The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, September 21, 2003

Duggalís comic attempt at translating Kabir
Rana Nayar

So Spake Kabira
by Kartar Singh Duggal. UBSPD. Pages 201. Price not stated.

So Spake KabiraOF late, there has been a sudden spurt in the intellectual and critical interest in Kabir as a poet. In 2002, Linda Hess and Shukdeo Singh had published a critical edition of his poetry in English rendering, The Bijak of Kabir (OUP). Some three years ago, Winand M. Callewaert, Swapna Sharma and Dieter Taillieu had come out with The Millenium Kabir Vani: A Collection of Pad-s and now we have K. S. Duggal, an eminent Punjabi writer, exerting his skills as a translator of Kabirís padas and shlokas.

Though this might appear to be a recent phenomenon, interest in Kabir actually dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. Incidentally, it was Tagore who first made some 100 poems of Kabir available in English translation in 1915, though the credit for translating his entire Bijak must go to Rev. Ahmad Shah, who didnít publish his work until 1917. Itís another matter that Ahmad Shahís translation, being of extremely poor quality, would easily pale into insignificance in comparison with the poetic elan, eloquence and sweep that characterises Tagoreís translation. Although Linda Hess believes that "Kabir is the most translatable of non-modern Indian poets," the history of Kabir translations appears to suggest otherwise.


Kabirís poetry is as enigmatic as his life was. Often it becomes difficult to segregate the social reformer from the mystic, the Hindu Vaishnavite from the Muslim Sufi Saint, the worshipper of nirguna from the iconoclast of all tradition, ritual and ceremony. Itís almost as if each reader discovers his own Kabir, and discovers his own ways of accessing his poetry as well. No wonder, his entire poetry has come down to us in form of three recensions; the eastern or Bijak, the western (Rajasthani) or Pancvani and the Punjabi, which being the oldest, is to be found in the Adi Granth.

In his So Spake Kabira, K. S. Duggal has chosen to limit himself only to the Punjabi recension ó the Kabir he almost grew up with as an integral part of his Sikh cultural heritage and legacy and therefore, the Kabir he perhaps knew the best of all. Duggalís contention in his introduction is that Guru Arjan Dev selected only 237 shlokas and 227 padas for inclusion in the Adi Granth, whereas in his study Sant Kabir (1947), R. K. Verma had suggested that it has more than 243 shlokas and 221 padas.

While this controversy continues, itís not the scholarly credentials of Duggal that are at stake here but essentially his skills as a translator. Admittedly, his task as a translator is made formidable by a number of qualities that essentially account for the rich variety of Kabirís now gently persuasive concerns and now acerbic and caustic ways, reflected in a highly individualised poetic texture, voice and teasers. The oral quality of his songs, his use of a localised dialect, his habit of addressing the reader intimately and directly, his extensive borrowings from the folk tradition/wisdom, and his engaging, rather enigmatic way of overturning the accepted and/or the normal could easily become any serious translatorís nightmare.

While Duggal does talk at some length of Kabirís philosophy and vision as a poet, he refuses to share his understanding of the critical issues he may have encountered while translating Kabir. One rarely ever comes across such critical naivete as Duggal has wittingly or unwittingly shown. However, one wouldnít mind it terribly if it were not to have any repercussions on the quality of his translation, which, sadly enough, it does have. It appears as if Duggalís main concern is to capture the rhyme and if need be, even at the cost of sense and/or meaning. Not only is his sense of rhyme tied up with the 18th-century poetry of Alexander Pope et al but also his language and diction, and sometimes it makes his effort appear almost comic, even ludicrous. For instance, consider: "You are the ocean of water, Iím a fish/I live in water, without water I finish.", and "Lord! Do save me from the agony/Of burning in fire and living in motherís tummy".

And when he takes liberties with the rhyme and rhythm, weíre virtually inundated with eminently disposable prolixity and inane redundancy. For example: "Brothers! It is the gale of enlightenment/Which has demolished the tenements of doubt/And the hold of maya humbled". Of course, the brusque directness, austere simplicity of Kabirís style and his enviable economy of expression appear to be issues beneath the translatorís attention. Though comparisons are often odious, it would be instructive to compare Duggalís translation with that of Nirmal Dassí Songs of Kabir from the Adi Granth (Albany, NY State University Press, 1991).

It would have been much better if Duggal sahib had taken a leaf out of Aijaz Ahmedís very innovative and experimental way of negotiating the translations of Ghazals of Ghalib (OUP, 1994), something that any translator of poetry, especially that of medieval, pre-modern, even modern, must, of necessity, read and profit from.