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Translating Akkamahadevi's Vachanas: In Conversation with H.S. Shivaprakash

Interview with H.S. Shivaprakash by Varsha Nair (November 11, 2017)


H.S. Shivaprakash is a well-known poet, playwright and translator from Karnataka. He is currently Professor, Theatre and Performance Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. 


Varsha: How do we define or understand the vachanas, especially in relation to the wider canon of Kannada literature? 


H.S. Shivaprakash: See, there have been different definitions given by vachana scholars and I don’t agree with any one of them. Before vachana emerged as a literary genre in Kannada, there were lots of champu kavyas written. Champu is a mixture of prose and poetry. The prose portions of the champu were called vachana. Some people have compared vachanas to Upanishads, the sayings. Vachana means sayings or utterances. 


There have been differences of opinion about their origin. For example, one of the great vachana scholars, the late L. Basavaraju who has edited a very good volume of Akka’s vachanas, argued that vachanas are the extensions of the wisdom portions of the Vedas, Upanishads and Brahmanas. Another equally important scholar of vachanas, Chidananda Murthy, argued that their origins are specifically Kannada origins. A.K. Ramanujan, as you know, says in the Speaking of Siva that they are something said. 


But according to me, in the context of Karnataka—of course then there was no Karnataka, only the Kannada speaking region and the rest of Indian language literary cultures. I’m not saying literature, but literary culture specifically—there was a lot that was produced during that period, but not books in the present day sense of the word. There were more of orature, whose mode of existence can be either oral, written or performative. The Bhakti saints all over India—not as a counter to the rebellion against the mainstream narrative traditions, which were called Kavyas, Puranas etc.—popularised a genre of expression, which in Kannada is called vachana. 


The word vachana you find in other languages as well, for example, Kabir vachana. Sometimes it is called vaak, Lalla vaak. Sometimes it is called vaani, Gorakha vaani. In Tamil it is called sol and so on. So this is a pan-Indian genre developed by Bhakti saints, which is different from the narrative and lyrical form of expression in two ways. The narrative expressions are in the mode of indirect speech. In the story of Rama, you are narrating somebody else’s experience, you are the narrator, and it is not your experience. Lyrical is of course experience, for e.g., the aham and puram expressions in Sangam poetry or different kinds of love poems in folk traditions. These vaanis or vachanas are inspired from them, but they are not quite that because they (lyrical expressions) are about the love of man and woman mostly. 


But the Bhakti expressions are not about that kind of love. They draw on the symbolism of human love—sometimes not always—and give it another layer of meaning. As Ramanujan argued in his introduction to his translation, The Hymns of Drowning, in Sangam poetry, the signifier was a certain landscape and the signified was human love. In Bhakti poetry, the signified itself becomes the signifier for the love between human and the divine. So it’s a new genre, distinct from the narrative traditions that exist as third person narrations and lyrical expressions that are first person narrations. 


But in the context of Kannada—it may be true of other traditions as well, but I can’t testify to it because my knowledge of the texts in other languages is not so deep, by first-hand knowledge that is—one of the meanings that is suggested by the word vachana is the promise made. ‘I promise’ because in the vachanas there is a recurrent emphasis on the unity of word and action, speech and action, word and deed. In Kannada, speech is called nudi and action is called nade. 


And vachana poets have their own poetics though they did not write a book expressly on poetics like Tolkappiyam, Kavirajamargam, Dhvanyaloka or Lilatilakam in Malayalam. There is something called in-built poetics. If by poetics we mean the grammar of poetry, the grammar of vachana poetry is different from the grammar of pre-vachana ancient poetry, marga poetry in Kannada. Their (vachana poets) poetics is based on the unity of word and action. Of course other aspects of Bhakti expressions are highlighted in the literature. They talk about spontaneity, but it is not unique to Kannada. There is a certain kind of indifference to formal structures, which again is not (unique to Kannada)—but it is part of Bhakti because Bhakti rejected formal structures of agamic and vedic worship. Basavanna said:


Nadapriya shivanenburu

Vedapriya shivanenburu

Bhaktapriya namma Kudalasangamadeva 


Nada means the agamic tradition, temple worship and so on. Veda means the mode of worship of the nomadic Aryans, sacrifice to the fire, etc. Bhakti is spontaneous. For example, Andal is called Maalai chudi nachiar. Normally, when you offer flowers to the deity, it has to be pure. But she would first try the garland on herself and then offer it to the idol of Srivilliputhur Temple. So, she defied the rules of agama. Kannappa Nayanar, in Tamil tradition, a Saivite devotee, defied agamic norms. He offered Shiva, raw meat of the animal he had just hunted. So, that’s a different thing. 


But in vachanas, specifically, there is an emphasis on the unity of word and deed. And whenever they attack the followers of other paths—not just Vaishnavas, not just Brahmins, not just Jains, not just Tantriks, but also other Shaivas who go to the temple and worship the Shiva lingas in the temple—they attack them because there is no unity between their word and action. For example, Basavanna says: 


(Translated from Kannada)

We look at a stone statue of a snake, we offer it milk.

When the real snake appears, we take to the heels. 




We offer rice to the stone Shiva Linga, which can never eat

When a hungry mendicant comes, they say get lost.


And he expresses beautifully—which I call is the manifesto of vachana poetry—the characteristics of poetry which are mentioned in earlier traditions: Nudidare muttina Haaradanthirabeku. So if you should speak, your words should be like a necklace of pearls. This is said in Sanskrit poetics. The language of poetry should have prasadaguna—pleasing quality—good words in good order, subhaga they say. Nudidare spatikada salaakeyantirabeku: if you should speak, it should be crystal clear and needle sharp, precise—auchitya. This is also mentioned in Sanskrit poetics. 


Nudidare manikyada deeptiyantirabeku: the words should be radiant. This again is in Sanskrit poetics; kantaguna they say. Nudidare linga mecci ahudenabeku: should you speak, the lord Linga should say, ‘Yes! Quite so, quite so.’ This is said in other Bhakti traditons too. But he adds another rule of poetics, ‘Nudiyolagagi nadeyadiddare Kudalasangamadevanentolivanayya?’ If my words and actions do not agree, how will the lord be pleased with me. 


In this context, a vachana means a promise that I speak like I act and I act like I speak. So, emphasising the unity of word and action. So, when they attack the poetry they not only attack the Shastras, they also attack Kavyas. In Dhvanyaloka, Abhinavagupta talks about the distinction between Kavyas and Shastras. Shastras, he says, are dominated by denotative meanings. Kavya is vyanjanapradhana, poetry is dominated by connotative meanings. But vachana poetics reject both denotation and connotation, i.e., Shastras and Kavyas because they are—I do not want to use the word performative because it is such a jinxed word—emphasising acting the word and wording the act as it were. This is the meaning of vachana according to me. 


To sum it up, it is a genre, pan-Indian, cross-linguistics, but it has a specific meaning in the context of vachanas. 


V: There seems to be a broad unity in the approach of the vachanakaras. Within this, how does one understand the figure of Akkamahadevi and her vachanas?


H.S.S.: She is of course very special and the vachanakaras, themselves, realised it. It is said: ‘So many vachanas of Machideva is equal to one vachana of Basavanna, so many vachanas of Basavanna are equal to one vachana of so and so and so many vachanas of so and so…but nobody can equal Akkamahadevi.’ 


She was regarded as one of the greatest adepts by vachanakaras themselves in the vachanas. But when vachanas, which were presented in direct speech mode, were subjected to indirect speech treatment, when narratives were presented about vachanas and the poets…in all Bhakti traditions, this has happened. First, the efflorescence of spontaneous poetry and after a century or two it becomes mythified. People start producing, people don’t have experience; they do anthologies, analysis, commentaries and so on. 


So the time came when they had to build narratives, descriptions and interpretations of vachanas. Akkamahadevi was sidelined, though her importance in a text like Sunya Sampadane, they make Allama the hero. Whereas in Basavapurana of Palkuriki Somanatha and other texts Basavanna becomes the hero. So Akkamahadevi becomes kind of adjunct. This is because of the patriarchy in these traditions. 


Of course, couple of poetic narratives about Akkamahadevi have been written—Harihara has this fantastic narrative—but the space given to male vachanakaras on the whole is not given to Akkamahadevi. But if you look at the kind of compliments other vachana poets give to Akkamahadevi, she was considered as one of the highest religious adepts of the period. And to my mind, I consider her the greatest Kannada poet, not just in the context of vachanas. For the last 2000 years, Kannada has not produced another poet of the caliber of Akkamahadevi. 


What is important about her vachanas is the ‘celebration’ of divine love and the opposite—the angst—and one does not find too much of dilemma or conflict between good and evil in her vachanas. Neither is it esoteric like the vachanas of Allama Prabhu. And it has great range, though contemporary scholarship emphasises only the madhura bhava—sringara element—in her poetry, particularly feminist strands. Neither is she trying to depict the relationship between herself and the divine only in terms of the lover and the beloved. Sometimes Channamallikarjuna becomes guru; sometimes she addresses him as father, sometimes as the enemy. All shades of Bhakti—madhurya, dasya, sneha, vatsalya—we find in her vachanas.

And when one reads her vachanas, the impact is physical. You feel that something is touching your heart. It communicates a kind of spontaneous joy, which Kalidasa talks about in his definition of poetry in Abijnanasakunthalam. When you look at visual objects and you listen to sweet notes of music, you feel a kind of joy which is beyond other kinds of pleasures and experience. Suddenly you feel in touch with some affections that outlast lifetimes. So, this Akkamahadevi’s vachanas do and it is found more often in her than other vachanakaras. 


People have talked about the feminist angle in Akkamahadevi. I don’t know where this is going to lead us because the same expressions you also find in the vachanas of other male poets. When it comes to Bhakti, even the male becomes female with respect to the deity. Vachanakaras always said, ‘Sharana sati, linga pati’ (sharana is the wife and Shiva, the husband). There is one vachanakara called Gajesha Masanayya. He has also written a lot of madhurya bhava vachanas. If you don’t know this is written by a man, you feel this is written by a woman. So, I would rather say feminine expression than call it feminist expression and I think it is wrong to look for feminism in a 12th century text. Instead of imposing our presumptions and proclivities on ancient poetics, we should listen to what they are saying. Maybe they have something to tell us which is much more important than what we want to force on them. 


V: Is it possible to translate this impact of her vachanas and if so, is it necessary to imagine multiple ways of translating a single vachana?


H.S.S.: I think there have to be multiple translations. A single translation cannot exhaust all the significations of the source text. If you only want to produce the sound part of it, because the sonic element is very strong in Akkamahadevi, you lose out on the meaning. When you focus on the meaning, you lose out on the sound. Certain things can be brought out very well in prose translation and there are certain things, which can be brought out in the verse translation. 


Strictly speaking, vachanas were originally not written in these free verse forms. This convention was introduced by the first editor of Basavanna’s vachanas, Basavanal. Till then, in the palm leaf manuscripts they were written like prose because what was the written text in these traditions? It was only a trigger. Because of our obsession with written literature, we are looking at Bhakti texts as literature. But they are not literature they are oratures. These are compositions, which can manifest themselves orally, literally or performatively. So, Ramanujan has done translations, I have done, other people have done. All of us are trying to bring out different aspects of the source text. 


V: So, is there a point in looking at what is a more authentic translation?


H.S.S.: First of all, what is authenticity? Number one, we assume that this is a finite text. Bhakti texts are flowing texts. Look at any edition of vachanas edited by people like L. Basavaraju, R.C. Hiremath and so on. They give you different versions of the same text. In some textual rendering, some lines are the same, which are found in other ones and some words are different. Even about the ankitas or signatures there are controversies. For example, Ramanujan translated Guheshwara as the Lord of Caves. But when I looked at the manuscripts, the oldest manuscripts, the ankita is Goggeshwara and not Guheshwara. And later manuscripts—because in those days copying meant someone was writing with a kantika (writing apparatus)—the person found it difficult to write the ottakshara (cluster words) and made it Gogeshwara (without cluster). Maybe some Brahmin came and thought it as bad Kannada and made it Goheshwara. Then somebody more pandit corrected it as Guheshwara


So, Ramanujan translates it as Lord of Caves. I told him to his face, if you translate like this your name should be translated as the younger brother of the handsome one. So, one has to contend with these different textual variants of the same lines and same words. And as a translator—I am not a textual scholar—I cannot say this is the best, I will guess the overall meaning and I take the languages.


For example, there is a famous vachana by Akkamahadevi. There’s one line in R.C. Hiremath’s text. In the text translated by Ramanujan, it only speaks of the vegetation, flora and fauna, birds, etc. But in Hiremath’s text there is one line:


(Translated from Kannada)

The hunting men and women in the forest


This gives the poem a human context. But it is left out. In another famous vachana by Akkamahadevi, Akka kelavva, a person comes for alms. Ramanujan translates it as a boy. But in Kannada, it is very specific. It is gorava, a tribal boy. Not just any tribal boy, but somebody who belongs to a tribe called Goravas or Kurubas in Karnataka.


 So, there is a politics of translation. It is much easier to suppress a tribal thing in the text and civilize it as it were by romanticising him as a handsome young man. So, I think the translator should listen to the source text with ‘no mind’. Put your mind away and listen to it and take the impact, see what she is saying. As long as your mind is full of this noise created by your own culture, your own ideologies, your own pre-conceptions, you do not listen to that and that is an exercise, something you have to learn again and again. When I look at my own translations, which I have been doing for the past 30 years, I found many times I have taken things for granted.


For example, what makes Akkamahadevi’s vachanas intimate in Kannada? Because it is speaking to somebody all the time. In Ramanujan’s translation it is like speaking to oneself; something like Sylvia Plath’s poetry or Anglo-American poetry of the ’70s. It is not done. Because he wants to make it in telegraphic language like in modern poetry, he elides all the addresses like avva (mother), ayya (father), etc. But language of vachanas is dialogic. When I say it is direct speech, it is dialogic and not monologic. 


V: So is reading her in Kannada and reading her in English different experiences? 


H.S.S: It depends on the quality of the translation; to what extent is it trying to recreate—Ramanujan called it ‘sound look’—I would call it ‘sound, look, act’ or ‘sound, look, gesture and movement’ of the source text; the dynamics of it; the kinetics of it. 


First translation of vachanas was done by K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar, one of the doyens of Indian English literature, a great scholar, but I do not think he knew Kannada that well. He was the principle of Lingaraj College, Belagavi. It is called Musings of Sharana or something, where he recreates Akkamahadevi’s vachanas in some kind of later day Victorian poetry. Just takes the sense and recreates it. They are quite good. 


Then there are the translations done by Angadi and Armando Menezes, which think of vachanas as a holy book. So they translate vachanas into the Biblical language of thy, thou, etc. Then came Ramanujan’s translations. He translated vachanas into very good contemporary English. But while doing so, to make it readable and enjoyable and to speak sound into the contemporary English speaking people, he had to deviate—I won’t say distort— from the source text. 


But, if we don’t recreate the distinctive nuances and significations of a source text, what good is a translation? It’s readability, reader-friendly mode, I don’t think is the ultimate interest of the translation because when I read a translation of Shakespeare in Kannada, I also have to get an idea of how it sounds in English, rather than putting it into smooth Kannada. We have a need for such translations also. 


Many of the pre-modern translations of the Ramayana and Mahabharata in India or Shakespeare’s translation of earlier material is of that kind—adaptation— or you can call it imitation. But translation as an exercise which gets you close to the modes of the language you don’t know, that is also very important. As Walter Benjamin says, in translation we are looking for the lost language, which united mankind. According to the Biblical myth, after the fall of Babel, people got scattered in different directions and each started speaking their own language; so the lost language of before the fall of Babel. I would rather say it is the language of unity yet to be found. So each language exhausts only a small domain of the sayable. What cannot be said easily in one language can more easily be said in another language. So, when you are translating from one language, you are extending the possibilities of your own language. 


V: What about translations into other Indian languages?


H.S.S.: See, it is unfortunate that most of the other Indian language translations are from the English translations. If you know the language it is no guarantee you can write good poetry in that language. You should also know the language of poetry, which is independent of the language. That is the reason I believe that good translations are few and far between. 


V: So what is the relevance of reading Akka today?


H.S.S.: It resonates with you for reasons you can’t very clearly talk about. And for some reason, Akkamahadevi’s vachanas are speaking particularly to women of our times and though they are trying to contain it in the receptacle of feminism, Akkamahadevi flows out of it. You prepare a cage for her and by the time you complete the cage, the bird has flown away. So, there is something elusive about it. That is where Akkamahadevi is haunting. People from outside Karnataka, for example, the painter Nilima Sheikh has done a series of paintings on Akkamahadevi’s vachanas and most of them are concerned with the whole question of nudity. I think they are all overdoing it because nudity maybe a shocker for feminists but in ancient India there were many nanga (nude) sadhus, both men and women. 


She (Akkamahadevi) represents some kind of anarchic freedom all of us want and contemporary ideologies do not give you that kind of joy of complete abandon. In Akkamahadevi’s vachanas you find this joy of complete abandon…bindaas. That is the beauty of Bhakti. The Bhakti in the context of Vaishnavism, that is one kind of Bhakti. The Bhakti in the context of Shaivism people have not talked about. There is another lineage of Shaivic Bhakti, which in my recent discussions of Akkamahadevi’s vachanas I am trying to relate to Kashmir Shaivism, particularly to a text called Shiva Stotravali by Utpal Acharya. He is talking about Bhakti as pure fun. He says you will have to do so much of sadhana to attain Shiva if you are a Yogi or you are following the path of Tantra. But the moment the Bhakta says Shiva he is filled with joy. 


He says, ‘In the path of Shiva, sorrow becomes joy, poison becomes nectar.’ So this kind of complete abandon, which you also find in a number of Sufi poetry and that is why Sufi poetry became very popular. You do not get it from conventional religion and neither are you getting it from atheistic religions—liberalism or socialism or feminism or whatever it is. If there is anything that is the negation of ‘Hindutva’ in Indian tradition, that is Bhakti.