Audumbara (ಔದುಂಬರ)

So far, all the poems I have translated or transcreated and published on this website are poems Bendre wrote in his early period or in his middle period or at the beginning of his late period. These poems have by and large been lyric poems; rich with the sound, rhyme, rhythm, euphony, and linguistic dexterity, felicity, and inventiveness that defined Bendre’s prodigious poetry.
However, as enjoyably challenging and creatively engaging as this endeavour has been, anyone who has indulged in an activity for long enough will understand how necessary a ‘change of pace’ is — for refreshment, for rejuvenation, for longevity.
By presenting this poem “Audumbara”*, written in Bendre’s eighty fifth year and quite plainly the fruit of a serene self-contemplation, I thought I would allow myself such a ‘change of pace’ — while introducing the reader to Bendre, the ‘poet of  free verse’.

Kannada Poem’s Recitation:

Audumbara (ಔದುಂಬರ)

The
audumbara
does not flowering fruit;
within the fruit itself reside
the flower and its honey.

I am the
atthi fruit;
unflowering, I bear a honey-womb –
the atthi fruit is red, that is its glory!
The nectar-honey within’s its victory!

I am the
audumbara worshipper, Datta
Da Ra Bendre;
some have seen the honeyed nectar,
they are kindred spirits, my rasikas.

Other critics
have noted
faults.
Even my worth’s appeared unworthy.
To those critics who’ve found worms in my fruit
my merits too are nothing more
than acrobatics with the number four.
To think that way is their fate.
They must not bother their heads.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

English Translation’s Recitation:


Poem Details: From the collection “ಶತಮಾನ”, a posthumous collection first published in 2004. The collection was edited by the poet’s son, Dr. Vamana Bendre, and included previously unpublished poems.

Note: The scientific equivalent of the tree that goes by the Sanskrit name of ಔದುಂಬರ (audumbara) is Ficus Racemosa. It is more commonly known by its other names: the Indian fig tree or the cluster fig tree. Its name in Kannada is ಅತ್ತಿ (atti). The audumbara is one of several sacred trees believed to grow in ನಂದನವನ (nandanavana: heaven’s gardens). In the Vishṇu Sahasranāma (The Thousand Names of Vishnu), an extremely well-known Hindu “liturgical” text, the audumbara is mentioned alongside the ನ್ಯಗ್ರೋಧ (nyagrōdha) and ಅಶ್ವತ್ಥ (ashwattha) trees, better known respectively as the banyan and peepul trees.

Afterword
:

I visited Dharwad for the first time in early 2016. The trip was a pilgrimage of sorts: I wanted to see Bendre’s house in Sādhanakēri (a gift from his uncle in 1929) and meet Dr. Vamana Bendre, Bendre’s younger son and self-appointed ‘literary executor’ of Bendre’s work. I wished to meet him so I could give him a copy of the English translations and transcreations I’d made of Bendre’s poetry.

(I first attempted a translation of Bendre’s poetry around mid 2015. The attempt was reasonably successful, but it was only after a satisfyingly successful translation of Gaṅgāvataraṇa, one of Bendre’s best-known poems, that I really devoted myself to the project. Several more translations and transcreations followed, at a quite astonishing pace. (I have published many but not all of them. The speed at which I worked then means some of them could do with a careful rereading.) In any case, by the time I went to Dharwad to meet Dr. Vamana Bendre, I had a collection of fifteen translations ready to give him. The collection included ‘The Descent of the Ganga‘, ‘Come to Sādhanakēri‘ and ‘The Peacock-Smile‘. It was a month or more after my visit that I began this blog-website.)

Let me recount my memory of that first visit. (I have visited Dharwad and Sadhanakeri once more since then – late in December 2017 – and acknowledge the possibility that I may be conflating some details of these two separate visits.) Sadhanakeri being well-known, I had no trouble learning its whereabouts. I was told of a bus that would take me right up to Bendre’s place, but I seem to remember deciding to walk (after learning that it wasn’t all that far away). My memory is of walking along a road that broke off from the main road and sloped downwards, and then of turning left and walking down another sloping road. It was rather late in the afternoon but the weather was humid and the sun was hot. I was following the directions I’d been given, but the road was mostly empty and no one I asked could confirm I was on track. When a couple of lorries drove by, I wondered momentarily if I’d made a mistake by not taking the bus. However, after some time of walking past side-of-the-road brick walls adorned with painted signs and posters and discoloured by mildew, I reached a turning on the road where a fruit-seller had set up shop in the shade. I stopped to enquire and was told that the road that descended from his pushcart was the road I’d find Bendre’s house on. Drawing on what I’d learnt from years of watching my father, I bought a basket of fruits before making my way towards Bendre’s house.

I unlatched the gate of the house and entered. There was an extremely spacious courtyard out in front. Three or four little steps led up to the stone edifice the house rested on. I seem to remember that the front door was shut. My knock brought Ms. Punarvasu (Bendre’s oldest granddaughter) to the door – she asked who I was, invited me into the verandah, and went inside to fetch her uncle.

Having just found notes I made about the events of the day, I will now switch to alternating between them and continuing with the narrative I’ve offered so far.

“Reached Sadhanakeri at ~ 5 o’clock. Met Dr. Vamana Bendre, said hello (and got the impression that he was both irritable and displeased)…”. I remember Dr. Vamana Bendre parting the curtain (that shielded the house from the verandah) and approaching me. He was in his baniyan (undershirt). His chin was stubbled and the hearing aid he was wearing was clearly visible. I greeted him, gave him the fruits, told him who I was, and handed over the copy of the translations. He took it – with a disappointing lack of interest and enthusiasm. Making bold, I asked if he’d like to hear the (English) poem I’d written about his father. He grunted his acquiescence and I presented the song-poem I’d composed the previous year, feeling rather foolish when I finished and he remained mostly expressionless. (Ms. Punarvasu was in the room too, but her reaction too was muted.)

“…took some sugar from him and got ready to leave. Then decided to enquire about a few books with Ms. Punarvasu and bought some; then began to leave and then returned to enquire about [the book] “ಬೇಂದ್ರೆ ಜೀವನ (Bendre Jeevana)” by Dr. Vamana Bendre; then decided to get a signature for the book “ಬೇಂದ್ರೆ ಸಾಂಖ್ಯಯೋಗ (Bendre’s Sāṅkhya Yoga)” from Dr. Vamana Bendre; and was all set to leave when something prompted me to approach Dr. Vamana Bendre to ask him about Bendre’s poetry. What transpired was a ಯೋಗಾಯೋಗ (yōgāyōga: ~ felicitous serendipity) which led to us chatting for about an hour and a half – until about 7.30 – about all sorts of things, while we moved from the ಅಂಗಳ (angaḷa: courtyard) into the house…”

It seemed to me, especially after the somewhat uninterested reception my poem-song had received, that Dr. Vamana Bendre was not someone I’d be able to talk to easily: he had a hacking voice (that made him seem grumpy), was hard-of-hearing, and appeared disinclined to engage in any sort of chitchat. (I learnt later that a stroke some seven years previously had led to several of his problems.) My unease in his presence was what made me decide to leave after I’d taken the sugar. (When he lived, sending off every visitor with a spoon of sugar was a famous gesture of Bendre’s.) My leaving seemed to coincide with Dr. Vamana’s evening walk about the courtyard. Perhaps it was this chance to speak to him alone outside or perhaps it was something else; in any case, something prompted me to return. I went up to Dr. Vamana and began to ask him about his father – and he gradually began to open up even as I began to notice the essential kindness behind the hack of his (post-stroke) voice. I don’t remember the details of our discussion, but I do remember that we talked long enough into the evening that the usual swarm of mosquitoes began to gather above our heads. Among the matters we discussed was one pertinent to the poem above: how, I asked with some jealousy, could I ever hope to write like Bendre (who was gifted his poetry from the heavens)? Indeed, I said, did it even make sense to continue to write if I did not write in the inspired manner Bendre did? How was it possible to be born ripe (as a fruit) like Bendre says he was?

That was when Dr. Vamana told me how it was not until the last years of his life that Bendre came to think of himself as ‘born ripe’. ‘Try’, he told me, ‘continue to write and do your best. There’s no need to compare yourself or your poetry with Bendre and his poetry.’

If this telling has seemed too prolix, it was as a means to get to this incident – the nub of the narrative, as it were. It was translating this poem that made me recall the conversation and prompted me to offer this (not too tedious, I hope) recounting.

“I left after asking for Dr. Vamana’s ಆಶೀರ್ವಾದ (~blessings) which he kindly gave and after shaking hands with him and Ms. Punarvasu. As I walked up the road, moonlight fell from an almost-full moon and reminded me of ಬೆಳುದಿಂಗಳ ನೋಡs (Look at the Moonlight)” and ಗೋಧೂಳಿ (gōdhūḷi: ~ cowhoof’s dust) while I talked to Amma and described the meeting…”

Happiness – Sadness (ಸುಖ – ದುಃಖ)

A simple, sensitive, beautiful little poem. I don’t know that I’d have paid as much attention to it if I’d only been reading Bendre rather than looking for poems of his to translate and transcreate. Indeed, I’d venture that nothing allows for a more active, wide-ranging creative engagement with a poem as translating it. I suppose it’s why I continue to do it.

Recitation of the Kannada poem:

Happiness – Sadness (ಸುಖ–ದುಃಖ)

In the shimmer of the shimmering dawn
the flowers begin to show;
they show their beauty, spread their scent –
in the evening leave and go.

In the same way when youth is fresh
desire sends out its shoot;
flowering ripening fruiting passing,
it grows old and is lost.

In the blowing of the wind
no sadness can be found;
when children laugh their pealing laugh
there is always happiness around.

Recitation of the English translation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಉಯ್ಯಾಲೆ”, first published in 1938.

Afterword:

The first line of the original Kannada poem — ಚುಮು ಚುಮು ನಸುಕಿನಲಿ (chumu chumu nasukinali) — is a good example of the sonic difference between the onomatopoeia a phonetic language (like Kannada) and a non-phonetic language (like English) can deploy. It is obvious that a phonetic language has a much greater onomatopoeic range and can create sounds that a non-phonetic language cannot replicate. Examples include ಕುಲುಕುಲು (kulukulu) for light laughter, ಪಿಸಿಪಿಸಿ (pisipisi) for whispering, and ಪಳಪಳ (paḷapaḷa) for something  that glitters and dazzles.
In the case of this poem, you might have noticed that I’ve tried to compensate for this “lacuna” with a combination of alliteration and repetition, viz. “in the shimmer of the shimmering dawn”.
However, note that shimmer itself can be considered onomatopoeic (though the dictionary doesn’t say so explicitly). So too can the words whisper (the dictionary bears me out here) and glitter and dazzle. It’s just that, being non-phonetic, English finds it difficult to create, without compromising its peculiar temperament, the syllabic imitative words that phonetic languages can. (For instance, I chose “the shimmer of the shimmering dawn” over “the shim-shimmer of the early dawn” because the former seemed to better fit the English language’s natural temperament while the latter seemed a less-than-felicitous borrowing of a phonetic language’s tendencies. However, further consideration makes me see how the latter may be an equally good if not better choice.)

P.S: When I showed the translation to my mother, she observed (not critically but matter-of-factly) that the poem’s theme was rather “well-worn”. That’s true. However, the sensitive handling afforded the theme, the unusual third stanza, the understated presentation, and all-around assonance give the poem a singular flavour – not all of which could be captured in the translation.

Who? (ಯಾರು?)

Bendre’s famous, much-discussed poem “ಭಾವಗೀತ (bhāvagīta)” is, by general critical consensus, understood to be a (self-reflexive) delineation of Bendre’s ‘poetic credo’; in other words, his poem about poetry. Translated directly, a bhāvagīta is a ‘heartful song’, a song that is an expression of feeling. To Bendre, who closely identified himself and his poetry with the rishis of the vedas and their riks, much of his poetry relied on shravaṇa or the ‘act of hearing’. The poem, then, was the shruti or ‘what is heard’. Like Bendre himself says in the poem “Sorcerer (ಗಾರುಡಿಗ)”, the nature of the poetry he wrote was mantra-like – which made it resonant while often putting it ‘beyond mere meaning’.
Furthermore, the fruit of such a temperament and poetic stance was a poetry brimful of nāda, i.e. euphony; which, in turn, made it eminently singable. (Indeed, Bendre is known to have sung his poems to himself, to his wife, to his children as well as to crowds of every possible size.) This credo of Bendre’s is also the likely reason the bhāvagīta of 20th-century Kannada literature is generally taken to correspond to the ‘lyric (poem)’ – itself a reference to a composition that was, originally at least, meant to be sung to the accompaniment of a lyre (or some other musical instrument).
From a historical point of view, Bendre’s earliest poetry was written a decade of so before the creation of his ‘ಭಾವಗೀತ (bhāvagīta)’ poem. That same period saw the birth of a musical tradition within Karnataka that would come to be called the bhaavageete or sugama sangeetha. Starting at about the same time in two far-apart regions of the Kannada-speaking land (with P Kalinga Rao in the Old Mysore region and Hukkeri Balappa in the North Karnataka region), the bhaavageete saw classically-trained rasika musicians use their talents to musically transmit, to the Kannada masses, some of the best Kannada lyric poetry of the time. As the greatest modern exponent of the Kannada lyric, some of Bendre’s greatest lyrical triumphs — including “ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ (gaṅgāvataraṇa)” and “ಹುಬ್ಬಳ್ಳಿಯಾಂವಾ (hubbaḷḷiyāvā: ~the fellow from hubbaḷḷi)” — became popular favourites on account of their being tuned and sung.

If I chose to offer this summary of the bhaavageete tradition (whose name’s connection with Bendre’s poem is not something I’m certain about), it is because this almost-hundred-years-old tradition is solely and directly responsible for acquainting me with the poem whose translation you see below. While I can’t remember when I first listened to the poem, I know that I liked it enough to want to listen to it again – and again – and again. Soon enough, I was smitten by it and it had become a constant companion of my evening runs; a pitstop (on my playlist) that I looked forward to with a particular keenness.
And as had happened several times before, this repeated listening made parts of the poem especially familiar – that kindled in me a desire to translate it – that got me thinking during my run of the possible translation or transcreation of this or that set of lines – that served, eventually, as a springboard to my making a concerted effort to translate the poem in its entirety.
So that is what you see here: a poem whose (lyrical) character inspired a musician to set it to music – which music attracted me and gave me access to the poem’s lyrics – which lyrics drew me inwards and tasked me with their translation.

The Kannada song:

Recitation of the Kannada poem:

Who? (ಯಾರು?)

Who is that who like the ground
spins silently beneath?
I stand here in my pridefulness –
stàmping it down with both my feet.

Gulping fire – spilling light
who is that there in the dark?
Fading – growing – illuminating,
its standing-ground cannot be marked.

A thousand million stars appear,
licking the figure of the night;
but what are they to the star-of-day;
here it comes – blinding the sight.

The dawn, the dusk, the light, the dim –
play and mix and mix and play;
spanning the ages they push on
towárds a sun-time somewhere.

I’m a tràveller on forever’s path,
my search is for the quintessence;
I’ll rush my search though it may mean
melting like sháde in this essence.

Recitation of the English translation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಹೃದಯ ಸಮುದ್ರ”, first published in 1956.

P.S: Those curious about the poem ‘ಭಾವಗೀತ (bhāvagīta)‘ should know the poem is nine stanzas long. Each stanza has three lines. And while the entire poem is virtually untranslatable on account of both its ನಾದ (nāda) and its many (cultural) allusions, I like to think I have done a reasonable job of transcreating the last stanza (with its extremely famous opening line).

The chúrn and churning of the word brought forth a euphony
It felt a joy – it spread a joy – in its own lòve it was happy
It did not mean – it did not want – it was just lyric poetry

The Earth-Mother’s Firstborn Son (ಭೂಮಿತಾಯಿಯ ಚೊಚ್ಚಿಲ ಮಗ)

Do read the afterword.

Recitation of the Kannada original:

The Earth-Mother’s Firstborn Son

Have you seen
with opened eyes
the firstborn son
of the earth-mother?

The sky above’s
smiled a toothy smile,
all the crop’s
just locust-food,
the turned up soil’s
been sown again!
Every evening’s
a bath of sweat –
the water of tears
for the food of breath!
The stomach’s become
the back’s own back;
worry’s owl’s nestled
within the heart;
the squeals of a lizard
have cornered the mind;
the look on the face
is mocking death,
the lance-of-loan’s
stuck through the throat!
and yet and yet
Yama* wìll not come;
with every breath
a life a death.

The threadbare bags
of the body’s chords
have slackened
and have opened up;
inside of them –
a web of bones!
Having somehow come
and fallen in
the dark of the dark
that we call living,
the creature-of-life
is tossing and turning;
the sounds of its struggle
are of groaning and moaning;
when will it come
the light of death?
when just when
just when just when
is its mumble and mutter
in its turbulent sleep!

*Yama — the god of death in Hindu mythology

Recitation of the English translation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ನಾದಲೀಲೆ”, first published in 1938.

Afterword:

Like I say in my essay for ‘The Hindu’, a language is both a cultural and an aural vehicle. This is especially true of a language’s poetry.

What meaning do these two (intrinsic) characteristics of a language take on when they need to ‘transferred’ to another language? That is to say, what must a translation (or a transcreation) do in the context of the transfer of these twin characteristics? Is a transfer even possible?
There are, of course, no easy answers to these questions. Nor are there any ‘correct’ answers. Nonetheless, I will attempt to answer them – in no other capacity than as a keen translator-and-transcreator of Bendre’s Kannada poetry into English.
The specific context of this effort is this poem’s title and its cultural connotations, both implicit and explicit.

*****

In the introduction to a book of his English translations of Tagore’s Bengali poetry, William Radice speaks of the “etiolation” of the English language. He attributes this etiolation – this feebleness, this loss of vigour – to the English language’s global spread and its status as the world’s language of commerce and communication. His motivation, of course, is to explain – perhaps even justify – his own approach to translating Tagore’s poetry.

I mention this matter not just because it introduced me to the word ‘etiolate’ (though I’m quite certain that is the reason Radice’s words have stuck with me) but because of ideas it kindled within me (in a mostly subconsciously manner). I had already begun to transcreate Bendre’s poetry into English by the time I read Radice, but his perspective was thought-provoking and remained with me. I was reminded of it as I started to write this.

Even if we disagree with Radice’s claim that English is etiolated, there can be little argument that English is the language most closely linked to society’s rapid technology-driven modernization of the last century. A natural consequence of such a link is the modernization of the language itself; a process directly influenced by the growth and proliferation of new mores and the gradual obsolescence of old mores. In that sense, it would not be wrong to say that English is, at present, the world’s most modern language.

So – what is the character of a “modern language” like English? What does it possess (and lack) that other languages don’t? More specifically, how do Kannada and English compare? Is it possible to justify Radice’s claim concerning the ‘etiolation’ of English? Here are some thoughts, several of them generalized and speculative.

As I see it, the widespread modernization of English through the 20th century was responsible for severing any last ties of the language with its rural and agricultural (not to mention its pagan) past. In other words, English’s modernization was, in effect, its widespread urbanization. This, of course, meant the language had to ‘grow a new skin’, as it were, even as it shed the skin of its rural, agricultural, and pagan past – a progression that had begun as early as the Industrial Revolution of the middle-1700s but that had been kept in check by a counter-tide of literary Romanticism. Several of the Romantic movement’s ideas were pastoral (and pagan) – the idea of the earth as a nourishing mother (Gaia, Mother Earth, etc.), the anthropomorphism of nature and the natural elements (nymphs and fairies, for instance), and, of course, the great many gods of Greek (and Roman) mythology and of Norse mythology. The waning of the Romantic movement naturally rendered its ideas obsolete. Its ‘poetic conceits’ became artifacts frozen in time. They stood as pleasant reminders of an idyllic rural period that was lost (a period that had perhaps always been more wishful than true) and whose mores were now obviously antiquated and wholly unmodern.
Modern poetry in English, with its keen sense for the present and the changes it was bringing, eschewed the (often exaggerated) tropes and images of the Romantic period; instead using more familiar, tangible and everyday conceits. (Of course, the poetic quality of many of these conceits can certainly be questioned.) By doing so, old pastoral paradigms (whether real or imagined) like Mother Nature, Mother Earth, Gaia, shepherds, nightingales, and fairies were discarded and rendered both irrelevant and obsolete. Now on, they could only ever be used self-consciously or mischievously (as part of a parody or nostalgic pastiche, say). They had lost any poetic cachet they may have previously possessed – and not without reason.
With everybody (except perhaps the Amish?) scrambling towards modernity, the fracture of the already-tenuous bond between man (used here deliberately instead of ‘human beings’) and his natural surroundings, and the rise of factory farming units, what were the chances that people continued to think of the ‘Earth’ as a nourishing ‘mother’ or the farmer as ‘a son of the soil’ or the moon as the ‘goddess’ Selena?

Kannada’s situation (at about the same time) stands in almost direct contrast to English’s. As the West (and English) were rapidly urbanizing, India and Karnataka and Kannada and their cultures were still overwhelmingly rural, agricultural, and pagan. Yes, an ‘urban breeze’ had begun to blow ever so slowly through the country, but its culture and its people were still pastoral (in a manner that even English Romantic literature never was).
Rural life – the village – and its dozens of traditions and inflexible (and occasionally flexible) social mores governed people’s lives and allowed them to live and think like their ancestors of centuries ago. Consequently: the land was a living entity that required care and nurture, the earth was a beneficent mother who bestowed her grace on her devoted children, the farmer was a respected and dutiful ‘son of the soil’, a good harvest was the blessing of the village goddess, a drought was a sign that Indra (~the rain god) was angry and needed to be placated, the flowing stream was an incarnation of the water-goddess, the cow was an integral part of the family, the crow on the branch was the reincarnation of a dead relative, the soaring brahminy kite was the mount of the Hindu god Vishṇu, the chattering lizard was a harbinger of infelicity, the slithering snake in the backyard was a member of the nāga tribe seeking milk, the strange noises heard within the forest were the hungry rumblings of a bloodthirsty rākshasa (~ogre), and the arc-topped stone on the village’s outskirts was a self-born shivalinga (a particularly-shaped stone considered, in Hindu culture, to represent the Hindu god Shiva).
Or put differently, the Kannada land and language of that time were full to overflowing with the cultural accumulation of not just centuries but millenia. Nothing had been jettisoned. The past was always present. It was not ‘an unknown country’ but ‘a familiar feeling’. Whch meant there was nothing ‘romantic’ (especially not in the sense of European Romanticism) for a farmer to speak of his debt to or place his problems upon the shoulders of bhoomitaayi (Kannada for ‘earth mother‘) or for a mother to affectionately call her mischievous little boy “my Krishṇa” (Krishṇa being a particularly beloved Hindu god).

Da Ra Bendre was born within this wonderful richness of culture and tradition and language; a richness that he loved, respected, and let seep into every last cell of his being. His (and his people’s) reward for this open-heartedness would be his heaven-touched Kannada poetry, one of world-literature’s most luminous achievements.

*****

If you’ve read this far, you’ll see that the goal of this exposition was to analyze the possibility and extent of translation (or transference) – both cultural and aural – between languages.
You’ll also have noticed that while the aural aspect has been left mostly undiscussed (though you can find a few of my thoughts here) , the cultural aspect has been discussed in some detail. At the very least, it has been established that the cultural milieu that inspired (and also cocooned) Bendre’s poetry is often completely alien to the cultural milieu that produced (and continues to produce) modern English poetry. However, given the trikāla (past-present-future; timeless; all-time) and universal nature of Bendre’s poetry, what mode of transfer can possibly transform Bendre’s Kannada poetry into modern English poetry?
In my opinion, the emphasis on ‘modern’ is extremely important, in a twofold manner. Allow me to explain.
First – for the simple reason that Bendre’s poetry was modern for his time (though not just for his time) and any translation that does not retain this “modernity” must necessarily be a failure. In other words, it will simply not do to translate (or transcreate) Bendre’s poetry using the conventions of the poetry of the English Romantic period. (I mention the matter because, on the whole, that is what has been done to whatever little of Bendre’s poetry has been translated from Kannada into English.) Exceptionally ahead of his time in his use of the ‘(people’s) spoken language’ to create poetry, the only way an English translation can possibly do justice to the original Kannada poem is by being a fully contemporary 21st-century English poem.
Second – from a practical point of view, a contemporary rendering is the only way to bring the world’s attention to a translation from a language as little known as Kannada (which is a real pity, seeing how Kannada is one of a handful of living world languages with a literary history that has remained unbroken for over a thousand years).

In the context of the poem above, I have chosen to translate bhoomitaayi as ‘earth-mother’ rather than Mother Earth, simply because of the (out)datedness of the latter form. I trust that, by doing so, I have conveyed the sentiment sans the sentimentality. As for the rest of the title, the ‘firstborn son’ (Kannada: ಚೊಚ್ಚಿಲ ಮಗ or chocchila maga) Bendre speaks of is the farmer. In his capacity as the (earth-mother’s) firstborn son, he is doing his duty (as dictated by custom not just in India but the world over) by labouring to provide for the others. But the labour is backbreaking and, dependent as he is on the whims of nature and other people, the life he lives is nothing less than wretched. Growing up poor in Dharwad in the the early 20th century, Bendre was fully aware of the plight of the farmer. (It is worth noting that it is this familiarity Bendre had with the subject of his poetry that precludes the poem from being merely sentimental or nostalgic. In English poetry, a rare instance of this sort of familiarity with life in the village can be found in the poetry of John Clare.)

To end, I would like to thank my college friend, the poet, musician and lecturer Matt Shelton, for the feedback he gave me regarding my own English poetry and his advice to set aside a consciously ‘poetic voice’ for one ‘closer to how we speak’. The advice he gave helped me (in no small way) to see the advantage of contemporizing my translations (and transcreations) of Bendre’s poetry while giving me a framework to work within. More recently, it has helped me refine my ideas concerning poetry (whether lyric or non-lyric) and, as he intended, in creating new poetry of my own. Thanks, Matt!

Unseeing Gold (ಕುರುಡು ಕಾಂಚಾಣಾ)

This is actually one of my early transcreations; more or less part of my “first set, as it were. (Note that I’m deliberately eschewing calling it a translation.) Chronologically, this should have been published a lot earlier, but there was something – I can’t exactly say what – that made me hesitate. I suppose the closest I can offer by way of explanation is my feeling that I had, in my quest to give the poem the ‘outward (rhythmic and metrical) structure’ of the original, ‘compressed’ it too much, robbed it of too many of its nuances, both linguistic and cultural. And while I still feel that way to an extent, I have come to see (on account of the appreciation of two or three discerning readers) that the retention of the original’s ‘rhythmic structure’ has given the transcreation a poetic quality that may have been impossible to achieve through a conscientious pursuit of the nuances I just mentioned. In other words, a more “literal” translation would find it difficult to retain the (very attractive) rhythm of the original – particularly its sung version. (Like it is with so many other poems by Bendre that I’ve translated or transcreated, I first came across this poem too as a song – and a very popular song at that!)

As for the transcreation itself – that is to say its content and its imagery – a great portion of the credit, if anyone sees fit to offer such, goes to Sunaath Kaka and his brilliant Kannada explication of this particular poem. Like I’ve said already, this transcreation happened in my early phrase as a translator (transcreator) of Bendre’s poems; a phase where I was still ‘wet behind the ears’ and often relied on Sunaath Kaka’s explication to help me understand the import of the original. (Not that I can claim any sort of mastery now. It’s just that I’m now more comfortable with both the Kannada language and the language of Bendre’s poetry; and consequently, more keen to understand the original on my own.) In this case, Sunaath Kaka’s extremely interesting (and original?) interpretation of the poem not only gave me the tools I needed to work on a transcreation but also suggested what route I should take – one I’m quite certain I wouldn’t have thought of even if I’d used the dictionary to look up all those words unfamiliar to me at the time. Very specifically, the transcreation of ಕುರುಡು (kuruḍu) as unseeing (rather than the usual ‘blind’) would never have happened. So, once again, I thank Sunaath Kaka and hope he finds this transcreation to his taste (since I don’t believe I’ve ever shared it with him). Those of you who’d like a little more detail about the poem or are curious about the choice of ‘unseeing’ should read the afterword.

Finally, do make sure to listen to both the Kannada and the English recitations below! You’ll see then what I mean when I said my transcreation was an attempt to approximate (if not replicate) the rhythmic metre of the original.

Recitation of the Kannada original:

Unseeing Gold (ಕುರುಡು ಕಾಂಚಾಣಾ)

Unseeing gold was dancing,
upon her supplicants was prancing;
yes, góld – unsèeing góld.

Unseen, tied to her ankles were
anklets bleached as whitened soap;
like bones of half-dead nursing mams;
           while round her throat was hung
           a necklace strung from cowrie-shells;
           like eyes of dying infant girls.
Unseeing gold was dancing,
upon her supplicants was prancing;
yes, góld – unsèeing góld.

Within her hands
she brandished brands
with flames lit by the poor’s gut;
           and from her mouth
           (full-fed on tears)
           came fòrth howling, half-crazed sounds.
Unseeing gold was dancing,
upon her supplicants was prancing;
yes, góld – unsèeing góld.

Across her brow
was kunkuma;
the skin-dust of the slaving poor;
           and in temples her bells resounded,
           and in penthouses she bounded,
           and in shops her echoes soúnded.
Unseeing gold was dancing,
upon her supplicants was prancing;
yes, góld – unsèeing góld.

This frenzied dance of hers all done,
she fell at last upon the ground;
make haste, make haste; and truss her up.

Recitation of the English translation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ನಾದಲೀಲೆ”, first published in 1938.

Afterword:

In the poem above, Kaka’s interpretation suggests – correctly, I believe – that the poem is  an (ironic) depiction of ಕಾಂಚಾಣಾ (kāṅcāṇā: literally ‘gold’ but more broadly ‘wealth’) in the form of ಯೆಲ್ಲಮ್ಮ (Yellamma); a popular rural deity who is believed to “come upon” the body of a devotee and possess him or her. But while Yellamma is a benevolent goddess (or, at least, one who can be placated), the ‘Unseeing Gold’ of this poem seems unrelentingly maleficent. The choice to use ‘unseeing‘ derives from the image of the madly dancing possessed devotee – whose eyes are (technically) open but that are, in truth, unaware and unseeing.

Another very interesting explication contrasts this poem with one of Purandaradāsa’s most famous padas (~ hymns), ‘ಭಾಗ್ಯದ ಲಕ್ಷ್ಮಿ ಬಾರಮ್ಮ‘ (Bhāgyada Lakshmi Bāramma: Come, mother lakshmi, fortune-giver), where he calls – with almost childlike affection – on Lakshmi, his lord Vishṇu‘s consort (and popularly worshipped as ‘the goddess of wealth’) to come calling, in all her decked-up glamour and merciful benevolence, on her worshippers and bless them with wealth of every kind. This childlike call for ‘good fortune for all’ being the gist of the hymn, I will refrain from the (rather arduous) task of translating or transcreating the whole hymn. However, I will offer you an audio clip of the song, sung by one of the 20th century’s most-acclaimed Hindustani musicians, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. I hope you enjoy it.

Note: Incidentally, this poem, is written in the shaṭpadi metre or the sestet, a medieval Kannada metre that, as the name suggests, is made up of stanzas each six lines long and that possesses a ‘beginning rhyme’ – where the second syllable of every line is the same – rather than an end rhyme. This metre is similar to the metre of Purandaradasa’s pada – the primary difference is that the pada is a chaupadi (~ quatrain, quartet) rather than a shaṭpadi.

Dissolution – Creation (ಪ್ರಳಯ – ಸೃಷ್ಟಿ)

This is an interesting poem, made more interesting when one realizes that it is also among Bendre’s earliest. Bendre has written that ತುತೂರಿ (tutūri: ~ trumpet) was his first work, but the book I have says this poem was written sometime between 1914 and 1918 (when Bendre was between 18 and 22 years old). In any case, it seems fair to call this one of Bendre’s “early poems” (when, one can surmise, the Ambikatanayadatta within him had only just begun to come into its own.)

Currently, the poem acts as the prologue to the collection ಮೂರ್ತಿ (mūrti: ~ idol), a set of poems that together narrate the rise, the life, and decline of a stone idol. (Incidentally, his poem ‘Sorcerer (ಗಾರುಡಿಗ)‘ serves as the epilogue.)

However, the (somewhat fuzzy) details regarding the poem’s “date-of-creation” leads me to conclude the poem was written separately and is likely one of Bendre’s early experiments with the Petrarchan sonnet form – which experiments would culminate in the harvest of oct-sestets of “ಉಯ್ಯಾಲೆ” (uyyāle: the swing), Bendre’s 1938 collection of poems. In other words, my guess is that the poem was not written as a prologue so much as it was retroactively attached as a prologue on account of its fitting the theme “ಮೂರ್ತಿ” expatiates upon. The same argument can be made about the poem ‘Sorcerer (ಗಾರುಡಿಗ)‘.

In any case, these are minor details and do not – in the larger picture – add to or take away from the poem.

Note: The idea of ಪ್ರಳಯ (praḷaya: ~ dissolution) and ಸೃಷ್ಟಿ (srishṭi: ~ creation) is an important idea in the Hindu (cosmological) imagination. For the interested, the afterword offers (a little) more detail.

Recitation of the Kannada original:


Dissolution – Creation (ಪ್ರಳಯ – ಸೃಷ್ಟಿ)

Like a cloud of smoke that scattering disappears,
the remembered form dissolves; a pall begins
to rise and spread; like form is lost within
a dream, a formless darkness fills all space;
the mind is dense and thick, and time itself
is lost, unknowable; unmoving, the
mind has turned upon itself; what world is
this that lies ahead? An uncreating
sight, a picture! unpicture. Do I exist?
What else exists? A spreading moor of silence!

Like a deadened body gaining breath, the
darkness around responds; born of the
holy river stone, the melody of Krishna’s
flute is making every fibre of the body
dance; it wears a peacock’s mask. And every-
where are eyes on eyes! Like the widower
given back his bride, the mind is a happy home.

Recitation of the English translation:


(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಮೂರ್ತಿ”, first published in 1934.

Afterword:

Ancient Hindu mytho-cosmology posits a cyclical model of the universe. This is expressed by the term ಕಾಲಚಕ್ರ (kālachakra: the wheel-of-time) – a notion that imputes an end to every beginning and a beginning to every end. In particular, this cosmology speaks of the cyclical recurrence of four yugas (or ages or epochs): the Krita (or Satya) yuga, the Trēta yuga, the Dvāpara yuga, and the Kali yuga. The belief is that dharma (~right conduct) decreases in each succeeding age. At its zenith in the Krita yuga, dharma continues to dwindle until it reaches its nadir in the Kali yuga. This event necessitates the pralaya (~the reabsorption; the dissolution) of the universe and its subsequent srishṭi (~creation, emergence).
The cycle of pralaya-srishṭi is ceaseless. That is to say, pralaya and srishṭi are attached in the same way as the front and back of a coin. Or, put differently, dissolution and creation are inextricably linked – each succeeds and precedes the other through a spacetime of eternity.

The Musk-of-Love (ಕಾಮಕಸ್ತೂರಿ)

To understand Ambikatanayadatta Bendre’s genius, it is vital to appreciate what may be called his “folk poetry”. (Indeed, to people who have not read his poetry but have only heard a couple of songs, he remains ‘just a folk poet’.) By “folk poetry”, I refer here to the poetry Bendre wrote using the idiom peculiar to the Dharwad region, an idiom that he single-handedly raised to rarefied heights. His use of the Dharwad idiom – essentially a regional vulgate – may be contrasted with his equally felicitous use of “High Kannada” (which, broadly speaking, refers to the Sanskritized Kannada that had been used through the centuries by some of the language’s best-known poets).

Imbued to overflowing with the sounds and scents of Dharwad, Bendre’s “folk poetry” may be characterized as the poetry that Yeats wished to write but couldn’t; a poetry that, deriving its ಸತ್ತ್ವ (sattva: ~ quintessence, lifeblood) from the people’s everyday speech and catalyzed by the poet’s peculiar genius, emerges as the expressive apex of a people’s culture. The poet, in such a case, is simply the “chosen one”, the representative” of his/her people’s poetic expression. Bendre himself alludes to this phenomenon in the foreword to his first poetry collection ‘ಗರಿ (Feather)’. He says, “I have talked so far of ‘my poems’. That is simply a manner of speaking. In truth, these are not my poems; they are Kannada’s poems. The Kannada-language’s incorporeal voice is actualizing itself through a thousand throats. That my throat is one among this thousand is itself my blessing. That I am one among the group of poets singing in the dawn of Kannada’s renaissance is itself my source of pride. For if it were not so, why should anybody care about my poems? To say ‘my poems or ‘his poems’ is fallacious; for Kannada to lay claim to these poems is the truth.”
He makes mention of it again in his poem ‘ನಾನು (I)‘ when he speaks of how “as Ambikatanaya he mirrors here in Kannada the universe’s inner voice”.

All this talk above happened because the poem in question is basically drenched in the Dharwad (folk) idiom. Unsurprisingly, this gives the poem a warmth, a cosiness, a tenderness that eludes other more ‘serious’ poems.

As for the poem’s English translation (or, more correctly, transcreation), it may be useful to read what I said previously about such an undertaking. A point I did not make then but that needs to be made concerns the sheer impossibility of translating a poem’s native sound – regardless of whether the poem uses the vulgate or the formal form. Since “poetry is the suggestive sound”, the best the translator or transcreator can do is try to find equivalent sounds in the language the poem is being transferred to. In the case of a lyric poem especially, this “equivalency of sound” is perhaps the most felicitous way to convey the ಭಾವ (bhāva: ~ feeling, mood, spirit) that the original evokes in the native reader or listener.

While I am not sure the poem I just linked to did that very capably (though a friend of mine did say that the translation brought forth tears that she had to hide from those around her), it’s my opinion that I’ve done a little better with this effort.

And now, on to the poem! I’ve (tried to) sing and recite both the original and the translation. Please make allowance for the background noise (and, if necessary, my singing). Thanks.

Kannada original (sung):

Kannada original (recited):

The Musk-of-Love (ಕಾಮಕಸ್ತೂರಿ)
                 (By the Field)

                 Thick-plaited girl
                 I’ve brought for you
                 a scented sprig
                 of the musk-of-love

When worn beautifully
upon your crowny crown
a little swirl of wind
will come my way and touch
and I will feel –
delighted – light – delight

                 People who talk
                w ill talk and talk –
                 you are outside of them

English translation (sung):

English translation (recited):

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಕಾಮಕಸ್ತೂರಿ”, first published in 1934.

Afterword:

This poem is the very first poem in the ‘ಕಾಮಕಸ್ತೂರಿ (kāmakastūri)’ collection. In his foreword, here is what Bendre had to say about the first “batch” of poems in the collection: “The first sixteen poems were not all written at the same time. [However], they all exist upon the same wave[length]. The rasika reader can use their imagination to weave a story or stories around the collection; each to their own taste. [After all,] like musk, kāma too is a quarter intoxicant, three quarters earthy soil, but nonetheless a pulsing heady fragrance! kāma (sensual desire) and prēma (love) are like the mud and the lotus. Or to use the “language of poetry” – one is descriptive, the other suggestive.”

Note: On Jan 26, as part of my January picture series, I published the translation of this poem’s first stanza. In it, I chose to translate “kāmakastūri” as “the musk-of-love”. Given Bendre’s explicit mention of the relationship (and difference) between kāma and prēma, translating “kāmakastūri” as “the musk-of-love” (and thereby drawing an equivalence between “kāma” and “love”) complicates the translation of  “prēma” – whose translation as “love” would be more accepted. However, since there is no mention of “prēma” in this particular poem, I have chosen to stick with “the musk-of-love”.

P.S: Strictly speaking, “kāmakastūri” translates to something like “the sensual musk” or “the musk-of-desire”; neither of which quite captures the tender feeling associated with the poem (like “musk-of-love” does).

The Bird is Flying – Have You Seen it? (ಹಕ್ಕಿ ಹಾರುತಿದೆ ನೋಡಿದಿರಾ?)

One of the most historically significant poems in Kannada literature. In this case, not (simply) for its “poetic worth” – which for once takes a backseat – but for its impact on the Kannada literary scene. I will let Shri Māsti* Venkatēsha Iyyangār explain (in his own words)…

“…a couple of years later I saw him [Bendre] again at the Beḷagāvi Sāhitya Sammelana or the Beḷagāvi (Kannada) Literary Conference [in 1929]. At that conference, Shri Bendre read out his poem, “ಹಕ್ಕಿ ಹಾರುತಿದೆ ನೋಡಿದಿರಾ? (The bird is flying – have you seen it?)”. It is impossible now to describe the ecstasy its listeners felt that day. [While] that one reading was hardly sufficient to understand the various meanings the poem suggested, it was enough to astonish the thousand-strong audience. It was clear to everyone of standing in the “poetry world” that here was a new poet whose poetic shakti (~power) was his very own.”

For a great many more piquant details (including Bendre’s story about the poem’s genesis and information about Masti), please read the afterword below.

And now, Bendre’s own recitation (!) of the first three stanzas of the poem. Not from 1929 but from around 1971-72. The high-pitched reediness of his voice has somehow always intrigued me. (For other audio recordings of Bendre singing his own poetry, go here.)

 

We are also fortunate to have a lovely song-recitation (in his very own style) of the whole poem by Shri Kanada Narahari. Per my “policy”, I have offered only the audio here, but those who wish to can watch the video here. You might also want to follow Shri Narahari’s page to listen to his solos and collaborations on the sitār.
P.S: Dear Narahari awaré, I hope you don’t mind that I’ve used your recording here.

 

Night after night and day on day
here-there, up-down, and everywhere
one furlong two and three away
before the eye blinks òn this play
the bird is flying – have you seen it?

Its feathered-tail’s a blackish grey
its body-colour’s like silvered rays
a pair of góld-and-russet wings
are by its side – flapflap flapping
the bird is flying – have you seen it?

A hue that’s òf dark-cloudy sphere

its wings beat hard against the air
it’s weaved a garland of the stars
and made the sun and moon its eyes
the bird is flying – have you seen it?

Threshing the sheaves of kingdom-states

gulping the limits of the earthly vasts
upping and downing the continents
pecking on crowned-heads glorious
the bird is flying – have you seen it?

Wìping the fáte òff of countless ages

showing hidden fortunes bètween the Mànu sages
vitalizing lífe by the flapping of its wings
cheering the newborns of the newborn spring
the bird is flying – have you seen it?

Outflying the boundary òf the silver town
drinking the water of the city-of-the-moon
and thèn to sing, to play, to fly, to soar
rising and alighting on the grounds of Mars
the bird is flying – have you seen it?

It’s reached the edges òf the spacely sphere

its beak’s outstretched to what’s past there
who knows what sort of plans it has
to find and crack more universes
the bird is flying – have you seen it?

Recitation of the English Translation:

 

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಗರಿ”, first published in 1932.

Afterword:

Here is Bendre recounting the circumstances of this poem’s birth.

“A poem is not the fruit of an experience but rather that of the moment’s inspiration. I can offer a few examples from my own experience: One night, I went to bed extremely late. When I woke in the early morning hours, I just did not feel like leaving the comfort of my bed. The clock by my side was pushing forward, making its usual tick-tock sound. All of a sudden – the similarity between time and a bird struck me and a poem was born. “Have You Seen the Flying Bird” was the phrase. While this experience was one I’d had a great many times before and the phrase itself was nothing new, a poem had never been born of it.”

*Masti Venkatesha Iyyangar (1891-1986) was a short story writer, novelist, essayist, and publisher-editor of ಜೀವನ (jīvana: ~ living), one of the most important cultural magazines in the 20th-century Kannada world. Masti is considered the “father of the modern Kannada short story” and his direct, unadorned style illustrates his natural talent for storytelling. Like Bendre, he too won the Jnanapitha, in 1983 for his novel “Chikkavīra Rājendra“. (The Jnanapitha is India’s highest literary honour.) And while his simple style would come to be criticized by Kannada’s “modernists” for its lack of “complexity”, it is worth noting that it greatly influenced Yashwant Chittal (1928–2014), acknowledged as one of 20th-century India’s foremost writers of fiction. In the Kannada context, just as important as Masti’s writing was his generous support of young(er) Kannada literary talent, including Bendre. (This support was often financial and given with as light a touch as possible.)

There is a great deal that can be said about the warm and respectful relationship between Masti and Bendre. While Masti’s wonderfully unselfish rasika instinct for Bendre’s poetic genius has rightly received much approbation — the well-known writer-intellectual U.R. Ananthamurthy called it one of the great examples in any language of “a critical evaluation of a writer by a fellow contemporary writer” — a particularly crucial aspect of Masti’s support has remained largely overlooked; namely, the fillip that the poetic shakti Ambikatanayadatta within Bendre received as a consequence of Masti’s patronage.
To elaborate, Bendre (1896–1981) was 33 years old when he recited this poem at the Literary Conference in Belagavi. In contrast to the widespread (western) notion of the exceptional poet as a meteor that blazes brightly but too briefly — think of Keats who died at 26, Shelley who died at 30, Rimbaud who died at 27, Garcia Lorca who died at 36 — Bendre was positively old when he first came to public attention. Yes, he’d published a short narrative poem called “ಕೃಷ್ಣಕುಮಾರಿ (Kṛsṇakumāri)” in 1922, but with its sober style, and its old, methodical meter, it is better considered a homage to one of Bendre’s favourite Kannada poets (Lakshmīsha) than a true representation of the poetic shakti of Ambikatanayadatta.
Like Masti goes on to say in his essay (from which the part above’s been excerpted), he and Bendre would spend a good part of the next year (1930) travelling through the old Mysore region and the countryside of southern Karnataka, stopping at the villages they passed so that the villagers there could savour Bendre’s ebulliently fresh (dēsi) poetry in the voice of its creator. And while these travels would give Ambikatanayadatta Bendre’s work (most of it written after 1922) the platform it needed, it is my guess that they were equally important in vitalizing, kindling, and nourishing Bendre’s poetic powers.
A couple of years later, in 1932, this platform would help send forth “ಗರಿ (Feather)”, the poetry collection that would catapult Bendre into the collective Kannada consciousness and earn him the title of varakavi or the heaven-touched poet-seer. The title’s wonderful felicity would grow more and more apparent and reach its fulfillment in the publication of 1951’s “ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ (Gaṅgāvataraṇa: The Descent of the Gangā)”, very possibly the apotheosis of 20th-century lyric poetry (in any language).
To summarize, Masti’s greatness did not simply recognize Bendre’s genius but, more importantly, also provided for it the rasika matrix without which it may never have grown and flourished like it did. (For that alone, the Kannada people will always remain in Masti’s debt.)

P.S: Those of you who’ve got this far may have noticed that I myself haven’t expressed an opinion about the poem. The truth is…I’m not sure what to make of it (even after having translated it). Mostly, I am not fully convinced by the poem’s central metaphor — of time as a flying bird. I mean – of course it’s interesting, but I’m still trying to make sense of its…appropriateness (for lack of a better word). But I didn’t want that to hold up this translation – and I also wanted to give each of you a chance to make up your own mind about the poem – which is why I went ahead and published it. Like always, the translation tries its best to relay the poem’s ಭಾವ (bhāva: ~ spirit) even as it strives to hold on as tightly as possible to the original’s “literality“.

The Seasons’ Song (ಋತುಗಾನ)

I said once that “The Child-Widow” was my most facile translation. Well, the translation of this poem’s first stanza was almost as facile. While the rest of the translation took time – a fair amount of which was spent understanding the purport of stanzas 2 and 3 – I’m glad I got there in the end. There are a few things about the poem (and the translation) I’d like to share, but I’ll leave them for the Afterword (below). For now, here is the translated poem.

By the way, my father didn’t have a tune ready when I was ready to put this up, but one struck him later on and he sang it with gusto. It’s true that the rhythm of the translation follows the rhythm of the recited poem, but the song’s a lot nicer to listen to – as you’ll see (hear?) for yourselves. However, since there are people who I know prefer listening to a recitation, I’m letting that remain too. But it’ll have to take second billing to the song.

Appa’s singing of the Kannada poem:

Recitation of the Kannada poem:

The Seasons’ Song (ಋತುಗಾನ)

The harmony of the curtain-play of the night and day,
the richly ornamented and the divine starry way;
the flower-world upon the earth, the hills, and leafy trees;
the balance of the red of dawn and the evening’s húes.

The rise and falling of the sea within the earth’s embrace,
the graze of wind that wàters the east-and-west’s dark-waters-place,
the wonder of the ear-of-grain rising from the seed that falls,
ah look a death, ah look a birth, the breath of life rises and falls.

The enchantment of affection’s come from learning to unite,
a gentle-smile attained its place in a laughter of delight,
as a sweetness that was jaggery uprose on broken lips,
in wintertime came sprouting the essence of coupleness.

The stretching sky above us is new one mòment to the next,
each new day brings the rhythm-dánce of the spheres of the belt,
‘Turn, return, always be new’ is the song the seasons sing;
to the pitch-note of this song’s been túned the univèrse’s silence.

Recitation of the English Translation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ನಾದಲೀಲೆ”, first published in 1938.

Afterword:

I first came across this poem in the form of its last two lines. ‘ತಿರುತಿರುಗಿಯು ಹೊಸತಾಗಿರಿ (‘Turn, return, always be new)’ was the title of a book of essays by G. Krishnappa; fondly known to his numerous admirers as ‘Bendre Krishnappa’. It was this encounter that piqued my interest and sent me in search of the poem.
I seem to remember being struck immediately by the felicity of the poem’s rhythm. Now that is not really surprising. After all, it is no secret that Bendre had a preternatural sense of ಲಯ (laya) or rhythm. Indeed, he had a preternatural sense of everything that was poetry. (Like he said himself in his later years, he was a ಹುಟ್ಟಾ ಕವಿ or a born poet.)
Anyway, it was this wonderfully attractive rhythm that made me want to do more than just read the poem out loud, that made me want to engage with it, that made me want to “borrow its beauty” – in short, that made me want to translate or transcreate it. It was in this state of ebullience that I translated the first stanza (which remains more or less unchanged). But I soon found that the second and third stanzas were nothing like the first. If the first stanza was a rhyming, rhythmic, direct and simple description of natural phenomena, the second and third stanzas were different. Not only did they not use not such simple language as the first stanza, they were – especially stanza 3 – also less direct, more complex, more allusive and, so, elusive. Finding them difficult to understand and stalled in my translation attempt, I set them aside with every intention to return to them. (It is worth noting that all through this I had been searching for the best translation for the last two lines of the poem. The penultimate line was not so hard but the pair of them together were proving a challenge.)
It was about three weeks ago that I returned to the poem (and the incomplete translation). The break proved itself a good idea. With a little help from the dictionary and some ಮನನ (manana: ~contemplation), it seemed to me that I had managed to understand what the second and third stanzas were trying to say. And what better way to check if I had than to try to translate the two stanzas?
(Like I say in the ‘About‘ section of the page, these translations are as much as for myself as they are for anyone else. What they do is give me a chance to engage both seriously and creatively with the poem. It is a fact that I now understand so many poems better simply because I have either translated or tried to translate them. An attempt at translation seems to me a sort of “creative close reading” of the poem. Untrained and uninterested as I am in the technique of “close reading” – which usually involves “taking the poem apart” – I find that translation allows me to actively engage with the poem as a rasika, an activity I find most worthwhile. What’s more, such close engagement with the poem also often ensures that it remains with me for a long time – which in turn means I often find myself returning to the translation to make a small change or two that’s occurred to me. ‘Jogi‘ is the best example: published some two and half years ago, I returned to it as recently as this September.)
To get back to the poem, I found myself able to make much more headway this time around. Their production might not have been as facile as the first stanza’s, but stanzas 2 and 3 were translated as stanza 4 too began to fall into place. An addition here, a cut there, a tweak somewhere else and the translation you just read was more or less ready.

Note: I often discuss (parts of) poems I don’t understand with my father. With this poem too, it was only after I’d read the translation out to him (as he listened while looking at the text of the original) that I thought to ask him what he thought the closing line of the poem meant – ಈ ಹಾಡಿಗೆ ಶ್ರುತಿ ಹಿಡಿದಿದೆ ಬ್ರಹ್ಮಾಂಡದ ಮೌನ (ee haaḍige shruti hiḍidide brahmaaṇḍada mouna). Particularly, what did it mean to say the “shruti” to the song was a (universal) silence? As we discussed what “shruti” itself meant – it is, loosely, a monotonic vibration of the stringed tamburi that plays continually in the background as it offers a pitch to a trained singer’s ears – my father talked about how the constant “drone” that is the shruti could be construed as a sort of silence – an idea I furthered by musing about how the monotone of the shruti could be thought as a “drone” that is subsumed by the surrounding silence. In any case, the discussion was very interesting and made me wonder further at the startling and original metaphors Bendre used so prolifically. It also occurred to me that this metaphor could be categorized under what Shankar Mokashi Punekar called Bendre’s “cosmic images”.

Let’s Not Tell a Single Soul (ಯಾರಿಗೂ ಹೇಳೋಣು ಬ್ಯಾಡಾ)

Let’s not tell a single soul
no, not a single soul. |Refrain |

That climbing on a horse with wings,
perched side by side like little twins,
we’ll go swaying and awaying –
let’s not tell a single soul
no, not a single soul.

That to a yard of yours we’re going,
its flowers all flowering, its fruits all flowing;
there we’ll have a merry feasting –
let’s not tell a single soul
no, not a single soul.

That holding hands we’ll dance and dance,
we’ll bend and bow and spring and prance,
and, untíring, play-skip entranced –
let’s not tell a single soul
no, not a single soul.

That in a field of malligē flowers,
we’ll sit with my cheek stroking yours
and softly sing some duet bars –
let’s not tell a single soul
no, not a single soul.

That turning into little snakes,
we too’ll sway our hoods and shake;
amid the flowers, the green, the lake –
let’s not tell a single soul
no, not a single soul.

That sleeping deeply, unbodied,
to a joyous magic land we’ve dreamed
we’ll steal away – unheard, unseen –
let’s not tell a single soul
no, not a single soul.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ನಾದಲೀಲೆ”, first published in 1938.

Note: Do read the Afterword.

I’ve taken a shot at singing both the original Kannada poem and the English translation. The tune of the Kannada song, if one may be discerned, is taken from this lovely recording by Shimoga Subbanna. (Of all the recordings made of the song, this is by far the most melodious and felicitous. I urge you all to listen to it. In fact, it is largely responsible for making me want to translate the poem. The only reason I haven’t offered that recording instead of my own is because it is missing one stanza of the poem. As it is, Mr. Subbanna has sung stanzas 1, 2, 3, 6, 5 in that order.)
The English translation’s recording, I confess, is of my own tuning. With the original poem having been tuned so wonderfully, I thought it would be somewhat of a letdown to simply recite the translation. I just hope the singing isn’t more of a letdown.

The Kannada poem as a song:

The English translation as a song:

Afterword:

Da Ra Bendre was among that tiny group of poets whose work becomes not just widely popular but also “required literary reading” in their own time. The foremost modern lyric poet of the ನವೋದಯ (navōdaya: ~ new dawn; renaissance) period in 20th-century Kannada literature, several of his (early) poems were included in textbooks. Naturally, this meant his poems were discussed in classrooms – often by teachers who were themselves hard put to make sense of (the nuances of) the poem! While it is likely that most of them just chose to gloss over the matter, they were a few souls brave enough to take the issue up with Bendre himself! (I say “brave” because of how quickly Bendre was known to fly into a temper. However, it is worth noting that he had great appreciation for the rasika, the sahrudaya, the invested reader – and was always willing to help them with their difficulties.)
Related to this poem is the story of one such (invested) teacher. It is a story I heard very recently (and “third hand” at that), but I reckon it is (mostly) true and, what is more, quite engaging. Of course, since it is a recounting of a retelling of a telling, I have taken the liberty to create a (plausible) narrative.
The story goes that a schoolteacher assigned this poem was hesitant about reading it out and explaining it to his students in the 8th grade (or thereabouts). His reason? The intimacy found throughout the poem – and especially apparent in lines like “ಗಲ್ಲ ಗಲ್ಲ ಹಚ್ಚಿ ಕೂತು (We’ll sit with my cheek stroking yours)”. Just how was he to talk to young children about such intimacy without himself feeling embarrassed or having to answer questions he’d rather not answer? Unsure, he decided to go to Bendre himself. “Maastra, how do I talk to such young children about such displays of affection?”, he asked, “I’m likely to begin to feel embarrassed and self-conscious myself”. Bendre is supposed to have smiled at this and simply said, “Is that so? Well, go back, read the poem again and come here.”
Baffled but unable to question the varakavi, the teacher went back and read the poem, wondering all along what he needed to read a (seemingly simple) love poem like for again. After all, it seemed straightforward enough, didn’t it? So it happened that he returned to Bendre the next day, no differently opinioned. “Did you read it again?” asked Bendre. “I did, maastra.” “And you didn’t see anything that answered your question about how you could teach it to your class?” “No, maastra, I didn’t.” “Okay then, read it again and come back tomorrow”, said Bendre.
Baffled but obliged to obey, the schoolteacher returned home to the poem and read it again; doing his best to find the key to Bendre’s (rather unhelpful!) suggestion. Try as he might, he was unable to find the answer to his question, a way that would allow him to speak about the poem without feeling self-conscious. So back to Bendre’s he went the next day, feeling rather foolish and wondering what lay in store.
“So you found your answer?” asked Bendre. “No, maastra, I didn’t,” replied the teacher, looking crestfallen.
“Okay then, tell me again why you think you’ll find it hard to teach your students this poem.” “Because of some of the details, maastra – of the cheeks of the lovers touching and all that.”
“And what made you think the two of them are lovers?” The teacher was taken aback. “But isn’t that obvious, maastra; it’s a love poem after all, isn’t it?” “Yes, yes, it is a love poem…but why did you think it was about a man and a woman?”
“Well, because…” the teacher’s voice trailed off. He’d said it was obvious, hadn’t he? But why was it obvious? He couldn’t quite say.
Smiling, Bendre said, “Look, tamma, you aren’t the first one to interpret the poem the way you did, but I actually wrote the poem for my son (when he was a little boy). I was imagining doing all these secret things with him; sailing away on a flying horse, playing like little snakes, nuzzling each other’s cheeks, holding hands and dancing…do you see now how you can teach your students this poem?”
The schoolteacher nodded. “What a lovely poem, maastra,” he said, his voice filled with emotion. “I’d be proud to read it out and teach it to my students.” Then joining his palms in a namaskaara, “And now, with your permission, maastra, I’ll take your leave. Thank you very much for all your help.”
“Go along and come back sometime, tamma,” said Bendre, as he took a teaspoon of sugar from his pocket and gave it to the teacher.

Glossary:

1. maastra – the (Dharwad) Kannada way of saying “Master” – which is how most older people addressed Bendre (the young ones called him “ajjaara” or grandpa)

2. tamma – the Kannada word for a younger brother

3. namaskaara – a gesture of reverence made by joining the palms of both hands (at around chest level)

Rasika (ರಸಿಕ)

When he lived, Da Ra Bendre was known for his temper and his enthusiasm to engage in a quarrel. He himself attributed this temperament, with no little pride, to the ಮಣ್ಣಿನ ಗುಣ (maṇṇina guṇa: ~ quality of the soil) of his beloved Dharwad. He was, to use a felicitous Kannada word, a ಜಗಳಗಂಟ (jagaḷagaṇṭa: ~a quarrelsome fellow). It is said that when asked once why he’d chosen not to spend time abroad as a poet-in-residence, he answered with, “What am I going to go and do there when I haven’t even finished with all my quarrels in Dharwad!” As he grew in stature as a poet, so did criticism of his work – often poorly informed and occasionally malicious. Never one to take an insult lying down, Bendre confronted these critics both in his poetry and in person.

Contrariwise, Bendre held a particular affection for the rasika**, the sahrudaya. Indeed, one could go as far as to say the rasika-sahrudaya, no matter their rank or qualification, was Bendre’s “favourite person”, the raison d’etre of his poetry. This is borne out not only by Bendre’s poems but by the many generous things he had to say about them in his prose writings. Here are a few excerpts.

Poetry is the rest-home built to bring the joy of happiness to the rasika, the kindred spirit.”

“Like the poet, the rasika too has the “illuminating eye”. He too has the facility to “get the eyes to open”.

“But the sahrudaya is not slave to his nature. His words are not those of praise or criticism. It is his nectarine-sight that serves as a poem’s touchstone. To be exposed to that sight is a grace, to be removed from it a curse.”

To all those sahrudayas who have continued to welcome the poems of ‘Ambikatanayadatta,’ ‘Bendre’ conveys his gratitude: that his scribesmanship is not simply a waste, that his happy, wanton singing is not completely fruitless.”

**The ರಸಿಕ (rasika: ~ one sensitive enough to appreciate the rasa) or the ಸಹೃದಯ (sahrudaya: lit. a person of the same heart) is a major figure in classical Sanskrit poetics. Indeed, it is he or she – with their capacity to grasp the essence, to appreciate the nuances, to experience the joy felicitously-written words can offer – who drives the creation of poetry. Yes, there would be no poetry without the poet – but (perhaps) there would be no poet without the rasika.

The poem below is one of several Bendre-poems about the rasika.

Kannada Poem’s Recitation:

Rasika (ರಸಿಕ)

My heart and your heart – a salt-ocean apart;
all song is like a forest-cry!
If everyone’s drowned in their own tears,
which heart’s companion to friendship’s plea?

When will it come that wit that lifts
and strings the pearls within the soul’s recess?
More sharp than pin, more fine than thread;
can such words bear the tongue’s impress?

Like a fragrant flower-garland’s sent,
like melodies set out on flight,
I’ll send, rasika, with a happy sigh
these heartfelt words for your heart’s delight.

English Translation’s Recitation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಉಯ್ಯಾಲೆ”, first published in 1938.

 

Paper Boat (ಹಾಳಿ ಹಡಗ)

Long before Jagjit Singh was singing a soulful ghazal about the lost childhood of paper boats and even longer before paper boat was a quirky, new-age brand with attractive packaging, Da Ra Bendre was writing a sonnet about the paper boat. Not a run-of-the-mill sonnet, mind you, that merely romanticized the innocence of his childhood days – but rather an image-rich oct-sestet (ಅಷ್ಟಷತ್ಪದಿ) that even now stands out for what Bendre himself described as “the strangeness of the twist imparted [when moving from the octet to the sestet]”.

Given the strangeness of this twist – its ಚಮತ್ಕಾರ (chamatkāra (n): ~ wonder) – and the various interpretations it allows for, I think this a good time to say something about what it means to translate poetry like Bendre’s — poetry that is not just remarkably euphonic but frequently rich in meaning, in suggestion, in allusion, in metaphor, in native imagery.

Like I say in the About section, my translation (or transcreation) has always looked to avoid the trap of “literalness” and offer, instead, the spirit of the original poem. But what if that spirit itself is one of mystery or elusiveness or ambiguity or complexity or all these things at the same time? Does “literalness” gain importance then?
Well, in such a case, I’d say the duty of the translation or transcreation becomes to retain, to the extent possible, the poem’s qualities, with the caveat that it never (deliberately) stretches past the original’s own reach. (An example of stretching past the original’s reach to create a kind of “fusion” is Fitzgerald’s rendering of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat. He is said to have taken so many liberties with the original that his immensely-popular work is often referred to as the Omar-Fitzgerald Rubaiyat. Fitzgerald apparently called his work a “transmogrification”.)
The retention can be effected in different ways: by seeking to understand the poem’s nuances of meaning and suggestion and using that learning to create a translation that is itself nuanced, though perhaps in a different way; or, in the case of a poem that challenges the translator’s understanding, by offering a translation that challenges its reader in equivalent fashion.

This particular poem is one whose “strangeness of twist” I cannot claim to have “fully understood”. Consequently, I have tried to present a translation that retains – as literally as possible – the imagery of the original. After all, like I have said before, my reason for translating a Bendre poem is often my own desire to better understand the poem.

Kannada Poem Recitation:

Paper Boat (ಹಾಳಿ ಹಡಗ)

I will set sail these paper boats
like one would do in boyish play,
until the cloud-hid sun shines forth again;
(the scrap of home will be its load.)
Within this mud-watered-unity
that marries the culvert and the lake,
let the current chart its destiny:
what is a flimsy boat against a crazy rain-and-breeze?
Let the books account the profit and the loss;
what I praised in wonder-dance is here.

The heart, like cloth, crumples and fades,
the breath is dimmed by hunger and by thirst;
building varied fairied lands, making channels
flood happily, cutting and sniff-scattering
the jasmine-of-the-skies, and breathing life
into the pictures of the mind,
comes forth
a heaven that has birthed itself.

English Translation’s Recitation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection, “ಉಯ್ಯಾಲೆ”, first published in 1938.

Benediction (ಹರಕೆ)

Kannada Poem’s Recitation:

Benediction (ಹರಕೆ)

The slow-paced step is slower now, within doe-
eyes’s about to sprout an anxiousness;
(the fresh-greenness of the body’s faded now.)
Its youth undone, the blood’s red-freshness’
quickly turning old. Coquette who wished to
count the feathers of the flying bird! Your
heart’s as desolate as an empty temple’s show;
sweet murmurs can be born no more;
now grown, you stand past outstretched hand.

Sister, let the day’s fatigue just fade away;
let the soaring hawk not swoop this way
or boy-wind tie you up in impish play.
Don’t visit here, you bee who steals the flower’s
scent; let spring’s desired-success-shower come;
above, let your moon-star act as your home.

English Translation’s Recitation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection, “ಕಾಮಕಸ್ತೂರಿ”, first published in 1934.

Afterword:

I remember being at the 2016 Ranga Ugadi organized by Ranga Shankara, Bengaluru’s best-known theatre space. The year’s theme was Bendre and the centerpiece of the second day’s festivities was a reading session of his poems by various well-known Kannada cultural figures. One of them, I recall, prefaced her reading – of the poem ‘ದಶಾವತಾರ’ – with her description of Bendre as a man with a “ಮಹಾ ಹೆಂಗರುಳು” (mahā heṅgaruḷu), or in other words, “a great woman-like sympathy”.
The poem “ದಶಾವತಾರ” – the ten avatāras – is part of a series of poems called “ಕರುಳಿನ ವಚನಗಳು” – or “words [born] of the gut” – written from the point of view of a mother that relate her various happy and spontaneous exclamations at her beloved infant’s ways and plays.  To those who know about Bendre’s growth as a poet, the influence of Rabindranath Tagore’s “The Crescent Moon” on these poems is obvious. (Speaking for myself, the poems in “The Crescent Moon” are some of the most exquisite poems I’ve ever read.)
If the incident mentioned above is relevant, it is because this poem too exemplifies the ಹೆಂಗರುಳು Bendre possessed. While a deep sensitivity characterizes all great poets, Bendre’s sensitivity was (for a male poet) unusually “female directed”. A number of his early lyric poems are either written from a woman’s point of view or are sympathetic responses to a woman’s various life experiences.
It is notable that this is another oct-sestet – one that rhymes this time. You’ll notice that the translation has, in spite of my trying, 15 lines rather than 14. Its rhyme scheme too is different from the original’s. Then again, that’s the reason I prefer to think these poems are as much transcreations as they are translations.
P.S: I think it worth reading this poem in conjuction with this one.

Gumma (ಗುಮ್ಮ)

The literature of the Navōdaya period (that began in the early 1900s) in Kannada literature was inspired by the emergent literature of the Bengal Renaissance as well as by the Romantic tradition of English poetry. This inspiration extended to the verse forms of the Romantic tradition and included the sonnet.

As the foremost lyrical poet of Kannada’s Navōdaya period, and an inveterate seeker (and inventor) of new poetic forms, Bendre’s experiments with the sonnet began in the early 1920s. However, it was in his 1938 collection “ಉಯ್ಯಾಲೆ (Uyyāle: The Swing)” that the sonnet-fruit swelled forth in all its fullness. Naming his avatāra of the sonnet the ಅಷ್ಟಷಟ್ಪದಿ or the oct-sestet (and, by doing so, choosing the Petrarchan form over the Shakespearean), Bendre says in his introduction that “the new qualities [of his sonnets] are their lack of rhyme, their unpredictable use of enjambment, and the strangeness of the twist imparted [when moving from the octet to the sestet]”.

As a translator, I will admit that the sonnets of “ಉಯ್ಯಾಲೆ” have provided respite of a sort. In particular, Bendre’s (deliberate?) eschewal of his famous, near-ubiquitous (end) rhyme has allowed the translation – or transcreation – to stretch its limbs a little bit more, to spread itself with a little more freedom in its attempt to emulate the various ways and plays of a Bendre poem. Conversely, this eschewal on Bendre’s part has often been (more than) compensated for by a denseness of thought and language! In any case, I have looked to approximate the technical dexterity of these poems using what may be called a rhythmic “free verse”. (Bendre may have chosen to forego rhyme but his preternatural sense for rhythm and aurality remained.)

Here is a sonnet from the collection that illustrates some of what was said above. While the English word bugbear works as a translation for gumma, I have retained the original for its flavour.

Kannada Recitation:

Gumma (ಗುಮ್ಮ)

Keep quiet, kanda, the gumma’s come; oh my, what
are those eyes of his! How red his tongue – like embers
in the darkness black! Faking slowness, he comes (and
comes); keep quiet, kanda, don’t you cry! He might just
come here if he hears your wail; Oh my oh my!
Shut your eyes tight, just fall asleep, don’t ever see
his misbegotten face; here he comes, oomph-hmmphing,
stay calm, kanda, don’t even peep, the gumma nears.

Don’t come, gumma, he’s gone to sleep; this is mira–
culous! Like fish gulped in to a water-whirl,
his mind’s at rest; his breath is like a baby-breeze
swirling through the leaves; it’s acting crazy now –
with what dream-girlfriend’s breathing is it twinned;
there too, gumma, make sure that kanda is not scared.

English Recitation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection, “ಉಯ್ಯಾಲೆ”, first published in 1938.

Beyond the Mind (ಅಚಿಂತ್ಯ)

Among Shankar Mokashi Punekar’s many affectionate and insightful quotes about Bendre’s poetic genius is his description of Bendre’s poetry as “a poetic essence born of the constant embrace of the heart (ಭಾವ) and the intellect (ಬುದ್ಧಿ)”.

Interpreted judiciously, one may understand this to mean that every poem of Bendre’s holds within it, in varying degrees, elements that appeal to both the heart and the mind; that both stir the heart and stimulate the mind. Given the exquisite romanticism of Bendre’s lyric poems and the intellectual inquisitiveness of his early sonnets and later poems, Punekar’s assertion seems very reasonable.

This particular poem seems a good example of the “intellect” of Bendre’s poetry. Like Bendre says himself in his foreword to “ಮೂರ್ತಿ  (mūrti: ~ idol)” – a set of connected poems that, through their exploration of the birth, life, and death of a stone, allegorically describe the human experience – this “first part of the [longer] narrativepoem is the philosophical face of a metaphoric symbolism”.

It is worth noting that the fifth stanza with its several Hindu philosophical references was particularly challenging to transcreate leave alone translate. Once again, it is the liberties the English language allows me to take with it that makes translations like these that much easier.

Kannada Recitation:

Beyond the Mind (ಅಚಿಂತ್ಯ)

No one has seen the truth,
the truth cannot be seen;
is it smaller than a grain of sand?
The prideful man who says
that he has seen the truth;
are the secrets of a grain of sand
mórsels for men’s eyes?

You silver-tongue who thinks
you’ve caught within your net of words
that truth that goes beyond the sight!
He alone knows who knows
the truth of truth is beyond truth;
and you say that you have caught its breath!

Pick up a grain of sand,
enclose it in your fist;
what does it say? What is
its goal? Its life? Tell us from which
despoilèd golden age emerged this
debrised gleam that you now hold!

Hari’s the greater, Hara’s the greater
are just lines that’ve been written down;
must life be wasted arguing them?
What is dual is not dual,
the dual is always undual:
no dance of numbers need tell us this.

Oh unknowable, unseeable, unknowandseeable
that opens with a new magnificence at every sight!
Oh limitless, peaceful light-of-life seeking immortality!
Oh unthinkable, ineffable, unapprehendable!
Let everything be well.

English Recitation:

Note: Hari and Hara are the different names for Vishṇu and Shiva respectively – two of the three gods that make up the ತ್ರಿಮೂರ್ತಿ (~trinity) of the classical, Sanskritized Hindu tradition. From the early centuries AD, devotees of each god (in his myriad forms) have argued, debated, quarrelled, and written poetry describing their god as the greater and the other as the lesser.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the episodic narrative-poem, “ಮೂರ್ತಿ”, first published in 1934.

Hothot Sky (ನಿಗಿ ನಿಗಿ ಮುಗಿಲು)

Original Kannada Poem:

Hothot Sky (ನಿಗಿ ನಿಗಿ ಮುಗಿಲು)

Hothot sky
hothot day
pours forth an emberous heat;
strips all cover
steals all power
the life-breath’s fully beat;

Dries the throat
drops the fruit
the hot breath of the air –
full-flaming
sky-swimming
is arriving in fine flair.

Showers the rain
uplooks the grain
the dark clouds break and burst;
cheep-cheep the birds,
their laughter-words;
here’s mercy for the cursed!

Transcreated English Poem:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ನಾದಲೀಲೆ”, first published in 1938.

Afterword:

ಹಾಡೆ ಹಾದಿಯ ತೋರಿತು (haaḍē haadiya tōritu: ~ the song itself showed the way) said Bendre of (his) poetry. The variousness of his poetry’s metre, rhythm, rhyme, prosody, and syllablism testify to the truth of this statement: the song really did show him the way. All too often, all he did was follow its lead.

In this particular poem, it may be argued that the short (staccato-ish) syllabic lines lend the poem an urgency – alluding, at first, to the withering heat and, later, to the wet relief of the rain. In any case, the poem is a wonderful example of the famous ನಾದ (nāda: ~ euphony) inherent to Bendre’s poetry. Just listen to that assonance, that rhythm, that rhyme, that onomatopoeia!

In this transcreation, a particular concern was to mirror the (short) syllablism of the original poem’s lines. Trying to work the English language to achieve such effects is an especially satisfying aspect of translating Bendre’s poetry.

The Child-Widow (ಪುಟ್ಟ ವಿಧವೆ)

Begun almost two years ago, this translation is perhaps my most facile one – in the best sense of the word. I remember how I began it in my room, sitting at my desk underneath the skylight as the setting sun’s colours filtered in through the window0 to my right. By the time I was done translating the first ten stanzas of the poem, the dark had filled the room and my mother had switched on the lights downstairs. I remember my own astonishment at the “beautifully smooth procession” (as I told my mother) of the translation and the satisfaction the effort brought me.

The translation, however, remained incomplete – for want of my understanding the last stanza.  I kept the piece aside, revisiting it on occasion but never quite getting around to understanding the last stanza. It was only some two months ago that I finally got around to writing to Sunaath Kaka, a much older internet-friend and Kannada blogger who has been publishing his wonderful (occasionally idiosyncratic) explications of many of Bendre’s famous and less-famous poems. His beautifully detailed reply completed the puzzle and helped me translate the last stanza of the poem – without doing injury to the poem’s rhythm. I thank Sunaath Kaka for his help and his friendship.

Otherwise, I will let the poem speak for itself.

As usual, I have added the audios of my reciting the poem.

Kannada Recitation:

English Recitation:

(Note: This is the 25th translation I’ve put up on this website; published to coincide with Da Ra Bendre Ambikatanatyadatta’s 123rd birth anniversary.)

The Child-Widow (ಪುಟ್ಟ ವಿಧವೆ)

She was just a little child, he just a growing boy;
but for their parents – oh what joy!
To marry them off in the name of what’s right
gave those parents a féstival’s delight!

A necklace, cheek-powder and a nose-ring;
followed by kunkuma — how winning!
But the play and the frolic of that small little wife
seemed to the eyes to hold so much more life!

The little girl grew up, the boy was not much older;
the nuptials were such a treat for the elders!
(As though the dullness on the bridegroom’s face
could take away from the marriage-feast’s taste?)

Not even a year before a child was born!
“This must be god’s handiwork,” said everyone.
But as the child came in, the father moved on;
the sea of milk turned into a salt ocean.

In a couple of days, in the manner of his father,
the child too moved on; what now for the mother?
Her body turned sepulchre of breath; life a bee,
full of sting — devoid of honey.

Ayyo! I have died,” the child-mother said,
and she wailed and pounded her fists on her head,
and swore crazily and loudly and gnashed her teeth
and cursed at herself until she was out of breath.

In ten days, she had lost the wretched status of wife
and had gained, instead, the title of widow-for-life;
her family was learned, the village had a long tradition;
when the shāstras were there, what need for discussion?

Her headdress was lost, her brow charcoal-smeared,
a red-coloured saree became her daily wear;
but oh, how sad, she was still just a baby
with no jewels or dresses; but that’s a different story.

The little girl wore out the rest of her life as
though she’d been born to pestle parched rice;
she threaded and pulled coloured flowers over thorns
as though that was the reason for which she’d been born.

And when the child-widow went to the temple
to hear the purānas being told, the decorated idol
lost its shine; and the reciting priest’s throat grew dry
when he saw the thread-of-tears on her necklace-of-sighs.

Overwhelmed, she stood – a memorial to
a dharma turned blind; an owl-cry came through;
the blessing-hand’s eyes looked full in her face –
the capers of Krishṇa would soon gather pace!

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಸಖೀಗೀತ”, first published in 1938.

Lass with the Empty Waterpot (ಬರಿಗೊಡದ ಬಾಲಿ)

I think, that if I touched the earth,
It would crumble;
It is so sad and beautiful,
So tremulously like a dream.”

(From Clown in the Moon by Dylan Thomas)

I first read these lines on a postcard almost ten years ago in a library room in Cambridge. What struck me immediately was their delicacy – a delicacy so wonderful as to be almost painful. While I have not forgotten the encounter, I cannot say that I have thought much about these lines in the years since.
           And yet, it was (the memory of) these very lines that came to mind as I mulled the “feeling of loss” I experienced when I returned to the translation offered below.

Allow me to explain. The Kannada poem (whose English translation may be found below) first came to my notice about a year ago. I came across it as I flicked through the pages of a richly-aged copy of Bendre’s ಕಾಮಕಸ್ತೂರಿ (Kamakasturi). Finding the poem’s first two lines vaguely familiar and drawn in by their quaint loveliness, I read the poem all the way through – when I finished, all I was left with was a most wonderful ache, an ache born of a beauty so ethereal as to almost surpass being.

I cannot now recall the minutiae of the moment – but I believe I felt almost compelled to translate the poem, to possibly borrow some of its beauty for myself – acutely aware though I was of the near-futility of the attempt, of the vanity of attempting to distill something that was already sublime, of the trials of translating a poetic idiom inspired by a wonderfully rich folklore.

Nonetheless, I tried my hand at it – and you can imagine my happiness when I was able not to translate it exactly but transcreate it – without letting slip (too much of) its gossamer-fineness. The enthusiastic response of a couple of faithful readers only nourished this happy feeling.

But what then is the “feeling of loss” I spoke of? Well – it is the feeling that appears when I now read the poem and my transcreation; the recognition that that moment of ecstasy will likely never return. “It is so sad and beautiful|So tremulously like a dream”.

It is my fond hope, though, that every one of you who reads this transcreation is able to feel some of its magic – however momentarily.

Finally, in a break from tradition, it is my father who has sung this particular poem. The ಧಾಟಿ (dhaaṭi: ~ tune) is of his own making. I think he has done a wonderful job.


Lass with the Empty Waterpot (
ಬರಿಗೊಡದ ಬಾಲಿ)
                                 (Separation)

Lass with the empty waterpot, why is it still not filled,
you stand vácant on the banks, my dear;
you stand vacant, you stand worried,
how long since you were born, my dear?

How long since you stumbled and lisped,
how long since you suckléd, my dear;
how long since you suckléd at mama’s breast,
how long since you played in the dust, dear?

How long since your shy-chuckled-whispering-act,
how long since you ran with your friends, dear;
how long since you played and ran with your friends,
how lóng since you begàn to sashay?

How long since your hair fanned your back, dear,
how long since your locks kissed your cheeks;
how long since your locks kissed your cheeks, dear,
how long since you tied on these plaits?

How long since you chattered and stared, dear,
how long since the evil eye went;
how long since the evil eye went, dear,
come, swear on the lehnga you wear.

How long since you put your doll-daughter to sleep,
how long since she slept by your side, dear;
how long since she slept by your side with a kiss,
how long since this brought you your joy, dear?

How long since those eyes that twinkled and danced,
how long since they started to search, dear;
how long since they started to search and to tire,
how long’s this been going on, dear?

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಕಾಮಕಸ್ತೂರಿ”, first published in 1934.

Afterword:

Here is my recitation of the translation.


Additionally, here is a video recording of my singing the original poem and reciting the translation.

This Much Love, That Much Love (ಅಷ್ಟು ಪ್ರೀತಿ ಇಷ್ಟು ಪ್ರೀತಿ)

A charming little rumination on love. As the audio hopefully reveals, the original poem is notable for the “happy trot” (to coin a phrase) of its rhythm – a quality I have looked to retain in the translation.

Also – while it is worth mentioning that the notes accompanying the poem say it is “incomplete”, it seems to me that there is enough in the poem to make that claim both true and false.

Original Kannada Poem:

This Much Love, That Much Love (ಅಷ್ಟು ಪ್ರೀತಿ ಇಷ್ಟು ಪ್ರೀತಿ)

Do not, counting, frown and say
this much love and that much love;
love, be loved and stay happy.
What you have, that is your lot,
the light you have is your own day,
all other light’s just needless grey.
Your house is simply where you are,
your playground where you play;
the rest’s the backyard, so to say.

Does a string of pearly pearls
add lustre to a kiss?
Does kissing eyelids that are moist
undo the kiss’s swell?
Can a fragrance not be found
in tears that boil and well?
Gems and jewels, gold and all
are glories of the mud and sand,
so, listen to me, foolish man,
they’re all just fake – all just a joke
just a vanity of life,
love’s the real real of life.

The seven heavens, the seven hells
are the light and dark of love;
the ages and the union’s reaches
are its fortressed moat and tower.
I climbed upon a throne and sat
my thigh sat on its thigh;
all right, I thought, but what is here
not there in love’s embrace?
I closed the eye within my heart
for this or that I praised;
let there be a little hut
beneath a spreading tree,
can love not play happily there,
can merriness not find its share?

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ನಾದಲೀಲೆ”, first published in 1938.

Afterword:

Here’s my recitation of the translation.

Question (ಸಮಸ್ಯೆ)

There is almost always, in a great poem, that line that stands out, that so impresses itself on the reader that it serves as the focus for the reader’s every feeling about the poem (and poet even).
     It could be a metaphor so completely new as to astonish, a delicacy of feeling so exquisite as to overwhelm, a play of language so buoyant as to delight, a commonplace presented so novelly as to rarify.
     Bendre’s remarkably prolific poetry is full of such lines. Often written as Ambikatanayadatta – the Kannada-speaking daimon within – his greatest poetry is a melodic melding of, in Shankar Mokashi’s words, “the intellect and the heart.”
     In this particular poem – Bendre’s Kannada adaptation of the Petrarchan sonnet – the last line of the octave is what struck me immediately (“ಬೆಳಕೆ ಬೆಳಕಿದ್ದು ಕತ್ತಲೆಯು ತುಂಬಿತು ಹೇಗೆ?”) – I even think I tried right away to translate it. The rest of the translation came later – and not without some effort. (The sestet was particularly difficult – given its cultural references and its original character as an almost “single-breath” denouement.)
     Like I often do, I have, in some places, eschewed a literal translation for a more fluid transcreation.

As is usual – here is a recording of my reciting the original Kannada poem.

Question (ಸಮಸ್ಯೆ)

My mother would tell me of the way
I played all day with the other boys;
played from when the morning rose
to when the twilight came; the summer’s
heat to me was just a moonlight game.
(I had not yet learnt what hunger meant.)
So engrossed in games of play, I’d forget
to eat all day; then eating in the darkness
of the shed, I’d hear the elders talk and say:
“With light on light outside, how did the darkness fill?”

From deep within the divine heart of the
man of the vaidic age; upon each one
of the trembling tongues that crumbled as they
lost-and-won in search of happiness;
within the throats of man and wife grasping for
their share of love beneath a flood of tears –
is rising the very question that those elders asked.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಉಯ್ಯಾಲೆ”, first published in 1938.

Afterword:

Here’s my recitation of the translation.

Additionally, here’s a video recording of my reciting both the original poem and the transcreation.

Two Dramatic Songs (ಎರಡು ನಾಟ್ಯಗೀತಗಳು)

A number of Bendre’s poems were actually ನಾಟ್ಯಗೀತs or “dramatic songs” – many of them composed for dramas that were never completed! The two song-poems featured here were both written for a drama called ಸತಿ (Sati); which too remained uncompleted. 

Here is the context Bendre offers regarding these song-poems.

A king of Pataliputra, having already wed three hundred princesses, invites to his palace the wife, Sati, of the celebrated ascetic Dhyanagupta of Vaishali. Cloistered in the queen’s quarters of the palace, these are the songs the three hundred princesses sing (in chorus) when they learn the news.

(If the first song is an expression of the disquietude the princesses feel upon hearing of Sati’s arrival, the second is a full-throated lamentation of the pathos of their situation since she came.)

It should be obvious to the reader that the two songs complement one another.

Note: Bendre was first and foremost a lyric poet. In other words, there are very few poems of his that cannot be sung. Indeed, some hundred or so poems of his have been set to song by a number of different composers.
In this case – where the poems themselves are songs – it would have been an injustice to not sing them. But to sing them, one needs a tune (of some sort) – and I wasn’t able to think of one (let alone two).
Enter Appa, my father. A long-time connoisseur of classical Indian music (with a predilection for the Hindustani style), his sense for rāga is uncanny; particularly for someone with no formal training in music. His wonderfully melodious singing – usually of old rāga-driven Kannada songs – has several times brought me the happiness one associates with music.
The recordings of the two original Kannada song-poems are by him – sung to melodies based on two classical rāgas he himself chose. I think his choices felicitous. It’s also my opinion that he’s sung both song-poems beautifully. But – you should listen to them to form your own opinion.

P.S: After I’d had Appa sing the Kannada versions, it seemed tame to simply recite the translations. However, that was precisely what I was ready to do up until about an hour ago – when a “tune” (to use the word very loosely) of sorts – for Poem 1 – came to me. Having an inkling of a “tune” (this word, again, being used very loosely) for Poem 2, I decided to record them.
While I don’t see either song entering the Top 100 (or Top 10,000 for that matter), I hope they’re not unpleasant to listen to.

Will You Remember, Will You Forget! (ಮರೆಯುವೆಯೋ, ಅರಿಯುವೆಯೋ!)

Original Kannada poem:
[Set and sung by Appa; based on the ಪಂತುವರಾಳಿ (pantuvarāḷi) rāga of the Carnatic classical tradition — ಪೂರಿಯ ಧನಶ್ರೀ (pūriya dhanashree) is the Hindustani classical equivalent]

Will you remember
or will you forget us – us all?
Sweetheart, darling, light-of-our-life,
will you come meet us – us all?

We said we were parrots
in the cage of your heart;
sweet, besotting, light-ring — king!
In this palace of pearls
in this wildly world
will you abandon us – us all?

Our memory still thrills
to that very first touch;
intoxicating beauty’s bard — lord!
Ages have passed,
will you come laughing again
to call upon us – us all?

We have gathered in shadows
as the night falls;
come in merciful show — hero!
By blowing love-breath
in these beautiful dolls
will you not save us – us all?

Song version of the English translation:

*****

O King, Beloved! (ಎಲ್ಲಿರುವೆ ರಾಜಗಂಭೀರಾ!)

Original Kannada poem:
[Set and sung by Appa; based on the ಹಿಂದೋಳ (hindōḷa) rāga of the Carnatic classical tradition — ಮಾಲ್ಕೌನ್ಸ್ (mālkauns) is the Hindustani classical equivalent]

Where are you O king, beloved!

This life-breath’s wailing like the wind
within a ruined house of god;
and even the walls of stone are calling;
where are you O king – beloved.

This life-breath’s vine’s seekìng the light;
for lack of air it’s withered;
this jasmine-heart’s a curled-up bud;
where are you O king – beloved.

This life-breath’s but a water-shade,
the heaven’s stars are saddened;
quavering they’re saying, “darkness has spread”:
where are you O king – beloved.

This life-breath’s wish to see the things it
can’t is no longer small or bounded;
ah love, it’s thirsty, (though the passion’s cooled);
where are you O king – beloved.

And now this life-breath is so lifeless,
its own existence seems borrowed;
your faithful beauties await your coming;
where are you O king – beloved.

Song version of the English translation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poems’ Details: From the collection “ನಾದಲೀಲೆ”, first published in 1938.

Jogi (ಜೋಗಿ)

Like with so many of Bendre’s poems, I listened to Jogi (ಜೋಗಿ) sung — in an abridged form — before I read it. Attracted almost immediately by its music, it was only later that I learnt of the poem’s special place in both Bendre’s poetry and Kannada literature. (It was hailed in 1999 as the “ಶತಮಾನದ ಕವಿತೆ” or the poem of the 20th century.)
In this translation, I have tried to recreate the rhyme and rhythm of the original. Consequently, the translation reads best when recited out loud.

In Bendre’s own words, “The poem ‘ಜೋಗಿ (Jogi)’ has sprung from the enchantment of Dharwad’s environs as well as from the terrible, doubt-ridden turmoil that comes from experiencing a dark night of the soul.”

Below are two audio pieces. One is of my reciting (singing) the Kannada poem. The other is of my reciting the English translation. The rhythm of the Kannada version is taken from the recording by B.R Chaya for the album Mayakinnari. I think it would be best if you listened to both recitations.

Nota Bene: Please don’t miss reading the “Afterword”. It can be found below the translation.

Kannada Recitation:

English Recitation:

Jogi (ಜೋಗಿ)

At the edge of town where the three-fork ends and where the slope begins,
where the running stream ducks under and rogue cattle go grazing,
the way is lost and if, once lost, you énter unknowing,
a stricken pair of owls appear, hootíng through the mid-morning.

Past that place, and past the graves, and beyond to the left
lies such a lush of thickened-moss it seems like kama’s vest’s
been spread luxuriously across the surface of the pond;
the moss removed black waters cáll into the dark beyond.

Past all of this come caves and hills rising to the right,
spreading here and spreading there, encróaching kāḷamma’s site;
and when we clímb the tamarind at the centre of this site
we see ten bushes in a clump upon a little height.

Within that clump cry mammal-bats in the middle of the day,
flocks of pigeons fly in and out and in and out away;
out there the nectar-vine has spread and climbed the tree of neem,
the aala drips its drops of milk and the peepul shakes its stem.

Jackfruit-like, to the atthi‘s base, is stuck a fruit that’s red,
honey-filled, it drips and drips — all eyes desire it;
and somehow in this very yard a mango-tree is seen;
beneath the tree’s a den of snakes — a seven-hooded serpent’s in.

Upon the tree, within this lush has come a single koel,
it calls to me to come to it like I am its máte-of-soul;
on and on and on and on, it cries its siren-call;
one note it calls without a break — without tíring at all.

An unknown fragrance pulls the bees, playing with their heads,
their minds abuzz they turn and turn, uncertain where to head;
the spring did come, the spring has come, the spring is set to come
kuhoo it says kuhoo it says kuhukuhoo it hums.

Jogi, in the highest note, the koel makes its call,
shall I go and look and see its eyes and colour and all?
The yard itself turns into flowers, the branches into sprays
and then they all begin to fruit in tune with what it says.

In dress-of-dawn, without a care, on and on it goes,
hot-headedly, in sweet mango tree, it ensúres the summer flows;
kuhoohoohoohoohoohoohoo — like a flute that’s playing on;
no wòrk can occupy my mind; shall I sée what’s going on?

You’re coming, come, come, jogi, come, what have you brought this time,
as I chanted what you taught me arrived the harvest-time;
inside a chord within my head began the harvest-cry
and as I heard it grew and spread and filled my whole body.

As I set out to the temple, kuhukuhoo it says,
ómkuhoo it calls to me in the middle of my prayers;
that in my dream I’ll hear a call and túrn a mango-tree
is the fàncy of my mind, jogi, have you really come to me!

What is this call, what is this koel, what is this mango-tree?
What is it that bothers it, that makes it cáll unceasingly?
The hills around have shattered now in echoing its call,
the sunshine’s danced and come to sweat — it’s sét for the rain to fall.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ,” first published in 1951.

Note: It would be remiss if I did not mention Sunaath Kaka‘s help with this translation. In particular, the “rogue cattle” of the first stanza are entirely his – replacing the more tame, less eerie “stray cows” I had originally. In addition, the word “stricken” of the first stanza was a result of his hint that “confused” (the word I’d used first) did not quite capture the essence of “ಕಕ್ಕಾವಿಕ್ಕಿ”. Given how wonderfully felicitous “stricken” now feels, I can only thank Kaka for his deep and appreciative reading of my translation.

I’d also like to thank Appa, my father, for his (unusually) serious involvement with this particular poem – which, incidentally, he too now knows by heart from having heard me sing it so often! Not only have his insights and commentary helped me better understand several portions of the poem, they have also given me the chance to correct some missteps I took when I first tackled the translation. (It goes without saying that the translation has benefitted from these corrections.) And, of course, his lively interest in the poem and my translation has allowed for several long talks about Bendre, his poetry, my poetry, my translations, the Kannada language, and a host of other things.

Finally, here are links to video recordings of my singing the original Kannada poem and reciting the transcreated English poem.

Afterword: (Published on May 2, 2019)

Here is an email I sent my aunt (on August 15, 2017), relating how the translation came to be. I trust it will interest at least some of you.

“hello anjana,

here’s a recent translation i made of a bendre poem — a poem acknowledged by critical consent as the ಶತಮಾನದ ಕವಿತೆ, or the poem of the 20th century. it may not be bendre’s greatest triumph, but it most definitely is poetry of the highest order.

like with so many others of bendre’s poems, i first listened to this sung (only a part of it, as is the norm) — and liked it for its music, without going much further. when i came across it next, it was within the context of its fame — at which time, i looked to understand it (its word-meanings at least) with the help of a dictionary and a couple of explications. if i did think of translating it then, i swiftly did away with the idea – for it seemed to me to be indubitably untranslatable. it didn’t help that it was 12 stanzas long!

anyhow, with no thought of translating it in mind, i continued to listen to its musical version (sometimes on loop) and came around to enjoying it enough to wish to sing it myself! and if i was going to do that, why not learn the entire poem (12 stanzas) by heart and sing it to that same musical rhythm? so that’s what i did. it took me a week perhaps, but i got it down and began to sing it – in the bath, in the office (softly), when i was walking back home, upstairs in my room, etc. in short, about five times a day at least.

but even as i continued to do this, continued to get so familiar with it that it became as natural as speech itself, continued to enjoy the wonderfully facile motion of the poem, it seemed to me to[o] complex to translate; too intricate and involved; too reliant on the rhythms of a phonetic language like kannada to lend itself to being morphed or translated into a non-phonetic language like english.

to cut to the chase, my pocket-book tells me that a day came when i tried my hand at translating the very last line of the poem (i think it was in the bus that i jotted it down) before naturally moving backwards to finish the whole last stanza. however, while this is a recorded event, i remember more vividly the day — i was at the office, done for the day and relaxing before setting off — i decided to pick up stanza 10 to translate: it may have been on a whim, but perhaps it was also because that place is a juncture of sorts in the poem, where the poem picks up a certain rapidity, a more intense motion (without any outward change in the metre or rhythm).

well, i typed out what occured to me, put down several possiblities for a couple of lines – and then left it at that, not satisfied but reasonably happy at the attempt. it is worth noting that when i did this, it had not occured to me to replicate the original; in particular, its beautifully simple and euphonic rhyme scheme. having done this, i left for the day. i’m not sure when, but i think it may have been somewhere around this time that i read out my translation of that last line to amma — who seemed to enjoy it. you will see when you get round to reading it that it contains a conceit of such beautiful novelty, it continues to astound.

now, as i write this, i can’t quite remember what happened next: whether my several separately-done translations of the three stanzas (i had worked on stanza 6 in the meantime) moved similarly enough to allow me to fix upon an ad-hoc rhythm; or whether i just decided to take the plunge and begin with the beginning. in any case, i think the rest of the translation progressed in the right order.

when i look back now on the first and second attempt of the translation (of the whole poem), i reckon that it must have seemed like a bridge too far to try to both translate the content of the poem and its rhyme. for as i look at it, the first attempt seems to be content to get at what the poem is about — without worrying too much about a rhyme but focussing quite seriously on the metrical motion i had mapped out. the result was a metre that was so close to the original it even now astonishes me.

the second attempt, which is for all purposes what you will see below, seems like an attempt at rhyming the rhythm. with a rhythm in place that seemed so very felicitous, i looked to smooth what rough edges the rhyme had to create an almost perfect approximation of the original, both in rhythm and in rhyme.

to conclude — what i ended up with seems to me no less than astounding! (if i say so myself.) indeed, i can hardly believe that i created a translation of this sort — one in which a non-phonetic language adapts itself to the phonetic rhythms of the original language! naturally, this means that the translation is best read aloud.

i hope you enjoy it, anjana! i look forward to hearing from you.”

a last word: https://www.facebook.com/notes/madhav-ajjampur/poetry-as-magic-magic-as-poetry/10156354681967291/

A Homage to the Gangā (ಗಂಗಾಷ್ಟಕ)

The ಭಾವ-ಸಂದರ್ಭ (bhāva-sandarbha: ~ emotional context) of this poem was Bendre’s visit to the Ganga during his ತೀರ್ಥಯಾತ್ರ (tīrthayātre: ~pilgrimage) through North India.

Though not half as famous as Bendre’s “ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ“, this is easily the more intricate poem – with unusually long metrical lines that follow the aabb end-rhyme pattern. Indeed, the end-rhymes within the poem’s metrical intricacy was simply too much to emulate – which is why I have not attempted it. What I have aimed for, rather, is a consistent rhythm.

Recitation of the Kannada poem:

A Homage To The Gangā (ಗಂಗಾಷ್ಟಕ)

When the wish-cow of your affection yields ceaselessly the milk of song,
to simply think of you’s to meditate; all other rosaries naught but a noose.
Why slobber then that you aren’t mine? Did I unlock these lips in vain?
Do I not know how empty is this pride that fashions just a song?

There is none that’s seen you who has not sung, your name rose on their lips;
as if a man may tie in song the rushing river which Shiva’s locks could not?
Yet I, looking at your blessed sight, thought it would be wrong to not unlock
my lips; so that the song that comes forth may console the hurting heart.

Oh Gangē, the gold dust with which Bhārati once was filled;
the joyous faces of her fruit that once adorned your fertile banks!
Is there upon this earth a child that did not play within its mother’s lap?
Upon your river-lap played every great empire of our land!

Those avatāras strange that made the earth-mother fret
all came and swiftly left; the world returned to wilderness.
While you who came down for reasons else now flow as truth
eternal; more glorious she who bore you than the avatāras ten.

Like departed mother who hears her crying child, you rushed down
from your heaven-home; like brave who is not scared to wear this mortal coil.
Granter-of-salvation blessed, aloft on Shiva’s jewelled crest, what matters it where
you are; you came, you flowed and reached the sea; turned salvation-field yourself.

Where is Ayodhyā now? Where Dwārāvati of old? Where Gōkula’s gardens?
Oh sole remnant of Rāma’s and Krishṇa’s fame; though all things succumb to time,
Gangē will live so long as live the earth and sky; so long will stand her idol white.
Oh Bhagīratha of empire great, it is the Gangē who is your claim to a deathless fame.

“If, from the bosom of the bathing princesses, the night’s leftover musk should fall and then this water with the Gangē‘s waters mix, such musk-deer’s salvation is certain.”
So sang the poet, and I, cut from that very cloth, believed him and bathed in you:
it felt then as if my mother too had in mukti’s waters bathed; I am of her stomach made.

Shiva’s mocking laugh! Himālaya‘s compassioned gaze! White-bosomed stream of milk!
Who has forever flowed forth; the very heart within ma-Bhārati’s maternal-heart!
Mother, the displays of your affectionate ways! Who was it who sang your praise?
Let this homage of mine add to that praise; let this be my knowledge-offering.

Recitation of the English translation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ,” first published in 1951.

A Prayer (ಪ್ರಾರ್ಥನೆ)

Another poem inspired by (and with shades of) an Upanishad mantra, “ಸಹನಾವವತು | ಸಹನೌ ಭುನಕ್ತು | ಸಹ ವೀರ್ಯಂ ಕರವಾವಹೈ | … ”

As usual, here is a recording of my reciting the original Kannada poem.

A Prayer (ಪ್ರಾರ್ಥನೆ)

Let us together learn
and together play
and doing so together understand;
let us together eat
and together drink
and doing so together do the work at hand.

Let us together walk
and together feel
and together hear and speak;
let us together grow
and together shine
and together and together reach for the holy peak.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ,” first published in 1951.

Afterword:

Here is my recitation of the translation.

A Grief That Can’t Be Hidden (ಹುದುಗಲಾರದ ದುಃಖ)

Along with experiencing their fair share of ordinary troubles, Da Ra Bendre and his wife had to deal with the terrible grief of losing six of their nine children (including one when he was twenty and in his prime). Completely lost in his books, his poetry and his circle of friends (ಗೆಳೆಯರ ಗುಂಪು), Bendre left the responsibility of looking after the house entirely to his wife, a responsibility she bore with stoic fortitude. Never well-off, constitutionally frail, and constantly wounded by the deaths of her children, Shrimati Lakshmibai Bendre’s was an obviously difficult life. It is no wonder then if her smiles were often masks worn upon an inner grief. Not oblivious to her suffering, this is one the many (sympathetic) poems the poet has addressed to her – his wife and his sakhee.

Here is the original Kannada poem sung very nicely by Shri Puttur Narasimha Nayak:

 

And here is my recitation of the poem:

 

 

A Grief That Can’t Be Hidden (ಹುದುಗಲಾರದ ದುಃಖ)

Hìding a grief that can’t be hid,
behind the façade of a smile,
you came in laughter up to me;
did you really think your love
was such an àbsent-minded fool;
tell me, who taught you such trickery?

You who tried in various ways –
by hugging and by nuzzling me –
to offer me some happiness;
is that really what you thought,
that I’m a lotus-eater of that sort;
that I am one who’s heartless?

Can by putting on a smile,
and by artful glances of kohl-eyes,
an ùntrue happìness be made to play?
Can, àfter Mumtaz’s burial,
the building of the Taj Mahal
make true sorrow go away?

Friend and partner of my life!
when ìn the temple of my heart
you move with such a secretness;
hòw am I to think your laugh
the flower of a real joy;
when you are sùch an àctress?

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಗರಿ,” first published in 1932.

Finally, here is my recitation of the English translation.

Basavaṇṇa’s Chronicles (ತುಂಬಿ ಬಂದಿತ್ತು)

This was written as a nātya-gītā (dramatic-song), and was to be sung (to the background of single-stringed lute, an ēkatāri) by a wandering ascetic when he came upon Basavaṇṇa’s samādhi. While its inherent musicality makes it almost impossible to translate, I have tried to approximate some of the rhythm and the rhymes of the original. However, the refrain of the original is: thum thum thumthum thumthum thumthum thumbi bandhitta thangi thumbi bandhittu. The same word thumbi is used in a different sense in each refrain, a conceit impossible to translate.

(Note: Basavaṇṇa was a 12th century “social-reformer” who was the doyen of the vacana-sāhitya movement in Kannada. Vacanas are free verse pieces in simple Kannada, and extol Shiva. Allama Prabhu and Akka Mahādēvi were two other famous vacanakāras. Basavaṇṇa was eventually killed by people who opposed his “radical” ideas. This poem metaphorically relates the story of his life, the krānti (revolution) he inspired and his death.)

As usual, here is a recording of my reciting (singing) the original Kannada poem.

Basavaṇṇa’s Chronicles (ತುಂಬಿ ಬಂದಿತ್ತು)

It was more bright than light,
and slighter too than air,
it sprang like Gangé did
from the locks of Hara’s hair.
It róse in every nook and
còrner of the body’s frame;
it joined head and toe and centre
and flooded them each the same,
sister, a-full-filled had it come.
A-full, a-full, a-full, a-full,
a-full-filled had it come, sister,
a-full-filled it had come.

It had the fragrance of the flower,
and the sweetness of the song,
like words of déep affection,
onto the heart it sprang.
It honed in on the secret
like the wisdom of the wise;
the lotus to this light unfurled;
once móre did the honey rise,
sister, a-buzzing came the bee.
A-buzz, a-buzz, a-buzz, a-buzz,
a-buzzing came the bee, sister,
a-buzzing came the bee.

It was so dark as time,
it was so pale as death,
it pounced like a hawk upon
a snake upon the heath.
It was as though the light of day
had melted in the night;
it was as though fixation’s vessel
was full up to its height;
now, it’d spilt all its contents,
sister, the end had come at last.
The end, the end, the end, the end,
the end had come at last, sister,
the end had come at last.

Here is my recitation of the translation.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಸಖೀಗೀತ,” first published in 1937.

Additionally, here is a video recording of my singing the original Kannada poem and reciting the translation.

Afterword:

As usual, I would like to thank Sunaath Kaaka for his astonishingly detailed Kannada explication of this poem. While it is impossible for a translation or transcreation to capture all the nuances of the poem like this, the detail in Kaaka’s explication was directly responsible for my being able to translate several lines in the poem that I had not been able to fully understand.

With Kaaka’s permission, I would like to present his opinion on the English transcreation I made.

“ನಿಮ್ಮ ಈ ಅನುವಾದವು ಅತ್ಯುತ್ತಮವಾಗಿದೆ. ಯಾವ ಪದವನ್ನೂ ಬದಲಾಯಿಸುವ ಅವಶ್ಯಕತೆ ನನಗೆ ಕಂಡು ಬರಲಿಲ್ಲ. ಪ್ರತಿಯೊಂದು ನುಡಿಯ ಕೊನೆಯಲ್ಲಿ ನೀವು ‘ತುಂಬಿ ಬಂದಿತ್ತು’ ಎನ್ನುವುದಕ್ಕೆ, ಬೇರೆ ಬೇರೆ ಪದಗಳನ್ನು (—A full, A-buzz, The end–) ಬಳಸಿರುವುದು ಪ್ರಶಂಸನೀಯವಾಗಿದೆ.”

(“This translation of yours is excellent. [As I read it]. I did not think a single word of it needed to be changed. The way you’ve used different phrases (–A full, A-buzz, The end–) to translate the ‘ತುಂಬಿ ಬಂದಿತ್ತು (tumbi bandittu)’ that comes at the end of each stanza is deserving of praise.”)

I am very grateful to Kaaka for his ಸಹೃದಯತೆ (sahrudayate) and encouragement. Thank you, Kaaka! 🙂

The Little Black Pup (ಕರಿ ಮರಿ ನಾಯಿ)

An obviously satirical poem. “Milord” is the translation of the original poem’s “ಭಟ್ಟ,” a most felicitous translation if I say so myself.

As usual, here is a my recording of the original Kannada poem.

The Little Black Pup (ಕರಿ ಮರಿ ನಾಯಿ)

The little black pup was whining away;
the voice of milord was shouting away.

Split-split splat-splat came down the rain;
then rushed away along the drain.

The wind wailed like a stricken banshee;
the little black pup paddled furiously.

From the window of his cosy house,
milord was looking out—curious;

The little black pup tried to get to the door;
a ‘thud!’ was the immediate answer.

O golly, O gosh, how brave of milord!
no house could have asked for a better guard.

‘I’d like to come in,’ said the little black pup;
‘You try, and I’ll kill you,’ replied his lordship.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಗರಿ,” first published in 1932.

P.S: I have revised the second stanza of the poem to better reflect the original’s lines. My thanks to Sunaath Kaka for alerting me to the possibility of a better version and for offering his own couplet (which I have drawn from but not used).

Afterword:

Here is my recitation of the translation.

New Year’s Day – Yugādi (ಯುಗಾದಿ)

Yugādi (ಯುಗಾದಿ) is a festival that celebrates the beginning of a new year (samvatsara: ಸಂವತ್ಸರ) according to the Hindu lunar calendar (panchāṅga: ಪಂಚಾಂಗ). This tremendously popular poem by Da Ra Bendre – from his very first poetry collection, ಗರಿ (Gari) – has become an anthem of sorts and an inseparable part of the festival in Karnataka.

Singing of the Kannada original (by my father):

Recitation of the Kannada original:

New Year’s Day – Yugādi (ಯುಗಾದಿ)

Though years and new years come and go,
New Year’s dáy is here again.
To the new year it’s bringing new cheer,
and things that are newer and newer.

Within the shrubs of ho flowers,
the bees begin their songs of play;
their symphoníes are heard again.
The fragrance of the flower spills
upon the bitter tree of neem;
and look, the glow of life is seen.

Bewitched by kāma’s fragrant shafts,
the mango tree has flowered forth;
it now waits eagerly for him.
And festooning the mango tree,
the parrots sing elatedly:
‘the spring has come, the spring has come!’

The year itself’s been born anew;
the world’s joy has a resting place
within the hearts of all that move!
But in this single lífe of ours,
a single youth, a single prime;
is that all that we desérve?

A death with every sleep we sleep;
new life with every waking day;
why do wè not have it so?
You god-of-youth-unending!
You wanderer-untiring!
Does such a play not interest you?

Though years and new years come and go,
New Year’s dáy is here again.
To the new year it’s bringing new cheer,
and things that are newer and newer;
but not a single one’s for us!

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಗರಿ,” first published in 1932.

Afterword:

Here is my recitation of the translation.

A Prayer (ಪ್ರಾರ್ಥನೆ)

A poem inspired by (and with shades of) the Upanishad mantra, “ಓಂ ಭದ್ರಂ ಕರ್ಣೇಭಿಃ ಶೃಣುಯಾಮ ದೇವಾ । ಭದ್ರಂ ಪಶ್ಯೇಮಾಕ್ಷಭಿರ್ಯಜತ್ರಾಃ …”

As usual, here is a recording of my reciting the original Kannada poem.

A Prayer (ಪ್ರಾರ್ಥನೆ)

Let only what is good be heard,
let only what is good be said,
let only what is good be seen,
let only what is good be spread.
Let only what is good be done,
let good itself always pervade,
feed on the good, breathe in the good,
let good live among us enfleshed.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ,” first published in 1951.

Afterword:

Here is my recitation of the translation.

The Face of Spring (ವಸಂತಮುಖ)

Not for nothing was ಹಿಗ್ಗು (higgu: ~a spreading joy; a wholesome delight) one of Bendre’s favourite words. Here then is a poem of ಹಿಗ್ಗು, of joy, of delight.

As usual, here is a recording of my reciting (singing) the original Kannada poem.

The Face of Spring (ವಸಂತಮುಖ)

The day has bloomed, the forest’s gay,
the birds are singing songs of play;
such is life, yes such is living:
as púre as the wind that’s blowing.

What variety, what balance!
The wind has broken the curse’s influence;
the spirit leaps, the spirit twirls
in joy that life’s a luminous whirl.

A hundred trees! A hundred throats
each singing note upon exquisite note:
this scene of romance knows no bounds,
this beauty’s wanton and unbound.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಸಖೀಗೀತ,” first published in 1937.

Afterword:

Here is my recitation of the translation.

Sorcerer (ಗಾರುಡಿಗ)

Da Ra Bendre shot to fame in 1929 at the Beḷagāvi Kannada Sāhitya Sammēḷana when he read out his famous poem “ಹಕ್ಕಿ ಹಾರುತಿದೆ ನೋಡಿದಿರಾ” (“The Bird is Flying – Have You Seen It?”) Enchanted by the ಮರುಳುಗೊಳಿಸುವ (maruḷugoḷisuva: ~ bewitching) manner of his delivery and his charismatic stance, Māsti Venkatesha Iyyangar – another giant of 20th-century Kannada literature and the father of the modern Kannada short story – was moved to call him a ಗಾರುಡಿಗ (gāruḍiga: mostly used to describe a snake-charmer but more generally a sorcerer; an enchanter), a characterization that stuck to Bendre for the rest of his life.
In this poem – itself titled “ಗಾರುಡಿಗ” (“Gāruḍiga”) – Bendre dwells upon this epithet, the associated imagery, and his own poetic powers. The original poem is a free verse ಅಷ್ಟಷಟ್ಪದಿ (ashṭashaṭpadi: oct-sestet) – a Kannada adaptation of the Petrarchan sonnet.

Recitation of the Kannada Poem:

Sorcerer (ಗಾರುಡಿಗ)

This is a mantra; a way with words
defying meaning; its meter felicitous,
spontaneous; totemic, enchanting;
fashioned from the very quick of life;
the fletch upon the bowstring of the breath
is on its focussed way; part of an effortless
divine play; it swoops like Garuḍa himself:
is this a delusion? A drunkenness? Poison?
Death? Slumber! Crazy passion! A waking
shrouded in unmemory! The dream is now
reality — and all is pure and white as milk!

You snake! You weaving-stomached
creature! You have no ears, a pair
of tongues; with venom in your tooth,
you feed on air; though you descend
to the nether world, you continue to irk;
like a rasika you sway your head, but
all your praise is poisoned-spit! But keep
on, keep on — across my palm is the Garuḍa line!

Recitation of the English translation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಉಯ್ಯಾಲೆ,” first published in 1938.

Sakheegeeta – Prelude (ಸಖೀಗೀತ – ನಾಂದಿ ಪದ್ಯ)

In 1937, Da Ra Bendre published his long lyric-narrative (ಖಂಡ-ಕಾವ್ಯ) titled Sakheegeeta (ಸಖೀಗೀತ), a poetic account of the poet and his wife’s (ಸಖೀ) married life up to that time. In his introduction, Bendre says that he has, in the poem, “let spread the happy-sad vine of the ordinary married life upon the trellis of my personal experience.”
Written in a metre that he himself devised, this lyric-narrative is one of his best-known works. From my own reading, what is most striking is his prolific and remarkable use of ಅಚ್ಚಗನ್ನಡ (non-Sanskritized Kannada) and its various poetic possibilities – most particularly those of assonance, compactness, rhyme, and alliteration.
This verse is the very first of the forty-something verses that make up the lyric-narrative. As can be seen, it remains a poem in its own right while serving the purpose of a prelude.

(Note: The word sakhee hasn’t an exact English equivalent, which is why I have left it as it is. However, I have used the word ‘friendship’ to translate sakhya (ಸಖ್ಯ), the adjectival form of the word. Though not exact, I think it a fair approximation.)

As usual, here is my recording of the Kannada original. The tune, if one is discrernible, is my own.

Additionally, here is the video recording of my singing the original Kannada poem and reciting the English translation.

Sakheegeeta – Prologue (ಸಖೀಗೀತ – ನಾಂದಿ ಪದ್ಯ)

Sakhee! Shall I in detail tell
the sweet and sour of our friendship’s course;
shall I, unknotting the tangled heart,
embroider the tangles into a dress?

For now when I recall those past sorrows,
the glow of a night-star comes to sight;
what once was trouble’s now turned to song
that flows like a stream that’s fresh and bright.

They say that when Gangē and the sea
embrace, the mingled waters earn sanctity;
so too, I say, does the heart stay pure
as it blends both joy and misery.

So come out to the sea on its breaking waves,
to wet where the waters froth and foam;
let us ride on the cradling lap of the waves
in a raft or a boat or a catamaran.

And since all brine trumps a sapless life,
let our unfurled memories be the sail;
let us glide, let us swim, let us float, let us drown,
and drowning, sink to the home of pearls.

For when we’re just anklets on a cosmic wind
that dances its terrible cosmic dance;
who can know, oh kāmākshi,
the span of this bond that is binding us!

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಸಖೀಗೀತ,” first published in 1937.

Here is my recitation of the translation.

Not Ever Looking Back (Concerning an Old Painting) [ಹಿಂದs ನೋಡದs]

A number of Da Ra Bendre’s poems are from the perspective of a woman. This particular poem expresses the despair of one such “heroine.” The poet has indicated that the poem sprung from looking at an old painting (of a gōpi who entranced by Krishna’s presence is oblivious to her surroundings and her gōpi-friends).

As usual, here is a recording of my reciting (singing) the original Kannada poem. The tune, if one is discernible, is C. Ashwath’s.

Not Ever Looking Back (Concerning an Old Painting) [ಹಿಂದs ನೋಡದs]

Not ever looking back, my dear,
not ever looking back.

He looked but once upon me,
and smiled a friendly smile;
then he turned and on he went,
not ever looking back, my dear,
not ever looking back.

The scent that rides upon the air,
it said to me – ‘go there, go there’;
my mind followed without a care,
not ever looking back, my dear,
not ever looking back.

My heart itself’s no longer mine,
what do I care if it’s rain or shine;
my mind follows its destined line,
not ever looking back, my dear,
not ever looking back.

Like the thread within the needle’s eye,
like the foot caught in the míre,
like the wheel of time upon its way,
not ever looking back, my dear,
not ever looking back.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ,” first published in 1951.

Afterword:

Here is my recitation of the translation.

Feather (ಗರಿ)

The very last poem in Da Ra Bendre’s first poetry collection, itself titled Gari (ಗರಿ) and first published in 1932. The feather here serves as a wonderful metaphor for a poem (each, at its finest, an exquisite and ethereal creation). Given the luminous poetry Shri Bendre was to create (and “strew”) over the next five decades, this poem seems nothing less than prophetic.

Feather (ಗರಿ)

Upon this cloth of stretching sky
that has nèither start nor end,
is forever and forever flying
the ever-moving bird of wind.

And flying like this bird of wind
is the many-feathered bird,
in whose wake áre following
feathers stréwn from its wings.

Let these fallen feathers play
just as much as they would like
in the wind that blows and swirls
and rubs and sprays and spurts and whirls.

And, if by chance or accident,
these feathers light upon the ground,
push them, blow them, make them fly
up again within the sky.

Do not, smitten by their colours, keep
them hidden safely in your palm;
do not, though they seem a little off,
pluck some hairs and comb some lines.

Push them, blow them, make them fly,
let them fly as much they will;
these feathers that were born to fly,
these feathers on a bird’s body.

And, ìf, as you watch their play,
you feel within a surge of joy,
then, you too swell and peacock-like
dance your way up to the sky.

Yet ìf you do not feel that way,
then simply send the feather forth;
for èver blows the able wind
that takes it far, and out of sight.

But if, by chance, the wind does not;
if, perhaps, they tòo lack strength,
then do your bit and make them soar
for that is all the life they know.

Upon this cloth of stretching sky
that has nèither start nor end
is forever and forever flying
the ever-moving bird of wind
.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಗರಿ,” first published in 1932.

Don’t Look At Me This Way (ನೀ ಹೀಂಗ ನೋಡಬ್ಯಾಡ ನನ್ನ)

Da Ra Bendre’s life was not an easy one. Born in Dharwad into a family of Vedic Marathi-speaking Brahmins, he lost his father at an early age and grew up in poverty (albeit under the loving guardianship of his mother and maternal grandmother). Married at the age of 23 to Lakshmibai (nee Rangubai), he and his wife were to experience the death of six of their nine children (five in infancy and one, tragically, when he was 20). This poem – about the death of an infant daughter, Lalitha – details the mute grief of his wife and the poet’s despairing response.

Contrary to the popular narrative, this song was not one that sprung spontaneously from the poet’s lips upon seeing his wife. Rather, it came to him as a “sight” as he travelled in the railway carriage that was taking him home to his wife and infant daughter. In other words, it was the (wrenching) vision of a future that was very near.
As far as Hindu poetics is concerned, it is the stream of the rasa of grief (ಶೋಕ ರಸ) that flows here. I have had my father tell me that this lament (as sung by Rajkumar Bharathi) never fails to bring a lump to his throat.

However, since Mr. Bharathi’s version contains only the last three stanzas of the poem, I have ventured to sing the whole poem in the same tune as the original. I hope the result is palatable.

Don’t Look At Me This Way (ನೀ ಹೀಂಗ ನೋಡಬ್ಯಾಡ ನನ್ನ)

Don’t look at me this way;
because if you look at me this way,
in what way do I look at you? || Refrain ||

This worldly-ocean, I know, is filled with countless obstacles of woe,
still I can say, though I don’t know where, that on the other side’s a shore.
So let the sleeping infant lie, what’s next is god’s refrain;
his will I cannot change; so why look and look at me again?

Those lips of yours that were as red as parrot’s beak fruit-dipped;
where did their colour go? By which ill-wind were they stripped?
Looking at those cheeks, that brow, those eyes, it seems as if death’s
hand itself had stroked your face; a nameless fear enters my breath.

My wedding-watered hands you took, thinking them cool and tender;
and still you clutch at them; though now they glow like ashen cinder.
“But if the sky should topple, what fate awaits the ground?”, they said:
did you believe the sky would never fall; that I myself was god?

Woman! whose eyes once glittered like milk-bedewed kavaḷi fruit;
Tell me – are these eyes I see now yours in truth?
For looking on your face my life itself exclaims in fright:
‘Here comes the full moon’s corpse, sailing in the morning light!’

A rain has filled within your eyes; why then this crazy laughter –
as though a gust of wind can stop a raincloud set to scatter?
So go on, cry, let loose the flood, don’t laugh away such hardship;
blink and let the tears flow; don’t block your sobs with bitten lips.

Here is my recitation of the translation.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ನಾದಲೀಲೆ,” first published in 1938.

Afterword:

Like with so many poems I translated or transcreated at the time, Sunaath Kaaka’s wonderful Kannada explication proved extremely valuable. Thank you, Kaaka.

The Dance of the Bear (ಕರಡಿ ಕುಣಿತ)

One of Da Ra Bendre’s more popular, accessible (and underappreciated) poems. My introduction to Bendre’s poetry was when I listened to the sung version of this poem, many years ago. In the intervening years, I have travelled the familiar yet unfamiliar terrain of the Kannada language in ways I had never anticipated. But that is a story for another day. (Update: You can now read part of the story in the afterword.)
For now, I will only say that the memory and the rediscovery of this poem sparked my relationship with Bendre’s poetry. In particular, the first two lines of stanza 3 (which read “ತ್ರೇತಾಯುಗ ರಾಮನ್ನ, ದ್ವಾಪರದ ಕೃಷ್ಣನ್ನ|ಕಲಿಯುಗದ ಕಲ್ಕೀನ ಕಂಡಾನ” in the original) and the untranslatable onomatopoeic refrain (“ತನ್ನsನ ತಾsನನ ತಂದಾsನ” – “) from line 2 of stanza 5 continue to draw me into their eddy of feeling.
The poem itself was inspired by the poet waking up in a railway coach and “seeing” a large bear at the door. When he went out and looked, it had disappeared. He learned later that an accident had happened at the very station he had “seen” the bear, an accident in which a number of people had lost their lives. It was the poet’s belief that one of those people had appeared to him in the form of the bear seeking release for their ātma (soul).

As usual, I’ve included my recording of the original Kannada poem. The sing-song rhythm is taken from B.R Chaya’s version, tuned by Gururaj Marpalli.

(The only reason I haven’t included only Marpalli’s version is because it is missing a stanza – the 6th stanza. Nonetheless, I urge you all to listen to it. It really is wonderfully tuned.)

Note: Please refer to the afterword for information about the “ages” referred to in the translation.

The Dance of the Bear (ಕರಡಿ ಕುಣಿತ)

Wrapped in a coat of hair he came; his wrist
held a metal wristlet; his hand held a stick of play;
he hummed as he came, and he tapped as he came;
then he stood as the bear round him played.

From which wilds did he snatch this bear,
that lived contentedly on honey?
“Now dance before the rich man’s house,”
he said – “Dance for him and he shall pay.”

This bear’d seen Rama in the trēta age;
dvāpàra’s Krishna and kali’s Kalki he had seen.
As the krita age drew to a close, he fed
on the jambu fruit by the river gleaned.

“Mothers come, your children bring;
come ward off the evil eye.
Tie round their necks these hairs of his
that hold the strength of Bhima‘s thigh.”

“Dance you rascal, dance,” he says:
thun-naa-na thun-naa-naa thun-dhaa-na he plays;
sniff-sniff snuff-snuff dances the bear;
“Whát a lovely dance,” all say.

This dance is danced to feed the man;
for him the bear’s in chains and bands:
“My god,” he prays, “give the man his share,”
looking to the heavens with joined hands.

The wily man makes dance and prance
this life: he hides behind and pulls the strings.
In the name of the bear he earns his bread;
as though such means will salvation bring.

Since man began to have dance for him
the ox, the monkey and the bear;
‘It is man’s mind that dances not the bear that
prances,’ – so thinks the poet and his thinking shares.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಸೂರ್ಯಪಾನ,” first published in 1956.

Recitation of the English translation.

Note: Like it often is, Sunaath Kaka’s Kannada explication of this poem on his website was of great help during the translation. My thanks to him.

Afterword:

Hindu mytho-cosmology offers a cyclical view of the universe’s evolution and devolution through its idea of four yuga-s (or ages or epochs): the Krita (or Satya) yuga, the Trēta yuga, the Dvāpara yuga, and the Kali yuga. The belief is that dharma (~right conduct) decreases in each succeeding age. At its zenith in the Krita Yuga, dharma continues to dwindle until it reaches its nadir in the Kali yuga. This necessitates the pralaya (~the reabsorption; the dissolution) of the universe and its subsequent srishṭi (~creation, emergence). This cycle of pralayasrishṭi is ceaseless. That is to say, pralaya and srishṭi are attached in the same way as the front and back of a coin. Interestingly, per this cosmology, we are living now in the Kali yuga.

In this context, note the ‘magnificence in miniature’ of the first two lines of Stanza 3. That the poet has, in just two lines, managed to convey the bear’s grandness via the ‘passing of the ages’ and a reference to historo-mythological figures seems to me nothing short of wondrous.

Here’s (a bit of) the story I allude to in the introduction. It’s an excerpt – from a January 2020 Kannada essay of mine – that I’ve translated into English. (You can read the whole Kannada essay here.)

Excerpt:

“This bear’d seen Rama in the trēta age
dvapāra’s Krishna and kali’s Kalki he had seen

It must have been about ten years ago. I was studying for my BA degree at the time. One day, I’d put the music on in my room and was working on something when a Kannada bhaavageete came on. Its rhythm attracted me and I stopped to listen to it more carefully. I found the words to the song unfamiliar and could hardly grasp more than a few of them. However, I was smitten by the song’s wonderfully attractive rhythm and listened to it several times over. As I did so, the two lines (above) were the only ones I was able to catch clearly. For some reason, listening to them sent a thrill through me. With repeated listening, they became a part of me.
This was my first meeting with varakavi Bendre(’s poetry).”

The Pollen Calls (ಪರಾಗ)

Sanskrit poetics gives great significance to the rasika (ರಸಿಕ) or the sahrudaya (ಸಹೃದಯ), both words that mean ‘an appreciative spirit’, ‘(one) of the same heart.’ Steeped deeply in Hindu culture and poetics, Da Ra Bendre held similar beliefs and several of his poems speak directly to the rasika (ರಸಿಕ), even inviting him to take part (through his appreciative understanding) in the poem’s creation.
In this poem, the pollen (ಪರಾಗ) is the poet (and his poem) who call earnestly on the bee (ಭೃಂಗ) to come and partake of their (poetic) juice.

(The destructive-creative aspect of this exchange between the bee and the flower is captured by Bendre himself in another of his poems where he says: ಅಯ್ಯೊ ನೋವೆ! ಅಹಹ ಸಾವೆ! ವಿಫಲ ಸಫಲ ಜೀವಾ).

As usual, here is a recording of my reciting the original Kannada poem.

The Pollen Calls (ಪರಾಗ)

Come, dear bee, come,
why wander so detachedly?
When the call of the fragrance is
sweet, is an invitation necessary?

This fragrance holds within itself
the song-juice of the unripe fruit;
and within the honey of the flower
is hid the rasa of tomorrow’s fruit.

In the poem’s heart, in the lotus’s womb,
the pollen waits on tiptoe;
your slightest kiss itself’s enough
for a néw creation to show.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಸಖೀಗೀತ,” first published in 1937.

Here is my recitation of the translation.

Afterword:

“In the poem’s heart, in the lotus’s womb,
the pollen waits on tiptoe;
your slightest kiss itself’s enough
for a néw creation to show.”

What do these lines mean? What have they set out to say? For the bee to travel from flower to flower drinking their nectar is part of the natural order. Here, the poet has made a metaphor of this extremely natural action (of the bee’s). To the poet, the poem is the nectar-filled ‘[lotus] flower’ that is calling the rasika ‘bee’ towards itself. It appears that the poet himself is curious and excited about the ‘new creation’ that will result from the bee’s drinking of the nectar.

Speaking for myself, I am more interested in the (idea of a) ‘new creation’ than I am in the ‘bee-pollen-flower’ metaphor … [because] every kiss given me by a Bendre poem has resulted in a ‘new creation’ that is my English translation (or transcreation). Although, like every creation, it is likely to have its faults and rough edges, I can affirm the act of creation has made me happy. In some particular instances, the joy I have experienced has almost overwhelmed me.

Note: This afterword is an excerpted English translation (done by me) of the Kannada essay I wrote for ಋತುಮಾನ (Ruthumana) on the occasion of Jan 31, 2020, Bendre’s 124th birth anniversary.

P.S: Here is another poem where Bendre directly addresses the rasika.

The Peacock-Smile (ನಗೀನವಿಲು)

One of Bendre’s poems from the early period, with a wonderfully original conceit. The peacock and the koel serve as metaphors. The language of the original is folksy Dharwad, and abounds in end-rhyme, assonance, and onomatopoeia (mina mina mina minchatitta: ಮಿನ ಮಿನ ಮಿನ ಮಿಂಚತಿತ್ತ). Though the onomatopoeia is untranslatable, I have looked to include a measure of assonance and end-rhyme in the translation. The unusual sentence-structure is a consequence of this attempt.

Also, here is a recording of my reciting (singing) the original Kannada poem. The tune, if one is discernible, is Mysore Ananthaswamy’s.

The Peacock-Smile (ನಗೀನವಿಲು)

Woman, upon your lips
did play a peacock-smile;
did play a smile, did flee a smile;
did it look cloudward the while.

A-flash a-flash a-flashed the smile;
did rise the smile, did fall the smile;
did fall the smile, did glow the smile:
did the land and waters gleam the while.

Within your eyes the coloured gaze
did dance thakadimi dance;
did dance and prance; did droop and fade:
did play coquette at every chance.

At the tip of the mango-tree-of-the-mind
did sit a kōel all alone;
did sit and never sing a note:
did gaze on you with look forlorn.

A living life was suffering;
did wail all through the day and night;
did wail all through, did flail all through:
did search for something with its might.

With a rain of tears too
did it pour forth its woe;
did pour its woe, did plead its case:
did wilt when no response did show.

(\Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಗರಿ,” first published in 1932.

Afterword:

Here is my recitation of the translation.

Come To Sādhanakēri (ಬಾರೊ ಸಾಧನಕೇರಿಗೆ)

One of Da Ra Bendre’s most popular song-poems (ಹಾಡುಗಬ್ಬ), he wrote it as a ಸ್ವಗತ (swagata: ~soliloquy) when the unexpected loss of his job forced him to return to his house “ಶ್ರೀಮಾತಾ” in Sādhanakēri, Dharwad.

Here is a recording of my reciting (singing) the original Kannada poem. The tune, if one is discernible, is Praveen Godkhindi’s; and was originally recorded by Pallavi Arun. Unfortunately, that recording is missing the third stanza of the poem.

Come To Sādhanakēri (ಬಾರೊ ಸಾಧನಕೇರಿಗೆ)

Come to Sādhanakēri,
back to your town where you were merry.

To the chariot pulled by the rains;
the green has risen up the plains;
the green into the town has grown;
the green along the paths has shown.
A very piece of heaven’s fallen here;
is there anyone who is not cheered?
Come to Sādhanakēri,
back to your town where you were merry.

The mountain’s face itself has turned;
the singing koel is sweet-throatèd;
the fences too are flower-fingered;
the land’s youth has returned;
and mother-earth has stretched and risen;
for Shrāvana’s beauty it is the season.
Come to Sādhanakēri,
back to your town where you were merry.

Look on the shadow-play of the clouds above;
the multitude of flowered groves;
the countless honey-bees that hover;
the spell within the yakshi’s bower.
Come watch the butterflies that play
in groups above the meadows gay.
Come to Sādhanakēri,
back to your town where you were merry.

The trees have stretched toward the sky;
within the shrubs are songs of play;
the wind itself wings all around;
all anxiousness has fled this ground.
Tell me, friend, where else is there
a sight like this, a sight so fair?
Come to Sādhanakēri,
back to your town where you were merry.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ,” first published in 1951.

Afterword:

For a change, I’ve sung the translation.

The Descent of the Ganga (ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ)

One of Da Ra Bendre’s most famous poems, revealed to the world when he recited it at the close of his President’s Speech at the Kannada Sahitya Sammelana in 1943. Per his own admission, the rapturous reception it received left him reeling.

Here is a recording of my reciting the original Kannada poem.

Additionally, here is a video recording of my reciting the original Kannada poem and the English transcreation.

The Descent of the Ganga (ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ)

Come down, mother,
come down;
from Hara’s locks,
from Hari’s feet,
from the rishi’s thighs,
                     slide forth.
Quench the devās as you come,
wet the regions as you come,
feed every being as you come,
                      come down, mother,
                                c ome down.

My salutations I offer you,
I shall wear and wrap you,
so do not hesitate, you,
                      spill forth.
Leave the heavens behind and come,
plummet through the skies and come,
stream along the land and come,
come down, yes mother, come,
                      come down, mother,
                                 come down.

Within the regions of my head,
in front of and behind my back,
up and down inside my blood,
                      surge forth.
Washing each atom of the eye,
tuning every fibre of each sigh,
sprouting words inside the mouth that’s dry,
                      swell forth.
Come, take your place within my breast,
come, roll through the waters of my chest
come, in my very quick do take your rest,
                      come down, mother,
                                 come down.

Come as the lightning flashed,
come as the whirling waters splashed,
come – return – as the thunder smashed,
come calling on
           the abandoned wretched,
           the devitalised aged,
           the waterless parched,
come down, mother,
come down.

Oh cow’s compassion for its calf,
oh mother’s love on its child’s behalf
oh grand benediction from high above,
                      enfold us in your clasp.
Shiva’s compassion unblemished,
tinged only by Shakti’s slightest red,
incarnate maternal-love full-blooded,
                      come, come down,
                      come down, mother,
                                 come down.

Come, none but you can wash us clean,
come, every other power is mean,
come, or we shall remain unclean;
come, feed us in our very marrow,
come, circle our land that’s lying fallow,
come, breathe life into these deadened hollows.

Beloved, into whose waters fell
reflections from the gods’s dream-well,
Tthat made your pool of consciousness swell.
Gangē, with new-opened eyes;
Gangē, who now do span the skies
ready to descend upon Bhārati’s thighs
from the starry-flowers
of the holy Pārijāta’s bowers
that fed upon your showers.
Worshipped by the tulsi garland,
perfumed by mandāra’s scent,
you alone are both parents.
Born of an ecstatic rasa flood,
you are none but the fluid
fruit of SacchidānandaBrahma’s blood.
Come on down, mother, come to play;
come júst this once, I pray:
for my tears of joy I cannot stay.
           Yes, mother, such a fall is what they meant
           when they talked of the avatāra, the descent.

Like a boon to one who’s prayed,
like one in compassion bathed,
like river full-filled and flooded,
bouncing and uninhibited,
                      rush forth.
For your darling you come searching,
yes, come searching, mother,
                      come rushing.

Come, renew the breath of life,
come, swell; and illuminate this life,
come, show yourself as flesh and blood,
come, wash your hands of all the mud,
come, alight upon this earth for good,
                      come down, mother,
                                 come down.

Come, Shambu-Shiva-Hara’s thought-consummate
come, Datta-Narahari’s grandmother-great
come, come, to Datta, son of Ambikā late,
                      come down, mother,
                                 come down.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ,” first published in 1951.

Here is my recitation of the Kannada translation.

Note: I was only able to approach this translation thanks to the wonderfully thorough and fascinating Kannada explication provided by Sunaath Kaka on his blog. To receive his praise for this translation (when I shared it with him two years later) was particularly gratifying. My thanks to him.

Afterword:

The story of the Gangā’s descent – the gangāvataraṇa – is, along with the churning of the ocean, one of the magnificent triumphs of the Hindu mythological imagination.
Wildly and wilfully aswirl in the heavens, the beautiful (and arrogant) goddess Gangā is asked by Brahma to descend to the earth in answer to King Bhageeratha’s intense meditation. It is Bhageeratha’s wish that Gangā’s waters wet his forefathers’s ashes and relieve them of the terrible curse that has kept their souls from gaining release.
But prima donna that she is, Gangā (who is displeased by Brahma’s command) begins her descent by plummeting through the skies with a speed clearly too much for the earth-mother to bear. The consequence of her haughtiness is that she is caught firmly by Shiva in his thickly matted locks from where she tries, in vain, to escape. The unflagging meditation of Bhageeratha moves Shiva into releasing her earthward, in a controlled manner. Gangā, however, is not going to let anybody boss her and no sooner does she reach the earth than she charges forth in a joyous recklessness and disrupts sage Jahnu’s yagna.
Incensed, Jahnu swallows her whole – which forces Bhageeratha to once more begin his beseeching prayers, this time to Jahnu. In course of time, Jahnu too is moved to release Gangā who, finally chastened by her experiences, flows gracefully to where Bhageeratha is waiting with his forefather’s ashes. And having wet those ashes with her sacred waters and having helped Bhageeratha pay off his dues, she continues on her course – sanctifying every piece of earth she touches and making her home in the Hindu imagination as ತಾಯಿ ಗಂಗೆ, गंगा मैया, Mother Gangā, Gangā Ma, Gangā Dēvi.
The sublime Kannada poet, Da Ra Bendre, read out his prayer-poem “Gangāvataraṇa (ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ)” at the end of his presidential address to the Kannada Literary Congress in 1943. What followed, naturally enough, was a rhapsodic, rapturous reception that left him reeling. Moved to write the prayer by the Bengal famine of 1942, he calls like a present-day Bhageeratha upon Mother Gangā to descend again, metaphorically, and relieve the people of his land of their suffering.
Brimming with ನಾದ (nāda: ~euphony), ಪ್ರಾಸ (prāsa: ~rhyme) and ಲಯ (laya: ~ rhythm); flowing effortlessly like the Gangā herself; full of Hindu mythological references; and containing a devotion comprehensible only to the true devotee, no translation can do the poem adequate justice.
Nonetheless, I have attempted in this translation (which is more correctly a ಭಾವಾನುವಾದ or a transcreation) to convey some of the grandness of the poem. I confess that I was myself surprised by what I think are successful renditions of some particularly difficult parts.

I (ನಾನು)

It seems fitting to start this blog with Bendre’s own estimation of himself as the poetic-power Ambikātanayadatta – the son of five mothers (ಐದು ಐದೆಯರು).

Here is a video of Bendre reciting this poem. Incidentally, this is perhaps the only video recording available of Bendre reading out his poetry.

(ನಾನು)

I am the indivisible pollinic-glory born of the cosmic-mother’s lotus-womb;
I am the upright idol fashioned from a fistful of the earth-mother’s clay;
I am the scintillating light found within the million deepāwaḷis of mother-Bhārati;
I am the outspreading wind fed on the fragrance of Kannada’s mother-lotus;
I am the animate compassion drunk on the milk and blood of mine own mother;
These mothers five make up the vital airs of this breathing frame;
The Nārayaṇa of the lotus-heart has turned into the mortal Datta;
As Ambikātanaya he mirrors here in Kannada the universe’s inner voice.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ,” first published in 1951.

Afterword:

Here is my recitation of the translation.