The first, and by far the only complete translation of Tukaramachi Gatha or The
Collected Tukaram into English was done by J. Nelson Fraser and K.B. Marathe.
This was published by the Christian Literature Society, Madras (1905-1915). The
only other European language version of selected poems of Tukaram is G.A.
Deleury's Toukaram :Psaumes du perlerin (Gallimard, Paris, 1956). Fraser and
Marathe's translation comprises 3721 poems in all. Justin E. Abbott's monumental
11-volume series, Poet-Saints of Maharashtra (Scottish Mission Industries,
Poona, 1926) and Nicol Macnicol's Psalms of Maratha Saints (Christian Literature
Society, Calcutta, 1919) contain much fewer. Fraser and Abbot have both
attempted prose paraphrases while Macnicol has superimposed a heavily stylized
verse-form quite alien to the fluid colloquial folk-style of the original.
Deleury's 101 poems in French translation are the only European attempt to
create a poetic analogue of Tukaram's original work. The distinguished
Anglo-Marathi poet, Arun Kolatkar has published 9 translations of Tukaram's
poems (Poetry India, Bombay, 1966) and my own earlier versions of Tukaram have
appeared in Fakir, Delos, Modern Poetry in Translation, Translation and the
South-Asian Digest of Literature.
This is hardly an adequate
bibliography considering Tukaram's towering stature as a poet and his pervasive
influence on Marathi language and literature. He represents the vital link in
the mutation of a medieval Marathi literary tradition into modern Marathi
literature. His poems (nearly 5000) encompass the entire gamut of Marathi
culture. The dimensions of his work are so monumental that they will keep many
future generations of translators creatively occupied. In a sense, therefore,
Tukaram is a poet who belongs more to the future than to a historically bound
The translators of Tukaram fall
into different categories. Fraser and Abbott have rendered Tukaram into prose
rather like representing a spontaneous choreography as a purposeful walk.
Macnicol turns the walk into what seems like a military march. Only Deleury and
Kolatkar approach it as dance and in the spirit of dance. Deleury dwells on the
lyrical nuance and the emotional intensity of the original. Kolatkar
concentrates on the dramatic, the quick and the abrupt, the startling and the
cryptic element in Tukaram's idiom. This is hardly enough to give an idea of the
range, the depth and the complexity of the source text as a whole. Tukaram
forces one to face the fundamental problem of translating poetry: beneath the
simple and elegant surface structure of the source text lies a richer and vastly
complex deep structure that the target text must somehow suggest. This is
nothing short of a project lasting an exasperating lifetime. It is much easier
to play-act the role of Tukaram as a stylized vignette in whatever the
prevailing etat de langue permits. The culture of poetry is more biased and
partisan than the culture of translation. One would hesitate to elaborate on
this point at this juncture; but it needs to be made albeit in passing.
Problems of translation can be compared to
problems of instrumentation. The naked eye does not see what can be seen only
through a telescope; but a radio telescope literally makes the invisible
visible. An electron microscope is designed to "see" what lies beyond sight by
Unfortunately, there is no equipment
engineered to read beneath the surface of a specific source text. If the target
text is only an attempt to create a model of the source text, then every aspect
of the source text becomes equally sacrosanct and translation becomes obviously
translator presumes or directly apprehends how the source text functions, he
cannot begin to look for a possible translation. Poems function in delicate,
intricate and dynamic ways. Their original existence does not depend on specific
audiences or the possibility of eventual translators. No translation can
absolutely do away with the idea of the source text as an autonomously
functioning whole in another linguistic space and time.
There is an implicit
strangeness in every translated work, especially in translated poetry. A
translated poem is at best, an intimate stranger among its counterparts in the
target language. The stranger will retain traces of an odd accent; peculiar
turns of phrase, exotic references and even a wistful homesick look. These are
happy signs that poetry is born and is alive and kicking elsewhere too. That
other minds do exist is a fact that should be as often celebrated as it is
mourned by some puritanical critics.
Maharashtra, in Tukaram's time, was a practice that separated communities,
classes and castes. Bhakti was the middle way between the extremes of Brahminism
on the one hand and folk religion on the other. It was also the most democratic
and egalitarian community of worshippers, sharing a way of life and caring for
all life with a deep sense of compassion. The legacy of Jainism and Buddhism had
not disappeared altogether in Maharashtra. It was regenerated in the form of
Bhakti. Tukaram's penetrating criticism of the degenerated state of Brahminical
Hinduism, and his scathing comments on bigotry and obscurantism, profiteering
and profligacy in the name of religion, bear witness to his universal humanistic
concerns. He had the abhorrence of a true realist for any superstitious belief
or practice. He understood the nature of language well enough to understand how
it can be used to bewitch, mislead and distort. He had a healthy suspicion of
god-men and gurus. He believed that the individual alone was ultimately
responsible for his own spiritual liberation. He was not an escapist. His
mysticism was not rooted in a rejection of reality but rather in a spirited
response to it after its total acceptance as a basic fact of life. Tukaram's
hard common sense is not contracted by his mysticism: the two reinforce each
The Marathi poet-saints are an
exception to the general rule that Indian devotional literature shows little
awareness of the prevailing social conditions. The Marathi "saints", both
implicitly and explicitly, questioned the elitist monopoly of spiritual
knowledge and privilege embodied in the caste hierarchy. They were strongly
egalitarian and preached universal love and compassion. They trusted their
native language, Marathi, more than Sanskrit of the scriptures or the erudite
commentaries thereon. They made language a form of shared religion and religion
a shared language. It is they who helped to bind the Marathas together against
the Mughals on the basis not of any religious ideology but a territorial
cultural identity. Their egalitarian legacy continues into modern times with
Jotiba Phule, Vitthal Ramji Shinde, Chattrapati Shahu, Sayaji Rao Gaekwar and
B.R. Ambedkar - all outstanding social reformers and activists. The gamut of
Bhakti poetry has amazing depth, width and range: it is hermitic, esoteric,
cryptic, mystical; it is sensuous, lyrical, deeply emotional, devotional, it is
vivid, graphic, frank, direct; it is ironic, sarcastic, critical; it is
colloquial, comic, absurd; it is imaginative, inventive, experimental; it is
intense, angry, assertive and full of protest. In the 4000-plus poems of Tukaram
handed down to us by an unbroken oral tradition, there are poems to which all
the above adjectives fit.
The tradition of the Marathi saints
conceives the role of a poet in its own unique way and I am sure this has a deep
ethno-poetic significance. Bhakti is founded in a spirit of universal
fellowship. Its basic principle is sharing. The deity does not represent any
sectarian dogma to the Bhakta but only a common object of universal love or a
common spiritual focus. Poetry is another expression of the same fellowship.
Tukaram may have written his poems in loneliness but he recited them to live
audiences in a shrine of Vitthal. Hundreds of people gathered to listen his
poetry. The poetess Bahinabai a contemporary and a devoted follower of Tukaram
has described how Tukaram in a state of trance, chanted his poems while an
enraptured audience rocked to their rhythm. This has been a tradition from the
time of Jnanadev (1275-1296), the founder of Marathi poetry and the cult of
Vithoba and Namdeo (1270-1350), the great forerunner of Tukaram.The audience
consisted of common village-folk, including women and low-caste people, thrilled
by the heights their own language scaled and stirred by the depths it touched.
Paul Valery defines the difference between prose
and poetry as comparable to the difference between walking and dancing and
Tukaram's recitation must have seemed to his audience like pure dance, turning
nothingness into space.
Life, in all its aspects was the subject of
such poetry. Tukaram himself believed that he was only a medium of the poetry,
saying, "God speaks through me." This was said in humility and not with the
pompous arrogance of a god-man or the smug egoism of a poet laureate.
The saints are perhaps inaccurately called so
because the Marathi word "sant" used for them sounds so similar. The Marathi
word is derived from the Sanskrit "sat" which denotes being and awareness,
purity and divine spirit, wisdom and sagacity, the quality of being emancipated
and of being true. The relative emphases are somewhat different in the Christian
concept of sainthood, though there is an overlap.
fusion in Marathi gives us a unique view of poetry itself. In this view, moral
integrity and spiritual greatness are critical characteristics of both poetry
and the poet.
Tukaram saw himself as primarily a
poet. He has explicitly written about being a poet, the responsibility of a
poet, the difficulties in being a poet and so forth. He has also criticized
certain kinds of poetry and poets. It is clear that he would have agreed with
Heidegger that in poetry the language becomes one with the being of language.
Poetry was, for him, a precise description of the human condition in its naked
totality. It was certainly not an effete form of entertainment for him. Nor was
it ornamental. Language was a divine gift and it had to be returned to its
source, via poetry, with selfless devotion.
This would sound like a cliché, but
Tukaram's genius partly lies in his ability to transform the external world into
its spiritual analogue. The whole world became a sort of functional metaphor in
his poetry, a text. His poems have an apparently simple surface. But beneath the
simple surface lies a complex understructure and the tension between the two is
always subtly suggested.
The famous "signature line" of
each poem, "Says Tuka" opens the door to deeper structure. Aphoristic, witty,
satirical, ironic, wry, absurd, startling or mystical, these endings of
Tukaram's poems often set the entire poem into sudden reverse motion. They point
to an invisible, circular or spiral continuity between the apparent and the
real, between everyday language and the intricate world-image that it often
Thus, Tukaram sees the relationship between God
and His devotee as the relationship between God and his devotee. Tukaram is not
proposing the absolutely external existence of God, independent of man. He knows
that it is the devotee who creates an anthropomorphic image of God. He know that
in a sense it is a make-believe God entirely at the mercy of his creator-devotee
using a man-made language.
Tukaram is interested in a godlike
experience of being where there is no boundary between the subjective and the
objective, the personal and the impersonal, the individual and cosmic. He sees
his own consciousness as a cosmic event rooted in the everyday world but
stretching infinitely to the deceptive limits of awareness. "Too scarce to
occupy an atom," he writes, "Tuka is as vast as the sky."
One more striking aspects of Tukaram's poetry is its
distinct ethno-poetics or the Marathi-ness of its conception.
poetry developed in two divergent directions. One continued from the Sanskrit
classics - both religious and secular - and from the somewhat different
classicism of Prakrit poetry. In either case, it followed older, established
models and non-native literary sources. Imitations of Sanskrit models in a
highly Sanskritized language and using Sanskrit prosody as "well as stylistic
devices characterize this trend in Marathi literature. These "classicists"
neglected or deliberately excluded the use of native resources of demotic,
colloquial Marathi. Luckily, though this trend has continued in Marathi for the
last 700 years, only minority of writers (of not too significant talent) have
produced classicist literature.
Others, starting from the
pioneer of Marathi Bhakti poetry, Jnanadev, took precisely the opposite course.
They used the growing resources of vigorously developing Marathi language to
create a new literature of their own. They fashioned out a Marathi prosody from
the flexible meters of the graceful folk-songs of women at work in homes and
devotees at play in religious folk-festivals. They gave literary form to
colloquial speech, drawing their vocabulary from everyday usage of ordinary
people. The result was poetry far richer in body and more variegated in texture
than the standardized work of the "classicists". People by many voices, made
distinctive by many local and regional tonalities and enriched by spontaneous
folk innovation, Bhakti poetry became a phenomenal movement bringing
Marathi-speaking people together as never before. This poetry was sung and
per-formed by audiences that joined poet-singers in a chorus. Musical-literary
discourses or keertans that are a blend of oratory, theatre, solo and choral
singing and music were the new art form spawned by this movement. Bhajan was the
new form of singing poetry together and emphasizing its key elements by turning
chosen lines into a refrain. These comprise a new kind of democratic literary
transaction in which even illiterates are drawn to the core of a literary text
in a collective realization of some poet's work. This open-ended and
down-to-earth nativism found its fullest expression in Tukaram, three centuries
after Jnanadev and Namdeo had broken new ground by founding demotic Marathi
Bhakti poetry as a whole has so profoundly
shaped the very world-image of Marathi speakers that even unsuspecting moderns
cannot escape its pervasive mould. But Tukaram gave Bhakti itself new
existential dimensions. In this he was anticipating the spiritual anguish of
modern man two centuries ahead of his time. He was also anticipating a form of
personal, confessional poetry that seeks articulate liberation from the deepest
traumas man experiences and represses out of fear. Tukaram's poetry expresses
pain and bewilderment, fear and anxiety, exasperation and desperateness, boredom
and meaninglessness - in fact all the feelings that characterize modern
self-awareness. Tukaram's poetry is always apparently easy to understand and
simple in its structure. But it has many hidden traps. It has a deadpan irony
that is not easy to detect. It has deadly paradoxes and a savage black humour.
Tukaram himself is often paradoxical: he is an image-worshipping iconoclast; he
is a sensuous ascetic; he is an intense Bhakta who would not hesitate to destroy
his God out of sheer love. Tukaram knows that he is in charge of his own
feelings and the meaning of his poetry. This is not merely the confidence of a
master craftsman; it is much more. It is his conviction that man is responsible
for his own spiritual destiny as much as he is in charge of his own worldly
affairs. He believes that freedom means self-determination. He sees the
connection between being and making choice. His belief is a conscious choice for
which he has willingly paid a price.
Tukaram is therefore not only the
last great Bhakti poet in Marathi but he is also the first truly modern Marathi
poet in terms of temper and thematic choice, technique and vision. He is
certainly the most vital link between medieval and modern Marathi poetry.
Tukaram's stature in Marathi
literature is comparable to that of Shakespeare in English or Goethe in German.
He could be called the quintessential Marathi poet reflecting the genius or the
language as well as its characteristic literary culture. There is no other
Marathi writer who has so deeply and widely influenced Marathi literary culture
since. Tukaram's poetry has shaped the Marathi language, as it is spoken by 50
million people today and not just the literary language. Perhaps one should
compare his influence with that of the King James Version of the Bible upon
speakers of the English language. For Tukaram's poetry is also used by
illiterate millions to voice their prayers or to express their love of God.
Tukaram speaks the Marathi of
the common man of rural Maharashtra and not the elite. His language is not of
the Brahmin priests. It is the language of ordinary men such as farmers,
traders, craftsman, labourers and also the language of the average housewife.
His idiom and imagery is moulded from the everyday experience of people though
it also contains special information and insights from a variety of sources and
contexts. Tukaram transforms the colloquial into the classic with a universal
touch. At once earthy and other-worldly, he is able to create a revealing
analogue of spiritual life out of this-worldly language. He is, thus, able to
prove how close to common speech the roots of great poetry lie. Yet his poetry
does not yield the secret of its seamless excellence to even the most
sophisticated stylistic analysis. He is so great an artist that his
draughtsmanship seems to be an integral part of a prodigious instinct, a genius.
Tukaram's prolific output, by and large, consists
of a single spiritual autobiography revealed in its myriad facets. It defies any
classification once it is realized that common thematic strands and recurrent
motifs homogenize his work as a whole. In the end what we begin to hear is a
single voice - unique and unmistakable - urgent, intense, human and erasing the
boundary between the private domain and the public. Tukaram is an accessible
poet and yet his is a very difficult one. He keeps growing on you.