Song–Essence (ಹಾಡ–ಹುರುಳು)

I am fairly certain no other “major poet” in world history has written as many poems concerning the rasika, the sahrudaya, the kindred-spirit as Bendre has. Indeed, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that Bendre’s raison d’etre for writing and publishing his poetry — especially in his later years, after people had begun to call his poems complicated and incomprehensible and obfuscatory — was his belief that the best (kind of) poetry was a ‘give and take’ between the kavi (poet) and the sahrudaya (the appreciative kindred spirit). This sentiment is supported by Bendre’s many ‘statements’ on the subject in his prose writings as well as by the several poems he wrote about it.  Indeed, I myself have published two of those poems on this very website. They are The Pollen Calls and Rasika. (In both poems, we see Bendre speaking to the rasika: in allusive fashion in the former and more directly in the latter.)
What’s more, please note that in the introduction to Rasika, I have offered some samples from Bendre’s prose that express his views about the relationship between the poet and the rasika.

Now with this poem, it seems to me that Bendre “goes a step further” in expressing his relationship with the rasika. To see what I mean, please read the afterword. But first — here are the poem and its translation.

Note: I am very pleased to say that I have finally managed to collaborate with both Amma and Appa on the same poem. Specifically, Appa has played the part of the rasika in our Kannada ‘duet’ and Amma has played the same part in our English ‘duet’. I’ve played the part of the poet (kavi) in both. I hope you enjoy both recitations!

Recitation of the Kannada poem:


Song–Essence (ಹಾಡ–ಹುರುಳು)

Poet:
You sat listening to my songs,
I sat to listen to you sing;
as though in echo of the joy I felt,
I saw that your éyes were dancing.

Rasika:
You’ve created your new poetry to
the rhythmed-beat of my dancing eyes;
does the koel not sing in the burgeoning spring?
That song you sing’s not yours – it’s mine!

Poet:
The essence of a peeled sad-happiness is joy;
the same reflection’s found in every heart!
The song-essence was forgotten in your gaze,
my throat has now become your flute.

Recitation of the English translation:


(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Afterword:

It seems to me that this poem is more intimate than the two other (translated) poems concerning the rasika. To elaborate, in Rasika, we see the poet speaking not simply of the every heart’s need for ‘a kindred spirit’, but his own specific need for the rasika, for ‘the kindred heart’ ready to accept the ‘song offering’ he wishes to send forth. The poem ends in the suggestion that the poet’s final happiness lies in the rasika‘s wholehearted embracing of the poem that has been sent forth. Or, looked at another way, while the poem showcases the rasika as a figure essential to the poet (and, consequently, his poetry), it also positions him as the ‘taker’, as someone who is ‘on the outside looking in’ and accepting the ‘gifts’ that come his way.

In this poem, however, we see the rasika ‘coming in’ from the outside. He is now an integral part of the poem and inseparably involved with its creation. Indeed, the poem can be understood as a symbiotic “dialectic” of sorts — where neither the poet nor the rasika is the single creator of the poem but, instead, engage in a ‘give and take’ (through a mirrored partnership) that is ultimately responsible for the creation of the poem. Indeed, the “action-reaction” nature of the exchange allows us to think of the poem’s creation as the result of a (continuous) back and forth: poet — rasika — poet — rasika — poet and so on. Or, looked at another way, the poem is indicative of Bendre’s stance about poetry and its creation as a collaboration between the kavi and the rasika in such a inextricable manner as to allow them to exchange positions. In other words — their give-and-take partnership brings forth a poetry that neither of them could singly create.

Then – Now (ಅಂದು – ಇಂದು)

The Kannada poem’s Recitation:

Then – Now (ಅಂದು – ಇಂದು)

That day to place upon your feet
I brought a fragrant flower;
reserved for you, I did not smell –
my desire remained in cover.

Desire’s worm stuck to the flower,
it sucked the fragrance out;
no sooner did I place the flower –
it wilted in and out!

Today too I brought a flower
to place upon your feet;
once again I felt the need
to smell the fragrance sweet!

No sooner did I feel this way
I smelt it then and there;
then in joy I placed the flower –
whose heady fragrance is now everywhere!

Recitation of the English translation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Afterword:

I don’t know that there’s too much to say about this poem. As far as I can tell, it’s a poem from Bendre’s “early period”. It seems to me that the poem’s delicate ಭಾವ (bhāva: ~ spirit; feeling) is its most notable quality.

However — I think it may be interesting to read this poem and compare it with a poem by one of English literature’s (and England’s) few visionaries, the exceptional poet-painter William Blake (1757–1827). I am not going to attempt the comparative analysis, but I invite any of you reading this is to do so if you’d like to. On my part, it seems as if a “kinship” – whether strange, paradoxical, opposing, or something else – exists between the two poems. This idea of “kinship” struck me just a few days ago, as I was readying to publish the translation above (many months after I’d actually finished with it). In any case, here is Blake’s poem in its entirety.

(If any of you actually does a comparative analysis or has anything to say about either poem or disagrees with my opinion about the two poems’ kinship, please feel to comment upon this post or write directly to me at mk.ajjampur@gmail.com. I’d be very happy to hear from you.)

The Poison Tree (William Blake)

I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe;
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I water’d it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright;
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine,

And into my garden stole
When the night had veil’d the pole.
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretch’d beneath the tree.

Audumbara (ಔದುಂಬರ)

So far, all the poems I have translated or transcreated and published on this website are poems Bendre wrote in his early period or in his middle period or at the beginning of his late period. These poems have by and large been lyric poems; rich with the sound, rhyme, rhythm, euphony, and linguistic dexterity, felicity, and inventiveness that defined Bendre’s prodigious poetry.
However, as enjoyably challenging and creatively engaging as this endeavour has been, anyone who has indulged in an activity for long enough will understand how necessary a ‘change of pace’ is — for refreshment, for rejuvenation, for longevity.
By presenting this poem “Audumbara”*, written in Bendre’s eighty fifth year and quite plainly the fruit of a serene self-contemplation, I thought I would allow myself such a ‘change of pace’ — while introducing the reader to Bendre, the ‘poet of  free verse’.

Kannada Poem’s Recitation:

Audumbara (ಔದುಂಬರ)

The
audumbara
does not flowering fruit;
within the fruit itself reside
the flower and its honey.

I am the
atthi fruit;
unflowering, I bear a honey-womb –
the atthi fruit is red, that is its glory!
The nectar-honey within’s its victory!

I am the
audumbara worshipper, Datta
Da Ra Bendre;
some have seen the honeyed nectar,
they are kindred spirits, my rasikas.

Other critics
have noted
faults.
Even my worth’s appeared unworthy.
To those critics who’ve found worms in my fruit
my merits too are nothing more
than acrobatics with the number four.
To think that way is their fate.
They must not bother their heads.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

English Translation’s Recitation:


Poem Details: From the collection “ಶತಮಾನ”, a posthumous collection first published in 2004. The collection was edited by the poet’s son, Dr. Vamana Bendre, and included previously unpublished poems.

Note: The scientific equivalent of the tree that goes by the Sanskrit name of ಔದುಂಬರ (audumbara) is Ficus Racemosa. It is more commonly known by its other names: the Indian fig tree or the cluster fig tree. Its name in Kannada is ಅತ್ತಿ (atti). The audumbara is one of several sacred trees believed to grow in ನಂದನವನ (nandanavana: heaven’s gardens). In the Vishṇu Sahasranāma (The Thousand Names of Vishnu), an extremely well-known Hindu “liturgical” text, the audumbara is mentioned alongside the ನ್ಯಗ್ರೋಧ (nyagrōdha) and ಅಶ್ವತ್ಥ (ashwattha) trees, better known respectively as the banyan and peepul trees.

Afterword
:

I visited Dharwad for the first time in early 2016. The trip was a pilgrimage of sorts: I wanted to see Bendre’s house in Sādhanakēri (a gift from his uncle in 1929) and meet Dr. Vamana Bendre, Bendre’s younger son and self-appointed ‘literary executor’ of Bendre’s work. I wished to meet him so I could give him a copy of the English translations and transcreations I’d made of Bendre’s poetry.

(I first attempted a translation of Bendre’s poetry around mid 2015. The attempt was reasonably successful, but it was only after a satisfyingly successful translation of Gaṅgāvataraṇa, one of Bendre’s best-known poems, that I really devoted myself to the project. Several more translations and transcreations followed, at a quite astonishing pace. (I have published many but not all of them. The speed at which I worked then means some of them could do with a careful rereading.) In any case, by the time I went to Dharwad to meet Dr. Vamana Bendre, I had a collection of fifteen translations ready to give him. The collection included ‘The Descent of the Ganga‘, ‘Come to Sādhanakēri‘ and ‘The Peacock-Smile‘. It was a month or more after my visit that I began this blog-website.)

Let me recount my memory of that first visit. (I have visited Dharwad and Sadhanakeri once more since then – late in December 2017 – and acknowledge the possibility that I may be conflating some details of these two separate visits.) Sadhanakeri being well-known, I had no trouble learning its whereabouts. I was told of a bus that would take me right up to Bendre’s place, but I seem to remember deciding to walk (after learning that it wasn’t all that far away). My memory is of walking along a road that broke off from the main road and sloped downwards, and then of turning left and walking down another sloping road. It was rather late in the afternoon but the weather was humid and the sun was hot. I was following the directions I’d been given, but the road was mostly empty and no one I asked could confirm I was on track. When a couple of lorries drove by, I wondered momentarily if I’d made a mistake by not taking the bus. However, after some time of walking past side-of-the-road brick walls adorned with painted signs and posters and discoloured by mildew, I reached a turning on the road where a fruit-seller had set up shop in the shade. I stopped to enquire and was told that the road that descended from his pushcart was the road I’d find Bendre’s house on. Drawing on what I’d learnt from years of watching my father, I bought a basket of fruits before making my way towards Bendre’s house.

I unlatched the gate of the house and entered. There was an extremely spacious courtyard out in front. Three or four little steps led up to the stone edifice the house rested on. I seem to remember that the front door was shut. My knock brought Ms. Punarvasu (Bendre’s oldest granddaughter) to the door – she asked who I was, invited me into the verandah, and went inside to fetch her uncle.

Having just found notes I made about the events of the day, I will now switch to alternating between them and continuing with the narrative I’ve offered so far.

“Reached Sadhanakeri at ~ 5 o’clock. Met Dr. Vamana Bendre, said hello (and got the impression that he was both irritable and displeased)…”. I remember Dr. Vamana Bendre parting the curtain (that shielded the house from the verandah) and approaching me. He was in his baniyan (undershirt). His chin was stubbled and the hearing aid he was wearing was clearly visible. I greeted him, gave him the fruits, told him who I was, and handed over the copy of the translations. He took it – with a disappointing lack of interest and enthusiasm. Making bold, I asked if he’d like to hear the (English) poem I’d written about his father. He grunted his acquiescence and I presented the song-poem I’d composed the previous year, feeling rather foolish when I finished and he remained mostly expressionless. (Ms. Punarvasu was in the room too, but her reaction too was muted.)

“…took some sugar from him and got ready to leave. Then decided to enquire about a few books with Ms. Punarvasu and bought some; then began to leave and then returned to enquire about [the book] “ಬೇಂದ್ರೆ ಜೀವನ (Bendre Jeevana)” by Dr. Vamana Bendre; then decided to get a signature for the book “ಬೇಂದ್ರೆ ಸಾಂಖ್ಯಯೋಗ (Bendre’s Sāṅkhya Yoga)” from Dr. Vamana Bendre; and was all set to leave when something prompted me to approach Dr. Vamana Bendre to ask him about Bendre’s poetry. What transpired was a ಯೋಗಾಯೋಗ (yōgāyōga: ~ felicitous serendipity) which led to us chatting for about an hour and a half – until about 7.30 – about all sorts of things, while we moved from the ಅಂಗಳ (angaḷa: courtyard) into the house…”

It seemed to me, especially after the somewhat uninterested reception my poem-song had received, that Dr. Vamana Bendre was not someone I’d be able to talk to easily: he had a hacking voice (that made him seem grumpy), was hard-of-hearing, and appeared disinclined to engage in any sort of chitchat. (I learnt later that a stroke some seven years previously had led to several of his problems.) My unease in his presence was what made me decide to leave after I’d taken the sugar. (When he lived, sending off every visitor with a spoon of sugar was a famous gesture of Bendre’s.) My leaving seemed to coincide with Dr. Vamana’s evening walk about the courtyard. Perhaps it was this chance to speak to him alone outside or perhaps it was something else; in any case, something prompted me to return. I went up to Dr. Vamana and began to ask him about his father – and he gradually began to open up even as I began to notice the essential kindness behind the hack of his (post-stroke) voice. I don’t remember the details of our discussion, but I do remember that we talked long enough into the evening that the usual swarm of mosquitoes began to gather above our heads. Among the matters we discussed was one pertinent to the poem above: how, I asked with some jealousy, could I ever hope to write like Bendre (who was gifted his poetry from the heavens)? Indeed, I said, did it even make sense to continue to write if I did not write in the inspired manner Bendre did? How was it possible to be born ripe (as a fruit) like Bendre says he was?

That was when Dr. Vamana told me how it was not until the last years of his life that Bendre came to think of himself as ‘born ripe’. ‘Try’, he told me, ‘continue to write and do your best. There’s no need to compare yourself or your poetry with Bendre and his poetry.’

If this telling has seemed too prolix, it was as a means to get to this incident – the nub of the narrative, as it were. It was translating this poem that made me recall the conversation and prompted me to offer this (not too tedious, I hope) recounting.

“I left after asking for Dr. Vamana’s ಆಶೀರ್ವಾದ (~blessings) which he kindly gave and after shaking hands with him and Ms. Punarvasu. As I walked up the road, moonlight fell from an almost-full moon and reminded me of ಬೆಳುದಿಂಗಳ ನೋಡs (Look at the Moonlight)” and ಗೋಧೂಳಿ (gōdhūḷi: ~ cowhoof’s dust) while I talked to Amma and described the meeting…”

Happiness – Sadness (ಸುಖ – ದುಃಖ)

A simple, sensitive, beautiful little poem. I don’t know that I’d have paid as much attention to it if I’d only been reading Bendre rather than looking for poems of his to translate and transcreate. Indeed, I’d venture that nothing allows for a more active, wide-ranging creative engagement with a poem as translating it. I suppose it’s why I continue to do it.

Recitation of the Kannada poem:

Happiness – Sadness (ಸುಖ–ದುಃಖ)

In the shimmer of the shimmering dawn
the flowers begin to show;
they show their beauty, spread their scent –
in the evening leave and go.

In the same way when youth is fresh
desire sends out its shoot;
flowering ripening fruiting passing,
it grows old and is lost.

In the blowing of the wind
no sadness can be found;
when children laugh their pealing laugh
there is always happiness around.

Recitation of the English translation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Afterword:

The first line of the original Kannada poem — ಚುಮು ಚುಮು ನಸುಕಿನಲಿ (chumu chumu nasukinali) — is a good example of the sonic difference between the onomatopoeia a phonetic language (like Kannada) and a non-phonetic language (like English) can deploy. It is obvious that a phonetic language has a much greater onomatopoeic range and can create sounds that a non-phonetic language cannot replicate. Examples include ಕುಲುಕುಲು (kulukulu) for light laughter, ಪಿಸಿಪಿಸಿ (pisipisi) for whispering, and ಪಳಪಳ (paḷapaḷa) for something  that glitters and dazzles.
In the case of this poem, you might have noticed that I’ve tried to compensate for this “lacuna” with a combination of alliteration and repetition, viz. “in the shimmer of the shimmering dawn”.
However, note that shimmer itself can be considered onomatopoeic (though the dictionary doesn’t say so explicitly). So too can the words whisper (the dictionary bears me out here) and glitter and dazzle. It’s just that, being non-phonetic, English finds it difficult to create, without compromising its peculiar temperament, the syllabic imitative words that phonetic languages can. (For instance, I chose “the shimmer of the shimmering dawn” over “the shim-shimmer of the early dawn” because the former seemed to better fit the English language’s natural temperament while the latter seemed a less-than-felicitous borrowing of a phonetic language’s tendencies. However, further consideration makes me see how the latter may be an equally good if not better choice.)

P.S: When I showed the translation to my mother, she observed (not critically but matter-of-factly) that the poem’s theme was rather “well-worn”. That’s true. However, the sensitive handling afforded the theme, the unusual third stanza, the understated presentation, and all-around assonance give the poem a singular flavour – not all of which could be captured in the translation.

Who? (ಯಾರು?)

Bendre’s famous, much-discussed poem “ಭಾವಗೀತ (bhāvagīta)” is, by general critical consensus, understood to be a (self-reflexive) delineation of Bendre’s ‘poetic credo’; in other words, his poem about poetry. Translated directly, a bhāvagīta is a ‘heartful song’, a song that is an expression of feeling. To Bendre, who closely identified himself and his poetry with the rishis of the vedas and their riks, much of his poetry relied on shravaṇa or the ‘act of hearing’. The poem, then, was the shruti or ‘what is heard’. Like Bendre himself says in the poem “Sorcerer (ಗಾರುಡಿಗ)”, the nature of the poetry he wrote was mantra-like – which made it resonant while often putting it ‘beyond mere meaning’.
Furthermore, the fruit of such a temperament and poetic stance was a poetry brimful of nāda, i.e. euphony; which, in turn, made it eminently singable. (Indeed, Bendre is known to have sung his poems to himself, to his wife, to his children as well as to crowds of every possible size.) This credo of Bendre’s is also the likely reason the bhāvagīta of 20th-century Kannada literature is generally taken to correspond to the ‘lyric (poem)’ – itself a reference to a composition that was, originally at least, meant to be sung to the accompaniment of a lyre (or some other musical instrument).
From a historical point of view, Bendre’s earliest poetry was written a decade of so before the creation of his ‘ಭಾವಗೀತ (bhāvagīta)’ poem. That same period saw the birth of a musical tradition within Karnataka that would come to be called the bhaavageete or sugama sangeetha. Starting at about the same time in two far-apart regions of the Kannada-speaking land (with P Kalinga Rao in the Old Mysore region and Hukkeri Balappa in the North Karnataka region), the bhaavageete saw classically-trained rasika musicians use their talents to musically transmit, to the Kannada masses, some of the best Kannada lyric poetry of the time. As the greatest modern exponent of the Kannada lyric, some of Bendre’s greatest lyrical triumphs — including “ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ (gaṅgāvataraṇa)” and “ಹುಬ್ಬಳ್ಳಿಯಾಂವಾ (hubbaḷḷiyāvā: ~the fellow from hubbaḷḷi)” — became popular favourites on account of their being tuned and sung.

If I chose to offer this summary of the bhaavageete tradition (whose name’s connection with Bendre’s poem is not something I’m certain about), it is because this almost-hundred-years-old tradition is solely and directly responsible for acquainting me with the poem whose translation you see below. While I can’t remember when I first listened to the poem, I know that I liked it enough to want to listen to it again – and again – and again. Soon enough, I was smitten by it and it had become a constant companion of my evening runs; a pitstop (on my playlist) that I looked forward to with a particular keenness.
And as had happened several times before, this repeated listening made parts of the poem especially familiar – that kindled in me a desire to translate it – that got me thinking during my run of the possible translation or transcreation of this or that set of lines – that served, eventually, as a springboard to my making a concerted effort to translate the poem in its entirety.
So that is what you see here: a poem whose (lyrical) character inspired a musician to set it to music – which music attracted me and gave me access to the poem’s lyrics – which lyrics drew me inwards and tasked me with their translation.

The Kannada song:

Recitation of the Kannada poem:

Who? (ಯಾರು?)

Who is that who like the ground
spins silently beneath?
I stand here in my pridefulness –
stàmping it down with both my feet.

Gulping fire – spilling light
who is that there in the dark?
Fading – growing – illuminating,
its standing-ground cannot be marked.

A thousand million stars appear
licking the figure of the night;
but what are they to the star-of-day;
here it comes – blinding the sight.

The dawn, the dusk, the light, the dim –
play and mix and mix and play;
spanning the ages they push on
towárds a sun-time somewhere.

I’m a tràveller on forever’s path,
my search is for the quintessence;
I’ll rush my search though it may mean
melting like sháde in this essence.

Recitation of the English translation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಹೃದಯ ಸಮುದ್ರ”, first published in 1956.

P.S: Those curious about the poem ‘ಭಾವಗೀತ (bhāvagīta)‘ should know the poem is nine stanzas long. Each stanza has three lines. And while the entire poem is virtually untranslatable on account of both its ನಾದ (nāda) and its many (cultural) allusions, I like to think I have done a reasonable job of transcreating the last stanza (with its extremely famous opening line).

The chúrn and churning of the word brought forth a euphony
It felt a joy – it spread a joy – in its own lòve it was happy
It did not mean – it did not want – it was just lyric poetry

The Earth-Mother’s Firstborn Son (ಭೂಮಿತಾಯಿಯ ಚೊಚ್ಚಿಲ ಮಗ)

Do read the afterword.

Recitation of the Kannada original:

The Earth-Mother’s Firstborn Son

Have you seen
with opened eyes
the firstborn son
of the earth-mother?

The sky above’s
smiled a toothy smile,
all the crop’s
just locust-food,
the turned up soil’s
been sown again!
Every evening’s
a bath of sweat –
the water of tears
for the food of breath!
The stomach’s become
the back’s own back;
worry’s owl’s nestled
within the heart;
the squeals of a lizard
have cornered the mind;
the look on the face
is mocking death,
the lance-of-loan’s
stuck through the throat!
and yet and yet
Yama* wìll not come;
with every breath
a life a death.

The threadbare bags
of the body’s chords
have slackened
and have opened up;
inside of them –
a web of bones!
Having somehow come
and fallen in
the dark of the dark
that we call living,
the creature-of-life
is tossing and turning;
the sounds of its struggle
are of groaning and moaning;
when will it come
the light of death?
when just when
just when just when
is its mumble and mutter
in its turbulent sleep!

*Yama — the god of death in Hindu mythology

Recitation of the English translation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Afterword:

Like I say in my essay for ‘The Hindu’, a language is both a cultural and an aural vehicle. This is especially true of a language’s poetry.

What meaning do these two (intrinsic) characteristics of a language take on when they need to ‘transferred’ to another language? That is to say, what must a translation (or a transcreation) do in the context of the transfer of these twin characteristics? Is a transfer even possible?
There are, of course, no easy answers to these questions. Nor are there any ‘correct’ answers. Nonetheless, I will attempt to answer them – in no other capacity than as a keen translator-and-transcreator of Bendre’s Kannada poetry into English.
The specific context of this effort is this poem’s title and its cultural connotations, both implicit and explicit.

*****

In the introduction to a book of his English translations of Tagore’s Bengali poetry, William Radice speaks of the “etiolation” of the English language. He attributes this etiolation – this feebleness, this loss of vigour – to the English language’s global spread and its status as the world’s language of commerce and communication. His motivation, of course, is to explain – perhaps even justify – his own approach to translating Tagore’s poetry.

I mention this matter not just because it introduced me to the word ‘etiolate’ (though I’m quite certain that is the reason Radice’s words have stuck with me) but because of ideas it kindled within me (in a mostly subconscious manner). I had already begun to transcreate Bendre’s poetry into English by the time I read Radice, but his perspective was thought-provoking and remained with me. I was reminded of it as I started to write this.

Even if we disagree with Radice’s claim that English is etiolated, there can be little argument that English is the language most closely linked to society’s rapid technology-driven modernization of the last century. A natural consequence of such a link is the modernization of the language itself; a process directly influenced by the growth and proliferation of new mores and the gradual obsolescence of old mores. In that sense, it would not be wrong to say that English is, at present, the world’s most modern language.

So – what is the character of a “modern language” like English? What does it possess (and lack) that other languages don’t? More specifically, how do Kannada and English compare? Is it possible to justify Radice’s claim concerning the ‘etiolation’ of English? Here are some thoughts, several of them generalized and speculative.

As I see it, the widespread modernization of English through the 20th century was responsible for severing any last ties of the language with its rural and agricultural (not to mention its pagan) past. In other words, English’s modernization was, in effect, its widespread urbanization. This, of course, meant the language had to ‘grow a new skin’, as it were, even as it shed the skin of its rural, agricultural, and pagan past – a progression that had begun as early as the Industrial Revolution of the middle-1700s but that had been kept in check by a counter-tide of literary Romanticism. Several of the Romantic movement’s ideas were pastoral (and pagan) – the idea of the earth as a nourishing mother (Gaia, Mother Earth, etc.), the anthropomorphism of nature and the natural elements (nymphs and fairies, for instance), and, of course, the great many gods of Greek (and Roman) mythology and of Norse mythology. The waning of the Romantic movement naturally rendered its ideas obsolete. Its ‘poetic conceits’ became artifacts frozen in time. They stood as pleasant reminders of an idyllic rural period that was lost (a period that had perhaps always been more wishful than true) and whose mores were now obviously antiquated and wholly unmodern.
Modern poetry in English, with its keen sense for the present and the changes it was bringing, eschewed the (often exaggerated) tropes and images of the Romantic period; using more familiar, tangible and everyday conceits instead. (Of course, the poetic quality of many of these conceits can be questioned.) By doing so, old pastoral paradigms – whether real or imagined – like Mother Nature, Mother Earth, Gaia, shepherds, nightingales, and fairies were discarded and rendered both irrelevant and obsolete. Now on, they could only ever be used self-consciously or mischievously (as part of a parody or nostalgic pastiche, say). They had lost any poetic cachet they may have previously possessed – and not without reason.
With everybody (except perhaps the Amish?) scrambling towards modernity, the fracture of the already-tenuous bond between man (used here deliberately instead of ‘human beings’) and his natural surroundings, and the rise of factory farming units, what were the chances that people continued to think of the ‘Earth’ as a nourishing ‘mother’ or the farmer as ‘a son of the soil’ or the moon as the ‘goddess’ Selena?

Kannada’s situation (at about the same time) stands in almost direct contrast to English’s. As the West (and English) were rapidly urbanizing, India and Karnataka and Kannada and their cultures were still overwhelmingly rural, agricultural, and pagan. Yes, an ‘urban breeze’ had begun to blow ever so slowly through the country, but its culture and its people were still pastoral (in a manner that even English Romantic literature never was).
Rural life – the village – and its dozens of traditions and inflexible (and occasionally flexible) social mores governed people’s lives and allowed them to live and think like their ancestors of centuries ago. Consequently: the land was a living entity that required care and nurture, the earth was a beneficent mother who bestowed her grace on her devoted children, the farmer was a respected and dutiful ‘son of the soil’, a good harvest was the blessing of the village goddess, a drought was a sign that Indra (~the rain god) was angry and needed to be placated, the flowing stream was an incarnation of the water-goddess, the cow was an integral part of the family, the crow on the branch was the reincarnation of a dead relative, the soaring brahminy kite was the mount of the Hindu god Vishṇu, the chattering lizard was a harbinger of infelicity, the slithering snake in the backyard was a member of the nāga tribe seeking milk, the strange noises heard within the forest were the hungry rumblings of a bloodthirsty rākshasa (~ogre), and the arc-topped stone on the village’s outskirts was a self-born shivalinga (a particularly-shaped stone considered, in Hindu culture, to represent the Hindu god Shiva).
Or put differently, the Kannada land and language of that time were full to overflowing with the cultural accumulation of not just centuries but millenia. Nothing had been jettisoned. The past was always present. It was not ‘an unknown country’ but ‘a familiar feeling’. Which meant there was nothing ‘romantic’ (especially not in the sense of European Romanticism) for a farmer to speak of his debt to or place his problems upon the shoulders of bhoomitaayi (Kannada for ‘earth mother‘) or for a mother to affectionately call her mischievous little boy “my Krishṇa” (Krishṇa being a particularly beloved Hindu god whose tales of mischief as a young boy in Brindāvan are much-loved and narrated all across India).

Da Ra Bendre was born within this wonderful richness of culture and tradition and language; a richness that he loved, respected, and let seep into every last cell of his being. His (and his people’s) reward for this open-heartedness would be his heaven-touched Kannada poetry, one of world-literature’s most luminous achievements.

*****

If you’ve read this far, you’ll see that the goal of this exposition was to analyze the possibility and extent of translation (or transference) – both cultural and aural – between languages.
You’ll also have noticed that while the aural aspect has been left mostly undiscussed (though you can find a few of my thoughts here) , the cultural aspect has been discussed in some detail. At the very least, it has been established that the cultural milieu that inspired (and also cocooned) Bendre’s poetry is often completely alien to the cultural milieu that produced (and continues to produce) modern English poetry. However, given the trikāla (past-present-future; timeless; all-time) and universal nature of Bendre’s poetry, what mode of transfer can possibly transform Bendre’s Kannada poetry into modern English poetry?
In my opinion, the emphasis on ‘modern’ is extremely important, in a twofold manner. Allow me to explain.
First – for the simple reason that Bendre’s poetry was modern for his time (though not just for his time) and any translation that does not retain this “modernity” must necessarily be a failure. In other words, it will simply not do to translate (or transcreate) Bendre’s poetry using the conventions of the poetry of the English Romantic period. (I mention the matter because, on the whole, that is what has been done to whatever little of Bendre’s poetry has been translated from Kannada into English.) Exceptionally ahead of his time in his use of the ‘(people’s) spoken language’ to create poetry, the only way an English translation can possibly do justice to the original Kannada poem is by being a fully contemporary 21st-century English poem.
Second – from a practical point of view, a contemporary rendering is the only way to bring the world’s attention to a translation from a language as greviously ill-known as Kannada (which is a real pity, seeing how Kannada is one of a handful of living world languages with a literary history that has remained unbroken for over a thousand years).

In the context of the poem above, I have chosen to translate bhoomitaayi as ‘earth-mother’ rather than Mother Earth, simply because of the (out)datedness of the latter form. I trust that, by doing so, I have conveyed the sentiment sans the sentimentality. As for the rest of the title, the ‘firstborn son’ (Kannada: ಚೊಚ್ಚಿಲ ಮಗ or chocchila maga) Bendre speaks of is the farmer. In his capacity as the (earth-mother’s) firstborn son, he is doing his duty (as dictated by custom not just in India but the world over) by labouring to provide for the other members of both his family and society. But the labour is backbreaking and, dependent as he is on the whims of nature and other people, the life he lives is nothing less than wretched. Growing up poor in Dharwad in the the early 20th century, Bendre was fully aware of the plight of the farmer. (It is worth noting that it is this familiarity Bendre had with the subject of his poetry that precludes the poem from being merely sentimental or nostalgic. In English poetry, a rare instance of this sort of familiarity with life in the village can be found in the poetry of John Clare.)

To end, I would like to thank my college friend, the poet, musician and lecturer Matt Shelton, for the feedback he gave me regarding my own English poetry and his advice to set aside a consciously ‘poetic voice’ for one ‘closer to how we speak’. The advice he gave helped me (in no small way) to see the advantage of contemporizing my translations (and transcreations) of Bendre’s poetry while giving me a framework to work within. More recently, it has helped me refine my ideas concerning poetry (whether lyric or non-lyric) and, as he intended, in creating new poetry of my own. Thanks, Matt!

Unseeing Gold (ಕುರುಡು ಕಾಂಚಾಣಾ)

This is actually one of my early transcreations; more or less part of my “first set, as it were. (Note that I’m deliberately eschewing calling it a translation.) Chronologically, this should have been published a lot earlier, but there was something – I can’t exactly say what – that made me hesitate. I suppose the closest I can offer by way of explanation is my feeling that I had, in my quest to give the poem the ‘outward (rhythmic and metrical) structure’ of the original, ‘compressed’ it too much, robbed it of too many of its nuances, both linguistic and cultural. And while I still feel that way to an extent, I have come to see (on account of the appreciation of two or three discerning readers) that the retention of the original’s ‘rhythmic structure’ has given the transcreation a poetic quality that may have been impossible to achieve through a conscientious pursuit of the nuances I just mentioned. In other words, a more “literal” translation would find it difficult to retain the (very attractive) rhythm of the original – particularly its sung version. (Like it is with so many other poems by Bendre that I’ve translated or transcreated, I first came across this poem too as a song – and a very popular song at that!)

As for the transcreation itself – that is to say its content and its imagery – a great portion of the credit, if anyone sees fit to offer such, goes to Sunaath Kaka and his brilliant Kannada explication of this particular poem. Like I’ve said already, this transcreation happened in my early phrase as a translator (transcreator) of Bendre’s poems; a phase where I was still ‘wet behind the ears’ and often relied on Sunaath Kaka’s explication to help me understand the import of the original. (Not that I can claim any sort of mastery now. It’s just that I’m now more comfortable with both the Kannada language and the language of Bendre’s poetry; and consequently, more keen to understand the original on my own.) In this case, Sunaath Kaka’s extremely interesting (and original?) interpretation of the poem not only gave me the tools I needed to work on a transcreation but also suggested what route I should take – one I’m quite certain I wouldn’t have thought of even if I’d used the dictionary to look up all those words unfamiliar to me at the time. Very specifically, the transcreation of ಕುರುಡು (kuruḍu) as unseeing (rather than the usual ‘blind’) would never have happened. So, once again, I thank Sunaath Kaka and hope he finds this transcreation to his taste (since I don’t believe I’ve ever shared it with him). Those of you who’d like a little more detail about the poem or are curious about the choice of ‘unseeing’ should read the afterword.

Finally, do make sure to listen to both the Kannada and the English recitations below! You’ll see then what I mean when I said my transcreation was an attempt to approximate (if not replicate) the rhythmic metre of the original.

Recitation of the Kannada original:

Unseeing Gold (ಕುರುಡು ಕಾಂಚಾಣಾ)

Unseeing gold was dancing,
upon her supplicants was prancing;
yes, góld – unsèeing góld.

Unseen, tied to her ankles were
anklets bleached as whitened soap;
like bones of half-dead nursing mams;
           while round her throat was hung
           a necklace strung from cowrie-shells;
           like eyes of dying infant girls.
Unseeing gold was dancing,
upon her supplicants was prancing;
yes, góld – unsèeing góld.

Within her hands
she brandished brands
with flames lit by the poor’s gut;
           and from her mouth
           (full-fed on tears)
           came fòrth howling, half-crazed sounds.
Unseeing gold was dancing,
upon her supplicants was prancing;
yes, góld – unsèeing góld.

Across her brow
was kunkuma;
the skin-dust of the slaving poor;
           and in temples her bells resounded,
           and in penthouses she bounded,
           and in shops her echoes soúnded.
Unseeing gold was dancing,
upon her supplicants was prancing;
yes, góld – unsèeing góld.

This frenzied dance of hers all done,
she fell at last upon the ground;
make haste, make haste, and truss her up.

Recitation of the English translation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Afterword:

In the poem above, Kaka’s interpretation suggests – correctly, I believe – that the poem is  an (ironic) depiction of ಕಾಂಚಾಣಾ (kāṅcāṇā: literally ‘gold’ but more broadly ‘wealth’) in the form of ಯೆಲ್ಲಮ್ಮ (Yellamma); a popular rural deity who is believed to “come upon” the body of a devotee and possess him or her. But while Yellamma is a benevolent goddess (or, at least, one who can be placated), the ‘Unseeing Gold’ of this poem seems unrelentingly maleficent. The choice to use ‘unseeing‘ derives from the image of the madly dancing possessed devotee – whose eyes are (technically) open but that are, in truth, unaware and unseeing.

Another very interesting explication contrasts this poem with one of Purandaradāsa’s most famous padas (~ hymns), ‘ಭಾಗ್ಯದ ಲಕ್ಷ್ಮಿ ಬಾರಮ್ಮ‘ (Bhāgyada Lakshmi Bāramma: Come, mother lakshmi, fortune-giver), where he calls – with almost childlike affection – on Lakshmi, his lord Vishṇu‘s consort (and popularly worshipped as ‘the goddess of wealth’) to come calling, in all her decked-up glamour and merciful benevolence, on her worshippers and bless them with wealth of every kind. This childlike call for ‘good fortune for all’ being the gist of the hymn, I will refrain from the (rather arduous) task of translating or transcreating the whole hymn. However, I will offer you an audio clip of the song, sung by one of the 20th century’s most-acclaimed Hindustani musicians, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. I hope you enjoy it.

Note: Incidentally, this poem, is written in the shaṭpadi metre or the sestet, a medieval Kannada metre that, as the name suggests, is made up of stanzas each six lines long and that possesses a ‘beginning rhyme’ – where the second syllable of every line is the same – rather than an end rhyme. This metre is similar to the metre of Purandaradasa’s pada – the primary difference is that the pada is a chaupadi (~ quatrain, quartet) rather than a shaṭpadi.

Dissolution – Creation (ಪ್ರಳಯ – ಸೃಷ್ಟಿ)

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 harvest of oct-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.

Afterword:

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.

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 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
                will 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).

 

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“.