My Mother’s Place (A Kannada Folksong)

I was introduced to this song-poem by Shilpa Mudbi, a folk-artist who – through her Urban Folk Project – has been doing her best to keep alive the folk traditions of (her ancestral part of) Karnataka; generally North Karnataka (and, more specifically, the village of Mudbi). This particular song was bequeathed to Shilpa by her ajji, her grandmother; who, Shilpa tells me, is a treasure trove of such songs.
The song-poem I’m offering here is a distillation of Shilpa’s own presentation (where she intersperses the song with her commentary). You can find Shilpa’s presentation here. It is important to note that a song-poem like this is necessarily fluid; its lyrics are not fixed in the way the lyrics of today’s poems and songs are fixed. The lyrics I’ve given right below may be considered “formal”. Having never been written down (until quite recently), it should be not surprising if different inheritors of this oral tradition sing the song in different ways with different pronunciations.
It is worth noting that this fluidity is an essential part of the oral tradition — and offers the inheritor of the tradition a chance to make the song her own. You will note, if you watch Shilpa’s presentation, that she has “added” an extra stanza to the poem. I believe that is Shilpa’s way of continuing the tradition even as she inserts herself into it. (As I understand it, Shilpa has recently relocated to the Gulbarga area of North Karnataka with the intention of “returning home [to Mudbi]”, as it were, and immersing herself in the sounds and scents of the soil and the people who nourished those songs that now offer her nourishment.)

Note: Here is the Facebook page of ‘The Urban Folk Project’. Here is their Youtube channel. And here is their Instagram profile.

Finally, before I offer up the song-poem, here’s what Da Ra Bendre, 20th-century Kannada’s genius poet and one of the greatest lyric poets to have lived, had to say about song-poems like this one and the women who created them. It is an excerpt from my English translation of the ಪರಿಚಯ (paricaya: ~ introduction) Bendre wrote for “ಗರತಿಯ ಹಾಡು (garatiya haaḍu: ~ songs of our womenfolk)”, a collection of traditional Kannada “folksongs”. A great portion of these folksongs were gathered by Bendre’s ಗೆಳೆಯರು (friends-colleagues) from women living in the villages of the ತದ್ದೆವಾಡ (taddevāḍa) area of Bijapur and brought out in book form in 1932.

For those who worship living itself, the rishis of the spontaneous three-line verses of these ‘Songs of our Womenfolk’ are women: our mothers and our sisters, our aunts and our nieces, our wives and our children. If we were to properly think about it, theirs is the real poetry. Everything else is just a shade of that poetry. Our tradition tells that poetry is ಕಾಂತಾಸಮ್ಮಿತಿ (kāntāsammiti: ~ like the talk of the beloved). But if poetry is that which is like the talk of the beloved, is not the actual talk of the beloved the mother of our poetry? What we proudly call poetry is really one of her children. The words of the ‘beloved’ is the true poetry; it was upon seeing how those who stubbornly refused to follow the vedas, who refused to cede authority to the shastras could be softened by the words of the ‘beloved’ that the essence of the vedas and the shastras took on the winsome form of poetry. (Here, it is important to not restrict the ‘beloved’ simply to the ‘wife’ but to think of her as representative of all womankind.)

(Edited) audio of Shilpa singing the poem:


My Mother’s Place

Bending I’m drawing rangolis
outside the door – such varieties;
the same dream it pláys and plays,
how to escape to mother’s place;
I’ve now come to my mother’s place,
I remémber her – tears wet my face.

Brother’s wife so full of cunning,
her glances – they’re piércing things.
I went to the river with brother
to tell him to talk sternly to her;
I’ve now come to my mother’s place,
I remémber her – tears wet my face.

Vasudeva, lord of this land,
make my mother’s place abundant;
make my mother’s place abundant,
goddess, I bring karpūra to your temple
I’ve now come to my mother’s place,
I remémber her – tears wet my face.

(Translated by Madhav Ajjampur)

P.S: The idea was to create an English translation that could be sung in (more or less) the same tune as the original. I think you should try it and let me know if you were able to. Also, for those interested, here’s a write-up from three months ago, part of my informal collaboration with Shilpa. What you see in the afterword is part of the write-up.

Afterword:

This song speaks to a village woman’s idea of her mother’s home or mother’s place as her (only) sanctuary. While not irrelevant to other cultures and countries, this idea is particularly Indian in its scope. The reason is simple: the longstanding (patriarchal) notion of a woman as chattel or property who is passed on – at the time of her wedding – from her father’s custody to her husband’s custody; in other words, kanyādāna. With dāna accorded such high status in Indian (Hindu) culture, the dāna of one’s daughter becomes an act of merit (or puṇya) for the father. The recepient of the dāna is the husband. Caught between the giver and the taker is the woman, an independent being wholly deprived of her agency. (This short, no-dialogue film offers a take on this transaction.)

What then makes a woman look on her mother’s home as a sanctuary (if that is where her father is too)? I reckon it is solely the presence of her mother, perhaps the only person in this world who can and does sympathize with her predicament. Given the legendary atté-sosé (or saas-bahu; mother-in-law–daughter-in-law) relationship, it is expected that the woman will be treated poorly in her husband’s home – where she will serve, variously, as a washing machine, cook, sweeper, and child-bearer. Given these circumstances, returning to her mother’s home or place is the only respite a woman can look forward to; a short time when she can “put her feet up” and be taken care of, be her mother’s child again. But with the passing of her mother, the mother’s home too becomes a different place; bereft, less comforting, and ‘ruled’ by a different woman – usually, her brother’s wife.

(A real irony of the whole situation is the role of the woman in her own subjugation. By her unthinking propagation of patriarchal norms, she ensures her bondage within the ‘system’. For example, even her ‘mother’s place’ that the woman speaks of so fondly was once her mother’s mother-in-law’s place; a place her mother once bore suffering that she wished to escape from by going to her mother’s place. Here’s some more on the matter.)

A final word. It is important to understand that this song is not contemporary. That is to say, it does not (like it may have a hundred years ago when this song was put together by women as they ground flour in the early morning) represent the reality of nearly all women within India. Yes, the patriarchy persists (and not just in India), but things – from a woman’s perspective at least – are changing for the better. Anti-discrimination laws together with increasing urbanization have changed society in untold ways.

On the other hand, it is just as important to understand that attitudes of this sort persist – and not just in India’s villages. Countless dowry deaths and domestic violence testify to its persistence. So too does the inclusion of this attitude within a language itself. For instance, it is normal in Kannada to speak of ‘ಹೆಣ್ಣನ್ನು [ಒಂದು] ಊರಿಗೆ ಕೊಡೋದು’ or ‘heṇṇannu [ondu] ūrige koḍōdu’, i.e., ‘give a female to a [certain] town’ in the context of her being married off to a man who lives in that town. I don’t know what the situation’s like in other Indian languages, but I reckon it isn’t too different.

All in all, though, I see no reason to not be optimistic. After all, the idea of dharma (~morality) that underlies Hindu tradition is the opposite of stagnant in that it allows, encourages, and even advocates for change to suit the times.

A Kannada Folktale: Hucchayya (The Fool)

       There once lived three brothers in a town. The youngest of them was Hucchayya. That wasn’t his real name, but he was a fool and so people called him Hucchayya. But that never bothered Hucchayya.
       Now Hucchayya, as the name suggests, was not a man of guile. Nor did he know what it was to keep a secret. So, those who wished to spread a rumour had only to say: “Hucchayya, here’s a piece of news, but don’t speak about it to anyone.” Huccha would then travel through town, telling everybody he met the news, adding: “But see that you don’t speak about it to anyone.”
       Hucchayya’s two brothers had married and set up separate homes. The two of them had also split the inheritance, leaving nothing to Hucchayya. ‘He can split his time between our houses,’ they thought.
       But this didn’t suit Hucchayya, who protested –
       “You have been unjust, brothers,” said he. “I too am my father’s son. I deserve my share of the inheritance.”
       “So be it,” said his brothers. “What would you like for yourself?”
       Hucchayya was taken aback. Finally, he said: “I would like this ox,” pointing to an old ox that was on its last legs. Rejoicing inwardly, his brothers handed him the ox.
Thereafter, in spite of eating at his brothers’s homes, Hucchayya lived with his ox in the backyard and bethought himself independent.
       How well Hucchayya looked after his old ox! No mother ever pampered her infant more. He stroked it tenderly, fed it the best hay to be found, and made sure that its bucket of water was always full.
       Besides all this, Hucchayya also talked to his ox. If, as Hucchayya spoke to it, the ox shook its head, twitched its ears, or swished its tail in an attempt to shake off the flies, Huccha found in it the suitable response to his chatter and was content. And when, wishing for some grass, it licked his face with its wet tongue, it pleased him so much that he told everyone of it. “How well an animal can love!” he said.
       His affection for the ox went so far as to give it the name, Basavakumāra, the ox-prince. For a few days after the naming, he even spoke of him to all those who passed. “My Basava didn’t drink his water today,” he would say anxiously, “I wonder what the matter is.”
       Or, “My Basava went all day without shaking his tail.” And even: “My Basava didn’t utter a sound all day.” No mother ever spoke of her child more lovingly. But what did the old ox know of all this?
Weeks passed. One day, Huccha caught hold of Basava‘s tail and saying, “Why aren’t you moving your tail about, my dear Basava?” gave Basava‘s tail a little shake, whereupon the old ox collapsed. Huccha was so disappointed at the ox’s behaviour that he ceased to look upon it with any affection.

       Now Hucchayya’s brothers owned a pair of cows between them. Thinking these animals a needless burden, the brothers sold them at the neighbouring town. When Hucchayya heard of this, he too decided to sell his ox and betook himself to the same town. But his was an old ox. Who would buy it willingly? Hucchayya spent a fruitless day at the fairgrounds and when evening fell began to make his way back home. On his way, he came across a tree swaying to the wind. “Clickety click,” went the tree as it swayed back and forth. (Let us remind ourselves at this juncture that Hucchayya was a fool.)
       “What’s that, Mr. Tree,” said Hucchayya when he heard this. “Are you asking me how much I want for my ox?” “Clickety click,” went the tree.
       “I won’t take anything less than twenty-five rupees,” answered Hucchayya.
       “Clickety click,” went the tree again. “What’s that? You’ll pay me twenty-five rupees for my ox?”
       “Click.”
       “Yes? All right, here you are. Hand over the money now.”
       “Clickety click.”
       “Oh, well, if that’s the way you want it,” said Hucchayya. He went up to the tree and secured the old ox to its trunk.
       “Clickety click,” went the tree.
       “Eh? You’ll pay me tomorrow? So be it,” answered Hucchayya and made his way home.
       When they gathered for dinner, his brothers asked: “Where’s your ox, Hucchayya?”
       “I’ve sold it,” he answered.
       “For how much?”
       “Twenty-five rupees,” said Hucchayya.
       His brothers were impressed. ‘Not a bad bargain,’ they reflected. ‘Twenty-five rupees for a run-down old ox.’
       “Where’s the money, brother?” they asked.
       “He’ll give it to me tomorrow,” said Hucchayya.
       Having no reason to disbelieve him, his brothers turned the conversation to other things.
       When Hucchayya went up to the tree the next day, his ox was nowhere to be found.
       “All right, Mr. Tree, hand over the money,” said Hucchayya.
       “Clickety click,” said the tree.
       “What’s that? You’ll pay me tomorrow?” asked Hucchayya. “All right, but make sure that you do. I won’t have you telling me tomorrow to come the next day and then the next day and so on. It’s only because you’ve asked me nicely today that I’ve said yes.” Saying this, he took himself home.
       That evening too, Hucchayya’s brothers asked him where the money was.
       “He said he’d give to me tomorrow,” said Hucchayya.
       “Very well, your lordship,” said his brothers, “at least tell us who you sold the ox to.”
       “To a tree on the way to town,” answered Hucchayya.
       His brothers clapped themselves on the forehead. “When will you ever learn some sense?” they shouted.
       “The poor tree,” answered Hucchayya. “He pleaded so piteously that my heart melted and I gave in.”
       Consoled by the reflection that they had been saved the trouble of burying the old ox, his brothers dropped the matter.

       The following morning Hucchayya went up to the tree again. “Well then, are you going to pay me today?” he demanded.
       “Clickety click,” went the tree.
       Hucchayya was displeased. “I won’t have any more of this clickety click nonsense,” he warned it. “I just want my money. Otherwise, I’ll use my axe to give you a cut for every rupee you owe me. What do you say to that, huh?”
       “Clickety click,” said the tree.
       Hucchayya lost his temper at this. One, two, three, four – chop, chop, chop, chop went his axe.
       Now the tree was an old desiccated tree. Hucchayya had struck no more than ten blows than it fell. But wonders never cease, do they? For what should the tree harbour but a stolen stash of treasure! When the tree fell, the treasure spilled out in all its richness. Wrapping a portion of the treasure in his bag of cloth, Hucchayya rushed home and deposited it in front of his brothers. His brothers’s faces expressed both happiness and amazement.
       “Where did all this come from, Hucchayya?” they asked.
       “Didn’t I tell you?” answered Hucchayya. “I sold my ox to the tree. It didn’t give me my twenty-five rupees, but instead gave me all this gold and silver. There’s a lot more gold and silver by it still.”
       “Well, what are we waiting for?” cried his brothers. Saying so, they rushed to the spot with Hucchayya.
       It was just like Hucchayya had said. Spades of gold and silver lay by the fallen tree. Eagerly, the brothers gathered up all the treasure. Then, handing a small sack to Hucchayya to carry home, they said to him: “See that you don’t say a word about all this gold and silver to anyone, Hucchayya.”
       “All right,” said Hucchayya.
       The three of them were hurrying home when they came up against the village priest. “What’s this, boys,” he asked, “what have you got in those sacks?” “Oh, nothing much, Mister, just some sprouts from the field,” replied the eldest. But Hucchayya intervened – “Is it right to tell lies to the village priest, brother?” he said reproachfully. Turning to the priest, “Mister, these sacks we’re carrying are full of gold and silver.” “Here, see for yourself,” he added and undid the knot of his sack.
       The priest’s eyes glittered greedily at the sight of the treasure.
       “So it’s true!” he exclaimed and stooping, picked up a handful of gold and put it his bag of alms. This displeased Hucchayya. “The cheek!” he expostulated and brought down the axe he was holding on the priest’s head, who drew his last breath  and fell down dead. Furious at Hucchayya’s foolishness, his two brothers threw the priest’s corpse in a nearby pit and hurried homewards.
       That very night, Hucchayya’s brothers waited until he had gone to bed and then stole out. Retrieving the priest’s body from the pit, they buried it securely, flung the remains of a dead ram into the pit and returned home.
       In a couple of days, people noticed the priest’s absence and begun to discuss the matter. When Hucchayya heard this, he said:
       “That’s right, it was I who killed him. I then placed the body in a nearby pit and returned.”
       “Let’s go look,” said the townspeople when they heard this. Hucchayya led the way to the pit his brothers had flung the body into. Going up to its lip, he called out –
       “Our priest had a beard, did he not?”
       “Yes,” came the answer.
       “And did he not have two horns upon his head?”
       What’s this fool of a Hucchayya talking about, thought the crowd, and came up to the pit to see for themselves. When they looked, all they saw were the decaying remains of a ram.
       “Hucchayya was born a fool, but fraternising with a fellow like him will only make us go mad,” they thought bitterly and turned to make their way back to town. When later, Hucchayya told them of how the tree gave him and his brothers all that gold and silver, the people of the  town ignored him. So it turned out that Hucchayya and his brothers lived happily ever after.

       So they’re out there. And we? We’re out here.

Afterword:

I grew up reading the wonderful and engaging folklore and mythology of many of the world’s peoples. Naturally, my reading included Indic mythology. However, most stories I read were those that had come down through the ages along the mainstream of Sanskrit. Stories from the Ramāyaṇa, the Mahābhārata, and the Panchatantra abounded. Much less common were folktales from the many indigenous languages (often called bhāsha-s) of India’s various peoples.

The story I’ve translated here is a Kannada folktale, found in a collection – whose name I forgot and a copy of which I seem to have misplaced – compiled by Chandrashekhara Kambara. The theme, like so many other folkloric themes, is one that is found in the folktales of various other peoples. Notwithstanding these similarities, there are elements in this Kannada version that I, for one, have not come across in other stories of this “type”. Those of you who have read folklore of this sort before will have noticed that the language I’ve used is sometimes deliberately archaic.

P.S: This was perhaps my very first translation from Kannada to English; and was done several years before I got around to translating Bendre.