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 Musk-of-Love (ಕಾಮಕಸ್ತೂರಿ)

To understand Ambikatanayadatta Bendre’s genius, it is vital to appreciate what may be called his “folk poetry”. (Indeed, to people who have not read his poetry but have only heard a couple of songs, he remains ‘just a folk poet’.) By “folk poetry”, I refer here to the poetry Bendre wrote using the idiom peculiar to the Dharwad region, an idiom that he single-handedly raised to rarefied heights. His use of the Dharwad idiom – essentially a regional vulgate – may be contrasted with his equally felicitous use of “High Kannada” (which, broadly speaking, refers to the Sanskritized Kannada that had been used through the centuries by some of the language’s best-known poets).

Imbued to overflowing with the sounds and scents of Dharwad, Bendre’s “folk poetry” may be characterized as the poetry that Yeats wished to write but couldn’t; a poetry that, deriving its ಸತ್ತ್ವ (sattva: ~ quintessence, lifeblood) from the people’s everyday speech and catalyzed by the poet’s peculiar genius, emerges as the expressive apex of a people’s culture. The poet, in such a case, is simply the “chosen one”, the representative” of his/her people’s poetic expression. Bendre himself alludes to this phenomenon in the foreword to his first poetry collection ‘ಗರಿ (Feather)’. He says, “I have talked so far of ‘my poems’. That is simply a manner of speaking. In truth, these are not my poems; they are Kannada’s poems. The Kannada-language’s incorporeal voice is actualizing itself through a thousand throats. That my throat is one among this thousand is itself my blessing. That I am one among the group of poets singing in the dawn of Kannada’s renaissance is itself my source of pride. For if it were not so, why should anybody care about my poems? To say ‘my poems or ‘his poems’ is fallacious; for Kannada to lay claim to these poems is the truth.”
He makes mention of it again in his poem ‘ನಾನು (I)‘ when he speaks of how “as Ambikatanaya he mirrors here in Kannada the universe’s inner voice”.

All this talk above happened because the poem in question is basically drenched in the Dharwad (folk) idiom. Unsurprisingly, this gives the poem a warmth, a cosiness, a tenderness that eludes other more ‘serious’ poems.

As for the poem’s English translation (or, more correctly, transcreation), it may be useful to read what I said previously about such an undertaking. A point I did not make then but that needs to be made concerns the sheer impossibility of translating a poem’s native sound – regardless of whether the poem uses the vulgate or the formal form. Since “poetry is the suggestive sound”, the best the translator or transcreator can do is try to find equivalent sounds in the language the poem is being transferred to. In the case of a lyric poem especially, this “equivalency of sound” is perhaps the most felicitous way to convey the ಭಾವ (bhāva: ~ feeling, mood, spirit) that the original evokes in the native reader or listener.

While I am not sure the poem I just linked to did that very capably (though a friend of mine did say that the translation brought forth tears that she had to hide from those around her), it’s my opinion that I’ve done a little better with this effort.

And now, on to the poem! I’ve (tried to) sing and recite both the original and the translation. Please make allowance for the background noise (and, if necessary, my singing). Thanks.

Kannada original (sung):

Kannada original (recited):

The Musk-of-Love (ಕಾಮಕಸ್ತೂರಿ)
                 (By the Field)

                 Thick-plaited girl
                 I’ve brought for you
                 a scented sprig
                 of the musk-of-love

When worn beautifully
upon your crowny crown
a little swirl of wind
will come my way and touch
and I will feel –
delighted – light – delight

                 People who talk
                w ill talk and talk –
                 you are outside of them

English translation (sung):

English translation (recited):

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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


This poem is the very first poem in the ‘ಕಾಮಕಸ್ತೂರಿ (kāmakastūri)’ collection. In his foreword, here is what Bendre had to say about the first “batch” of poems in the collection: “The first sixteen poems were not all written at the same time. [However], they all exist upon the same wave[length]. The rasika reader can use their imagination to weave a story or stories around the collection; each to their own taste. [After all,] like musk, kāma too is a quarter intoxicant, three quarters earthy soil, but nonetheless a pulsing heady fragrance! kāma (sensual desire) and prēma (love) are like the mud and the lotus. Or to use the “language of poetry” – one is descriptive, the other suggestive.”

Note: On Jan 26, as part of my January picture series, I published the translation of this poem’s first stanza. In it, I chose to translate “kāmakastūri” as “the musk-of-love”. Given Bendre’s explicit mention of the relationship (and difference) between kāma and prēma, translating “kāmakastūri” as “the musk-of-love” (and thereby drawing an equivalence between “kāma” and “love”) complicates the translation of  “prēma” – whose translation as “love” would be more accepted. However, since there is no mention of “prēma” in this particular poem, I have chosen to stick with “the musk-of-love”.

P.S: Strictly speaking, “kāmakastūri” translates to something like “the sensual musk” or “the musk-of-desire”; neither of which quite captures the tender feeling associated with the poem (like “musk-of-love” does).