'The Hindu' Essay

Yesterday, Jan 31, 2020, saw the publication of an essay I wrote about Bendre and his literature. It was published in the ‘Friday Review’ supplement of ‘The Hindu’ newspaper. It is also the first time my writing’s been published in print in a newspaper! That it came out in a newspaper like ‘The Hindu’ is a bonus. I hope you won’t think I’m boasting if I say that I’m really quite proud of myself. (I must add that I am grateful to Ms. Deepa Ganesh for helping me get the article published.)
       However, not everyone will have read the article in yesterday’s newspaper. Also, a newspaper – like most of the news it contains – is rather quickly forgotten. What’s more, the Hindu’s website (which will forever hold the article in its bowels) is not appealing and its pages are terribly cluttered with ads.
       Which is why I have decided that, over here, I will offer both a copy of the epaper and a transcription of the entire essay.

Note: For want of space, the article that appeared in the newspaper is actually shorter than the original essay. The newspaper piece also contains a couple of editing errors that the original doesn’t and misses several emphases. (I recognize that these are not intentional and are more likely to happen than not in the flurry of activity.) But that is why I think reading the transcription and looking at the pictures in the picture of the epaper may be the best (and easiest) solution.

The article as it appeared in the newspaper. In the picture on top, Bendre is the one to the left.


Transcription of the original (slightly longer) essay.

The Universe’s Inner Voice

Today is the 124th birth anniversary of Dattatreya Ramachandra Bendre, better known to the Kannada-speaking public as Da Ra Bendre.
       What about the non-Kannada-speaking public? How popular is Da Ra Bendre among them? My guess is that he is better known than the Keladi empire but less well-known than Hampi. (It would be very unfortunate if he were even less heard-of than Keladi!)
       This essay is meant to introduce Da Ra Bendre to the larger public. He and, more importantly, his poems are much too valuable to remain (hidden) in the consciousness of a few thousand aficionados of Kannada poetry.

“The Narayana of the lotus-heart has himself turned into the mortal Datta
As Ambikatanaya he mirrors forth in Kannada the universe’s inner voice”

       Dattatreya Ramachandra Bendre was born in Dharwad on January 31, 1896 into a Marathi Chitpavan family. The eldest of four boys, his father’s early death meant that Bendre grew up under the aegis of his mother, Ambike (Ambavva), and his maternal grandmother, Godubai. In an autobiographical essay titled “The High Yoga of Poetry”, Bendre’s says that “deprived by fate of my father’s and his family’s closeness, it was by direct observance of my mother’s and my grandmother’s conduct that I realized my manhood”. This matriarchal upbringing would instill in Bendre a devotion towards the universal feminine shakti and greatly influence his poetry. It would also be responsible for his naming the poetic shakti within him Ambikatanayadatta – literally, Datta, son of Ambika.

       The other great influence on Bendre would be Dharwad, its people, and its heritage. Beginning his poetic journey in the late 1910s as a poet of the Navodaya (~new dawn) period in Kannada, Da Ra Bendre would – over the course of a fully-lived life of 85 years – go on to write 1427 poems in Kannada and be immortalized as Kannada’s varakavi, the heaven-touched poet-seer. Steeped in the myriad scents and sounds of his beloved Dharwad and full of a life-affirming vitality, Bendre would – among numerous other accomplishments – chart a new course in Kannada poetry by sublimating the janapada or the folk idiom of Dharwad into a lyric poetry of the highest order. In doing so, he would elevate the Kannada language to Himalayan heights and take his place among the world’s greatest lyric poets. (In his use of a vernacular “dialect” to write “high poetry”, Bendre accomplished something that may be without parallel in both Indian and world literature.)

       “Myriad-minded” was the adjective Coleridge coined to describe Shakespeare. It could just as felicitously be used to describe Bendre. (Curiously, what Bendre did for, with, and to the Kannada language finds its closest parallel in Shakespeare’s work on the English language.) A defining aspect of Bendre’s myriad-mindedness was his voracious curiosity. While stories about his all-consuming interest in numerology (in his later years) abound, it is piquant to note that his “personal library” contained over 16,000 books on 102 different subjects! From geology to astrophysics to ‘a theory of immortality’ (also the name of a small booklet he wrote in English), it is not too much of a stretch to say that all the universe was Bendre’s playground. To read his poetry is to come across allusions to – among other things – modern psychology, the vedas, the six yogic chakras, prime numbers, the earth’s magnetic field, and linguistics.
       (As the writer Gourish Kaikini noted, what was remarkable was how such prodigious and extensive reading had little to no effect on Bendre’s sui generis creativity.)

       The case of Bendre and Ambikatanayadatta is a curious one. Often mistaken for a pseudonym (pen name) in the Western sense, Bendre described Ambikatanayadatta as the “universal inner voice” within him that dictated what he (Bendre) then presented to the world. In the foreword to his Jnanapitha-award-winning poetry collection ‘Naaku Tanti (The Four Strings)’, Bendre “conveys his gratitude to all those sahrudayas who have continued to welcome the poems of ‘Ambikatanayadatta’”. Stories of Bendre going up on stage and saying that “Da Ra Bendre would like to begin by offering his humble prayers to the poet Ambikatanayadatta” are also in circulation.

       But it may not suit everyone to share Bendre’s conviction about Ambikatanayadatta or put faith in stories. And that is perfectly all right. Such anecdotes are just ‘the icing on the cake’. It is Bendre’s poetry — with its felicity, its passionate lyricism, its ever-renewing newness, its rootedness in Dharwad’s and the-rest-of-Karnataka’s soil, its magnificent conceits, and its magical nāda (~ euphony) that defines him and renders him 20th-century Kannada’s rishi. Just as astonishing as the poetry is its range. From the lyrical addressal of contemporary life to the creation of metrical forms that fit the over-three-millenia-old Kannada language’s tempo; from the exploration in verse of a thousand-year-old Kannada metre to wordplay in vedic metres, Bendre’s poetry was a poetry of seeking and revelation.

“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”

       A language is as much culture as it is sound. Hidden within a language’s sounds are countless cultural echoes that trace the language’s evolution even as they recall the surroundings, idiosyncrasies, characteristics, and lives of its speakers.
       It is safe to say that Bendre’s poetry may be the most comprehensive exploration of the Kannada language’s sound. (Indeed, his poetry in many ways is the fulfillment of the Kannada language.) Through his relentless “churning” of the (Kannada) word, Bendre did not just create an overwhelming lyric poetry but also, to quote a perceptive critic, “engaged in the exploration of an entire culture”.
       Almost sixty years ago, Shankar Mokashi Punekar predicted a time would come when “all of Karnataka will [need to] collectively engage in the study of Bendre’s poetry”. As unlikely as that is, it is just as likely that Ambikatanayadatta Bendre’s poetry is world literature’s best-kept secret.
       It is time the secret was revealed. It is time the people of Karnataka began engaging and helping the rest of the world engage with the poetry of Kannada’s greatest modern poet. After all, in these fraught times, there is something to be said for the soothing influence of a poetry whose only wish is to “spread a joy”.

(Published on the website on Feb 1, 2020)