Some days back we had been to Jaipur for a short, quick break. Needless to say, we spent quite a bit of time at the various forts (Amber, Nahargarh and Jaigarh) as a part of our trip. I have a fascination for history – be it places, anecdotes, or stories. And as we went around the forts, I tried to explain the history and little trivia about those places to my disinterested son who was more keen on jumping up and about. That was when I remembered this wonderful little book by Abanindranath Tagore – one that I had read ages back and I decided to re-read it once back home.
If one was to single a family that had an immense impact on the Bengali and Indian cultural scene in the nineteenth century, it would be the highly distinguished and illustrious Jorasanko Tagore family. The immense contribution of this family to Indian literature and art can hardly be listed. While, today, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore may be remembered the most, his nephew Abanindranath Tagore was equally respected as he made his mark in the fields of art and literature. The youngest son of Gundendranath Tagore and the grandson of Girindranath Tagore and the great-grandson of Dwarkanath Tagore, Abanindranath was born on 7 August 1871 at the Jorasanko Bari. A pioneer in Indian art especially the Bengal school of art, along with his eldest brother Gaganendranath (a reputed painter and cartoonist in his own right and the great-grandfather of Sharmila Tagore), Abanindranath set up the Indian Society of Oriental Art in 1907. Abanindranath was a very distinguished artist and painter, who became a writer at his uncle Rabindranath’s insistence. His books Raj kahini, Budo Angla, Nalak, and Khirer Putul, Bhutapatri are considered landmarks in Bengali children’s literature till date.
Raj Kahini or the stories of Kings is a popular classic that was written in 1905. It has nine stories about the various kings of Rajasthan. These stories were essentially retelling of stories from The Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan by James Todd (1829, 1832). The version that I read a couple of days back was the translation by Ratna Jha, published in 2014.
The nine stories are familiar tales especially if one grew up on Amar Chitra Kathas and if one has some knowledge of folklore and history. What struck me in this reading of this cult Bengali work is the ease with which the story flows. It is like a painting in itself. Tagore transports us to the world of Rajasthan filled with colourful legends of warriors, Bhils, tribes, villages, sand dunes and gods and goddesses. The stories are lucid and pictorial as they draw up the ancient and medieval world inhabited by Shiladitya, Budhaditya, Hambir, Rani Padmini, Rana Kumbha, Rana Sanga and Surajmal. These are actual historical personages however, the retelling gives them a ‘fantastical’ and folklorish aura – which is what makes it a cult literary work for children. This is also because while it captures the lives of people vividly, there are no dates mentioned to root it to an era. An enjoyable read as always, a couple of the stories had my son enthralled as I read it to him.
This particular translation was not entirely satisfactory, as it had some glaring grammatical errors. Maybe it is the conversion to the ebook that caused it, or maybe it is just the quality of translation. While I do not remember which translation I read before, I was left with a dissatisfied feeling and wanted to read this book again, albeit a different translation.
Having said that, this is one literary classic that should be read – for its pictorial and enchanting, fairy-tale quality and for the author’s storytelling prowess.