Sunday, May 15, 2011

On Arvind Krishna Mehrotra's Songs of Kabir

Over the last month I've been reading Songs of Kabir, a new translation of some of Kabir's poems by the Indian poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. My review of the book appeared in the Wall Street Journal this weekend, but instead of merely posting it here, I thought I'd use this space to put up, and think about the work being done inside, a couple of poems from the book.

If this new volume supplies pleasures very different from the translations of Kabir's verse produced in the last decade by Vinay Dharwadker, Linda Hess and Shukdev Singh, and John Stratton Hawley and Mark Juergensmeyer, it is because Mehrotra approaches Kabir not exclusively in the spirit of fidelity to a particular text and context. He comes to Kabir more in the performative tradition, "as an anonymous medieval singer would approach a pada," but equally, as a modern poet would approach an ancient one. Here is one his versions that, since Kabir's poems are without titles, we might refer to by its first line:
"The Night Has Passed"
The night has passed
The day will too;
A heron nests
Where the black bee hummed.
Like a young bride thinking
Will he? Won't he?
The soul trembles with fear.

This raw clay pitcher
From which water leaks
And color runs
Is good for nothing
Once the swan has flown.

My time goes in shooing crows
The arms ache from it
And the palms burn.
That's the end of the story,
Kabir says.
The poem is a forest of powerful symbols dramatising man's fear of death: the heron stands for old age and the crow for imminent death; the black bee for youth; and the swan for the human soul, which is also pictured as a young bride. "The power of the poem," notes Dharwadker, who translates the same poem in his book Kabir: The Weaver's Songs (2003),"lies in its lyricism, its brevity and suggestiveness, and its enigmatc style as well as message." Here is Dharwadker's rendition of the same text:

The night's gone:
   don't let the day go by, too
The bumblebees have left:
   the cranes have arrived, alighted.

The soul, a young girl,
   trembles, thinking:
I don't know
   what my husband's going to do.

Water won't keep
   in a jar of unbaked clay.
The swan has flown away:
   the body wilts.

Kabir says:
   My arms ache
from scaring off the crows.
   This tale has reached its end.
This is good too, and indeed I prefer the slow descent of Dharwadker's mournful close to Mehrotra's somewhat anti-climactic "Kabir says".

But I think Mehrotra achieves a moment of spectacular success with his rendition of the opening lines as "A heron nests/ Where the black bee hummed", which compresses these contrasting states into the smallest possible space to emphasise the extent of the reversal. It also places the present and more immediate state before the past one (unlike Dharwadker, who may be following Kabir more closely line for line), and uses one present-tense verb and one past-tense one (against two past-tense verbs in Dharwadker). Even the choice of verbs is acute, playing off the moderation of "nests" against the vigour and energy of "hummed".

This is not all. Even the use of "a" for the heron and "the" for the black bee oozes meaning, suggesting the native confidence and long reign of youth, a phase of life that sees its power as something enduring, imperishable, and therefore as the black bee, before it is superseded by the frailty of old age, whose disillusionment is figured as a heron. Mehrotra's version, much more than Dharwadker's, raises the ghost of Shakespeare's great sonnet about old age "That Time Of Year You Mayst In Me Behold", in which the body is pictured not as a clay pot but as an autumn tree:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

Notice that Dharwadker gives us four four-line stanzas while Mehrotra breaks up the same lines into section of seven, five, and five; indeed, Mehrotra's versions are frequently more jagged and his lines more free-form than more traditional renderings of Kabir's padas, which in the originals almost always have even-numbered lines. Again, Mehrotra writes as someone who hears Kabir echoing off both the eastern and the western poetic tradition, and has no qualms about prefacing his versions with epigraphs from poems by poets as diverse as Bhartrhari, Devara Dasimayya, Horace, Marcus Aurelius, Ezra Pound, Tom Paulin and the blues singer Lead Belly. Some readers will resist this, but I think it is by the power of lines such as "A heron nests/Where the black bee hummed" that Mehrotra earns the liberty to give us a Kabir that sounds like a New York rapper:
To tonsured monks and dreadlocked Rastas
To idol worshippers and idol smashers,
To fasting Jains and feasting Shaivites,
To Vedic pundits and Faber poets,
The weaver Kabir sends one message:
The noose of death hangs over all.
Only Rama's name can save you.
Say it NOW.
In the yoking of these dreadlocked Rastas and Faber poets to a fifteenth-century Banaras we hear the voice of someone seeking, as Mehrotra says, to produce "both a work of translation based on the best available critical editions and...a further elaboration of the Kabir corpus, taking its place alongside those that have already been in existence for hundreds of years." I'd say Dharwadker's remains the classic text to go to for a first reading of Kabir, but here in Mehrotra is a twenty-first century Kabir with whom you are sometimes likely to quarrel, but which encounter you are unlikely to easily forget. These are translations that repeatedly make us feel that, to borrow a phrase from the classicist DS Carne-Ross on a book of modern translations of the Roman poet Horace, we have been given "a poem for a poem".

If you can't easily find Songs of Kabir in Indian bookstores, as is likely, you can easily buy it on the excellent  online bookeller here.  Another poem from Mehrotra's book, "Except That It Robs You Of Who You Are", is here. A good interview with Mehrotra in Tehelka about these translations is here ("There Is A Problem With Our English").

Should you want to hear a Kabir in two media rather than one, the book to buy is Linda Hess's recent volume of translations Singing Emptiness, which comes with a CD of Kabir's songs performed by Kumar Gandharva, two of which you can hear here: "Sunta Hai Guru Gyani" and "Ud Jayega". Gandharva's stirring renditions of Kabir can also be heard on the soundtrack of Rajula Shah's marvellous documentary about the presence of Kabir in India today Word Within The Word, a clip from which is here.

And last, since we're unlikely to return in the near future to the subject of herons in classical Indian poetry, here is the Sangam poet Orampokiyar's marvellous "The Herons Have Come".


Cache said...

Can you please tell me if this book has the original verse as well, or just the translation?


Rohit Thombre said...

Thanks for this lovely post Chandrahas! Great linkage at the end as usual. I would very much like to get my hands on the bilingual edition and see if Kabir is really as badass as Mehrotra makes him sound! The dohas we were force-fed in school Hindi certainly gave no such indication.
However, could not resist ordering the NYRB edition.

Anonymous said...

A heron nests, where the black bee hummed...
loaded with meaning and i might have missed it had i not read your blog :-)