ಸಮಸ್ಯೆ (Question)

There is almost always, in a great poem, that line that stands out, that so impresses itself on the reader that it serves as the focus for the reader’s every feeling about the poem (and poet even).
     It could be a metaphor so completely new as to astonish, a delicacy of feeling so exquisite as to overwhelm, a play of language so buoyant as to delight, a commonplace presented so novelly as to rarify.
     Bendre’s remarkably prolific poetry is full of such lines. Often written as Ambikatanayadatta – the Kannada-speaking daimon within – his greatest poetry is a melodic melding of, in Shankar Mokashi’s words, “the intellect and the heart.”
     In this particular poem – Bendre’s Kannada adaptation of the Petrarchan sonnet – the last line of the octave is what struck me immediately (“ಬೆಳಕೆ ಬೆಳಕಿದ್ದು ಕತ್ತಲೆಯು ತುಂಬಿತು ಹೇಗೆ?”) – I even think I tried right away to translate it. The rest of the translation came later – and not without some effort. (The sestet was particularly difficult – given its cultural references and its original character as an almost “single-breath” denouement.)
     Like I often do, I have, in some places, eschewed a literal translation for a more fluid transcreation.

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

Question (ಸಮಸ್ಯೆ)

My mother would tell me of the way
I played all day with the other boys;
Played from when the morning rose
To when the twilight came; the summer’s
Heat to me was just a moonlight game.
(I had not yet learnt what hunger meant.)
So engrossed in games of play, I’d forget
To eat all day; then eating in the darkness
Of the shed, I’d hear the elders talk and say:
“With light on light outside, how did the darkness fill?”

From deep within the divine heart of the
Man of the vaidic age; upon each one
Of the trembling tongues that crumbled as they
Lost-and-won in search of happiness;
Within the throats of man and wife grasping for
Their share of love beneath a flood of tears –
Is rising the very question that those elders asked.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Afterword:

Here’s my recitation of the translation.

ಎರಡು ನಾಟ್ಯಗೀತಗಳು (Two Dramatic Songs)

A number of Bendre’s poems were actually ನಾಟ್ಯಗೀತs or “dramatic songs” – many of them composed for dramas that were never completed! The two song-poems featured here were written for a drama called ಸತಿ (Sati); which too remained uncompleted.

Like Bendre himself notes, the context of these song-poems is as follows.

A king of Pataliputra, having already wed three hundred princesses, invites to his palace the wife, Sati, of the celebrated ascetic Dhyanagupta of Vaishali. Cloistered in the queen’s quarters of the palace, these are the songs the three hundred princesses sing (in chorus) when they learn the news.

(If the first song is an expression of the disquietude the princesses feel upon hearing of Sati’s arrival, the second is a full-throated lamentation of the pathos of their situation since she came.)

Will You Remember, Will You Forget (ಮರೆಯುವೆಯೋ, ಅರಿಯುವೆಯೋ!)

Will you remember or
Will you forget us – us all?
Sweetheart, darling, gold-of-our-life,
Will you come meet us – us all?

We said we were parrots
In the cage of your heart;
Sweet, besotting, light-ring – king!
In this palace of pearls
In this wildly world
Will you abandon us – us all?

Our memory still thrills
To that very first touch;
Intoxicating beauty’s bard – lord!
Ages have passed,
Will you come laughing again
To call upon us – us all?

We have gathered in shadows
As the night falls;
Come in merciful show – hero!
By blowing love-breath
In these beautiful dolls
Will you not save us – us all?

O King, Beloved! (ಎಲ್ಲಿರುವೆ ರಾಜಗಂಭೀರಾ!)

Where are you O king, beloved!

This life-breath’s wailing like the wind
Within a ruined house of god;
And even the walls of stone are calling;
Where are you O king – beloved.

This life-breath’s pining for the light;
For lack of air it’s withered;
This jasmine-heart’s a curled-up bud;
Where are you O king – beloved.

This life-breath’s but a water-shade,
The heaven’s stars are saddened;
Quavering they say, “Darkness has spread”:
Where are you O king – beloved.

This life-breath’s wish to see the things it
Can’t is no longer small or bounded;
O love, it’s thirsty, (though the passion’s cooled);
Where are you O king – beloved.

And now this life-breath is so lifeless,
Its own existence seems borrowèd;
Your faithful beauties await your coming;
Where are you O king – beloved.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Jogi (ಜೋಗಿ)

Like with so many of Bendre’s poems, I listened to Jogi (ಜೋಗಿ) sung — in an abridged form — before I read it. Attracted almost immediately by its music, it was only later that I learnt of the poem’s special place in both Bendre’s poetry and Kannada literature. (It was hailed in 1999 as the “ಶತಮಾನದ ಕವಿತೆ” or the poem of the 20th century.)
In this translation, I have tried to recreate the rhyme and rhythm of the original. Consequently, the translation reads best when recited out loud.

In Bendre’s own words, “The poem ‘ಜೋಗಿ (Jogi)’ has sprung from the enchantment of Dharwad’s environs as well as from the terrible, doubt-ridden turmoil that comes from experiencing a dark night of the soul.”

Below are two audio pieces. One is of my reciting (singing) the Kannada poem. The other is of my reciting the English translation. The rhythm of the Kannada version is taken from the recording by B.R Chaya for the album Mayakinnari. I think it would be best if you listened to both recitations.

Nota Bene: Please don’t miss reading the “Afterword”. It can be found below the translation.

Kannada Recitation:

English Recitation:

Jogi (ಜೋಗಿ)

At the edge of town where the three-fork ends and where the slope begins,
Where the running stream ducks under and rogue cattle go grazing,
The way is lost and if, once lost, you énter unknowing,
A stricken pair of owls appear, hootíng through the mid-morning.

Past that place, and past the graves, and beyond to the left
Lies such a lush of thickened-moss it seems like kama’s vest’s
Been spread luxuriously across the surface of the pond;
The moss removed black waters cáll into the dark beyond.

Past all of this come caves and hills rising to the right,
Spreading here and spreading there, encróaching kāḷamma’s site;
And when we clímb the tamarind at the centre of this site
We see ten bushes in a clump upon a little height.

Within that clump cry mammal-bats in the middle of the day,
Flocks of pigeons fly in and out and in and out away;
Out there the nectar-vine has spread and climbed the tree of neem
The aala drips its drops of milk and the peepul shakes its stem.

Jackfruit-like, to the atthi‘s base, is stuck a fruit that’s red,
Honey-filled, it drips and drips — all eyes are attracted;
And somehow in this very yard a mango-tree is seen;
Beneath the tree’s a den of snakes — a seven-hooded serpent’s in.

Upon the tree, within this lush has come a single koel,
It calls to me to come to it like I am its máte-of-soul;
On and on and on and on, it cries its siren-call;
One note it calls without a break — without tíring at all.

An unknown fragrance pulls the bees, playing with their heads,
Their minds abuzz they turn and turn, uncertain where to head;
The spring did come, the spring has come, the spring is set to come
Kuhoo it says kuhoo it says kuhukuhoo it hums.

Jogi, in the highest note, the koel makes its call,
Shall I go and look and see its eyes and colour and all?
The yard itself turns into flowers, the branches into sprays
And then they all begin to fruit in tune with what it says.

In dress-of-dawn, without a care, on and on it goes,
Hot-headedly, in sweet mango tree, it ensúres the summer flows;
Kuhoohoohoohoohoohoohoo — like a flute that’s playing on;
No wòrk can occupy my mind; shall I sée what’s going on?

You’re coming, come, come, jogi, come, what have you brought this time,
As I chanted what you taught me arrived the harvest-time;
Inside a chord within my head began the harvest-cry
And as I heard it grew and spread and filled my whole body.

As I set out to the temple, kuhukuhoo it says,
Ómkuhoo it calls to me in the middle of my prayers;
That in my dream I’ll hear a call and túrn a mango-tree,
Is the fàncy of my mind, jogi, have you really come to me!

What is this call, what is this koel, what is this mango-tree?
What is it that bothers it, that makes it cáll unceasingly?
The hills around have shattered now in echoing its call
The sunshine’s danced and come to sweat — it’s sét for the rain to fall.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Note: It would be remiss if I did not mention Sunaath Kaka‘s help with this translation. In particular, the “rogue cattle” of the first stanza are entirely his – replacing the more tame, less eerie “stray cows” I had originally. In addition, the word “stricken” of the first stanza was a result of his hint that “confused” (the word I’d used first) did not quite capture the essence of “ಕಕ್ಕಾವಿಕ್ಕಿ”. Given how wonderfully felicitous “stricken” now feels, I can only thank Kaka for his deep and appreciative reading of my translation.

I’d also like to thank Appa, my father, for his (unusually) serious involvement with this particular poem – which, incidentally, he too now knows by heart from having heard me sing it so often! Not only have his insights and commentary helped me better understand several portions of the poem, they have also given me the chance to correct some missteps I took when I first tackled the translation. (It goes without saying that the translation has benefitted from these corrections.) And, of course, his lively interest in the poem and my translation has allowed for several long talks about Bendre, his poetry, my poetry, my translations, the Kannada language, and a host of other things.

Afterword: (Published on May 2, 2019)

Here is an email I sent my aunt (on August 15, 2017), relating how the translation came to be. I trust it will interest at least some of you.

“hello anjana,

here’s a recent translation i made of a bendre poem — a poem acknowledged by critical consent as the ಶತಮಾನದ ಕವಿತೆ, or the poem of the 20th century. it may not be bendre’s greatest triumph, but it most definitely is poetry of the highest order.
like with so many others of bendre’s poems, i first listened to this sung (only a part of it, as is the norm) — and liked it for its music, without going much further. when i came across it next, it was within the context of its fame — at which time, i looked to understand it (its word-meanings at least) with the help of a dictionary and a couple of explications. if i did think of translating it then, i swiftly did away with the idea – for it seemed to me to be indubitably untranslatable. it didn’t help that it was 12 stanzas long!
anyhow, with no thought of translating it in mind, i continued to listen to its musical version (sometimes on loop) and came around to enjoying it enough to wish to sing it myself! and if i was going to do that, why not learn the entire poem (12 stanzas) by heart and sing it to that same musical rhythm? so that’s what i did. it took me a week perhaps, but i got it down and began to sing it – in the bath, in the office (softly), when i was walking back home, upstairs in my room, etc. in short, about five times a day at least.
but even as i continued to do this, continued to get so familiar with it that it became as natural as speech itself, continued to enjoy the wonderfully facile motion of the poem, it seemed to me to[o] complex to translate; too intricate and involved; too reliant on the rhythms of a phonetic language like kannada to lend itself to being morphed or translated into a non-phonetic language like english.
to cut to the chase, my pocket-book tells me that a day came when i tried my hand at translating the very last line of the poem (i think it was in the bus that i jotted it down) before naturally moving backwards to finish the whole last stanza. however, while this is a recorded event, i remember more vividly the day — i was at the office, done for the day and relaxing before setting off — i decided to pick up stanza 10 to translate: it may have been on a whim, but perhaps it was also because that place is a juncture of sorts in the poem, where the poem picks up a certain rapidity, a more intense motion (without any outward change in the metre or rhythm).
well, i typed out what occured to me, put down several possiblities for a couple of lines – and then left it at that, not satisfied but reasonably happy at the attempt. it is worth noting that when i did this, it had not occured to me to replicate the original; in particular, its beautifully simple and euphonic rhyme scheme. having done this, i left for the day. i’m not sure when, but i think it may have been somewhere around this time that i read out my translation of that last line to amma — who seemed to enjoy it. you will see when you get round to reading it that it contains a conceit of such beautiful novelty, it continues to astound.
now, as i write this, i can’t quite remember what happened next: whether my several separately-done translations of the three stanzas (i had worked on stanza 6 in the meantime) moved similarly enough to allow me to fix upon an ad-hoc rhythm; or whether i just decided to take the plunge and begin with the beginning. in any case, i think the rest of the translation progressed in the right order.
when i look back now on the first and second attempt of the translation (of the whole poem), i reckon that it must have seemed like a bridge too far to try to both translate the content of the poem and its rhyme. for as i look at it, the first attempt seems to be content to get at what the poem is about — without worrying too much about a rhyme but focussing quite seriously on the metrical motion i had mapped out. the result was a metre that was so close to the original it even now astonishes me.
the second attempt, which is for all purposes what you will see below, seems like an attempt at rhyming the rhythm. with a rhythm in place that seemed so very felicitous, i looked to smooth what rough edges the rhyme had to create an almost perfect approximation of the original, both in rhythm and in rhyme.
to conclude — what i ended up with seems to me no less than astounding! (if i say so myself.) indeed, i can hardly believe that i created a translation of this sort — one in which a non-phonetic language adapts itself to the phonetic rhythms of the original language! naturally, this means that the translation is best read aloud.

i hope you enjoy it, anjana! i look forward to hearing from you.”

A Homage to the Gangā (ಗಂಗಾಷ್ಟಕ)

The ಭಾವ-ಸಂದರ್ಭ (~emotional context) of this poem was Bendre’s visit to the Ganga during his ತೀರ್ಥಯಾತ್ರ (~pilgrimage) through North India.
Though not half as famous as Bendre’s “ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ”, this is easily the more intricate poem – with unusually long metrical lines that follow the aabb end-rhyme pattern. While the translation has not followed this scheme, I have looked to keep a consistent rhythm throughout.

A Homage To The Gangā (ಗಂಗಾಷ್ಟಕ)

When the wish-cow of your affection yields ceaselessly the milk of song,
To think of you is meditation; all other rosaries naught but a noose.
Why slobber then that you aren’t mine? Why unlock these lips in vain?
Know I not how empty is this pride that fashions but a song?

There is none that’s seen you who has not sung, your name rose on his lips;
As if a man may tie in song that rushing river which Shiva’s locks could not?
Yet I, beholding your blessed sight, could do little else but unlock
My lips: that the song which sprang forth might soothe the sorrowing heart.

O Gangē, the gold dust with which Bhārati once was filled;
The joyous faces of her fruit that once adorned your fertile banks!
Is there upon this earth a child that did not play within its mother’s lap?
Upon your river-lap did play the great empires of our land!

Those avatāras strange that made the earth-mother fret,
All came and swiftly left; the world returned to wilderness.
While you who came down for reasons else now flow as truth
Eternal; more glorious she who bore you than the avatāras ten.

Like departed mother who hears her wailing child, you rushed down
From your heaven-home; like brave who is not scared to wear this mortal coil.
Granter-of-salvation blessed, aloft on Shiva’s jewelled crest, what matters it where
You be; you came, you flowed and reached the sea; turned salvation-field yourself.

Where be Ayodhyā now? Where Dwārāvati of yore? Where Gōkula’s gardens?
O sole remnant of Rāma’s and Krishṇa’s fame; though all things succumb to time,
The Gangē lives so long as live the earth and sky; so long shall stand her idol white.
O, Bhagīratha of empire grand, it is the Gangā who is your claim to everlasting fame.

“If, from the bosom of the bathing princesses, the night’s leftover musk should fall; should then
This water with the waters of the Gangā mix, such blessed musk-deer’s salvation is certain.”
So sang the poet, and I, cut from the same cloth as he, believed him and in you bathed:
Then it felt as if my mother had herself in mukti’s waters bathed; for I am of her stomach made.

O mocking laughter of Shiva! Compassioned-gaze of Himālaya! White-bosomed stream of milk!
Who has flowed forever forth; the very heart within ma-Bhārati’s maternal-heart!
O, mother, the displays of your affectionate ways! Who the blessed one who sang your praise?
Let this my homage add to his lines of praise; let this be my knowledge-offering.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

A Prayer (ಪ್ರಾರ್ಥನೆ)

Another poem inspired by (and with shades of) an Upanishad mantra, “ಸಹನಾವವತು | ಸಹನೌ ಭುನಕ್ತು | ಸಹ ವೀರ್ಯಂ ಕರವಾವಹೈ | … ”

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

A Prayer (ಪ್ರಾರ್ಥನೆ)

Let us together learn,
And together play,
And doing so together understand;
Let us together eat,
And together drink,
And doing so together do the work at hand.

Let us together walk,
And together feel,
And together hear and speak;
Let us together grow,
And together shine,
And together and together reach for the holy peak.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Afterword:

Here is my recitation of the translation.

A Grief That Can’t Be Hidden (ಹುದುಗಲಾರದ ದುಃಖ)

Along with experiencing their fair share of ordinary troubles, Da Ra Bendre and his wife had to deal with the terrible grief of losing six of their nine children (including one when he was twenty and in his prime). Completely lost in his books, his poetry and his circle of friends (ಗೆಳೆಯರ ಗುಂಪು), Bendre left the responsibility of looking after the house entirely to his wife, a responsibility she bore with stoic fortitude. Never well-off, constitutionally frail, and constantly wounded by the deaths of her children, Shrimati Lakshmibai Bendre’s was an obviously difficult life. It is no wonder then if her smiles were often masks worn upon an inner grief. Not oblivious to her suffering, this is one the many (sympathetic) poems the poet has addressed to her – his wife and his sakhee.

A Grief That Can’t Be Hidden (ಹುದುಗಲಾರದ ದುಃಖ)

Hìding a grief that can’t be hid,
Behind the façade of a smile,
You came in laughter up to me;
Did you really think your love
Was such an àbsent-minded fool;
Tell me, who taught you such trickery?

You who tried in various ways –
By hugging and by nuzzling me –
To bring to me some happiness;
Is that really what you thought,
That I’m a lotus-eater of that sort;
That I am one who’s heartless?

Can by putting on a smile,
And by artful glances of the eyes,
An ùntrue happìness be made to play?
Can, àfter Mumtaz’s burial,
The building of the Taj Mahal
Make true sorrow go away?

O friend and partner of my life!
When ìn the temple of my heart
You move with such a secretness;
Hòw am I to think your laugh
The flower of a real joy;
When you are sùch an àctress?

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

Afterword:

Here is my recitation of the translation.

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.