Sunday, February 29, 2004


The untranslatable Kabir
B. S. Thaur

Kabir: The Weaverís Songs
translated by Vinay Dharwadker. Penguin Books. Rs 295. Pages 304.

Kabir: The Weaverís SongsTHERE is an old saying about Kabirís verses: "Tatt Kabira Kahi, Sura Kahi Anoothi, Bachi Khuchi Tulsi Kahi, Auran Kahi Sabha Joothi (What Kabir had said is essence, what Surdas said was unusual. What remained of the two was picked up by Tulsidasa and what all others said was only a repetition)." In this context, the subject matter of this book, Kabir, appears both easy and difficult for the translator.

Easy because Kabir is so "talked about and widely quoted" a saint-poet that an ample material on him is available. Difficult because besides writers in general, Kabir has been a subject matter of noted scholars like Dr Hazari Prasad Dvivedi and celebrities like Rabindra Nath Tagore. Any new author to be in line, therefore, has to come with something offbeat.

In this context, it has to be admitted that Vinay Dharwadker has acquitted himself admirably in that he has chosen only to translate into English the selected verses of Kabir: Shlokas from The Adi Granth, Sakhis from Kabir Granthavali, Sakhis from Bejak and poems from Kabirís northern, western and eastern texts. The translated stuff evidences that he has the knack and proper skill for translating especially the verses of a saint of the stature of Kabir, who finds the first place among the saints whose bani has been included in The Adi Granth, holy book of the Sikhs. The language used in translation is simple and its nuances clearly carry the theme, genre, substance and verve of the original verse. The translator justifiably derives a whiff of self-elation, rating his strategy to be similar to Russian Scholar Vladimir Nabokovís English rendition of Alexander Pushkinís classic Russian verse novel, Eugene Onegin.

In his Translatorís Note, Vinay has written that Kabir is regarded as the first major poet in Hindi, earliest poet of the Bhakti Movement in Hindi literature and the Adi-Sant in the sant parampara of north India, a multi-faceted tradition of philosophical, theological and social argument that began to dismantle the structure of classical Hinduism around the 15th century and replace these with a new architecture of ideas.

Vinay says that Kabir has been a primary influence on the early Sikh Gurus and, hence, has played an important role in the formation of Sikhism as a distinctive antithetical religion. Since the words and verses of the Sikh Gurus have long been established and regarded as from the Ultimate Reality and not considered within the scope of the human intellect, the no-so-liberal in the Sikh faith may not agree with the translator on this, though the views may be out of a deep study of the Kabir era and texts.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part, besides Kabirís poetry and his world, also explains Vinayís strategies as editor, translator and critical commentator. The second part contains translation of poems preserved in Kabirís name. The third part consists of the translatorís notes to the poems pointing out all the variants of the original as well as the previous English translations with critical comments. The fourth part contains a note on transliteration, the glossary and bibliography.

The material has been drawn from 11 languages and dialectsóSanskrit, Arabic, Farsi (Persian), modern Hindi and Urdu and the older forms of Avadhi, Bhojpuri, Braj Bhasha, Rajasthani, Khari Boli and Punjabi.

The Translatorís Note and Introduction show the gigantic effort involved in bringing out this small paperback. An assiduous pursuit invested with personal erudition of the translator is abundantly in attendance in the production. The book is a uniquely valuable addition to what already exists on Kabir and should prove an asset to the students of religion. It should have its suitable space in the libraries not only in India but also abroad.

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