First published in The Bengal Post
Of the Marathi author VS Khandekar, it was said that he was better known in Tamil Nadu than in his home state, especially in the 1950s, thanks to the excellent translations of his works by the likes of Ka Sri Sri or KS Srinivasacharya. What the Tamil Khandekar—as CN Annadurai once described him—did for Marathi literature, TN Kumaraswamy and (to a lesser extent his brother TN Senapati) did for Bengali literature. Many of us growing up in the 1950s and 60s owed much of our acquaintance with Bengali literature to Kumaraswamy or Ta Naa Ku, who amazingly enough, learnt Bengali in Madras.
What prompted him to set himself the task of bringing Bengali literary classics to Tamil readers is not clearly known, but he fell in love with Tagore’s writings even as a schoolboy. His son Aswini Kumar—the key person behind his centenary celebrations in 2007—recalls a story Ta Naa Ku often told of how the fiery Tamil poet Subramania Bharati sang aloud his own translation of a Rabindranath Tagore poem, but ecstatic as he was to come face to face with Tagore, was blocked by a sea of admirers who had surrounded him at the Madras Central Railway station in 1919.
Though Kumaraswamy translated Bankim Chandra, Sarat Chandra, Tagore and Tara Sankar Banerjee among others, Sarat Chandra was his favourite. He once said, “When I prepared myself to read prominent writers of modern Bengal, I discovered Saratchandra to be of a different quality of mind. Unlike Bankimchandra, he never intruded himself upon the readers. His aim was not to tell a story to entertain or touch our hearts but to force us to think and understand the deep and hidden significance of the problems of life. He was not of the type of novelist who took liberties to exaggerate, to create a world more beautiful, more consoling than ours.”.
Kumaraswamy took the idea of introducing Sarat Chandra to Tamil magazine readers to Kalki, the editor of Ananda Vikatan, in the late 1930s, when a rather insular mood prevailed in the field. “I read to him (Kalki) select passages from Saratchandra’s various novels and explained to him that the Tamil public would surely relish them, and that it would open a new vista to the future novelists of Tamil Nadu.” Tamil readers soon became familiar with such works as Bindur Chele, Swami and Dena Paona, thanks to the labours of Kumaraswamy. He also wrote on Sarat Chandra’s life and works in the Tamil digest Manjari, and condensed novels like Parineeta, Biraj Bau and Palli-Samaj.
An author himself, Kumaraswamy wrote short stories and novels of unusual sophistication and deep humanism. A keen follower of classical music, he learnt to play the nagaswaram, on which he played both Carnatic and Hindustani melodies. His reading was as diverse as his library was vast, its collection both both Indian and western. He was an earlier translator of Sangam verse into English than AK Ramanujan. A great admirer of Aldous Huxley and Ananda Coomaraswamy, he translated Coomaraswamy’s Gautama Buddha into Tamil.
A Gandhian to the core, Kumaraswamy once gifted an acre of his own land to Adi Dravidars who had lost everything in a caste war. The author of the commentary for AK Chettiar’s well known documentary on Mahatma Gandhi, he was part of a team involved in translating Gandhi’s works into Tamil, a project he quit over a matter of principle. And for all his devotion to Gandhi, he was an ardent admirer of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose as well, translating two of his works into Tamil!
Kumaraswamy loved to read, write and translate, but he was equally fond of discussing books and literature. Many a young writer came under his benevolent gaze and profited from his tendency to talk books for hours on end.
Kumaraswamy was a true renaissance man, of whom it can be said without fear of contradiction: ‘They don’t make them like that any more.”