| - By Dilip
| 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
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
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
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
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
|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
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