Bichitra: The Making of an Online Tagore Variorum | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, May 06, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, May 06, 2017

Bichitra: The Making of an Online Tagore Variorum

Heidelberg: Springer, 2015. Pp. xv+159

This remarkable book records a unique feat. In sequenced essays, its many contributors led by their mastermind, Professor Sukanata Chaudhuri, Professor Emeritus at India's Jadavpur University and a founder and ex- Director of its School of Cultural Texts and Records, describe/ discuss various aspects of the “making of an Online Tagore Variorum.”  The project they articulate involved assembling, scanning and transcribing 47,520 pages of Bengali and English manuscripts, and 91,637 pages of printed works (also in English as well as Bengali) by the prolific author Rabindranath Tagore, and then making these pages available for Tagore scholars/lovers in a digital collection where they would be able to browse through them easily.  Clearly, the scale and the ambition that guided these digital bibliographers, the extent of their devotion to the incomparably fecund author, and the immense scholarship and inventive computer textual work they deployed for the purpose are all noteworthy.

Tagore, of course, had attracted amazing worldwide attention in mid-career as a writer for a very slim volume of verse called Gitanjali: Song Offerings that he published in England in 1912. Subsequently, he continued to be admired for a steady outpouring of his work—poems, fiction, plays and essays and lectures—in many parts of the world , although he had faded from the centre stage of the international literary scene by the time he had passed away in 1941. In his native Bengal, however, he continued to hold pride of place for his writings; generations of Bengali scholars (and a few overseas ones) have been nurturing his reputation assiduously for decades now. Their efforts intensified at the beginning of this decade, which saw not only the anniversaries of the publication of the English Gitanjali (2012) and the Nobel Prize it had garnered (2013), but also the Tagore sesquicentenary celebrations (2011).   

It was with the sesquicentenary year in mind that the project to create “a comprehensive website of Tagore's works in English and Bengali in all available versions” (1) began in Kolkata in 2011. It was funded by a grant from the Indian government as part of its “grand commemoration of India's de fact national poet”.  The tasks before the 30 plus Tagore lovers/scholars and computer programmers of the project were undoubtedly formidable ones, for not only were there thousands of manuscripts and printed pages to gather, collate, scan and organize for a virtual archive in the two year time limit set for the team, but there was also the major problem of dealing with two languages and with multiple variants of a prodigiously energetic author who habitually rewrote and revised his varied literary productions. So diverse was Tagore's output, so wondrous the range of his imaginings, and so intense his writing habits that the project was given the name of Bichitra, a word which in Bengali connotes anything that is “variegated”, “beautiful”, strange”, “wonderful” and “many-coloured.”

What can be easily said about the essays Sukanta Chaudhuri has collected and edited on behalf of his team in Bichitra: the Making of an Online Tagore Variorum is that they too are varied in tone and intent and are written in a manner that captures the team's ingenuity and diverse interests and capabilities adequately. The task before the team was certainly daunting: for one thing they were dealing with a “primary corpus” that “came to nearly 140,000 pages...” a third of which “was in manuscript”. What is more, most of these pages were “in Bengali with its cumbersome keyboard”. The Bengali language itself, so full of “single consonants” and “innumerable conjunct glyphs of two, three or four consonants, each combinable with ten vowel markers” had to be negotiated to create “the world's biggest integrated literary database”.   Once the manuscripts, books and journals by Tagore had been amassed they had to be imaged adequately for digital processes. The fact that within them there were all sorts of generic variations and Tagore's own idiosyncrasies such as the doodling that he was addicted to while writing posed specific challenges for the Bichitra team. After these primary problems were solved the next difficult challenge to be met was one of data and file management. To quote, this task necessitated “an exercise in metadata management”. It was a task of epic proportions since the ultimate goal was to create an “integrated website,” or what the project's team claim to be the world's first “hyperbibliography”. For the project all of Tagore's works would have to be arranged in a format whereby all readers could have ready access to them. Another objective was to create a chronology of his works so that scholars could trace the growth of the poet's mind as he wrote and rewrote his works or translated them from Bengali into English or vice versa. The next and crucial challenge was to come up with a search program, a “hyperconcordance” as it were. The goal here was to find a way of collating “comparable text blocks from different versions of a work”.  A final goal was to “provide single-window access to the full range of primary material on Tagore, as well as detailed analytic information through facilities like the hyperbibliography, hyperconcordance and collation engine”.

Bichitra: the Making of an Online Tagore Variorum details the tasks set, the goals adopted, the methods followed, and the obstacles encountered and overcome in coming up with the online Tagore Variorum. In lucidly written and lively chapters; with elegance, wit and the kind of assurance that comes from having traversed awe-inspiring but troublesome, variegated  and slippery territory; with pride derived from making the impossible possible in record time, but also with humility in knowing that not all problems had been solved; and with the knowledge that there was still some work to be done to arrive at a definitive variorum of an indefatigable author, Sukanta Chaudhuri and the other members of the Bichitra team offer us in the book a fascinating account of what must have been an incredibly difficult task. It was a task that must have surely sapped the veins of them all.  What is endearing about the attitude of the authors of this book is that despite all that they have done, they seem to be convinced that theirs is still a work in progress. Looking at the website and reading the book has convinced this reader that though the Bichitra team has scaled Olympian heights in their Tagore variorum, they are heroically bent on extending their reach infinitely to scale even greater heights in their bid to go much further in the brave new world of digital bibliography. All subsequent Tagore scholars and variorum aficionados will surely owe the team members a large debt. They beckon those scholars and aficionados to the brave new world on view here as well!   

Fakrul Alam is Professor of English at the University of Dhaka. 

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