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Nuance, longing and poetic repartée

By November 27, 2017No Comments

Source : The Hindu


Deepanjana Pal spends an engrossing evening enveloped in the company of contemporary Bengali verses

Six poets walked into a bookstore to read Bengali poetry. For most people, this is not a sentence that inspires an adrenaline rush. Irrespective of language, a poetry reading is to be approached with caution. It can either be enriching or make you reach for the hip flask in the hope that glugging will not just make the event more bearable, but also help disguise your eye-rolling.

No one in the audience for the launch of Six Bangla Poets, a slim volume of poetry translated by retired educationist Chandak Chattarji, seemed to have a hip flask. The setting was the beautiful Kitab Khana in the city’s Fort district, a wood-panelled, book-lined oasis in a city of vanishing spines and bookshops. Chattarji’s translations would be read out by six contemporary poets: Jeet Thayil, Karthika Naïr, Jane Bhandari, Ranjit Hoskote, Mustansir Dalvi and Menka Shivdasani.

While poetry’s popularity has grown online, this is rarely reflected in the offline world of book events and sales. The audience for Six Bangla Poets was mostly made up of friends and familiars. They were prepared to be indulgent, but as the readings picked up pace, with the microphone passing rhythmically from poet to poet, it was a reminder that done right, poetry is a performance art.

Once written to entertain courts as well as paying audiences, the advent of publishing as an industry changed the nature of poetry. Printed rather than performed, the experience of reading poems became private. Poets wrote without concessions to or considerations of a live audience — if you think written reviews are harsh, you should try standing on stage, facing even a small crowd that’s bored and had enough of you. The twentieth century saw some dizzyingly beautiful twists in poetry’s tale, but on the flip side, its reputation for being obtuse, rather than acute, was cemented.

This was what Chattarji, accompanied by his daughter Sampurna (herself a poet, translator and novelist), Thayil, Naïr, Bhandari, Hoskote, Dalvi and Shivdasani were up against. There were also more banal hindrances, like chittering kids who (shockingly) didn’t give two hoots about modern Bengali poetry and a sound system that muffled the poets’ voices.

Despite all this, the words from Six Bangla Poets rang loud.

Six Bangla Poets has works by Nirendranath Chakraborty, Shakti Chattopadhyay, Jibananda Das, Sankha Ghosh, Arun Mitra and Samar Sen — all men and pillars of modern Bengali poetry. Priced at a refreshingly-affordable Rs 250, this is a neat introduction to modern Bengali poetry, even if it is soaked in poetic testosterone. That Chattarji didn’t include any women in the volume is disappointing and unwittingly reflects how deeply-rooted gender imbalance is in Bengal’s literary canon. That said, let’s cut the gentleman some slack. He’s in his seventies. Some people take up knitting; Chattarji decided to translate works that many would consider untranslatable.

For Chattarji, the poems in this book are old companions. He’s been translating them off and on over the years. It was Sampurna’s idea to compile these into a book. (The striking cover, with its clever use of the Bengali numerical six being overturned to make a “p”, is designed by Dalvi.) The men in the volume are among those who turned Bengali poetry towards a more modern sensibility and a less formal vocabulary, carving the extraordinary out of the ordinary.

It was this modernism that came across in the readings, which ranged from compelling to adequate. Karthika Nair, all soft tones and restraint, needed the audience to listen carefully — the sound system was not her friend. Menka Shivdasani laced her recitations with dramatic flair. Mustansir Dalvi and Jane Bhandari kept their readings simple, choosing their pauses and emphases carefully. The best in show were Jeet Thayil and Ranjit Hoskote.

Those familiar with the originals would have felt a tug of dissatisfaction because there’s a musicality to the Bengali words that English struggles to replicate. For instance, “one with the sky” has none of the dreamy longing of “akashleena”. Instead of trying to recreate that cadence, Chattarji focused on meaning. It’s a pragmatic choice that serves many of the poems in the volume well. For example, even though the English word, jasmine doesn’t have either the smallness or the tender sensuality of the Bengali jui, all the scandalous and transgressive possibilities of Sankha Ghosh’s original poem are intact in this translation:

“Waking up I see

Bites of sharp teeth all over my body

They may turn septic

I just keep thinking: jasmine.”

If you were at the reading, Hoskote’s impeccable diction and aura of unflappable politesse may have distracted you from the fact that this is a poem about sex and sex workers.

That said, Hoskote revealed he is capable of mischief, albeit of a high-art variety, when he and Thayil engaged in a little poetic repartée. Reading Jibananda Das’s ‘One With The Sky’, Thayil filled the outlines of Chattarji’s faithful translation with romance and longing as he spoke of the heartache of a besotted man (who is also, naturally, melancholic. Hashtag: #BecauseBengali). Hoskote took the mic after Thayil and responded with “Come Back Malobika” by Shakti Chattopadhyay. With barely-restrained laughter, Hoskote reproached the imaginary lover for being charmed by “that youth” and entreated her to choose him instead.

Just for a few minutes, it was as though the two poets were wooing not the heroines of the poems, but the audience.

Six Bangla Poets, translated by Chandak Chattarji, Poetrywala, Rs 250.

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