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).”

Author: MKA

I'm Madhav, from Bangalore. I write my own poetry in English and translate Da Ra Bendre's poetry from Kannada into English. (You can read my poetry at https://madhavajjampurwritings.com/). I also translate sundry other Kannada writings into English. My favourite poets include Yeats, Tagore, Bendre, Dylan Thomas, Emily Dickinson, and Gerard Hopkins. If you'd like to get in touch, do write to me at mk.ajjampur@gmail.com. I'd be very happy to hear from you!

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