Lapping up Indian literature
TO MANY of us, Latvia is one of the small countries in northern Europe near the Baltic Sea with a population of just two million. But the flip side is a veritable bag of surprises of the literary kind. For a change, India is not conjured up by Latvians as an exotic land of storytellers and snake charmers suddenly awakened to the demands of cyber realities and in possession of indigenous nuclear warheads. By mid-19th century, Latvian scholars agreed upon the similarities between Latvian and Sanskrit languages and also between the mythologies and folklores of Latvia and India.
The Indologists of Latvia found in Rabindranath Tagore a great treasure. A nine-volume translation of Tagore's works was published between 1925 and 1939 in Latvia. Prof. Viktors Ivbulis who belongs to that erudite clan has shown an abiding interest in the works of Tagore by writing articles and books on him for more than three decades.
Ivbulis was in Chennai recently on a two-week exchange programme sponsored by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, of the Ministry of External Affairs. Under the current programme he had already visited New Delhi and Bangalore and before proceeding to Calcutta met a group of Tamil writers and chatted with them on a wide range of topics of mutual interest and a subject of special interest to him, namely Tagore.
In 1986, Tagore's 125th birth anniversary was celebrated with great fanfare by writers and artistes of Latvia. Elza Radzina, a famous stage actress recited on stage Tagore's lines (from "The Gardener" which is more popular than `Gitanjali' in Latvia), and hold your breath, she was wearing saris during her recitations. On that occasion, Ivbulis's translation of Tagore's plays `Raja' and `Chitrangada' were staged a number of times to appreciative audiences.
Was it the Nobel Prize that kindled in the Latvian literati an interest in Tagore?
Ivbulis comes up with an elaborate answer. "Sir William Jones's translation of Sakuntala appeared in 1789. Europe, which was then trying to develop romanticism, saw in it a culmination of their aspirations. The translation profoundly influenced the Oriental scholars in Germany and Latvia was long under the dominance of Germany. Love for Sanskrit plays came through German Imperialism in the 19th century. Tagore became popular in the 1920s after the Nobel award and he was thought of as a mystic. But we saw him as one among ourselves. We always see India close with brotherly attachment. Our freedom struggle is also not different from that of India."
Ivbulis has heard about Bharatiyar. Ivbulis envisages a great role for translation in not just introducing the work to new readers. He thinks that an author should be frequently translated and this will help re-orient the author in the minds of those who savour his skewed image. Ivbulis translated Tagore's Ghare Baire (Home and the World) into Latvian, which sold 5,000 copies in a few months. He is also the first Latvian scholar to translate the works of Tagore from the Bengali originals.
Has the love for Indian literature stopped with Tagore? Not by any means if the works of R. K. Narayan and Arundhati Roy which are currently being translated into Latvian are any indication.
How do writers fare in Latvia? "When we were under repression during Soviet rule there were many professional writers who were paid well. Perhaps their number was 25. But now in free Latvia only a few writers can thrive through writing." Ivbulis, however, sees a silver lining in that promising young writers have just started appearing on the scene.
Ivbulis is no full time writer either though his output is prolific. He teaches Literary Theory and post-modernism and heads the chair of Oriental Studies in the University of Latvia.
Besides Latvian, his mother tongue, he has written in Russian among others `The creative writings of Rabindranath Tagore' a prize winning work and in English `East and West the interaction of Cultures.' He is very familiar with Bengali, French and German and has a nodding acquaintance with Spanish (``I can read it with dictionary"). Sixty-eight year old Ivbulis has frequently visited India and loves to travel by train and overcrowded buses to know Indians well.
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