An Open Letter On My Poetry by Dr. Prithwindra Mukherjee

Dear Friend,

I was 13, when my first poem was published in 1949. It was the phase when every day I wrote a new poem to be revised by Dilipkumar Roy. Persuaded about my sense of rhythm, Roy helped me fish out the mot juste. One day he picked up a poem and, after a few minutes of reflection, asked me to come back the next day. That was the surprise, indeed, for a boy of  fifteen:  he had set tune to that poem and had  decided to form a chorus to sing it before the Mother of the Ashram. Manoj Dasgupta happens to be one of the surviving artists in that chorus. The veteran journalist Hemendraprasad Ghose, on coming across one of my poems in the monthly Pradîp, congratulated me for the  inspired speech. In January 1954, I took down — as in automatic writing — a strange flow of verses: they were pretty unknown to my usual vocabulary. Dilipkumar was no more in Pondicherry.  I showed them to my guide Nolinikanta Gupta: without any comment he published that poem in his sophisticated quarterly review Bartikâ, without changing even a comma.

My first two collections of poems—A Rose-bud’s Song — appeared in English in 1959 and Âlôr Chakôr (‘Bird of Light’ in Bengali) — in 1960, foreworded by Narendra Deb (father of Nabanita), who did not hide  his admiration for the lofty ideas, for the poetic diction, for the imagination and for the  expression.  Both these volumes received charitable reviews in the literary media. Dick Batstone, an   Oxford scholar, for example, in a review article, underlined a well justified rapprochement with French Symbolists.   Dilipkumar wrote a long review article in the prestigious Bharatvarsha to welcome “a promising poet”. The poet and essayist Amalesh Bhattacharya in an article in the monthly Shrinvantu explored the significance of that Bird of Light.Month after month, K.D. Sethna had published my poems in English in his monthly Mother India. Even before I was twenty, specialists like K. R. Srinivas Iyengar and V.K. Gokak of the Sahitya Akademy from New Delhi had classified me among “poets of a new dawn”; in its anthology in the 1960s I was the youngest poet present. Ashok Kundu in his famous Who’s Who (bangîya sâhitya-kosh, volume XI, 1979) has, almost simultaneously, reserved a considerable  space on my publications. Asked by Nishikanta, I had sent a few of my poems to Pramathanath Bishi who found them “hridya o sukhapâthya” (cordial and pleasant-reading), regretting that they came too late to be included in his anthology. Sayed Mujtaba Ali cheered me up with his assurance: “You have discovered the melody; you need now some more exercise for its realization”. The musician Hemanta Kumar liked my lyrics passionately. 

One of my first translated pieces of poetry, in 1956, disturbed the quiet Bengali literary scene when in Masik Basumati I published the famous sonnet “Le Cygne” by Mallarmé; the learned editor Pranatosh Ghatak had not yet heard about that French poet. One critic with the pen-name of Bopadeb Sharma wrote in his feature in Kathâ-sâhitya: “All the same, the poem seems to be terribly confused.” The poor man did not know how deliberate was Mallarmé in his attempt to remain hidden behind deliberate “confusion”. Owing to my lectures and publications on French literature, I was nicknamed “Monsieur France” in Pondicherry. In the early 1960s, when I published my translation of the French Nobel laureate St-John Perse, few from the French-speaking circle in India had ever heard his name. Pierre Fallon, the Belgian missionary, teaching at the University of Calcutta in Bengali, came to my rescue with his generous appreciation of the quality of my work. [See Annexe 1] 

During a short interview I had with Pope Paul VI in 1967, the Holy Man, fast reader as was, went through my book A Rose-bud’s Song and, with a smile of complicity, greeted me: “You are fortunate, because you are poet. The Lord is always present with poets.”      

When the Muktiyuddha was going on in Bangladesh, in December 1971 I was given a full page in Le Monde to explain the people’s grievance. I selected a handful of poems, translated them with notes: “Poèmes du Bangladesh”. I am quite sure to have utilized the term Bangladesh for the first time in a literary context. I received congratulations from André Malraux. Many literary magazines invited me to write more. In 1975 when the University Paris III brought out my mini anthology Poèmes du Bangladesh, it was reviewed by the literary critic of Le Figaro, as a gift from “our delicious Franco-Bengali poet.” In 1981, when I published a trilingual edition with the songs of the Charya-pada, the literary critic Bernard Pivot of the French TV quoted it in his famous book, The Ideal Library. In 1985, to celebrate the Année de l’Inde, the French Ministry of culture financed my trilingual edition of the Baul Songs. As a producer cum author of features for Radio-France, I had organized concerts and lecture tours all over Europe. In 1990, with the collaboration of Radio VPRO-Holland, I was the first to publish a digital record with the Bauls. In the presence of the guest artists, at Rotterdam, in a large public meeting, I celebrated the anniversary of Lâlan, the Bâul master.

Advised by the poet Guillevic, the Association of Poetic Action invited me on several Mondays to read my poems at the coveted vault of the Madeleine. I was encouraged to present for that forum poets of my choice.You all know that the senior Western composer Henri Dutilleux  selected for the first episode of his Correspondances,Opus for Voice and Orchestra, one of the  poems on Shiva Nataraja, from the first collection of my poems in French. [See Annexe : Foreword by Gérard Mourgue in Serpents de flamme, by Prithwindra Mukherjee] On receiving the book, in 1979 the Maestro wrote me that he had been drawing inspiration from those “luminous pages”. It took him more than twenty years to materialize his intention to this result.   Among the other authors he chose Soljenitsyne, Rilke and Van Gogh. After its world premiere in 2003 at Berlin (Philharmoniker, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle), the Opus is available in Deutsche Gramophone publications : it is being regularly programmed by important concert halls of the world and, happily, my poem has been translated into a dozen languages including Japanese. As a tribute to my creativity, during a function at the Unesco, those representative translations were recited one after the other: it roused an impressive receptivity in the audience.

Fond of my poems, the French actor Michael Lonsdale has recorded a bunch of my poems in French. There exists an anthology of Poetry of the 21st Century in Spanish, where a bunch of my poems appears. The poet Salah Stétié, while forewording my bilingual edition of selected poems by Rabindranath Tagore pays tribute to my “perfect mastery” over the two languages (Bengali  and French). Professor Alokeranjan Dasgupta in his foreword to my selected poems by René Char in Bengali has acknowledged my ambidexter ease with Bengali and French, qualifying me to be a “distinguished poet” (vishishta kavi). When the Maison de l’Inde at the university boarding campus in Paris organized an international recital with the participation of eminent poets from Dhaka and Kolkata, I was duly invited to read out my poems.

Under a scorching sun in South Spain, witnessing for hours my unhappy attempt to hitch-hike, the policeman on duty took pity on me and asked where I was from. On hearing that I came from the country of Tagore, his face loomed with a heavenly smile: “I too, I am poet!” I replied: “So am I!” In a few minutes he stopped a car, instructing the driver to drop me at the central Malaga post office. We  were still under Franco regime.

To celebrate the centenary of the Nobel awarded to Tagore, in 2013 I published A Shade Sharp, a Shade Flat, a trilingual edition with my translation of 110 poems following chronologically the blossoming of the poet’s genius. The book was launched in Paris, by the President of the Société des Gens de Lettres. As founder members of the Association de Traducteurs littéraires de France,  I offered a copy of the book to Jacqueline Lahana. I am enclosing in the Annexe the review that the journal of ATLF wrote.

Dr. Prithwindra Mukherjee
Paris, 28 November, 2020

L’année même où St John Perse était nobélisé – en 1960 – je reçus l’accord du Poète en faveur d’une traduction bengalie de son recueil Chronique. Prévenu de cette publication, Pierre Fallon m’envoya du St Xavier’s College de Calcutta à l’Ashram de Pondichéry où je vivais, un mot chaleureux daté du 11 août 1961, en partie en français, en partie en bengali et en anglais :

Cher Monsieur Mukherjee,

J’ai bien reçu votre très gentille lettre et je vous en remercie cordialement.

Je suis très heureux d’apprendre que vous aimez et que vous traduisez St John Perse. Il est encore trop peu connu ; votre traduction aidera, j’en suis sûr, à le faire apprécier davantage. C’est un très grand poète et pas un ‘décadent’ !

Oui, je suis prêt à lire – je serai même très content de pouvoir lire – votre traduction de « Chronique ». Et je le comparerai soigneusement avec l’original français que je trouve très beau. Je suis certain qu’il y aura peu à redire.

Ne venez-vous jamais à Calcutta ? Je serais très heureux de faire votre connaissance.

আমার বয়স যখন ২৪ বছর ছিল, আমি তখন বাঙলা জানতামই না। আপনি শুধু ভাষা নয়, সাহিত্যেরও চর্চা করছেন। আশা করি আপনি ফরাসি ও বাঙলার মধ্যে একটি ঘনিষ্ঠ যোগাযোগ ও মিলনের সেতু বাঁধবেন আরও বহু অনুবাদ ও সাহিত্য-আলোচনার মধ্য দিয়ে।

[Quand j’avais 24 ans, je ne connaissais pas le bengali, l’anglais non plus pour ainsi dire. Vous pratiquez non seulement les langues mais, aussi, les littératures. J’espère qu’à travers d’autres traductions et échanges littéraires vous saurez établir un lien étroit et jeter un pont d’union entre le français et le bengali.]

Je vous ai montré un spécimen de mon Bengali. N’en riez pas. J’ai commencé mes études de langues un peu tard.

Mille amitiés ও প্রীতিপূর্ণ শুভেচ্ছা- [et souhaits amicaux-] 

Pierre Fallon s.j.

Environ cinq mois plus tard, je reçus de Pierre Fallon une lettre datée du 25 janvier 1961, en partie en anglais, en partie en français et en bengali :

Dear Mr Mukherjee,

I owe you some apologies for the inexcusable delay of my answer. বৃত্তান্ত [Chronique] has been a very long time with me, I read several times your ver able translation ; excuse me for not having written earlier.

Your Bengali certainly comes very close in its rhythm to the very peculiarly impressive rhythm of St John Perse; your choice of words is skilful and I believe that you have rendered very adequately the meaning, often abstruse, of the original versets.

I have been a little astonished  by the তুঙ্গ-কাল for Vieil Âge; I understand it to be correct but it does not keep, I feel, the simplicity of the French expression. Allow me a few queries and remarks, be sure that these do not imply any lack of appreciation for the difficult task you have very carefully accomplished.


(…) La traduction d’un auteur comme St John Perse n’est pas chose aisée. Vous avez réussi cette tâche très ardue et beaucoup de vos versets bengalis sont très beaux. Si je devais citer toutes les trouvailles de votre traduction, j’aurais à écrire une très longue lettre. Votre traduction, je l’espère, attirera l’attention sur ce très grand poète que j’aime beaucoup et depuis longtemps.

আপনার বইটির শেষ পৃষ্ঠায় দেখলাম, আপনি “আমি  আর প্লাতেরো” বইখানিরও অনুবাদ প্রকাশ করেছেন। Jimenez-এর ঐ বইটি আমাকে মুগ্ধ করেছিল, তার অনুবাদ হয়েছে জানতে পেয়ে খুব খুশী হলাম।

আপনি কি কখনও এই কলিকাতায় আসবেন না? এলে আলাপ হবে আশা করি।আমার অতিবিলম্বিত উত্তরদানের জন্য ক্ষমা করবেন। মাঝে মাঝে আবার লিখবেন। লিখলে সঙ্গে সঙ্গে উত্তর দেব।

[J’ai vu sur la dernière page de votre livre que vous avez également  publié la traduction du livre « Platero y yo ». Ce livre de Jimenez m’avait enchanté, ayant appris qu’il a été traduit m’a énormément ravi.

Ne comptez-vous pas à l’occasion venir à ce Calcutta ? Si vous veniez, j’espère qu’on se verrait. Pardonnez-moi le retard excessif survenu à vous répondre. Ecrivez-moi de nouveau de temps en temps. Je répondrai dès que vous m’écrirez.] »

Pierre Fallon s.j.
Préface de Gérard Mourgue [Le serpent de flammes by Prithwindra Mukherjee, École Estienne, Paris, 1979]

Les composantes principales de la personnalité de Prithwindra Mukherjee sont assez singulières : l’érudition d’un universitaire s’allie à l’intensité de concentration intérieure et à l’élévation d’un mystique. Il faut y ajouter enfin la fraîcheur d’âme d’un adolescent.

C’est Sri Aurobindo qui nous a réunis. Il terminait, sur l’œuvre de ce maître à penser de l’Inde moderne, une thèse de doctorat. Nous lisions l’un et l’autre cette œuvre depuis près de vingt ans. Le prophète hindou avait annoncé le règne prochain du supramental, comme Freud l’avait fait pour celui de l’inconscient.

Le moteur essentiel de Mukherjee est le ravissement. La nature entière le ravit parce qu’il la considère comme un «phénomène» et qu’il en cherche la solution. Comme Aurobindo, il donne l’impression de suivre Dieu à la trace et de voir partout cette trace.

Ses poèmes sont donc à la fois des incantations magiques et des prières. La vie spirituelle qui coule comme le Gange dans les paysages les plus divers, rappelle l’unité souveraine de la source.

Pour nous Européens, le musicien qui fait le plus penser à Mukherjee, c’est Schubert. Essayez donc de prendre en faute ce génie de la simplicité et de la fraîcheur d’âme. Je pourrais aussi citer les noms de Saadi et d’Hafiz, les premiers Persans à parler d’amour avec un accent humain qui mène à Dieu. Mais en Orient, dès que l’on s’élève, les diverses tendances métaphysiques convergent vers le même absolu.

Mukherjee nous rend sensible cet absolu comme le pétale d’un lys nous donne une transcription racée de la délicatesse et de la puissance éclatante qui se cache dans la pureté. Il est, à Paris, un exemple vivant du rayonnement mystique de l’Inde dans le monde. « Nul autre que celui qui cherche le chanteur céleste ne saura le chemin à travers la nuit. »

Gérard Mourgue
Directeur d’émissions littéraires
France-Culture (Radio-France)
[Le serpent de flammes by Prithwindra Mukherjee, École Estienne, Paris, 1979]

The major components of Prithwindra Mukherjee’s personality are quite remarkable : the erudition of a scholar wedded to the intensity of an inner concentration and the loftiness of a mystic. Add to it, finally, the soul-freshness of an adolescent.

It was under the aegis of Sri Aurobindo that we met. He was completing a thesis for doctorate on the works of this thought master of modern India. Both of us had been studying these works since

nearly twenty years. This Indian prophet had hailed the imminent reign of the Supermind, as had done Freud for that of the Inconscient.

Marvel is the essential motor of Mukherjee. He marvels at everything in Nature because he considers her to be a ‘phenomenon’ and because he looks after the solution lying beyond. Like Aurobindo, he leaves an impression of following God’s footprints and of discovering them everywhere.

His poems are, therefore, magic incantations and, at the same time,, prayers. Life spiritual that flows like the Ganges across the most varied of landscapes, reminds of the sovereign unity of its source.

To us Europeans, the musician who most reminds us of Mukherjee is Schubert. Try then to find flaws with that genius of simplicity and of soul-freshness. I could as well cite the names of Saadi and Hafiz, the first Persians ever to celebrate love in a human accent which leads to God. But in the East, as soon as one takes a soar, the various metaphysical trends start converging towards the same absolute.

Mukherjee helps us to appreciate that absolute just the way a petal of the lily reveals to us the unmixed transcription of the delicacy and the dazzling strength that remain concealed behind that purity. He is, in Paris, a living example of the radiant mysticism of India in the world. “O none save he who seeks the celestial Bard/ Shall know his path out of the darkest night.”

Gérard Mourgue
Director of Literary Features
France-Culture (Radio-France)

Il fallait sans aucun doute un très bel écrin au choix de poèmes du grand écrivain indien, prix Nobel de littérature, RabindranathTagore, dû à son traducteur Prithwindra Mukherjee, membre d’honneur de l’ATLF. Outre sa présentation de qualité – papier glacé, reliure cartonnée recouverte d’une jaquette ornée d’une belle photo du visage de Tagore –, l’ouvrage constitue une exceptionnelle réalisation puisque les textes sont offerts en trois langues, bengali,français et anglais, le texte original sur la page de gauche ornée d’une vignette représentant le visage de Tagore au début de chaque nouveau poème, les traductions en français et en anglais sur la page de droite. Dans la préface, elle aussi trilingue, le traducteur commence par expliquer certains de ses choix pour cette anthologie réalisée à l’occasion du centenaire du prix Nobel de Tagore : les poèmes sélectionnés sont présentés en ordre chronologique, des titres ont été ajoutés librement là où il n’y en avait pas, et « les pulsations intimes à l’intérieur de chaque phrase rythmique » (p. 20) ont été préférées aux rimes de l’original. La suite de la préface est consacrée à Tagore, à son parcours, à sa spiritualité, à ses parentés littéraires ou idéologiques, à ses innovations poétiques et techniques, comme son utilisation de vers de différentes longueurs, de trois à huit syllabes, sans oublier des variantes de vers libres inventées par le poète. En bas de page, on trouve le titre du recueil d’où sont tirés les poèmes ainsi que les notes indispensables concernant certains termes bengalis ou les références à la mythologie indienne. Prithwindra Mukherjee rappelle qu’André Gide fut l’adaptateur de Tagore en français pour L’offrande lyrique et conclut sur les derniers recueils écrits par Tagore dans lesquels se fait sentir sa sereine lucidité à l’approche du Néant.

TANTÔT DIÈSE, TANTÔT BÉMOL. 108 POÈMES ET CHANTS DE RABINDRANATH TAGORE.Choix des textes et traduction du bengali : Prithwindra Mukherjee Bangladesh, Mofidul Hoque, Shahitya Prakash, 2013 Les 108 poèmes présentés sont d’une longueur variable. « Le pèlerinage », divisé en dix parties, est l’un des plus longs, couvrant plusieurs pages (p. 249-267). L’étonnant « Africa », manifeste où Tagore dénonce le sort lamentable subi par ce continent, publié à trois reprises avec à chaque fois des modifications, comporte 50 à 73 vers libres en bengali (p. 291-295). En revanche, « Plaisir et chagrin »(p. 131), « Le début, la fin » (p. 133) ou « La vérité absolue » (p. 137), provenant du recueil Kanikâ (« Miettes »), sont des quatrains. Ce qui frappe le lecteur, c’est la variété du ton utilisé par Tagore, souvent lyrique, ou empreint d’émotion mais aussi parfois amusant, ainsi que la richesse des thèmes : l’amour, la nature, l’Inde, la séparation, la mort, etc. Un long poème intitulé « Shâh Jéhan » est consacré à celui qui fit construire en 1632 le mausolée en marbre du Tâj Mahal dédié à sa défunte épouse Mumtâz : «Une larme unique sur la joue du Temps une éclatante blancheur Ce Tâj Mahal »(p. 217).Il est difficile de juger la traduction d’une langue qu’on ne connaît pas et de comparer celle en français et celle en anglais. Mais la traduction française des poèmes manifeste de grandes qualités de clarté et de musicalité. Pour cette raison, parce qu’elle permet l’accès à ces très beaux poèmes de Tagore, l’entreprise de Prithwindra Mukherjee mérite l’admiration et la reconnaissance du lecteur français.  [Marie-Françoise Cachin]

Alokeranjan Dasgupta on Dr. Prithwindra Mukherjee

About the author: Dr Prithwindra Mukherjee (b. 20th October 1936) is the grandson of the famous revolutionary Jatindranath Mukherjee alias Bagha Jatin. He came to Sri Aurobindo Ashram in 1948, studied and taught at Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education. He was mentioned by the Sahitya Akademi manuals and anthologies as a poet before he attained the age of twenty. He has translated the works of French authors like Albert Camus, Saint-John Perse and René Char for Bengali readers, and eminent Bengali authors into French. He shifted to Paris with a French Government Scholarship in 1966. After defending a first thesis Doctorat d’Université on Sri Aurobindo at Sorbonne, he served as a lecturer in two Paris faculties, a producer on Indian culture and music for Radio France and was also a freelance journalist for the Indian and French press. His next thesis for PhD (Doctorat d’Etat) studied the pre-Gandhian phase of India’s struggle for freedom; it was supervised by Raymond Aron in Paris University IV. In 1977 he was invited by the National Archives of India as a guest of the Historical Records Commission. He presented a paper on ‘Jatin Mukherjee and the Indo-German Conspiracy’ and his contribution on this area has been recognized by eminent educationists. A number of his papers on this subject have been translated into major Indian languages. He went to the United States of America as a Fullbright scholar and discovered scores of files covering the Indian revolutionaries in the Wilson Papers. In 1981 he joined the department of ethnomusicology attached to the CNRS-Paris (French National Centre of Scientific Research) with the project of a cognitive study of the scales of Indian music. He was also a founder-member of the French Literary Translators’ Association. In 2003 he retired as a researcher in Human and Social Sciences Department of the CNRS. A recipient of ‘Sri Aurobindo Puraskar’, in the same year he was invited by Sir Simon Rattle who was to conduct Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for the world premiere of Correspondances, opus for voice (with the divine participation of Dawn Upshaw) and orchestra, where the veteran composer Henri Dutilleux had set to music Prithwindra’s French poem “Danse cosmique” on Shiva Nataraja, followed by texts by Solzhenitsyn, Rilke and Van Gogh. In 2009 he was appointed to the rank of chevalier (Knight) of the Order of Arts and Letters by the Minister of Culture of France. Six years later the Minister of Culture appointed him Knight, too. In 2014, the French Academy recognized Prithwindra’s entire contribution by its Hirayama Award. He has penned more than seventy books in English, Bengali and French and some of his published works include Samasamayiker Chokhe Sri Aurobindo, Pondicherryer Dinguli, Bagha Jatin, Sadhak-Biplobi Jatindranath, Undying Courage, Vishwer Chokhe Rabindranath, Thât/Mélakartâ : The Fundamental Scales in Indian Music of the North and the South (foreword by Pandit Ravi Shankar), Poèmes du Bangladesh (welcomed by the literary critic of Le Figaro as the work of the “delicious Franco-Bengali poet”), Serpent de flammes, Le sâmkhya, Les écrits bengalis de Sri Aurobindo, Chants bâuls, les Fous de l’Absolu, Anthologie de la poésie bengalie. Invited by the famous French publishers Desclée de Brouwer, his biography Sri Aurobindo was launched with due tribute by Kanwal Sibal, India’s ambassador in France. His PhD thesis, Les racines intellectuelles du movement d’independence de l’Inde (1893-1918) was foreworded by Jacques Attali: it ended up with Sri Aurobindo, “the last of the Prophets”. While launching Prithwindra’s biography Bagha Jatin published by National Book Trust, H. E. Pranab Mukherjee admitted: “It is an epitome of the history of our armed struggle for freedom.” To celebrate the centenary of Tagore’s Nobel award, in 2013, Prithwindra brought out a trilingual (Bengali-French-English) anthology of 108 poems by Tagore, A Shade Sharp, a Shade flat, it was launched by the President of the illustrious Sociéte des Gens de Lettres founded by Balzac.

6 Replies to “An Open Letter On My Poetry by Dr. Prithwindra Mukherjee

    1. I read one book and a few articles by Prithwindra Mukherjee (in Bengali) and was aware of his family background ( relation to the legendary revolutionary). But this has thrown light to his other achievements. Thank you for posting it.
      Rajat Roy

  1. Quel parcours Docteur Mukherjee! Je suis un Québécois vivant en France depuis 2013, amoureux de la France, de l’Inde et du Québec, de Mère et de Sri Aurobindo depuis 1975. Je suis admiratif de ce que vous avez pu faire: J’ai l’impression qu’il me faudrait 150 ans seulement pour en faire le tour! Il faut dire que je revisite constamment l’oeuvre de Mère et de Sri Aurobindo (en ce moment: La Vie Divine) ce qui ne me laisse que peu de temps vu mes activités professionnelles. Que connaissez-vous des auteurs québécois? Connaissez-vous le Centre Sri Aurobindo de Montréal?

  2. Thanks a lot Anurag Banerjee ji for sharing this wonderful treasure – The Golden words of the Great legendary Prithwindra ji!

  3. I was not aware of this versatility and richness of Prithvin’s poetry. I had always read and admired his poems published in Mother India in those days, but don’t know his recent ones.

    It will be wonderful if at least an anthology of his selected poems in English comes out; it will prove to be a precious treasure.

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