Antanas Poska, the Lithuanian Indologist honoured

Antanas Poska, the Lithuanian Indologist honoured

November 29, 2014

There are few known literary links between India and Lithuania. One of these was re-discovered recently, and the person concerned was rewarded posthumously yesterday. Antanas Poska was honoured with a posthumous doctorate by Calcutta University (CU), his alma mater. Now who was Antanas Poska? Few may have heard of him, but he was a champion of Indian culture, and one of the few to translate Indian literature into Lithuanian.

Antanas Poska, at different ages (antanasposka.eu)


As an aside, it might be mentioned that Lithuanian is the closest living language to Sanskrit. It is the oldest surviving Indo-European language, which has preserved the most phonetical and morphological aspects of the proto-language which many other European languages come from. It is very important to the field of Indo-European language studies, which carries out research on the origin, development, similarities and differences of Indo-European languages.


Antanas Poska and Tagore

Antanas Poska (1903-1992) was a traveller, explorer and anthropologist. He was pioneer motorcycle enthusiast – an adventurer who travelled vastly in Europe and Asia on his motorbike. Importantly for us, he was also a great Indologist – a connoisseur of Indian literature and culture. So much so that, after arriving in India in 1930, as part of a pan-Asia tour on a motorbike, accompanied separately by his friend Matas Salcius, he fell in love with the country so much that he stayed on for five years, before returning to his country, Lithuania (Salcius, though, after travelling through India, continued on his journey and travelled east till the Philippines).

Poska in front of the Taj Mahal; on a rickshaw (Alfa; Pasaulis Kiseneje)


Poska studied in Bombay University and then in Calcutta University, and also worked for some time in the Anthropology Laboratory of the Indian Museum in Kolkata. His love of Indian literature is tied to a great extent to his love for the writings of Tagore. This led him to translate some of Tagore’s writings, his poems and stories. He even started writing poems after Tagore’s style. He also started translating the Gita, but couldn’t complete it.  Also, according to his daughter, Laimute Kisieliene, who received the honour from CU on behalf of her father, the dream of his life was to translate the Vedas into Lithuanian. 

Laimute Kisieliene is a professor of choreography and dance methodology at Lithuanian University of Education in Vilnius, having taken to dance after hearing her father’s stories on Indian dances.

According to Laimute, Poska met Tagore twice. Tagore wasn’t too keen the first time, as he held the view, according to Poska, that foreign translators 'made it a business to make money from his works,' as often the translations were done without his permission. However he received Poska warmly the second time, in 1934, after he learnt of his travelling east especially to visit India, and his immense regard for India and its culture, as a result of which he had stayed on. He told Tagore about Lithuania, its history, language and customs. While staying in Kolkata, in 1934, Poska wrote a short article about Lithuania in the magazine, The Modern Review, in which he also wrote that Tagore had become very much interested in Lithuania, and that he had told Poska that he would encourage his students in Shantiniketan to know more about Lithuania.

Matas Salcius with Rabindranath (kamane.lt)


One of the translated works of Tagore is introduced as ‘dated 1932 at Shantiniketan’, and then, ‘While being a guest of a great Indian poet. With his personal help, I have prepared a small present for Lithuanians. This is a pearl of Tagore's work called Fruit Gathering.’ He translated quite a few of his poems. Not only are the translations into Lithuanian the first for Tagore, they are the first for any Indian literature.

Poska also had nice things to say about Bengal, according to his daughter, as he found them as warm, kind and creative as Tagore’s stories.

He always carried a picture of Rabindranath Tagore, which was presented to him by his friend, the great linguist, Suniti Kumar Chatterji.

He also met Mahatma Gandhi twice, who presented him a scarf with his picture painted on it.

This was gifted by Mahatma Gandhi to Poska (Embassy of Lithuania)


Poska’s doctoral research at CU remains unfinished business, though. He did his PhD thesis in physical anthropology, a study titled ‘Physical Affinities of Shina-speaking people of the Western Himalayas’ under Professor Biraja Sankar Guha. It was sent to London for the measurements of skulls to be checked. Poska’s diary mentions that the paper was sent to the British Museum in 1936, and that he was planning to go to London to defend his thesis, but the delay in his return journey from India, financial difficulties and finally the outbreak of World War II came in the way. When his friend, the linguist, Suniti Kumar Chatterji visited Poska in Lithuania in 1966, he had volunteered to retrieve his dissertation from London and to accord the scientist a PhD from the university. However, though Poska’s diary mentions Chatterji’s letter informing him of granting him the degree, and Chatterji himself addressing him as ‘Dr. Antanas Poska’ in the preface to his book, Balts and Aryans, the university archive has no such record. According to the CU VC, Suranjan Das, without the defence, his PhD could not have been completed. But everyone has agreed that he deserves recognition, and hence the honorary D Litt.


The chance discovery

Appreciation for his translations of his favourite poet, Rabindranath Tagore never came, though. A few years after returning home, in 1941, he was packed off to Siberia by the Stalinist regime, apparently for being too knowledgeable about things beyond the Iron Curtain (in fact, he was never clearly told why he was being exiled).

He spent a few years in the infamous Siberian gulags, before being transferred to central Asia, where he discovered a Palaeolithic settlement and rare fossils. Happily, though, Poska also met Laimute’s mother, Maria while in exile.

As it has come to be known now, it was during his eighteen long years in exile that he translated many poems of Tagore, and also took to composing poems after his style. Not finding enough paper, he even wrote on birch bark.

The birch-tree bark journal (Times of India)


After returning to Lithuania (then part of Soviet Union) from exile in 1959, he continued to study and lecture on the different cultures he had interacted with during his travels. He was immensely influenced by India. He encouraged relations between Lithuania and India. He was visited by the famous linguist, Suniti Kumar Chatterji, who dedicated his monograph, Balts and Aryans in their Indo-European Background, to Poska. He also championed Esperanto, the constructed international language on which he was an expert (and incidentally, which was created also by a Lithuanian). Poska wrote a few books which reflected on his experiences in India. Requiem, published in 1989, has deep spiritual kinship with Tagore. He wrote two other books – a travel book, From the Baltic to the Bengal: An Eight-Year Tour of Europe, Africa and Asia, and an autobiographical book, My Life Story: Memories and Despair.

For whatever reason, he never told his family about the translations of Tagore he had made while in exile. And they wouldn’t have come to light had it not been for an incident which happened last year. One fine day, an old lady visited Laimute and gave her a bunch of copies – a set of three binded books with ‘Tagore’ written on them and a small palm-sized journal made from birch-tree bark. She saw the handwriting and immediately recognised it as her father’s. The old lady told her that Poska had given them to her for safekeeping as he feared their destruction at the hands of the Soviet authorities (his exile had, unfortunately, made him fearfully careful). Now that she had come to know about his daughter, she wanted to hand over the works to their rightful owner.

According to Laimute, travelling to India was akin to a pilgrimage to her, as her father had called the country his second motherland. Now she wants the Lithuanian translations of Tagore to be validated and published, as that would fulfill a cherished dream of her father.

Antanas Poska with family; Laimute Kisieliene (Bernardinai.lt; veidas.lt)


Antanas Poska (El Papola Cinio)





Written by Anushtup Haldar for Team M3.tv



Lead image pictures: Alfa; Vilnijos Vartai; Respublica


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