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.
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.)

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 in the Golden age had strode;
The Silver and the Kali ages it had seen.
As the Golden age drew to a close, it fed
On the jambu fruit by the river gleaned.

“O 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:
A rhythm on his drum 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.

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:

Here is my recitation of the translation.