Friday, September 18, 2009

Eh Mera Geet

This Song of Mine

Let no one sing
This song of mine
This song is mine alone
I shall die singing it.

This song is darker
than the earth
Older than the sun
Lifetime after lifetime
its words have travelled
down with me
No one else
should bring them to their lips
This song is for me alone to sing
And then die singing it

This song is full of pain
Its sound is strange
Like autumn cranes shrieking
on distant mountains
Like a clamour of birds
piercing the forest dawn
Like a dark night wind
swiftly sighing through
tall grasses
This song is for me alone
to sing

When we die,
My songs and I,
The arbiters of separation
Will follow us
to our grave
In one voice they will marvel
“Only a few are given lives
like this, full of such pure,
undiluted pain”
Don’t attempt to sing
This song of mine

This song is mine,
Mine alone, to sing.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Inna Ankhiyaan Ch Pava Kivne Kajla

I hesitate as I post this piece here. I was not aware of this song as being a Shiv Batalvi number till someone wrote in requesting for a translation. Then of course, I did a quick internet search and found it attributed to Shiv in more than one place. He was a versatile writer and I know for a fact that “Shaukan Mele De” - that other folksy number made popular by Surinder Kaur, is definitely by him. The Inna Akkhiyan Ch song is lovely and features in last year’s Abhay Deol starrer Oye Lucky Lucky Oye. When Surinder Kaur sings it in her koel of Punjab voice it comes across as a hauntingly beautiful melody but when I render it in English I find it is not as rich in metaphor and imagery as other Batalvi pieces and does not seem to contain that familiar inflection of pain either. It comes across as a bit flat in the transcreation. However, I’m posting it anyway. Chances are not all my transcreations will make for beautiful stand-alone pieces – many will remain simply as tools – a compass, a map, a torch, a rope – some help along the way as the reader makes his own journey into the heart of the original song.

How do I put kajal in these eyes?

How do I put kajal in these eyes?
You reside in there
My face is always turned towards you
Your name is ever on my lips
You live in my eyes, beloved
You are in the parting of my lips
as they break into a smile
When I laugh
you are the laughter
inside my laugh

Though the distance was long
You came nearer and nearer
You came in through the eyes
and began to live in my heart
When I talk of love
You reply oh so gently
How do I put kajal in these eyes
When you reside in there?

Bit by bit my life
Has taken the colour of love
I only ask to live it with you
Happiness has dawned
Sadness has fled from me
How do I put kajal in these eyes
When you reside in them?

and here's the full version:

Monday, September 14, 2009

Mere Ram Jeeo

O Sweet Lord

What a season you chose
for your coming
O sweet lord
When the flowers have wilted
in the garden
O sweet lord

Where were you
when this garden was a tumult
of youthful passion?
Where were you
when the champa flowered
and spread its heady fragrance
Where were you
when body and heart
beat in unison
Where were you
in the blossoming season
my sweet lord?

Where were you
When I was younger
and my father was looking
for a groom?
Where were you
when the vatna
was being put?
Where were you
when I was leaving
for another’s home?
Where were you
in the flowering season
when the garden
was thirsting for rain?

Saawan after saawan
the seasons passed
Why did you not come then?
What a season you chose
for your coming
O sweet lord
When the flowers have wilted
in the garden
O sweet lord

Note to the Reader: The version of the poem transcreated here is somewhat different from the song by Chitra Singh below. While tracking Shiv’s work I have often come across more than one version of a particular piece.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Christopher Columbus, Shiv Kumar Batalvi, and I

Two months ago while looking for a poem by Amrita Pritam on YouTube I chanced upon the poetry of Shiv Kumar Batalvi. The teeth haven’t stopped spilling out of my mouth since then. I feel like Christopher Columbus must have felt after discovering America. Silly man. He set off for someplace, reached someplace else and thought he had discovered it! Never mind that it had always existed and had long been home to races older and wiser than his. It is the same with me and SKB. I can’t get over the thrill of discovering him, notwithstanding the fact that his poetry has been around in this world for longer than I have been here.

They say the end of all exploration is the finding of oneself. I don’t know if Christopher Columbus, alighting off the Santa Maria found his own essential humanity mirrored in some Red Indian chief’s eyes. But I do know, as I embark upon this journey to transcreate as much as I can of Shiv Batalvi’s poetry into English, that a whole continent of resonance awaits me.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Umraan De Saravar

Swans of Grief

Come song
Drink your fill today
from the lake of my life
Drink, my song,
of these waters of experience
as they glitter with pain
Tomorrow the swans of grief
may take wing
So drink your fill today
of this beautiful lake
dip your beak
into the pure radiance
of my pain

This lake is deceptive
Though it looks
as if it is there forever
It may dry up any day
or lose its sheen
Drink song
of these experiences
it may be lost to you,
this lake of my life,
then don’t complain
O song,
drink your fill today

The swans of grief
I am told
are avaricious
They feed upon
broken, bleeding hearts
and make poems
of our tears
They gather from us the music
and take flight
never to return again.
O song,
drink your fill today.

Drink of this grief
I beg of you
It will turn to gold
upon your lips
Even as I die of this ache
You, my song, will live on
and I will live
in your shadow
Don’t let death
do us both in.

Drink o drink song
of this pool of sadness
this lake of experiences
before the swans of grief
take wing
I beseech you, my song
Drink your fill today

Jaach Mainu Aa Gayi

This is a transcreation (again not a literal translation) of Shiv Batalvi's poem Jaach Mainu Aa Gayi.

I Have Learnt Now

I have learnt now
how to feed upon sorrow
and console the heart
by sipping at tears
o so slowly.
It is good that
you became another’s
The demon of possessing you
has left me.
I would willingly surrender
my breaths
but death too extracts
a price from the living.
I have no wish
to live on borrowed breaths
After I’m gone
who will repay them?
don’t look for a cure
for Shiv’s grief
The rascal is in the mood
to cry today.

As sung by Chitra Singh:

Ki Pucchde Ho Haal

What draws me to Shiv Batalvi’s poetry is his unflinching truthfulness. What keeps me rooted is the warm intimacy of his poetic voice, completely without artifices. In this attempt at transcreating his poem Ki Puchhde Ho Haal Fakiran Da I have again sacrificed exact meanings in order to capture the directness and beauty of how the original work feels in Punjabi.

Don’t Ask After Us Fakirs

Don’t ask after us
We are fakirs
We are waters separated
From source
We are rivers of loss

I know what they call life
Is a composition of colours
I did not realise
Adding the colour of love
Would discolour it.

Many loves were given to me
But not the love I craved
This was inscribed in four lines
Upon my palm
This, then, was my fate.

Our destiny comes entwined
With us
How then could I escape it?
Though I did not leave my home
Or roam for love in tatters
Being a forsaken lover
Was my fate

Now I worship pain
At sorrow’s feet I genuflect
The world calls me a heretic
Yet it listens to my songs
Again and again

In gatherings I come across
As too arrogant
It is the pride of knowing
How well I have loved
And how much I have suffered

You call yourselves
I call myself a lover
Let’s go to the people now
And ask them
Whose truth they believe in.

To hear this in Shiv's own voice:

Bhatti Valliye

I have just woken up to the beauty of Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s poetry in Punjabi. Well better late than never. As my father used to often say, “jab jago tab savera”. Since I’m the kind of bird that sings at dawn, bear with me as I post another trans-creation, quick on the heels of the last one. This one is based on Shiv’s poem Peeran Da Paraaga (Pan of Sorrows). There is a song based on it sung by Asa Singh Mastana, among others, called Bhatti Waliye. Again, this is not a direct translation. I have tried to capture in my rendering the spirit of the piece, not its exact words. Words and phrases don’t translate well across languages, emotions and ideas do. So here it is:

Tender of The Fire

O tender of the fire
Roast my bundle of sorrows
in your flame
In tears I will pay you

The evening is setting
The cows have come home
from grazing the fallows
The birds are squawking
The shadows are falling
Hurry, please it’s time
for me to go.

O tender of the fire
O woman with the scent
of the champa flower
my sorrows are at your feet
tend to them sweet

Quick, set my grief
to roast
the road is difficult
the distance long
to the village
where my companions
have all gone
The bundle is at your feet

O tender of the fire
O woman with the scent
of the champa flower
my sorrows are at your feet
tend to them sweet

Why is it as my turn came
your fire lost its heat?
The wood is damp,
The container wet
The embers are sputtering
The sparks are dying
My bundle at your feet

O tender of the fire
O woman with the scent
of the champa flower
my sorrows are all yours
tend to them sweet

I do not ask for much
My request is small
Deal with me quickly
And set me free
Roast my grief well
Give me the charred remains
I have no heart to haggle further
Take this bundle at your feet

O tender of the fire
O woman with the scent
of the champa flower
my sorrows seek your ministration
tend to them sweet

The wind has gone to sleep
done with its weeping
Upon the stars in the sky
a slow fever is creeping
Like a wedding procession
without a bridegroom
my life has lost
its enthusiasm for breathing

Hurry sweet, hurry please
Give me my release
In tears I shall repay you

O tender of the fire
O woman with the scent
of the champa flower
my sorrows lie at your feet
tend to them sweet

To hear the song as sung by Asa Singh Mastana:

Shikra Yaar

I have just had a moment of supreme revelation – I have discovered the poetry of Punjabi poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi and I have this overwhelming urge to transcreate right away my favourite piece, Shikra Yaar, into English. My own audacity at trying to translate from Punjabi (a tongue I have a relationship with but it’s not my mother, more like say a grandmother-in-law) almost stops me, but not quite. I recall Coleman Barks who has done the best Rumi verses in English that I have read. He says of his translation process – “I’ll try to describe what I do. I look at one text in English and write another.” I at least understand Punjabi – not all of it, not all the time- but I understand Punjabi, though I don’t speak it. And I can truthfully claim to have heard Jagjit Singh’s mellifluous rendering of the poem so many times that it has seeped under my skin and this transcreation comes from some place within:

Hawk Lover

Mother o mother
I fell in love with a hawk
On his head was a plume
On his feet bells
He came pecking for grain
And I was lost

I don’t know whether
It was the sharp sunlight
of his presence,
Or his thirst for scents
Or that he was born
of a fair mother,
his cheeks all rosy,
But I was lost

His eyes danced
like an evening in spring
The cloud of his hair
was a darkling monsoon
His lips wore
the pink of an autumn
And I was lost

Awash with fragrances
his body was spring,
his breath a whisper
of flowers,
His arms a forest
of sandalwood
And I was lost.

His words pleasing
as the purvia breeze
His songs, borrowed from
some koel friend
His smile was fleeting,
like a white bagula
in the rice field,
gone at the merest hint
of anything
And I was lost.

I laid a bed for him
in the moonlight
and awaited his footstep
on my rooftop
Now my body
wears the stains
of our lovemaking
And I am lost.

The corners of my eyes
from the tears flooding them
All night I wept
as I thought of
how thoroughly he took me
and how completely
I was lost

Next morning
I scrubbed and scrubbed
with vatna
and bathed myself
with cooling water
Still the embers burst
from under my skin
My hands grew tired
with the effort
And I knew I was lost.

With my hands
I made choori to feed him
But in it
he showed no interest
It was my soul he wanted
Upon the flesh of my heart
he fed and flew away
never to come again.
O mother, I am lost.

Mother o mother
I took a hawk for a lover
He came looking for grain
On his head was a plume
On his feet he wore bells
Upon the flesh of my heart
he has fed and flown away
Never to return again.
Mother o mother, I am lost.

This is not a literal translation. To hear the original sung in Punjabi by Jagjit Singh:

To watch a video by Hans Raj Hans:


Shiv Kumar Batalvi (1936-1973) has been variously described as the Devdas and Keats of Punjabi poetry. His poetry explores the themes of love, loss and longing from a passionately personal vantage point. Shiv’s poetic voice is unique in its combination of metaphor and melancholy, imagery and intensity. During his brief lifetime he was the darling of Punjabi audiences. He was the youngest recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1967, for his epic verse Loona , considered a masterpiece in modern Punjabi literature, which also created the genre of the modern Punjabi kissa. After his death his iconic and legendary status has continued to grow. Many of his poems have been sung by Deedar Singh Pardesi, Jagjit Singh-Chitra Singh, and Surinder Kaur-Prakash Kaur. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's rendition of one of his poem "Maye ni Maye" is another popular number. Rabbi Shergill’s first album features, his poem, "Ishtihar". Punjabi folk singer, Hans Raj Hans also did a popular album, ‘Gham’, on the poetry of Shiv Kumar. In 2005, a compilation album was released, titled, Ek Kudi Jida Naa Mohabbat... 'Shiv Kumar Batalvi, with numbers sung by Mahendra Kapoor, Jagjit Singh and Asa Singh Mastana. The song “ Akhyian Wich Tu Vasda” in the film Lucky Oye is based on a poem by Shiv as is "Aaj din chariya tere rang warga" in the film Love Aaj Kal.

Watch a live interview with the poet, recorded by BBC London three years before his death: