Bendre, English, Kannada, Poetry, and Me

A brief introduction:

This is my English translation of my own Kannada essay. I wrote the essay at the request of Kuntady Nithesh, editor-in-chief of the online Kannada magazine “ಋತುಮಾನ”. It was published on Jan 31, 2020, Da Ra Bendre’s 124th birth anniversary. I thank Nithesh for his ಸಹೃದಯತೆ (sahrudayate) and his goodwill.
I have tried to keep the translation as literal as possible. I have added audio recordings everywhere. Please note that the wordplay in a few poem-excerpts makes them untranslatable; however, it is sufficient to listen to their sound. Also, a couple of other translations are less “rigorous” than those I usually publish.
Finally, here is a guide for those who’d like to read Kannada written using the English alphabet (like has been done here).

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1

trētāyuga rāmanna, dvāparada kṛshṇanna
kaliyugada kalkīna kanḍāna


This bear’d seen Rama in the trēta age
dvapara’s Krishna and kali’s Kalki he had seen

(from “The Dance of the Bear“; “sūryapāna” collection; pub. 1956)

It must have been about ten years ago. I was studying for my BA degree at the time. One day, I’d put the music on in my room and was working on something when a Kannada bhāvagīte (a lyric poem set to music)  came on. Its rhythm attracted me and I stopped to listen to it more carefully. I found the words to the song unfamiliar and could hardly grasp more than a few of them. However, I was smitten by the song’s wonderfully attractive rhythm and listened to it several times over. As I did so, the two lines (above) were the only ones I was able to catch clearly. For some reason, listening to them sent a thrill through me. With repeated listening, they became a part of me.
This was my first meeting with varakavi Bendre(’s poetry).
     I think it was the middle of 2013. A friend of my father’s sent me a book that was a collection of writings about Bendre and his poetry. Having only just learnt to read Kannada reasonably well (though I’d been speaking it from when I was very young), a perusal of that book introduced to me both Bendre the man and his poetry. I began to take a pride in him and enjoyed the excerpts of his poetry I found among the essays. A few (praise-filled) writings especially excited me. I was now eager to learn more about Bendre and his poetry.
     By about 2015, I was making headway in my Kannada reading. A significant portion of what I read concerned Bendre. At the time, I read more about Bendre’s poetry (including critical appraisals) than I read Bendre’s poetry itself. There was a reason for this: I knew very little then about both Kannada poetry and the Dharwad register of the Kannada language.
     I’ve already mentioned the book my father’s friend gave me. That aside, I’d managed to lay my hands on a copy of Bendre’s ‘gaṅgāvataraṇa’ that had been lying about the house. Sunaath Kaka’s blog too had come to my attention. On a trip I’d made to ‘Sapna Book House’, I’d had the luck to come across the collection “sūryapāna which contained the poem ‘The Dance of the Bear’. I was also browsing the web for articles about Bendre and his poetry. All told, Bendre was someone I had begun to feel close to.
     At the same time, my own “poetic conceit” had begun to show itself. Which is to say – the desire of several years had finally come to fruition and my own poetry had begun to “stream forth”. The language of my poetry, though, was English. (The English language itself was something my mother had bequeathed me.) But why did what until then was a quiescent underground stream suddenly spring to life? It’s my opinion that it was because, at the time in question, the language of my reading (Kannada) and the language of my thinking (English) were different languages. In other words, in some strange almost inexplicable way, the two languages closest to me melded with one another and, offering inspiration, brought out the poetry that had stayed hidden within. What’s more, my close, parallel association with Kannada gave the English poetry I wrote at the time a colour it might have otherwise lacked.

2

enna pāḍenagirali adara hāḍanashṭe
nīḍuvenu rasika! ninage
kallusakkareyantha ninnedeyu karagidare
ā saviya haṇisu nanage!


rasika, let my troubles stay my own,
I will give you just their song!
And if that melts your sugar-heart,
send drops of sweetness back along!

(from the “sakhīgīta” collection, pub. 1937)

     Bendre had a special affection for the rasika-sahrudaya. Like the lines above demonstrate, he has directly addressed the rasika in several of poems and called to them to participate in the ‘Kāvyōdyōga (The High Yoga of Poetry)’ that he was engaged in.
     Literary readers may be generally divided into two categories: critics and rasikas. Those part of the “rasika group” are keen to experience the feeling literature inspires, to partake of the happiness it provides; they do not concern themselves too much with its provenance, its reasons, and its ‘defects’. In a word: their point of view is innocent, innocuous. Those in the “critics group” possess a more trenchant point of view. It is not enough for them if literature simply provides happiness; its intentions, its scope, its novelty, its sensibility – all these are equally important. It is their belief that the merit of a work of literature must be recognized by an evaluation of these aspects.
     These two groups are not completely disparate. It is possible for a rasika to be a critic and it is just as possible for a critic to be a rasika. However, the number of people who are both rasika and critic in equal measure is extremely small.

     It is fair to say that my temperament has, from the very beginning, been that of the ‘rasika‘, the ‘sahrudaya’. (Especially so in the case of poetry.) Consequently, I have always preferred enjoying a poem’s beauty, the felicity of its words, its rhyme and rhythm and euphony and have never had the desire to examine it critically by ‘taking it apart’.
     In the case of Bendre’s poetry, Shankar Mokashi Punekar’s ideas gave credence to this natural approach of mine. I first became acquainted with Punekar’s writings through an essay of his in the book “To say Bendre’s to say…”. His essay titled ‘The Study of Bendre’s Poetry’ was one I thoroughly enjoyed, especially because it illustrated the intimate relationship Mokashi Punekar had with Bendre’s poetry. Reading his essay helped kindle an especial appreciation of and enjoyment for Bendre’s poetry in me too. In the days to come, I sought out and read other essays Punekar had written about Bendre. Common to every single essay was his faith (in Bendre and Bendre’s poetry), his affection, his loving belief, his kinship.

     However, reading Shankar Mokashi did not preclude me from reading what other writers and critics had said about Bendre. I also read the writings of Kurtakoti, G.S Amur, Pu.Ti.Na, Adiga, Ki. Ram. Nagaraj, GSS and others. I enjoyed some of them and even learnt from them. But in none of their writings did I find the intimacy, the rasika perspective, or the ‘flashes’ (of both language and insight) that I found in Shankar Mokashi’s writings. Which is why, as far as I am concerned, Shankar Mokashi is the man who gave me the gift of Bendre’s poetry. He is the ‘master-rasika’ who nurtured my natural rasika instinct and for that I will always be grateful to him.

3

kṛtiya racisade kṛārthave jīva? rasa vima–
rsheyu rasada yōga koḍaballudē?


is life fulfilled without creativeness to fill it?
is analyzing rasa the same as drinking it?

(from “kṛti“, “uyyāle” collection; pub. 1938)

     I began to feel particularly close to Bendre’s poetry when I began to translate (and transcreate) his poems into English. It seems to me that my beginning this work was destiny. In any case, by June or July of 2015, I had reached the point where I was writing, on average, one original English poem a week. Like Bendre says in the excerpt above, I had, with these poems of mine, achieved a fulfillment of sorts.
     At about the same time, my study of the Kannada script and my reading about Bendre has reached a ‘next’ level. Even as I was asking “what next?”, I asked myself why I shouldn’t try to translate a poem of Bendre’s into English – which is what I went ahead and did! However, that attempt was simply incidental; a one-off, “why not?” sort of attempt. (It certainly wasn’t work I’d taken on in ‘serious’ fashion.) My hunch is that I was, at the time, looking for a creative engagement with Bendre’s poetry – because, let it be remembered, I had until then read much more about Bendre’s poetry than directly engaged with it. In the event, my attempt (to translate a poem of his) was a way of plugging this gap.
     The poem I chose to translate then was ‘nānu (I)’. Part of the ‘Gaṅgāvataraṇa collection, a documentary made in 1972 shows Bendre himself reading the poem out loud, even as he gesticulates in that unique manner of his. (As far as I know, this is the only video recording of Bendre reciting his own poetry. When he lived, his manner of reciting or singing his own poems was at least as famous as the poems themselves.) In all likelihood, I chose the poem for the very reason that I’d seen and listened to his recitation of it. Even now, I remember trying to translate the poem using the rhythm of Bendre’s recitation as my touchstone.

     The most notable difference between the English and Kannada languages is phoneticism. The makeup of Indic languages means it is possible to represent a sound the tongue makes by means of a single symbol. Languages of this kind are called phonetic languages. On the other hand, in English, it is very possible that several symbols (in this case, letters) are needed to represent a single sound. Languages of this sort are called non-phonetic languages. Succinctly, the character of the English and Kannada languages are very different.
     From the very beginning, I had a clear goalthat the English translation or transcreation I make capture as fully as possible the poetic qualities inherent in the Kannada original. In the transcreation of ‘I’, Bendre’s recitation served as an aid. It was by paying special attention (and respect) to the rhythm of that recitation that I undertook my English transcreation.
     As I continued on, I wondered about what it would mean to use accents to add a ‘push’ and ‘pull’ to the translations and transcreations. (I had already begun to do this in the original English poetry I was writing.) As I began to translate and transcreate more poems, I learnt what kinds of challenges I’d have to face, the sorts of experiments I could try, and what qualities of a poem (would) remain beyond the grasp of both a translation and a transcreation.

4

kavana kōshadī kamala garbhadali
parāgavoragihudu.
ninna mukhasparshavū sāku; hosa
sṛshṭiye barabahudu. | bā bhṛngave bā… |


(“parāga“; “sakhīgīta” collection; pub. 1937)

In the poem’s heart, in the lotus’s womb,
the pollen waits on tiptoe;
your slightest kiss itself’s enough
fór a new creation to show. | Come, dear bee, come… |

(‘The Pollen Calls‘; “sakhīgīta” collection; pub. 1937)

What do these lines mean? What have they set out to say? For the bee to travel from flower to flower drinking their nectar is part of the natural order of things. In the poem, the poet has made a metaphor of this extremely natural action (of the bee’s). To the poet, the poem is the nectar-filled ‘[lotus] flower’ that is calling the rasika ‘bee’ towards itself. It appears that the poet himself is curious and excited about the ‘new creation’ that will result from the bee bending over and drinking the nectar.
     Speaking for myself, the (idea of a) ‘new creation’ interests me more than the ‘bee-pollen-flower’ metaphor. Like I’ve said already, ‘I (nānu)’ was my first translation. It would not be wrong to call that translation experimental. But once that was done, a ‘what next?’ surfaced. While I cannot remember exactly when in 2015 it was, my first great endeavour as a translator was the translation of the poem ‘gaṅgāvataraṇa.
     What I just said may have raised a few eyebrows. A translation of the poem ‘gaṅgāvataraṇa’ (more famous as ‘iḷidu bā tāyi)’? You may have even chuckled to yourself and said, ‘Look here, fellow, did you manage the properly understand the [original] Kannada poem first? It’s only after that that translating it or creating an anuvāda or whatever all comes. You get that, don’t you?’
     What can I say now? I suspect I did not, at the time, fully understand the scale of what I was attempting, and that my bravado made me push forward. I thought to start with the first couple of lines and see where it went. I was soon done with the first stanza – by the end of which I had managed to create a corresponding English rhythm. But the second stanza held me up. It contained several unfamiliar words and several lines that suggested (rather than being obvious in their meaning). A quick scan of the rest of the poem brought further complexity to my notice.

     It was at this juncture that Sunaath Kaka and his very own interpretation of the poem came to my aid! Reading through his explication helped the poem ‘open up’ to me. I returned to the translation. For every line that followed, Kaka’s detailed explication was the lamp that offered illumination. I continued on. The translation progressed easily – matching the original step for step, rhyme for rhyme, rhythm for rhythm.
     It wasn’t long before I reached the section of the poem that is an extraordinary blend of euphony, rhyme, rhythm and language. Kalinga’s Rao musical rendition of this section filled my ears. With Kaka’s explication in front of me, my fingers moved of their own accord, beating out words on the keyboard. To this day, I cannot explain exactly how I transcreated that section. A translation that should have difficult and presented the most acute challenge had, like the Gangé river, flowed on with an uninterrupted ‘suyyy’.
     (It was about a year and a half after I translated the poem that I shared it with Kaka. I had, in the meanwhile, translated a few more poems with the help of his explications. He responded to my reaching out with a sahrudaya’s wonderful affection. His extravagant praise for the translation made me very happy. We began a friendly email correspondence. Kaka was the first ‘serious reader’ of my translations. His support was – and continues to be – a great help. I’d like to take this chance to offer Kaka an affectionate hug.)
My ‘successful’ transcreation of ‘gaṅgāvataraṇa’ was the springboard that allowed me to take off as a translator. At first, my translations flowed forth with the momentum and speed of a dam whose sluice gates have been opened. Though the momentum (and speed) lessened as time passed, the work I began then continues unimpeded today. Every ‘kiss’ given me by a Bendre poem has resulted in a ‘new creation’ that is my English translation (or transcreation). Although, like every creation, it is likely to have its faults and rough edges, I can affirm the act of creation has made me happy. In some particular instances, the joy I have experienced has almost overwhelmed me.
     All told, this ‘translatory journey’ has brought me closer to the the Kannada language. It has increased my affection for it. It has inspired me to experiment with (writing in) the English language and made my relationship with English a more intimate one. Most of all, it has, by offering constant opportunities to ‘create’, allowed me to keep the fire of my creativity burning.

5

mugila bāyi gāḷikoḷala beḷakahāḍa bīri


the sky-mouth played the flute-of-wind;
it sent fórth a song of light.

(from “A Play of Sounds“; “nādalīle” collection; pub. 1938)

beḷaku nūlutide tulārāshiyali
bhavya rāṭiyāgi.


light’s weaving in the tula zódiac,
it lòoks like a magnificent reel.

(from “Rays Of the Eye“; “shatamāna” collection; pub. 2004)

beḷaku nāyi maimūsi barutalide
shukra candrarante


Snìffing the skin comes the dog of light
lìke the stárs and moon of the night

(from “In the Garden of the Gods; “kāmakastūri” collection; pub. 1934)

navanavōnmēshashālinī – the ability to see the new with a renewing sight. This is what the ancients of India called pratibhā (a word that’s loosely translated as ‘talent’ but whose scope allows for it to be a synonym of ‘genius’). A poet achieves this ‘newness’ by means of conceits, similies, metaphors, and images. Bendre’s genius, to be sure, was a gift from the heavens; the genius of a heaven-touched poet. As for the newness of Bendre’s poetry, it corresponds to the ever-renewing newness of nature itself.
     The three excerpts above (from three different poems) illustrate my point. All three speak of light. But how different the three conceptions! It is likely to astonish anybody to learn that the same poet conceived of all three.
     Just as important is the novelty of these conceits. None of these is a well-worn ‘poetic cliché’. This novelty is what sets Bendre apart. Several commentators and  critics have discussed Bendre’s originality. It is the quality that has irradiated Bendre’s poetry, has given his metaphors and similes their novelty and left his readers and listeners spellbound and astonished.

6

mātu mātu mathisi banda nādada navanītā
higga bīri higgalittu tanna tāne prītā
arthavilla svārthavilla bariya bhāvagītā


The chúrn and churning of the word brought forth a euphony
It felt a joy – it spred a joy – in its own lòve it was happy
It did not mean – it did not want – it was just lyric poetry

(from “The Lyric Poem“; “nādalīle” collection; pub. 1938)

“euphony – euphony – euphony is what we need | euphony is what we need to knead | euphony needs a euphony to match”. Bendre may be the most singular ‘romancer of sound’ the Kannada poetic tradition has seen. He has given us more nāda (~euphony) than we could have asked for. That nāda has been the bumblebee’s guṅguṅ at one time and the koel’s kuhukuhoo at another, has resounded as the mrudanga’s tōmtanānā on one occasion and flowed on another occasion as the jum jumu rumujumu guṅguṅu dumudumu of the river-of-sound.

     The bhaavageeta or the lyric poem was Bendre’s favoured form of poetic expression. Speaking generally, the form favours sound over meaning. That is to say, a lyric poet uses rhyme, rhythm, metre, euphony etc. to evoke (the reader’s or the listener’s) feeling.
     Bendre was a born poet. Like Shankar Mokashi said, he was ‘a true lyric poet’ (who could write a lyric poem about almost anything). At a time when poetry in Kannada (and other Indian languages) was, under the influence of the west, moving from ‘poetry to be sung’ towards ‘poetry to be read’, Bendre used his distinctive genius to create hundreds of modern lyric poems. What’s more, the flow of his poetry was as natural as a fount’s. Stitching together the sounds, rhythms, rhymes and words that came effortlessly to him, Bendre created a poetry that was variously complex, suggestive, melodic, intimate, simple, and many-meaninged.
     But, in the end, a bhaavageeta does not mean and does not want. In other words, every lyric poem is free – an untrammelled creation. It is a feather fallen from the bird flying in the “stretching cloth of sky [with] neither start or end”. It has one and only one aim: to spread joy.

7

āḍutāḍuta bandu siṅgārasoḷḷī hāṅga
hāḍile kivigalla kaḍidyēna


You came sporting and cavorting – like a love-mosquito darting
and, singing, nipped my earlobe in parting

(from “The Enchanted Lute” ಕವನ; “sakhīgīta” collection; pub. 1937)

akkara chandavu sāngatyā–samskāra
hondilli bandide hosahosadu
akkareyadāyitu akkarigarigella
akkumikkenuvante konevaregu


(from the 40th and last canto of “sakhīgīta“; “sakhīgīta” collection; pub. 1937)

svādada nādada mōdada oḷabasirane bagedu
huṅkārada oḷanūlanu mellane horadegedu
shabdake hāsigeyāgiha tanimaunadi mugidu | ēlāvana…


(from “The Éla Song“; “gaṅgāvataraṇa” collection; pub. 1951)

The poet is a skilled worker. He is an artist. In his hands, a language can blossom, can take on new forms, can be infused with new vitality. The language a poet uses remains the people’s language while transcending it. Poetry offers space for suggestion, simile, and metaphor that everyday language does not. It allows for the use of rhythm, rhyme and sound that prose does not. In his use of language, no one has as much freedom as the poet does.

     It is my belief that the “Ambikatanaya who mirror[ed] forth in Kannada the universe’s inner voice” lent the Kannada language the divine touch. The crown of varakavi – the poet given a vara, the heaven-touched poet – sits upon Bendre’s head like it can sit upon no other’s. His use of the Kannada language is unparalleled. He ‘burrowed deep into its [very] womb and drew forth [its] (inner) thread’. In my opinion, his poetry is a wonder of the world. What’s more, he is, as a poet, na bhūtō na bhavishyati, i.e. ‘never before and never again’.

     On occasion, I play a game as I read Bendre’s poetry. The game is to count how many tatsama words (words directly borrowed from Sanskrit) there are in the poem. I am astonished almost every time I play this game and cannot help but ask myself: ‘What is this! How in the world did he write such sublime poetry in the janapada, in the the spoken language of the people of the Dharwad region! How, when Kannada – in the tradition of every language world over – had created a poetic literature by treading the classical path did he manage to use a dialect (Dharwad Kannada) of the language to create such magic! Has poetry of this sort ever been created anywhere?’

(For instance, the poem, ‘Jogi (ಜೋಗಿ)’ – labelled the poem of the 20th century [in Kannada?] – contains just ten tatsama words! Every other word is a ‘pure Kannada’ word. In order to properly understand the magnitude of this achievement, it is necessary not simply to read what poetry was being written in Kannada by Bendre’s contemporaries but to realize the emphasis that had been placed on Sanskrit all through the Kannada literary tradition – beginning with Pampa’s works in the 10th century AD. However, that doesn’t mean Bendre did not use Sanskrit in his works. As someone born into the vedic tradition, Bendre is known to have called himself a ‘vēdavit kavi’, i.e. a poet in the manner of the vēdic poets and written poems in the incantatory metre of the sāmavēda.)

It seems fitting to end an essay that began with Bendre’s words with his own words.

kannaḍavu kannaḍava kannaḍisutirabēku.


Kannada must always mirror itself in Kannada.

(The translation of this last line is necessarily approximate; in no small part because of its play with the Kannada language and the pun within.)

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