Ravi Shankar vs. Aandaal, eighth-century female saint. A translation from Tamil to English presented in Cortland Review’s ‘Summer Feature: In Translation’ (looks like they’ve been leaning into these ‘features’ in lieu of ‘Issues’).
Slam summary: The venerable She (Aandaal) tends to her religious vows (sand mandalas, fire-keeping) in hopes of some dramatic rejoining with her musky godlove Govinda.
Now, Aandaal (sometimes Andal, born Khodhai or somesuch) is the only female poet-saint (‘Alvars’; total of 12) from this time period; she had two books of verse published by the age of fifteen (Rimbaud?) when she ‘merged with her Lord’ (i.e.–mors totalis).
Why a saint? She’s got a monster purity ring on her finger for Vishnu. No other allowances. Godlove or no love.
This piece: “The Song to Kamadeva, God of Love.”
Kamadeva. Generally God of Human (or Sexual) Love. Kama is the equivalent of desire, love, beauty in Sanskrit (see: Kama Sutra). Commonly portrayed as a handsome youngster riding a parrot, firing a bow made of sugarcane, strung with honeybees using arrows bedecked in fragrant flowers.
Let’s press play on that original poem, pre-translation. It’s a worship song, sitar accompaniment. Dusty street (and maybe this is just that World Geography Class, that video, those dusty orphan children) and then that plucky female voice, drawing vowels along the strings—long, almost-strained notes that deny the couplet form that Shankar translates it into. It doesn’t hear as couplets, but song.
I can’t pick apart the Tamil too much, but Ravi’s translation:
In January hoarfrost, I sweep the ground
to draw sacred mandalas with fine sand,
intricate adornment of stars and matrixes
of dots in rice powder that will disperse
in the afternoon void. The art of engaging
beauty for its own form and transient sake.
Examine: ‘the art of engaging beauty for it’s own form and transient sake.’
It serves as the summary to this setting or series of actions, yeah? I do this, I sprinkle that, it will be gone. This is why I do it.
And as with all creation, the first six lines are really just breaking the dessicated nib from the pen.
Enraptured, flushed pink, I turn to you
& your brother to ask, how do we still live?
Untie me with the hand that holds the discus
ringed in fire so I might adorn more streets
with sand dripped through my fingertips.
Troubling: ‘[H]ow do we still live?’ Spoken from the pit of love? Sung from a sort-of ‘why-how-amazing-is-all-of-this!’ rhetoricality?
And the brother? From research, Kamadeva had two brothers (Shama/Harsha), neither of whom is particularly influential, neither of whom carry a ‘discus ringed in fire’. Neither did ‘Kama’ himself.
His consort, Rati, was never seen without lotus or discus. Perhaps there is some compensation there.
I bathed alone during the vast song of dawn,
& tended the fire with tender, smooth twigs.
My vow to him courses through my body
like a ripened blossom strung on your bow
to release with keening motion the name
of the only one capable of ocean-breaths
dotted with song cleaved from between beaks.
I’d touch on Ravi’s language choice here; some very nice turns that work and work again. Somehow ‘tended’ and ‘tender’ don’t interfere with each other, but soften the ‘igginess’ of the twigs, and allow for that ripened blossom along the bow (refer again to Kama’s honeybee/sugarcane/flowerbud bow ‘n’ arrow).
And perhaps the choicest meat of the piece: ‘to release with keening motion’, ‘ocean-breaths’ and ‘cleaved from between beaks’, all invoking this spotted cry, chirped between great gulps of air.
Draw the bow at me, loosening braids of reason
until I am an untied string without a knot,
united as wave and postulate. Concluded.
Wave and postulate. Vibrating transience and point, or two points. As a string held between two fingers and thrummed or as the wire on a sitar is strung and plucked.
Stung so much by that, I nearly missed that single-word sentence ‘[C]oncluded.’
This is where we see our big volta, right? Up until now, our lady-de-lust has been all about personal release and postulating: ‘[U]ntie me,’ ‘like a ripened blossom,’ ‘to release,’ ‘loosening braids,’ ‘draw the bow at me,’ that is—fire some of your Eros-arrows into me that I might love hard enough to unite with Him.
But now, here is what she’ll do in exchange:
Three times a day I will worship at your feet
with fragrant blossoms of moonflowers,
my heart ablaze, from fiery tips of arrows
woven from efflorescence to spell his name,
Govinda, a musk essence of transcendence.
It’s all fireworks there. Efflorescence is a smarmy way of saying ‘blooming’, but you get the ‘light-up-the-sky’ vibe, yeah? And ‘musk essence of transcendence‘?
I returned to the beginning of the piece at this point and would encourage doing so, as there’s some semblance of closure in this—these rote rituals have found deity of their own accord. Where once our devotee wandered about trailing stardust (stardust that would be dissipated by afternoon), here comes an interjection: in a cold morning, through this poem of worship and concordantly through her observances, the sky and the language have warmed into a peaking climax of pointed, bowing devotion.
And with that heat in her breast, she implores:
Aim the arrow at him & let it fly, to pierce
him until I might enter that succulent light.
Interesting that the cleaving is of a male figure such that a female might enter. Hang on that word ‘until,’ though. There’s only one arrow, correct? Which means that that arrow remains embedded in Govinda until the speaker ‘might enter.’ Either it’s wriggling back and forth, opening the gap wider, or Kamadeva’s notorious love-inducing arrowcoat needs time to take effect.
They’re almost a distraction, these arrows. Excuse a glimpse into modernity, but they’re like a few drinks at a bar, warding inhibitions just long enough that two humans might slide within one another, without either noticing the other is, in fact, human.
A myth featuring Kamadeva (our bartender), lastly, that may parallel and thus inform Aandaal’s requests:
The Gods in Heaven are being tortured by a Demon. The Demon, uniquely, can only be killed by a son of Shiva. Shiva however is in meditation-mode, is a severe ascetic. I shall not speak, much less copulate.
The Gods request Kamadeva rouse him with his lust-arrows while Pavarti (another goddess) stands by waiting to consummate (Our Aandaal is here) so the Child can be made, then birthed, then destroy the Demon.
This is the point of divergence. We are pre-request in our poem.
Kama has good reason not to answer—and we know not whether he did—because in the original myth:
Shiva, unpsyched at being arisen, doesn’t immediately pollinate as hoped—instead he cracks his third eye and immolates Kamadeva (then, yeah: baby, Demon-death, all that).
Forever after, Kamadeva remains incorporeal and floats through the world as spirit-matter.
I’ll not to touch on the act of the translation here, as I’ve no idea the fidelity that Shankar lends to Aandaal’s verse (and don’t particularly care, since his poem stands isolated and intact); I’d leave off instead with an image of a thousand worshippers chanting this verse in that dusty street, inebriated by the song’s tangible sexuality.
A long way from the woods, fields, and slat-wall churches of high-buttoned Western Puritanism, yes?