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Dattatraya Ramachandra Bendre 

by Jyotsna Kamat

First Online: October 01, 2004
Page Last Updated: April 04, 2014

Bendre is considered as colossal of modern Kannada poetry. Progenitor of bhavgeets or lyrical poems, many veterans in both English and Kannada languages think that some of his poems deserve a place in world literature. "Bendre's poetry shows vivid imagination, grace and power of expression characteristic of the best poetry" has said Masti Venkatesha Iyengar,  a great short story writer of Kannada.

Bendre was born of a culturally rich but materially very poor Chitpavan Brahmin family in 1896 in Dharwad. His Grand father was a Dasagranthi (Master of ten volumes of sacred lore) and scholar in Sanskrit classical literature. His father was also learned in Sanskrit. But he caught scrofula (TB of lymphatic glands of neck) and after twelve years of suffering and also mental illness, died when Dattatraya was twelve. His Granny (mother's mother) and mother ran a khanavali (eatery) to support and educate the family. Both the brave women left a lasting impression on this brilliant lad who later paid rare poetic tribute to his granny Godubai. He adopted the pen-name of Ambikatanayadatta (Datta, son of Ambika) after his mother and immortalized her.

© K. L. Kamat
Portrait of D.R. Bendre (1896-1981)
Dattatraya Ramachandra Bendre
Ambikatanaya Datta (1896-1981)

Those were days of early resurgence of nationalism. Educated and traveling government employees, roving spiritual gurus and bachelors frequented Bendre Khanavali and young Bendre was exposed to various national trends. With photographic memory, he has listed the numerous rural games and folk entertainments he witnessed and played in his short autobiography. Kamankatte, where he grew, was a strange admixture of courtesans' quarters, temples, old houses of Sanskrit scholars, which housed rare books of Sanskrit, Marathi classics and a place of cultural activities of keertans and recitations. Alur Venkat Rao started his national school in this street only.

Bendre completed his primary and high school education in Dharwad and with his uncle's help completed B.A. at Ferguson College, Pune in 1918. He became a teacher in Victoria High School and got married the same year, (1919) to Laxmibai.

Reading and writing of Kannada poetry was not popular in the early decades of last century. It is strange that Bendre whose mother tongue was Marathi, and who was educated in Pune, considered the heart of Marathi culture, should turn out the promoter and pioneer of Kannada writing in North Karnataka. This region, comprising four districts of Bombay Presidency, itself was known as "Southern Maratha Country". By precept and practice he started a custom of reading old Kannada classics, started literary festivals after Pampa Vidyaranya and Shantakavi, encouraged young poets to read out their compositions in such festivals. This was long before Kannada Sahitya Parishat started arranging poetry recitation (Kavi Sammelan) as part of literary conferences.

He formed 'Geleyara Gumpu' (Group of Friends) in 1922. This friends' circle, drew poets, writers, intellectuals from all over Karnataka. Many of these turned to be front line writers later. Ananda Kanda, Sham. Ba. Joshi, Siddavanahalli Krishna Sharma, Enke, G.B.Joshi, V.K.Gokak, and R.S.Mugali are only a few names of the long list. Mainly formed for the study of culture and literature, and exchange of literary ideas, the friend's started a journal 'Svadharma' and ran it for two years. 'Jay Karnataka' a premier monthly provided platform for budding writers, besides reviving fold literature including rare ballads, folk songs and traditional songs. collections of poems were published featuring twenty six poets of this region and Hyderabad State. The craving for literary togetherness brought in many new aspirants. Though the Geleyara Gumpu was disbanded in 1933, the members who came from different parts of (then) divided Karnataka, formed associations in their workplace and worked for spread of modern Kannada literature.

Bendre had his lion's share of tragedies and tribulations. He was imprisoned for alleged sedition in his poem "Narabali". House arrest in Mugad village followed. Once out, he could not get any job, being branded Anti-government. He again went to Pune and completed M.A.

Finally he got teaching assignment in Pune and Sholapur colleges. He lost six children, two of them, one eldest and the youngest within a gap of one week. Only three survived (two sons and a daughter). Poverty and tragedy did not deter him from literary pursuits. His trend-setting Sakhigeet (love lyrics), translation of Kalidasa's Meghdoot, Gari Nadaleele, Moorti all poetry collections, Nirabharana Sundari (essays and short stories) and works on literary criticism followed. Credit must go to his friends and well-wishers who took initiative in collecting, copying and publishing his works. It is well known that his poetic output is far less compared to his tremendous genius and mastery of vedic, classical Sanskrit, old Kannada and Marathi languages.

© K. L. Kamat
Some Who Saved Kannada
Some Who Saved Kannada
Keertinath Kurtakoti, G.B. Joshi and D.R. Bendre. Picture from Manohara Grintha Mala Collection

He was a visionary as is evident from his spiritual poems reflecting vedic wisdom. From such poems, down to folk-style compositions, his adoptions and inventions of meter is astounding. He used diverse technique for spiritual lyrics, classical style for sonnets and traditional as well as colloquial idiom for pastoral and folk type lyrics. Symbolism is characteristic of his poetry. His poem Butterfly (Patargitti) sung as a nursery rhyme speaks of colors of temptation. Another one 'Morning' (Mudalmaneya) becomes symbolic of all pervading peace or, the poet's yearning for it. In the "Dance Eternal" (kuniyonu bara), all diverse currents of thought meet in on great confluence. Apparently, all Bendre's poems could be set to music and abound in alliteration. But there is always hidden meaning which only trained poetic mind can decipher.

As a person Bendre was quite friendly, suave and sociable. He mixed with intellectuals and illiterate villagers on equal terms. He loved and interpreted life in different colors and late in life in numerals. Numerology became his fad and writing esoteric and abstruse, ideas baffled his admirers.

Maharashtra was the first state to recognize Bendre's deep scholarship and awarded prestigious Kelkar Award for his work on Vitthala and other research in Marathi. Central Sahitya Academy Award and Jnanapeeth awards were bestowed. Mysore and Karnataka University honorary doctorates followed.

Karnataka Government granted a meager monthly honorarium of Rs.250/- (Rupees two hundred fifty only) to this King of Lyrics. A man of frugal habits, Bendre managed his personal expenditure within this amount till the very end. This included his surgery for cancer, in a Mumbai Hospital and funeral expenses, as per his last wish. "Not a single Rupee remained in his bank balance finally" -- his son Dr. Vaman Bendre writes. Vaman Bendre looked after his father in last years, took down whatever Bendre recited or spoke and brought out revised editions of Bendre's works, with appropriate footnotes.

Late Professor Keertinath Kurtakoti and  Vaman Bendre have brought out a volume 'Shravana Pratibhe' On Bendre's poetry. This is the 5th volume of Puta Bangara published by Manohara Grantha Mala on the occasion of fiftieth year of its inception. Other four volumes deal with select works which are trendsetters. (Krishnanand Kamat's travelogue Nanu Amerikege Hogidde figures in the 4th Volume).

Prof. G.S. Amur's study of Bendre 'Bhuvanada Bhagya' won him Central Sahitya Academy Award and helps readers to understand mysticism, symbolism and overall assessment of Bendre's works.

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