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 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
                will 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“.