Have You Seen the Flying Bird? (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 Sahitya Sammelana or the Beḷagāvi (Kannada) Literary Conference [in 1929]. At that conference, Shri Bendre read out his poem, “ಹಕ್ಕಿ ಹಾರುತಿದೆ ನೋಡಿದಿರಾ? (Have You Seen the Flying Bird?)“. 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.)

However, we are 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
Have you séen the flying bird?

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
Have you séen the flying bird?

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
Have you séen the flying bird?

Threshing the sheaves of kingdom-states
Gulping the limits of the earthly vasts
Upping and downing the continents
Pecking on crowned-heads glorious
Have you séen the flying bird?

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
Have you séen the flying bird?

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
Have you séen the flying bird?

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
Have you séen the flying bird?

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“.

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.

Benediction (ಹರಕೆ)

Kannada Poem’s Recitation:

Benediction (ಹರಕೆ)

The slow-paced step is slower now, within doe-
Eyes’s about to sprout an anxiousness;
(The fresh-greenness of the body’s faded now.)
Its youth undone, the blood’s red-freshness’
Quickly turning old. Coquette who wished to
Count the feathers of the flying bird! Your
Heart’s as desolate as an empty temple’s show;
Sweet murmurs can be born no more;
Now grown, you stand past outstretched hand.

Sister, let the day’s fatigue just fade away;
May the soaring hawk not swoop this way
Or boy-wind tie you up in impish play.
Don’t visit here, you bee who steals the flower’s
Scent; let come spring’s desired-success-shower;
Above, may your moon-star give you cover.

English Translation’s Recitation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection, “ಕಾಮಕಸ್ತೂರಿ”, first published in 1934.

Afterword:

I remember being at the 2016 Ranga Ugadi organized by Ranga Shankara, Bengaluru’s best-known theatre space. The year’s theme was Bendre and the centerpiece of the second day’s festivities was a reading session of his poems by various well-known Kannada cultural figures. One of them, I recall, prefaced her reading – of the poem ‘ದಶಾವತಾರ’ – with her description of Bendre as a man with a “ಮಹಾ ಹೆಂಗರುಳು” (mahā heṅgaruḷu), or in other words, “a great woman-like sympathy”.
The poem “ದಶಾವತಾರ” – the ten avatāras – is part of a series of poems called “ಕರುಳಿನ ವಚನಗಳು” – or “words [born] of the gut” – written from the point of view of a mother that relate her various happy and spontaneous exclamations at her beloved infant’s ways and plays.  To those who know about Bendre’s growth as a poet, the influence of Rabindranath Tagore’s “The Crescent Moon” on these poems is obvious. (Speaking for myself, the poems in “The Crescent Moon” are some of the most exquisite poems I’ve ever read.)
If the incident mentioned above is relevant, it is because this poem too exemplifies the ಹೆಂಗರುಳು Bendre possessed. While a deep sensitivity characterizes all great poets, Bendre’s sensitivity was (for a male poet) unusually “female directed”. A number of his early lyric poems are either written from a woman’s point of view or are sympathetic responses to a woman’s various life experiences.
It is notable that this is another oct-sestet – one that rhymes this time. You’ll notice that the translation has, in spite of my trying, 15 lines rather than 14. Its rhyme scheme too is different from the original’s. Then again, that’s the reason I prefer to think these poems are as much transcreations as they are translations.
P.S: I think it worth reading this poem in conjuction with this one.

Gumma (ಗುಮ್ಮ)

The literature of the Navōdaya period (that began in the early 1900s) in Kannada literature was inspired by the emergent literature of the Bengal Renaissance as well as by the Romantic tradition of English poetry. This inspiration extended to the verse forms of the Romantic tradition and included the sonnet.

As the foremost lyrical poet of Kannada’s Navōdaya period, and an inveterate seeker (and inventor) of new poetic forms, Bendre’s experiments with the sonnet began in the early 1920s. However, it was in his 1938 collection “ಉಯ್ಯಾಲೆ (Uyyāle: The Swing)” that the sonnet-fruit swelled forth in all its fullness. Naming his avatāra of the sonnet the ಅಷ್ಟಷಟ್ಪದಿ or the oct-sestet (and, by doing so, choosing the Petrarchan form over the Shakespearean), Bendre says in his introduction that “the new qualities [of his sonnets] are their lack of rhyme, their unpredictable use of enjambment, and the strangeness of the twist imparted [when moving from the octet to the sestet]”.

As a translator, I will admit that the sonnets of “ಉಯ್ಯಾಲೆ” have provided respite of a sort. In particular, Bendre’s (deliberate?) eschewal of his famous, near-ubiquitous (end) rhyme has allowed the translation – or transcreation – to stretch its limbs a little bit more, to spread itself with a little more freedom in its attempt to emulate the various ways and plays of a Bendre poem. Conversely, this eschewal on Bendre’s part has often been (more than) compensated for by a denseness of thought and language! In any case, I have looked to approximate the technical dexterity of these poems using what may be called a rhythmic “free verse”. (Bendre may have chosen to forego rhyme but his preternatural sense for rhythm and aurality remained.)

Here is a sonnet from the collection that illustrates some of what was said above. While the English word bugbear works as a translation for gumma, I have retained the original for its flavour.

Kannada Recitation:

Gumma (ಗುಮ್ಮ)

Keep quiet, kanda, the gumma’s come; oh my, what
Are those eyes of his! How red his tongue – like embers
In the darkness black! Faking slowness, he comes (and
comes); keep quiet, kanda, don’t you cry! He might just
Come here if he hears your wail; Oh my oh my!
Shut your eyes tight, just fall asleep, don’t ever see
His misbegotten face; here he comes, oomph-hmmphing,
Stay calm, kanda, don’t even peep, the gumma nears.

Don’t come, gumma, he’s gone to sleep; this is mira–
Culous! Like fish gulped in to a water-whirl,
His mind’s at rest; his breath is like a baby-breeze
Swirling through the leaves; it’s acting crazy now –
With what dream-girlfriend’s breathing is it twinned;
There too, gumma, make sure that kanda is not scared.

English Recitation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Hothot Sky (ನಿಗಿ ನಿಗಿ ಮುಗಿಲು)

Original Kannada Poem:

Hothot Sky (ನಿಗಿ ನಿಗಿ ಮುಗಿಲು)

Hothot sky
Hothot day
Pours forth an emberous heat;
Strips all cover
Steals all power
The life-breath’s fully beat;

Dries the throat
Drops the fruit
The hot breath of the air –
Full-flaming
Sky-swimming
Is arriving in fine flair.

Showers the rain
Uplooks the grain
The dark clouds break and burst;
Cheep-cheep the birds,
Their laughter-words;
Here’s mercy for the cursed!

Transcreated English Poem:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Afterword:

ಹಾಡೆ ಹಾದಿಯ ತೋರಿತು (haaḍē haadiya tōritu: ~ the song itself showed the way) said Bendre of (his) poetry. The variousness of his poetry’s metre, rhythm, rhyme, prosody, and syllablism testify to the truth of this statement: the song really did show him the way. All too often, all he did was follow its lead.

In this particular poem, it may be argued that the short (staccato-ish) syllabic lines lend the poem an urgency – alluding, at first, to the withering heat and, later, to the wet relief of the rain. In any case, the poem is a wonderful example of the famous ನಾದ (nāda: ~ euphony) inherent to Bendre’s poetry. Just listen to that assonance, that rhythm, that rhyme, that onomatopoeia!

In this transcreation, a particular concern was to mirror the (short) syllablism of the original poem’s lines. Trying to work the English language to achieve such effects is an especially satisfying aspect of translating Bendre’s poetry.

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

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Lass with the Empty Waterpot (ಬರಿಗೊಡದ ಬಾಲಿ)

I think, that if I touched the earth,
It would crumble;
It is so sad and beautiful,
So tremulously like a dream.”

(From Clown in the Moon by Dylan Thomas)

I first read these lines on a postcard almost ten years ago in a library room in Cambridge. What struck me immediately was their delicacy – a delicacy so wonderful as to be almost painful. While I have not forgotten the encounter, I cannot say that I have thought much about these lines in the years since.
           And yet, it was (the memory of) these very lines that came to mind as I mulled the “feeling of loss” I experienced when I returned to the translation offered below.

Allow me to explain. The Kannada poem (whose English translation may be found below) first came to my notice about a year ago. I came across it as I flicked through the pages of a richly-aged copy of Bendre’s ಕಾಮಕಸ್ತೂರಿ (Kamakasturi). Finding the poem’s first two lines vaguely familiar and drawn in by their quaint loveliness, I read the poem all the way through – when I finished, all I was left with was a most wonderful ache, an ache born of a beauty so ethereal as to almost surpass being.

I cannot now recall the minutiae of the moment – but I believe I felt almost compelled to translate the poem, to possibly borrow some of its beauty for myself – acutely aware though I was of the near-futility of the attempt, of the vanity of attempting to distill something that was already sublime, of the trials of translating a poetic idiom inspired by a wonderfully rich folklore.

Nonetheless, I tried my hand at it – and you can imagine my happiness when I was able not to translate it exactly but transcreate it – without letting slip (too much of) its gossamer-fineness. The enthusiastic response of a couple of faithful readers only nourished this happy feeling.

But what then is the “feeling of loss” I spoke of? Well – it is the feeling that appears when I now read the poem and my transcreation; the recognition that that moment of ecstasy will likely never return. “It is so sad and beautiful|So tremulously like a dream”.

It is my fond hope, though, that every one of you who reads this transcreation is able to feel some of its magic – however momentarily.

Finally, in a break from tradition, it is my father who has sung this particular poem. The ಧಾಟಿ (dhaaṭi: ~ tune) is of his own making. I think he has done a wonderful job.

Lass with the Empty Waterpot (ಬರಿಗೊಡದ ಬಾಲಿ)
                                 (Separation)

Lass with the empty waterpot, why is it still not filled,
You stand vácant on the banks, my dear;
You stand vacant, you stand worried
How long since you were born, my dear?

How long since you stumbled and lisped,
How long since you suckléd, my dear;
How long since you suckléd at mama’s breast,
How long since you played in the dust, dear?

How long since your shy-chuckled-whispering-act,
How long since you ran with your friends, dear;
How long since you played and ran with your friends,
How lóng since you begàn to sashay?

How long since your hair fanned your back, dear
How long since your locks kissed your cheeks;
How long since your locks kissed your cheeks, dear,
How long since you tied on these plaits?

How long since you chattered and stared, dear,
How long since the evil eye went;
How long since the evil eye went, dear,
Come, swear on the lehnga you wear.

How long since you put your doll-daughter to sleep,
How long since she slept by your side, dear;
How long since she slept by your side with a kiss,
How long since this brought you your joy, dear?

How long since those eyes that twinkled and danced,
How long since they started to search, dear;
How long since they started to search and to tire,
How long’s this been going on, dear?

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಕಾಮಕಸ್ತೂರಿ”, first published in 1934.

Afterword:

Here is my recitation of the translation.

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