Introduction  Part III  of  IV  -   Dilip Chitre


         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 specific past.
         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 definition.
       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 impossible.
           Unless the 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.
           Religion in 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 other.
         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.
           The poet-saint 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 innocently implies.
      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.
           Medieval Marathi 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 poetry itself.
       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.


Introduction  Part IV  of  IV