Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Words & Pictures Interview with Kathleen O'Connell, Translator & Academic

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Kathleen O'Connell

On July 3, TIFF Cinematheque launched The Sun And The Moon: The Films Of Satyajit Ray, their retrospective of beloved Bengali filmmaker and writer Satyajit Ray's work.

On July 11, Canadian academic Kathleen O'Connell introduced Ray's film Charulata and spoke on the influence of Bengali Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore on Ray's work.

Today we speak with Kathleen, who has translated Ray's work into English and who teaches courses at the University of Toronto on both Tagore and Ray. Kathleen tells us about Ray's writing style, her translation experiences and where to start in appreciating Ray's work.

The TIFF Satyajit Ray series is ongoing until August 17.

Open Book:

How did you first become involved with Satyajit Ray's work?

Kathleen O'Connell:

My husband Joseph and I were in Kolkata from 1965-67, while he worked on his PhD dissertation field research and I did an M.A. in Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University. During that period I developed an interest in Ray’s films and writing though I did not meet him until 1978, when my husband and I were working on Bengali in Santiniketan, Tagore’s University. This was the time when I began making translations of some of Ray’s children’s stories.


Tell us about the experience of translating Ray's stories. How did you approach the project?


My approach was really geared towards language learning, rather than an intention to actually publish the stories. It seemed to me that Ray’s style and vocabulary would be an excellent way to study mainstream Bengali, so I concentrated on one of his books, Bravo Professor Shanku, that was written for children and adolescents, though not without interest for an adult audience. When I had finished translating some of the stories, Ray’s aunt Lila Mazumdar, herself a writer, suggested that I write to Ray and inform him of the translations. This eventually brought about a meeting with Ray and the publication of the stories.


What do you think writers can learn from Ray's storytelling techniques?


Economy of words, exciting plot and authentic characterization to name a few. Of course, he was also very cosmopolitan and had a special gift for lyricism. In Ray’s case there was also a desire to disseminate knowledge to his young readers, whether it be scientific or literary.


If you had to recommend just one of Ray's films to new audiences, which one would you choose and why?


That’s a hard choice, but I think the place to start would be his first film Pather Pancali (Song of the Little Road), which was based on a Bengali classic novel by Bibhutibhusan Bandypadhyay, which Ray had previously illustrated. The film is significant in Indian Cinema history and initiated a new style in Indian cinema called ‘Indian art cinema or “New Indian Cinema” in the 1950s. Such films are characterized by being regionally based, rather than pan-Indian, and project cultural authenticity and a strong sense of location; they are low budget with well-rounded characterization that rejects the star system and box office formulas. Pather Pancali was one of the earliest films to authentically portray the reality of Indian village life as it came up against the pressures of social change. Ray’s films in general show the complexity of life and I would quote Amartya Sen, Bengali Nobel Lareate:

While Satyajit Ray insists on retaining the real cultural features of the society that he portrays, his view of India — even his view of Bengal — recognizes a complex reality, with immense heterogeneity at every level. It is not the picture of a stylized East meeting a stereotypical West, which has been the stock-in-trade of so many recent writings critical of Westernization and “modernity”….Ray emphasizes that the people who inhabit his films are complicated and extremely diverse, and the native culture which Ray stresses is not some pure vision of a tradition-bound society, but the heterogeneous lives and commitments of contemporary India.

Most of all, I would recommend Pather Pancali for its moving and authentic portrayal of a Bengali family, in particular the two children Apu and Durga.


You've spoken of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s influence on Ray. In what ways do you think Tagore most affected Ray's work?


The Tagore and Ray families were on the forefront of a new cultural and psychological revolution that occurred during the 19th century Bengal Renaissance, and both Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray grew up in an atmosphere, where creativity was channelled into shaping new forms of Bengali language, literature, music, art and socio-religious change. The families were instrumental in helping to shape a new cultural sensibility appropriate for modern India in representing the best of tradition and modernity…the old and the new.

Ray met Tagore, when he was a child and later studied art at Tagore’s university Visva-Bharati at Santiniketan. They shared a similar, though not identical, world view, and the influences of Tagore are evident throughout his films, whether it be the use of Tagore music, Rabindransangit, or actors, such as Soumitra Chatterjee, who bear a resemblance to Tagore, or Sarmila Tagore, who are descendants of the family. More generally one can point to social themes that resonate with Tagore’s writings.

Ray’s sixth film, Devi (The Goddess), filmed in 1960, was based on a story by Prabhat Mukherjee, but as the titles acknowledge, came from an idea of Tagore’s. In 1961, Ray made Teen Kanya (released as ‘Two Daughters’), based on three Tagore short stories to celebrate Tagore’s birth centenary and created the one-hour Tagore biographical documentary. Other Tagore based works include Charulata based on Tagore’s novella Nashtaneer (The Broken Nest), made in 1964, and Ghare Baire (The Home and the World), released in 1985.


How would you describe the literary and cinematic culture of Bengali society? Are there unique elements you've seen recurring in Bengali narratives?


Bengal has an extremely rich literary and cinematic tradition, and both Bangladesh and West Bengal remain actively involved in preserving Bengali language. There is a large demand for Bengali literary magazines, poetry, serious prose writing and the cinema.


What are you working on next?


An historically annotated anthology of Tagore’s educational writings.

Kathleen O'Connell is a scholar of comparative literature and modern Bengali culture. She currently teaches courses at the University of Toronto on Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray. Her published work includes Rabindranath Tagore: The Poet as Educator (Second edition), Bravo Professor Shonku (1985), a translation (Bengali to English) of three stories by Satyajit Ray and Rabindranath Tagore: Facets of a Cultural Icon (2008), co-edited by Joseph O'Connell.

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