Making rich Indian literature accessible to all, one poem at a time

Making rich Indian literature accessible to all, one poem at a time

Recently to mark World Poetry Day, the Nehru Centre in London hosted the launch of the newly translated book, ‘Acrobat’. Originally written by the well-known and much-loved Bengali author and poet Nabaneeta Dev Sen, ‘Acrobat’ is translated into English by Nabaneeta’s daughter, Nandana Dev Sen.  

World Poetry Day, marked every year on March 21, was the perfect occasion to showcase the multi-talented mother and daughter. Known for her engaging and expressive prose, poetry, fiction and non-fiction writing, Nabaneeta – who passed away in Kolkata in 2019 – has several awards to her name including Sahitya Akademi Award, Kamal Kumari National Award and India’s national civilian award Padma Shri. 

“She had an outlook that found the ‘everywoman’ in the stories of the archetypal heroines of all the classics and epics,” Nandana says, reflecting on the wide range of topics explored in Nabaneeta’s rich and varied writing.  

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Three Generations 

The talk – anchored by Sangeeta Datta, author, filmmaker, director of Baithak UK and research fellow at the University of Sussex and SOAS – also celebrated its titular theme of the inter-generational nature of creativity and poetry within the Dev Sen family.  

Not only was Nandana’s mother a prolific author, her grandmother, Radharani Devi – who wrote under the pen name Aparajita Devi given to her by Rabindranath Tagore – was also one of the most prominent female authors of twentieth century Bengal.  

The Dev Sen family home in India, ‘Bhalubasha’, was described by Dutta as “a literary landmark in South Kolkata.”  

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“Balubhasha has always been a centre of cultural conversations and spontaneous musical soirees. There was a lot of poetry around us,” reminisces Nandana. 

Having inherited the family’s literary legacy, Nandana - an accomplished author and poet herself - studied literature at Harvard University and later went on to pursue acting at Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in New York and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London

Talking about the inter-generational nature of creativity and poetry within the family, Nandana shares how her own young daughter and nieces are already good writers in their own right. 

Multiple Personas  

Nandana discusses her mother’s multi-faceted relationship with poetry and how it was at once her coping mechanism and her curse. In milieu of this ongoing battle, Nabaneeta penned a poem in which poetry itself is personified as a witch who would follow the poet around.  

Nabaneeta’s prose is often remembered as humorous and ‘laugh-out-loud’ wherein the author’s playfulness is on full display. However, speaking on how an author can have multiple personas and identities, Nandana highlighted that it was Nabaneeta’s poetry which tended to reveal the more complex, and often dark, shades which underpinned her experience with poetry.   

“She always felt that she had two eyes that were very different: one eye was always a bit sad and the other eye had a different outlook on life,” speaking of how her persona in prose was very different from that which was seen in poetry.  

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Along with English, ‘Acrobat’ has also been translated into Hindi by authors and screenplay writers Farrukh Dhondy and Nayanika Mahtani to reach a wider Indian audience. 

Despite the many challenges involved in the process of translating such nuanced and culturally rooted literature, Nandana reiterates the importance of making Indian literature accessible to all, especially to the young members of the diaspora who might not understand Bangla.   

“It is such a rich culture of poetry and literature that it would be terrible to raise them without it,” Nandana concludes.  

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