I really like to engage with things that are not largely spoken about. Be it in the emotional realm, the social realm or the political realm.
In 2015, when scholar M M Kalburgi was shot dead, the then 30-year-old Samvartha was on the terrace of a friend’s apartment, waiting for a musical concert to begin.
“I went numb. I did not know how to respond.”
That’s when a few lines by poet Sahir Ludhianvi that seemed apt to the situation came to him.
Yeh rahbare-mulko-qaum bataa / Aankhen toh uthaa nazrein toh mila/ Kuch hum bhi sune humko bhi suna / Yeh Kiska, lahu hai kaun mara //
He immediately translated them into Kannada. “This was the only way I could express what I was going through,” says Samvartha, who writes under the penname ‘Sahil’ – a tribute to the aforementioned Urdu poet and Bollywood lyricist.
Samvartha has donned many hats: He is an academic, a filmmaker, a teacher, and a journalist. But in the Kannada literary world, he is primarily known for his translations. At the recently-held Sangam International Poetry festival, he was one among the 27 translators who painstakingly translated poems from all over the world.
It was quite evident within the first few minutes of my conversation with him that Samvartha looks at translation as an extremely personal endeavour. He rarely seems to pick up a poem (or a poet) that in some way did not speak to him. He believes the encounter with a poem should render him helpless and urge him to translate.
“I translated not because I wanted to share with the world, but because it troubled me. It made me restless,” he says.
Published in 2017, his first book, Roopa Roopagalanu Daati, is a collection of poems from all across the world. The book contains 70 to 80 poems translated into Hindi and English. It was published by Kuvempu Bhasha Bharathi – the government body solely dedicated to translations in Karnataka.
Like most people with a literary bent of mind, Samvartha too had translated a few poems here and there for college magazine as a student at St. Aloysius College, Mangaluru. But his first serious attempt at translation occurred rather innocuously. In 2007, following a tiring day at Heggodu’s Ninasam Samskriti Shibira, Samvartha and two of his Nepali students retired in the town of Sagara, Shivamogga. Right then, one of the students began to recite a poem by renowned Nepali poet Bhupi Sherchan. The other student translated it into English. Samvartha responded to this impromptu poetry session by translating the poem he had just heard into Kannada.
All his books published subsequently were a result of such accidental encounters. His second work of translation was poet and founder of Panther’s Paw Publications, Yogesh Maitreya’s poems. Bengaluru-based publishing house Akriti Pustaka published the book in 2020.
After coming across Maitreya’s poems on Facebook, Samvartha says he was compelled to translate them: “I think Yogesh Maitreya’s poems helped me contextualise my own struggle.”
‘Can the subaltern be heard?’
While Maitreya is a Dalit, Samvartha is a second-generation learner belonging to an OBC community. He acknowledges that the actual experience of their struggle might differ in their details, but the emotional core is the same. In a country like India, your caste location defines what you were and determines what you will be. The poems that are born out of such tangible material conditions have a distinct flavour to them. But they rarely find a space in the mainstream.
“I really like to engage with things that are not largely spoken about. Be it in the emotional realm, the social realm or the political realm.”
Samvartha firmly believes that people living on the edges are never silent. So, he says, the question to be asked is not ‘Can the subaltern speak?’; but rather, ‘Can the subaltern be heard?’ That is to say, the burden is on the rest of us to actively seek out the voices that are silenced.
“My attempt has been just that. To hear those voices, engage with them and amplify them,” says Samvaratha.
For Walter Benjamin, the translatability of any work is invariably connected to the figure of the translator himself. Whether a work can be translated or not depends on finding a reader who would be willing to be the translator. Samvartha’s strength as a translator lies in him being a sensitive reader first.
The Kannada literary world seems to have noticed Samvartha’s knack for choosing poets and poems whose voices need amplification. That is what impressed senior writer and translator Kamalakar Kadave the most:
“His selections of poets and poems to translate show how sensitive he is. He brilliantly perceives each poem. When it is translated into Kannada, it metamorphosises into something new. But it is done without doing a disservice to the original”
If you take a look at his Facebook page at present, it features poems by a tribal poet from Jharkhand, Jacinta Kerketta, who writes in Hindi. Through Samvartha, Kannada readers are being introduced to a poet we may not have otherwise known.
For veteran poet HS Shivaprakash, it is Samvartha’s conscious choice of literature from non-European and other Indian languages that’s significant.
“Contemporary literary sensibility in Kannada is very narrow. That sensibility needs to expand. It can only happen when we look beyond English. Samvartha is doing that by choosing poems from Marathi, Hindi, Urdu and many more languages.”
A new kind of sensibility
Samvartha acknowledges the need for the influx of a new kind of sensibility in Kannada literature.
D R Nagaraj’s ‘Khadvagali Kavya!’ (Let poetry become the weapon) heralded the Dalit-Bandaya movement in Karnataka in the 1970s. Poetry became a tool to voice the pain and suffering of those on the fringes of society. The language was sharp and direct. The subaltern not only spoke, but shouted, and was heard. Since then, the poetry of the marginalised has always been associated with sloganeering. But, Samvartha’s translations may be changing that.
Kadave observes that Samvartha “has never chosen poems that are essentially slogans” to translate into Kannada. In fact, he particularly looks for poems that have an authentic voice and “are based on the lived experience of the oppressed.”
This approach to translation is best exemplified in Bisilina Shadyantarada Viruddha (2022), his translation of filmmaker Nagraj Manjule’s Marathi poems. Samvartha believes this is his best work and says he "has found utmost fulfilment" in translating the poems of the Sairat-fame director.
For Samvartha, catharsis is not the only function of art and poetry. For the young translator, if “the rhythm of the military band and the rhythm of the revolutionary song are the same, then it is problematic.”
Strongly influenced by American author-activist ‘bell hooks’ and Brazilian educator Paulo Friere, Samvartha’s approach to radical change and social justice is based on ‘love ethic’, that sees the humanity of all people. It is natural to have him pick poems of someone like Manjule - whose films are more tender and thoughtful than many of his contemporary filmmakers who make so-called “social problem” genre films.
“Manjule sits with his emotions. He thinks them through. So, not only his poems but his films too, become so much more than political sloganeering.”
As someone who believes translation is “not just translating language, but also translating emotions” Manjule’s aesthetic sensibility appeals to him. But, how do you capture this emotion in translation? Especially when you do not know the source language, Marathi?
Samvartha took the help of multiple people to understand not only the literal meaning of the words but also the emotional landscape and the interior world of Manjule's poems. In a series of repeated sittings, his friends would read the poems out loud and explain each word, while Samvartha recorded them.
In the process, he found a few truths of his own: That the caste location and the ideology of the translators can influence the final flavour of the poems. When Manjule’s poems came through a conduit of an upper-caste friend, it was coloured in pathos. When it came through a Dalit-activist friend, they were coloured in ideology. It did not take him long to realise that Manjule’s voice was not “melancholic laced with self-pity”. Nor did it call for a revolution. Samvartha recognised that Manjule’s poems “spoke from somewhere in between and [he] wanted to find that.”
His deep admiration for Manjule is evident as he explains how their aesthetic sensibilities are the same and both of them have had “intense, but different” life experiences.
“Every experience has to go through a certain process before it is expressed. I think in this in-between space — between experience and expression — we are similar.”
By the time it was published in 2022, Bisilina Shadyanatarada Viruddha had seen 7 drafts and multiple iterations for over three years. Here was a translator who was trying to be true to the original poem and its sensibilities.
“The most special thing about ‘Sahil’ is that he has a lot of love (karuna) in his heart. He has compassion towards everything,” says Manjule. He believes, to be a good translator, you first need to be a good human being, who does “everything with a lot of passion and heart.”
Veteran poet HS Shivaprakash agrees.
“He (Samvartha) does not have an ego. He is not overconfident. His humility, talent and sensitivity allow him to see the truth that others may miss.”
Samvartha was an MPhil-PhD student of Shivaprakash at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He eventually decided against going ahead with his PhD and returned home to Manipal with an MPhil. Shivaprakash says initially, he was concerned when Samvartha quit. But now, he is relieved that he has been able to thrive independently.
“I want him to surpass us. That’s what all teachers want: For their students to outgrow them,” Shivaprakash says.