A Poem at the Right Moment: An Introduction

(Sri Veluri Venkateswara Rao is well-known to the Internet Telugu community for his deeply insightful and humorous commentaries on many literary issues. His sketch of a Telugu teacher that appeared in Andhra Prabha weekly last year was one nice example of this. Some of his works have been compiled into a book by Vanguri Foundation.)

As we were growing up, my brother and I  used to spend our Sankraanti and Summer vacations in my maternal uncle’s village with our cousins. I have always enjoyed the Sankraanti break.  Even today, I fondly cherish the post-dinner chit-chat sessions with my uncle. As I look back, the scene is nothing but idyllic and pastoral. By 6:00 p.m., it would become pitch dark, humming, and chilly; we kids collect a good supply of twigs, and make a small fire in the front yard. This fire in the local dialect is known as నెగడి and we all sit around it with my uncle ‘presiding.’  We  warm up our palms, the palms warm up our face and the sparks from a neem twig (‘neem’ twigs were no! no!) flying all over in competition with the lightning bugs!

My uncle would slowly recite a poem, line by line,  and we repeat after him.  The deal is simple: we learn a poem a day; the next evening all of us have to recite it back to him. The one who fails to recite will have to sit far away from the fire! A chilling punishment, indeed.  Then, he will teach us another poem!  Now when I close my eyes,  I  could still recall the entire scene after all these years:  The first poem I had to learn from him was the following:

కాటుక కంటినీరు చనుకట్టు పయింబడ నేల యేడ్చెదో
కైటభ దైత్యమర్దనుని గాదిలి కోడల! ఓ మదంబ! ఓ
హాటకగర్భురాణి ! నిను ఆకటికై కొనిపోయి అల్ల క
ర్ణాట కిరాట కీచకుల కమ్మ త్రిశుద్ధిగ నమ్ము భారతీ

He used to add an anecdote or two, a little story, and I now strongly suspect that he had embellished the old stories with his additions…to each and every poem. These stories, compelling as they are, forced us to remember every poem, until today!  My uncle was not formally educated, but I think he knows tons and tons of poems by heart; and so many of them are the so-called  ‘stray’ or ‘isolated’ verses, or “caaTu,” poems from Telugu and Sanskrit!  Some of the verses are crude, overly romantic, some you may not want to ever repeat in the company of girls and ladies, and some often times verge on the soft porn.  But, they are all “charming utterances,” indeed! And luckily for us, as kids we were not supposed to ask for the meanings!  All we had to do was to repeat after him, remember and recite back!

I remembered almost all the poems, may be because of the stories woven around the poems!

In 1998, I got the book, “A Poem at the Right Moment,” by Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman, a definitive English translation of carefully  ‘selected’   ‘caaTu ‘ poetry in Telugu, Sanskrit, and Tamil. Of course, the lion share was devoted to Telugu caaTus followed by Sanskrit.  The  moment I got the book,  I eagerly scanned it with childlike enthusiasm for those verses I have learned as a pre-teen!  I was thrilled to see most of them included!

As usual, I was ready to question the ‘original’ authorship of some pieces as  ‘attributed’ by the present authors.   For example about the caaTu,

మృదుతల్పంబు వికారలీల దిగి, ధమ్మిల్లంబు చేబూని రా
గద దృగ్జాలముతోడ కౌను నులియంగా మోము మార్వెట్టుచున్‌
వదలంబారిన నీవి పట్టుకొని యా వామాక్షి  అట్లేగె…తత్‌
సదన భ్రాజిత రత్న దీప కళికా స్తంభంబు క్రీనీడకున్‌ (page 93),

I would fight to kill with the authors! My uncle did not attribute the authorship of this caaTu  to Allasaani Peddana. He told us a slightly different version of the story. The  unknown poet got stuck at the end of the third stanza! Which man wouldn’t? Men are, in general, ignorumses and wouldn’t have a clue what a woman would feel/do after the act!  It was the anonymous poet’s niece that has completed the last stanza.  I like it better if it were niece rather than the daughter!

Any way, let us look at the translation:


She comes down sickened
off the soft bed,
hands tugging at her wild hair,
both eyes glowing red.
Tremors ripple through her waist, her face
is turned away.
She holds her sari
with her fingers, for the knot
has come undone,

as she staggers slightly
through the needle of light
from the diamond lamp
high on its stand
into the shadows below.

The translators’ clever usage, ‘through the needle of light …. into the shadows below,’ makes the poem sound as if it is an original!

The story surrounding the poem that భట్టుమూర్తి bought the poem for an exorbitant price from నంది తిమ్మన  ( also known as mukku timmana!)’s favorite barber who obtained the poem as a gift from timmana, and included it in his vasucaritra, happened to be the same I have learned from my uncle!

నానా సూన వితాన  వాసనలనానందించు సారంగమే
లా నన్నొల్లదటంచు గంధఫలి బల్‌ కాకన్‌ తపం బంది యో
షా నాసాకృతి తాల్చి సర్వ సుమన స్సౌరభ్య సంవాసి యై
పూనెన్‌ ప్రేక్షణమాలికా మధుకరీపుంజంబులిర్వింకలన్‌. (page 129)

This poem with its preponderance of nasal sounds was a killer to remember!  Now, as a grown up, I think it is one great poem where the sound of the words is raised to a level of importance equal to that of meaning!

Let us see the translation:

An ode to the nose

In agony, the campaka blossom wondered
why bees enjoy the honey of so many flowers
but never come to her.
She fled to forest to do penance.
As a reward, she achieved the shape of a woman’s nose.
Now she takes in the perfumes
of all the flowers, and on both sides
she is honored by eyes
black as bees.

Isn’t it as beautiful as the original?

No one knows the authorship of it, but everyone has seen the slOkam జానక్యాః కమలామలాన్జలి పుటేః యాః పద్మరాగాయితః…. (page  45) on countless wedding invitations!  We all say ‘అష్ట
కష్టాలు ,’ but do we know what they are? What are the so-called eight calamities?  Well, I don’t want to give them away.  And, do you remember Sreenaatha demanding Siva to release drinking water in palanaaDu?  “సిరిగలవానికి చెల్లును… ” and all that! Do you know why you should  never  trust a ‘paNini ‘ scholar, the grammarian?

I have searched in the text for

అన్నాతి కూడ హరుడవు,
అన్నాతిని  కూడకున్న అసుర గురుండౌ,
అన్నా తిరుమలరాయా,
కన్నొక్కటి లేదు కాని కంతుడవేగా!

I found it! It was in the preface.

Wouldn’t you like to read the poem to your nephew or niece and tell the stories around it, the traditional lore on Siva, Sukra, Manmatha, etc?

Or would you dare to recite in a civilized company, the caaTu that ends with the line,

     […] గంగ క
ద్దరిమే లిద్దరి కీడునున్‌ కలవె? ఉద్యద్రాజ బింబాననా !

The  authorship for these two poems was attributed to Tenaali Raamalingadu, and again,  no one knows whether he had ever existed. [Oops! I uttered Tenaali Raamalinga’s name, and now I have to tell you seven stories about his literary exploits!  That was the curse, he was said to have imposed upon those who utter his name!] But, when the stories are narrated, when the poems are recited, oh! for the millionth  time,  you feel in your bones, you believe that he actually was there then;  and is there laughing and listening….now!

But then, does it really matter?  Who wrote a particular poem, when, and  under what circumstances?  Or does it really matter if the quarrels (?)  between  Kaalidaasa (4th century), Bhavabhooti and Dandi (8th Century)were true or a figment of  some one’s fertile imagination?  Did KaaLidaasa really say to Bhavabhooti that in all of his “uttararaamacaritam,” one single nasal sound   ‘m,’ was in excess?  Obviously not.  But, how sweet the story is! And, such stories abound. The so-called literary disputes between Kalidaasa and Bhavabhooti;– ‘who is a better poet?’ –with the king Bhoja as the agent provocatuer, and finally the goddess Kaali intervening to settle the dispute by Her clever tricks?  The  point is that a whole rich cultural tradition that was built around the caaTu poetry should not be dismissed as figments of imagination or ridiculed and ignored for want of academic curiosity of ‘true’ authorship, correct chronology, historicity and absolute authenticity!  The western educated Indian elite fell into the same traps devised by the western oriental scholars and for ages asked the wrong questions, the historicity of the caaTu poets, the kings and concubines and thoroughly missed to understand the great living tradition that caaTu poetry has bestowed on a great culture!

Here I am reminded of good old Bob Dylan:

” Ezra Pound and T S Eliot, fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them, and fishermen hold flowers..”

How true!

Narayana Rao and  Shulman  argue  very effectively  and convince you in their preface and in the long scholarly after-essay to the book, that  ‘a poem exists  in the memory or on the tongue of living connoisseurs,’ and caatu poetry does fit the bill perfectly!  A caaTu  ‘is an integral part of a system of communicated and shared knowledge of a community.’ And, they elaborate on this community, as well.  These poems have survived for eons and they still will! Surprisingly, the caaTu tradition is so strong, it continues even today!

I just wanted to introduce the book; not to write a critical review; on the selection of the verses, the translation and the after-word. Of course, I have a few complaints. The first line index should have been given for the original language of the poem; the index for the first lines of the English translation is almost useless as a reference! More than that, there were too few verses.  May be, A Poem at the Right Moment -II is in order.

I was lucky.  And, I know people of my generation are very lucky; they had an uncle or a grandfather, who in spite of (or because of?) no ‘formal education’ could  recite lots of verses and told tons of stories surrounding the poems!  Nephews and nieces in the USA and in India too need not be deprived of those great times we had!  We now have a collection of selected verses, transliterated and translated into English, the translation at times reaching close to the lilting beauty of the original.  We just don’t try to treasure this great oral  tradition; we shall continue to live it.

Let me close this introduction with the following Sanskrit caaTU:

నామ రూపాత్మకం విశ్వం దృశ్యతే యదా ఇదం ద్విధా
తత్రద్యస్య కవీర్వేధా ద్వితీయస్య చతుర్ముఖః

The world is really two, made of name and form.
One the poet creates.
The second comes from God. (From the After-Essay, page 147)

And, of course I second it.

[“A Poem at the Right Moment” by Velcheru Narayana Rao, Professor of  South Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and David  Shulman, Professor of Indian Studies and Comparative Religion at the  Hebrew University, Jerusalem, is published by the University of  California Press in 1998.  Oxford University Press of India has brought out an Indian edition in January 1999.]