Translating a single verse

So, that opening verse in Kampan, none of them worked for various reasons. Back to the drawing board, when I though almost incessantly about it. I came up with several more versions (now we are well into the 20-s), and have come up with the most recent version, which emerges from all the earlier experiments.
I am not thrilled with it, as I feel it gives away too much, makes it too easy for the reader. But it is very close to the original Tamil, and I think I’ve almost got an equivalent for every Tamil word in the original.

Thoughts/suggestions/ideas are welcome

A garland a serpent a creature
of illusion, of the five elements
shimmering swaying altering swelling
Who dissolves it?
The archer, vanquisher of Lankā
The sole goal of the Veda

How many versions does it take to make a translation?

As I prep are for our day long Kampan translation workshop at Madison, I remember why I love translating so much. An intoxication of sound and sense, of all the ways to inhabit two bodies at once, to live in a skin that is not your own, but that you will make your own. I’ve spent most of today on a single perfect verse. I’ve tried out multiple versions–sometimes the changes are so slight that I barely notice–a comma removed or added, a syllable added, a syllable deleted. Sometimes, I engage in a whole-scale re-thinking. Anyway, here are three versions of this one verse–the opening verse of Sundara Kandam.

The five elements
a serpent of illusion in the evening
a fickle bond. Who can cut it?
He wields a bow, vanquisher of Laṅkā
the sole end of the Veda. Him.

A rope a serpent a trick of the evening,
of the five elements, a fickle bond
Who severs it?
The archer, vanquisher of Laṅkā
the Veda’s sole end.
See Him.

A serpent of illusion in the evening
creature of the five elements, a bond
Who cuts it? See
the archer, vanquisher of Laṅkā
the Veda’s sole end

A fourth version that just came to me h/t Rhony Bhopla

A rope a serpent a trick of the evening,
of the five elements, a fickle bond
Who severs it? The archer
vanquisher of Laṅkā, the Veda’s sole end.


I finished the Tiruvaymoli some time ago, and thought I would take a break, recharge the brain, and then turn to the next big translation project–the Sundara Kandam of Kamban’s Ramayana. But then, a couple of mornings ago, I woke up itching to do more Nammalvar. Why? I don’t know. He composed four works, and I’ve completed two. I suppose, given my obsession about finishing things, I want to finish the set. Thankfully, they are small works. The Tiruvaciriyam (named after the meter) is just 7 verses, while the Periya Tiruvantati (The Big Antati) is 87. So, both texts almost certainly incomplete. They are attributed to Nammalvar, but there’s no concluding phala sruti, so it’s possible someone else composed them. Hard to say. But the opening of the Tiruvasiriyam is strikingly similar to the opening (thematically speaking) of the Ciriya Tirumatal, which is attributed to Tirumankai. Again, no phala sruti, so it may be Tirumankai, it could be another alvar poet, it could be someone unknown to us. Anyway, we go by what the tradition has bequeathed to us.

So, here is the opening verse of the Tiruvaciriyam. It’s quite beautiful.

Draped in crimson clouds
limned by the flaming sun
the cool glowing moon and countless stars
your jewels, your lips red coral,
your body a mountain of luminous emerald
this is how you lie in the arms
of the king of the sea:

a flame of yellow silk and shining gems
lips and eyes glittering against your leaf-dark skin
a lotus rising from your navel,
asleep on a poison-spitting serpent
in the midst of the ocean
with its crashing roaring waves

Śivaṉ Ayaṉ Indraṉ and every other god
bow before you
before your petal-soft feet
that took the three worlds.

Parallels–only 50 years apart

50 years apart–or thereabouts–Guy Welbon and I captured the exact same moment of the Kaisika Natakam at Tirukkurungudi. Here is Guy’s

This is the moment that the actor playing the Brahmaraksas is possessed as the mask (which has been covered and worshiped for 10 days) is lowered on to his face.

And here is mine:

Today, the role is played by the grandson of the person who played it in Guy’s time. No surprise that the person who plays it today is named Nambi. Everyone in Tirukkurungudi seems to be named Nambi.


Thinking about archives

In 1964, Guy Welbon made his way deep into southern Pandya territory, where he stumbled (in his telling) upon a large, old, beautiful temple. Of course, he fell immediately in love, entranced by the ghats and the god (who is appropriately named The Beautiful Prince). Guy returned to Tirukkurungudi numerous times, with his young family in tow, and got deep into the ritual world of the temple. He wrote a small, important essay on the temple’s Kaisika Natakam–and it’s a boon to us today, for the drama died out in the late 80s, and was revived by Anita Ratnam in the 1990s. But it is much changed now, adapted to accommodate a restless audience and changing expectations and tastes.

Guy, who was a professor of religion at U-Penn for many years, has amassed an extraordinary archive of Tirukkurungudi. When I wrote to him about my interest in the place, he offered to help and to share his archive. I met him in Philly in early 2018, where he not only shared with me some incredible photographs, but also tales of life in a tiny, insular temple-village in the late 60s, 70s, and 80s. He spoke fondly of his priest friends and of how they would lower him into the temple from the roof so as to avoid the disapproving stares and glares of the village ladies. He had two local artist friends painstakingly hand-copy the inscriptions off the walls. Since he knew no Tamil, he used Sanskrit (!) as his primary means of communication.

In Tirukkurungudi, Guy (who is known only by his last name Welbon), conjoined with his one-time collaborator Martin (so they are Welbon-Martin or Martin-Welbon) has entered the folklore (or the sthala purana, perhaps) of the place. The older denizens recall him vividly and fondly. Most of them are gone, but he is memorialized in their photographs as well.

It’s rare for us to encounter the collector of an unexpected or unintended archive. Guy never meant for his photographs and letters and inscription copies to become an archive–they were his research materials. For some reason or another, he never did publish his rich, rich findings. That is going to be left to us–Crispin, Anna, Leslie and me–to follow through on. It’s rather extraordinary to have Guy at hand to clarify questions. He is himself now an archive, although I do not know if he would think of himself that way.

Below, a photograph from his archive of Alagiya Namabi entering the Kaisika Mantapam, Tirukkurungudi, 1967. Notice the violinist in front of the deity, playing to entertain him. This hereditary role is no longer occupied at the temple. There is a robust nagasvaram player, who commands many instruments, but not the violin.

And here is one, also from Guy Welbon’s archive, of the Kaisikam troupe. Featured are the two devadasis of that temple. They were still performing in 1967, despite the passage of the Devadasi Abolition Act in August 1947. I have yet to find their names–Guy does not recall–and once I do so, I will update that information here.

EDIT: I learned that one of the Devadasis was named Kalyani. I do not know which of the two pictured here. Alas, the other still remains nameless. I shall keep trying to find their names and identify them, lest they be forgotten like so many others like them.

A Taste of Tirumankai

I am done with the Tiruvaymoli translation. Feeling at loose ends, I revisited by beloved Tirumankai. Here’s a lovely verse in the female voice.

Heavy with the fragrance of full-blown jasmine
the gentle breeze arrives as the cool moon rises
It wanders everywhere, feeds on me
not sparing me a single night’s rest.
Stupid girls say stupid things—let them.
His woman fragrant with all her flowers
he keeps her close, nestled into his chest
He’s in Kuṟuṅkuṭi
Take me there.

Tirumaṅkai. Periya Tirumoḻi IX.5.2

The Tiruvaymoli is done!

I began translating the Tiruvaymoli in 2007. It was supposed to be a joint project with Frank Clooney (Harvard), who has spent a lifetime on the text. We worked on some 60 verses together, but in the end, time, distance and my own slowness as a translator doomed our collaboration. Frank has been so patient, encouraging and incredibly generous to me throughout this process, and I know that I would never have conceived of such a monumental undertaking without him by my side to do it. Frank has his own complete translation, and I hope very much that someday he’ll publish it, full of his rich insights and his deep, deep reading of the commentaries.

I have been changed on a molecular level doing this work. A great poem will do that to you, and the more you live with it, the more it changes you. It was difficult and frightening to accept this truth. Eventually, I did accept this reality, the realness of the poem, its work, its affect, and I learned to understand and feel it through ritual and spectacle, as something that throbbed and thrummed in the blood-veins of people.

Many, many moons ago, at the very beginning of this project, I applied for a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and was shocked to receive it (2012). They even did a little piece about me and this translation. At that time, I had ambitiously thought I would be done with this work in a year or so. Little did I know how distant the finish line really was.  Anyway, here is that little blurb, a reminder to myself of that far away self.

The book will be out in January 2020 from Penguin Classics. It’s appropriate that it comes out then, during the month of Markali, which is given over to a sustained, profound meditation of this work.

Some exciting news

Well, today I found out that my first book, The Secret Garland, has been selected as part of the Perennial Series by HarperCollins, the book’s Indian publisher. This makes it part of ten translations that are thought to represent the best of Harpers. Color me a bright, bright red, for I am flushed and blushing, and matching the striking new book jacket.

It was a struggle to bring out this Andal book in an Indian edition. I am glad I stuck with it, and insisted. It’s somewhat affordable, I think (299 INR). What’s the point of doing this work, if it’s not accessible to folks in India? Yes, it still reaches only a sliver of people–urban, English-educated–but that sliver still means something to me. And I think of myself, growing up in India, a Tamil-illiterate, a Sanskrit illiterate. Maybe I would have awakened to the beauty and richness of the subcontinent’s rich literary past and vibrant literary present, had I access to works in translations.


Epic Couple Fight

This morning was the Mattaiyati Utsavam here at Nanguneri. It was great fun, and I enjoyed everyone’s laughter. The premise is that the goddess is mad at Vishnu for going out without informing her, and she suspects the worst. When he returns, she’s barred the temple doors to him. He tries to sweet-talk his way in, to no avail, until the Alvar (here Tirumankai) has to intercede to patch them up.

There’s much that one can say about this festival, and a whole host of questions about it as well. But what I was excited by was the mirror. Totally unexpected. There it was, tucked into the palanquin for Devanayakan to see himself in, all the while that the goddess will not see him.

There is one photograph that I took that is I think a once in a lifetime shot. It is the moment, when Devanayakan has shown up to find that the first door is barred to him. In this photograph, you see a tiny bit of the back of the god, the door he faces, behind which is the angry goddess, who refuses to see him, and in the mirror you see the god, and most awesome of all, a donor figure, with his palms pressed together.

All photographs taken in public spaces or during public processions with the permission of the temple authorities.