It is difficult to be objective about a writer you admire to the point of near-devotion, especially when he is a ‘dead poet’ you never had the chance to meet and who wrote in a language whose literature you know for a fact is nowhere close to being as well-known as it deserves to be.
The difficulty is compounded when you have spent a number of years translating and promoting his poetry and have only recently published a book containing some of these translations.
Also read: A review of ‘The Pollen Waits on Tiptoe’
The translator as a rasika reviewer
On the other hand, you possess the advantage of having engaged with his work more closely than almost anybody else — particularly if one accepts that translating is the best kind of creative close-reading — and of having read a great many books and articles about him and his poetry written by admirers and literary critics, both past and present.
It is with confidence in this advantage and in my position as a rasika (as I have come to understand the word through Bendre’s and Shankar Mokashi Punekar’s writings) that I undertake to write about Da Ra Bendre’s poetry collection, ‘ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ (Gangavatarana)’.
The delayed publication of Gangavatarana
First published in 1951, Gangavatarana was Bendre’s tenth poetry collection.
It is interesting to note that the book was ready for publication in 1944 itself (a matter Bendre mentions in the foreword). However, several reasons, including the tragic death of Bendre’s oldest son, were responsible for it not being published until 1951.
While it is not clear whether all the poems included in the 1951 collection would have found a place had the book been published in 1944, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that almost all the poems collected in Gangavatarana had been written by 1944 itself. (Many of them had previously appeared in magazines and journals or been read out by Bendre on stage.)
Gangavatarana and Bendre’s poetic sadhana
The publication of Gangavatarana is generally recognised as a juncture in Bendre’s poetic career. Though any such division of an artist’s work into periods is bound to have its limitations, the consensus among critics, both then and now, is that Gangavatarana was the last collection of the first period of Bendre’s poetic career.
In his collation and presentation of Bendre’s work after the poet’s death, Dr Vamana Bendre, Bendre’s son and literary executor, repeatedly refers to the work up to Gangavatarana, which includes collections such as ಕಾಮಕಸ್ತೂರಿ (Kaamakastoori), ನಾದಲೀಲೆ (Naadaleele), and ಸಖೀಗೀತ (Sakheegeeta) as the work of Bendre’s pre-Aralu Maralu period. (ಅರಳು-ಮರಳು or Aralu-Maralu was a volume published in 1957 that brought together five Bendre poetry collections published in the 1956-1957 period.)
Gangavatarana collection as the apotheosis of Kannada lyric poetry
In my recent book, The Pollen Waits On Tiptoe, I have described poetry, especially lyric poetry, as “that literature through which a language manifests itself at its most heightened, original, supple, and euphonic”.
Judged by this yardstick, Gangavatarana is the apotheosis of Kannada lyric poetry. It is not that the collections that precede Gangavatarana are “deficient” so much as Gangavatarana is the culmination of the metrical experimentation, linguistic innovation, technical prowess, and mature genius of Bendre’s “first phase”.
A book of 50 poems, classed under 7 sections
Gangavatarana, like Bendre’s famous 1938 collection, Naadaleele, contains exactly 50 poems.
The poems of Gangavatarana are, somewhat piquantly, classed under seven different sections, namely, Praarthane mattu Stotragalu (Prayers and Hymns), Koutumbika Bhaavageetegalu (Familial Lyric Poems), Ganyavyakti-Geetagalu (Paeans to Luminaries), Desha-Samaaja (Country-Society), Prema (Love), Tattva:Shristi (Fundamentals:Creation), and Anubhaavageetagalu (Songs of Worldly and Otherworldly Experience). Interestingly, it is the first time that such a classification appears in a Bendre collection.
The Gangavatarana collection is bookended by two poems that may be called “prayer-poems”. In his bhaava-sandarbha-soochane, an appendix where the emotional context of each poem is offered in brief, Bendre says both prayer-poems are shades of mantras found in the Upanishads. (Incidentally, the first of these poems also opens my own book.)
Bendre’s predilection for and astonishing use of desi Kannada
What is striking about these two poems is their near-exclusive use of non-Sanskritised Kannada. The masterful use of a form of the desi Kannada word “ಲೇಸು (lēsu)” in the opening poem is mirrored in the use of a form of the word “ಕೂಡು (kooḍu)” in the closing poem.
The repetition of these words in the two poems imbues each poem with the hypnotic quality of the Sanskrit mantras they were inspired by.
Bendre’s predilection for non-Sanskritised Kannada or ಅಚ್ಚಗನ್ನಡ (acchagannada: pure Kannada) can be traced to his declaration in the foreword to Gari, his 1932 poetry collection. To quote him: “[a] word about the style of the language used in these poems. An attempt has been made in here to both look for and create a north-of-the-Tungabhadra ‘desi’ route of tradition.”
Bendre’s statement is clear: his use of native Kannada words was not happenstance but a deliberate choice. In making this choice, Bendre was doubtless influenced by the preponderance of native Kannada words within this “desi route of tradition”, a fact that can be explained by North Karnataka’s position as the centre of the Vachana literature movement of the 12th century.
(Incidentally, the nitty-gritty of the vocabulary of Bendre’s poetry can be found in Mr Sudhindra Deshpande’s brilliant study of the concordance of the poems in Bendre’s Gari collection. Mr Deshpande’s study revealed that of the 7150 different words used by Bendre in the poems of Gari, fewer than 500, i.e. about 7%, are “pure Sanskrit” words.)
The Kannadisation of Sanskrit mantras in Gangavatarana
Examples of Bendre’s deliberate use of acchagannada in the collection can also be found in the poems titled ‘ಸರಸ್ವತೀ ಸೂಕ್ತ (Saraswati Sukta)’ and ‘ಅಗ್ನಿಸೂಕ್ತ (Agnisukta)’. Notwithstanding their “pure Sanskrit” titles, both poems serve as wonderful examples of Bendre’s unparalleled mastery of the Kannada language.
Indeed, in both poems, one gets the impression that Bendre is pitting his wits against the creators of these sooktas. “You wrote your sooktas in Sanskrit,” he seems to be saying, “now let me show you how they can be written in Kannada.”
To see what I mean, here is the opening stanza of Bendre’s Saraswatee Sookta, written without using a single Sanskrit word.
ಅಂಚೆ ಏರಿ ನೀರಿನಾಕೆ
anche ēri neerinaake
Bendre goes one better in the third stanza of the Agnisookta.
ಬೆಂಕಿಯ ಮೊಳಕೆಯ ಕುಡಿಚಿಗುರೊಡೆದು
ಕಿಡಿ ಕೆಂಡಾಗಿ ನಿಗಿನಿಗಿ ಮಾಗಿ
benkiya moḷakeya kuḍichiguroḍedu
kiḍi kenḍaagi niginigi maagi
My favourite poetry collection by Bendre
It behoves me to acknowledge I did not fully realise the Gangavatarana collection’s worth until several years after I first laid hands on it.
In fact, it was the only collection of Bendre’s poetry at home; a gift from a family friend to my parents on the occasion of their wedding. I cannot be sure if this circumstance has had any bearing on my affection for the book; all I know is that Gangavatarana is my favourite Bendre book.
I have learnt by heart more poems from this book than from any other. I also happen to have translated (in full or part) more poems from this book than from any other. Most importantly, my successful translation of the collection’s titular poem, Gangaavatarana, was “the springboard that allowed me to take off as a translator.”
Bendre’s Gangavatarana poem is an acknowledged masterpiece and “an extraordinary blend of euphony, rhyme, rhythm, and language”. First presented by Bendre at the conclusion of his presidential address to the Kannada Literary Congress held at Shivamogga in 1943, Bendre has admitted that he was left reeling by the rapturous, rhapsodic response to the poem.
The strange case of Bendre and the ‘Naaku Tanti‘ collection
Unfortunately, however, Bendre, like other writers in his position, is most often associated with his Jnanpith-award-winning work, ನಾಕುತಂತಿ (Naaku Tanti: Four Strings).
I say unfortunately because the Naaku Tanti collection is practically the worst way to be introduced to Bendre’s poetry. Not only is the collection not representative of his poetic output, its dense, allusive, and occasionally “weird” style is not meant for the first-time reader.
I hope that my naming a number of other poetry collections by Bendre in this write-up has given the reader a different and broader perspective of his work. (Though this review is of Bendre’s Gangavatarana collection, any one of the poetry collections mentioned in the article, including Gari, Kaamakastoori, and Naadaleele, is also a good place to start.)
Gangavatarana as a presentation-in-miniature of Bendre’s variety
To return to Gangavatarana, it is naturally impossible to go into the details of all 50 poems; however, it is worth noting that their variety mirrors the variety of the poems of Bendre’s first phase. So too do their lyrical quality and their exhilarating euphony.
I believe it is important to note that almost all the poems collected in Gangavatarana are lyric poems (or bhaavaageetas, to use the Kannada name Bendre gave them). At a time when the poetry community, in virtually every world language, has chosen to disregard lyric poetry as something of an unfortunate fossil, I think it is necessary to not only give lyric poetry its due but also show the heights it can reach in the hands of a varakavi such as Bendre.
Additionally, the presence of the otherworldly ‘Jogi’, a poem, which in 1999, was called “the [Kannada] poem of the 20th century” serves to further elevate the Gangavatarana collection.
To quote myself again, “Enigmatic and mystical; filled with a laya (rhythm), praasa (rhyme), and naada (euphony) that surpass wonder; and using the Kannada language in ways previously undreamed of, Jogi, when all is said and done, really is magic.”
Also read: Dr Siddalingaiah, poet and Dalit activist
Naanrishi kurute kaavyam, the poet as rishi
A review of Gangavatarana would be incomplete without a mention of the poems from its last section, titled “Anubhaavageetagalu (Songs of Worldly and Otherworldly Experience)”.
Though the word ಅನುಭಾವ (anubhaava) refers to an experience that is “otherworldly” or “transcendental”, Bendre mentions in his bhaava-sandarbha-soochane appendix that they could equally well be called “songs of ಅನುಭವ (anubhava)”, “anubhava” being the word used to refer to “(worldly) experience”. It is why I have chosen to use both words in the English translation of the title.
Regardless of what we choose to call them, the poems in this section are excellent examples of “heaven-touched poetry”. In his famous essay titled ‘Bendre’s Poetics’, Shankar Mokashi says that “[i]n a varakavi, feeling–word–euphony descend in effortless simultaneity and take on form singly–doubly–triply.”
Such an effect was not uncommon in Bendre’s poetry, but there can be little question it reached scarcely-believable heights in poems like ಕಣ್ಣ ಕಾಣಿಕೆ (Kaṇṇa Kaaṇike), ಏಲಾಗೀತ (Elaageeta), and ತುಂಬಿ (Tumbi).
Also read: The ‘churn and churning of the word’, an English translation of Bendre’s ‘Bhaavageeta‘
From the pages of Gangavatarana
I would like to end by offering excerpts from some poems in the book. In selecting these excerpts, I have kept in mind U R Ananthamurthy’s observation that “[the works of the great writers often] look like a book of quotations [upon first reading]”.
Gangavatarana being one such work, I have tried to choose “quotes” from the book that represent the variety and exemplify the preternatural naada (euphony).
While I have offered my English translations in some cases, it goes without saying that these poems are best enjoyed in their original language — Kannada.
Excerpts from the Gangavatarana collection
ನಿನ್ನ ಮಮತೆಯ ಬಯಕೆಯಾವು ಹಾಡಿನ ಹಾಲನನವರತ ಕರೆಯುತಿರಲು
ನಿನ್ನ ನೆನೆವುದೆ ತಪವು, ಉಳಿದ ಶಾಸ್ತ್ರದ ಜಪವು ಕೊರಳೊಳಗೆ ಬಿದ್ದ ಉರಲು.
ತನ್ನದಲ್ಲದುದಕ್ಕೆ ಜೊಲ್ಲ ಸುರಿಸುವುದೇಕೆ? ಬರಿದೆ ತೆರೆದೇನು ಬಾಯಿ?
ಹಾಡ ಕಟ್ಟುವ ಹೆಮ್ಮೆ ಬರಡೆಮ್ಮೆ ನನಗೆ ಇದು ಗೊತ್ತಿಲವೇನೆ ತಾಯಿ? (“ಗಂಗಾಷ್ಟಕ” ಕವನದಿಂದ)
When the wish-cow of your affection yields ceaselessly the milk of song,
to think of you is meditation; all other rosaries nothing but a noose.
Why slobber then that you aren’t mine? Why unlock these lips in vain?
Don’t I know how empty is this pride that fashions just a song? (From the poem, “Gangaashtaka”)
ಕರು ಕಂಡ ಕರುಳೆ
ಮನ ಉಂಡ ಮರುಳೆ
ಇಳಿ ಇಳಿದು ಬಾ
ಇಳಿದು ಬಾ ತಾಯಿ
ಇಳಿದು ಬಾ. (“ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ” ಕವನದಿಂದ)
Oh cow’s compassion for its calf,
oh mother’s love on her child’s behalf
oh grand benediction from high above,
enfold us in your clasp.
Shiva’s compassion unblemished,
tinged only by Shakti’s slightest red,
incarnate maternal-love full-blooded,
come, come down,
come down, mother,
come down. (From the poem, “Gangavatarana”)
ಮೂರ್ತಿಗಾಗಿ ಮುಗಿದ ಕೈಯು ಗುಡಿಗೆ ಸಲ್ಲುವಂತೆಯೇ |
ಎರಡು ಒಂದೆಂಬಂತೆಯೇ ||
ಹಾಡಲಾಗಿ ಕವಿಯು ಎಂದು ಜನವು ನನ್ನ ಕರೆದಿದೆ |
ನಿನ್ನ ಹೆಸರು ಮರೆಗಿದೆ || (“ಅಂಬಿಕಾತನಯದತ್ತ” ಕವನದಿಂದ)
Like to the temple goes the prayer for the idol meant;
as though the two were no different;
so have the people heard me sing and called me the ‘poet’
your name lies hidden behind – forgot. (From the poem, “Ambikatanayadatta”)
ಪಸರಿಸಿದ ಮಸಳಿಸಿದ ಮತ್ತೆ ಪಸರಿಸಲಿರುವ
ನಿನ್ನ ಪುಟವಹಸಾಜವಾದ ಪುಲಗಿರಿಯ ತಿರುಳು–
ಗನ್ನಡಕೆ ದೆಸೆದೆಸೆಯ ದೇಸಿಗನ್ನಡ ಬರುವ
ಒಸಗೆ ಬೀರಲಿ ಅಚ್ಚಕೆಚ್ಚು ಕನ್ನಡ ಹುರುಳು
ಇಹ–ಪರ–ಮಹಾನುಭಾವ ವ್ಯಂಜನೆಗೆ ಸಾಕು
ಕನ್ನಡವು ಕನ್ನಡವ ಕನ್ನಡಿಸುತಿರಬೇಕು. (“ಪಂಪನಿಗೆ” ಕವನದಿಂದ)
pasarisida masaḷisida matte pasarisaliruva
ninna puṭavahasaajavaada pulagiriya tiruḷu–
gannadake desedeseya dēsigannada baruva
osage beerali acchakecchu kannada huruḷu
iha–para–mahaanubhaava vyanjanege saaku
kannadavu kannadava kannadisutirabēku. (From the poem, “Pampanige”)
ಸೂಜಿ ಹಿಂದ ಧಾರಧಾಂಗ
ಹೋತऽ ಹಿಂದ ಬಾರಧಾಂಗ ॥
ಹಿಂದऽ ನೋಡದऽ ಗೆಳತಿ
ಹಿಂದऽ ನೋಡದऽ (“ಹಿಂದऽ ನೋಡದऽ” ಕವನದಿಂದ)
Like the thread within the needle’s eye,
like the foot caught in the mire,
like the wheel of time upon its way,
not ever looking back, my dear,
not ever looking back. (From “Hinda Nodada”)
ಮೂಗೀನ ನೇರಿಗೆ । ಹೊರಳೀದೆ ಊರಿಗೆ ॥
ತಲಿಮ್ಯಾಲೆ ಬಿಂದಿಗೆ । ಕಾಲಾಗ ಅಂದಿಗೆ ॥
ತುಂ ತುಮುಕು ತುಂಬಿದೆ । ಬಿಂದೀಗೆ ಅಂತಿದೆ ॥
ಝಣ್ ಝಣ ಅಂದಿಗೆ । ಅಂದಾವ ಹೊಂದಿಗೆ ॥
ಸಂಜೀಯ ಜಾವಿಗೆ । ಹೋಗಿದ್ದೆ ಬಾವಿಗೆ ॥ (“ಸಂಜೀಯ ಜಾವಿಗೆ” ಕವನದಿಂದ)
moogeena nērige | horaḷeede oorige ||
talimyaale bindige | kaalaaga andige ||
tum tumuku tumbide | bindeege antide ||
jhaṇ jhaṇa andige | andaava hondige ||
sanjeeya jaavige | hōgidde baavige || (From the poem, “Sanjeeya Jaavige”)
ಬೆಳಕು–ತೊರೆ ತೂರಿ ತೆರೆ
ದಿನವು ಬಿದಿಗೆ ಇದ್ದ ಹಾಗೆ
ಚಂದ್ರನೋರೆಯಾಗಿರೆ. (“ಮಂಗಳಾ” ಕವನದಿಂದ)
When, trickling forth, the stream of light
bends in the corner of your eye,
its curve looks like the waxing moon
as a second-day crescent in the sky. (From the poem, “Mangala”)
ತಿಳಿಯದ್ಯಾವದೋ ಕಂಪು ಎಳೀತsದ ತುಂಬಿ ಹುಚ್ಚು ಆಗಿ
ಎಚ್ಚರಿಲ್ಲದs ಎತ್ತೊ ತಿರಗತಾವ ದಿಕ್ಕು ತೋರದಾಗಿ
ಬಂತು ಸುಗ್ಗಿ ಬಂದsದ ಸುಗ್ಗಿ ಬರತsದ ಸುಗ್ಗಿ ಎಂದು
ಕುಹೂ ಅನ್ನತದ ಕುಹೂ ಅನ್ನತದ ಕುಹುಕ್ಕುಹೂ ಅಂದು. (“ಜೋಗಿ” ಕವನದಿಂದ)
An unknown fragrance pulls the bees, playing with their heads;
their minds abuzz they turn and turn, not knowing where to head;
the spring did come, the spring has come, the spring is set to come;
kuhoo it says kuhoo it says kuhukuhoo it hums. (From the poem, “Jogi”)
ಹುಸಿನಗೆಯು, ಕುಡಿನೋಟ, ಹಿಗ್ಗುಹಿಗ್ಗಿನ ಕೇಕೆ
ಮರುಳಾಟ, ಅಳುವು ಹಸಿವಿನ ಕೂಗು; ದನಿಮೋಡಿ
ಒಂದೆ ಬಸಿರಿನ ಬದುಕು ಒಂದೆ ಹೃದಯವ ನೀಡಿ
ತಣಿಯವೇ? ಶ್ರುತಿಯಾಗು–ನಾದಾಮಾತೃಕೆ ಆಕೆ;
ಕೂಸು–ಮಾತಿಗೆ ಮೌನ ತಾಯಿ ಮಡಿಲು ಸುದೈವ;
ಮಾತು ಮೌನದ ಪ್ರತಿಮೆ, ಮೌನ ಮಾತಿನ ದೈವ. (“ನಸುಕಿನ ಮೌನ” ಕವನದಿಂದ)
husinageyu, kuḍinōṭa, higguhiggina kēke
maruḷaaṭa, aḷuvu hasivina koogu; danimōḍi
onde basirina baduku onde hrudayava neeḍi
taṇiyavē? shrutiyaagu–naadaamaatruke aake;
koosu–maatige mauna taayi maḍilu sudaiva;
maatu maunada pratime, mauna maatina daiva. (From the poem, “Nasukina Mouna”)
ಗಾಳಿಗಡಿಲಿನಲ್ಲಿ ತೇಲಿ ಬರುತಲಿಹವು ನಾದಾ
ಭಂಡವಾಳದಂತೆ ತುಂಬಿ ವಿವಿಧ ಭಾವ ಮೋದಾ
ಯಾವ ಗೆಳೆಯ ಗುರುವಿನಿಂದ ಬಂದಿತೋ ಪ್ರಸಾದಾ
ಎನುವೆ ಹೈ ಹಸಾದಾ ॥ (“ಗಾಳಿಗಡಲಿನಲ್ಲಿ” ಕವನದಿಂದ)
Euphony on euphony comes sailing through the airy-sea
like treasure-chests filled to the brim with every kind of joy
which mentor-friend was it who sent these wonder-gifts to me
hip hip hurray. (From the poem, “Gaaligadalinalli”)
ಹಲವು ಜನುಮದಿಂದ ಬಂದ ಯಾವುದೋನೊ ಧ್ಯಾನಾ
ಏಕನಾದದಂದದೊಂದು ತಾನದಾ ವಿತಾನಾ
ತನಗೆ ತಾನು ಸೋಲುತಿಹುದು ನೂಲುತಿಹುದು ಗಾನಾ || ಅಂತರಂಗದಾ… (“ಕಣ್ಣ ಕಾಣಿಕೆ” ಕವನದಿಂದ)
halavu janumadinda banda yaavudōno dhyaanaa
ēkanaadadandadondu taanadaa vitaanaa
tanage taane sōlutihudu noolutihudu gaanaa || antarangadaa … (From the poem, “Kaṇṇa Kaaṇike”)
ಉಸಿರುಸಿರಲಿ ಸರಿವರಿದೂ ಊದೂದುತ ನಲಿದು
ದನಿಯೇ ನದಿಯೊಲು ಚಲಿಸಿತು ಕೊಂಕೊಂಕೆನೆ ಒಲೆದು
ಅಲೆಯಾಯಿತು ಬಲೆಯಾಯಿತು ಜಗದಗಲಕೆ ಸೆಲೆದು. (“ಏಲಾಗೀತ” ಕವನದಿಂದ)
usirusirali sarivaridu oodooduta nalidu
daniye nadiyolu chalisitu konkonkene oledu
aleyaayitu baleyaayitu jagadagalake seledu. (From the poem, “Elaageeta”)
ನೆಲ ಹೂತು ತುಂಬಿ ಮನಸೋತು ತುಂಬಿ ಉಸಿರಾಟ ತುಂಬಿ ತುಂಬಿ
ಜಗವರಳಿ ಕಂಡು ಕಣ್ತುಂಬಿ ಮರಳಿ ಮರುಳಾಗಿ ತುಂಬಿ ತುಂಬಿ
ರಸದುಂಬಿ ತುಂಬಿ ನಾಲಗೆಯು ಎಂಬ ದುರದುಂಬಿ ತುಂಬಿ ತುಂಬಿ
ಝೇಂಕಾರ ಕೇಳಿ ಕಿವಿತುಂಬಿ ತುಂಬಿ ಓಂಕಾರ ತುಂಬಿ ತುಂಬಿ. (“ತುಂಬಿ” ಕವನದಿಂದ)
nela hootu tumbi manasōtu tumbi usiraaṭa tumbi tumbi
jagavaraḷi kanḍu kaṇtumbi maraḷi maruḷaagi tumbi tumbi
rasadumbi tumbi naalageyu emba duradumbi tumbi tumbi
jhēnkaara kēḷi kivitumbi tumbi ōmkaara tumbi tumbi. (From the poem, “Tumbi”)
Let me conclude by saying what I have said to several people over the past several years: I believe ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ (Gangavatarana) is one of the greatest poetry collections of the 20th century, in any language.
I hope this review spurs those of you who can read Kannada to get yourselves a copy of the book. I also hope it inspires those of you who wish to learn to read Kannada to make that extra effort.
Note: This is an experimental book review, in that I have reviewed in one language an untranslated book written in another language. Yes, there are some translated excerpts, but by and large, this is a review in English of a Kannada book. The “ideal reader” of this review is an English-literate Kannada reader who has not read Bendre previously or has only read his ‘Naaku Tanti’ or is looking for a way into Kannada literature in general and Kannada poetry in particular.
(The ‘ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ’ book can be purchased online or in person at Sapna Book House. To read the author’s English translations of Bendre’s poems, visit the website here. If you’d like to encourage him, follow the website’s recently-created Twitter account here.)