Tagore and the Feminine: A Journey in Translations by Malashri Lal — Review by Dr. Subhash Chandra

Malashri Lal, Tagore and the Feminine: A Journey in Translations.(Sage Publications, 2015. Rs. 995. Pages 332)

Translation is a demanding activity. The translator has to be adept in both the source and the target language. Every language has a unique idiom, cultural nuance and syntax which a translator must be fully familiar with. But translating Rabindranath Tagore is more  challenging in view of the complex emotions, philosophical infusions, ideological perceptions and  spiritual ruminations that mark his writings.  No surprise, therefore, that the celebrated poet-writer, Javed Akthar who has translated eight songs of Rabindranath — featured in his album — observes, “So, I can tell you that writing to the tune is not that difficult for me. [But] Translating Tagore is not as easy.”


Tagore and the Feminine

Malashri Lal in her anthology, Tagore and the Feminine: A Journey in Translations spanning diverse genres in which Tagore wrote, viz., Memoirs, Poems, Short Stories, Essays etc., takes up the challenge.



I would respond to the book along three axes: (i) the quality of the translation or rendering of the source texts into the target language, (acknowledging my limitation of knowing only the target language), (ii) the leitmotif that binds the translated pieces together and (iii) the validity of the feminist connotation invested in the idea of ‘feminine,’ or ‘femininity’.



Between the stated positions on translation, that is, zero deviation from the mother text and the translation being creative, I subscribe to the latter, as a literal translation can distort or worse, destroy the mother text. A litmus test for a translation is that it does not attract attention to itself. It has the flow and the rhythm of the original. Tagore and the Feminine eminently succeeds in this mode. This is illustrated by a couple of representative examples, especially the poems, as it is comparatively difficult to translate poetry. To wit, “Bodily union” beautifully communicates a complex emotion – mix of sensual and spiritual yearning of the poet: “My being in every part yearns for yours/The heart’s union beckons the union of our bodies/….My lips wish to melt into your lips (75).  While reading Sophocles, Zola, Flaubert, Brecht or the most recent example, Pamuk, we never think of the originals. The translations in Tagore and Feminine, have the same quality.



Any anthology, in order not to become a jumbled collection needs to have an overarching idea or ideology. Tagore and the Feminine comes through as a coherent and compact work, because the translations revolve around the contemporaneously important idea of ‘femininity.’ From the title, to the cover (to which I will revert) to the translations, ‘Woman,’ in all her aspects and variety  is the binding cord, making the anthology a patterned tapestry. This pattern in the anthology emerges through Tagore’s grappling with the idea of the ‘feminine.’ The influences he absorbed, the relationships he forged, and experiences of lived life seeping into his art add up to a complex,    ambiguous yet lucid and nuanced view of the feminine crystallizing in his works over time.



The use of ‘Feminine,’ in the title seems problematic at a first glance because it denotes ‘delicacy, prettiness’ — traits which define woman qua woman, and position her as an object of the male gaze. It might, therefore, be argued that Tagore’s depiction of woman or the feminine is regressive, but this misreading is the result of using the prism of Western feminist discourse. Tagore was certainly familiar with Western feminism, but he chose to formulate his own conception of woman in which ‘female,’ ‘feminine’ and ‘feminist’ become a ‘continuum’ and in which “the nuances of each slide into the other,” (Introduction: xxxv). In fact, Tagore’s view of the feminine encompasses all the nuances of Western feminism and more, because he took into consideration the Indian cultural context in which ‘mother’ is a venerated icon, motherhood is celebrated and the nation is configured as ‘mother,’ but at the same time woman’s right to gender equality is also asserted.



In Tagore’s oeuvre, several strategies are used in the representation of woman to subvert the entrenched male-centric social order. For instance the poems, Bibasana (Woman unclothed), Staun (Breast), Chumban  (The kiss) and Deher Milan (Bodily union) present an acute and candid understanding of male desire in relation to the female body, which might easily be misconstrued as commodification of woman. However, a close reading brings out the ‘will’ and ‘power’ of the woman who is in control of her sexuality, and who wants mutuality (read it as equality); this invests value in the feminine, undermining the binary of masculine/feminine. Besides, these poems centre female desire and yearning in all their fulsomeness, something pioneering in the literature of the time.



Tagore demolishes the spatial boundaries confining woman and brings her into contact with the world. In his novel, Ghare baire (Home and the World), he redefines the oppressive institution of ‘marriage’ and affords a married woman, in the matter of the heart, “choice’, and in the poem, “Sadharan meye ” (“Ordinary girl”), he empowers woman by giving her ‘voice,’ (“Let me speak about myself” (96) – a voice that is authentic, assertive, and victorious. He questions gender through androgyny – ardhanarishvara — as he recreates female desire, feelings, impulses with felicity and perspicacity, because he speaks through his feminine side. He undermines heterosexuality – a tool of patriarchy to maintain male dominance– by writing about female bonding in times that were avowedly homophobic. (Short story “Streer patra” [Wife’s Letter] 253-265). And most importantly, he pulverizes gender in his choice of the tale of Chitrangada in the Mahabharata as the pre-text for his eponymous dance-drama. In both the texts transgenderism is used as a strategy to posit gender as fluid  — de-linked from sex — much before Judith Butler came up with her concept of performativity. Arjuna as eunuch, Brahannala, in the epic Mahabharata  is at the background to the story of Chitrangada.  In Tagore’s dance-drama Chitrangada is turned into a beautiful woman from being man-like and martial, with the help of Kamadeva’s boon. Through the temporary transformation, she teaches Arjuna the lesson of love that it is based on intrinsic identity, which for her is her preferred ‘male’ role.



Malashri Lal’s anthology is valuable for multiple reasons. It is a unique collection grouped around the expressions of the feminine in Tagore, which is a pioneering effort. Some of the pieces have not been translated before, and a few have been translated again to improve upon the earlier versions. Many well known translators of Tagore, such as, Ketaki Kushari Dyson,  William Radice, Andrew Robinson, Uma Dasgupta, Aruna Chakravarti, Sukanta and Supriya Chaudhuri find place in the book. The comprehensive and polemical Introduction challenges the notion of ‘feminine’ in Western feminism.




The cover is striking and thoughtfully designed. Its symbolism makes it richly evocative. The image of a faceless woman, covered from head to toe, points to the gender politics in the androcentric Indian society — woman’s ossification has effectively divested her of agency – and indicates the trajectory the anthology will traverse.


Subhash Chandra

Dr. Subhash Chandra retired as Associate Professor ofEnglish from University of Delhi. He has published four critical books and several research articles. He has also published short stories in Indian and foreign journals. He is on the Advisory Board of Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific (ANU, Canberra). .