Bangla. Later, I was quelling out my own stress of traveling long distances every week, by translating Tagore songs; also, I was determined not to let my long hours of travel turn out to be entirely futile.

The desire to organize and stockpile these translations, or transcreations as we call them, came from my friend Rumela Sengupta, my soul-mate and dear friend from college, who was also transcreating Tagore songs as a way to connect to her spiritual core. We shared a similar passion for Rabindranath and his songs, and had often hummed them together back in our youth. Rumela created a blog in 2009, that she named ‘Gitabitan in English’, at An artist among other things, she brought into it a flair of her own. True to her spirit, she gave it the space and beauty it needed for making this a home cum pleasurable workplace for us, to funnel our emotions and creative passions, to heal our inner selves, to connect to others who loved Rabindranath, and to somehow reach out to those who needed him through our transcreations.

After this blog was born, the contributions became more motivated, and more regular. We began to choose songs to transcreate on a certain day, based on our needs and emotions of that day. Then again we also tried to be context sensitive, to be able to produce some work that would be seasonable and synchronous to the time of year or any concurrent collective occasion. This makes the work more relevant in some sense. We also tried to respond to the specific requests that were sometimes made of us, of transcreating certain lyrics.

We realized that others who had a chance to view the blog often left important comments, and that it would need a separate space of discussion. Rumela set up a discussion forum in Facebook, called Thoughts of Tagore where the transcreations were immediately posted. Friends Suman Dasgupta, Soumya Sankar Basu and Arindam Sengupta and others, often gave us razor-sharp and profound critique that we needed to craft these transcreations into the molds they would eventually become. Their feedback often times, honed the meaning, freshened the imagery, or bore out the essence with crispness. These individuals are our much coveted co-creators.

Since Rumela set up the blog, we have transcreated more than 700 songs. Since Rabindranath’s Gitabitan — his entire collection of songs, encompasses more than 2200 songs, we have a long way to go, to make the entire garden of songs available in English.

Whenever an urge to express arises, I seek one of his songs that seem to guide my emotions, my results of immediate soul-searching. This is all a very personal story to some extent. The good thing is, Tagore-songs import messages that are so universal, I need not bother that they have lost their aura in the present day. So the real challenge is to reach out through a contemporary, universally agreed upon diction, one that spans continents and cultures.

To put this into context of the work that is ‘out there’, we have read the works of many other translators to date, most noteworthy, maybe are Arnolde Bake, Khitish Roy, Ludwig Wittgenstein, William Radice, Ketaki Kushari Dyson, Amiya Chakravarty, and others. We have often been referred to their work, by the pundits we have asked for feedback along our way. We have read most of the existing work of these trendsetters with great passion.

I recently came across a US citizen named John Thorpe visiting Bangladesh, his work brings him to a culturally thriving milieu in the neighborhoods of Rajshahi University. In his fifties now, he has been translating Rabindrasangeet for fifteen years, his aim is to be able to sing them. He sings in both the original Bengali version and in his version of English, with a deep, majestic voice. I noticed his choice of words was quite fresh and contemporary. The fact that he tried to preserve the original cadence, did not cause havoc to the poetic essence. Fascinated by his efforts, I tried following this route on my own. I had previously been urged by quite a few individuals to try this out, but had refrained. I had not found the correct motivation at that point. But now, listening to John sing, it felt right. The path was frustrating, rewarding and effort-some at the same time. One may work on one or many more transcreations a day if this challenge of rhyming or singing to the transcreation, is not present. But with the challenge of allowing the rhythm to flow naturally just as the original, and to let the poetic essence exude just as well, the choice of expressions need such a lot of experimentation, that it often takes a while to finish the process. It is a frontier that is still fresh for me, and I feel both the butterflies and the exhilaration of an explorer.

I am aware of my own lacking conditions, and therefore, my passion for attaining a hold on English literature has grown over time. I confess that I am no English writer, or even a student of literature for that matter. Literary limitations do bother me a lot. I hold, therefore a great value for those specific constructive critique and comments that seem sincere and heartfelt, from the readers of this blog — they have molded my work. I also have been privileged to come across some enlightened writers (in English), who have a lovely command over the English language, and who I take to deeply, mainly because they write from the heart and have an effeminate style.

I believe that if we can let an inspiration wash over us, we can heal ourselves, and that could light up any creation. Without inspiration, without the flame that kindles our desire into action, anything that we do becomes dull. This has happened to many of my own transcreations. On the other hand, sometimes I just happen to sit down and start. This often results into a primary draft which does not appeal at all. But over time, that draft serves as the stepping stone, a skeleton of the work. By and by, I try to chisel out the extraneous, the unimportant, and preserve only the substance that feels right. Language itself is so fluid and magnetic. If one is not intrigued by its beauty, if it is not delectable, as well as spiritual, one can not create a worthy translation, because Rabindranath is both about profound spiritual beauty and consummate expression. As a transcreator, one has the obligation as well as the freedom to take the song (the poem and the melody together), and make it one’s own. It should not be a feeble attempt at making it available in another language, it should be borne out of one’s own heart.

I try to borrow idioms and ideas from everyday life sometimes. I do try and keep a mental note of new phrases, and idioms, and striking nuances of speech, that may come handy and could be used later for some future work.

Editing plays a major role in crafting out these transcreations. I usually edit a lot of times even after a post has appeared on the blog… until I feel that I have given it my best. Even then, it is good to come back to that post after a while, when you can read it as a third person, without attachment.

My interest is also an inherited one. I have had the exposure to Tagore’s songs since I was a child. The learning and practice of Tagore’s songs, poems and opera have been made natural for me by my family. My grandfather Subodh Majumdar was one of the first people in Bengal to self-teach Tagore songs, and to distribute them to his family and country. Renowned singers have taken their music lessons and inspirations from this unusually gifted man. In his thirties, he was making critical discussions on the notations of  Rabindrasangeet with the venerable notation-maker and musician (grandson of Tagore’s brother) Dinendranath Tagore in Santiniketan. Subodh Majumdar was also taking sitar lessons with maestro Ustaad Vilayat Khan at Sangeet Academy in Kolkata. At his own home in Khulna, he was teaching the sitar, Khol, Pakhwaj, violin, harmonium, tabla, flute and Esraj to his seven children.

Rabindrasangeet (among other songs) filled the breath of the house. My father Subrata Majumdar who was also extremely multifaceted,  had transcreated Tagore songs and poems in his twenties. Some of these got published in the family magazine. When I first came across these translated songs and poems, they read so well, I can still recall my elation at reading those soulful, crisp passages. My parents, my aunts also happen to be musicians and teachers in Tagore songs in their own rights. I am much indebted to my family, who have made Rabindranath my companion and friend, since I was a child. Therefore, transcreating Tagore was just one of the things that I can trace back to my family, like many other things.

For me, this is the story of how these transcreations came about, what I think about them, and what works for me. I think that pathway also describes the motivations and frustrations met along the way, for this work.

MY Days with Ramkinkar Baij

Twenty Andrews Palli. Kinkarda lives in this house now.

He sits in the room adjoining a small veranda. He lives in this room; it is his living room as well as bedroom. The door is ajar; it is always like that.

[From My Days With Ramkinkar Baij]


I found the way to that door about five years ago. As it was ajar, I entered, though not without some measure of diffidence. The world of a towering genius called Ramkinkar Baij, Kinkarda to his loved ones, had opened up to me, but was I capable enough to navigate it? Gladly, printed words, not the actual, near-mythical persona of Kinkarda, paved my pathway. The hesitance started fading, like the lifting of a soft mist off an enormous mountain. This monumental (I don’t use the word lightly) sculptor-painter had me entranced–with his works, life. And words.

Yes, words, because My Days with Ramkinkar Baij, which I read as Shilpi Ramkinkar Alaapchari in Bengali, is Ramkinkar’s life in his own words. From a timid reader, I turned into a zealous admirer. In the five years that followed, the book took me to Norwich, UK (I received the Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship to work on the translation of this book); I got married and moved to the U.S. and then to Canada; became a translator; my translation of Shilpi Ramkinkar Alaapchari found a publisher and became My Days with Ramkinkar Baij.

Even as author Somendranath Bandyopadhyay, through his smooth and sensitive narrative–based on his closeness to Ramkinkar–recounted his days with the awe-inspiring artist, the past five years enabled me to experience My (own) Days with Ramkinkar Bai–vibrant, many-hued, at times tumultuous.

For this, I couldn’t be grateful enough.

Book Review: One Step Towards the Sun

Note: This review was first published in The Asia Writes Project.

In recent publishing history, the universe of Indian Writing in English (IWE) has been continually expanding, with a deluge of new titles spilling off the market shelves. While that is sweet news for the authors of these books, their counterparts writing in India’s various regional languages often don’t receive similar attention. The obvious reason for this is that regional languages have limited readerships, mostly restricted to readers from the respective regions. One way to get around this is to make these writings available in English. According to Valerie Henitiuk, “…The past couple of decades have seen a rapid rise in the distinct phenomenon of Indian Literature in English Translation (ILET).” One Step Towards the Sun is an important new addition to this phenomenon.

Edited by Henitiuk along with Supriya Kar, both of them academicians in the field of literary translation, the book is a collection of twenty-five short stories written by women from the eastern Indian state of Orissa. The very fact that women writers from this state could make their voices heard only as recently as the 1970s makes this anthology critically significant. What makes it interesting and a great read is the amazing diversity on offer–in terms of the periods of writing covered, themes, and writing styles.

Traversing through the milieus these stories present, one discovers that the women writing these stories are every bit as sensitive to issues concerning their own gender as they are about the wider humanity. As is to be expected, women’s issues form the core of many of the stories–exposing the many levels of exploitation the woman is subjected to–sexual, domestic, social, and psychological. In Basanta Kumari Pattnaik’s “In Bondage”, the nameless protagonist is brought to a big city by her brother and sister-in-law so they can use her as an unpaid maidservant. In “The Worn-Out Bird”, Aratibala Prusty narrates the tragedy of a mother who is imprisoned for killing her daughter’s rapist. However, her act of revenge goes in vain, as upon her release she learns of her daughter’s suicide, after suffering even more sexual violence.

The reader need not lose all hope though. For sharing the pages with such grim tales are characters that refuse to bow down to social prejudices, despite undergoing extreme torment. One such woman is Pata Dei, the protagonist bearing the story title by Binapani Mohanty. As she returns to her father’s village home with a child, slanderous accusations are hurled her way and the villagers question who the child’s father is. Defiant and fearless, Pata Dei narrates to the villagers the trauma of the night when a group of her own village men had raped her. Turning to her infant son, she says, “Why should you cry, dear? Don’t be afraid of these people. None of them is man enough to stand up and admit to being your father. But your mother is always there for you…”

Besides highlighting different kinds of trials faced by women, the anthology presents a gamut of themes, from Partition riots, old age, poverty, marital issues, to the impact of natural calamity on humans. Deprivation and hunger present themselves as stark contrasts to the riches of Orissa–splendid art and architecture. In Gayatri Basu Mallik’s “Ruins”, the narrator, while on a trip to Konark, the sun temple that is Orissa’s architectural pride, is bemused to experience “the ruins of real flesh and blood” as he encounters an old woman whose entire life had been a series of misfortunes. Banaja Devi echoes a similar idea in her story, “A Classic”. Here, the narrator comes across what appears to be a sculpture in a railway station, but, on closer inspection is revealed to be a beggar family–emaciated and driven to the edge by hunger.

One story that deftly tackles two themes–hunger and marital infidelity is “A Mother From Kalahandi” by Gayatri Sharaf. A seemingly blissful marriage starts falling apart for the heroine, Amrita, as she accidentally discovers her husband Swapnesh’s secrets. On probing, Amrita learns that Swapnesh has bought a young girl from the famine-struck district of Kalahandi for a paltry amount, only to bring her to the city for his sexual gratification. A social worker herself, Amrita decides to become a foster mother to the child born of her husband’s extra-marital relationship. At the same time, she convinces the biological mother to return to her village and liberate herself from the clutches of Swapnesh’s exploitation.

One Step Towards the Sun also impresses because of its stylistic variety. From elements of fantasy to disjointed soliloquy, plot twists and lyricism, the stories arrest the reader as much with the unfolding story as with the words that unveil it.

It is to Henitiuk and Kar’s credit that they have produced a book of writing translated from a regional Indian language without tedious footnotes or a painstaking glossary. The translations have standardized almost all of the original text, including some of the very localized expressions. Although the end result makes for easy readability, it can be a bit of a disappointment for someone seeking to derive a taste of local flavours offered by phrases and idioms unique to the region. One wonders if certain regional expressions couldn’t have been incorporated into the translated narratives without hindering the readability. However, this is a small omission in an otherwise excellently produced anthology. Even as IWE basks in the warm light of international awards, this book has taken but a solid step towards the sun as far as furthering ILET is concerned.

Short Stories by Women from Orissa
Edited by Valerie Henitiuk and Supriya Kar
Publisher: Rupantar
Price: Rs. 295.00
ISBN 978-81-906729-1-7