January 31, 2021 was Dattatreya Ramachandra Bendre’s 125th birth anniversary. Having written an article last year for his 124th birth anniversary (see below), I felt compelled to write another article to celebrate not just Bendre and his poetry but also the historically significant occasion of the 125th anniversary of his birth. Since his 125th birthday fell on a Sunday, my article appeared on Jan 29, 2021 – in the ‘Friday Review’ section of ‘The Hindu’. With newspapers all over cutting costs due to covid, the article appeared in print only in the Chennai edition.
As someone who lives in Bangalore, I have so far been unable to acquire a physical copy. However, I did manage to find the ‘epaper’ edition. I am offering the image of that below – and following it with the text of the essay that has been expanded (to include what couldn’t be fitted); revised (for punctuation, phrasing, and to include one missing word and emphases); and laid out the way it should have been ideally.
‘The pollen waits on tiptoe’
“The Nārayaṇa of the lotus-heart has
himself turned into the mortal Datta;
as Ambikātanaya he mirrors in Kannada
the universe’s inner voice.”
Since I began to seriously engage with it several years ago, I have come to believe that the Kannada poetry of Dattatreya Ramachandra Bendre is the best-kept secret in world literature. Born in the historic, culture-rich region of Dharwad as the 19th century rolled towards the 20th, Da Ra Bendre was a born poet, a true lyric genius whose poetry was “not so much his own as it was Kannada’s” (his own words) and not so much crafted as it was inspired and delivered to him by the ‘poetic power’ within him – alluded to above – that he named Ambikatanayadatta in honour of his mother Ambika. This genius would also help Bendre create a new poetic style in Kannada that was radical, all-embracing and that effortlessly wove the janapada (folk idiom) of his beloved Dharwad into the fabric of modern Kannada poetry. Relentlessly inventive, Bendre’s 1427 Kannada poems would span the spectrum – from the folksy to the formal, from the recitable to the incantatory, from the whimsical to the profound – and he would come to be recognized as a varakavi, a heaven-touched poet; with the gift to use the Kannada language in ways previously unconsidered, much less explored.
In particular, Bendre’s audacious and wholly original sublimation of Dharwad’s janapada into ‘high lyric poetry’ — in a language with an over-thousand-year-old classical literary history! — is likely without parallel in both Indian and world literature. Note that, by doing this, Bendre produced a poetry that Wordsworth, Coleridge and, later, Yeats all wished to write but never could; namely, a poetry written “in the real language of men”.
“In the poem’s heart, in the lotus’s womb,
the pollen waits on tiptoe;
your slightest kiss itself’s enough
for a new creation to show.”
I began to translate Bendre into English to actively engage with his poems and to better understand his poetry by transferring them to the language I knew best. Such a transfer was necessarily a “creative engagement” and the experience soon grew to be both fascinating and revelatory. Since I first ventured to translate a Bendre poem some five years ago, working to capture the naada or euphony that is at the heart of Bendre’s poetry has given me the chance to play with, flex, bend, and stretch the English language in all sorts of experimental ways. (Indeed, my translation work has influenced the sound of my own English poetry – gilding English’s stresses with Kannada’s rhythmic phoneticism.) These experiments have been variously complex, thought-provoking, thrilling, and edifying. They have helped me better appreciate both the English and Kannada languages, alerted me to the inherent differences between a phonetic language like Kannada and a non-phonetic language like English, and given me the opportunity to take Bendre’s poetry to the world.
Perhaps more importantly, though, they have given me a chance to explore what it is to be a rasika and by the “slightest kiss” bring forth “a new creation” – in the form of the translated or transcreated English poem. Given Bendre’s professedly deep affection for the rasika, it is extremely gratifying to have engaged with his poetry in such a capacity.
“Push them, blow them, make them fly,
let them fly as much they will;
these feathers that were born to fly,
these feathers on a bird’s body.”
Hailed as 20th-century Kannada poetry’s crown-jewel and recipient of the Jnanapeetha award (India’s highest literary honour), it is nonetheless true that Bendre’s poetry did not really receive the international recognition it deserved – for several reasons, including its profound Kannada-ness and lack of truly excellent translations.
Though this never bothered Bendre, it is a matter that deserves rectifying. Like Bendre says in the lines above – in which the feather serves as a metaphor for a poem – it is up to us, his rasika readers, to “push … blow … and make … fly” his luminous poem-feathers; whether they be “Kannada feathers” or “English feathers” or both.
“The churn and churning of the word brought forth a euphony;
it felt a joy – it spread a joy – in its own love it was happy;
it did not mean – it did not want – it was just lyric poetry”
These lines are some of the most famous in all of Bendre’s poetry. The lines themselves are a transcreation of the last three lines of Bendre’s famous ‘The Lyric Poem’; often understood to be “the poem that lays forth Bendre’s poetic credo”.
Unlike the three previous quotes, this is a one-off transcreation rather than an excerpted poem-portion. The reason is simple: like most poems of Bendre’s, it is basically impossible to translate (or transcreate) in its entirety.
And, curiously, an important reason for such untranslatability has to do with what the lines above refer to: euphony or naada. With Bendre’s poetry being as astonishingly and overwhelmingly euphonic as it is, it seems to me that a transfer that does justice to the original’s “soundscape” is the best kind of translation-creation possible. Consequently, these are the sort of I’ve looked to create and publish on my blog-website.
To conclude, I’d like to draw attention to another significant belief of Bendre’s that the lines above present: that of joy (higgu in Kannada). Despite the suffering and heartache he faced, Bendre’s poetic yoga included endeavouring to transform this suffering into song, something he succeeded in magnificently. Like he famously declared, “rasika, let my troubles stay my own/I will give you just their song!”
Translating his songs has been a rewarding experience. I trust reading them will be too. In these uncertain times, let us partake of the joy spread by the euphony of Bendre’s lyric poetry.
(Published in the ‘Friday Review’ supplement of ‘The Hindu’ newspaper on January 29, 2021)
Links to other publications:
1. English essay written on the occasion of Bendre’s 124th birth anniversary: https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/the-universes-inner-voice/article30691007.ece
2a. Kannada essay written on the occasion of Bendre’s 124th birth anniversary: https://ruthumana.com/2020/01/31/haagoo-untu-hegoo-untu/
2b. English translation of the Kannada essay above: https://madhavajjampurwritings.com/2020/05/16/bendre-english-kannada-poetry-and-me/