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 Vamana Bendre, and included previously unpublished poems.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…”

Happiness – Sadness (ಸುಖ – ದುಃಖ)

A simple, sensitive, beautiful little poem. I don’t know that I’d have paid as much attention to it if I’d only been reading Bendre rather than looking for poems of his to translate and transcreate. Indeed, I’d venture that nothing allows for a more active, wide-ranging creative engagement with a poem as translating it. I suppose it’s why I continue to do it.

Recitation of the Kannada poem:

Happiness – Sadness (ಸುಖ–ದುಃಖ)

In the shimmer of the shimmering dawn
the flowers begin to show;
they show their beauty, spread their scent –
in the evening leave and go.

In the same way when youth is fresh
desire sends out its shoot;
flowering ripening fruiting passing,
it grows old and is lost.

In the blowing of the wind
no sadness can be found;
when children laugh their pealing laugh
there is always happiness around.

Recitation of the English translation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Afterword:

The first line of the original Kannada poem — ಚುಮು ಚುಮು ನಸುಕಿನಲಿ (chumu chumu nasukinali) — is a good example of the sonic difference between the onomatopoeia a phonetic language (like Kannada) and a non-phonetic language (like English) can deploy. It is obvious that a phonetic language has a much greater onomatopoeic range and can create sounds that a non-phonetic language cannot replicate. Examples include ಕುಲುಕುಲು (kulukulu) for light laughter, ಪಿಸಿಪಿಸಿ (pisipisi) for whispering, and ಪಳಪಳ (paḷapaḷa) for something  that glitters and dazzles.
In the case of this poem, you might have noticed that I’ve tried to compensate for this “lacuna” with a combination of alliteration and repetition, viz. “in the shimmer of the shimmering dawn”.
However, note that shimmer itself can be considered onomatopoeic (though the dictionary doesn’t say so explicitly). So too can the words whisper (the dictionary bears me out here) and glitter and dazzle. It’s just that, being non-phonetic, English finds it difficult to create, without compromising its peculiar temperament, the syllabic imitative words that phonetic languages can. (For instance, I chose “the shimmer of the shimmering dawn” over “the shim-shimmer of the early dawn” because the former seemed to better fit the English language’s natural temperament while the latter seemed a less-than-felicitous borrowing of a phonetic language’s tendencies. However, further consideration makes me see how the latter may be an equally good if not better choice.)

P.S: When I showed the translation to my mother, she observed (not critically but matter-of-factly) that the poem’s theme was rather “well-worn”. That’s true. However, the sensitive handling afforded the theme, the unusual third stanza, the understated presentation, and all-around assonance give the poem a singular flavour – not all of which could be captured in the translation.

The Earth-Mother’s Firstborn Son (ಭೂಮಿತಾಯಿಯ ಚೊಚ್ಚಿಲ ಮಗ)

Do read the afterword.

Recitation of the Kannada original:

The Earth-Mother’s Firstborn Son

Have you seen
with opened eyes
the firstborn son
of the earth-mother?

The sky above’s
smiled a toothy smile,
all the crop’s
just locust-food,
the turned up soil’s
been sown again!
Every evening’s
a bath of sweat –
the water of tears
for the food of breath!
The stomach’s become
the back’s own back;
worry’s owl’s nestled
within the heart;
the squeals of a lizard
have cornered the mind;
the look on the face
is mocking death,
the lance-of-loan’s
stuck through the throat!
and yet and yet
Yama* wìll not come;
with every breath
a life a death.

The threadbare bags
of the body’s chords
have slackened
and have opened up;
inside of them –
a web of bones!
Having somehow come
and fallen in
the dark of the dark
that we call living,
the creature-of-life
is tossing and turning;
the sounds of its struggle
are of groaning and moaning;
when will it come
the light of death?
when just when
just when just when
is its mumble and mutter
in its turbulent sleep!

*Yama — the god of death in Hindu mythology

Recitation of the English translation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Afterword:

Like I say in my essay for ‘The Hindu’, a language is both a cultural and an aural vehicle. This is especially true of a language’s poetry.

What meaning do these two (intrinsic) characteristics of a language take on when they need to ‘transferred’ to another language? That is to say, what must a translation (or a transcreation) do in the context of the transfer of these twin characteristics? Is a transfer even possible?
There are, of course, no easy answers to these questions. Nor are there any ‘correct’ answers. Nonetheless, I will attempt to answer them – in no other capacity than as a keen translator-and-transcreator of Bendre’s Kannada poetry into English.
The specific context of this effort is this poem’s title and its cultural connotations, both implicit and explicit.

*****

In the introduction to a book of his English translations of Tagore’s Bengali poetry, William Radice speaks of the “etiolation” of the English language. He attributes this etiolation – this feebleness, this loss of vigour – to the English language’s global spread and its status as the world’s language of commerce and communication. His motivation, of course, is to explain – perhaps even justify – his own approach to translating Tagore’s poetry.

I mention this matter not just because it introduced me to the word ‘etiolate’ (though I’m quite certain that is the reason Radice’s words have stuck with me) but because of ideas it kindled within me (in a mostly subconscious manner). I had already begun to transcreate Bendre’s poetry into English by the time I read Radice, but his perspective was thought-provoking and remained with me. I was reminded of it as I started to write this.

Even if we disagree with Radice’s claim that English is etiolated, there can be little argument that English is the language most closely linked to society’s rapid technology-driven modernization of the last century. A natural consequence of such a link is the modernization of the language itself; a process directly influenced by the growth and proliferation of new mores and the gradual obsolescence of old mores. In that sense, it would not be wrong to say that English is, at present, the world’s most modern language.

So – what is the character of a “modern language” like English? What does it possess (and lack) that other languages don’t? More specifically, how do Kannada and English compare? Is it possible to justify Radice’s claim concerning the ‘etiolation’ of English? Here are some thoughts, several of them generalized and speculative.

As I see it, the widespread modernization of English through the 20th century was responsible for severing any last ties of the language with its rural and agricultural (not to mention its pagan) past. In other words, English’s modernization was, in effect, its widespread urbanization. This, of course, meant the language had to ‘grow a new skin’, as it were, even as it shed the skin of its rural, agricultural, and pagan past – a progression that had begun as early as the Industrial Revolution of the middle-1700s but that had been kept in check by a counter-tide of literary Romanticism. Several of the Romantic movement’s ideas were pastoral (and pagan) – the idea of the earth as a nourishing mother (Gaia, Mother Earth, etc.), the anthropomorphism of nature and the natural elements (nymphs and fairies, for instance), and, of course, the great many gods of Greek (and Roman) mythology and of Norse mythology. The waning of the Romantic movement naturally rendered its ideas obsolete. Its ‘poetic conceits’ became artifacts frozen in time. They stood as pleasant reminders of an idyllic rural period that was lost (a period that had perhaps always been more wishful than true) and whose mores were now obviously antiquated and wholly unmodern.
Modern poetry in English, with its keen sense for the present and the changes it was bringing, eschewed the (often exaggerated) tropes and images of the Romantic period; using more familiar, tangible and everyday conceits instead. (Of course, the poetic quality of many of these conceits can be questioned.) By doing so, old pastoral paradigms – whether real or imagined – like Mother Nature, Mother Earth, Gaia, shepherds, nightingales, and fairies were discarded and rendered both irrelevant and obsolete. Now on, they could only ever be used self-consciously or mischievously (as part of a parody or nostalgic pastiche, say). They had lost any poetic cachet they may have previously possessed – and not without reason.
With everybody (except perhaps the Amish?) scrambling towards modernity, the fracture of the already-tenuous bond between man (used here deliberately instead of ‘human beings’) and his natural surroundings, and the rise of factory farming units, what were the chances that people continued to think of the ‘Earth’ as a nourishing ‘mother’ or the farmer as ‘a son of the soil’ or the moon as the ‘goddess’ Selena?

Kannada’s situation (at about the same time) stands in almost direct contrast to English’s. As the West (and English) were rapidly urbanizing, India and Karnataka and Kannada and their cultures were still overwhelmingly rural, agricultural, and pagan. Yes, an ‘urban breeze’ had begun to blow ever so slowly through the country, but its culture and its people were still pastoral (in a manner that even English Romantic literature never was).
Rural life – the village – and its dozens of traditions and inflexible (and occasionally flexible) social mores governed people’s lives and allowed them to live and think like their ancestors of centuries ago. Consequently: the land was a living entity that required care and nurture, the earth was a beneficent mother who bestowed her grace on her devoted children, the farmer was a respected and dutiful ‘son of the soil’, a good harvest was the blessing of the village goddess, a drought was a sign that Indra (~the rain god) was angry and needed to be placated, the flowing stream was an incarnation of the water-goddess, the cow was an integral part of the family, the crow on the branch was the reincarnation of a dead relative, the soaring brahminy kite was the mount of the Hindu god Vishṇu, the chattering lizard was a harbinger of infelicity, the slithering snake in the backyard was a member of the nāga tribe seeking milk, the strange noises heard within the forest were the hungry rumblings of a bloodthirsty rākshasa (~ogre), and the arc-topped stone on the village’s outskirts was a self-born shivalinga (a particularly-shaped stone considered, in Hindu culture, to represent the Hindu god Shiva).
Or put differently, the Kannada land and language of that time were full to overflowing with the cultural accumulation of not just centuries but millenia. Nothing had been jettisoned. The past was always present. It was not ‘an unknown country’ but ‘a familiar feeling’. Which meant there was nothing ‘romantic’ (especially not in the sense of European Romanticism) for a farmer to speak of his debt to or place his problems upon the shoulders of bhoomitaayi (Kannada for ‘earth mother‘) or for a mother to affectionately call her mischievous little boy “my Krishṇa” (Krishṇa being a particularly beloved Hindu god whose tales of mischief as a young boy in Brindāvan are much-loved and narrated all across India).

Da Ra Bendre was born within this wonderful richness of culture and tradition and language; a richness that he loved, respected, and let seep into every last cell of his being. His (and his people’s) reward for this open-heartedness would be his heaven-touched Kannada poetry, one of world-literature’s most luminous achievements.

*****

If you’ve read this far, you’ll see that the goal of this exposition was to analyze the possibility and extent of translation (or transference) – both cultural and aural – between languages.
You’ll also have noticed that while the aural aspect has been left mostly undiscussed (though you can find a few of my thoughts here) , the cultural aspect has been discussed in some detail. At the very least, it has been established that the cultural milieu that inspired (and also cocooned) Bendre’s poetry is often completely alien to the cultural milieu that produced (and continues to produce) modern English poetry. However, given the trikāla (past-present-future; timeless; all-time) and universal nature of Bendre’s poetry, what mode of transfer can possibly transform Bendre’s Kannada poetry into modern English poetry?
In my opinion, the emphasis on ‘modern’ is extremely important, in a twofold manner. Allow me to explain.
First – for the simple reason that Bendre’s poetry was modern for his time (though not just for his time) and any translation that does not retain this “modernity” must necessarily be a failure. In other words, it will simply not do to translate (or transcreate) Bendre’s poetry using the conventions of the poetry of the English Romantic period. (I mention the matter because, on the whole, that is what has been done to whatever little of Bendre’s poetry has been translated from Kannada into English.) Exceptionally ahead of his time in his use of the ‘(people’s) spoken language’ to create poetry, the only way an English translation can possibly do justice to the original Kannada poem is by being a fully contemporary 21st-century English poem.
Second – from a practical point of view, a contemporary rendering is the only way to bring the world’s attention to a translation from a language as greviously ill-known as Kannada (which is a real pity, seeing how Kannada is one of a handful of living world languages with a literary history that has remained unbroken for over a thousand years).

In the context of the poem above, I have chosen to translate bhoomitaayi as ‘earth-mother’ rather than Mother Earth, simply because of the (out)datedness of the latter form. I trust that, by doing so, I have conveyed the sentiment sans the sentimentality. As for the rest of the title, the ‘firstborn son’ (Kannada: ಚೊಚ್ಚಿಲ ಮಗ or chocchila maga) Bendre speaks of is the farmer. In his capacity as the (earth-mother’s) firstborn son, he is doing his duty (as dictated by custom not just in India but the world over) by labouring to provide for the other members of both his family and society. But the labour is backbreaking and, dependent as he is on the whims of nature and other people, the life he lives is nothing less than wretched. Growing up poor in Dharwad in the the early 20th century, Bendre was fully aware of the plight of the farmer. (It is worth noting that it is this familiarity Bendre had with the subject of his poetry that precludes the poem from being merely sentimental or nostalgic. In English poetry, a rare instance of this sort of familiarity with life in the village can be found in the poetry of John Clare.)

To end, I would like to thank my college friend, the poet, musician and lecturer Matt Shelton, for the feedback he gave me regarding my own English poetry and his advice to set aside a consciously ‘poetic voice’ for one ‘closer to how we speak’. The advice he gave helped me (in no small way) to see the advantage of contemporizing my translations (and transcreations) of Bendre’s poetry while giving me a framework to work within. More recently, it has helped me refine my ideas concerning poetry (whether lyric or non-lyric) and, as he intended, in creating new poetry of my own. Thanks, Matt!

Dissolution – Creation (ಪ್ರಳಯ – ಸೃಷ್ಟಿ)

This is an interesting poem, made more interesting when one realizes that it is also among Bendre’s earliest. Bendre has written that ತುತೂರಿ (tutūri: ~ trumpet) was his first work, but the book I have says this poem was written sometime between 1914 and 1918 (when Bendre was between 18 and 22 years old). In any case, it seems fair to call this one of Bendre’s “early poems” (when, one can surmise, the Ambikatanayadatta within him had only just begun to come into its own.)

Currently, the poem acts as the prologue to the collection ಮೂರ್ತಿ (mūrti: ~ idol), a set of poems that together narrate the rise, the life, and decline of a stone idol. (Incidentally, his poem ‘Sorcerer (ಗಾರುಡಿಗ)‘ serves as the epilogue.)

However, the (somewhat fuzzy) details regarding the poem’s “date-of-creation” leads me to conclude the poem was written separately and is likely one of Bendre’s early experiments with the Petrarchan sonnet form – which experiments would culminate in the harvest of oct-sestets of “ಉಯ್ಯಾಲೆ” (uyyāle: the swing), Bendre’s 1938 collection of poems. In other words, my guess is that the poem was not written as a prologue so much as it was retroactively attached as a prologue on account of its fitting the theme “ಮೂರ್ತಿ” expatiates upon. The same argument can be made about the poem ‘Sorcerer (ಗಾರುಡಿಗ)‘.

In any case, these are minor details and do not – in the larger picture – add to or take away from the poem.

Note: The idea of ಪ್ರಳಯ (praḷaya: ~ dissolution) and ಸೃಷ್ಟಿ (srishṭi: ~ creation) is an important idea in the Hindu (cosmological) imagination. For the interested, the afterword offers (a little) more detail.

Recitation of the Kannada original:


Dissolution – Creation (ಪ್ರಳಯ – ಸೃಷ್ಟಿ)

Like a cloud of smoke that scattering disappears,
the remembered form dissolves; a pall begins
to rise and spread; like form is lost within
a dream, a formless darkness fills all space;
the mind is dense and thick, and time itself
is lost, unknowable; unmoving, the
mind has turned upon itself; what world is
this that lies ahead? An uncreating
sight, a picture! Unpicture. Do I exist?
What else exists? A spreading moor of silence!

Like a deadened body gaining breath, the
darkness around responds; born of the
holy river stone, the melody of Krishna’s
flute is making every fibre of the body
dance; it wears a peacock’s mask. And every-
where are eyes on eyes! Like the widower
given back his bride, the mind is a happy home.
Recitation of the English translation:


(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Afterword:

Ancient Hindu mytho-cosmology posits a cyclical model of the universe. This is expressed by the term ಕಾಲಚಕ್ರ (kālachakra: the wheel-of-time) – a notion that imputes an end to every beginning and a beginning to every end. In particular, this cosmology speaks of the cyclical recurrence of four yugas (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 event necessitates the pralaya (~the reabsorption; the dissolution) of the universe and its subsequent srishṭi (~creation, emergence).
The cycle of pralaya-srishṭi is ceaseless. That is to say, pralaya and srishṭi are attached in the same way as the front and back of a coin. Or, put differently, dissolution and creation are inextricably linked – each succeeds and precedes the other through a spacetime of eternity.

The Bird is Flying – Have You Seen it? (ಹಕ್ಕಿ ಹಾರುತಿದೆ ನೋಡಿದಿರಾ?)

One of the most historically significant poems in Kannada literature. In this case, not (simply) for its “poetic worth” – which for once takes a backseat – but for its impact on the Kannada literary scene. I will let Shri Māsti* Venkatēsha Iyyangār explain (in his own words)…

“…a couple of years later I saw him [Bendre] again at the Beḷagāvi Sāhitya Sammelana or the Beḷagāvi (Kannada) Literary Conference [in 1929]. At that conference, Shri Bendre read out his poem, “ಹಕ್ಕಿ ಹಾರುತಿದೆ ನೋಡಿದಿರಾ? (The bird is flying – have you seen it?)”. It is impossible now to describe the ecstasy its listeners felt that day. [While] that one reading was hardly sufficient to understand the various meanings the poem suggested, it was enough to astonish the thousand-strong audience. It was clear to everyone of standing in the “poetry world” that here was a new poet whose poetic shakti (~power) was his very own.”

For a great many more piquant details (including Bendre’s story about the poem’s genesis and information about Masti), please read the afterword below.

And now, Bendre’s own recitation (!) of the first three stanzas of the poem. Not from 1929 but from around 1971-72. The high-pitched reediness of his voice has somehow always intrigued me. (For other audio recordings of Bendre singing his own poetry, go here.)

 

We are also fortunate to have a lovely song-recitation (in his very own style) of the whole poem by Shri Kanada Narahari. Per my “policy”, I have offered only the audio here, but those who wish to can watch the video here. You might also want to follow Shri Narahari’s page to listen to his solos and collaborations on the sitār.
P.S: Dear Narahari awaré, I hope you don’t mind that I’ve used your recording here.

 

Night after night and day on day
here-there, up-down, and everywhere
one furlong two and three away
before the eye blinks òn this play
the bird is flying – have you seen it?

Its feathered-tail’s a blackish grey
its body-colour’s like silvered rays
a pair of góld-and-russet wings
are by its side – flapflap flapping
the bird is flying – have you seen it?

A hue that’s òf dark-cloudy sphere

its wings beat hard against the air
it’s weaved a garland of the stars
and made the sun and moon its eyes
the bird is flying – have you seen it?

Threshing the sheaves of kingdom-states

gulping the limits of the earthly vasts
upping and downing the continents
pecking on crowned-heads glorious
the bird is flying – have you seen it?

Wìping the fáte òff of countless ages

showing hidden fortunes bètween the Mànu sages
vitalizing lífe by the flapping of its wings
cheering the newborns of the newborn spring
the bird is flying – have you seen it?

Outflying the boundary òf the silver town
drinking the water of the city-of-the-moon
and thèn to sing, to play, to fly, to soar
rising and alighting on the grounds of Mars
the bird is flying – have you seen it?

It’s reached the edges òf the spacely sphere

its beak’s outstretched to what’s past there
who knows what sort of plans it has
to find and crack more universes
the bird is flying – have you seen it?

Recitation of the English Translation:

 

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Afterword:

Here is Bendre recounting the circumstances of this poem’s birth.

“A poem is not the fruit of an experience but rather that of the moment’s inspiration. I can offer a few examples from my own experience: One night, I went to bed extremely late. When I woke in the early morning hours, I just did not feel like leaving the comfort of my bed. The clock by my side was pushing forward, making its usual tick-tock sound. All of a sudden – the similarity between time and a bird struck me and a poem was born. “Have You Seen the Flying Bird” was the phrase. While this experience was one I’d had a great many times before and the phrase itself was nothing new, a poem had never been born of it.”

*Masti Venkatesha Iyyangar (1891-1986) was a short story writer, novelist, essayist, and publisher-editor of ಜೀವನ (jīvana: ~ living), one of the most important cultural magazines in the 20th-century Kannada world. Masti is considered the “father of the modern Kannada short story” and his direct, unadorned style illustrates his natural talent for storytelling. Like Bendre, he too won the Jnanapitha, in 1983 for his novel “Chikkavīra Rājendra“. (The Jnanapitha is India’s highest literary honour.) And while his simple style would come to be criticized by Kannada’s “modernists” for its lack of “complexity”, it is worth noting that it greatly influenced Yashwant Chittal (1928–2014), acknowledged as one of 20th-century India’s foremost writers of fiction. In the Kannada context, just as important as Masti’s writing was his generous support of young(er) Kannada literary talent, including Bendre. (This support was often financial and given with as light a touch as possible.)

There is a great deal that can be said about the warm and respectful relationship between Masti and Bendre. While Masti’s wonderfully unselfish rasika instinct for Bendre’s poetic genius has rightly received much approbation — the well-known writer-intellectual U.R. Ananthamurthy called it one of the great examples in any language of “a critical evaluation of a writer by a fellow contemporary writer” — a particularly crucial aspect of Masti’s support has remained largely overlooked; namely, the fillip that the poetic shakti Ambikatanayadatta within Bendre received as a consequence of Masti’s patronage.
To elaborate, Bendre (1896–1981) was 33 years old when he recited this poem at the Literary Conference in Belagavi. In contrast to the widespread (western) notion of the exceptional poet as a meteor that blazes brightly but too briefly — think of Keats who died at 26, Shelley who died at 30, Rimbaud who died at 27, Garcia Lorca who died at 36 — Bendre was positively old when he first came to public attention. Yes, he’d published a short narrative poem called “ಕೃಷ್ಣಕುಮಾರಿ (Kṛsṇakumāri)” in 1922, but with its sober style, and its old, methodical meter, it is better considered a homage to one of Bendre’s favourite Kannada poets (Lakshmīsha) than a true representation of the poetic shakti of Ambikatanayadatta.
Like Masti goes on to say in his essay (from which the part above’s been excerpted), he and Bendre would spend a good part of the next year (1930) travelling through the old Mysore region and the countryside of southern Karnataka, stopping at the villages they passed so that the villagers there could savour Bendre’s ebulliently fresh (dēsi) poetry in the voice of its creator. And while these travels would give Ambikatanayadatta Bendre’s work (most of it written after 1922) the platform it needed, it is my guess that they were equally important in vitalizing, kindling, and nourishing Bendre’s poetic powers.
A couple of years later, in 1932, this platform would help send forth “ಗರಿ (Feather)”, the poetry collection that would catapult Bendre into the collective Kannada consciousness and earn him the title of varakavi or the heaven-touched poet-seer. The title’s wonderful felicity would grow more and more apparent and reach its fulfillment in the publication of 1951’s “ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ (Gaṅgāvataraṇa: The Descent of the Gangā)”, very possibly the apotheosis of 20th-century lyric poetry (in any language).
To summarize, Masti’s greatness did not simply recognize Bendre’s genius but, more importantly, also provided for it the rasika matrix without which it may never have grown and flourished like it did. (For that alone, the Kannada people will always remain in Masti’s debt.)

P.S: Those of you who’ve got this far may have noticed that I myself haven’t expressed an opinion about the poem. The truth is…I’m not sure what to make of it (even after having translated it). Mostly, I am not fully convinced by the poem’s central metaphor — of time as a flying bird. I mean – of course it’s interesting, but I’m still trying to make sense of its…appropriateness (for lack of a better word). But I didn’t want that to hold up this translation – and I also wanted to give each of you a chance to make up your own mind about the poem – which is why I went ahead and published it. Like always, the translation tries its best to relay the poem’s ಭಾವ (bhāva: ~ spirit) even as it strives to hold on as tightly as possible to the original’s “literality“.

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;
let 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 spring’s desired-success-shower come;
above, let your moon-star act as your home.

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 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.