Rabindranath Tagore's profound meditations on life, nature, grace and brokenness in the Gitanjali won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. Sing of Life is Priya Sarukkai Chabria's virtuosic revisioning of this world classic. Limned with daring, intuition and poetic imagination, it rings true to Tagore's search for spiritual splendour, and her own questing.
Chabria writes in the introduction to the work, 'I believe a great poem is one that often serves as a draft or raft for someone else's poem. Or that is how it should be: A spark or a shift in another's consciousness.' In this inspired linguistic experiment, she seeks to capture that spark and give it new life by chiselling Tagore's prose-poetry into intense poems that invite us to re-engage with the Gitanjali. Contemplative and courageous, this is a reimagining of Tagore and his work for a new generation of readers.
Priya Sarukkai Chabria is an award-winning poet, translator and writer of nine books of poetry, speculative fiction, literary non-fiction, translation and, as editor, two poetry anthologies. Her books include Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess (translation), Calling Over Water (poems), Clone (speculative fiction) and Bombay/Mumbai: Immersions (non-fiction).
Priya has studied the Sanskrit rasa theory of aesthetics and Tamil Sangam (2-4BCE) poetics. She is Founding Editor of Poetry at Sangam: http://poetry.satigamhouse.org/. She has received the Muse Translation Award, Kitab Experimental Fiction Award, Best Reads by Feminist Press and was recognised for her Outstanding Contribution to Literature by the Government of India. Her poems have been translated into French, German, Hindi, Punjabi and Tamil.
Under such a sky I begin reading Gitanjali (Song Offering) by Rabindranath Tagore, subtitled A Collection of Prose Translations Made by the Author from the Original Bengali with an Introduction by W.B. Yeats and first published in 1913.
My reading starts as a casual glance at the book my husband picked off a cafe bookshelf while we waited for our coffee. By the time we finish, the small book is spreadeagled between us. When we leave, the borrowed book comes with us, to the photocopier's.
I am tingling with elation. As I read, or rather plunge into it, certain words from each of the Songs lift like swans into my mind. Back in our hotel room, I write these risen phrases in the children's notebook I'd purchased at the photocopier's.
I have never begun a writing project with less preparation. I don't have a name for it. Doesn't matter. That will come later. After the birthing. As with life.
With its publication in English, Tagore became the first non-European to win a Nobel Prize for Literature. The Committee's citation summed up their reasons: `... because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West: I hadn't read the Bengali visionary and educationist at any length before, though he produced prodigious amounts of poetry, prose, drama and fiction in his lifetime (7 May 1861-7 August 1941). His fame and the awe in which he is held formed an almost impenetrable aura around him. `Gurudev, Teacher embodying God-like knowledge' was the sobriquet conferred on him by M. K. Gandhi, while he, in turn, bestowed the appellation 'Mahatma' on Gandhi. The Bengali claim on Tagore made me feel in part an interloper, part parvenu, part weisenheimer, when I attempted any more than a nodding acquaintance with his books. Yet, I cherished the cinematic adaptations of his works; and had pored over his haunting paintings and doodles;" my approach to his work was at an angle. And now, suddenly, to my surprise, I was immersed in rewriting his best-known work.
The impetus perhaps rests in this verse from the Upanishads, translated by Tagore:
From joy does spring all this creation, by joy is it maintained,
towards joy does it progress, and into joy does it enter.
My encounter with the Gitanjali splits, like forked lightning, into two spaces.
There is Tagore's own historical moment as the anti-colonial struggle was gathering force, and his part in the nationalist upsurge. He wrote from a position of great privilege within the reformist Brahmo Samaj movement in Calcutta, British India's capital. His inner need for his work to be acknowledged by friends and admirers among the intellectual elite in India and the West propelled him. Underlying this was the voice of Bengal's riverine culture, which quivered within him as he sailed through pastoral landscapes; he was also seeking to transmute grief over the death of close family members into the grace of acceptance. These currents poured into his profound meditations on life and death and overflowed as the Gitanjali.
Now, to my particular moment. As I held the book to me, it opened like a treasure chest's maw of light. After I completed the re-writing, I began the research that revealed serendipitous correlations between Tagore's thinking and my intuited choices. Some of the poems spilled like blessings. Others were like lip-splitting experiences, tasting of blood and birth. Coincidences, or something else altogether, led me into a new cave of understanding, another vault to explore.
**Contents and Sample Pages**
Children’s Books (1668)
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