I met Gulzar at 'Boskyana' his home in Mumbai. Wonderful interview. And, a nervous me dropped my pen thrice. For once I wasn't harsh with myself for behaving clumsily. I was face to face with Gulzar, and it's okay to nervous.
On a lazy Saturday afternoon, we sit on high-backed iron chairs, plumped up with cushions. The white chair across the desk is empty but any moment, a ‘ literary giant’ is going to arrive to occupy it. The door opens and an old gentleman with twinkling eyes enters, his palms joined in Namaste.
‘Namashkar’, his low, timbered voice greets us as we rise to our feet to wish him.
The ‘giant’ disappears and in his place sits a genial man, with lots of stories to share. So, do we talk on Tagore? He queries as he settles down in the chair. And then begins his tale of friendship and admiration for another literary legend — Rabindranath Tagore. Gulzar, noted film lyricist, writer and poet, was in his tweens, when he first read the Urdu translation of Tagore’s The Gardener, a collection of poetry. Today, he has brought out a volume titled Baghban (Harper Perennial), in which he has translated the original Bangla poetry into Hindi and printed it alongside the Bangla and English versions written by Tagore.
When asked how was it to read Tagore in Urdu, the octogenarian replies, “Urdu was widely spoken in pre-Independent India. It was closer to Independence when I first came across a Tagore translation in a Calcutta library. By now, most of the janata knows that it was the first book that I stole. Reading Tagore diverted my choice of reading. I soon started reading Bangla literature in Urdu. Along with Tagore, I read Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. I also read a lot of Munshi Premchand. In later years, I kept discovering the magic and layers in stories written by Premchand and Tagore.”
Gulzar’s thirst to know Tagore and read him in the original prompted him to learn Bangla. And, when he finally read Tagore’s poetry in the original, he realised that Urdu or Hindi translation was far off from Bangla. The non-Bengalis, who translated him, did so from Tagore’s English works.
“There is a vast difference between Tagore’s English translation and his Bangla works, because he edited his poems very mercilessly. In English, it’s hardly one third of the original poetry. Tagore knew what he wanted to convey to the West. And, that was Gitanjali — a spiritual offering. He thought this is what the West should know. There is no collection titled Gitanjali in Bangla. He chose some poems from his vast writing. So the people who translated him thought that Gitanjali was the high point of his writing. But Tagore is bigger than Gitanjali and the Nobel Prize he was conferred with. And that’s why he is our National Poet.”
Gulzar wanted that Tagore should reach out to non-Bengalis, and not just confine him to be the writer of our National Anthem. “I want children living in the rest of India to grow up reading and singing Tagore’s stories and songs like kids in Bengal do. He is the poet of every Indian. So I decided to translate, choosing his works which he wrote at a young age. One is Baghban and another is Neendiya Chor, written for kids. The latter was translated from his work titled Shishu,” adds Gulzar.
Tagore beyond spirituality
Talking about his work on young Tagore, Gulzar says, “Tagore has always been in our conscience as a bearded gentleman, a profoundly spiritual being. He was all that, but he was also a young, good-looking man in love with his surroundings and with people.”
And with that he recites a poem, Do Behne, included in Baghban:
Woh don behne hansti hui
kyu aati hai,
Jab paani bharni aati hai..
Kya raste ke paar koi
Rahgir khada dekha hai?
Pedon ki ghani chhavn ke neeche, kone mein
“Such lovely lines...hain! We all admire his spiritual poetry, but one would fall in love with Tagore if you read what he wrote at a young age. Such a handsome man!” gushes Gulzar.
An avid admirer of Tagore, the poet-lyricist admits that it wasn’t easy to translate the Bard of Bengal. “He is our classic poet. You can’t touch Tukaram’s works like that... you think 100 times. You think 1,000 times before you start translating Subrahmanyam (Tamil poet-saint). I said earlier that at every stage of my life, I discovered a new Tagore. But, now at this age, I don’t think I will mature more! So I plucked courage and took the plunge. I took four-five years in checking and rechecking so that I don’t miss any line, any image, or take liberty with any of Tagore’s lines. My only insistence was that the Hindi poem must sound like a poem. And, not a meaning of the original. I tried to bring the whole rasa — melody of the poem — to the people so that they know why I like Tagore so much, what the original must read like. When you translate him from Bangla into other Indian languages, you will get the essence, because culturally, we are one. I don’t boast that my translations are the best, but I can truly boast that I have translated with all my love and passion,” adds Gulzar.
All of this requires an understanding of the culture and the temperament of the poet or writer. And, Gulzar has taken that effort not just with Tagore, but also with the work of other writers whom he admired.
“I wouldn’t have been able to translate Kusumagraj-ji’s (V V Shirwadkar) Kana if I didn’t know the culture of Maharashtra. I have translated Vinda-ji (Vinda Karandikar) and read my translation in front of him when we were travelling to Surat. (Arun) Kolatkar and Dilip Chitre are of a different league altogether. “Chitre and I have roamed together in New York, looking for non-veg eateries and drinking together in the evening. I know Chitre’s mizaz (temperament)... his sense of aristocracy, pride and self-confidence.
After living here for 50 years, I call myself a Maharashtrian. After living in Bengal, I call myself a Bengali. I am born in Punjab, which is my madari zuban and it runs in my blood. I am a good cosmopolitan Indian,” he concludes.
Writing for children
Someone who has written the still-hummed Jungle, jungle baat chali hai, Gulzar points out, that if you love and indulge children, you can write for them from within. “Aap bachchkon ke saath jaake kanche nahi kheloge, kichad mein nahi lathpath hoge, holi nahi khelonge aur rang apne par nahi daloge...toh kya likhenge,” he says.
Tagore’s poetry collection for children had none of the pari aur pari ke par. “He wrote what was happening around him, real.”
The complete Indian
Tagore is best read in regional literature, instead of English, because all his imageries are our Indian way of living. “Tagore was a complete Indian. He learnt folk songs heard in Dharwad and composed tunes for them in Bangla. He travelled through Punjab, wrote about Guru Gobind Singh and Jhelum river. He wrote a five-page poem on Shivaji. He wrote a poem praising his country, when he was asked to write something for King George’s arrival. He showed nationalism through his poetry” explains Gulzar.