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'There is a lot more to be done to represent Tagore’s achievement'

  • Published at 05:27 pm May 15th, 2018
  • Last updated at 01:06 pm May 16th, 2018
Prof Fakrul Alam | Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain
Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain

An interview with Prof Fakrul Alam

Before joining East West University as its Pro-Vice Chancellor in September 2017, Fakrul Alam was Professor of English at Dhaka University. He received his BA and MA degrees in English Literature from DU, an additional master's degree from Simon Fraser University and a PhD from the University of British-Columbia in Canada.  Alam has co-edited The Essential Tagore (Harvard University Press and Visva-Bharati University, 2011), an internationally acclaimed anthology featuring Rabindranath Tagore's works in English translation, with Radha Chakravarty. He has published numerous essays and articles in many international journals and periodicals. His books include Imperial Entanglements and Literature in English (Writer’s.ink), South Asian Writers in English (Dictionary of Literary Biography series, Thomson Gale); Rabindranath Tagore and National Identity Formation in Bangladesh (Bangla Academy)  and his book-length study,  Daniel Defoe: The Colonial Propagandist

He's translated Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's Asampto Attojibani (Unfinished Memoirs, University Press Limited), Mir Mosharraf Hussain's epic novel Bishad Sindhu (Ocean of Sorrow), and a volume of Jibanananda Das's poems, Jibananada Das: Selected Poems (University Press Limited).

Alam received the SAARC Literature Award in 2012 and the Bangla Academy Award in the following year. 

Your work on Rabindranath Tagore has branched out in many directions. Let's begin with The Essential Tagore, which is regarded as the best and most authoritative translated anthology of Tagore's work. What exactly did editing such a voluminous anthology entail? How long did it take you to finish the editing?

First let me point out briefly the genesis of the book. Professor Kumkum Bhattacharya, in charge of Visva-Bharati Publications, and a good friend who knew about my Jibanananda Das translations, had seen the Tagore poems I had begun translating towards the end of the first decade of the new century. She asked me to think of editing an English anthology on Tagore based on new translations sometime in late 2008 or early 2009, keeping in mind the sesquicentenary celebrations. The idea thrilled me initially but soon I got cold feet thinking about the enormity of the task and my insufficiency as far as Tagore was concerned. As we all know, and to make use of Whitman, Tagore is “large” and “contains multitudes,” and I had exposure to only part of his oeuvre then. I discussed the issue with my friend Radha Chakravarti, who was in Dhaka at that time with her husband, the Indian Ambassador to Bangladesh then. I asked her if she would like to co-edit the book with me, since her strength in Tagore and experience as a translator of his works would complement mine. She agreed readily. We had done about six months of work when sometime probably in mid- 2009, Sharmila Sen was in Dhaka to conduct a workshop at BRAC; she was Commissioning Editor of Harvard UP, and she met Radha in a party. When Sharmila found out that Radha and I were working on the book, she wanted to take a look at what we were doing. She had liked what we were planning on doing. All this led to her proposal that we publish the book with HUP who would have rights outside India. But she felt we would have to have the book out by mid- 2011. And it is then that we began work in earnest. We managed to get the book out in just about two years. 

Looking back at what we all did, it seems to me, and as you say, this is a “voluminous” anthology,” ours was quite an achievement. After all, the book has around 800 pages of text and 30 contributors based in 4 countries. But I have to say that this was possible due to our contributors, who all kept to the deadlines we had set, and the professionalism of the Harvard UP and Visva-Bharati editorial and production departments. And Radha is the kind of co-editor I could not have even dreamt about! The editing itself and writing of the Introduction and the prefatory pages of the 10 sections of the anthology took us about a year. We split the responsibility of editing the 10 sections equally so that we each had 5 sections to compile, although we looked at each other’s work all the time.

Tagore's image as a great writer in all literary genres has suffered enormously in the west due to a lack of good translations of his work. The Essential Tagore has significantly addressed this gap. This observation has been made by none other than Amartya Sen. What is your take on this?

It is, of course, gratifying to have Sen, himself a product of Shantiniketan, and whose family’s association with Rabindranath was such a close one, say such a thing. I believe (but of course I am partisan here!) that what he says is quite true, if only because no representative anthology of Tagore works in English had been published for decades; the previous one being Amiya Chakravarty’s A Tagore Reader, which came out in 1961, the centenary year! And we had some very accomplished translators contributing to our volume, I might add. But it must be said that there is a lot more to be done to represent Tagore’s achievement. After all, we were able to represent in our anthology only some aspects of his work.

Who are the translators featured most prominently in the book?

I don’t think we have featured anyone “prominently” but our translators include Amit Chaudhuri, Sunetra Gupta, Amitav Ghosh, Sukanta Chaudhuri, Supriya Chaudhuri, Sudeep Sen, Syed Manzoorul Islam and Kaiser Huq among others, names that, I suppose, you could say are prominent ones!

The Essential Tagore has received rave reviews all over the world. Martha Nussabaum, in an article in New Statesman, proposed it as the best book of 2011; a review was also published in Times Literary Supplement, among other magazines. Do you think more translation projects should be taken up, aiming for slimmer volumes, to make Tagore's work easily accessible to readers in Asia, and also in Europe? A lot of readers, irrespective of where they live, might find this edition a bit too high-priced.

You could add The New Yorker, The New York Times and many other well-known newspapers and periodicals. Except for one negative review—would you believe it—in Ananda Bazar Patrika—the over twenty-five reviews from publications based all over the world that I have seen are positive ones. If you type the title and go to the Amazon site, you will see that it has got 4 and a half out of 5 stars in their ranking. And the book went into a paperback edition a couple of years ago. So, you could say that it’s been received well almost everywhere. 

No doubt there is scope for more Tagore translations. Individual works continue to come out and they are mostly affordable. But if you want an imprint like Harvard and quality production and worldwide distribution, the price will be necessarily a little steep. But I, for one, think at $21, the Harvard paperback is a bargain!

Tell us something about the scope of translating Tagore's works. What genres of his writing are yet to get adequate translation?

I feel that we need fresh translations of his major novels, plays and long and short fiction. Also, a big anthology of his essays seems to me to be long overdue. 

You have been translating Tagore's song lyrics since quite long. Why did you feel drawn to his lyrics? Do you have any plan to put them together in a book?

The only reason that I translate the song lyrics is because I love the songs so much. Every once in a while, when I listen to a song it grips me and makes me want to translate it. That is why I keep translating them—it is a very addictive activity for me. I have also translated the English Gitanjali song-lyrics, once again, because I like them so much. Yes, I do plan to assemble them in a book, perhaps by the end of this year.

And do you have any other Tagore projects in mind?

At the moment I am working on a long essay on his English writings. This will eventually, hopefully, be part of a collection of essays. I should add, I have published one book of essays on Tagore already, and have been writing essays regularly over the last few years in response to requests for papers for books and conferences. But what I would really like to do in the future is write a critical biography in English on Tagore. I hope I can do that though, since it will take some doing!

Thank you very much for your time, Sir.

Two song lyrics by Rabindranath Tagore

(Translated by Fakrul Alam)

Oi ashe oi oti bhairob horoshe

There, there they come—monsoonal clouds—

Exhilarating, awesome, moisture-laden,

Fragrant, earth-soaked, dense, rejuvenated

Dark-hued, somber, glorious—ready to burst!

Their deep rumblings quiver dark-blue forests

Tense peacocks out on strolls cry out

The whole world is thrilled, overwhelmed. 

Intense, amazing—monsoon is on its way!

Where are you, oh young and old belles of pathways? 

Where are you, oh brides of darting, fluttering eyes? 

Where are you, oh female gardeners and dear nursemaids?  

Where could you be, oh women all set for assignations?

Come to deep forest shades and yield to deep blue desire

Let honeyed tongues peal in gorgeous dances 

Bring forth the mind-entrancing veena!

Where are you love-sick ones, all you seekers of love?

Bring forth the tom-tom, the tabor, the melodious pipe

Blow the conch and ululate, oh you brides all—

Dearly loved partaker of all our delight, 

Monsoon, you’re here, flaming passions anew.

With brooding eyes, on the birch leaves of arbors

You compose brand new tunes,

Based on the cloud-induced Meghmallar raga.

Monsoon is here, flaming passions anew!


Apply the fragrance of the ketoki flower on your hair

String Korobi flowers and wear them around your slender waist  

Lay out Kadamba pollens on your bed

Daub your eyes with soothing eye-salves! 

Clink your twin bracelets rhythmically

Make your peacocks dance in tune 

Weave a warm welcome

Lay out Kadamba pollens on your bed!

Monsoon is here; rejuvenated monsoon is here!

Suffusing the sky and filling the world with desire

The wind susurrates through forests, making trees sway

Plants and creepers lilt rhythmically to its tune,

Poets of all ages meet in the heavens

Making the heady wind resonate tunefully

With lyrics that transcend time

Till hundreds of melodies resound in forest paths.    

Aaji jhorer raate

This is the stormy night of your assignation,

        My soul’s inmate, my friend!

In disquiet, the sky sheds tears; sleep won’t come to me—

Opening the door, beloved, I look out repeatedly.

        Outside, I can see nothing

        I keep thinking--where could you be?

Are you far away—crossing a river or beside a dense forest?

Are you traversing some thick dark stretch of land?