Literary Review

Sacred thoughts

Arundhathi Subramaniam. Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash  

Arundhathi Subramaniam: You’ve already translated Andal (The Secret Garland). Was it a deepening fascination with the Srivaishnava tradition that led you to Nammalvar?

Archana Venkatesan: I didn’t come to Nammalvar naturally. After Andal, I wanted to take up Tirumankai. He is an arresting poet, a risk-taker, an innovator; his poetry is luscious. That his hagiography is fascinating and prone to multiple incarnations like Andal’s, was an added bonus. Nammalvar, on the other hand, scared me a bit. For the Srivaishnavas, he is the greatest poet, a supreme philosopher. To tackle him, I felt was a job for another lifetime. But he found his way to me in unexpected ways. I’d been interested in Araiyar Sevai, having worked on it at Srivilliputtur as part of the Andal project. On a whim, I went to Alvar Tirunagari one December, to experience their Araiyar Sevai, and had a life-altering encounter with Araiyar Srinivasan. At the end of my visit, he handed me an Araiyar Sevai manuscript known as TampiranPati and requested that I digitise and transcribe the whole thing. Thus began my unexpected engagement with Nammalvar. I started reading the poems and commentaries again deeply, at first because I wanted to understand the Adhyayanotsavam at Alvar Tirunagari, and eventually because I couldn’t get the Tiruviruttam out of my mind.

AS: Why the Tiruviruttam, in particular?

AV: Well, for many reasons, not the least of which was that I simply couldn’t make any sense of it at first. Translation became a way to get inside the skin of the poem, to make meaning from within the poem, to imagine myself living inside this vast and complex body and peering outwards. I wanted to understand it on its terms, then on my own terms, outside of how the commentaries were directing me to read it.

AS: How were the challenges of Nammalvar different from those of translating Andal? And what are the more generic challenges of translating classic texts?

AV: Nammalvar and Andal are very different poets and each presented unique challenges. With Andal, the greatest obstacle was finding a distinctive voice. My readings of the Tiruppavai and Nacciyar Tirumoli were indebted to the many months I had spent in Srivilliputtur. This was a great boon, texturing how I understood the two poems. Yet it also veiled them, making it hard to find a clean, resonant register. With the Tiruviruttam, the challenge rested in the work’s opacity, its poetical and philosophical complexity. Nammalvar is a virtuosic poet. He’s like a musician who can make music in the silence between notes, all the feeling lies in the space between the unstruck, unsung notes. How do you convey this visceral, embodied sensation of reading, reciting the poem into a translation? That was a huge challenge. The experience of translating him was deeply affective, and the translation became my anubhava of the poem, a record of all the highs, the moments of a-ha, and heartfelt sighs at the beauty of his language, the grandness of his ideas. I learned to stop obsessing about what was lost in translation, and started to think about how translation is transformative: of the poem, the poet and the translator. In the end, working on the Tiruviruttam fundamentally changed how I approach my task as a translator.

AV: In your Introduction, you describe the Bhakti poets as feral. Many of these poems are crafted to seem spontaneous but, on closer inspection, are the very opposite. As a poet yourself, could you speak of that disciplining of emotion into language?

AS: Yes, that’s the perennial tension, isn’t it — between craft and creativity, manual labour and magic? And yet, at certain moments, when you’re lucky, the two come together quite harmoniously, even alchemically. It’s clear that many of these poets were masters of certain poetic forms, so they weren’t self-indulgent songsters by any means. Neither were they mere virtuosos. At the best of times, they aligned formal mastery with that deep scorching inner imperative to express themselves in word and song. And there’s enough rawness in the voice to remind you that this alignment isn’t easily arrived at.

AV: Can you talk about the specific, evocative sub-divisions you’ve created that invite cross-regional/ linguistic conversations? What were your strategies in ordering these poems, both as a way to invite the reader into their universe, and to destabilise that very ordering?

AS: There are several wonderful books on Bhakti literature that have already mapped the scene according to region, language and chronology. Since this volume wasn’t intended only for readers of poetry, or lovers of the classics, but also for seekers across the board, I decided on a less conventional trajectory. I chose to trace the emotional arc of bhakti — from longing, fear, lust, doubt, despair and rage to ecstasy and liberation. This meant the poems arranged themselves according to timbre and emotional weather, rather than a more schematic design.

Along the way, I uncovered fascinating convergences across contexts — for instance, both Nammalvar and Kabir invoke gustatory images of divinity (‘eating god’, as it were). At the same time, there are interesting divergences. Gujarati poet Akho describes the human body as a ‘pampered carcass’, Kannada mystic Basavanna invokes it as a ‘moving temple’ and Marathi woman poet Soyarabai declares ‘if menstrual blood makes me impure,/ show me one who wasn’t born of that blood’.

These subtle inner disruptions are wonderful reminders that the devotee’s journey’s is far from uniform or monochromatic. It was exciting setting up conversations between poets whom, one imagines, would have enjoyed each other’s company, even while they’d find much to spar over! I enjoyed playing eavesdropper.

For poetry lovers, I think the book offers the compelling utterances of a wide array of mystic poets. For seekers of all persuasions, I think it could be a companion on an often terrifyingly uncertain and solitary journey. There’s Akka Mahadevi’s reminder of ‘the Brahman hiding in yearning’, for example. And Tukaram’s exquisite reassurance: ‘When a catastrophe wipes you out/ and nothing remains/…god is visiting you.’

AV: You’ve translated a few poems from the Tamil text, Abirami Antati. Why this poem? What were the vexations and high points of translation?

AS: I embarked on it primarily because there were already several male divinities in the book, and I wanted more poems in praise of the Divine Feminine. Since I’m a bit of a Devi bhakta myself, the prospect excited me. (I’m no Tamil scholar, however, so the inputs of literary ‘insiders’ like P.R. Umamaheshwaran and ‘Marabin Maindan’ Muthiah, who also introduced me to the work, were vital.)

Vexing? Tremendously. Form, tone, image, line length, all of it! These are poems of formidable technical expertise, complexity, density and exuberance. Rather than transpose them into fixed, potentially rigid forms, I chose free verse, trying to balance formal rigour with the effervescence that I love in the original.

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Printable version | Jun 19, 2021 10:17:58 AM |

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