Tuesday, October 29, 2013


This blog completes three years of its ‘existence’ this month. Its first post titled ‘Nehru on Hindi’ (http://aboutreading.blogspot.in/2010/10/nehru-on-hindi.html) was uploaded on Monday, October 18, 2010. My personal view about this blog has been that it is a kind of a ‘public diary’ for me, in and through which I explore personal and impersonal issues in such a manner that both seem to be, which I believe they essentially are, the two sides of the same coin. 

Vishnu Khare with a copy of his translation
of The Kalevipoeg.
Image Courtesy: www. http://headread.ee/

It is indeed a pleasure and privilege for me to add a new dimension to the blog by having a conversation with Shri Vishnu Khare, one of our most respected, distinguished and ‘enfants terrible’, so to say, poet-intellectuals of our times to mark the completion of these years. The occasion for this conversation, if any occasion was needed at all (since I have had the privilege of conversing with him for hours together in person, on phone and mails on a wide spectrum of socio-literary-cultural-personal concerns), was the presentation of the State Decoration of the Order of the Cross of Terra Mariana, IV Class to him as the translator of the Estonian National Epic, The Kalevipoeg, by the Honorable Estonian Minister of Education and Research, Mr. Jaak Aaviksoo, on behalf of the President of Estonia, in the presence of the Ambassador of Estonia H.E. Mr. Viljar Lubi, and many distinguished Indian poets, writers, editors and intellectuals in  New Delhi last fortnight. 

Before we start the discussion, it would be interesting to read a passage from the translation shared by Shri Khare with a brief intro. The conversation was conducted through e-mails and telecom.


                        मृत्यु की बेड़ियों में कलेवपुत्र ने संघर्ष किया
            यातना में अपना प्राण-त्याग किया.
            खेतों में रक्त जम गया
            घटनास्थल को लोहित रँगता हुआ.
            उसका शरीर पहले ही कड़ा और ठंढा हो चुका था,
            रक्तस्राव शांत हुआ,
            उसका ह्रदय निस्पंद.
            तब भी कलेवपुत्र की आँखें
            स्वर्ग के पिता के कक्षों की ओर
            स्पष्ट दमक रही थीं,
            ऊपर पुरातनपुरुष के आगारों की ओर.

                        अपने नश्वर बंधनों से मुक्त
            उसकी आत्मा उड़ी, एक दीप्तिमान पक्षी की भाँति
            वारिदों में विस्तीर्ण पंखों पर,
            वह स्वर्ग को आरोहित हुई.
            उसकी आत्मा की प्रच्छाया बनने के लिए स्वर्ग में
            एक स्वस्थ शरीर को निर्मित किया गया
            जो दैवी नायकों की क्रीड़ाओं पर,
            गर्जनकारों के भोजों पर,
            मधुरतर जीवन का स्वाद ग्रहण करता हुआ
            और अपने पार्थिव परिश्रम से विश्राम करता हुआ
            अपना हर्षनाद करता था.
            वह एक खुले अलाव के पास बैठा,
            तारा के नायकों के बीच,
            अपना सिर अपने हाथों पर टिकाए हुए,
            गायकों के कथाओं को सुनता हुआ;
            उसने अपने पार्थिव पराक्रमों को सुना
            जीवंत घटनाओं और अचंभों को
            अग्नि के पास वार्तालाप में –
            चारणों की स्वर्णजिव्ह चर्चा में.

The epic hero, Kalevipoeg, as seen by sculptor Amandus Adamson
( Photo: Postimees/Scanpix )

 Congratulations, Khare Sahab, for this Estonian honour, which I think, is an honour for all Indian poets and translators, and lovers of poetry. We will like to begin from the beginning. How did this project of translating the Estonian Epic The Kalevipoeg into Hindi come into being?

Thanks for the kind words, Kumar. As you know, there is a Sprachbund called the Finno-Ugric languages and Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian are its major members. Thus there is a strong cultural connect among Hungary, Finland and Estonia. When I was translating such Hungarian poets as Endre Ady, Attila Jozsef, Miklos Radnoti and others into Hindi in the 1980s, the Finnish Literary Society and the Kalevala Society came to know of it and approached me with the proposal that I translate the Finnish national poetic epic Kalevala, which runs into nearly 24,000 lines, into Hindi as well. I confessed to them that I did not know any Finno-Ugric language and must translate through the English versions, with occasional help from such mother-tongue experts who had the time and inclination to do so. 

To cut a long story short, when the Hindi Kalevala was published, for which too I was undeservedly decorated as a Knight of the White Rose of Finland by the Finnish President, the word went round in the neighbouring Estonia and Ilvi Liive and Kerti Tergem of the Estonian Literary Society and the distinguished Estonian poet Doris Kareva, who met me at the Translators House of NLPVF Holland in Amsterdam, suggested that I took up the translation of their national poetic epic Kalevipoeg also, running into nearly 16,000 lines, in Hindi. Yous ee, both Kalevala and Kalevipoeg have common family-roots and are culturally interrelated. Earlier, I had read the Kalevipoeg in a prose-translation. But it was the combined persuasive powers of Ilvi Liive, Kerti Tergem and Doris Kareva that weakened my will and made me take up the back-breaking task. The eponymous hero of the epic is also prone to such rash, near-suicidal misadventures.

What is this epic all about and what way does it stand for the Estonian search for an identity of their own? What was the role of The Learned Estonian Society, Friedrich Robert Faehlmann, and Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald in documenting the epic ?

The Kalevipoeg begins with the kidnapping of the mother of the rural princely-hero by a rapacious magician – there is this distant echo of the similar kidnapping of Sita in the Ramayana - and though Kalevipoeg kills the dastardly villain, he fails to find his mother alive. His heroic father Kalev had already died and must speak to him only from his grave. The “orphan” young man tends to lead an impulsive, complicated life mostly of his own making, kills a few other enemies and demons and some innocent human beings as well but is ultimately immortalised in a strange petrification by the gods-that-be.

It was an article of faith in the entire post-mediaeval Europe that any country which desired to see itself as a nation ought to have at least one epic of its own. An epicless race was unthinkable – at best a poor relation waiting at the outer portals of the grand European cultural banquet-hall. The Greek and Roman epics did not work – they were a common heritage but there was nothing native about them. Many European countries had their own epics from the pre-Christian, pagan times but not all were so lucky. So anthropologists and ethnographers from such deprived countries began scouring their ancient folk-lore for traces and remnants of narratives which could be rewritten or improvised and claimed as national epics. Both Kalevala and Kalevipoeg, collected and written by the Finnish Elias Loenrott and the Estonian Friedrich Reinhard Kreuzwald respectively, are direct creative results of this great national urge for an epical identity.

The Platonic institution of “Akademia” was adapted by nearly all European countries as “Learned Societies” catering to their post-renaissance national intellectual or creative pursuits and the Learned Estonian Society was founded for similar objectives in 1838 – it is still active with 114 members - in the university town of Tartu. While the ball for the compilation of Kalevipoeg was set rolling by Friedrich Robert Faehlmann in the Learned Society, it was the other member, the aforesaid Friedrich Reinhard Kreuzwald, practising medical doctor by profession and poet, translator, ethnographer-folklorist by choice, who took up the task of creating the Kalevipoeg in serious earnest and the first lines of the epic-in-the-making were initially published in the Proceedings of the Society Oeptatud Eesti Selts between 1857-1861.

A Map of Estonia
Image Courtesy: http://wwp.greenwichmeantime.com
Would it be suitable to compare it with the Ramayana or the Mahabharata?

The protagonist Kalevipoeg seems to me to be a strange combination of Hanuman from the Ramayana and Bhima from the Mahabharata. Certainly some other parallels could be found – they are found in all epics – but a wholesale comparison would be unjust to both Ramayana-Mahabharata and Kalevipoeg. The two Indian epics already speak of a comparatively well-developed, near-urban society, more so the Mahabharata. The Kalevipoeg is an epic of a predominantly rural civilisation – it is basically naive, even innocent. Had there been a pre-Rgvedic epic, it could come close to Kalevipoeg. Even our folk-epics are called so because they are composed in folk-dialects – their subject-matter is still mostly feudal. There is also the all-permeating presence of Hindu mythology in its various versions. If narratives from our ancient pre-pagan pre-puranic dalit-folk-tribal traditions could be discovered, collected and recreated, maybe we could have had epics like the Kalevala and the Kalevipoeg. I am not an expert in ethnography, anthropology or folk-lore and for all I ( do not ) know, perhaps such epics could still exist. While translating the Kalevala, I did hear of a Tulu folk-epic from Karnataka.

Is this epic a living tradition in Estonia—do the young generation identify themselves with the epic in Estonia?

An Image from a Photobook project “The Ordinary Estonian”

Courtesy: www. http://estonianworld.com
Though not as all-pervasive as the two Indian Hindu epics, which have the dubious advantage of having become semi-religious texts as well, names and motifs from the Kalevipoeg are found profusely in modern Estonian literature, drama, music, painting, sculpture and dance. Shops are full of Kalevipoeg merchandise. The epic has been filmed both for the television and cinema. There are museums devoted entirely or partly to it. Real regions, places and spots are identified with its incidents. Children are sometimes named after its characters. The story has been reworked and retold for children and adolescents. Comics exist. Kalevipoeg is present in all curricula, from the primary-school level to the Master’s degree. It is a perennial subject of academic research. In any case, that the President of Estonia thinks it proper to bestow a national honour upon a humble Hindi translator of the Kalevipoeg from India and his Education Minister himself hands over the medallion to him at the Embassy in the presence of the Ambassador, is surely indicative enough of how seriously the people of Estonia take their epic. But just as the younger generation in India doesn’t take its epic-duo frightfully seriously, so also the globalised, Europianised young people in Estonia take their Kalevipoeg with a slight tongue in the cheek combined with a mischievous pinch of salt. But this is perhaps how it should be.

You have been one of our leading modern poets, who has translated a spectrum of modern world poetry into Hindi. How do you respond as a translator to an epic which may not be ‘modern’ in the sense we understand?

Leading modern poet or not, I do confess that I have translated, perhaps too much, from the so-called world poetry. One of the great advantages we Indians are privileged to have is that we are not compelled only to live in the “modern times”. Not only our two epics but hundreds of other ancient books, myths, folk-tales, grandmother-stories resonate in our memory. Then there are the four thousand years old traditions, beliefs, rituals, festivities and superstitions – yes, they as well. Personally, I am reading the Mahabharata with an obsessive-manic regularity for the last sixty years and can’t have enough of it. I consider Krishna to be the most ideal human being of all times and both Vainamoinen, the “hero” of the Kalevala, and Kalevipoeg have a touch of the flute-player from Vrindavan. “Modernity” is found in abundance in all great national books and works of art, howsoever ancient they might be. I think it resides in your mind. Buddhism is the most modern faith of them all. Can there be anything more modern than the Rgvedic Purusha-Sukta? A strange universality pervades all arts. We have a lot to learn from our own Dalits, village-people and tribes. There are many inspiring passages in the Kalevipoeg but the way the hero is maimed by his ambiguous instructions to his own sword and is finally destined to guard forever ossified the gates of the Underworld is as contemporarily relevant as could be.

Jaan Kaplinski, eminent modern Estonian poet and an official Nobel Prize nominee for Literature in 2007, reading his poems at India International Centre, New Delhi in September 2007 after inaugurating the Indo-Estonian Cultural Society with eminent poet Shri Kedarnath Singh as President, Shri Vishnu Khare as Secretary, and eminent poet Shri Manglesh Dabral, Shri Ajey Kumar, Editor, ‘Udbahavna’, and Kumar Vikram as honorary founder-members

 The Kalevputra being a long translation in free verse, how many common readers you think will read it ? Would it not have been more “democratic” to translate it in prose ?

As a translator, it is my excruciating ambition to be as close to the original as possible, in language, style and craft. Though I had the original Kalevipoeg with me all the time, I knew neither the language nor the way to achieve a similar alliteration and rhyme-scheme. You see, translating always helps and inspires a poetaster like me.The best and least I could do was to attempt a free-verse translation in a “literary” register of the language, employed by the great Hindi “Imagist” poets of the 1930-40s. The “heroic” style of Makhanlal Chaturvedi, Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’ and others was also helpful. But, yes, once this poetic version is sold out, I might think of rewriting the Kalevputra as an improvised ‘novel’, if there is sufficient encouragement. A similar task awaits the Kalevala as well. I am convinced that both these “novels” will enjoy a much larger readership in Hindi and in other Indian languages. But I am truly amazed by the enthusiastic  responses of the so-called common readers even from the so-called Hindi backwaters to the “poetic” Kalevipoeg and Kalevala.


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