“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’,” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t- till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!'”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
How can we understand the intent of someone’s words? Do they really mean what they mean? Even if it means one thing, might it mean something else? How can we be sure? Is it possible for our interpretation of someone’s words to be better than what they intended? Not understanding the intention of the other person’s intent even though we understand the meaning of the words causes trouble – be it ending up in the couch for the night or waging wars between nations!
If we make an error in understanding the intent, we try to get it rectified by getting clarification. If we are more nuanced, we try to augment the verbal cues up front with nonverbal cues as Hanuman did in our previous post, and attempt to infer the intent of the words (or actions).
What if we don’t have the luxury of the person being present?
We lose both these faculties almost immediately. This is the downside of written words. It loses contextual meaning fairly quickly and one is then saddled with the heavy task of reconstructing the context in order to interpret the words accurately. Stories, it is said, goes a long way in attempting to fix this issue – but that’s for another day.
As a corollary, sometimes we are faced with another dilemma – what if we do know the intent of the words, but feel that the words themselves are applicable in another context? Do we take the liberty of appropriating the words for another intent that the author may not have intended?
Both these have ethical implications. We may come across an interesting concept in the Internet and might want to use it – be it a recipe or an idea. We may be well intentioned in leveraging past knowledge, but what steps should we take to honor and respect the original author’s intent? Or should we even bother?
These concerns tend to be a bit more obvious in music – a world of renditions and improvisations. I recall an interview with Lata Mangeshkar – the famous Hindi playback singer. She has sung numerous hit songs for R D Burman, her mentor, also incidentally her brother-in-law, and a highly accomplished musical director. In a question about the South Indian playback legend S.P.B singing to the music of R.D.Burman, her comment was that while she highly respected his talent, she didn’t agree with S.P.B taking vocal liberties on a tune that R.D.Burman had composed as she felt it compromised the integrity of the composer’s intent. The irony is that S.P.B has a huge following just for such improvisations! What one considers as sacrilege at times gets appreciated by others, making such questions more complicated to answer.
As we explored the verses from Kamban over the last couple of posts, the same thoughts ran through our minds. We pointed out that in both cases, Kamban’s narrative differs from that of the source – Valmiki RAmAyana. Was that right of Kamban to do so? Has he blasphemed by ‘reinterpreting’ RAmAyana – an epic that is most revered? What would you do if you had write an important research report and end up finding an excellent article that contains a number of points aligned to your objectives for the paper?
- Would you simply copy/paste it and add a few sentences around it and take credit?
- Would you cite the source and include the details verbatim?
- Would you attempt to understand the article, its contextual application, and then attempt to paraphrase it, while also citing the source?
And what has all this got to do with a light bulb?
When we started this blog a while back with the intent of curating and presenting interesting pieces of Thamizh literature, we had a dilemma – do we simply present the verses that interested us with some additional cleanup but leave it to the reader to do the interpretation (an act of curation), or do we attempt to provide some color commentary (an act of interpretation)?
Not everyone is a creative genius. A Kamban and a Bharathi are born once in several generations.
Our humble belief is that like how the inert gas in a light bulb preserves the light emitted by the filament, interpretations and retelling of creative works can cherish, amplify, and propagate the concepts to a broader audience. The filament itself will continue to burn and emit light even if there is no inert gas surrounding it. However, its reach would be far limited and it will burn out quickly. Likewise, the inert gas by itself is not capable of generating light but when it surrounds the filament, it protects the filament from disintegrating quickly and preventing it from internally combusting, thereby preserving the source to shine through for a longer period.
We hope that we are like the tiny inert gas particles – even if we are not capable of displaying literary genius ourselves, we benefit by getting enlightened by the photons emitted by the filament and for our part, try to spread the light a little farther.
What about the glass casing, you say? It has an extremely important role. Without the casing, the inert gas is not going to be contained and will disperse. In our analogy the casing is the intent and purpose of the author and the context in which the literary work was created. We, as the insignificant gas particles, have reasonable liberty – the space between the filament and the casing – to move about and provide a retelling or to apply the concept in a newer format, as long as we do so within the confines of the purpose intended by the author, by understanding the context, and to be discerning enough to not mix them up. If we do so, then we would have served our purpose with dignity and value.
A misappropriation or reimagination is like the gas or a filament particle getting outside the casing – it may have a residual flicker due to the association, but it cannot be considered as being part of that bulb anymore. It does not mean that one cannot provide a complete reimagination of another’s work – it’s just that the reimagination should be considered an ‘inspiration’ of the original work – a new filament in a new bulb having a life of its own that should be dissociated from the earlier one and stand on its own merit.
Kamban is celebrated as a genius because he did not just translate the epic. He added his own unique value by reinterpreting, rearranging, and reconfiguring the epic as required to what he believed would be appropriate for his audience and his time. But while doing all this improvisation, he stayed faithful to the original intent, preserving the tone, concept, and purpose, and therein lies his genius.