Blind Emulation in Metrical Research

Many people have pointed out our blind emulation of the English language, culture, and people; this tendency of blindly imitating the west has also been ridiculed. Emulation—which has the basis of understanding—is fine; it is the blind emulation that is unpardonable. Yet the demonic cult has been growing, unstoppable.

Particularly in the field of literature, literary criticism, prosody, and poetics, starting from definitions, theorems, and philosophy to experiments, everything is driven by a herd mentality. This is a cause for worry. Several years ago (c. 1924), Rāṣhṭra-kavi Kuvempu showed his English poetry to James Cousins (Irish poet and theosophist). Instead of appreciating the poems, he advised Kuvempu to write in his mother tongue, Kannada. This incident is well-known in Kannada literary history.

After that Kuvempu tried to translate one of his English poems, ‘April,’ to Kannada. At the first step he faced the hurdle of finding a synonymn for the word ‘April’ in Kannada. After consulting a dictionary, he named his poem ‘Caitra-Vaiśākhā.’ After many years, in his autobiography ‘Nenapina Doṇiyalli,’ he remembers this and repents for not being able to identify the Vasanta ṛtu (spring season) for the months Caitra-Vaiśākhā! Is not ‘Vasanta’ an appropriate alternative in Kannada for April?

On similar lines we have many irrational translations. One among them is ‘mukta chandas,’ a literal translation of the English ‘free verse’ (which itself is a direct translation of the Latin Vers libre). In western literature, the definition of ‘free verse’ has a place in the history of poetics. In the west, there was a rule—from the time of Aristotle—that if creative writing was to be called poetry (kāvya), it must be in the form of a verse (based on some poetic meter). Even if someone writes creatively but not based on a rhythmic meter then it would be considered as prose and not as poetry.

Therefore, when modern poets started writing poetry—or any creative literature for that matter—sans rhythmic meters, and although they had written prose, to show the poetical value in their writing, they started calling their work poetry, not prose. Although their writings did not have any characteristics of a verse, they feared that their writings would not be valued as poetry; and so, if not in form, at least in name they should have ‘verse,’ and hence they coined the term ‘free-verse’ (meaning that which has been freed from the restrictions of rhythmic meters) for their writings.

Merely because a piece of writing is composed in verse, it does not become poetry. But having a false equation between ‘verse’ and ‘poetry’ created a lot of trouble. This has never been the case with the Indian literary tradition. Here, from time immemorial, all the masters of poetics have had an unambiguous definition of the form of poetry as prose (gadya), verse (padya), or a mix of both (campū). That is why Bāṇa—the master of prose—has been celebrated in same manner as that of Kālidāsa—the genius of verses. In the same way, poets who wrote only plays (nāṭaka) or campū like Bhāsa, Śūdraka, Bhavabhūti, Bhoja, Pampa, and Ranna have all been highly respected by rasikas.

For this reason, there was no need to literally translate ‘free verse’ as ‘mukta chandas’ – traditional words like ‘padyakāvya’ (poetry in verse) and ‘gadyakāvya’ (poetry in prose) were sufficient. We have to observe another thing here – the Śiva-śaraṇas called their compositions ‘vacana’ based on the usage of the same word for the prose (gadya) passages appearing in between the verses of a campūkāvya. Perhaps for the same reason, in Telugu, free verses are called ‘vacana’ even today. In Kannada, ‘vacana’ has become a section of literature now. And the meaning of the word ‘vacana’ in Sanskrit is ‘talk’ or ‘utterance;’ hence some people argue that it won’t suit the literary nomenclature ‘free verse.’ However, for defining padyakāvya and gadyakāvya, there is no technical problem at all.

Even so, some would argue: “Why should we leave out the word ‘mukta chandas,’ which is well-known, used widely, and having a unique usage?” If we grammatically understand the meaning of the word ‘mukta chandas’ we learn that the meaning of the compound word ‘mukta-chandas’ doesn’t convey the same meaning as that of ‘free verse.’ The intended meaning becomes clear, simple, and easy to understand if we use the term ‘chandomukta.’ Some people might snub this as ‘saffronization’ or the ‘attack on literary creativity with the weapon of grammar.’ But why do those who style themselves as extraordinary rationalists in every step of their life resort to the path of irrationality in the field of linguistic science or poetry?

Similar to the ‘free verse=mukta chandas’ equation, the equation of ‘rhythm’ to ‘laya’ is another unscientific practice, which is also a result of mindlessly copying the west. One can find more details on this topic in the erudite work of Kīrtiśeṣa Seḍiyāpu Krishna Bhat.

In sum, blind imitation kills sensitivity of wisdom and feeling. We can understand this by seeing the false propaganda and pseudo-theories that surround us. No doubt we have reaped tremendous benefits from the English language and the West. On the other hand, the damage is too heavy to ignore – we should always be aware of this. The science of meters and the study of poetry are glaring examples that show how damaging the western influence can be.

The poetic meters in the languages of the western as well as the far-eastern countries are merely tempo based. To be more precise, except in Indian languages no other language of the world—be it Greek, Latin, Italian or Persian—uses tempo-less meters. Even though tempo-less, these meters have wonderful rhythmic pattern and beauty. Sweetness and dignity are the characteristics of these meters, which originated in Sanskrit.

English lacks these artistic meters and so their poets had to forcibly include ‘gaṇabhaṅga’ (pattern-breaking) to avoid the monotony arising out of their tempo-based meters. Further, in languages like English, French, and Spanish, where the pronunciation patterns decide if a syllable is accented or unaccented, the effect of monotony is far more severe. The metrical tempi in western literature are mainly tri-metric or quarto-metric; sarvalaghu-gaṇas are rarely seen. Thus we find much lesser variety in pattern. This naturally leads to monotony in their metrical verses. Therefore, ‘free verse’ and breaking the pattern was a natural development for them.

For Indian literature, however, such a development was not necessary and there was no reason for such usages. Yet, due to mindless imitation, these unnecessary diseases entered our world of literature. Not only that, the so-called modern critics of poetry and prosody, looking at the ya-ma-ta-ra-ja-bha-na-sa-gaṇas of our varṇa-vṛttas were under the illusion that varṇa-vṛttas like śārdūlavikrīḍita-vṛtta requires us to compose only in groups of three-lettered words, which by itself tells us that they do not understand even what a vṛtta is!

The illusion of gaṇabhaṅga was so prevalent that even Kuvempu used it extensively in his mahāchandas. There is an option in tri-metric or quarto-metric meters called ‘gaṇaparivṛtti.’ Even here it needs to be balanced to be beautiful; else it would become gaṇabhaṅga or gaṇapallaṭa! (Those interested can refer to Seḍiyāpu Krishna Bhat’s magnum opus, Chandogati). Similarly, swept away by blind love towards mythical Dravidian roots, stalwarts like Vi. Sītārāmayya were under fanciful illusions, trying to appreciate the Piriyakkara group of meters for variety in their pattern, which actually do not exist.

This is a translation of Śatāvadhāni Dr. R. Ganesh’s Kannada essay ‘ಅಂಧಾನುಕರಣೆಯಲ್ಲಿ ಛಂದೋನುಸಂಧಾನ’ from his remarkable anthology ‘ಭಾಷಾಭೃಂಗದ ಬೆನ್ನೇರಿ.’ Edited by Hari Ravikumar.

Author(s)

About:

Dr. Ganesh is a 'shatavadhani' and one of India’s foremost Sanskrit poets and scholars. He writes and lectures extensively on various subjects pertaining to India and Indian cultural heritage. He is a master of the ancient art of avadhana and is credited with reviving the art in Kannada. He is a recipient of the Badarayana-Vyasa Puraskar from the President of India for his contribution to the Sanskrit language.

Translator(s)

About:

Shreesha is a software engineer with a passion for poetry, poetics, Indian philosophy, religion, and politics. He holds a master's degree in Kannada literature.