“I’m waiting for the ferry,
But where are we going,
And is there a paradise anyway?
What will I,
Who see you everywhere,
I’m okay where I am, says Kabir.
Spare me the trip.”
In the acknowledgments at the end of his major new collection, Songs of Kabir (published this year by the New York Review of Books Press in the US), the poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra says the book has been a “work in progress” for 40 years.
As one of India’s best-known poets and critics, Mehrotra’s other literary output during this time has been prolific and varied. His original work is read and studied throughout the country. His anthologies of Indian English poetry include an Oxford collection with which every casual and serious reader of English language poetry in the country may be familiar.
But it’s no surprise that he has been living with Kabir through most of that career. Most Indians are at least casually familiar with the Bhakti saint-poet. He is a monumental figure in India’s religious history—a complex figure who evokes reverence even as he sings of rebellion—as well as its literary traditions.
Freestyle: Poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra translates Kabir into the contemporary idiom.
As a student in Allahabad and Bhilai, Mehrotra first encountered Kabir through his Hindi textbooks—“really not the best introduction to anyone”, he says. As he began to write poetry, Kabir, in spite of childhood misgivings, made an early appearance.
In September 1970, a small magazine called Vrischik (“an A4-sized publication, completely forgotten now,” says Mehrotra), published by renowned Baroda painters Ghulam Mohammad Shaikh and Bhupen Khakhar, published a special issue on Bhakti poetry. It contained translations of the Gujarati poet Vasto by Gieve Patel, and of Tukaram, Janabai and Muktabai by Arun Kolatkar.
Mehrotra’s own first translations, based on an old Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan edition of Kabir poems, were among these. It sounds like a landmark moment in Indian poetry, particularly in the phase when these poets—in a simultaneity inspired by the Chicago-based A.K. Ramanujan’s discovery and subsequent translations of classical Tamil poetry, in his 1967 anthology The Interior Landscape—were retrieving an Indian literary past and making it familiar to readers again.
Why did they do it? ”The poems were so attractive, and so accessible, they literally cried out for translation.” Kabir had been translated into English before, by no less than Rabindranath Tagore, whose 100 Poems of Kabir Mehrotra already knew of. “But it was in an English that had by then become alien to us,” he explains. “Kabir had not been translated into the contemporary idiom, the idiom of our generation. Around the same time, the late 1960s, Ramanujan opened up the Tamil past; Gieve Patel was working on his translations of medieval Gujarati poetry; Arun Kolatkar and Dilip Chitre were translating Tukaram. Not that this was intentional, but our translations have a family resemblance.”
Mehrotra’s new translations evoke the thrill of that directness, of a Kabir whose voice and spirit invite a spontaneous intimacy. Tagore’s translation of the first line of Mohi tohi lagi kaise chutte: “How could the love between thee and me sever?” American poet and Kabir translator Robert Bly wrote, in 1971’s The Fish in the Sea is not Thirsty: “Why should we two ever want to part?”
Songs of Kabir: Translated by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, NYRB Classics, 144 pages, $14 (around Rs625).
Mehrotra’s Kabir says: “Separate us?/Pierce a diamond first.”
“About five years ago I decided to use the contemporary idiom to translate Kabir,” he remembers. “I realized that I see him as part of the tradition of India’s popular culture, as much as its religious one. The two, in fact, are inextricably linked. Haven’t we all seen bazaar prints of the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, being showered with pound notes and dollar bills?”
In his introduction, Mehrotra recalls the Rajasthani singer Bhikaramji Sharma, whose recordings of Kabir poems in the mid-1990s included an extended metaphor that used the words “engine”, “ticket”, “line” and “time”, among others (asked how it was possible for a medieval saint to have known the language of locomotives, Sharma reportedly answered that Kabir was a seer, and so knew everything ahead of time).
Mehrotra’s Kabir is also drenched in anachronism—the poet sings of Sing Sing prison, of aftershave and deodorant, riffs on “heading for Deathville”, and dispenses philosophical advice with the burning directness of a slam poet. “Crying won’t help/When death already/Has you by the balls.”
Mehrotra has a textual source, Parasnath Tiwari’s 1961 collection, the Kabir-granthavali, but in working with the affect of spoken word and the blues, he takes his cues from the far older oral tradition that has kept Kabir alive through the centuries in a fluid collective effort.
“In his distaste of humbug, Kabir can remind you of Diogenes,” Mehrotra writes in his introduction. In turn, Mehrotra’s vivid characterization of Kabir’s voice may recall other great contemporary experiments with classical poetry; the lucent, flippant Ovid of Peter Green’s translations, even the rawness of Christopher Logue’s punk-performative Homer. “Friend/,” sings Mehrotra’s Kabir, stridently, “You had one life/And you blew it.”
“All the different voices that go to make the Kabir corpus point to a figure, collectively imagined, who often, though by no means always, lashes out at our holy cows,” says Mehrotra. “His is a predominantly disruptive, questioning, anti-establishment voice: anti-Hindu, anti-Muslim, anti-caste, anti-idol worship, anti-godmen. Had he been born in medieval Europe and similarly spoken out against the Church he would surely have been burnt at the stake.”
That collective figure, emerging when the words “kahath Kabir” (says Kabir) are appended to a song, is fully present in these poems. Through Mehrotra’s translations, it becomes easier to imagine the transformative power of the weaver-poet on his listeners, giving the formless force of divinity a name everyone could recognize.
You must be mad, says Kabir,
Not to sing of Rama
And to screw up your life.
“Kabir is a minor industry,” Mehrotra says, acknowledging the wealth of textual scholarship in over 300 years of a manuscript tradition. There’s been a lot of work on extant manuscripts. Increasingly more attention is being paid to the oral traditions, but I’ve yet to see any book that gathers these materials.”
“I’m sure there are Kabir songs being written even as we speak,” he says. “I’m only doing in English what the Hindi oral tradition has done for the last 500 years.”
Songs of Kabir, translated by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, has been published worldwide by the New York Review of Books Press. In India, Songs of Kabir will be jointly published by Hachette India and Permanent Black as a bilingual collectible gift edition in hardback in July, and subsequently as an Everyman Classics’ edition in paperback.