Rabindranath Tagore’s poems on childhood are as precious as childhood itself. Through Gulzar’s delicate translation of the verses set to Shantanu Moitra’s tender music, the world of the child will evoke nostalgia and tickle, cheer and surprise audiences at the Citi NCPA Aadi Anant Festival.

By Snigdha Hasan

It is not easy to inhabit the world of a child. Inquisitiveness is just around the corner, for the young mind is always grappling with the bizarre rules of adults. There is unabashed candour because the fear of consequences is still unknown. Untainted innocence, for there is no room for pretence. An unworldly way of looking at the world which, for many, fades with time. Tagore was a gurgling exception who let the child within coexist with the polymath. He wrote his first poem when he was eight and in his middle age, as if in renewed admiration of childhood, published Shishu, a collection of poems on a child’s world written with such sensitivity, it dissolves all barriers of age.

I find my answer to the deceptive effortlessness of leaving behind one’s baggage of adulthood in another of Tagore’s works, ‘Poet’s Age’:

It is a trifle that my hair is turning grey.
I am ever as young or as old as
the youngest and the oldest of this village.
Mere pakne lage hain baal, par un par nazar kyon hai?
Mohalle ke jawano aur buzurgo mein,
Sabhi ki umra ka, hamumra hoon main.

This translation by Gulzar is not just a fine example of his mastery of language but his endorsement of the malleability of the poet. How otherwise could Gulzar have embarked on the task of opening up the pearls of Shishu strung together in Bangla to readers of Hindustani through his endearing transcreation, Nindiya Chor?

“Understanding Tagore has been a lifelong process,” says the celebrated poet-lyricist and filmmaker on a balmy afternoon in late November at his residence, where he is joined by well-known composer Shantanu Moitra. As the flow of creativity goes, six of Tagore’s 30 poems on the world of the child that Gulzar translated have now been adorned with music by Moitra. The unique outcome, Tapur Tupur (pitter patter), will be presented at the Aadi Anant festival at the NCPA in January. Reverence for each other’s processes of translation and composition, and an abiding love for the Bard of Bengal has brought the two minds together, not for the first time.

Little bursts of joy and poignancy await the reader in Gulzar’s choice of words, starting with the titles of the poems in Nindiya Chor/The Crescent Moon (Harper Perennial, 2016), a rare compilation of poems in Bangla, English (both versions by Tagore) and Hindustani.

‘Defamation/Apayash’ becomes ‘Nuktacheeni’. ‘Vocation’, on the child’s desire to embrace every profession he has ever come across, gets a touch of Ghalib with ‘Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi’. Tagore expresses a father’s amazement at the simplicity of his child’s playtime with: ‘In my frill canoe I struggle to cross the sea of desire/and forget that I too am playing a game.’ In Gulzar’s alchemy, it becomes: ‘Ichchha mein tair ke ichccha hi mein laut ke fir se/ Apni naav bahata hoon.’

The overwhelming feeling that there couldn’t have been a better Hindi equivalent which greets the reader emanates from Gulzar’s journey with Gurudev, since the day he borrowed his book from a local library as a schoolboy. “In the course of life, when I started appreciating Bangla in the company of Bengali friends—and there is nary a Bengali who hasn’t read Tagore—I realised that the Urdu translation that introduced me to Tagore and the many I came across later were not good enough. Thus began the quest for better translations. I soon knew I wanted to present to people Tagore’s poems translated from the Bangla, not English,” recalls Gulzar, who had also started translating Kusumagraj and Dilip Chitre from Marathi into Hindustani. “By this time, I had learnt Bangla, so I could understand the meaning but the feel for the words still evaded me. Every language has its own culture, after all. To translate into Hindi and Urdu, I had to evaluate my own linguistic prowess and determine if my Hindustani had the strength to be worthy of Tagore. To arrive at the hope that this may turn out to be all right took a good 80 years.”

Trepidation can indeed be a rewarding emotion. A few years ago, Moitra collaborated with Gulzar to give music to Baaghban/The Gardener, another collection of Tagore’s poems that the lyricist had translated. For Moitra, composing music for something of this nature had had no precedent in his career spanning several decades in the music industry. “Gulzar in Conversation with Tagore took us four years. First came the question of which poems to choose. You see, Tagore was a composer too, so we only picked those poems that he hadn’t given music to himself. I would then work on the original in Bangla, come up with a composition, bring it to Gulzar Saab and he would then take his translation to fit it in with the music. We kept chiselling at the words and music until the poetry transformed into lyrics,” he shares, before taking a moment to dwell on the luxury of deliberation the project came with. “This is unbelievable, especially from the world of films and albums that we come from. There is no scope for such a process because I write the tune for Gulzar Saab’s own words or he writes the lyrics for my music. Here’s a third character in this story who towers over all of us. As you can tell, this was a daunting task.”

This prior experience helped shape Tapur Tupur. Gulzar attributes the trilingual possibilities of the book, which forms the foundation of the programme they will present at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, to publisher Udayan Mitra. Sanchari Mookherji, who worked closely with Gulzar in the process of translation, was introduced to him by Moitra. The composer uses the Bangla word aantarik (hearty/cordial) to describe the bond among people who have become a part of this project.

For Gulzar, the bond with Tagore has followed its own trajectory. He illustrates the idea with another literary example. “When I first read Premchand’s ‘Eidgah’ in school, my eyes welled up, for it reminded me of my mother’s reddened wrists while making rotis in the tandoor. In college, I read it through the lens of village life and poverty. Much later, while making a film on it, I got a grasp of the economics of the country through ‘Eidgah’. This is also what happens when you approach a poem at different times in life. Your knowledge of and through it grows too.”

When he was at ease with Tagore’s verses, Gulzar helped put Moitra at ease too. “One day, Gulzar Saab told me, ‘Imagine we are in Gurudev’s company. Let him hear the dhun you have brought. We are doing his work. His approval is important.’ And immediately, the perspective changed. Tagore was not traditional. He had broken every wall in his lifetime. Why should I feel tied down to a structure? That process for me was life changing,” reveals Moitra.

Tagore had some favourite notes and instruments. Moitra kept those in mind. The preludes and interludes are an ode to Rabindra Sangeet and everything else flows from there. The 90 minutes of Tapur Tupur will include songs interspersed with Gulzar’s sonorous recitation of poems and recounting of anecdotes, some of which he generously shares with us on the November afternoon that segues into his own poems for his grandson. There is mirth and laughter and a very tangible thread that ties together Gurudev, Gulzar and the world of a child. “You have to be involved with children. You have to be interested in their world,” he says.

“Tagore was not a child but an adult when he wrote these poems. I always feel that these are not children’s poems. These are for adults, telling us that we need to learn from children. They are a reminder of that innocence. And this is why there will be kids onstage, but it is mainly adults who will sing—Shaan, Mahalakshmi Iyer, Rekha Bhardwaj,” Moitra says. “This evening is very special to me, and I am sure to Gulzar Saab too. Because we are paying tribute to the great Tagore. And through Tagore and the topic of children, we will get to know ourselves and the world a little better.”


This article was originally published in the January 2024 issue of the On Stage.