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 exquisitely fine 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.

ಎರಡು ನಾಟ್ಯಗೀತಗಳು (Two Dramatic Songs)

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 written for a drama called ಸತಿ (Sati); which too remained uncompleted.

Like Bendre himself notes, the context of these song-poems is as follows.

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.)

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

Will you remember or
Will you forget us – us all?
Sweetheart, darling, gold-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?

O King, Beloved! (ಎಲ್ಲಿರುವೆ ರಾಜಗಂಭೀರಾ!)

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 pining for 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 say, “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;
O 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 borrowèd;
Your faithful beauties await your coming;
Where are you O king – beloved.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Jogi (ಜೋಗಿ)

Like with so many of Bendre’s poems, I listened to Jogi (ಜೋಗಿ) sung — in an abridged form — before I read it. Attracted almost immediately by its music, it was only later that I learnt of the poem’s special place in both Bendre’s poetry and Kannada literature. (It was hailed in 1999 as the “ಶತಮಾನದ ಕವಿತೆ” or the poem of the 20th century.)
In this translation, I have tried to recreate the rhyme and rhythm of the original. Consequently, the translation reads best when recited out loud.

As usual, here is a recording of my reciting (singing) the original Kannada poem. The rhythm is taken from the recording by B.R Chaya for the album Mayakinnari.

 

Jogi (ಜೋಗಿ)

At the edge of town where the three-fork ends and where the caves begin,
Where the running stream ducks under and rogue cattle go grazing,
The way is lost and if, once lost, you énter unknowing,
A stricken pair of owls appear, hootíng through the mid-morning.

Past that place, and past the graves, and beyond to the left
Lies such a lush of thickened-moss it looks like kama’s vest’s
Been spread luxuriously across the surface of the pond;
The moss removed black waters cáll into the dark beyond.

Past all of this come caves and hills looming to the right,
Spreading here and spreading there, encróaching kálamma’s site;
And when we clímb the tamarind at the centre of this site
We see ten bushes in a clump upon a little height.

Within that clump cry mammal-bats in the middle of the day,
Flocks of pigeons fly in and out and in and out away;
Out there the nectar-vine has spread and climbed the tree of neem
The aala drips its drops of milk and the peepul shakes its stem.

To the bottom of the atthi-tree is stuck a fruit that’s red,
Full of sap, it drips and drips — all eyes are attracted;
And somehow in this very yard a mango-tree is seen;
Beneath the tree’s a den of snakes — a seven-hooded serpent’s in.

Upon this tree, within this lush has come a single koel,
It calls to me to come to it like I am its máte-of-soul;
On and on and on and on, it cries its siren-call;
One note it calls without a break — without tíring at all.

An unknown fragrance pulls the bees, playing with their heads,
Their minds abuzz they turn and turn, uncertain where to head;
The spring did come, the spring has come, the spring is set to come
Kuhoo it says kuhoo it says kuhookuhoo it hums.

Jogi, in the highest note, the koel makes its call,
Shall I go and look and see its eyes and colour and all?
The yard itself turns into flowers, the branches into sprays
And then they all begin to fruit in tune with what it says.

In dress-of-dawn, without a care, on and on it goes,
Hot-headedly, in sweet mango tree, it ensúres the summer flows;
Kuhoohoohoohoohoohoohoo — like a flute that’s playing on;
Shall I plùnge into some other work or sée what’s going on?

You’re coming, come, come, jogi, come, what have you brought this time,
As I chanted what you taught me arrived the harvest-time;
Inside a chord within my head began the harvest-cry
And as I heard it grew and spread and filled my whole body.

As I set out to the temple, kuhookuhoo it says,
Ómkuhoo it calls to me in the middle of my prayers;
I hear a call within my dreams and turn a mango-tree,
How spellbound I’ve become, jogi, that you are coming to me!

What is this call, what is this koel, what is this mango-tree?
What is it that bothers it, that makes it cáll unceasingly?
The hills around have shattered now in echoing its call
The sunshine’s danced and come to sweat — nów the rain must fall.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Note: It would be remiss if I did not mention Sunaath Kaka‘s help with this translation. In particular, the “rogue cattle” of the first stanza are entirely his – replacing the more tame, less eerie “stray cows” I had originally. In addition, the word “stricken” of the first stanza was a result of his hint that “confused” (the word I’d used first) did not quite capture the essence of “ಕಕ್ಕಾವಿಕ್ಕಿ”. Given how wonderfully felicitous “stricken” now feels, I can only thank Kaka for his deep and appreciative reading of my translation.

A Homage to the Gangā (ಗಂಗಾಷ್ಟಕ)

The ಭಾವ-ಸಂದರ್ಭ (~emotional context) of this poem was Bendre’s visit to the Ganga during his ತೀರ್ಥಯಾತ್ರ (~pilgrimage) through North India.
Though not half as famous as Bendre’s “ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ”, this is easily the more intricate poem – with unusually long metrical lines that follow the aabb end-rhyme pattern. While the translation has not followed this scheme, I have looked to keep a consistent rhythm throughout.

A Homage To The Gangā (ಗಂಗಾಷ್ಟಕ)

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

There is none that’s seen you who has not sung, your name rose on his lips;
As if a man may tie in song that rushing river which Shiva’s locks could not?
Yet I, beholding your blessed sight, could do little else but unlock
My lips: that the song which sprang forth might soothe the sorrowing heart.

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

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

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

Where be Ayodhyā now? Where Dwārāvati of yore? Where Gōkula’s gardens?
O sole remnant of Rāma’s and Krishṇa’s fame; though all things succumb to time,
The Gangē lives so long as live the earth and sky; so long shall stand her idol white.
O, Bhagīratha of empire grand, it is the Gangā who is your claim to everlasting fame.

“If, from the bosom of the bathing princesses, the night’s leftover musk should fall; should then
This water with the waters of the Gangā mix, such blessed musk-deer’s salvation is certain.”
So sang the poet, and I, cut from the same cloth as he, believed him and in you bathed:
Then it felt as if my mother had herself in mukti’s waters bathed; for I am of her stomach made.

O mocking laughter of Shiva! Compassioned-gaze of Himālaya! White-bosomed stream of milk!
Who has flowed forever forth; the very heart within ma-Bhārati’s maternal-heart!
O, mother, the displays of your affectionate ways! Who the blessed one who sang your praise?
Let this my homage add to his lines of praise; let this be my knowledge-offering.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

A Prayer (ಪ್ರಾರ್ಥನೆ)

Another poem inspired by (and with shades of) an Upanishad mantra, “ಸಹನಾವವತು | ಸಹನೌ ಭುನಕ್ತು | ಸಹ ವೀರ್ಯಂ ಕರವಾವಹೈ | … ”

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

A Prayer (ಪ್ರಾರ್ಥನೆ)

Let us together learn,
And together play,
And doing so together understand;
Let us together eat,
And together drink,
And doing so together do the work at hand.

Let us together walk,
And together feel,
And together hear and speak;
Let us together grow,
And together shine,
And together and together reach for the holy peak.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can by putting on a smile,
And by artful glances of the eyes,
An ùntrue happìness be made to play?
Can, àfter Mumtaz’s burial,
The building of the Taj Mahal
Make true sorrow go away?

O friend and partner of my life!
When ìn the temple of my heart
You move with such a secretness;
Hòw am I to think your laugh
The flower of a real joy;
When you are sùch an àctress?

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Basavaṇṇa’s Chronicles (ತುಂಬಿ ಬಂದಿತ್ತು)

This was written as a nātya-gītā (dramatic-song), and was to be sung (to the background of single-stringed lute, an ēkatāri) by a wandering ascetic when he came upon Basavaṇṇa’s samādhi. While its inherent musicality makes it almost impossible to translate, I have tried to approximate some of the rhythm and the rhymes of the original. However, the refrain of the original is: thum thum thumthum thumthum thumthum thumbi bandhitta thangi thumbi bandhittu. The same word thumbi is used in a different sense in each refrain, a conceit impossible to translate.

(Note: Basavaṇṇa was a 12th century “social-reformer” who was the doyen of the vacana-sāhitya movement in Kannada. Vacanas are free verse pieces in simple Kannada, and extol Shiva. Allama Prabhu and Akka Mahādēvi were two other famous vacanakāras. Basavaṇṇa was eventually killed by people who opposed his “radical” ideas. This poem metaphorically relates the story of his life, the krānti (revolution) he inspired and his death.)

As usual, here is a recording of my reciting (singing) the original Kannada poem.

Basavaṇṇa’s Chronicles (ತುಂಬಿ ಬಂದಿತ್ತು)

It was more bright than light,
And slighter too than air,
It sprang like Gangē did
From the locks of Hara’s hair.
It róse in every nook and
Còrner of the body’s frame;
It joined head and toe and centre
And flooded them each the same,
Sister, a-full-filled did it come.
A-full, a-full, a-full, a-full,
A-full-filled did it come, sister,
A-full-filled did it come.

It had the fragrance of the flower,
And the sweetness of the song,
Like words of déep affection,
Onto the heart it sprang.
It honed in on the secret
Like the wisdom of the wise;
The lotus to this light unfurled:
Once móre did the honey rise,
Sister, a-buzzing came the bee.
A-buzz, a-buzz, a-buzz, a-buzz,
A-buzzing came the bee, sister,
A-buzzing came the bee.

It was so dark like Time,
It was so pale like Death,
It pouncèd like a hawk upon
A snake upon the heath.
It was as though the light of day
Had melted in the night;
It was as though fixation’s vessel
Was full up to its height;
Now, it’d spilt all its contents,
Sister, the end had come at last.
The end, the end, the end, the end,
The end had come at last, sister,
The end had come at last.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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