Sakheegeeta – Prelude (ಸಖೀಗೀತ – ನಾಂದಿ ಪದ್ಯ)

In 1937, Da Ra Bendre published his long lyric-narrative (ಖಂಡ-ಕಾವ್ಯ) titled Sakheegeeta (ಸಖೀಗೀತ), a poetic account of the poet and his wife’s (ಸಖೀ) married life up to that time. In his introduction, Bendre says that he has, in the poem, “let spread the happy-sad vine of the ordinary married life upon the trellis of my personal experience.”
Written in a metre that he himself devised, this lyric-narrative is one of his best-known works. From my own reading, what is most striking is his prolific and remarkable use of ಅಚ್ಚಗನ್ನಡ (non-Sanskritized Kannada) and its various poetic possibilities – most particularly those of assonance, compactness, rhyme, and alliteration.
This verse is the very first of the forty-something verses that make up the lyric-narrative. As can be seen, it remains a poem in its own right while serving the purpose of a prelude.

(Note: The word sakhee hasn’t an exact English equivalent, which is why I have left it as it is. However, I have used the word ‘friendship’ to translate sakhya (ಸಖ್ಯ), the adjectival form of the word. Though not exact, I think it a fair approximation.)

As usual, here is my recording of the Kannada original. The tune, if one is discrernible, is my own.

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

Sakheegeeta – Prologue (ಸಖೀಗೀತ – ನಾಂದಿ ಪದ್ಯ)

Sakhee! Shall I in detail tell
the sweet and sour of our friendship’s course;
shall I, unknotting the tangled heart,
embroider the tangles into a dress?

For now when I recall those past sorrows,
the glow of a night-star comes to sight;
what once was trouble’s now turned to song
that flows like a stream that’s fresh and bright.

They say that when Gangē and the sea
embrace, the mingled waters earn sanctity;
so too, I say, does the heart stay pure
as it blends both joy and misery.

So come out to the sea on its breaking waves,
to wet where the waters froth and foam;
let us ride on the cradling lap of the waves
in a raft or a boat or a catamaran.

And since all brine trumps a sapless life,
let our unfurled memories be the sail;
let us glide, let us swim, let us float, let us drown,
and drowning, sink to the home of pearls.

For when we’re just anklets on a cosmic wind
that dances its terrible cosmic dance;
who can know, oh kāmākshi,
the span of this bond that is binding us!

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Here is my recitation of the translation.

Not Ever Looking Back (Concerning an Old Painting) [ಹಿಂದs ನೋಡದs]

A number of Da Ra Bendre’s poems are from the perspective of a woman. This particular poem expresses the despair of one such “heroine.” The poet has indicated that the poem sprung from looking at an old painting (of a gōpi who entranced by Krishna’s presence is oblivious to her surroundings and her gōpi-friends).

As usual, here is a recording of my reciting (singing) the original Kannada poem. The tune, if one is discernible, is C. Ashwath’s.

Not Ever Looking Back (Concerning an Old Painting) [ಹಿಂದs ನೋಡದs]

Not ever looking back, my dear,
not ever looking back.

He looked but once upon me,
and smiled a friendly smile;
then he turned and on he went,
not ever looking back, my dear,
not ever looking back.

The scent that rides upon the air,
it said to me – ‘go there, go there’;
my mind followed without a care,
not ever looking back, my dear,
not ever looking back.

My heart itself’s no longer mine,
what do I care if it’s rain or shine;
my mind follows its destined line,
not ever looking back, my dear,
not ever looking back.

Like the thread within the needle’s eye,
like the foot caught in the míre,
like the wheel of time upon its way,
not ever looking back, my dear,
not ever looking back.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Afterword:

Here is my recitation of the translation.

Feather (ಗರಿ)

The very last poem in Da Ra Bendre’s first poetry collection, itself titled Gari (ಗರಿ) and first published in 1932. The feather here serves as a wonderful metaphor for a poem (each, at its finest, an exquisite and ethereal creation). Given the luminous poetry Shri Bendre was to create (and “strew”) over the next five decades, this poem seems nothing less than prophetic.

Feather (ಗರಿ)

Upon this cloth of stretching sky
that has nèither start nor end,
is forever and forever flying
the ever-moving bird of wind.

And flying like this bird of wind
is the many-feathered bird,
in whose wake áre following
feathers stréwn from its wings.

Let these fallen feathers play
just as much as they would like
in the wind that blows and swirls
and rubs and sprays and spurts and whirls.

And, if by chance or accident,
these feathers light upon the ground,
push them, blow them, make them fly
up again within the sky.

Do not, smitten by their colours, keep
them hidden safely in your palm;
do not, though they seem a little off,
pluck some hairs and comb some lines.

Push them, blow them, make them fly,
let them fly as much they will;
these feathers that were born to fly,
these feathers on a bird’s body.

And, ìf, as you watch their play,
you feel within a surge of joy,
then, you too swell and peacock-like
dance your way up to the sky.

Yet ìf you do not feel that way,
then simply send the feather forth;
for èver blows the able wind
that takes it far, and out of sight.

But if, by chance, the wind does not;
if, perhaps, they tòo lack strength,
then do your bit and make them soar
for that is all the life they know.

Upon this cloth of stretching sky
that has nèither start nor end
is forever and forever flying
the ever-moving bird of wind
.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Don’t Look At Me This Way (ನೀ ಹೀಂಗ ನೋಡಬ್ಯಾಡ ನನ್ನ)

Da Ra Bendre’s life was not an easy one. Born in Dharwad into a family of Vedic Marathi-speaking Brahmins, he lost his father at an early age and grew up in poverty (albeit under the loving guardianship of his mother and maternal grandmother). Married at the age of 23 to Lakshmibai (nee Rangubai), he and his wife were to experience the death of six of their nine children (five in infancy and one, tragically, when he was 20). This poem – about the death of an infant daughter, Lalitha – details the mute grief of his wife and the poet’s despairing response.

Contrary to the popular narrative, this song was not one that sprung spontaneously from the poet’s lips upon seeing his wife. Rather, it came to him as a “sight” as he travelled in the railway carriage that was taking him home to his wife and infant daughter. In other words, it was the (wrenching) vision of a future that was very near.
As far as Hindu poetics is concerned, it is the stream of the rasa of grief (ಶೋಕ ರಸ) that flows here. I have had my father tell me that this lament (as sung by Rajkumar Bharathi) never fails to bring a lump to his throat.

However, since Mr. Bharathi’s version contains only the last three stanzas of the poem, I have ventured to sing the whole poem in the same tune as the original. I hope the result is palatable.

Don’t Look At Me This Way (ನೀ ಹೀಂಗ ನೋಡಬ್ಯಾಡ ನನ್ನ)

Don’t look at me this way;
because if you look at me this way,
in what way do I look at you? || Refrain ||

This worldly-ocean, I know, is filled with countless obstacles of woe,
still I can say, though I don’t know where, that on the other side’s a shore.
So let the sleeping infant lie, what’s next is god’s refrain;
his will I cannot change; so why look and look at me again?

Those lips of yours that were as red as parrot’s beak fruit-dipped;
where did their colour go? By which ill-wind were they stripped?
Looking at those cheeks, that brow, those eyes, it seems as if death’s
hand itself had stroked your face; a nameless fear enters my breath.

My wedding-watered hands you took, thinking them cool and tender;
and still you clutch at them; though now they glow like ashen cinder.
“But if the sky should topple, what fate awaits the ground?”, they said:
did you believe the sky would never fall; that I myself was god?

Woman! whose eyes once glittered like milk-bedewed kavaḷi fruit;
Tell me – are these eyes I see now yours in truth?
For looking on your face my life itself exclaims in fright:
‘Here comes the full moon’s corpse, sailing in the morning light!’

A rain has filled within your eyes; why then this crazy laughter –
as though a gust of wind can stop a raincloud set to scatter?
So go on, cry, let loose the flood, don’t laugh away such hardship;
blink and let the tears flow; don’t block your sobs with bitten lips.

Here is my recitation of the translation.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Afterword:

Like with so many poems I translated or transcreated at the time, Sunaath Kaaka’s wonderful Kannada explication proved extremely valuable. Thank you, Kaaka.

The Dance of the Bear (ಕರಡಿ ಕುಣಿತ)

One of Da Ra Bendre’s more popular, accessible (and underappreciated) poems. My introduction to Bendre’s poetry was when I listened to the sung version of this poem, many years ago. In the intervening years, I have travelled the familiar yet unfamiliar terrain of the Kannada language in ways I had never anticipated. But that is a story for another day. (Update: You can now read part of the story in the afterword.)
For now, I will only say that the memory and the rediscovery of this poem sparked my relationship with Bendre’s poetry. In particular, the first two lines of stanza 3 (which read “ತ್ರೇತಾಯುಗ ರಾಮನ್ನ, ದ್ವಾಪರದ ಕೃಷ್ಣನ್ನ|ಕಲಿಯುಗದ ಕಲ್ಕೀನ ಕಂಡಾನ” in the original) and the untranslatable onomatopoeic refrain (“ತನ್ನsನ ತಾsನನ ತಂದಾsನ” – “) from line 2 of stanza 5 continue to draw me into their eddy of feeling.
The poem itself was inspired by the poet waking up in a railway coach and “seeing” a large bear at the door. When he went out and looked, it had disappeared. He learned later that an accident had happened at the very station he had “seen” the bear, an accident in which a number of people had lost their lives. It was the poet’s belief that one of those people had appeared to him in the form of the bear seeking release for their ātma (soul).

As usual, I’ve included my recording of the original Kannada poem. The sing-song rhythm is taken from B.R Chaya’s version, tuned by Gururaj Marpalli.

(The only reason I haven’t included only Marpalli’s version is because it is missing a stanza – the 6th stanza. Nonetheless, I urge you all to listen to it. It really is wonderfully tuned.)

Note: Please refer to the afterword for information about the “ages” referred to in the translation.

The Dance of the Bear (ಕರಡಿ ಕುಣಿತ)

Wrapped in a coat of hair he came; his wrist
held a metal wristlet; his hand held a stick of play;
he hummed as he came, and he tapped as he came;
then he stood as the bear round him played.

From which wilds did he snatch this bear,
that lived contentedly on honey?
“Now dance before the rich man’s house,”
he said – “Dance for him and he shall pay.”

This bear’d seen Rama in the trēta age;
dvāpàra’s Krishna and kali’s Kalki he had seen.
As the krita age drew to a close, he fed
on the jambu fruit by the river gleaned.

“Mothers come, your children bring;
come ward off the evil eye.
Tie round their necks these hairs of his
that hold the strength of Bhima‘s thigh.”

“Dance you rascal, dance,” he says:
thun-naa-na thun-naa-naa thun-dhaa-na he plays;
sniff-sniff snuff-snuff dances the bear;
“Whát a lovely dance,” all say.

This dance is danced to feed the man;
for him the bear’s in chains and bands:
“My god,” he prays, “give the man his share,”
looking to the heavens with joined hands.

The wily man makes dance and prance
this life: he hides behind and pulls the strings.
In the name of the bear he earns his bread;
as though such means will salvation bring.

Since man began to have dance for him
the ox, the monkey and the bear;
‘It is man’s mind that dances not the bear that
prances,’ – so thinks the poet and his thinking shares.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Recitation of the English translation.

Note: Like it often is, Sunaath Kaka’s Kannada explication of this poem on his website was of great help during the translation. My thanks to him.

Afterword:

Hindu mytho-cosmology offers a cyclical view of the universe’s evolution and devolution through its idea of four yuga-s (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 necessitates the pralaya (~the reabsorption; the dissolution) of the universe and its subsequent srishṭi (~creation, emergence). This cycle of pralayasrishṭi is ceaseless. That is to say, pralaya and srishṭi are attached in the same way as the front and back of a coin. Interestingly, per this cosmology, we are living now in the Kali yuga.

In this context, note the ‘magnificence in miniature’ of the first two lines of Stanza 3. That the poet has, in just two lines, managed to convey the bear’s grandness via the ‘passing of the ages’ and a reference to historo-mythological figures seems to me nothing short of wondrous.

Here’s (a bit of) the story I allude to in the introduction. It’s an excerpt – from a January 2020 Kannada essay of mine – that I’ve translated into English. (You can read the whole Kannada essay here.)

Excerpt:

“This bear’d seen Rama in the trēta age
dvapāra’s Krishna and kali’s Kalki he had seen

It must have been about ten years ago. I was studying for my BA degree at the time. One day, I’d put the music on in my room and was working on something when a Kannada bhaavageete came on. Its rhythm attracted me and I stopped to listen to it more carefully. I found the words to the song unfamiliar and could hardly grasp more than a few of them. However, I was smitten by the song’s wonderfully attractive rhythm and listened to it several times over. As I did so, the two lines (above) were the only ones I was able to catch clearly. For some reason, listening to them sent a thrill through me. With repeated listening, they became a part of me.
This was my first meeting with varakavi Bendre(’s poetry).”

The Pollen Calls (ಪರಾಗ)

Sanskrit poetics gives great significance to the rasika (ರಸಿಕ) or the sahrudaya (ಸಹೃದಯ), both words that mean ‘an appreciative spirit’, ‘(one) of the same heart.’ Steeped deeply in Hindu culture and poetics, Da Ra Bendre held similar beliefs and several of his poems speak directly to the rasika (ರಸಿಕ), even inviting him to take part (through his appreciative understanding) in the poem’s creation.
In this poem, the pollen (ಪರಾಗ) is the poet (and his poem) who call earnestly on the bee (ಭೃಂಗ) to come and partake of their (poetic) juice.

(The destructive-creative aspect of this exchange between the bee and the flower is captured by Bendre himself in another of his poems where he says: ಅಯ್ಯೊ ನೋವೆ! ಅಹಹ ಸಾವೆ! ವಿಫಲ ಸಫಲ ಜೀವಾ).

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

The Pollen Calls (ಪರಾಗ)

Come, dear bee, come,
why wander so detachedly?
When the call of the fragrance is
sweet, is an invitation necessary?

This fragrance holds within itself
the song-juice of the unripe fruit;
and within the honey of the flower
is hid the rasa of tomorrow’s fruit.

In the poem’s heart, in the lotus’s womb,
the pollen waits on tiptoe;
your slightest kiss itself’s enough
for a néw creation to show.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Here is my recitation of the translation.

Afterword:

“In the poem’s heart, in the lotus’s womb,
the pollen waits on tiptoe;
your slightest kiss itself’s enough
for a néw creation to show.”

What do these lines mean? What have they set out to say? For the bee to travel from flower to flower drinking their nectar is part of the natural order. Here, the poet has made a metaphor of this extremely natural action (of the bee’s). To the poet, the poem is the nectar-filled ‘[lotus] flower’ that is calling the rasika ‘bee’ towards itself. It appears that the poet himself is curious and excited about the ‘new creation’ that will result from the bee’s drinking of the nectar.

Speaking for myself, I am more interested in the (idea of a) ‘new creation’ than I am in the ‘bee-pollen-flower’ metaphor … [because] every kiss given me by a Bendre poem has resulted in a ‘new creation’ that is my English translation (or transcreation). Although, like every creation, it is likely to have its faults and rough edges, I can affirm the act of creation has made me happy. In some particular instances, the joy I have experienced has almost overwhelmed me.

Note: This afterword is an excerpted English translation (done by me) of the Kannada essay I wrote for ಋತುಮಾನ (Ruthumana) on the occasion of Jan 31, 2020, Bendre’s 124th birth anniversary.

P.S: Here is another poem where Bendre directly addresses the rasika.

The Peacock-Smile (ನಗೀನವಿಲು)

One of Bendre’s poems from the early period, with a wonderfully original conceit. The peacock and the koel serve as metaphors. The language of the original is folksy Dharwad, and abounds in end-rhyme, assonance, and onomatopoeia (mina mina mina minchatitta: ಮಿನ ಮಿನ ಮಿನ ಮಿಂಚತಿತ್ತ). Though the onomatopoeia is untranslatable, I have looked to include a measure of assonance and end-rhyme in the translation. The unusual sentence-structure is a consequence of this attempt.

Also, here is a recording of my reciting (singing) the original Kannada poem. The tune, if one is discernible, is Mysore Ananthaswamy’s.

The Peacock-Smile (ನಗೀನವಿಲು)

Woman, upon your lips
did play a peacock-smile;
did play a smile, did flee a smile;
did it look cloudward the while.

A-flash a-flash a-flashed the smile;
did rise the smile, did fall the smile;
did fall the smile, did glow the smile:
did the land and waters gleam the while.

Within your eyes the coloured gaze
did dance thakadimi dance;
did dance and prance; did droop and fade:
did play coquette at every chance.

At the tip of the mango-tree-of-the-mind
did sit a kōel all alone;
did sit and never sing a note:
did gaze on you with look forlorn.

A living life was suffering;
did wail all through the day and night;
did wail all through, did flail all through:
did search for something with its might.

With a rain of tears too
did it pour forth its woe;
did pour its woe, did plead its case:
did wilt when no response did show.

(\Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Afterword:

Here is my recitation of the translation.