Elodie Barnes talks to poet, translator, and writer, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, about her revisioning of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali, mystical poetry, transformation and translation, and writing as an act of devotion.
Priya Sarukkai Chabria is a poet, translator and writer of ten books of poetry, speculative fiction, literary non-fiction and, as editor, two poetry anthologies. Honours include Muse Translation Award 2017 for Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess, Experimental Fiction Award from The Best Asian Speculative Fiction Kitab Anthology, Clone 2018 Best Reads by Feminist Press, Outstanding Contribution to Literature by the Government of India. She has studied the Sanskrit rasa theory of aesthetics and Tamil Sangam (2-4BCE) poetics, and learnt Pali. Anthology publications include Another English: Anglophone Poems from Around the World, A Book of Bhakti Poetry: Eating God, Adelphiana, Asymptote, PEN International, Post Road, Reliquiae, The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction, The British Journal of Literary Translation, Voyages of Body and Soul: Selected Female Icons of India and Beyond etc. Her latest book Sing of Life: Revisioning Tagore’s Gitanjali (Amazon/ Westland) was published in May 2021. She’s translating the mystic songs of Karaikal Ammaiyar and Manikkavacakar from Classical Tamil. Priya is Founding Editor of the literary journal Poetry at Sangam.
I first met Priya Sarukkai Chabria at a virtual dinner party hosted by Susanna Crossman: a dreamlike hour in which we (along with fellow poets Nancy Campbell and Alina Stefanescu) talked all things poetry across space and time zones. During that party Priya spoke of her latest work, a ‘revisioning’ of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali (Song Offerings), with such passion and beauty that it was impossible not to be intrigued. In her own words, “As I read [the Gitanjali], I was amazed, and deeply grateful and intensely alive; from each of his prose poems words lifted off, phrases, ‘stammers towards the sacred’ which I wrote down. After I’d done all the 103 poems in this manner, I reread his work and found, yes, each prose-poem had another floating miracle of words that could still be excavated, and put down and honoured. It’s a tribute. An experiment.”
A bold experiment. Tagore, after all, is probably the most venerated Bengali writer of all time; a modernist devotional poet, and a legend whose life and work is only just beginning to be, in the words of scholar Sundeep Chakravarti, “tempered with reassessment.” The Gitanjali itself, a work consisting of 103 prose poems in English, reworked and translated from Bengali by Tagore, won the Nobel Prize in 1913. It’s a work of immense beauty, songs to the sacred (however the reader wants to define that term), and so it comes as no surprise that Priya believes her writing in Sing of Life to have been intuited, an experience “like nectar being tipped back into the flower’s calyx”. A work such as this could not have been planned.
The “words [that] lifted off”, and the phrases that came together to form Priya’s own poems in Sing of Life, have not been altered from Tagore’s original in any way. She has not drifted from Tagore’s own progression, and the order of words, phrases and poems has not been changed. As such, Sing of Life could be said to consist of a series of erasure poems, and yet the word ‘erasure’ hints at constraint, at a taking away. These poems, while distilled and shaped on the page, hold no such restraint in their essence. They have a pulse, an aliveness. Stripped of Tagore’s intense lyricism, the words dance with the white space on the page, each poem in two parts (the first from Priya’s initial reading of the Gitanjali, and the second as ‘remainder’ poems, the words that were still left to excavate on second reading) that reminded me of summer rain showers and the raindrops that cling to the leaves afterwards.
I had already read the Gitanjali, once. It had stayed with me as a beautiful, if somewhat wordy, work; I couldn’t remember exact phrases, but the feeling of it remained even after several years. It was also the only one of Tagore’s major works that I had read. And perhaps this was the best way to come to Sing of Life, without any preconceptions or attachments. The poems are still essentially Gitanjali, but with a new life, a new vision behind them. Isn’t that how all literature is kept alive, for new readers and new generations? For context, and for those that want to delve into Tagore’s own writings, the original Gitanjali is included in the book (as is W. B. Yeats’ original introduction to it), but there is no need of any knowledge of the Gitanjali, or of Tagore himself. Sing of Life stands on its own.
I was fortunate enough to be able to sit down with Priya over Zoom to talk about Sing of Life, Tagore, and the Gitanjali. It was an experience akin to sitting down with an old friend, someone with whom conversation flows no matter the distance or time that has elapsed. We wove around so many different threads that it was impossible to separate them out, and so here is our conversation (almost) in full.
E: First of all, can I say what a wonderful experience it’s been reading Sing of Life, both the poems themselves and your wonderful introduction to them. With the first words of the introduction you place the reader with you, in a cafe in Himachal Pradesh, surrounded by mountains and sunlight, and completely enraptured by a copy of Tagore’s Gitanjali which you found while having coffee. But this was not your first time of reading it.
P: That’s right. I first read the Gitanjali while in school, like many Indian children. I thought then that it contained much beautiful sentiment, but the heavily embroidered phrases put me off! Perhaps I was too young. When I read it again it took me by surprise. The words sprang out, and I received it in a way I hadn’t before.
I think there’s a time for everything – a time to reap and a time to sow and so on – and there’s a time for a book too. There are two aspects to this: the first is how the text opens to receive the reader, and the other is how the reader sees the text. The idea of reciprocal seeing is familiar in the context of finding one’s guru – each sees and recognizes the other – and I think something similar happens with books. Some invite you in, others push you out. This time I saw much passion in the text: it was almost a presence that uncoiled into me and took me by the neck.
E: Do you think your previous readings of the Gitanjali were also influenced by Tagore’s reputation, and the standing that he has?
P: I don’t think so. I don’t remember feeling intimidated. When I began work, I was in a state of rapture that transcended any thoughts about the gravity of what I was taking on. I didn’t think of Tagore’s standing, or the fact that the Gitanjali won the Nobel Prize; I didn’t stop to ask what I, a non-Bengali, was doing revisioning this text that is almost sacrosanct! No, I didn’t think of any of that, I just plunged in.
E: There are two lovely quotes in the introduction, firstly from Tagore’s translation of the Upanishads: “From joy does spring all this creation, by joy it is maintained, towards joy does it progress, and into joy does it enter.” And secondly, your own words on Tagore writing “about the act of writing…and on making music, while, in a sense, being made into music himself.” Both of these made me think about the physical act of writing as an act of devotion – not just the words that come out of the writing, but the act itself.
P: That’s a beautiful interpretation! Joy bookends my experience of working on the Gitanjali. Writing becomes like prayer, doesn’t it? It’s visceral, completely involving the body. While writing I notice that I shut off certain senses. I don’t hear, for example, my mobile ringing. My body and breath’s rhythms change as I push through the mesh of words. The experience is very intense.
E: There’s also an acknowledgment that devotion isn’t always easy! You write that, “Some of the poems spilled like blessings. Others were like lip-splitting experiences, tasting of blood and birth.”
P: Yes! Mystics go through ecstasy, which is followed by the despair of separation. These cycles appear time and again in mystical poetry, and the Gitanjali is no exception. Tagore wrote parts of the book while his favourite daughter was critically ill, and continued working on it after suffering the death of close family members. Darkness is an undertone of its music. Possibly because of the pain, his sense of self becomes decentered, inclusive and expansive. His grief extends into the world, and extending, transmutes into gratitude and wonder at life – of which he sees himself as a tiny part. As a writer working on this book, and devotional poetry in general, that’s exhilarating.
E: There’s a lovely conjunction between openness and intimacy. The searching and the struggle is very personal, but the ego as we know it isn’t there. I think it’s quite rare outside of the devotional genre.
P: I agree with you. This genre of literature is always much larger than one’s self, context, or time. It’s a space of many truths which the seeker can relate to. And I think it also shows that the guru can be anywhere. A stone could be a guru, or the running of the water in a stream, or a mountain, or a poem. Wisdom literature offers a tremendous ‘opening-out’, wouldn’t you agree?
E: I do. I also love the idea, and very much agree with it, that the guru can be anywhere or anything. I did my yoga teacher training in an ashram, with a traditional lineage, and images of the gurus were all around. But we were also surrounded by so much natural beauty, which for me seemed to give a much deeper meaning to all the spiritual teachings. It made me think that teaching and teachers are everywhere.
P: Beautifully put. I remember you told me about reading the Gitanjali by the sea and how it reminds you now of water – and I also love your idea of the poems as raindrops.
E: That image came to me so vividly as I was reading Sing of Life; of the first poems as like beautiful rain showers, and then the second poems – I think you called them ‘remainder poems’ – as like the raindrops that cling to the leaves afterwards.
P: It makes me think of the transience of words and of life, and of how the Gitanjali shifts and moves on its journey. I hadn’t contemplated it that way before. When working I never quite know why I make certain decisions beyond that it seems right. It’s only later that I try to figure out the experience. I think that’s true for many writers.
E: I read one of your previous interviews in which the interviewer suggested that you’d ‘immersed’ yourself in the Gitanjali in order to write Sing of Life, and you said that the word ‘immersed’ didn’t feel quite right. As a reader, it didn’t feel quite right to me either. It brought me back once more to my teacher training: I did a month-long immersion course, and I felt like I’d gone through the washing machine on a hot spin cycle. I left the ashram at the end of it wondering what on earth had just happened, and it took a long time to process things and put myself back together! But it definitely changed me. It made me wonder whether it was a similar experience for you, re-reading the Gitanjali, and revisioning it in Sing of Life.
P: Absolutely. I was thinking about this before we met – I know this has been transformative, but how so? What happened, and what is happening now that the writing is over? As you said about yourself, it will take a long time to process, but I’ve already noticed that I’m more curious about states of consciousness. What is the state of consciousness of a bee entering a flower, for example, or of the person in the car next to yours who is driving to work? Each one of us is locked in our consciousness, and I think, as writers, we’re always trying to break that barrier down, to hear the unsaid and the silences around words. Perhaps we’re always trying to translate that and put it into the writing.
Beyond that, I think the single strongest emotion I have is of gratitude, for being able to work on the Gitanjali, and being able to work on it at a time when there’s so much suffering. It’s not a counterbalance to what’s going on in the world, but it’s something.
E: Parts of both the Gitanjali and Sing of Life remind me very much of Rilke’s Book of Hours, which I find I read when I want to take a moment away from the fear and anger of the world today. I agree that it’s not a counterbalance, but it seems to me that poetry can be more like an invitation to remember love and trust. Would you agree?
P: My experience too! Poetry can be like dawn, a waking up, even if just for a few moments. People have written to say that Sing of Life has helped them in these difficult times. That’s such a gift, the greatest gift a writer can receive, and it’s thanks to Tagore who gifted us his book.
E: I’d like to pick up on what you said about letting silence speak around the words. It comes across so beautifully in Sing of Life, where you make so much use of the space on the page. Did you intend that, or did the words fall that way?
P: Years ago, when I began writing, I would work on structuring my poems. But now the content invokes the form. Of course I edit to chisel, sharpen, but most often the poem arrives in the way it wants to be written. It may sound romantic and mystical, but this work was intuited, and we know intuition is volatile and unmappable. I think the silences inherent in the poems made their way in, between words as pauses drifting across the page.
But it’s never one thing, is it? The Gitanjali is an expansive text. The countryside it evolves from is largely that of rural Bengal; vast fields, forests, slow-flowing rivers, enormous open spaces. Geography funnels into the writing. I guess I didn’t want to trap that sense of vastness with periodic punctuations. I felt very strongly about not using punctuation. Also, there’s a deep intentionality that one isn’t consciously aware of but which is part of one’s being. Once you take out all the commas and the full stops and the colons and the semicolons, not only are you slowing the reader down, which is very important to me, but you are also handing a certain amount of power to the reader. It allows them to punctuate the poem their way, according to individual reading and breathing patterns. They enter the text and make it their own, and that’s something I want across all my work.
E: Does that also link to your study of rasa theory? I don’t know much about it, but I believe a central idea is that the reader (or the viewer of a performance) brings their own emotional state of mind to the text, making it very individual to them.
P: You’re right. Rasa theory is a complex and sophisticated Sanskrit codification of aesthetics primarily meant for the performing arts. It’s been added to down the centuries, but what remains with me are two points. The first is that the reader equally makes the text through the way she inhabits it, imagines it and draws significance. The second is the intensity it accords to ‘main’ emotions – how to draw this out, enhance it, stay with it. I found that very useful in my fiction, where I move the characters along an emotional journey rather than through planned plot development. A character may be angry, for example, and I’ll intensify and follow the ‘beingness’ of anger till I discover that it changes and moves to sorrow perhaps, and from there to compassion. I write by following the logic or natural course of these intense emotions.
In working on the Gitanjali, I also had Tamil Sangam ( that’s 2BCE to 4BCE) poetics in mind which I’ve worked with for my translations of sacred verse from Classical Tamil. It’s marvellously allusive as it uses metonyms, not similes and metaphor. Firstly, outer geographies are representative of inner landscapes. (For instance, if the persona in the poem is talking about the desert, she is conveying how bereft she is without ever mentioning that her lover is away. The literate reader was expected to make the connection because of the reference to the desert.) Secondly, besides the literal meaning, the reader is expected to discover two hidden levels of meanings in each verse. I like that! It’s a little like the four levels of Hebrew exegesis. The writer constructs meanings, as does the reader by allowing her imagination full play, leading to a text that is incredibly deep and multi-layered. All of this was especially important to me in writing Sing of Life, because I don’t know how you can write the sacred with absolute surety. There has to be that element of freedom of interpretation. Do you agree?
E: Absolutely, and I think that idea of the reader making the text is so important in devotional literature. Everyone will bring their own level of devotion to it as they’re reading and, in that spirit of reciprocity that we talked about earlier, the text will come to the reader wherever they are.
P: I think so. Without the white spaces in the text, there would be too much of a sense of closure, too much of an assumption that this is the way it has to be. No, you want the text to live! It’s only through stutters that we can approach the sacred, not through something complete and definitive.
E: Talking of inner and outer geographies makes me think of the huge presence of the natural world in both the Gitanjali and Sing of Life. I love the first words of the introduction, where you describe the space in which you first read the Gitanjali – ‘snow capped mountains, wheeling paragliders, crisp sunlight’. It instantly places it in what sounds like a stunning landscape, and the natural world is such a strong melody running through the songs. I particularly love the oneness that’s evoked, and how the poems bring human and nature and the divine together in an equality of love until there is no difference. I’m thinking particularly of Song 69, which is one of my favourites:
“The same stream of life that runs
through my veins runs through the world
The same life that shoots
through dust in blades of grass and
breaks into leaves and flowers…”
Would you go so far as to call it a kind of ecopoetics?
P: Song 69 is one of my favourites as well! This contemplation of life is magnificent, but it’s also a part of the bhakti tradition which Tagore was deeply influenced by. Ecopoetics is a more recent term, linked with the harm we – the anthropocene – are causing to the Earth. While Tagore did raise his voice against industrialisation, it’s not accurate to term his work as eco-poetics.
As you say, though, there is the concept of samadarshana, the levelling gaze of love which is so important in the bhakti tradition (‘sama’ means ‘same’, ‘darshan’ means ‘sight’.) Tagore also drew from the Vedic concept of rta, which is the ordering principle of the cosmos that applies to everything, whether an atom or a galaxy. Under this principle there is an interdependence, a web of connections between everything. All of nature speaks. The entire cosmos is animate. It puts us humans in a very small place, which I adore! Many wisdom traditions do this.
E: It brings me back to that sense of openness. Shifting our perspective so that we are not balancing on top of a very precarious pyramid, but are one among many, opens up so many more possibilities. Imagining ourselves at the top of some hierarchy has closed us off from the world and has done a lot of damage, and will continue to do so until – or unless – we change our way of thinking.
P: Seeing ourselves as such has led to ruthless greed and darkness, I think. How can we claim that we are good parents or ancestors when we are leaving our children with climate disasters, a world stripped of natural resources? This is what I rise in opposition to in my work, and why I feel Tagore’s nobility of thought in the Gitanjali is so significant for us today. I was very much struck by that even when I researched Tagore’s life.
E: You said in the introduction that many of Tagore’s views on the theories of translation coincided with your own, and also chimed with how you approached Sing of Life.
P: The research threw up a wonderful surprise! I’m not a Tagore scholar, but what I do now know about his views resonates wonderfully. At a time when translation was viewed by most scholars as a helpful tool for learning languages, he believed it to be a creative practice. And he also spoke of the need to rewrite a text as you translate. It’s an intrinsic part of the Indic tradition to have several versions of the same text – even with sacred texts – in circulation, not a definitive version. That’s liberating.
There’s a lovely story about an Indian classical musician, who sang with one arm stretched out to the sky and the other held as a clenched fist against his heart. When he was asked why he sang in this way, he replied that he was letting the music go with one hand, while controlling and shaping it with the other. That’s a path that many writers and translators follow: you have to let the text go at the same time as shaping it in a way that is true, and that was very much my path with Sing of Life. I worked on it like a translation. It’s also a palimpsest, because Tagore himself rewrote it and translated it from Bengali, which I’ve written over. I hope there will be others who will take it further, because that’s how writing lives – although of course plagiarism is absolutely a no. That’s disrespectful both to the original author, and to the reader who may want to explore that author’s work further. But there is the flexibility to be creative, to explore possibilities, to stay true to the intent of the original work and still create something new as a tribute. And that’s what Sing of Life is, a tribute to the Gitanjali and to Tagore.
I also quote a letter of Tagore’s in the introduction, which he wrote to his niece in 1894. It speaks of knowing people “only in dotted outline, that is to say, with gaps in your knowledge which we have to fill in ourselves, as best we can.” Perhaps that’s all that’s expected of us, to fill in the gaps as best we can, and that’s enormously freeing.
E: It is. I also love the idea of allowing for so many different versions of a text. It reminds me of something you said at Susanna’s dinner party, that every poem can be a raft for someone else’s words. All these different versions help to keep the work alive for new readers, but it can also spark something entirely new. Sing of Life, for me, is both: it’s a tribute to the Gitanjali, and I don’t think it would have come to life in the way that it has without the Gitanjali, but it also stands alone.
P: Many, many, thanks, Elodie! Tagore’s Gitanjali is included in its entirety at the end of Sing of Life because I wanted readers to know the work. I wanted them to know the process, the way it happened, and where Sing of Life came from. Those special, sacred moments in reading and writing are not just mine alone. And if someone else wants to build their own raft, they must do it. As Song 103 says so beautifully:
“let my songs gather and flow to a sea of silence
in one salutation”
Sing of Life: Revisioning Tagore’s Gitanjali by Priya Sarukkai Chabria is published by Westland Books, and is available to order online. See more of Priya’s work via her website and follow her on Twitter @PriyaChabria.