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“.

The Descent of the Ganga (ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ)

One of Da Ra Bendre’s most famous poems, revealed to the world when he recited it at the close of his President’s Speech at the Kannada Sahitya Sammelana in 1943. Per his own admission, the rapturous reception it received left him reeling.

Here is a recording of my reciting the original Kannada poem.

Additionally, here is a video recording of my reciting the original Kannada poem and the English transcreation.

The Descent of the Ganga (ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ)

Come down, mother,
come down;
from Hara’s locks,
from Hari’s feet,
from the rishi’s thighs,
                     slide forth.
Quench the devās as you come,
wet the regions as you come,
feed every being as you come,
                      come down, mother,
                                 come down.

My salutations I offer you,
I shall wear and wrap you,
so do not hesitate, you,
                      spill forth.
Leave the heavens behind and come,
plummet through the skies and come,
stream along the land and come,
come down, yes mother, come,
                      come down, mother,
                                 come down.

Within the regions of my head,
in front of and behind my back,
up and down inside my blood,
                      surge forth.
Washing each atom of the eye,
tuning every fibre of each sigh,
sprouting words inside the mouth that’s dry,
                      swell forth.
Come, take your place within my breast,
come, roll through the waters of my chest
come, in my very quick do take your rest,
                      come down, mother,
                                 come down.

Come as the lightning flashed,
come as the whirling waters splashed,
come – return – as the thunder smashed,
come calling on
           the abandoned wretched,
           the devitalised aged,
           the waterless parched,
come down, mother,
come down.

Oh cow’s compassion for its calf,
oh mother’s love on her child’s behalf
oh grand benediction from high above,
                      enfold us in your clasp.
Shiva’s compassion unblemished,
tinged only by Shakti’s slightest red,
incarnate maternal-love full-blooded,
                      come, come down,
                      come down, mother,
                                 come down.

Come, none but you can wash us clean,
come, every other power is mean,
come, or we shall remain unclean;
come, feed us in our very marrow,
come, circle our land that’s lying fallow,
come, breathe life into these deadened hollows.

Beloved, into whose waters fell
reflections from the gods’s dream-well,
That made your pool of consciousness swell.
Gangē, with new-opened eyes;
Gangē, who now does span the skies
ready to descend upon Bhāratī’s thighs
from the starry-flowers
of the holy pārijāta’s bowers
that fed upon your showers.
Worshipped by the tulsi garland,
perfumed by mandāra’s scent,
you alone are both parents.
Born of an ecstatic rasa flood,
you are none but the fluid
fruit of SacchidānandaBrahma’s blood.
Come on down, mother, come to play;
come júst this once, I pray:
for my tears of joy I cannot stay.
           Yes, mother, such a fall is what they meant
           when they talked of the avatāra, the descent.

Like a boon to one who’s prayed,
like one in compassion bathed,
like river full-filled and flooded,
bouncing and uninhibited,
                      rush forth.
For your darling you come searching,
yes, come searching, mother,
                      come rushing.

Come, renew the breath of life,
come, swell; and illuminate this life,
come, show yourself as flesh and blood,
come, wash your hands of all the mud,
come, alight upon this earth for good,
                      come down, mother,
                                 come down.

Come, Shambu-Shiva-Hara’s thought-consummate
come, Datta-Narahari’s grandmother-great
come, come, to Datta, son of Ambikā late,
                      come down, mother,
                                 come down.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Here is my recitation of the Kannada translation.

Note: I was only able to approach this translation thanks to the wonderfully thorough and fascinating Kannada explication provided by Sunaath Kaka on his blog. To receive his praise for this translation (when I shared it with him two years later) was particularly gratifying. My thanks to him.

Afterword:

The story of the Gangā’s descent – the gangāvataraṇa – is, along with the churning of the ocean, one of the magnificent triumphs of the Hindu mythological imagination.
Wildly and wilfully aswirl in the heavens, the beautiful (and arrogant) goddess Gangā is asked by Brahma to descend to the earth in answer to King Bhageeratha’s intense meditation. It is Bhageeratha’s wish that Gangā’s waters wet his forefathers’s ashes and relieve them of the terrible curse that has kept their souls from gaining release.
But prima donna that she is, Gangā (who is displeased by Brahma’s command) begins her descent by plummeting through the skies with a speed clearly too much for the earth-mother to bear. The consequence of her haughtiness is that she is caught firmly by Shiva in his thickly matted locks from where she tries, in vain, to escape. The unflagging meditation of Bhageeratha moves Shiva into releasing her earthward, in a controlled manner. Gangā, however, is not going to let anybody boss her and no sooner does she reach the earth than she charges forth in a joyous recklessness and disrupts sage Jahnu’s yagna.
Incensed, Jahnu swallows her whole – which forces Bhageeratha to once more begin his beseeching prayers, this time to Jahnu. In course of time, Jahnu too is moved to release Gangā who, finally chastened by her experiences, flows gracefully to where Bhageeratha is waiting with his forefather’s ashes. And having wet those ashes with her sacred waters and having helped Bhageeratha pay off his dues, she continues on her course – sanctifying every piece of earth she touches and making her home in the Hindu imagination as ತಾಯಿ ಗಂಗೆ, गंगा मैया, Mother Gangā, Gangā Ma, Gangā Dēvi.
The sublime Kannada poet, Da Ra Bendre, read out his prayer-poem “Gangāvataraṇa (ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ)” at the end of his presidential address to the Kannada Literary Congress in 1943. What followed, naturally enough, was a rhapsodic, rapturous reception that left him reeling. Moved to write the prayer by the Bengal famine of 1942, he calls like a present-day Bhageeratha upon Mother Gangā to descend again, metaphorically, and relieve the people of his land of their suffering.
Brimming with ನಾದ (nāda: ~euphony), ಪ್ರಾಸ (prāsa: ~rhyme) and ಲಯ (laya: ~ rhythm); flowing effortlessly like the Gangā herself; full of Hindu mythological references; and containing a devotion comprehensible only to the true devotee, no translation can do the poem adequate justice.
Nonetheless, I have attempted in this translation (which is more correctly a ಭಾವಾನುವಾದ or a transcreation) to convey some of the grandness of the poem. I confess that I was myself surprised by what I think are successful renditions of some particularly difficult parts.