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.

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 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 her full in the face –
the capers of Krishṇa would soon gather pace!

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಸಖೀಗೀತ”, 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 that 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, not knowing 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,
Omkuhoo 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/

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! 🙂

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.

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.

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’d 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).”

Come To Sādhanakēri (ಬಾರೊ ಸಾಧನಕೇರಿಗೆ)

One of Da Ra Bendre’s most popular ಹಾಡುಗಬ್ಬs (hāḍugabba: ~song-poem), he wrote it as a ಸ್ವಗತ (swagata: ~soliloquy) when the unexpected loss of his job forced him to return to his house “ಶ್ರೀಮಾತಾ (shrīmāta)” 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, Ms. Pallavi’s 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 on the plains;
the green has grown into the town;
the green has spread to paths around.
A very piece of heaven’s fallen here;
is there anyone it does not cheer?
Come to Sādhanakēri,
back to your town where you were merry.

The mountain’s face itself has turned;
the koel’s songs are sweetly tuned;
the fences are flower-fingered;
the land’s youth has returned;
and earth-mother’s stretched and risen;
for shrāvaṇa’s rich it is the season.
Come to Sādhanakēri,
back to your town where you were merry.

See the shadow-play of the clouds above;
the multitude of forest-flowers;
the countless honey-bees that hover;
the spell beneath the yakshi’s bower.
Come watch the groups of butterflies
as they flutter round in their meadow-play.
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.