The Musk-of-Love (ಕಾಮಕಸ್ತೂರಿ)

To understand Ambikatanayadatta Bendre’s genius, it is vital to appreciate what may be called his “folk poetry”. (Indeed, to people who have not read his poetry but have only heard a couple of songs, he remains ‘just a folk poet’.) By “folk poetry”, I refer here to the poetry Bendre wrote using the idiom peculiar to the Dharwad region, an idiom that he single-handedly raised to rarefied heights. His use of the Dharwad idiom – essentially a regional vulgate – may be contrasted with his equally felicitous use of “High Kannada” (which, broadly speaking, refers to the Sanskritized Kannada that had been used through the centuries by some of the language’s best-known poets).

Imbued to overflowing with the sounds and scents of Dharwad, Bendre’s “folk poetry” may be characterized as the poetry that Yeats wished to write but couldn’t; a poetry that, deriving its ಸತ್ತ್ವ (sattva: ~ quintessence, lifeblood) from the people’s everyday speech and catalyzed by the poet’s peculiar genius, emerges as the expressive apex of a people’s culture. The poet, in such a case, is simply the “chosen one”, the representative” of his/her people’s poetic expression. Bendre himself alludes to this phenomenon in the foreword to his first poetry collection ‘ಗರಿ (Feather)’. He says, “I have talked so far of ‘my poems’. That is simply a manner of speaking. In truth, these are not my poems; they are Kannada’s poems. The Kannada-language’s incorporeal voice is actualizing itself through a thousand throats. That my throat is one among this thousand is itself my blessing. That I am one among the group of poets singing in the dawn of Kannada’s renaissance is itself my source of pride. For if it were not so, why should anybody care about my poems? To say ‘my poems or ‘his poems’ is fallacious; for Kannada to lay claim to these poems is the truth.”
He makes mention of it again in his poem ‘ನಾನು (I)‘ when he speaks of how “as Ambikatanaya he mirrors here in Kannada the universe’s inner voice”.

All this talk above happened because the poem in question is basically drenched in the Dharwad (folk) idiom. Unsurprisingly, this gives the poem a warmth, a cosiness, a tenderness that eludes other more ‘serious’ poems.

As for the poem’s English translation (or, more correctly, transcreation), it may be useful to read what I said previously about such an undertaking. A point I did not make then but that needs to be made concerns the sheer impossibility of translating a poem’s native sound – regardless of whether the poem uses the vulgate or the formal form. Since “poetry is the suggestive sound”, the best the translator or transcreator can do is try to find equivalent sounds in the language the poem is being transferred to. In the case of a lyric poem especially, this “equivalency of sound” is perhaps the most felicitous way to convey the ಭಾವ (bhāva: ~ feeling, mood, spirit) that the original evokes in the native reader or listener.

While I am not sure the poem I just linked to did that very capably (though a friend of mine did say that the translation brought forth tears that she had to hide from those around her), it’s my opinion that I’ve done a little better with this effort.

And now, on to the poem! I’ve (tried to) sing and recite both the original and the translation. Please make allowance for the background noise (and, if necessary, my singing). Thanks.

Kannada original (sung):

Kannada original (recited):

The Musk-of-Love (ಕಾಮಕಸ್ತೂರಿ)
                 (By the Field)

                 Thick-plaited girl
                 I’ve brought for you
                 a scented sprig
                 of the musk-of-love

When worn beautifully
upon your crowny crown
a little swirl of wind
will come my way and touch
and I will feel –
delighted – light – delight

                 People who talk
                w ill talk and talk –
                 you are outside of them

English translation (sung):

English translation (recited):

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Afterword:

This poem is the very first poem in the ‘ಕಾಮಕಸ್ತೂರಿ (kāmakastūri)’ collection. In his foreword, here is what Bendre had to say about the first “batch” of poems in the collection: “The first sixteen poems were not all written at the same time. [However], they all exist upon the same wave[length]. The rasika reader can use their imagination to weave a story or stories around the collection; each to their own taste. [After all,] like musk, kāma too is a quarter intoxicant, three quarters earthy soil, but nonetheless a pulsing heady fragrance! kāma (sensual desire) and prēma (love) are like the mud and the lotus. Or to use the “language of poetry” – one is descriptive, the other suggestive.”

Note: On Jan 26, as part of my January picture series, I published the translation of this poem’s first stanza. In it, I chose to translate “kāmakastūri” as “the musk-of-love”. Given Bendre’s explicit mention of the relationship (and difference) between kāma and prēma, translating “kāmakastūri” as “the musk-of-love” (and thereby drawing an equivalence between “kāma” and “love”) complicates the translation of  “prēma” – whose translation as “love” would be more accepted. However, since there is no mention of “prēma” in this particular poem, I have chosen to stick with “the musk-of-love”.

P.S: Strictly speaking, “kāmakastūri” translates to something like “the sensual musk” or “the musk-of-desire”; neither of which quite captures the tender feeling associated with the poem (like “musk-of-love” does).

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.

Beyond the Mind (ಅಚಿಂತ್ಯ)

Among Shankar Mokashi Punekar’s many affectionate and insightful quotes about Bendre’s poetic genius is his description of Bendre’s poetry as “a poetic essence born of the constant embrace of the heart (ಭಾವ) and the intellect (ಬುದ್ಧಿ)”.

Interpreted judiciously, one may understand this to mean that every poem of Bendre’s holds within it, in varying degrees, elements that appeal to both the heart and the mind; that both stir the heart and stimulate the mind. Given the exquisite romanticism of Bendre’s lyric poems and the intellectual inquisitiveness of his early sonnets and later poems, Punekar’s assertion seems very reasonable.

This particular poem seems a good example of the “intellect” of Bendre’s poetry. Like Bendre says himself in his foreword to “ಮೂರ್ತಿ  (mūrti: ~ idol)” – a set of connected poems that, through their exploration of the birth, life, and death of a stone, allegorically describe the human experience – this “first part of the [longer] narrativepoem is the philosophical face of a metaphoric symbolism”.

It is worth noting that the fifth stanza with its several Hindu philosophical references was particularly challenging to transcreate leave alone translate. Once again, it is the liberties the English language allows me to take with it that makes translations like these that much easier.

Kannada Recitation:

Beyond the Mind (ಅಚಿಂತ್ಯ)

No one has seen the truth,
the truth cannot be seen;
is it smaller than a grain of sand?
The prideful man who says
that he has seen the truth;
are the secrets of a grain of sand
mórsels for men’s eyes?

You silver-tongue who thinks
you’ve caught within your net of words
that truth that goes beyond the sight!
He alone knows who knows
the truth of truth is beyond truth;
and you say that you have caught its breath!

Pick up a grain of sand,
enclose it in your fist;
what does it say? What is
its goal? Its life? Tell us from which
despoilèd golden age emerged this
debrised gleam that you now hold!

Hari’s the greater, Hara’s the greater
are just lines that’ve been written down;
must life be wasted arguing them?
What is dual is not dual,
the dual is always undual:
no dance of numbers need tell us this.

Oh unknowable, unseeable, unknowandseeable
that opens with a new magnificence at every sight!
Oh limitless, peaceful light-of-life seeking immortality!
Oh unthinkable, ineffable, unapprehendable!
Let everything be well.

English Recitation:

Note: Hari and Hara are the different names for Vishṇu and Shiva respectively – two of the three gods that make up the ತ್ರಿಮೂರ್ತಿ (~trinity) of the classical, Sanskritized Hindu tradition. From the early centuries AD, devotees of each god (in his myriad forms) have argued, debated, quarrelled, and written poetry describing their god as the greater and the other as the lesser.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the episodic narrative-poem, “ಮೂರ್ತಿ”, first published in 1934.

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.

ಸಮಸ್ಯೆ (Question)

There is almost always, in a great poem, that line that stands out, that so impresses itself on the reader that it serves as the focus for the reader’s every feeling about the poem (and poet even).
     It could be a metaphor so completely new as to astonish, a delicacy of feeling so exquisite as to overwhelm, a play of language so buoyant as to delight, a commonplace presented so novelly as to rarify.
     Bendre’s remarkably prolific poetry is full of such lines. Often written as Ambikatanayadatta – the Kannada-speaking daimon within – his greatest poetry is a melodic melding of, in Shankar Mokashi’s words, “the intellect and the heart.”
     In this particular poem – Bendre’s Kannada adaptation of the Petrarchan sonnet – the last line of the octave is what struck me immediately (“ಬೆಳಕೆ ಬೆಳಕಿದ್ದು ಕತ್ತಲೆಯು ತುಂಬಿತು ಹೇಗೆ?”) – I even think I tried right away to translate it. The rest of the translation came later – and not without some effort. (The sestet was particularly difficult – given its cultural references and its original character as an almost “single-breath” denouement.)
     Like I often do, I have, in some places, eschewed a literal translation for a more fluid transcreation.

As is usual – here is a recording of my reciting the original Kannada poem.

Question (ಸಮಸ್ಯೆ)

My mother would tell me of the way
I played all day with the other boys;
played from when the morning rose
to when the twilight came; the summer’s
heat to me was just a moonlight game.
(I had not yet learnt what hunger meant.)
So engrossed in games of play, I’d forget
to eat all day; then eating in the darkness
of the shed, I’d hear the elders talk and say:
“With light on light outside, how did the darkness fill?”

From deep within the divine heart of the
man of the vaidic age; upon each one
of the trembling tongues that crumbled as they
lost-and-won in search of happiness;
within the throats of man and wife grasping for
their share of love beneath a flood of tears –
is rising the very question that those elders asked.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Afterword:

Here’s my recitation of the translation.

Additionally, here’s a video recording of my reciting both the original poem and the transcreation.

Two Dramatic Songs (ಎರಡು ನಾಟ್ಯಗೀತಗಳು)

A number of Bendre’s poems were actually ನಾಟ್ಯಗೀತs or “dramatic songs” – many of them composed for dramas that were never completed! The two song-poems featured here were both written for a drama called ಸತಿ (Sati); which too remained uncompleted. 

Here is the context Bendre offers regarding these song-poems.

A king of Pataliputra, having already wed three hundred princesses, invites to his palace the wife, Sati, of the celebrated ascetic Dhyanagupta of Vaishali. Cloistered in the queen’s quarters of the palace, these are the songs the three hundred princesses sing (in chorus) when they learn the news.

(If the first song is an expression of the disquietude the princesses feel upon hearing of Sati’s arrival, the second is a full-throated lamentation of the pathos of their situation since she came.)

It should be obvious to the reader that the two songs complement one another.

Note: Bendre was first and foremost a lyric poet. In other words, there are very few poems of his that cannot be sung. Indeed, some hundred or so poems of his have been set to song by a number of different composers.
In this case – where the poems themselves are songs – it would have been an injustice to not sing them. But to sing them, one needs a tune (of some sort) – and I wasn’t able to think of one (let alone two).
Enter Appa, my father. A long-time connoisseur of classical Indian music (with a predilection for the Hindustani style), his sense for rāga is uncanny; particularly for someone with no formal training in music. His wonderfully melodious singing – usually of old rāga-driven Kannada songs – has several times brought me the happiness one associates with music.
The recordings of the two original Kannada song-poems are by him – sung to melodies based on two classical rāgas he himself chose. I think his choices felicitous. It’s also my opinion that he’s sung both song-poems beautifully. But – you should listen to them to form your own opinion.

P.S: After I’d had Appa sing the Kannada versions, it seemed tame to simply recite the translations. However, that was precisely what I was ready to do up until about an hour ago – when a “tune” (to use the word very loosely) of sorts – for Poem 1 – came to me. Having an inkling of a “tune” (this word, again, being used very loosely) for Poem 2, I decided to record them.
While I don’t see either song entering the Top 100 (or Top 10,000 for that matter), I hope they’re not unpleasant to listen to.

Will You Remember, Will You Forget! (ಮರೆಯುವೆಯೋ, ಅರಿಯುವೆಯೋ!)

Original Kannada poem:
[Set and sung by Appa; based on the ಪಂತುವರಾಳಿ (pantuvarāḷi) rāga of the Carnatic classical tradition — ಪೂರಿಯ ಧನಶ್ರೀ (pūriya dhanashree) is the Hindustani classical equivalent]

Will you remember
or will you forget us – us all?
Sweetheart, darling, light-of-our-life,
will you come meet us – us all?

We said we were parrots
in the cage of your heart;
sweet, besotting, light-ring — king!
In this palace of pearls
in this wildly world
will you abandon us – us all?

Our memory still thrills
to that very first touch;
intoxicating beauty’s bard — lord!
Ages have passed,
will you come laughing again
to call upon us – us all?

We have gathered in shadows
as the night falls;
come in merciful show — hero!
By blowing love-breath
in these beautiful dolls
will you not save us – us all?

Song version of the English translation:

*****

O King, Beloved! (ಎಲ್ಲಿರುವೆ ರಾಜಗಂಭೀರಾ!)

Original Kannada poem:
[Set and sung by Appa; based on the ಹಿಂದೋಳ (hindōḷa) rāga of the Carnatic classical tradition — ಮಾಲ್ಕೌನ್ಸ್ (mālkauns) is the Hindustani classical equivalent]

Where are you O king, beloved!

This life-breath’s wailing like the wind
within a ruined house of god;
and even the walls of stone are calling;
where are you O king – beloved.

This life-breath’s vine’s seekìng the light;
for lack of air it’s withered;
this jasmine-heart’s a curled-up bud;
where are you O king – beloved.

This life-breath’s but a water-shade,
the heaven’s stars are saddened;
quavering they’re saying, “darkness has spread”:
where are you O king – beloved.

This life-breath’s wish to see the things it
can’t is no longer small or bounded;
ah love, it’s thirsty, (though the passion’s cooled);
where are you O king – beloved.

And now this life-breath is so lifeless,
its own existence seems borrowed;
your faithful beauties await your coming;
where are you O king – beloved.

Song version of the English translation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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