Flavourful translation of Chandrashekhar Kambar's plays "Rishyasringa" and "Mahmoud Gawan"

Print edition : December 04, 2020

Chandrashekhar Kambar. His plays are known for their folk and rural content and their lyrical beauty and innovative theatrical presentations. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Krishna Manavalli. Photo: By Special Arrangement

A scene from the play ‘Mahmoud Gawan’. From his “almost exclusive use of sexuality as a creative power” in the wake of the influences of modernism in his early plays such as ‘Rishyasringa’, Kambar has come a long way in ‘Mahmoud Gawan’, in his engagement with “vastly different concerns like history, colonialism and globalisation”. Photo: By Special Arrangment

In translating Kambar’s two plays, ‘Rishyasringa’ and ‘Mahmoud Gawan’, Krishna Manavalli has achieved a rare perfection.

The two translations of Chandrashekhar Kambar’s plays retain the lyrical imagination and folk-inspired creativity of the originals.

Chandrashekhar Kambar is a name that ignited this writer’s imagination and that of the literature-loving Malayalee youth in the 1970s and 1980s and through the succeeding decades. Malayalam weekly magazines such as Kalakaumudi and Mathrubhumi would publish features regularly on Kannada literary luminaries such as Sreekrishna Alanahalli, U.R. Ananthamurthy, Chandrashekhar Kambar, P. Lankesh and K. P. Poornachandra Tejaswi. Translations of the works of Sreekrishna, Ananthamurthy and Kambar were featured regularly in these publications continuously through the 1980s and 1990s, especially in Mathrubhumi. C. Raghavan and A.V.M. Narayanan were the renowned translators from Kannada to Malayalam. Of these, C. Raghavan’s translations of Kambar’s works such as Singaravva Mattu Aramane (Kolothe Chingaramma in Malayalam) stole readers’ hearts. Ever since, Kambar has been a lovable presence in the Malayalee psyche. Kambar’s famous plays of those times, Jokumaraswamy and Siri Sampige, were hotly discussed in Malayalam literary circles for their folk and rural content and their lyrical beauty and innovative theatrical presentations.

I saw Chandrashekhar Kambar in person for the first time when Ananthamurthy was being presented with the Masti Prashashti by the Government of Karnataka in Bangalore in 1995. Kambar was on stage along with Ramakrishna Hegde, felicitating Ananthamurthy. Although I did not understand a word of Kannada then, from their tête-à-tête I understood Kambar perfectly well—he was speaking and laughing with his entire body! Kambar soon grew into an all-India literary figure. He became the founder Vice Chancellor of Kannada University, Hampi, and the Chairman of the National School of Drama, New Delhi, and won the Jnanpith Award. Currently, he is the president of the Sahitya Akademi.

I mentioned at the beginning the huge impact the direct translation of a text from one south Indian language into another would have among the target language readership in order to contextualise the rare success of a translation into English from Kannada, a language that does not share the same family tree as English, and to better appreciate the crowning of the efforts of the English translator. In translating Kambar’s two plays—one of his earliest, Rishyasringa, and the recent Mahmoud Gawan—Krishna Manavalli has achieved a rare perfection. She is the kritahasta translator, accomplished in the poetic use of the English language, in negotiating myths and meanings from a folk-colloquial Kannada text. Krishna Manavalli writes that her “intimacy with the corpus of Kambar’s writings” developed over time, which she likens to the familiarisation with a raga over a lifetime, that has helped “to capture the subtle nuances of his idiom”.

As Pandit Rajeev Taranath, the celebrated sarod maestro and noted literary critic of the 1970s, observes in his Foreword about the translation, Krishna Manavalli successfully “handles” the “two kinds of Kannada—the rural and the ‘neutral’”—in Kambar’s plays. Further, he notes, “Both plays in English read easily and urge the reader seriously forward. This is a triumph of precise selection and intelligent use of a target language. I would recommend this work to anyone who wants to look at the art of translation.” I wholeheartedly agree with Panditji.

He begins the Foreword by analysing Kambar’s writing which first struck him when he was strongly engaging with the “Eliot/Lawrentian mode of modernism”. He further notes that Kambar’s early works such as Helatini Kela, Rishyasringa and Jokumaraswamy can be linked to modernist concerns for their deep, underlying themes of sexuality and fertility. In the writings of Western scholars of myth, such as Jessie Weston and James Frazer “in the Euro-American literary discourse”, Panditji had countenanced these themes (for instance, the Western myths of the Fisher King and Tiresias, strongly connected with fertility), which afforded him an entry into Kambar’s world. Panditji also observes that from Kambar’s “almost exclusive use of sexuality as a creative power” in the wake of the influences of modernism in his early plays such as Rishyasringa, Kambar had come a long way in Mahmoud Gawan, in his engagement with “vastly different concerns like history, colonialism and globalisation”.

The genesis of ‘Rishyasringa’

Kambar, in his Author’s Note, explains the genesis of the play thus: Having been born in a small village called Ghodgeri, near Saudatti (famous for its Renuka/Yellamma temple and cult) in Belagavi district of northern Karnataka, he witnessed, in his childhood, the British colonising the neighbouring areas near the Gokak falls to establish a textile mill. His impressionable mind was always agitated against the British who imposed an alien yet dominating culture in the area. That childhood abhorrence of an alien imposition and the aspiration to throw the foreign rakshasa out, that grew in him through his youth, led him to write his long poem Helatini, Kela (Listen, I Will Tell You) in the 1960s. In this poem there is “the demon/tiger, an outsider, penetrating the village disguised as the village chieftain. There is also the story of the demon’s son, Balagonda, who had had a British education. All these disturbing elements which I brought up in Helatini Kela reflect the personal as well as collective anxieties that my village and I had felt,” writes Kambar.

Kambar remembers that what he recorded first in his long poem Helatini Kela and then in his play Rishyasringa was the memories preserved in the rich oral tradition of his community and that this folk idiom is an essential aspect of his writing. However, he felt that the poem was incomplete in narrating the folktale and, therefore, the need to develop the characters and to make a fuller rendition. That was how Rishyasringa was born. Kambar continues: “So, Rishyasringa became a sequel to Helatini Kela. In the play, I brought the demon’s son, the English-educated Balagonda, to the centre of the narrative. The sense of failure and desperation Balagonda feels when he comes to know of his origins points to our own predicament in the post-colonial world.”

The two plays under review here, The Bringer of Rains: Rishyashringa and Mahmoud Gawan, are two seemingly different plays in theme and treatment, but the underlying concerns are similar—the eternal saga of public life and politics sullied by malicious elements and vested interests.

Rishyhashringa is concerned with the introduction of a corrupting influence from the external sphere (read foreign influences or any such) in the form of a demon disguised as a seven-striped tiger who devours the ruler of the region, the Gowda, and shape-shifting as the old Gowda, impregnates his wife, the Gowdti, with a son, Balagonda, who, like Rishyasringa of the Mahabharata, is a virgin and is expected to bring rain to assuage the aridity of the region caused by the demon-tiger’s presence. However, Balagonda initially flounders in his mission precisely owing to his spurious origins.

Neutral language of ‘Mahmoud Gawan’

Though Rishyashringa is written in the folk-idiom-mixed Kannada of the northern region, in Mahmoud Gawan, Kambar resorts to a “neutral” language to deal with themes that are broader and historical. It is happening away from his imaginary milieu, in a historical space and time, and it reflects “the contemporary political turmoil in the country”. In Mahmoud Gawan, there is the element of the foreigner coming in, but he is benign and altruistic and has been drawn from Iran by the spiritual magnetism of the great Sufi master Bande Nawaz who had tried to bring the Hindu and Muslim faiths and cultures together in a fusion. Gawan becomes the Diwan (Prime Minister) of the Bahamani Sultan, based in Bidar, north Karnataka. Here, the villainous characters are in the royal court itself (the Turk and Nizam particularly), full of intrigue and malice, who thwart the well-meaning and innocent Gawan’s attempts at serving the subjects during a great famine. The amoral Sultan is easily manipulated into condemning Gawan to death on trumped-up charges. In both plays, demonic politics wreaks havoc; in the latter case, the much-wonted communal harmony, nurtured by such a towering personality as Bande Nawaz, is attempted to be deliberately shattered. The saving grace is the symbolic fusion of Lord Vitthala and Allah in the final scene.

Kambar believes that “politics decides men’s fate. Besides, while the Western ideas of myth and history are different, in the folk vision, they overlap.… My Gawan is as much a historical figure as a man of mythical stature.”

Myth and history mingle here in another way as well. The myth of the Mahar Vitthala is still a live presence in the collective consciousness of Bidar. The main message of the play, maintaining religious harmony between Hindus and Muslims, rests solidly on the historical fact of “the great Savalagi sage and the legendary Sufi saint Bande Nawaz meeting and swapping robes, to mark their mission of bringing in religious harmony, is also part of north Karnataka history. The swamy wore the green and Bande Nawaz donned the saffron that day,” as Kambar points out.

Lyrical beauty

The lyrical beauty of the play The Bringer of Rain: Rishyasringa is captivating. In the traditional structure of the Sutradhara prompting the action on the stage, and the chorus bringing up and welding together the narrative strands, with characters acting out their parts in the five acts with richly poetic lines for their dialogues, the text affords an unforgettable reading experience. A taste of the flavourful translation retaining the local cultural expressions, without any footnote, is given at the very beginning in the place of the traditional Ganapati Vandanam (Obeisance to Lord Ganesh, the remover of obstacles). Here it is titled “Ganapa Song”, wherein the word “Benaka”, a local term for “Vinayaka”, and another name for Lord Ganesh, “Gajaninga”, are used.

At the very outset, at the beginning of Act I, the Sutradhara is presented as a local wise guy, who opens his remarks with a self-deprecatory, witty appeal to the audience:

Brothers seated and brothers standing there!

We’re just raw youth, who came here

And right away got on to the stage.

The one who wrote our play is no seasoned poet,

The ones who act are ignorant lads

If they slip up and go wrong,

Please don’t clap and laugh

And don’t try that gleeful double-whistle!

A ritual breaking of the coconut follows, starting off the Prelude. The stage direction here stipulates that “In the Prelude, the acting, the dialogue and the manner should all follow the style of the traditional folk-play, Srikrishnaparijatha. The Sutradhara continues the preliminary remarks in his inimitable style, which the translator has brought out effectively and with ease. Here enters the character Kamali (Kamala, the outcaste girl), and the chorus too enter, and there is an exchange between the Sutradhara and the chorus about who she is, what she wants, etc., in the most hilarious, yet ominous manner (in that she is referred to by the males on stage as an easy sexual prey, indicative of how low-caste women were taken for granted in rural society). Upon being pressed, Kamali tells them that she has been seeing a bad dream persistently at the end of which… “I saw the dark seven-headed serpent king! /He pushed his head in, and set my body aflame/He pressed, smothered and crushed me into a jelly/Then he squeezed me hard and slithered away…/”, and the dream continues.

The narration continues through the five acts, dwelling on the terrible consequences of the demon-child being trusted to bring rain and fertility, driving home the message that however positive and altruistic an intention is, if the very fount of karma is vitiated, then the outcome will be dismal and that correction must be done, rooting out the original taint. Balagonda confronts the old Gowda, his father, who taunts him back for his wordiness and lack of action. Balagonda, in a moment of extreme disgust, hurls a stone at his father. He kills him and retrieves his turban, gem and sickle—the symbols of his authority. He packs the dead body into a bag, which the Sutradhara terms as “the bundle of old karma” and throws it in an old dry well. He reunites with Kamali, whom he had linked up with earlier, and the rains do finally arrive.

Realistic structure

In Mahmoud Gawan, instead of the five-acts scheme, we have the play in two parts—Part I and II—each part having 10 and 12 scenes, respectively. While Rishyasringa is a verse-play, Mahmoud Gawan has prose dialogues and a sophisticated, realistic structure for the most part, except for the revelation by Gawan in his last address to Ahmed Shah, which begins thus: “Huzoor, you have already become the disciple of some devil….” He reveals that “Allah came in the form of Mahar Vitthala….” This is a reference to a surrealistic interlude that had taken place at the court in the presence of Sultan Ahmed Shah a little while earlier, in which Lord Vitthala had entered in the guise of a Mahar (a Dalit) messenger with bagfuls of money comprising the tax arrears which the much-respected Marathi official Damaji Panta had collected from the Khelana region in Maharashtra and also the cost of free foodgrains that Gawan had distributed among the poor subjects who had been suffering owing to the famine in the villages (the two misconducts Gawan was accused of). The miracle is revealed when Panta rushes in as soon as the Mahar leaves and beseeches Gawan in front of the king to excuse him because he was unable to collect taxes owing to the continuing drought, and on subsequently hearing that Mahar Vitthala had brought the money, divines from the very name itself that it was Lord Vitthala who performed this impossible feat! That too in the guise of an untouchable Mahar!

This last address sums up the main action of the play and exposes the futility of altruism and positivity in the face of absolute evil. After terming the Sultan’s mind diabolic, he blesses the Begum Mother for treating him like a mother would, and Neeli, the Sapphire, for being a daughter to him and teaching him that “when politics turns foul, it is our duty to protest”. He gives the main message of the play: “Allah! Are you listening to me? Like Sivalinga and Bande Nawaz, I too served the people, with a little difference. In times like these, everything is topsy-turvy! Nature revolts. Even seasons race helter-skelter like scared cattle. Cause and effect have lost connection. Therefore, now man’s fate must be decided only by ruthless politics. The main inspiration behind the rise of the Bahmani dynasty was the blending of the two religions. It was born with the promise of bringing politics and dharma, the ethics, together. But now politics doesn’t need morality.” He goes on to stress the need for morality and wisdom in politics. Thus, he wanted to resist the divisive forces of caste, religion, sects and political differences; he says that although principled efforts like his may not be appreciated immediately and he may be executed for them, such efforts must continue.

At the end of this speech, he bends his head before the executioners’ axes (1481 CE), much like Thomas More, another upright Prime Minister who stood his ground against his despotic monarch, almost half a century later (1535 CE) in England. However, the last words he utters, the exclamation Din hari hara (or the blending of the Islamic faith and the Vaishnavite–Shaivite faith of India), project the only possible hope for a country like ours, which is now in the throes of extreme communal and religious divisions.

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