Translating Bhupen Hazarika’s songs is a labour of love: Syed Ahmed Shah

Music maestro Bhupen Hazarika’s message of universal love and compassion is addressed to the entire humanity and hence it deserves a wider audience. “Translation is the only way to achieve it,” says Syed Ahmed Shah whose book on the translations of Bhupen Hazarika’s songs is forthcoming. The Thumb Print talks to the translator and writer on his endeavour.

Syed Ahmed Shah was born in Shillong and educated in various schools across the Brahmaputra Valley. He is an officer in the Department of Customs. During his school days he used to write crime stories regularly in Bismoi, a popular digest magazine published from Guwahati. During his tenure as a Customs officer posted in the Indo-Bangla border he had taken up translating popular Hindi film songs and poetry to kill the silence of his lonely evenings. He had translated quite a number of Zikirs and realised to his surprise that he was good at it. What started as a pastime became his passion and he was like a man possessed. He has two published works to his credit. One is a translation of poems written by Rousanara Begum and the other is an original collection of poems titled Lipstick and Other Prisons.

Photo credit: Ruprekha Goswami

What prompted you to translate Bhupen Hazarika’s songs?

SAS: It is a labor of love; a return gift. Why me, ask any Assamese, he or she would tell you how Dr. Bhupen Hazarika has been part of our collective consciousness. He means more to me as his songs served as ‘background score’ to my insignificant life. From my childhood, through my youth, right up to the present age, for every situation, at every crossroad, growing up, falling in love, searching a livelihood, extra personal concerns, dilemmas, heartbreaks, hopes, every happy and sad memory so much intertwined with one of his songs playing in my sub-conscious. I never knew him personally but he was so close to me. His voice was that of a consoling elder brother putting his hands on my shoulders.

When I took up translating songs and poetry as a recreational activity, the obvious choice was, as if by default, Bhupen da’s songs. I have so far completed about 80 songs. Bhupen Hazarika’s message of universal love and compassion is addressed to the entire humanity and hence it deserves a wider audience. Translation is the only way to achieve it.

What kind of challenges did you face?

SAS: Apart from the usual obstacles a translator faces, I was confronted by an additional problem related to strategy.  Whenever I listened to a Bhupen Hazarika’s song, I used to hear many inaudible bubbles of silence hovering like butterflies in and around the original word. I would explain, there is a song called ‘Paani’ (water). Prima facie it is about the perennial flood, Assam is so familiar with. But when Bhupen Hazarika says Uttore Paani (water in the North), the word ‘water ‘or ‘deluge’ assumes extra significance. In addition to the obvious It is also an oblique reference to the devastation caused by few industrially developed countries on the rest of the world through various devices, it also draws one’s attention to the environmental degradation brought about by unbridled exploitation of nature in the name of growth and development; If one goes through the entire song keeping this in mind, the song would sound different. To understand and appreciate the genius called Bhupen Hazarika one needs to go deeper and focus on every word chiseled by him. Another illustration, refer to the song “Buku Hom Hom Korey”, which has plain and simple lyrics. But when I encountered the line’ Bajra Xomo Driho Air Sou Pakhore Gor’ I was compelled to pause and think. Why Bajra or Lighting. The similie seemed inappropriate to describe a rampart or fortification. Bajra also means Diamond in Sanskrit, so far so good. But with the knowledge that the song was originally composed during the Indo China conflict I could not completely detach the word from the Tibetan Buddhism also known as Bajrajana. I may be accused of stretching things a bit too far. But these are the usual responses in my mind and I cannot ignore those to satisfy the common reader. The ‘response’ is prime to critical appreciation of any poetical work. The challenge lay in incorporating these responses in my translations. I choose a middle ground. A trade off from both the ends to meet the immediate demand.

The second challenge, a major one, is the profusion of ethnic or local expressions. If one decides to ease the burden on the reader by fortifying the translation with annotations, fine. But I hold a different view. These extras amount to cluttering and stop the flow of the music. Here too I have decided on a middle ground. I have retained the word DOLA (Palanquin) and refrained from explaining it with notes, hoping, one day it becomes part of mainstream English lexicon meaning ‘carrying the burden of the powerful’. A little too ambitious perhaps. But why not. It is a Bhupen da song. Immutable. Complete.  I warn you, I am fanatical fan of the Bard. A Bhupen Hazarika fundamentalist, if you please. (Laughs)

The third challenge was that of music. Whether to make the translations singable by retaining the original rhythm, I could have done it if I wanted to with a little more perspiration. But that would murder the poetry and poetry is what I am primarily concerned with. However, a reader with keen ears might hear the gentle ripples here and there.

Which one is your favorite Bhupen Hazarika song?

SAS: If I point out to any one song I would commit a sacrilege of sorts. All songs. I repeat, all songs. Each one is a Taj Mahal in its own surrounding. Alone, exquisite, unique. When I say this I mean only the Assamese songs. Yes, there are some I am not happy with. His Hindi songs.

Why do you think translation of Assamese songs and literature important?

SAS: Why only Assamese? It is true of world literature as a whole. Tagore was not known outside till the translation of Gitanjali happened. The reason is not far to seek. I don’t see any reason to elaborate the obvious.  

Assam has a great literary tradition pre-dating even Bengali. Today we can boast of a rich harvest of world class literature. It is our misfortune that genius like Saurabh Kumar Chaliha whose stories rank with the best in the world and Nilmoni Phukon whose poetry is ethereal are hardly known outside the boundaries of the state. I would squarely blame it on the people of Assam especially the intellectuals who have done precious little to encourage translations. Why even my translation efforts, however poor, are hardly acknowledged. Bob Dylan won the Nobel. He deserved it. But so does our Bhupen Hazarika. But who read his lyrical beauties.

You were also translating Abdul Malik’s poetry. Can you tell us more about him and his work?

SAS: The question itself is symptomatic of the malaise we are suffering from. One who has written not less than two thousand short stories in Assamese needs to be introduced to our own youngsters, forget the world, and forget India. He has written about 100 novels. I do not want to say anything further, because while doing so I feel like crying out aloud. Shame on us Assamese, for whom, for whose language, for whose culture he had devoted not less than 60 years of his life. And what a body of work he has left behind. Can anyone match this? Not in your life. A time would come, no, it is here already, when an Assamese boy or a girl would Google to know about him. He is gone, forgotten. Dead and buried.

To the first part of the question, I have translated only two of his poems.

What do you think are the basics of any translation work?

SAS: It should be faithful and read like original; easier said than done. Someone, I think Prof. Kiernan who had translated Faiz, said, all translation of poetry is horn-window, allowing only a certain quantity of light to pass through it. I agree with him entirely. A translator’s religion is to retain the flavor of the original in a new bottle. But this is only one aspect. There are many more parameters to deal with. The question of individual response, degree of restraint in the creative urge of the translator, new perspective in light of the present, antecedents of the creative work, the text, the man, the time, all are important. The translator has to choose his strategy.