Priya Sarukkai Chabria
Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s latest book is Sing of Life: Revisioning Tagore’s Gitanjali, (Westland). In this brilliant interview sparkling with scholarship, poetry, and insight she discusses and decodes her revisioning of Gurudev Tagore’s Gitanjali.
Widely published, her multi-genre work spans many horizons that include speculative fiction, cross-genre non-fiction, poetry and translations. Priya has experimented with the Sanskrit Rasa theory of aesthetics and ancient Tamil poetics and curated seminars for the Indian Academy of Literature. Her work is in numerous anthologies, books and journals. She has presented her work around the world. She is the Founding Editor of Poetry at Sangam. http://poetry.sangamhouse.org/ and is India Editor for the international poetry anthology Divining Dante. Committed to hybridity, Chabria curated Rasa, Rapture and its Re-enactment for Sahapedia, participated in Fireflies a production of miniature paintings, Bharatanatyam and poetry, co-founded the film society Friends of the Archive, curated seminars for the Sahitya Akademi, was invited to Lucy Writers, University of Cambridge, while residencies include Writers’ Centre, Norwich and Sun Yat-sen University International, China. Awards for her work include Muse Translation Award, Kitab Experimental Fiction Award, Best Reads by Feminist Press and recognition for her Outstanding Contribution to Literature by the Government of India.
Learn more about Priya here: https://www.priyasarukkaichabria.com/
Interview by Usha Akella (2021)
I Open the Window
“I want to hear the Gitanjali in the patois of the present…the experience was like nectar being tipped back into the
flower’s calyx. I was brimming…the intense longing that swarmed through Gurudev when he was writing surged in me
too, almost beyond articulation.”
—Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Sing of Life
Usha Akella: In his Nobel prize acceptance speech Tagore says, “We lost confidence in our own civilization for over a century.”
It seems to me that a wonderful turn is happening in Indian English academia and creative work—the tilling of its own soil. What draws you to the classics? Much of your literary energy is spent on Indian aesthetics and revisioning/rediscovering/translating/reinterpreting/responding to Indian literature; you’ve worked on Andal, Kalidasa and Tagore (which we will explore more fully in a bit.) Comment.
Priya Sarukkai Chabria: As writers, many of us question the given in the present, turn up the soil of the past and peer into the starlit darkness of what may be. When I open the window a mango tree’s branch stretches across my vision. As I marvel at the beauty and wonder of life on and in it, paintings, sculptures and stories told to me about mango trees in at least four Indic languages come back to me. (One never lives in a single continuum of time, does one, unless with the sacred?) As long as I can remember I’ve been reading translations from Sanskrit, various Prakrits and Tamil Sangam literatures; these are in my bloodbeat and breath and push through my words. The esemplastic imagination which is intuitive and unitive and is a characteristic of such literature, is also mine. The human is not perceived as a superior and separate entity to the natural world – which, to me, is an experiential truth. These shape my aesthetics and linage, as do wisdom traditions - bhakti for instance – where the quest is to see the Whole behind the parts, the One within the many.
Working with poetic forms from the past requires repossessing a fragmented history while reclaiming its dominant discourse of power. This is invigorating. It demands investigating their poetics and underlying philosophies then extending contemporary Indian Anglophone writing to accommodate their conceptions of space-time-spirit. In truth, I didn’t deliberate about why I chose to work on Andal, Kalidasa, and Tagore; or earlier when I wrote through Prakrit and Tamil Sangam (2-4BCE) poems and the Jataka Tales etc. Such literatures present fascinating inner geographies which draw me in. This was the intentionality, even if one isn’t conscious of it any more than of one’s pulse.
There’s another reason, too. As authoritarianism is on the rise the world over with its thrust to homogenize our histories, speech and arts, there’s an increased need to forefront the plurality of vision which is built into Indic wisdom literatures. Everything in me rises against exclusivist thinking which is against the pathless path of the spiritual where I journey, stumbling, praying. This path sees connections, commonalities, communion with all that is animate.
UA: The translation format of the Andal book was intriguing in that the two translators, you and Ravi Shankar—instead of reaching a consensus regarding translation—presented each of your versions alongside the original. As a reader I felt the format was making a point about the poetics of translation—translation as suggestion—opening a window to multiple skies of meaning. The necessity of plurality seems to be a point you make in your work whether by content or form. Comment?
PSC: Usha, this is a wonderful observation! Translation as suggested meaning is entirely correct. Offering ‘multiple skies of meaning’ is my aim, especially when translating bhakti poetry. The Andal project was a fortuitous coincidence. I had begun the research before Ravi and I met in New York. He’s an excellent poet so I welcomed his collaboration. Ravi quickly sent in his translation of Andal’s first hymn, Thiruppavai, which was wonderful. But I found ‘my’ Andal wouldn’t use the same words. Her breath rhythms are different! Andal’s prana-shakti, her ‘beingness’, her immense intelligence and intense love that I sensed flowing through me as I worked, was different. I needed to be true to that. At the same time, research on Sangam poetics (2BCE- 4CE) revealed that each verse holds three levels of meaning, of which the first is the literal while the other two needed to be pried out, like twin pearls, by the reader. Isn’t that fantastic! I wanted to bring this opening out into my translations. Therefore it became clear that each of us would independently translate Andal’s songs which will, however, be publish side-by-side. Besides, Andal presents herself to us in multiple personas. Our publisher, Urvashi Butalia of the feminist press Zubaan, immediately agreed that it was imperative we present a kaleidoscope of passionate devotion -- two versions of every song, Ravi’s and mine – to truly hear Andal.
But the deepest reason for me is that wisdom traditions and sacred songs cannot be contained in a version. It’s arrogance to think you’ve put down a definitive translation. The spiritual is too vast and gracious to be contained in any one form, or person.
UA: The Kalidasa poems were combined with the audiovisual medium in a project, The Gathering of Time, Dialogues with Kalidasa. These poems are a response from you to the poet. Comment on what inspired you to work with other mediums to present the poems.
PSC: Kalidasa’s use of simile is precise, startling and beautiful. His poetry lends itself to image making. With ‘The Gathering of Time’ I was fortunate to collaborate with filmmaker and naturalist Saurabh Aggarwal who evolves a layered and languid style to suggest the movement of the seasons. Kalidasa, as you know, is considered ancient India's greatest Classical Sanskrit playwright and poet with good reason. My poem cycle is a response to this court poet’s early work, Rithusamharam / The Gathering of Seasons which draws from the concept of samharam or ‘Great Gathering’ when all matter is drawn back into the body of Siva, its source. Kalidasa’s poem, on the joys of conjugal love, scarcely contains a note of brooding, and is awash with ever-compliant, silent women. I reared against the idea of docile and static female sexuality, of women without agency or the ability to age and experience when the key to the poem is the passage of time.
But this isn’t the first or only time I’ve used the moving image or images in my work. With the poem sequence ‘The Grove’ about the felling of a neighbourhood grove I zoomed into a single image of a tree for almost fourteen minutes – until it vanishes. (I must dig this out of my laptop and post it!) The prayer song, ‘Invocation: Spirit of Water‘ is read over music of the wooden flute played by Vijay Venkatesh. As you are aware, in many Asian aesthetic traditions – the Persian, Indic, Japanese, Chinese and so on-- word and image aren’t divorced from each other but work together to form a continuum of art experience. Putting images to poems seems natural.
UA: Your own poetry savors the visual, it is image dominant, I was taken by ‘Memory’… in poems like ‘Bagan’, ‘Big Mosque’, ‘Figure’—your eye delineates patterns in things, using patterns as an overriding metaphor for poetry, life and the universe. Comment?
PSC: Being a self -taught poet, translator and writer with a grounding in film, painting and dance, I initially lacked a literary ‘toolkit’. Instead, I analysed the characteristic structural devices in these arts to find parallel strategies for my writing. For instance, if a rising camera crane shot suggests compassion through an expanded view, how could I formally recreate this emotion in my poetry? I initially enter the space of my poems and speculative fiction while thinking cinematically for I am a cinephile. For example, does the poem’s space unfold through a tracking shot? I slowly pan across the surfaces, colors and textures of the setting—certainly in the poems you mention, Usha. This also comes from the way one scans miniature paintings, my other great love. Also, frescos in the Ajanta Caves which are not linear but use simultaneous narration, and employ the device of reverse perspective where figures seems to project out of the painting instead of presenting a perspectival view, profoundly impacted my style of narration.
Thank you for this question. We make connections between things that weren’t necessarily seen as linked before—for instance, repetition of pattern in rivers, lungs, trees, the circulatory system—which come from our connectedness to life, wouldn’t you agree? I hold close the underlying concept of Rta which is the ordering principle of nature, ceaseless law of harmony, which gives to everything – from galaxies to atoms—their nature and flow. Rta is also embodied in ecological principles of interdependence, balance, and interrelationship of all life. The seasonal cycles Ritu Chakra are similarly grounded in the principle of harmony and universal order. Humans are a small part of a greater whole. Again, one’s belief systems and subconscious intentionality come into play: if one seeks connections, one sees them, and this appears in one’s work time and again.
Here’s a fragment from Sing of Life which speaks of the approach:
UA: Tagore comments, “It is the east in me, which gave to the west.” From the 1912 first edition published by the India Society, London to Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s revisioning…in your newest book Sing of Life, you dare to take on Tagore in a way that’s not been done before. Your longstanding engagement with Bhakti poetry and its signature qualities of yearning and rapture may have drawn you to his work—in turn tuning you to its frequencies. What in you gives us readers the Gitanjali?
PSC: You are absolutely right. My years with bhakti poetry made me receptive to the Gitanjali’s wonder and yearning, its gaze. Let’s not forget Tagore drew from the mystical songs of the Bauls; the Gitanjali contained it. And rapture made me reckless. I didn’t pause to think of the magnitude of revisioning a book that won the Noble Prize for Literature by a writer who is revered. Neither did I consider risk of failure nor possible criticism—of which, mercifully, none has appeared so far. My experience is bookended by this beautiful verse from the Mundaka Upanishad, 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.”
Samadarshan, (sama = same, darshan = sight/ being seen), equity in the gaze of love, is an experiential principle in the Gitanjali. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t see darkness and despair but that spaces of alignment and reverence constantly open up because all of life, and the planet too, is sacred. I hold to this like breath, as a way to live, or attempt to do so, though I often fail. It was a blessing to work on the Gitanjali because I was on home territory as it were, even while being transformed by the work. Here’s my version of Song 69 which, you’ll notice, brims with samadarshan.
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
The same life is rocked
in the ocean-cradle
of birth and death
My limbs are made glorious
by its touch
My pride is the life-throb
the same life
the same life
the same life
in my blood
UA: Andre Gide perceives the Gitanjali as “uncluttered with mythologies”, throbbing with a passionate life, I am wondering if could there have been a subtle pull to this note of life during a time of death and suffering of the pandemic.
PSC: Sing of Life wasn’t a planned response to the catastrophe. However, perhaps it resounds today with an added resonance and urgency. The Gitanjali rings like a gong struck on a mountain peak which travels through the smoke of pyres and our enormous and unnecessary suffering. It awakens hope, however remote that may currently seem, by presenting to us the parallel and porous universe of
enchantment and sanctity. Readers have written back that Sing of Life helps them cope with loss; it gives them solace. That’s the best gift a writer can get! I’m immensely grateful. Here’s Song 59 from Sing of Life:
This is nothing
This light these
clouds this breeze
on my forehead Light floods
my eyes bends
from above looks
down on my eyes
UA: Life is wondrous in that such serendipity frequently occurs. In an interview with the Hindustan Times, you say, “…when I began Sing of Life I was reading Tagore; by the end I was reading Gurudev.” Comment?
PSC: My respect for Tagore’s vision deepened as I worked. I saw him as a human being who had gone through tragedy – he had lost four family members in quick succession – to emerge with a vision of the immanence of grace. This journey made him not godly, but Gurudev, “Teacher embodying God-like knowledge”. The sobriquet was conferred on him by Mahatma Gandhi.
UA: Tagore was the first translator of the Gitanjali into English. Did you work with the original Bengali poetry at all or grasped it mainly via the English translation? What drove you to tune it back to poetry (in form)? And yet you managed to: “I decide I will not alter his word order, nor interpolate, nor substitute his words.” This is a remarkable self-imposed dictum to prescribe to translation. Can you share examples? In the process you use words decode and recode…
PSC: The celebrated sonorous musicality of Tagore’s Bengali original doesn’t, I’m told, always come through in his English prose-poem translation, though the beauty of his thoughts and imagination takes our breath away. I don’t read Bengali so I worked solely with his translation, in which he rewrote sections of the original. Sing of Life is a work of kalpana-shakti, of imagination’s power working to intuit the essences that hover within the text. It is also a palimpsest, written over and remodelled by Tagore and then revisioned by me. It is also a collage as I rearranged chosen words. What I did was this: chisel into intense new poems the numinous creative substance of the Gitanjali, its mysterious and magnificent spiritual energy.
Sing of Life is a tribute. Therefore, rigour and minimal intervention was my mantra. You are right: I didn’t add a single word or change the order of Tagore’s words, but his prose embroidery fell away. In this sense, Sing of Life is an excavation. Archaic pronouns, valid in Tagore’s time, were substituted with the intimacy of address used by bhakti poets. I also employ present tense throughout to emphasis its living spirit. My response to the Gitanjali‘s layered intensity was that two spatially and connotatively different poems emerged from each one of his prose- poems.
Here is Gurudev’s Song 96. Phrases in bold comprise my first poem, the underlined sections become my second poem.
When I go from hence let this be my parting word, that what I have seen is unsurpassable.
I have tasted of the hidden honey of this lotus that expands on the ocean of light, and thus am I blessed ⎯ let this be
my parting word.
In this playhouse of infinite forms I have had my play and here have I caught sight of him that is formless.
My whole body and my limbs have thrilled with his touch who is beyond touch; and if the end comes here, let it come ⎯
let this be my parting word.
When I go
let this be my parting word—
what I have seen
Am I blessed
In infinite forms I have caught
sight of that formless
with his touch
We know poetry need not be completely understood or decoded, but it recodes the way one looks at life with its intensity, immediacy and creativity. Similarly, one hopes the words will pulse through the reader’s being, recoding their vision.
UA: Your translations bring in the spirit of Haiku and are like Rubik’s cubes wherein a word can slide around to
cohere with another…as if you work with the interlocking of words…
PSC: Thank you, Usha. Decades of reading haiku have come into play for the form that evolved is equally about what is written, and what it invokes in the reader. I intuitively did away with punctuation to portray stutters towards the sacred. For content invokes the form. Tagore of the Gitanjali is to me a 20 th century mystic. Mystics, we know, streak like lightning on the horizon of the liminal, and we race after them to catch the significance of their words. If I recreated my version in complete sentences, this suggests hubris which is oppositional to the spirit of the work. The spaces between words are silences, which I trust will summon introspective, participatory thinking from the reader. You could say it’s an authorial surrender to both the genius of the original text and the reader’s agency. This is important to me.
UA: Yeats, in his introduction to the Gitanjali: “the work of a supreme culture, they yet appear as the grass and the rushes,” “a tradition where poetry and religion are the same thing” and “Mr. Tagore, like the Indian civilization itself, has been content to discover the soul and surrender himself to its spontaneity.” We are much removed from the India that birthed those songs in Tagore’s soil. We are products of the city and the machinery of social media and materialism. Is it the tragedy of our times that Tagore’s message will fall on clogged ears?
PSC: Though meant as praise, Yeats’ stances springs from a certain cultural moment about the mystical ‘Orient’ which abounded in saintly natives, as opposed to the materialistic West. For a start, Indic civilization has brilliant works that are purely secular like the three books ‘Being Good’, Being Politic’ and ‘Being in Love’ that constitute Tiruvalluvar’s Tirukkural (written in Classical Tamil sometime between 2 to 5 BCE) which is venerated as a ‘secular gospel’. Or the erotic council of Gāhā Sattasaī in Maharashtri Prakrit attributed to Ist CE Satavahana king Hala but possibly compiled between the 2 nd and 5 th centuries. Examples are numerous and run through centuries. However, unlike the position of dominance accorded to man over nature in the Abrahamic religions, we find in these literary traditions the human is part of a wider, animated world which includes the animal and vegetal, even the earth itself. Besides, the classics periodically need metaphorical dusting to make them sing afresh because their truths are timeless.
In Song 35, “Where the mind is without fear” Tagore urges us to question unfair societal rules and build a nation based on reason. This is important today, as is his fierce belief in freedom of thought and expression. Again, Tagore’s harmonious relationship with the earth alerts us to treasure our planet. If not, we stare at the consequences of climate breakdown. Wisdom, graciousness and beauty of language run through Tagore’s Gitanjali. I think of my revisioning as another conduit for this spiritually charged song to the earth, and his profound meditation on life’s journey. How this will affect readers is for them to discover. I was in its thrall from page one. Here is Song 1 from Sing of Life:
gives birth to utterance
to these small hands of mine
and still you pour, still
there is room to fill
of a reed
UA: Thank you Priya, this has been an enthralling conversation with you. I must say without intending a pun, my heart is singing inexplicably to hear you speak with such originality and creative sparkle. It’s been transcendental.