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.
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 avatāra–s – 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.
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.
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.
(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)
Poem Details: From the collection, “ಉಯ್ಯಾಲೆ”, first published in 1938.
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] narrative–poem 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.
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.
O unknowable, unseeable, unknowandseeable That opens with a new magnificence at every sight! O limitless, peaceful light-of-life seeking immortality! O unthinkable, ineffable, unapprehendable! Let everything be well.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Like with so many of Bendre’s poems, I listened to Jogi (ಜೋಗಿ) sung — in an abridged form — before I read it. Attracted almost immediately by its music, it was only later that I learnt of the poem’s special place in both Bendre’s poetry and Kannada literature. (It was hailed in 1999 as the “ಶತಮಾನದ ಕವಿತೆ” or the poem of the 20th century.) In this translation, I have tried to recreate the rhyme and rhythm of the original. Consequently, the translation reads best when recited out loud.
In Bendre’s own words, “The poem ‘ಜೋಗಿ (Jogi)’ has sprung from the enchantment of Dharwad’s environs as well as from the terrible, doubt-ridden turmoil that comes from experiencing a dark night of the soul.”
Below are two audio pieces. One is of my reciting (singing) the Kannada poem. The other is of my reciting the English translation. The rhythm of the Kannada version is taken from the recording by B.R Chaya for the album Mayakinnari. I think it would be best if you listened to both recitations.
Nota Bene: Please don’t miss reading the “Afterword”. It can be found below the translation.
At the edge of town where the three-fork ends and where the slope begins, Where the running stream ducks under and rogue cattle go grazing, The way is lost and if, once lost, you énter unknowing, A stricken pair of owls appear, hootíng through the mid-morning.
Past that place, and past the graves, and beyond to the left Lies such a lush of thickened-moss it seems like kama’s vest’s Been spread luxuriously across the surface of the pond; The moss removed black waters cáll into the dark beyond.
Past all of this come caves and hills rising to the right, Spreading here and spreading there, encróaching kāḷamma’s site; And when we clímb the tamarind at the centre of this site We see ten bushes in a clump upon a little height.
Within that clump cry mammal-bats in the middle of the day, Flocks of pigeons fly in and out and in and out away; Out there the nectar-vine has spread and climbed the tree of neem The aala drips its drops of milk and the peepul shakes its stem.
Jackfruit-like, to the atthi‘s base, is stuck a fruit that’s red, Honey-filled, it drips and drips — all eyes 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 the 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 kuhukuhoo it hums.
Jogi, in the highest note, the koel makes its call, Shall I go and look and see its eyes and colour and all? The yard itself turns into flowers, the branches into sprays And then they all begin to fruit in tune with what it says.
In dress-of-dawn, without a care, on and on it goes, Hot-headedly, in sweet mango tree, it ensúres the summer flows; Kuhoohoohoohoohoohoohoo — like a flute that’s playing on; No wòrk can occupy my mind; shall I sée what’s going on?
You’re coming, come, come, jogi, come, what have you brought this time, As I chanted what you taught me arrived the harvest-time; Inside a chord within my head began the harvest-cry And as I heard it grew and spread and filled my whole body.
As I set out to the temple, kuhukuhoo it says, Ómkuhoo it calls to me in the middle of my prayers; That in my dream I’ll hear a call and túrn a mango-tree, Is the fàncy of my mind, jogi, have you really come to me!
What is this call, what is this koel, what is this mango-tree? What is it that bothers it, that makes it cáll unceasingly? The hills around have shattered now in echoing its call The sunshine’s danced and come to sweat — it’s sét for the rain to fall.
(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)
Poem Details: From the collection “ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ,” first published in 1951.
Note: It would be remiss if I did not mention Sunaath Kaka‘s help with this translation. In particular, the “rogue cattle” of the first stanza are entirely his – replacing the more tame, less eerie “stray cows” I had originally. In addition, the word “stricken” of the first stanza was a result of his hint that “confused” (the word I’d used first) did not quite capture the essence of “ಕಕ್ಕಾವಿಕ್ಕಿ”. Given how wonderfully felicitous “stricken” now feels, I can only thank Kaka for his deep and appreciative reading of my translation.
I’d also like to thank Appa, my father, for his (unusually) serious involvement with this particular poem – which, incidentally, he too now knows by heart from having heard me sing it so often! Not only have his insights and commentary helped me better understand several portions of the poem, they have also given me the chance to correct some missteps I took when I first tackled the translation. (It goes without saying that the translation has benefitted from these corrections.) And, of course, his lively interest in the poem and my translation has allowed for several long talks about Bendre, his poetry, my poetry, my translations, the Kannada language, and a host of other things.
Here is an email I sent my aunt (on August 15, 2017), relating how the translation came to be. I trust it will interest at least some of you.
here’s a recent translation i made of a bendre poem — a poem acknowledged by critical consent as the ಶತಮಾನದ ಕವಿತೆ, or the poem of the 20th century. it may not be bendre’s greatest triumph, but it most definitely is poetry of the highest order.
like with so many others of bendre’s poems, i first listened to this sung (only a part of it, as is the norm) — and liked it for its music, without going much further. when i came across it next, it was within the context of its fame — at which time, i looked to understand it (its word-meanings at least) with the help of a dictionary and a couple of explications. if i did think of translating it then, i swiftly did away with the idea – for it seemed to me to be indubitably untranslatable. it didn’t help that it was 12 stanzas long!
anyhow, with no thought of translating it in mind, i continued to listen to its musical version (sometimes on loop) and came around to enjoying it enough to wish to sing it myself! and if i was going to do that, why not learn the entire poem (12 stanzas) by heart and sing it to that same musical rhythm? so that’s what i did. it took me a week perhaps, but i got it down and began to sing it – in the bath, in the office (softly), when i was walking back home, upstairs in my room, etc. in short, about five times a day at least.
but even as i continued to do this, continued to get so familiar with it that it became as natural as speech itself, continued to enjoy the wonderfully facile motion of the poem, it seemed to me to[o] complex to translate; too intricate and involved; too reliant on the rhythms of a phonetic language like kannada to lend itself to being morphed or translated into a non-phonetic language like english.
to cut to the chase, my pocket-book tells me that a day came when i tried my hand at translating the very last line of the poem (i think it was in the bus that i jotted it down) before naturally moving backwards to finish the whole last stanza. however, while this is a recorded event, i remember more vividly the day — i was at the office, done for the day and relaxing before setting off — i decided to pick up stanza 10 to translate: it may have been on a whim, but perhaps it was also because that place is a juncture of sorts in the poem, where the poem picks up a certain rapidity, a more intense motion (without any outward change in the metre or rhythm).
well, i typed out what occured to me, put down several possiblities for a couple of lines – and then left it at that, not satisfied but reasonably happy at the attempt. it is worth noting that when i did this, it had not occured to me to replicate the original; in particular, its beautifully simple and euphonic rhyme scheme. having done this, i left for the day. i’m not sure when, but i think it may have been somewhere around this time that i read out my translation of that last line to amma — who seemed to enjoy it. you will see when you get round to reading it that it contains a conceit of such beautiful novelty, it continues to astound.
now, as i write this, i can’t quite remember what happened next: whether my several separately-done translations of the three stanzas (i had worked on stanza 6 in the meantime) moved similarly enough to allow me to fix upon an ad-hoc rhythm; or whether i just decided to take the plunge and begin with the beginning. in any case, i think the rest of the translation progressed in the right order.
when i look back now on the first and second attempt of the translation (of the whole poem), i reckon that it must have seemed like a bridge too far to try to both translate the content of the poem and its rhyme. for as i look at it, the first attempt seems to be content to get at what the poem is about — without worrying too much about a rhyme but focussing quite seriously on the metrical motion i had mapped out. the result was a metre that was so close to the original it even now astonishes me.
the second attempt, which is for all purposes what you will see below, seems like an attempt at rhyming the rhythm. with a rhythm in place that seemed so very felicitous, i looked to smooth what rough edges the rhyme had to create an almost perfect approximation of the original, both in rhythm and in rhyme.
to conclude — what i ended up with seems to me no less than astounding! (if i say so myself.) indeed, i can hardly believe that i created a translation of this sort — one in which a non-phonetic language adapts itself to the phonetic rhythms of the original language! naturally, this means that the translation is best read aloud.
i hope you enjoy it, anjana! i look forward to hearing from you.”