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.

Puṇyakōṭi – The Song of the Cow

Puṇyakōṭi herself may have hesitated to say it, but it is very close to the truth that there is almost no Kannadiga who has not heard the refrain ಸತ್ಯವೇ ಭಗವಂತನೆಂಬ ಪುಣ್ಯಕೋಟಿಯ ಕಥೆಯಿದು (satyavē bhagavantanemba puṇyakōṭiya katheyidu). Even I, who grew up in a predominantly English environment and never studied Kannada in school (which is where most children come across it if they haven’t already), seem to remember listening to the refrain as a child – in the same lilt familiar to so many other millions of Kannada speakers.
     On its surface, the story of Puṇyakōṭi is a moral story. It is also the way most people apprehend it. The song-narrative of the upright, ever-truthful cow has brought and continues to bring tears to countless eyes. Indeed, if one does not object to a little ‘back-to-the-future’, Puṇyakōṭi’s behaviour may easily be called Gandhian. (Raja Rao, the Kannada-speaking English novelist, tells of how he related Puṇyakōṭi’s story to Gandhiji and how pleased Gandhiji was to hear it.)
     Today, it is very possible that a moral story like this one may seem, at best, rather quaint; at worst, saccharine and preachy. Cows are no longer woven into the fabric of people’s lives, there are few thickly-forested areas (like the ones in the story) and even fewer tigers, and ideas like the truth and honesty have turned into curiosities. And yet, the memory of a people (though they themselves may transform beyond recognition) is not easily erased. The past continues to impress itself on the present. If earlier it was school textbooks and radio that propagated the song, it is now the internet and Youtube.
     A word now about the song’s origin. While nothing definitive has been said, the song has been dated to the early 1800s (and is quite possibly of even earlier vintage). And while the unity of the song’s narrative points towards it being a single author’s work, it is only fitting that the author is unknown. Because, like with every true folksong, the singer of the ಗೋವಿನ ಹಾಡು (The Song of the Cow) is not an individual but society itself.
     What you’re about to read is a poetic English translation. The “version” I have chosen to translate is the extremely popular sung version. While it is true that this version omits a great number of verses – a redacted version released by the Kannada Sahitya Parishat offers 114 verses! – it does so without ever doing violence to the ಭಾವ (bhāva: ~emotional context) of the original. Likewise, my translation is not always literal but is an attempt to convey the bhāva of the song.
Also – since the original itself uses a vocabulary and rhyme-scheme that are medieval-Kannada, I have taken the liberty of using a vocabulary and a grammar of inversion that are redolent of English poetry of the Romantic period.

     Since there is a readily available online version of the song, I am simply embedding the video below. I think it best to read the translation as you listen to the song.


Puṇyakóṭi – The Song of the Cow

Let me tell you of the ways
Of Kāḷinga the keeper-of-the-cows
In the flourishing land of Karṇāta here
Right in the centre of this earthly sphere

Beneath the tender mango trees
He sat as he played on his flute at ease
And happy strains went forth of sound
That cálled to the cattle gathered round

Come Gangē come come Gowri come
Come mother-Tungabhadrē come
Come Puṇyakōṭi you too come here
Was how he called out loud and clear

Listening to the cowherd’s call
The cows they gathered one and all
And then they overflowed their milk
Until his earthern pot was filled

This is the story of Puṇyakōṭi
Who said Truth was the only deity

Within the mountains spread around
Was heard tiger arbhuta‘s sound
As round and round the hills he prowled
While his stomach in a hunger growled

In a fury fiercely roaring
He went rumbling thundering soaring
Down to where the cows all were
And sent them scattering here and there

The cow whose name was Puṇyakōṭi
Was thinking fondly of her baby
As she headed back happy to the shed
To the calf she had to feed

Aha! thought the tiger cruel
Here at last is today’s meal
And bounding up encircling
He blocked her way the tiger king

This is the story of Puṇyakōṭi
Who said Truth was the only deity

I’ll pounce upon you right away
My claws will dig into your belly
And then I’ll tear you side to side

The tiger bayed in villainous pride

Tiger listen to my little plea
My kanda’s home waiting for me
Let me feed him just once more
And then I’ll make my way back here.

If I let a gift like you go free
That’s come to me when I’m hungry
You’ll slip away and never appear
You lie to me roared the tiger

Truth’s my father and my mother’s Truth
Truth’s my sister and my brother’s Truth
And if I do not keep my word
I know that it will not please the lord

This is the story of Puṇyakōṭi
Who said Truth was the only deity

I’ve come back kanda to our shed
To see you once before I head
Back to the tiger to whom I’ve said
That I will give myself as food

Whose teats shall I now suckle ma
By whose side shall I sleep now ma
In whose care ma shall I now live
Who will hug me when I grieve

O mothers dear, O sisters dear
We all came fróm the same mother
I ask you please on my behalf
Treat as your own this orphaned calf

Do not butt him if he rears
Do not kick him if he errs
Make him your own on my behalf
Fondly treat this orphaned calf

This is the story of Puṇyakōṭi,
Who said Truth was the only deity.

You are an orphan now my son
The tiger’s claimed me for his own
I will now go and clear our debt
She said as she hugged her kanda tight

Then saying goodbye to her child
Not even once looking behind
She reached the entrance to the cave
And said to the tiger – urgent-brave

Here take my flesh here take my meat
Here take this hot blood of my heart
You mighty tiger take all of this
And sate your hunger with relish

Listening to these words of hers,
The tiger’s eyes filled up with tears
If I kill and eat a lass so good
I know that it will not please the lord

You’re like a sister born with me
What will I gain by killing you
So saying with a heavy sigh
The tiger leapt off the cliff to die

This is the story of Puṇyakōṭi
Who said Truth was the only deity

Puṇyakóṭi, now filled with joy,
Frolicked home to feed her boy.
Then calling on her own cowherd
For the benefit of all declared

Let all the cows within my clan
And all the cowherds from your clan
Come together every year
And chant our Krishṇa’s name in prayer

For he is the store of all good things
And the máster of our good feelings

P.S: Here is another link that just misses having the whole song, but blends the song with a very charming animation.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=UOZmoWirK4