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 harvestofoct-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.
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.
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.
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 shaktiAmbikatanayadatta 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“.
When he lived, Da Ra Bendre was known for his temper and his enthusiasm to engage in a quarrel. He himself attributed this temperament, with no little pride, to the ಮಣ್ಣಿನ ಗುಣ (maṇṇina guṇa: ~ quality of the soil) of his beloved Dharwad. He was, to use a felicitous Kannada word, a ಜಗಳಗಂಟ (jagaḷagaṇṭa: ~a quarrelsome fellow). It is said that when asked once why he’d chosen not to spend time abroad as a poet-in-residence, he answered with, “What am I going to go and do there when I haven’t even finished with all my quarrels in Dharwad!” As he grew in stature as a poet, so did criticism of his work – often poorly informed and occasionally malicious. Never one to take an insult lying down, Bendre confronted these critics both in his poetry and in person.
Contrariwise, Bendre held a particular affection for the rasika**, the sahrudaya. Indeed, one could go as far as to say the rasika-sahrudaya, no matter their rank or qualification, was Bendre’s “favourite person”, the raison d’etre of his poetry. This is borne out not only by Bendre’s poems but by the many generous things he had to say about them in his prose writings. Here are a few excerpts.
“Poetry is the rest-home built to bring the joy of happiness to the rasika, the kindred spirit.”
“Like the poet, the rasika too has the “illuminating eye”. He too has the facility to “get the eyes to open”.
“But the sahrudaya is not slave to his nature. His words are not those of praise or criticism. It is his nectarine-sight that serves as a poem’s touchstone. To be exposed to that sight is a grace, to be removed from it a curse.”
“To all those sahrudayas who have continued to welcome the poems of ‘Ambikatanayadatta,’ ‘Bendre’ conveys his gratitude: that his scribesmanship is not simply a waste, that his happy, wanton singing is not completely fruitless.”
**The ರಸಿಕ (rasika: ~ one sensitive enough to appreciate the rasa) or the ಸಹೃದಯ (sahrudaya: lit. a person of the same heart) is a major figure in classical Sanskrit poetics. Indeed, it is he or she – with their capacity to grasp the essence, to appreciate the nuances, to experience the joy felicitously-written words can offer – who drives the creation of poetry. Yes, there would be no poetry without the poet – but (perhaps) there would be no poet without the rasika.
The poem below is one of several Bendre-poems about the rasika.
Kannada Poem’s Recitation:
My heart and your heart – a salt-ocean apart; all song is like a forest-cry! If everyone’s drowned in their own tears, which heart’s companion to friendship’s plea?
When will it come that wit that lifts and strings the pearls within the soul’s recess? More sharp than pin, more fine than thread; can such words bear the tongue’s impress?
Like a fragrant flower-garland’s sent, like melodies set out on flight, I’ll send, rasika, with a happy sigh these heartfelt words for your heart’s delight.
English Translation’s Recitation:
(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)
Poem Details: From the collection “ಉಯ್ಯಾಲೆ”, first published in 1938.
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.
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.