Tagged: Translations

Four Crores of Poems

Recently I found myself explaining the meaning of the word crore (Indian term for ten million) more than once in course of conversation, which reminded me of a classic Tamil poem from primary-school days, by the poet Avvaiyar whose quote:
What we have learned is as much a handful of earth
What we are yet to learn is as much the entire world
is exhibited at NASA.

Avvaiyar was an enigmatic poet who is said to have lived a thousand, two thousand, or three thousand years ago, no one knows for sure. Very little is known about her, including her real name. Like the name Lao-Tse (who is alleged to be an ancient Tamil mystic) implies ‘Old Master’, Avvai is a generic term for a woman with the suffix ‘yar’ indicating respect. She is believed to have been a wandering minstrel who travelled by foot through the realms of Tamil Kings of yore and blessed, praised, counselled, and even saved them through her poetry. What has survived of Avvaiyar over the millennia is her poetry, among the most famous of it being a set of alphabetical aphorisms for young children that impart moral lessons through terse phrases. And some interesting stories about her trysts with the Kings of the age, fellow poets and citizens, all of whom celebrated her erudition and wisdom.

One of these stories is about a competition in which all the poets of the land were called forth to submit four crores of poems. As an impoverished poet who was desperate to win the prize struggled to write as many poems, it is said that Avvaiyar composed these stanzas in a few moments and gave it to him. I have attempted to translate from the Tamil, but the beauty of the original verse is elusive to translate, as is the rhythm of the words and the way they blend together to create meaning at multiple levels.

Them who do not respect you –
To never set your foot
upon their threshold
Now that is worth a crore

Those who do not urge you
to dine beneath their roof –
To avoid eating at their home
Now that is worth a crore

To expend a crore, and more
to be in the company of
those who are noble-born
Now that is worth a crore

Even when offered crores,
To sway from the truth –
To stand firm by your word
Now that is worth a crore

Avvaiyar (Ancient Tamil Poet)

Streams of Poetry

A few months ago,, I was delighted to read about a new translation from Subramaniya Bharati’s poetry in the Caravan magazine. The excerpts of the poems translated by Usha Rajagopalan are strictly faithful to the original, and fleetingly evoke shades of the beauty of Bharati’s original verse.

Like most children growing up in Chennai, I was force-fed Bharati’s poetry from the time I was about five years old, both in terms of verse and song. Exposed to so much of his poetry that was sung at school functions, taught in classical music classes, heard often over the Television and quoted in course of everyday conversations, I almost took his presence in my life for granted. It was only in my late teens while on vacation from Engineering College that I began to seriously read his poetry. I bought myself a compact version of his complete works and would dip into it from time to time, feeling inspired and soothed, pleased and enriched. This little book has since then remained on my desk, just within reach.

Intensity is the word that comes to mind on reading Bharatiyar. His total absorption with nature, his fiery idealism, his deep sense of humanity, his love of the country, his vision for a free Nation, his philosophical musings on the concept of God and his exposition of the epics through his own verse – every word of it conveyed a passion and strength of the kind that perhaps is born only out of divine inspiration. Reading his love poems addressed to God as imagined as a friend, lover, husband, child, servant or teacher, one could feel how agape – the highest form of divine love flowed down into its various other expressions.

I tried to watch the film on Bharati’s life four times over a period of several years before I was able to see it completely. For the first three times, I was unable to sit through it to the end. I did not think that I could bear to see the great poet pass away at the age of thirty eight, after he was attacked by an elephant in a temple. Finally I braced myself to watch it and to my surprise, I did not cry when he passed. For it is poets who pass away. How can poetry die? And Bharatiyar was not just a poet, he was and remains poetry personified.

The film is a work of art and beautifully showcases the life of the poet, bringing out his idealistic, progressive and unconventional life and his genius which sometimes bordered on the edge of madness.

I do not plan to read the translation anytime soon, having access to the original work written in my native Tamil. But in this early morning hour as soon as I finish writing this, I will reach out for my book of Bharati’s original verse in sweet Tamil, and dip into it again for a few minutes as one does into a cool stream of thoughts, and rise refreshed and re-inspired.

This song from the movie which is one of the popular philosophical poems of the poet gives me goosebumps every time I listen to it.

My translation of the first two stanzas, quoted in my novel.

“All you who stand still, you that walk, you that fly above,
Are you all dreams, deceptions that within the mind abound?
All that I have learned, that I have heard, that I think I know,
Are those illusions too, can their real meaning be found?

The spreading skies, the trees, the soft sun beams,
Are these tangible or fragments of thought streams?
The past is buried, gone like a dream, does that make me a dream too?
Is the illusion of this world false, or is it true?”