Translating the Divine Woman:
A Translation of Kalidasa’s Syamala Dandaka
Translated by: Usha Kishore & M Sambasivan
Bengaluru: Rasala (www.rasalabooks.com). 2015
ISBN (PB): 978-81-924112-4-8
ISBN (e-book): 978-81-924112-5-5
Pages xiv + 96 | Price not mentioned
A breezy and modernistic translation
Syamala Dandakam, a hymn composed and sung by Kalidasa, the greatest Sanskrit poet, has stirred millions of readers, devotees, savants and sages for generations – and it is popular even in this cyber age. Legend says that he was originally an illiterate dunderhead who got married to a princess by quirk of circumstances. The bride suggested that he pay a visit to the temple of Kali and seek her blessings. The goddess doodled the sacred, seminal syllables on his tongue, and suddenly he became transformed into a gifted polymath. In gratitude, he burst forth into singing out this dandakam, extemporised on the spur of the moment.
Goddess Syamala, with various names including Matangi (daughter of sage Matanga, who strove for the welfare of the tribal folks) is a quick granter of devotees’ wishes, especially of the underprivileged, unlettered and ignorant including the drunk. The Hindu pantheon has a god or goddess to cater to people of every perception, in what we may call democratic theism. She is, rightly, intoxicated just as her devotees can be inebriate. Each according to their own socio-economic position. There are certain occupations like butchery, skinning the dead animals and handling the rawhides where the atmosphere is too revulsive for the workers concerned. In order to find relief from it they take to drinks, and it is absolutely justifiable, for every occupation has its importance and dignity.
When Usha Kishore and Dr Sambasivan were coming up with their translation of Syamala Dandaka, this reviewer felt excited and nostalgic – for he originally comes from a place, Kaikalur (Krishna district, Andhra Pradesh), where the presiding deity is Syamalamba (Syamala + Amba, mother). Almost in every other household in those parts you will find a girl named after Syamala. Mention the Syamala Dandakam, and many Telugus fondly recall the legendary singer Ghantasala Venkateswara Rao who sang it with a full-throated and resonant ease, though in its abridged form to suit the Telugu movie Mahakavi Kalidasu (1960). The film won the President’s Silver Medal for Best Feature Film in Telugu; and Akkineni Nageswara Rao, the legendary hero who donned the role of Kalidasa, was honoured with the Kalidas Samman by the Madhya Pradesh government.
Usha and Dr Sambasivan should be profusely congratulated and their work heartily welcomed. The number of translations that continue to be rendered of Syamala Dandakam is a tribute to its continuing interest. Any great work attracts multiple publications, commentaries and translations. As TS Eliot in his Tradition and the Individual Talent observes, every classic needs to be re-interpreted from generation to generation in the light of the changing milieu of the society.
The book has been neatly and aesthetically brought out with a spatial generosity that will have a wholesome effect on the reader. And kudos to Rasala, the publishers. They are into the laudable enterprise of commissioning the translation into English of great as well as lesser known Sanskrit works and (re)conveying the lore, beauty and wisdom in the latter to the interested public.
Now about the translators’ credentials. Usha Kishore is an internationally published British poet and translator, and the author of On Manannan’s Isle (2014) and Night Sky Between The Stars (2015), both well-acclaimed. Dr M Sambasivan, a former Director and Professor of Neurosurgery, is also the tantri (Vedic head priest) for a number of Kerala temples. He was also the President of the Neurological Society of India and Chairman of the Indian Institute of Scientific Heritage.
The Introduction by the translators says that most of the translations have retained the religious thrust of Syamala Dandaka, but overlooked its literary merit, whereas their own translation has “attempted to highlight” its “literary beauty,” without excluding its religious importance.
The translators clarify that Syamala is a fused entity of the female divine trinity – Lakshmi, Parvati and Saraswati – a representation of the supreme woman power harmonizing the Shaivite-Vaishnavite differences. She is “evoked through yoga (meditation), mudra (hand gestures), mantra (chanting of syllables or verses), mandala and yantra (geometrical diagrams or three-dimensional structures, symbolic of the forces of universe). True to tantric tradition, Syamala Dandaka invokes Matangi through mantra, evoking the psychic power of the Goddess, especially in the incantatory closing lines.” With Dr Sambasivan being a tantric practitioner himself, one would presume that the translation carries the original spirit.
“Translating Sanskrit poetry is always a challenge,” agree the duo. In order to overcome the “rigid English syntax” in the process of translation, they have employed “rhetorical devices like anaphora, repetition, listing and parenthesis,” and also tried their best to “recreate the symphonious verse” of the original.
With the passage of time, the Syamala Dandaka came to have several recensions with slight variations in the text. The translators, in ‘A Note on the Text’ clarify that they have, mutatis mutandis, relied on the Kavyamala version.
We have a bonus section – The Wonderful World of Kavya – explaining the many and varied nuances of poetic conventions underlying the poetic literature in Sanskrit. It covers the three realms – Svarga, Bhumi, and Patala (Heaven, Earth, Netherworld); various Gods, divinities and demons; the wish-fulfilling tree and cow; the cosmic/divine geography including directions, seasons, mountains, rivers, flora and fauna; kings, women, lovers, colours, jewellery; life as ordained by Dharma, Varna, and Asrama; the four Yugas; the three Gunas; omens; etc. A basic knowledge of these things would help the reader understand and appreciate Sanskrit poetry better. The poetic conventions, as detailed by the translators, also highlight the beauty of symbiotic existence of the humans and the animals vis-a-vis the wonderful nature and cosmos. Reverting to the order of precedence of certain figures, there would be a lingering doubt, unless it has been consciously done in a random order. Why has Krishna been classified under ‘Svarga,’ whereas Rama under ‘Bhumi’? And why has Arjuna preceded Rama in the listing? For in both cases, the epic chronology is otherwise.
There seem to be almost no typos (except perhaps the needless visarga after ‘Krittivasa’ in the Sanskrit text, vide page 6).
The translation is refreshing and modern as envisioned by the translator duo. They have succeeded in transporting the alliterative and euphonious melody into the translation. Let us have a few examples.
Your alluring eyes,
feigned blooms on tendril brows
arching like the frolicking flowered bow of Kama;
watering the world with your wined word of wisdom. (p 13)
The euphony of your strumming vallaki vina
liltingly lingers on your palm-leaved earrings;
revered by the most reverend. (p 19)
Readers must have noticed and wondered why in the above lines the Goddess has been addressed simply as a “woman,” and twice. Well, the translators have stipulated that they have invoked Syamala as a woman, and not as a She or a Goddess, so that “This motif focuses on the socio-cultural perception of women.”
Now over to a couple more for their mellifluous majesty as well as consonance.
Your crimson lip buds bloom with rippling waves of radiant light
gleaming from the glistening string of your jasmine teeth. (p 27)
Your lucent crescent-moon toe nails
worshipped by the consorts of dikpalas,
their dark locks
diademed with blue-black light
as lustrous as luscious durva grass
luring deluded herds of deer. (p 59)
There could be just two minor/moot questions in the mind of a lay reader that this reviewer is, with only a smattering of Sanskrit.
The phrase ‘poorita-asesha-loka-abhhi-vaanchaa-phale’ (p 20) is translated as “fulfiller of the world’s desires” (p 21). Could it also be rendered as “fulfiller of countless desires of people” (since the original contains ‘asesha’ – countless, innumerable; and also taking ‘loka’ in the sense of ‘people’)?
Next, “vibhrama-alankrite” (p 36) has been rendered as “daintily adorned in dalliance” (p 37). Would it have been alright without the probably redundant “in dalliance,” since the word “daintily” has taken care of “vibhrama” which denotes ‘gracefully,’ ‘splendidly,’ or ‘dazzlingly,’ though, of course, it also connotes ‘amorously’?
The book contains the Sanskrit original in the Devanagari script on the left page, and the English translation on the right, thereby serving not only as a reader’s/scholar’s copy for pleasure/study but also as a devotee’s sacred copy for daily chanting. And equally helpful is the 2-page Glossary.
The very germination of the idea of translating the powerful Syamala Dandakam must have been ethereally inspired by the Supreme Goddess herself – and the translators do confirm it in their dedication: “To Matangi who came to us of her own accord.” Blessed be the translators.
And they “have interpreted the Divine Woman in contemporary terms, as a revolutionary awakening to womanhood,” and with a fervent wish that this divine female concept should undo the trend of variously humiliating, and wreaking atrocities on, the fair sex in the country. May the spirit of Syamala Dandaka result in a greater respect for women, in tune with the adorable and adored status given to women and goddesses in Indian culture. Tathastu! Amen!