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”.

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.

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.

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! 🙂

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).”

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,
                                 come 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 her 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,
That made your pool of consciousness swell.
Gangē, with new-opened eyes;
Gangē, who now does span the skies
ready to descend upon Bhāratī’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.