Recitation of the poem by Nisar himself:
The Rangoli and my Son (ರಂಗೋಲಿ ಮತ್ತು ಮಗ)
In front of every house but ours
was an early-morning rangavalli* –
like brightly shining teeth,
like the entire gully
was merry with a mirth.
Leaving to get the milk at dawn,
my mind would be fully captured
by the pictures that had been drawn;
unlocking room on room in my empty mind –
oh, what a surge of feeling they’d fill me with!
This one’s design is not like that;
among these drawings can be found
a greater meaning to geometric laws
that seem so complicated and hard:
the touch of a finger that is soft.
Now, through her rangoli, this sumangali*
(who didn’t go at all to college)
gives, every day, a shape and form
to geometry’s laws of knowledge.
What edges and what lines!
What circles and what squares!
A swastika*, a mandala*, a star;
to some ancient mantra’s chant,
this artistry has spread its wings –
see how it is nòw flying.
The rangavalli –
it stole my heart when I was young –
and still forming fully.
Unable to tell where were its start and end
(and feeling bad I couldn’t understand)
I’d worried my head from time to time:
having entered, with my eyes,
the thicket of its white patterns.
Astonished to see
the neighour woman bending
to draw, in a second, an unusual rangoli,
I’d, taking the powder of a piece of chalk,
looked to draw it in our verandah –
only to fail each time I tried;
I’d been labelled a kafir*
by my mother for this deed.
Once, the neighbouring lady, Vedavalli,
had drawn a thick-knotted rangavalli.
Smiling widely – her teeth all showing –
at the deep-gazed curiosity I was displaying,
“Why don’t saabru* draw such rangoli?” she’d asked.
My god, if only I’d had an answer!
I’d stood ashamed, not looking at her.
When ajji* chastised the outhouse-folk
for using their threshold to draw a rangoli –
abba! that incident had hurt me deeply.
Once, when in some worry of my own,
I’d veered from my path and stepped upon
a house’s rangoli, I’d yanked my foot away
as if what I’d stamped was a fiery coal.
‘Did those people see me?’ was my other worry.
The day before, my six-year boy
set out with me to buy some milk.
My eyes took in the rangoli as we walked;
noticing this, my boy had asked –
‘Why is it that every day
they draw these circle-figures in this way?’
I’d already cut and cleared and pared
the knotty details of what I had to say:
I offered the clean-shaven branch of my reply;
“Doing this is not our people’s way”.
As the churn of his mind began to mask
his clear face and the question ‘why’ looked set to flash,
I voiced, to quiet him, that old refrain:
“This is not spoken of in the koran*.”
Flying out of its half-second’s-silence nest
it pounced – another garuda*-winged question:
‘Must we do as it says there?’
Yes, I said –
the drizzle of his questions
had left me in despair.
The year our house was built, your name –
you had that written outside our house;
is that too something the koran says?
Can he be called a child,
this one who’s come to squeeze
my conscience’s throat?
Spreading its tentacles, his artless question
has brought me to despair;
smashing pot upon filled pot that holds
my beliefs, my customs, my ways.
“Hurry up, the queue’ll get long”, I said,
returning to the real world.
The rangoli was resting – like every other day:
like a little bird spreads its two wings,
my son spread his questions-of-wondering:
in doing so, he lit within my mind
a fire of questioning.
(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)
Note: What I’ve given above is the audio of Nisar reading the poem. To watch Nisar reading it, go here.
1. rangavalli (or rangoli): an art form that involves creating (often intricate) decorative patterns using chalk, rice powder, flowers, etc.
2. sumangali: a married (Hindu) woman
3. swastika: an ancient symbol in the form of an equal-armed cross with each arm continued at a right angle; a symbol of auspiciousness in Indic religions; the Nazis’s use of the (inverted) swastika as their emblem has contributed to its extremely negative image
4. mandala: literally, a circular figure, a disk; it has philosophical implications in Hinduism and Buddhism
5. kafir: an infidel, an unbeliever, a non-Muslim (per orthodox Islamic theology)
6. saabru: a Kannada word often used to refer to people who are Muslim; it derives from the urdu word ‘saab‘ (the equivalent of the English ‘mister’) and is more neutral than derogatory
7. ajji : the Kannada word for grandmother
8. koran: Islam’s holy book; considered the ‘word of god’ by orthodox believers
9. garuda: a fabulous bird of Hindu mythology, said to be the god Vishṇu‘s mount; often called the ‘king of the birds’ and understood to be, per traditional texts, the mortal enemy of snakes and the snake-people (nāgas)
Here’s an English distillation of what I wrote (in Kannada) upon learning of Nisar’s death on May 3, 2020. Those of you who’d like to read the original write-up can find it here.
When he lived, Prof. Nisar Ahmed’s immensely popular ಭಾವಗೀತೆ (bhavageethe: ~ lyric poems; song-poems) – including favourites like ‘In the Jog Falls’ Beautiful Light…” and “Our Krishna Stole the Butter…” – made him a household name in Karnataka. His writing, however, was not restricted to the production of such song-poetry. He was, in fact, a “modern” poet; whose sensibility allowed him to remain a “romantic”. In his best-selling “ನಿತ್ಯೋತ್ಸವ (nityōtsava: ~ Every day’s a Festival)” collection of poems, Nisar deliberately returned to this “romantic” poetry – with the explicit intent to make poetry accessible again.
As a Muslim writing in Kannada, Nisar’s (poetic) perspective added a new dimension to Kannada literature. His use of Urdu words in his Kannada poetry is particularly worthy of remark. (A majority of Muslims in Karnataka consider Urdu their ‘mother tongue’. However, the Urdu they speak is almost pidgin and looked down upon by the Dakkani speakers of the Hyderabad region – whose speech, in turn, is looked down upon by speakers of Laknavi, considered the most refined and courtly version of Urdu. That being said, almost every school-educated Muslim in Karnataka speaks Kannada, the language of the state of Karnataka.)
In my opinion – which is based on a limited reading of Nisar’s poetry and prose – Nisar’s use of Urdu in his Kannada poetry was extremely deliberate and his way of asserting his dual identity — as a Muslim’ and a ‘Kannadiga (Kannada speaker)’. I also think it served as a way for him to express his views on the give-and-take that happens at the intersection of society, religion, and language, even as he used it as a tool of introspection and self-reflection.
This poem you’ve just read is considered one of his “important” poems. The reason I translated it, though, was because it was a poem I enjoyed – not least for the singular point of view it offered. As far as I am concerned, the poem is a poem of “searching” and “reflection”.