The Seasons’ Song (ಋತುಗಾನ)

I said once that “The Child-Widow” was my most facile translation. Well, the translation of this poem’s first stanza was almost as facile. While the rest of the translation took time – a fair amount of which was spent understanding the purport of stanzas 2 and 3 – I’m glad I got there in the end. There are a few things about the poem (and the translation) I’d like to share, but I’ll leave them for the Afterword (below). For now, here is the translated poem.

Recitation of the Kannada poem:

The Seasons’ Song (ಋತುಗಾನ)

The harmony of the curtain-play of the night and day,
The richly ornamented and the divine starry way;
The flower-world upon the earth, the hills, and leafy trees;
The balance of the red of dawn and the evening’s húes.

The rise and falling of the sea within the earth’s embrace
The graze of wind that wàters the east-and-west’s dark-waters-place
The wonder of the ear-of-grain rising from the seed that falls
Ah look a death, ah look a birth, the breath of life rises and falls.

The enchantment of affection’s come from learning to unite,
A gentle-smile attained its place in a laughter of delight,
As a sweetness that was jaggery uprose on broken lips,
In wintertime came sprouting the essence of coupleness.

The stretching sky above us is new one mòment to the next
Each new day brings the rhythm-dánce of the spheres of the belt
‘Turn, return, be ever new’ is the song the seasons sing;
To the pitch-note of this song’s been túned the univèrse’s silence.

Recitation of the English Translation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Afterword:

I first came across this poem in the form of its last two lines. ‘ತಿರುತಿರುಗಿಯು ಹೊಸತಾಗಿರಿ (‘Turn, return, be ever new)’ was the title of a book of essays by G. Krishnappa; fondly known to his numerous admirers as ‘Bendre Krishnappa’. It was this encounter that piqued my interest and sent me in search of the poem.
I seem to remember being struck immediately by the felicity of the poem’s rhythm. Now that is not really surprising. After all, it is no secret that Bendre had a preternatural sense of ಲಯ (laya) or rhythm. Indeed, he had a preternatural sense of everything that was poetry. (Like he said himself in his later years, he was a ಹುಟ್ಟಾ ಕವಿ or a born poet.)
Anyway, it was this wonderfully attractive rhythm that made me want to do more than just read the poem out loud, that made me want to engage with it, that made me want to “borrow its beauty” – in short, that made me want to translate or transcreate it. It was in this state of ebullience that I translated the first stanza (which remains more or less unchanged). But I soon found that the second and third stanzas were nothing like the first. If the first stanza was a rhyming, rhythmic, direct and simple description of natural phenomena, the second and third stanzas were different. Not only did they not use not such simple language as the first stanza, they were – especially stanza 3 – also less direct, more complex, more allusive and, so, elusive. Finding them difficult to understand and stalled in my translation attempt, I set them aside with every intention to return to them. (It is worth noting that all through this I had been searching for the best translation for the last two lines of the poem. The penultimate line was not so hard but the pair of them together were proving a challenge.)
It was about three weeks ago that I returned to the poem (and the incomplete translation). The break proved itself a good idea. With a little help from the dictionary and some ಮನನ (manana: ~contemplation), it seemed to me that I had managed to understand what the second and third stanzas were trying to say. And what better way to check if I had than to try to translate the two stanzas?
(Like I say in the ‘About‘ section of the page, these translations are as much as for myself as they are for anyone else. What they do is give me a chance to engage both seriously and creatively with the poem. It is a fact that I now understand so many poems better simply because I have either translated or tried to translate them. An attempt at translation seems to me a sort of “creative close reading” of the poem. Untrained and uninterested as I am in the technique of “close reading” – which usually involves “taking the poem apart” – I find that translation allows me to actively engage with the poem as a rasika, an activity I find most worthwhile. What’s more, such close engagement with the poem also often ensures that it remains with me for a long time – which in turn means I often find myself returning to the translation to make a small change or two that’s occurred to me. ‘Jogi‘ is the best example: published some two and half years ago, I returned to it as recently as this September I believe.)
To get back to the poem, I found myself able to make much more headway this time around. Their production might not have been as facile as the first stanza’s, but stanzas 2 and 3 were translated as stanza 4 too began to fall into place. An addition here, a cut there, a tweak somewhere else and the translation you just read was more or less ready.

Note: I often discuss (parts of) poems I don’t understand with my father. With this poem too, it was only after I’d read the translation out to him (as he listened while looking at the text of the original) that I thought to ask him what he thought the closing line of the poem meant – ಈ ಹಾಡಿಗೆ ಶ್ರುತಿ ಹಿಡಿದಿದೆ ಬ್ರಹ್ಮಾಂಡದ ಮೌನ (ee haaḍige shruti hiḍidide brahmaaṇḍada mouna). Particularly, what did it mean to say the “shruti” to the song was a (universal) silence? As we discussed what “shruti” itself meant – it is, loosely, a monotonic vibration of the stringed tamburi that plays continually in the background as it offers a pitch to a trained singer’s ears – my father talked about how the constant “drone” that is the shruti could be construed as a sort of silence – an idea I furthered by musing about how the monotone of the shruti could be thought as a “drone” that is subsumed by the surrounding silence. In any case, the discussion was very interesting and made me wonder further at the startling and original metaphors Bendre used so prolifically. It also occurred to me that this metaphor, for instance, could be categorized under what Shankar Mokashi Punekar called Bendre’s “cosmic images”.

Let’s Not Tell a Single Soul (ಯಾರಿಗೂ ಹೇಳೋಣು ಬ್ಯಾಡಾ)

Let’s not tell a single soul
No, not a single soul. |Refrain |

That climbing on a horse with wings,
Perched side by side like little twins,
We’ll go swaying and awaying –
Let’s not tell a single soul
No, not a single soul.

That to a yard of yours we’re going,
Its flowers all flowering, its fruits all flowing;
There we’ll have a merry feasting –
Let’s not tell a single soul
No, not a single soul.

That holding hands we’ll dance and dance,
We’ll bend and bow and spring and prance,
And, untíring, play-skip entranced –
Let’s not tell a single soul
No, not a single soul.

That in a field of malligē flowers,
We’ll sit with my cheek stroking yours
And softly sing some duet bars –
Let’s not tell a single soul
No, not a single soul.

That turning into little snakes,
We too’ll sway our hoods and shake;
Amid the flowers, the green, the lake –
Let’s not tell a single soul
No, not a single soul.

That sleeping deeply, unbodied,
To a joyous magic land we’ve dreamed
We’ll steal away – unheard, unseen –
Let’s not tell a single soul
No, not a single soul.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Note: Do read the Afterword.

I’ve taken a shot at singing both the original Kannada poem and the English translation. The tune of the Kannada song, if one may be discerned, is taken from this lovely recording by Shimoga Subbanna. (Of all the recordings made of the song, this is by far the most melodious and felicitous. I urge you all to listen to it. In fact, it is largely responsible for making me want to translate the poem. The only reason I haven’t offered that recording instead of my own is because it is missing one stanza of the poem. As it is, Mr. Subbanna has sung stanzas 1, 2, 3, 6, 5 in that order.)
The English translation’s recording, I confess, is of my own tuning. With the original poem having been tuned so wonderfully, I thought it would be somewhat of a letdown to simply recite the translation. I just hope the singing isn’t more of a letdown.

The Kannada poem as a song:

The English translation as a song:

Afterword:

Da Ra Bendre was among that tiny group of poets whose work becomes not just widely popular but also “required literary reading” in their own time. The foremost modern lyric poet of the ನವೋದಯ (navōdaya: ~ new dawn; renaissance) period in 20th-century Kannada literature, several of his (early) poems were included in textbooks. Naturally, this meant his poems were discussed in classrooms – often by teachers who were themselves hard put to make sense of (the nuances of) the poem! While it is likely that most of them just chose to gloss over the matter, they were a few souls brave enough to take the issue up with Bendre himself! (I say “brave” because of how quickly Bendre was known to fly into a temper. However, it is worth noting that he had great appreciation for the rasika, the sahrudaya, the invested reader – and was always willing to help them with their difficulties.)
Related to this poem is the story of one such (invested) teacher. It is a story I heard very recently (and “third hand” at that), but I reckon it is (mostly) true and, what is more, quite engaging. Of course, since it is a recounting of a retelling of a telling, I have taken the liberty to create a (plausible) narrative.
The story goes that a schoolteacher assigned this poem was hesitant about reading it out and explaining it to his students in the 8th grade (or thereabouts). His reason? The intimacy found throughout the poem – and especially apparent in lines like “ಗಲ್ಲ ಗಲ್ಲ ಹಚ್ಚಿ ಕೂತು (We’ll sit with my cheek stroking yours)”. Just how was he to talk to young children about such intimacy without himself feeling embarrassed or having to answer questions he’d rather not answer? Unsure, he decided to go to Bendre himself. “Maastra, how do I talk to such young children about such displays of affection?”, he asked, “I’m likely to begin to feel embarrassed and self-conscious myself”. Bendre is supposed to have smiled at this and simply said, “Is that so? Well, go back, read the poem again and come here.”
Baffled but unable to question the varakavi, the teacher went back and read the poem, wondering all along what he needed to read a (seemingly simple) love poem like for again. After all, it seemed straightforward enough, didn’t it? So it happened that he returned to Bendre the next day, no differently opinioned. “Did you read it again?” asked Bendre. “I did, maastra.” “And you didn’t see anything that answered your question about how you could teach it to your class?” “No, maastra, I didn’t.” “Okay then, read it again and come back tomorrow”, said Bendre.
Baffled but obliged to obey, the schoolteacher returned home to the poem and read it again; doing his best to find the key to Bendre’s (rather unhelpful!) suggestion. Try as he might, he was unable to find the answer to his question, a way that would allow him to speak about the poem without feeling self-conscious. So back to Bendre’s he went the next day, feeling rather foolish and wondering what lay in store.
“So you found your answer?” asked Bendre. “No, maastra, I didn’t,” replied the teacher, looking crestfallen.
“Okay then, tell me again why you think you’ll find it hard to teach your students this poem.” “Because of some of the details, maastra – of the cheeks of the lovers touching and all that.”
“And what made you think the two of them are lovers?” The teacher was taken aback. “But isn’t that obvious, maastra; it’s a love poem after all, isn’t it?” “Yes, yes, it is a love poem…but why did you think it was about a man and a woman?”
“Well, because…” the teacher’s voice trailed off. He’d said it was obvious, hadn’t he? But why was it obvious? He couldn’t quite say.
Smiling, Bendre said, “Look, tamma, you aren’t the first one to interpret the poem the way you did, but I actually wrote the poem for my son (when he was a little boy). I was imagining doing all these secret things with him; sailing away on a flying horse, playing like little snakes, nuzzling each other’s cheeks, holding hands and dancing…do you see now how you can teach your students this poem?”
The schoolteacher nodded. “What a lovely poem, maastra,” he said, his voice filled with emotion. “I’d be proud to read it out and teach it to my students.” Then joining his palms in a namaskaara, “And now, with your permission, maastra, I’ll take your leave. Thank you very much for all your help.”
“Go along and come back sometime, tamma,” said Bendre, as he took a teaspoon of sugar from his pocket and gave it to the teacher.

Glossary:

1. maastra – the (Dharwad) Kannada way of saying “Master” – which is how most older people addressed Bendre (the young ones called him “ajjaara” or grandpa)

2. tamma – the Kannada word for a younger brother

3. namaskaara – a gesture of reverence made by joining the palms of both hands (at around chest level)

Hothot Sky (ನಿಗಿ ನಿಗಿ ಮುಗಿಲು)

Original Kannada Poem:

Hothot Sky (ನಿಗಿ ನಿಗಿ ಮುಗಿಲು)

Hothot sky
Hothot day
Pours forth an emberous heat;
Strips all cover
Steals all power
The life-breath’s fully beat;

Dries the throat
Drops the fruit
The hot breath of the air –
Full-flaming
Sky-swimming
Is arriving in fine flair.

Showers the rain
Uplooks the grain
The dark clouds break and burst;
Cheep-cheep the birds,
Their laughter-words;
Here’s mercy for the cursed!

Transcreated English Poem:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Afterword:

ಹಾಡೆ ಹಾದಿಯ ತೋರಿತು (haaḍē haadiya tōritu: ~ the song itself showed the way) said Bendre of (his) poetry. The variousness of his poetry’s metre, rhythm, rhyme, prosody, and syllablism testify to the truth of this statement: the song really did show him the way. All too often, all he did was follow its lead.

In this particular poem, it may be argued that the short (staccato-ish) syllabic lines lend the poem an urgency – alluding, at first, to the withering heat and, later, to the wet relief of the rain. In any case, the poem is a wonderful example of the famous ನಾದ (nāda: ~ euphony) inherent to Bendre’s poetry. Just listen to that assonance, that rhythm, that rhyme, that onomatopoeia!

In this transcreation, a particular concern was to mirror the (short) syllablism of the original poem’s lines. Trying to work the English language to achieve such effects is an especially satisfying aspect of translating Bendre’s poetry.