Audumbara (ಔದುಂಬರ)

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

Kannada Poem’s Recitation:

Audumbara (ಔದುಂಬರ)

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

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

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

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

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

English Translation’s Recitation:


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 Vamana Bendre, and included previously unpublished poems.

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

Afterword
:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who? (ಯಾರು?)

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

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

The Kannada song:

Recitation of the Kannada poem:

Who? (ಯಾರು?)

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

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

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

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

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

Recitation of the English translation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Note: Do read the Afterword.

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

The Kannada poem as a song:

The English translation as a song:

Afterword:

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

Glossary:

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

2. tamma – the Kannada word for a younger brother

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

Paper Boat (ಹಾಳಿ ಹಡಗ)

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

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

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

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

Kannada Poem Recitation:

Paper Boat (ಹಾಳಿ ಹಡಗ)

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

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

English Translation’s Recitation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

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/

A Homage to the Gangā (ಗಂಗಾಷ್ಟಕ)

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

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

Recitation of the Kannada poem:

A Homage To The Gangā (ಗಂಗಾಷ್ಟಕ)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recitation of the English translation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

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

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

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

 

And here is my recitation of the poem:

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Finally, here is my recitation of the English translation.

Sorcerer (ಗಾರುಡಿಗ)

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

Recitation of the Kannada Poem:

Sorcerer (ಗಾರುಡಿಗ)

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

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

Recitation of the English translation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Sakheegeeta – Prelude (ಸಖೀಗೀತ – ನಾಂದಿ ಪದ್ಯ)

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

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

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

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

Sakheegeeta – Prologue (ಸಖೀಗೀತ – ನಾಂದಿ ಪದ್ಯ)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Here is my recitation of the translation.

Feather (ಗರಿ)

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

Feather (ಗರಿ)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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