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Updated: October 4, 2013 20:33 IST

The painter in words

Vijay Lokapally
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Vikrant Pande.
Special Arrangement Vikrant Pande.

Vikrant Pande talks about translating Ranjit Desai’s Marathi opus on Raja Ravi Varma into English

Raja Ravi Varma was a fascinating artist who earned the wrath of traditionalists by portraying gods in the image of men; drawing his subjects in the nude. To celebrated Marathi writer Ranjit Desai goes the credit of documenting the life of a boy who began by drawing charcoal sketches on temple walls and grew into a classical painter. Varma’s work earned him the title of Raja in the Thiruvananthapuram court.

The original in Marathi has recently been translated by Vikrant Pande, a fine effort published by Harper Perennial. There are some captivating moments from the book that Pande has presented in a lucid style that does justice to Desai’s wonderful book, which took five years of research at home and overseas before assuming its memorable form.

Pande has managed to preserve the essence of Desai’s writing. “I have maintained the essence very largely except for some repetitive phrases and usages which, though sounding okay in Marathi, were out of place in English. We had to edit a few scenes due to the publisher’s pressure on keeping the length to a particular number of pages. Else, the essence has been kept as pure as possible. I have seen many other translations where the translator takes a lot of liberties. I feel that approach is not correct,” he says.

The introduction of his muse Sugandhabai, the Maharashtrian woman who leaves him in a trance with her beauty, and her subsequent ‘surrender’ to Varma’s desire to paint her in the nude have been captured and narrated in a captivating fashion by Pande. Sugandha is the subject for his acclaimed works like Urvashi, Menaka and Damayanti.

Obviously, the translation was not easy. “It was tough to get into the mind frame of Ranjit Desai,” confesses Pande. “Unfortunately he is no more and I could not ask anyone. I had read his other books like Shriman Yogi and Swami and many short stories (I translated his Morpankhi Saawlya, a short story collection, for fun). I read the book a few times to understand his style. I had to ensure that I don’t lose the style and at the same time I had to write keeping in mind the Pan India English audience. There was a conflict at times between my original ideas versus the author's description. Most times I have been very loyal to the work and have avoided using my own imagination.”

Why pick on a Ranjit Desai book? Pande is candid, “I had been a fan of Raja Ravi Varma, having been brought up in Baroda, where I had seen many of his paintings in the museum. I was fascinated by the way he painted, especially his mythology works and some of the portraits. I had, over the years, collected a large number of his oleographs, as I believe it is a legacy I can pass on to my children. I read the book and realised that no one has written a story on the painter’s life. All books talk of his paintings but no one has researched to find the person behind the paintings. Ranjit Desai researched the work for five years and has done a remarkable job. I tried my hand at translating a few pages and when I found I am enjoying it, I did it for my own sake and not for publishing it. It was only later the publisher (Harper Collins) came into picture.”

The translation was done in a year and the book took its shape in the next six months.

Pande is currently in the process of convincing the copyright holders of Shreeman Yogi to allow him to translate the same. “I feel it deserves a Pan India audience. It is a masterpiece from Ranjit Desai.” After Raja Ravi Varma, this subject (Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj) would be worth looking forward to.

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