Basavaṇṇa’s Chronicles (ತುಂಬಿ ಬಂದಿತ್ತು)

This was written as a nātya-gītā (dramatic-song), and was to be sung (to the background of single-stringed lute, an ēkatāri) by a wandering ascetic when he came upon Basavaṇṇa’s samādhi. While its inherent musicality makes it almost impossible to translate, I have tried to approximate some of the rhythm and the rhymes of the original. However, the refrain of the original is: thum thum thumthum thumthum thumthum thumbi bandhitta thangi thumbi bandhittu. The same word thumbi is used in a different sense in each refrain, a conceit impossible to translate.

(Note: Basavaṇṇa was a 12th century “social-reformer” who was the doyen of the vacana-sāhitya movement in Kannada. Vacanas are free verse pieces in simple Kannada, and extol Shiva. Allama Prabhu and Akka Mahādēvi were two other famous vacanakāras. Basavaṇṇa was eventually killed by people who opposed his “radical” ideas. This poem metaphorically relates the story of his life, the krānti (revolution) he inspired and his death.)

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

Basavaṇṇa’s Chronicles (ತುಂಬಿ ಬಂದಿತ್ತು)

It was more bright than light,
And slighter too than air,
It sprang like Gangē did
From the locks of Hara’s hair.
It róse in every nook and
Còrner of the body’s frame;
It joined head and toe and centre
And flooded them each the same,
Sister, a-full-filled did it come.
A-full, a-full, a-full, a-full,
A-full-filled did it come, sister,
A-full-filled did it come.

It had the fragrance of the flower,
And the sweetness of the song,
Like words of déep affection,
Onto the heart it sprang.
It honed in on the secret
Like the wisdom of the wise;
The lotus to this light unfurled:
Once móre did the honey rise,
Sister, a-buzzing came the bee.
A-buzz, a-buzz, a-buzz, a-buzz,
A-buzzing came the bee, sister,
A-buzzing came the bee.

It was so dark as Time,
It was so pale as Death,
It pouncèd like a hawk upon
A snake upon the heath.
It was as though the light of day
Had melted in the night;
It was as though fixation’s vessel
Was full up to its height;
Now, it’d spilt all its contents,
Sister, the end had come at last.
The end, the end, the end, the end,
The end had come at last, sister,
The end had come at last.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Afterword:

Here is my recitation of the translation.

New Year’s Day – Yugādi (ಯುಗಾದಿ)

Yugādi (ಯುಗಾದಿ) is a festival that celebrates the beginning of a new year (ಸಂವತ್ಸರ) according to the Hindu lunar calendar (ಪಂಚಾಂಗ). This tremendously popular poem by Da Ra Bendre – from his very first poetry collection, ಗರಿ – has become an inseparable part of the festival in Karnataka.

New Year’s Day – Yugādi (ಯುಗಾದಿ)

Though years and new years come and go,
New Year’s dáy is here again.
To the new year it’s bringing new cheer,
And things that are newer and newer.

Within the shrubs of hoṇgē flowers,
The bees begin their songs of play:
Their symphoníes are heard again.
The fragrance of the flower spills
Upon the bitter tree of neem;
And lo, the glow of life is seen.

Bewitched by kāma’s fragrant shafts,
The mango tree has flowered forth;
It now waits eagerly for him.
And festooning the mango tree,
The parrots sing elatedly:
‘The harvest’s come, the harvest’s come!’

The year itself’s been born anew;
The world’s joy has a resting place
Within the hearts of all that move!
But in this single lífe of ours,
A single youth, a single prime;
Is that all that we desérve?

A death with every sleep we sleep;
New life with every waking day;
Why haven’t we been blessèd so?
O god-of-youth-unending!
O wanderer-untiring!
Does such a gift not interest you?

Though years and new years come and go,
New Year’s dáy is here again.
To the new year it’s bringing new cheer,
And things that are newer and newer;
But not a single one’s for man!

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Afterword:

Here is my recitation of the translation.

Sakheegeeta – Prologue (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 prologue.

(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.

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 sorrows past,
The glow of a night-star comes to sight;
What once was trouble’s now turned to song
That flows like a stream both fresh and bright.

They say that when Gangē and the sea
Embrace, the mingled waters earn sanctity;
So too, I say, is the heart turned pure
When it hosts 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, O 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.

Afterword:

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 care I for the 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.

Do Not Look At Me So (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.

Do Not Look At Me So (ನೀ ಹೀಂಗ ನೋಡಬ್ಯಾಡ ನನ್ನ)

Do not look at me so;
For if you look at me so,
How then am I to 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.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Afterword:

Here is my recitation of the translation.

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’d seen Rama in the Golden age;
Silver’s Krishna and Kali’s Kalki 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.

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 and abounds in end-rhymes, 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 its rhythmic dance;
Did dance and prance; did droop and fade:
Did play coquette at every chance.

Upon the fruit-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.