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Tissues on a teakwood table: Poet and translator Madhav Ajjampur's workspace

Madhav Ajjampur talks about his book, a translation of the poems of Kannada lyric poet Da Ra Bendre, his own work, and early literary influences

Translator and poet Madhav Ajjampur
Translator and poet Madhav Ajjampur (Courtesy Madhav Ajjampur)

The first poem in The Pollen Waits on Tiptoe, a volume of 26 of Da Ra Bendre’s poems translated into English, is not Bendre's. It is by his translator, Madhav Ajjampur, expressing his gratitude to the lyric poet, one of the greatest of Kannada literature.

“Dear ajjara, it seems to me like this was meant to be:
that I, retreading Kannada, should find your poetry…”

The translator calls Bendre ajjara, or grandfather. Later in the poem, Ajjampur also says how reading and listening to Bendre (the iconic poet also left behind a few recordings of his work, believing in a more oral and aural nature of poetry), influenced his own poetry writing and “catalyzed a certain poetry that was richer for the mixing in ways I couldn’t quite say.”

Bendre has been translated before; by himself as well as the likes of Jnanpith awardee V.K. Gokak or Sahitya Akademi winner G.S. Amur. Despite the overarching belief that Bendre is untranslatable – given the lyricism and spoken-register of his work – his stature in the Kannada literary canon is such that there will continue to be many more attempts. Ajjampur’s is one such; but it is one that tries not to only translate, but to transcreate the meaning, rhythm, and lyricism of the original.

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In doing so, Ajjampur produces not just the text, but the bhaava of Bendre’s bhaavageeti, over forty years after his death, to an English-reading audience. To a Kannada reader who also reads English, Ajjampur’s effort becomes a masterful recreation of Bendre’s words and work, not just on paper, but also, in line with what the iconic poet would have approved, through recordings (both in Kannada and English), accessed from the book through printed QR codes.

“Like a photograph or a portrait is the closest you can get to ‘meeting’ somebody you will never be able to see in person, a translation is the closest you can get to ‘feeling’ a poem you will never be able to read yourself,” says Ajjampur about his idea of translation, and the important work it does in building bridges – across languages, generations, time, and cultures.

In an interview with Lounge, Ajjampur, who continues to participate in talks and panels about Bendre, especially with regard to The Pollen… which was launched earlier this year, talks about his relationship with Bendre through reading and translating him; with his own work and workspace; as well as how P.G. Wodehouse’s character Psmith influenced his early years as a reader. Edited excerpts.

Ajjampur's teakwood table, under a skylight.
Ajjampur's teakwood table, under a skylight. (Courtesy Madhav Ajjampur)

Describe your current workspace to us.

In recent years, I have spent much of my time working from home. My workspace is a teakwood table (that belonged to my maternal great-grandfather) placed within a niche in my room. A skylight situated right above the table allows it to get more light than the rest of the room.

Has it always been this way? Or has it evolved over the years?

Well, my workspace was different when I was working as a Maths curriculum designer. I used to spend the day sitting at a different desk in front of a desktop computer. There was also a period when I spent a lot of time in a nearby academic institute’s library. Regardless, this is the space I have always returned to.

How would you define your daily relationship with this space?

I spend a good number of my waking hours at my desk. (I also occasionally doze off there!) My relationship, as it were, with this space is one of familiarity and cosiness.

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Tell us about some of the eureka moments you have had and major works that you have done from here.

I like to think of 2015 as my annus mirabilis. It was my most prolific year as a writer (writing poems primarily) besides being the year I started translating Bendre’s poems into English. While ideas for several poems and translations I created that year came to me during my evening runs, I also recall the time I jotted down some lines on a square of (felicitously pockmarked) tissue that was on my desk, lines that later served as the opening of a well-received poem. There were also several other poems and poem outlines I typed out while sitting at this desk, some of them in just a few minutes’ time. This space is also where I attempted my very first translation of a Bendre poem.

The Pollen Waits on Tiptoe: Selected Poems of Dattatreya Ramachandra Bendre:
translated from the Kannada by Madhav Ajjampur; Manipal University Press,
196 pages, Rs. 310
The Pollen Waits on Tiptoe: Selected Poems of Dattatreya Ramachandra Bendre: translated from the Kannada by Madhav Ajjampur; Manipal University Press, 196 pages, Rs. 310

If you were to trade in this place for another, what would it be?

Well, regardless of where I go, I’d like to carry the table, chair, and moda with me! I’ve developed an attachment to them I’d prefer not to trade. As far as where I’d take these appurtenances, I’d like to go to a place by the sea that isn’t crowded and that’s got a hill nearby.

What's the one thing that has always been at your workspace over the years?

Unsurprisingly, my laptops have been constant companions. Truthfully, it’s come to the point where I need to type in order to get my thoughts going. Then again, my pocketbooks have been with me from circa 2015. I began to use them because I wanted to jot down ideas that came to me whenever and wherever. (I didn’t have a smartphone at the time.) I also liked the idea of revisiting writing by hand. Meanwhile, old pocketbooks have been filled up and new ones have taken their place even as I’ve acquired a smartphone and become comfortable using the ‘Notes’ feature or recording my ideas.

The first writer whose work you followed or started imitating. What about them appealed to you?

I read much, much more than I wrote when I was in school. Among my favourite writers in my mid-teens was PG Wodehouse. I was especially enamoured of his Psmith, an endlessly garrulous, highfalutin monocled dandy with a penchant for irreverence. He wasn’t my first ‘hero’ (Edmond Dantès and Sherlock Holmes preceded him), but I was very taken with his elaborate and sophisticated vocabulary and spent a couple of years writing like the Psmith Wodehouse had created.

One genre you love but cannot or do not want to write. 

I enjoy plays (though I’ve read only a limited number), but I’ve never felt like I have the temperament, not to mention the skill, to write one. I think it’s got to do with my being attracted to (lyric) poetry and realising that writing poetry comes more easily and naturally to me. Another factor is my uncertainty about capturing “natural (Indian) speech patterns”. Nevertheless, I would like to try my hand sometime at writing a play.

Creative Corner is a series about writers, artists, musicians, founders and other creative individuals and their relationships with their workspaces.

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