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 subconsciously 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; instead using more familiar, tangible and everyday conceits. (Of course, the poetic quality of many of these conceits can certainly 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’. Whch 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).

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 little 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 others. 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!

Rasika (ರಸಿಕ)

When he lived, Da Ra Bendre was known for his temper and his enthusiasm to engage in a quarrel. He himself attributed this temperament, with no little pride, to the ಮಣ್ಣಿನ ಗುಣ (maṇṇina guṇa: ~ quality of the soil) of his beloved Dharwad. He was, to use a felicitous Kannada word, a ಜಗಳಗಂಟ (jagaḷagaṇṭa: ~a quarrelsome fellow). It is said that when asked once why he’d chosen not to spend time abroad as a poet-in-residence, he answered with, “What am I going to go and do there when I haven’t even finished with all my quarrels in Dharwad!” As he grew in stature as a poet, so did criticism of his work – often poorly informed and occasionally malicious. Never one to take an insult lying down, Bendre confronted these critics both in his poetry and in person.

Contrariwise, Bendre held a particular affection for the rasika**, the sahrudaya. Indeed, one could go as far as to say the rasika-sahrudaya, no matter their rank or qualification, was Bendre’s “favourite person”, the raison d’etre of his poetry. This is borne out not only by Bendre’s poems but by the many generous things he had to say about them in his prose writings. Here are a few excerpts.

Poetry is the rest-home built to bring the joy of happiness to the rasika, the kindred spirit.”

“Like the poet, the rasika too has the “illuminating eye”. He too has the facility to “get the eyes to open”.

“But the sahrudaya is not slave to his nature. His words are not those of praise or criticism. It is his nectarine-sight that serves as a poem’s touchstone. To be exposed to that sight is a grace, to be removed from it a curse.”

To all those sahrudayas who have continued to welcome the poems of ‘Ambikatanayadatta,’ ‘Bendre’ conveys his gratitude: that his scribesmanship is not simply a waste, that his happy, wanton singing is not completely fruitless.”

**The ರಸಿಕ (rasika: ~ one sensitive enough to appreciate the rasa) or the ಸಹೃದಯ (sahrudaya: lit. a person of the same heart) is a major figure in classical Sanskrit poetics. Indeed, it is he or she – with their capacity to grasp the essence, to appreciate the nuances, to experience the joy felicitously-written words can offer – who drives the creation of poetry. Yes, there would be no poetry without the poet – but (perhaps) there would be no poet without the rasika.

The poem below is one of several Bendre-poems about the rasika.

Kannada Poem’s Recitation:

Rasika (ರಸಿಕ)

My heart and your heart – a salt-ocean apart;
all song is like a forest-cry!
If everyone’s drowned in their own tears,
which heart’s companion to friendship’s plea?

When will it come that wit that lifts
and strings the pearls within the soul’s recess?
More sharp than pin, more fine than thread;
can such words bear the tongue’s impress?

Like a fragrant flower-garland’s sent,
like melodies set out on flight,
I’ll send, rasika, with a happy sigh
these heartfelt words for your heart’s delight.

English Translation’s Recitation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

 

Paper Boat (ಹಾಳಿ ಹಡಗ)

Long before Jagjit Singh was singing a soulful ghazal about the lost childhood of paper boats and even longer before paper boat was a quirky, new-age brand with attractive packaging, Da Ra Bendre was writing a sonnet about the paper boat. Not a run-of-the-mill sonnet, mind you, that merely romanticized the innocence of his childhood days – but rather an image-rich oct-sestet (ಅಷ್ಟಷತ್ಪದಿ) that even now stands out for what Bendre himself described as “the strangeness of the twist imparted [when moving from the octet to the sestet]”.

Given the strangeness of this twist – its ಚಮತ್ಕಾರ (chamatkāra (n): ~ wonder) – and the various interpretations it allows for, I think this a good time to say something about what it means to translate poetry like Bendre’s — poetry that is not just remarkably euphonic but frequently rich in meaning, in suggestion, in allusion, in metaphor, in native imagery.

Like I say in the About section, my translation (or transcreation) has always looked to avoid the trap of “literalness” and offer, instead, the spirit of the original poem. But what if that spirit itself is one of mystery or elusiveness or ambiguity or complexity or all these things at the same time? Does “literalness” gain importance then?
Well, in such a case, I’d say the duty of the translation or transcreation becomes to retain, to the extent possible, the poem’s qualities, with the caveat that it never (deliberately) stretches past the original’s own reach. (An example of stretching past the original’s reach to create a kind of “fusion” is Fitzgerald’s rendering of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat. He is said to have taken so many liberties with the original that his immensely-popular work is often referred to as the Omar-Fitzgerald Rubaiyat. Fitzgerald apparently called his work a “transmogrification”.)
The retention can be effected in different ways: by seeking to understand the poem’s nuances of meaning and suggestion and using that learning to create a translation that is itself nuanced, though perhaps in a different way; or, in the case of a poem that challenges the translator’s understanding, by offering a translation that challenges its reader in equivalent fashion.

This particular poem is one whose “strangeness of twist” I cannot claim to have “fully understood”. Consequently, I have tried to present a translation that retains – as literally as possible – the imagery of the original. After all, like I have said before, my reason for translating a Bendre poem is often my own desire to better understand the poem.

Kannada Poem Recitation:

Paper Boat (ಹಾಳಿ ಹಡಗ)

I will set sail these paper boats
like one would do in boyish play,
until the cloud-hid sun shines forth again;
(the scrap of home will be its load.)
Within this mud-watered-unity
that marries the culvert and the lake,
let the current chart its destiny:
what is a flimsy boat against a crazy rain-and-breeze?
Let the books account the profit and the loss;
what I praised in wonder-dance is here.

The heart, like cloth, crumples and fades,
the breath is dimmed by hunger and by thirst;
building varied fairied lands, making channels
flood happily, cutting and sniff-scattering
the jasmine-of-the-skies, and breathing life
into the pictures of the mind,
comes forth
a heaven that has birthed itself.

English Translation’s Recitation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Benediction (ಹರಕೆ)

Kannada Poem’s Recitation:

Benediction (ಹರಕೆ)

The slow-paced step is slower now, within doe-
eyes’s about to sprout an anxiousness;
(the fresh-greenness of the body’s faded now.)
Its youth undone, the blood’s red-freshness’
quickly turning old. Coquette who wished to
count the feathers of the flying bird! Your
heart’s as desolate as an empty temple’s show;
sweet murmurs can be born no more;
now grown, you stand past outstretched hand.

Sister, let the day’s fatigue just fade away;
let the soaring hawk not swoop this way
or boy-wind tie you up in impish play.
Don’t visit here, you bee who steals the flower’s
scent; let spring’s desired-success-shower come;
above, let your moon-star act as your home.

English Translation’s Recitation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection, “ಕಾಮಕಸ್ತೂರಿ”, first published in 1934.

Afterword:

I remember being at the 2016 Ranga Ugadi organized by Ranga Shankara, Bengaluru’s best-known theatre space. The year’s theme was Bendre and the centerpiece of the second day’s festivities was a reading session of his poems by various well-known Kannada cultural figures. One of them, I recall, prefaced her reading – of the poem ‘ದಶಾವತಾರ’ – with her description of Bendre as a man with a “ಮಹಾ ಹೆಂಗರುಳು” (mahā heṅgaruḷu), or in other words, “a great woman-like sympathy”.
The poem “ದಶಾವತಾರ” – the ten avatāras – is part of a series of poems called “ಕರುಳಿನ ವಚನಗಳು” – or “words [born] of the gut” – written from the point of view of a mother that relate her various happy and spontaneous exclamations at her beloved infant’s ways and plays.  To those who know about Bendre’s growth as a poet, the influence of Rabindranath Tagore’s “The Crescent Moon” on these poems is obvious. (Speaking for myself, the poems in “The Crescent Moon” are some of the most exquisite poems I’ve ever read.)
If the incident mentioned above is relevant, it is because this poem too exemplifies the ಹೆಂಗರುಳು Bendre possessed. While a deep sensitivity characterizes all great poets, Bendre’s sensitivity was (for a male poet) unusually “female directed”. A number of his early lyric poems are either written from a woman’s point of view or are sympathetic responses to a woman’s various life experiences.
It is notable that this is another oct-sestet – one that rhymes this time. You’ll notice that the translation has, in spite of my trying, 15 lines rather than 14. Its rhyme scheme too is different from the original’s. Then again, that’s the reason I prefer to think these poems are as much transcreations as they are translations.
P.S: I think it worth reading this poem in conjuction with this one.

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.

The Child-Widow (ಪುಟ್ಟ ವಿಧವೆ)

Begun almost two years ago, this translation is perhaps my most facile one – in the best sense of the word. I remember how I began it in my room, sitting at my desk underneath the skylight as the setting sun’s colours filtered in through the window0 to my right. By the time I was done translating the first ten stanzas of the poem, the dark had filled the room and my mother had switched on the lights downstairs. I remember my own astonishment at the “beautifully smooth procession” (as I told my mother) of the translation and the satisfaction the effort brought me.

The translation, however, remained incomplete – for want of my understanding the last stanza.  I kept the piece aside, revisiting it on occasion but never quite getting around to understanding the last stanza. It was only some two months ago that I finally got around to writing to Sunaath Kaka, a much older internet-friend and Kannada blogger who has been publishing his wonderful (occasionally idiosyncratic) explications of many of Bendre’s famous and less-famous poems. His beautifully detailed reply completed the puzzle and helped me translate the last stanza of the poem – without doing injury to the poem’s rhythm. I thank Sunaath Kaka for his help and his friendship.

Otherwise, I will let the poem speak for itself.

As usual, I have added the audios of my reciting the poem.

Kannada Recitation:

English Recitation:

(Note: This is the 25th translation I’ve put up on this website; published to coincide with Da Ra Bendre Ambikatanatyadatta’s 123rd birth anniversary.)

The Child-Widow (ಪುಟ್ಟ ವಿಧವೆ)

She was just a little child, he just a growing boy;
but for their parents – oh what joy!
To marry them off in the name of what’s right
gave those parents a féstival’s delight!

A necklace, cheek-powder and a nose-ring;
followed by kunkuma — how winning!
But the play and the frolic of that small little wife
seemed to the eyes to hold so much more life!

The little girl grew up, the boy was not much older;
the nuptials were such a treat for the elders!
(As though the dullness on the bridegroom’s face
could take away from the marriage-feast’s taste?)

Not even a year before a child was born!
“This must be god’s handiwork,” said everyone.
But as the child came in, the father moved on;
the sea of milk turned into a salt ocean.

In a couple of days, in the manner of his father,
the child too moved on; what now for the mother?
Her body turned sepulchre of breath; life a bee,
full of sting — devoid of honey.

Ayyo! I have died,” the child-mother said,
and she wailed and pounded her fists on her head,
and swore crazily and loudly and gnashed her teeth
and cursed at herself until she was out of breath.

In ten days, she had lost the wretched status of wife
and had gained, instead, the title of widow-for-life;
her family was learned, the village had a long tradition;
when the shāstras were there, what need for discussion?

Her headdress was lost, her brow charcoal-smeared,
a red-coloured saree became her daily wear;
but oh, how sad, she was still just a baby
with no jewels or dresses; but that’s a different story.

The little girl wore out the rest of her life as
though she’d been born to pestle parched rice;
she threaded and pulled coloured flowers over thorns
as though that was the reason for which she’d been born.

And when the child-widow went to the temple
to hear the purānas being told, the decorated idol
lost its shine; and the reciting priest’s throat grew dry
when he saw the thread-of-tears on her necklace-of-sighs.

Overwhelmed, she stood – a memorial to
a dharma turned blind; an owl-cry came through;
the blessing-hand’s eyes looked full in her face –
the capers of Krishṇa would soon gather pace!

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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