TPWOT Reviews

Reviews of my recent book, The Pollen Waits On Tiptoe. Click on the title to go to the original publication.

A Poem’s Second Homecoming: Translations of D R Bendre’s works

(by A P Ashwin Kumar; first published in South First on January 30, 2023)

In translating the celebrated Kannada poet, the Varakavi, Dattatreya Ramachandra Bendre, into English, Madhav Ajjampur has achieved something of a feat in his The Pollen Waits on Tiptoe. D R Bendre was a poet known for his endless linguistic innovation. These innovations were not formal experiments like that of the modernist poets. They were innovations that attempted to seek flashes of adhyatmic insights through euphony. Bendre’s poems were lyrical and influenced by folk forms, especially those prevalent in the overlapping cultural zone of Kannada-Marathi. He was a Navodaya poet, and so his themes sometimes sound dated to the contemporary sensibility. For instance, his concern about the rejuvenation of the Kannada people, although not in a necessarily nationalist manner, and his celebration of the modern deity Mother Kannada, seen as an avatar of a more traditional deity such as Chamundeshwari, his lyrics and songs celebrating the seasons, as well as his engagement with the many bhakti traditions. If this was not complex enough, Bendre had a very highly sophisticated, although idiosyncratic, engagement with the main darshana traditions of India, especially Samkhya, Yoga, and the mainstream Vedantic traditions. He considered Aurobindo a guru figure. He dabbled in numbers, numerology, and even modern science. His poetry seamlessly brings together all of his preoccupations into a single whole. For a rough comparison, imagine a poet who is a mix of a Burns, a Blake, and a Nirguni Kabir! You can’t. And that is the difficulty of capturing Bendre.

No doubt, translating any poetry is difficult. But the problem with translating DR Bendre’s poems is that he is already working on the edge of the possibilities of language, not just the possibilities of a specific language, in his case Kannada, but at the edge of the possibilities of human language itself. He hopes to make his words begin with a reference to objects, and through a complex onomatopoeia, discoverable only by him, he hopes to make it refer to actions, and then to primal sounds, and then to a vision of something beyond the pale of language: to the experience of the Para (the other) from the tools of the Iha (the this). Consider, for example, this line:

tum tum tumtum tumtum tumtum tumbi banditta

The reader expects something about a tumbi, a bumblebee. The rest of the poem develops this metaphor to talk about the coming of a tumbi in a very playful and sensuous language. But then, almost unrecognisably, the metaphor’s connotations change, and the references become rather mystical and inward-looking. It now appears like we are no longer talking about things that can be associated with a flying insect, but with a state of experience. And by the end of the poem, almost as if in a trance, almost as if he committed a slip of the tongue, the poet says:

eega tuluki hogitta (it had now overflowed).

Now we see that the word tumbi was not just a noun but also a verb which means “filled”, “full”, etc. We were all the time talking about an experience that overwhelms the self, and takes one to a realm beyond the dualities inherent in language and intellection. But we talked about it in the language of the coming of a winged, airy creature, like a thought. Little did we suspect that it was more than a bumblebee, and more than a thought, it was an experience, a realisation. (Readers should refer to the afterword that Ajjampur has written to each of his translations, and particularly to this poem. They are elaborate, diligent, and nimble reflections on the tonal and the lyrical aspects of translating Bendre.)

The singularly great success of this anthology is the translation of the DR Bendre poem Jogi. Entire books have been written about this one poem and it has been called the Kannada poem of the century. It speaks about an encounter with the Jogi, the Yogi, who shall transform one’s own life profoundly, irreversibly. Connoisseurs of Kannada poetry had all but relegated this as a poem untranslatable-par-excellence. Ajjampur’s translation of this Bendre poem has shattered that consensus. Consider the lilting rhythm of these lines, set in strict tetrameters and end-rhymes, but made to flow smoothly with very ordinary and yet precise words:

Upon that tree, within this lush has come a single koel,
it calls to me to come to it like I am its mate-of-soul;

Or,

The hills around have shattered now in echoing its call,
the sunshine’s danced and come to sweat — it’s set for the rain to fall.

Ajjampur’s success is not only in forging a lyrical language, which conveys Bendre’s many euphonies, assonances, and a diction which borrows from many sources of English verse-making: the Romantics and the Victorians in particular. He is an obsessive-compulsive translator, the only variety of translators that should be allowed to exist. His notes to his translations go to great lengths explaining word choices, meters, rhymes, emphasis, and a dozen other intricacies of translating poetry. But his success owes to something more than these obsessions. It is in large measure due to a sensibility that follows Bendre like a calf finds a cow. Ajjampur’s own epigraphic poem in English titled To Bendre Ajja: In Gratitude speaks eloquently of this sentiment, This sensibility of a vatsa, a calf and a child, has been the hardest to achieve for most translators of the poet. To most modern ears, the very possibility of such a sensibility might sound alien, if not downright freakish. A modern translator, uncomfortable with the perplexing unities that Bendre creates between different aspects of our everyday and transcendental experiences, ends up aestheticising Bendre, or makes him sound like a formal experimenter, a la Jorg Luis Borges or a John Cage. They try to make the images in his poetry sparkle like standalone vignettes. It doesn’t work because Bendre is not a poet of images or experiments, descriptions or narrations, feelings or emotions. He is a poet who integrates all this to achieve a mantric experience of poetry. He keeps company with the celestials. In Ajjampur’s translation, DR Bendre says:

the Naarayana of the lotus-heart has himself turned into the mortal Datta;
as Ambikaatanaya he mirrors here in Kannada the universe’s inner voice.

You could see in this the excesses of a psychologically strange subjectivity, given to mystic escapades. You could also situate such a subjectivity in the emerging Hindu-nationalist renaissance of the nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, with its aspirations to forge a Vedantic-civilisational milieu for an emergent nation. But if you want to succeed at translating Bendre, you need to see this as an experience that a mind has experienced. You need to render that experience plausible. Ajjampur is probably the closest we have yet gotten to such a rendering of DR Bendre.

At The Edge Of Imagination

(by Deepa Ganesh, first published in Deccan Herald on February 13, 2023)

The dangers of translating the great Kannada poet, Da Ra Bendre are several. The most common blunder is to look at his poems as mere wizardry of words and sounds, which it undeniably is. A dear friend referring to such bloopers, often facetiously recites the beautiful Bendre poem Naanu Badavi Aata Badava… like this in English: “I am poor, he is poor, love is our life”. To think Bendre can be achieved through an attractive interplay of rhythm, a good turn of phrase and other attires of language is sheer recklessness. Any act of translation is a slenderising exercise, more true if it is poetry and especially if it is from a bhasha into English. To translate Bendre, you must be able to travel to the edge on his wave of imagination exactly the way he says in the poem Taayi-Magu: Mugila Daarada Tudige, Haaru Hakkiya Badige (at the edge of the skies, besides the flying bird) and grasp his ‘mastery of the thing’. The beauty of Bendre begins to unfold when you can sense meaning alongside the magic of words.
The Pollen Waits on Tiptoe, a translation of selected poems of Da Ra Bendre by Madhav Ajjampur is a labour of love. Madhav, by his own admission in his Introduction to the book, says that he has been relentlessly chasing Bendre for nearly 10 years since he first got introduced to him in 2013.
To translate Bendre is to live his poetry every moment, without which the reader can neither experience the ‘naada’ (euphony) nor be a recipient of the ‘navaneeta’ (always new) — the core of his poetic concerns. In fact, the late Kannada scholar Ki Ram Nagaraj, an authority on Bendre, used to say that he may have read the poem ‘Paraga’ a hundred times, but every reading experience was new.
“You have to understand the poem through the poem itself,” says Ki Ram. Madhav, a passionate reader of the great poet, has read, and re-read a ‘hundred times’ in the spirit of naadabeku, naadana naadabeku before they have flowed into English.
The book contains 26 poems, most of them familiar to the Kannada reader. The majority of Bendre’s poems, as Madhav recognises, are untranslatable. For the few that can be translated, Madhav rightly suggests a ‘translation-creation’ method, which has enabled him to retain ‘naada’ as his central concern, allowing him to ‘flex, bend and stretch the English language’. For instance, the poem Paraga (The Pollen Calls), is about artistic creation. Bendre says, Baraliha kaayiya paadina ruchiyoo/idarolage adagihudu and Madhav translates ruchi (taste) as song-juice tying it to the theme of rasa and sahrudaya, the central idea of the poem.
The poem, The Peacock Smile (Nagee Navilu), is also interesting for how it shifts the location of the smile, which is compared to the splendour of the peacock. The lines in the translation are: Woman, upon your lips, Did play a peacock smile;
In the original, Bendre says a peacock smile was dancing on the face of the woman, whereas the translator relocates the smile to her lips.
This indeed is a good move as Sudhindra L Deshpande recognises in his Foreword — it conjures up the visual of half-parted lips of a woman overcome by shyness. However, if the peacock smile radiates to the entire face of the woman, as Bendre says, isn’t that a richer visual?
Madhav’s translations are eminently readable and give you an intense Bendre experience. However, words like gavuda should have had better translations to indicate the sweep that the poet envisions, and maybe more poetic words in the place of despoiled, debrised, detachedly etc. Apart from minor quibbles, this is meticulous work. The QR code next to the title of every poem takes you to a recitation in both Kannada and English. Madhav imitates Bendre’s voice and style closely and it is a pleasure to listen to them.
Bendre believed that the experience (rasanubhava) poetry brings in the reader enriches the poet as well. A poem is not a poet’s private property, on the contrary, it acquires layers of meaning in the feeling that it invokes in the reader, believed Bendre.
Madhav’s translations have certainly provided a new dimension to Bendre’s poems. Kavya is timeless: it is post-time, post-space — and to preserve this sense of kavya is to preserve an ancient ecosystem.

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