The ant swallowed the sun

Shruthi Vishwanath reflects on Bhakti and the self through songs in translation.

Mungi udali aakashi tine gilile suryashi

thor navlav zahala vanzhe putra prasavla

vinchu patalashi zay shesh matha vandi pay

mashi vyali ghar zhali dekhon muktai hasali

An ant flew into the sky, she swallowed the sun

Surprise! Surprise! A barren woman gave birth to a child

A scorpion burrows into the underworld, Shesh bows his head down to its feet

A fly gave birth to a hawk

Muktabai watched

Muktabai laughed

Muktabai, 14th century warikari poet and philosopher

I feel very much like an ant in the world of translation. I walk the path of giants who have come before me, and I don’t know if I can ever claim to be an authority in language or bhakti poetry. What I do know is that bhakti, nirguni, and sufi poetry has been my sun, my light, and it has illuminated and devoured me, transforming me in the process.

I am primarily a musician. Song makes me truly come alive in all of my senses. I studied classical sensibilities for almost two decades before I realized I did not fully relate to the Carnatic idiom or structure. It was then the 15th century Kabir who ‘wounded me with the word’, sending me on a journey of folk sounds, mysticism and poetry. And as I dug deeper, I realised that there were striking parallels in the nirguni tradition of Kabir and the Naths, and the warikari tradition of Maharashtra.

The warikari tradition (I say warikari, not varkari – because I enjoy the symmetry of the spelling, and how it celebrates the etymology of the word better – wari meaning journey or pilgrimage and kari meaning to undertake) is one that I have been immersed in since I was a young child. My mother took me to a women’s group, which I later discovered was an abhang mandali, where we learnt abhangs together. I was the only seven year old among others who were at least three decades older than me, but I enjoyed it thoroughly, learning to play the taal, and singing popular and not-so-popular abhangs. Luckily, teenage rebellion had not yet set in, and I continued for almost seven years. The idea that the words that I was singing meant something had not set in either, I just sang because I could and was good at it.

That I am now a translator seems strange to me because of the history of my relationship with words. Foraying into translation took a lot of shedding of notions for me. As a young person entering the world of mystic music, I am used to encountering questions of why I do what I do. Bhakti struck me when I was at my most vulnerable state, questioning my practice Strangely, these wounds heal and then get deeper over time, healing and opening repeatedly, intensifying with every performance. For the longest time though, I did not actually pay much attention to the words of what I was singing.

abeer gulaal udhalit rang

natha ghari nache mazha sakha pandurang

umbarthyasi kaise shivu, amhi zati hin

roop tuzhe kaise pahu tyat amhi deen

payarishi hou dang gauni abhang

natha ghari nache mazha sakha pandurang.

As a musician, it often only mattered that I was singing in tune and enjoying myself. One of the earliest pieces of music I remember learning was the mystic Chokhamela’s well-known abhang ‘Abeer Gulaal’. When I learned and heard this abhang as a child, I was told the generic meaning. ‘Vitthal is dancing with his devotees throwing coloured powder into the air.’ I did not question it. Years later, when it started becoming one of my most requested songs in concert, I got to know that Chokhamela was from the Mahar caste, one of the most oppressed communities, and that he may have been a bonded labourer. I found myself questioning why it was so uniformly happy.

But it is not. I suspect it is the nature of human beings to sugar-coat things and see one side of it. Often, music becomes a relief from the grind of everyday existence, and therefore one does not want to be confronted with the politics and realities of the world. It is certainly the case in mystic poetry to take what are seen as the ‘happy’ aspects of human life and its description and paint the poetic canvas with one brush.

In this case, the most poignant aspect of the poetry, Chokhamela’s tussle with not being allowed into the temple due to his caste, plays up in the first verse. When English translations were needed for a production, dancer Sanjukta Wagh and I translated the verse like the following:

How can I touch the threshold?

I am but an outcaste

We, the lowly

How do we see you?

On the step, we stand

And sing!

While you dance my friend, my sakha Pandurang.

Finally, I had begun connecting to the music at the level of words. I soon discovered that I needed to translate the poets that I sang in my own way, fully embracing my identities as a woman, and an intersectional feminist, interested in social justice and bringing out the women’s voices in what I believed was the way they might have spoken them in English. It wasn’t born out of the need to become a translator, but the need to speak to my listeners in a language that they understood, and tell them what I was hearing in the music and words. Most importantly, it sprang out of the need to articulate that which could not be articulated, a visceral energy space that had made me relate to these traditions and embrace them as my own.

tulashiche bani zani ukalit veni

hati gheuniya loni doi choli chakrapani

mazhe zanila nahin koni mhanuni dev ghali pani

zani sange sarv loka nhau ghali mazha sakha

(in the forests of tulasi, Jani unravels her plaits.

butter in hand, Chakrapani massages her head

‘my Jani has no one’ Having said that, God pours the water

Jani tells everybody ‘My dear friend is bathing me’)

Janabai, the 14th-century wari-kari poet, is a woman who speaks straight to my heart. The multiplicity of the voices that she writes with is truly astonishing. As a servant in Namdev’s house, we know that she was from an oppressed caste, and was also used to doing tedious labour for a family that did not have very much to begin with. Scholars who have worked on attribution say that there may have been multiple poets writing as Janabai, but questions of attribution and related notions about originality and authenticity do not interest me. What does interest me is the female voice that has survived across several centuries, telling the story of seeking, defiance, and desire that is very much relevant today. (read more)

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