Click to view Profile
Atreya Sarma U

Atreya Sarma U : ‘The Battle of Palnad’

‘The Battle of Palnad’ in translation – An analytical appreciation

A historical ballad of ideals, honour, chivalry, dauntless sacrifices; of royal etiquette and protocol; of undoing and blinding gambling temptation; of prejudices, hatred, raw emotions; of vengeance and conspiracies; of strategies, counter-strategies, and treachery; and of a colossal internecine war exterminating almost everyone concerned - with full of drama, and unexpected twists & turns, suspense, and even divine intervention. This pristine Telugu ballad with its native Telugu characters dates back to the 12th century AD and is extremely popular in the folk literature. This complex and colourful story with the heartland of Andhra as its locale has been the work – a la lyrics, poems, prose and critiques - of many a Telugu poet, scholar and critic beginning with Srinatha, the celebrated 15th century bard. And during the current times, Dr Koduru Prabhakar Reddy, poet-critic-researcher-translator, did it in Telugu metrical poetry in 1996 under the title Palnati Bharatam, which ran into the second edition in July 2011. 

On the writer’s choice of the genre of metrical poetry, the renowned and veteran litterateur Dr Gajjala Malla Reddy comments: “A damsel who has luxuriant hair looks beautiful whether she knots it into a bun or plaits it. So also a poet will captivate the readers’ interest irrespective of whether they write in metrical, semi-metrical or free verse as long as they hold a sway over sense, sensibility and language. It is worthy of cognizance that this metrical work has come out at a time when those who are anxious to palm off their confused ideas as poesy and are itching to proclaim that metrical poetry has become outmoded” (p viii, Palnati Bharatam, July 2011).

The story of Palnati Bharatam which took place on the terrain of the Palnadu region of Andhra is called so since it has several parallels with the Mahabharata story. 

The work has received wide acclaim including the Undela Vijnana Kalapeetham cash award of Rs 25,000 for 1997. With 13 works to his credit under different genres, Dr Reddy, a leading paediatrician, has won several other prestigious awards – from C P Brown Academy (2001), Nannaya Bhattaraka Peetham (2005), Potti Sriramulu Telugu University (2006, 2009), and in recognition of his contribution to Hindi literature, the Bala Souri Reddy Samman Puraskar (2009). 

To indite this ballad of 18 chapters (a la the 18 cantos of the Mahabharata) with 1063 quatrains with a canvas of 86 characters and 30 stations/locales, Dr Reddy had done extensive research over a span of 18 years, squeezing time off his busy schedule as a medical doctor. 

In order that the non-Telugu and English-savvy readership is introduced to this thrilling epic story rooted in medieval history, the original writer got it translated into English poetry by Prof Chintagunta Subba Rao, an octogenarian polyglot (Telugu, English, Sanskrit, Hindi, Kannada) and accomplished writer and translator with 30 works in his oeuvre - “nine books of creative song and verse, seven books of literary commentary, and twelve of translation, plus one – a multilingual translation of a few verses of Vemana and a specialist lexicon in Telugu.” So he could do perfect justice to the translation into English of Palnati Bharatam under the title The Battle of Palnad. That this is the first-ever English translation of the subject is a feather in the cap of Prof Subba Rao.

The English rendition (with pages xxiv + 136) runs into 3,345 lines of poetry as against the 4,252 of the original, but word-wise, the original would be shorter, for the line-wise words are far fewer in Telugu.

Just like in the Mahabharata, here too it is a conflict between kith and kin, with wager, exile, embassy, and battle thrown in.

The translation is engagingly readable; it is never stilted or halting. Appropriate diction is, of course, the sine qua non for any effective translation. But the value addition and poetic touch come with syntactical distinctions, sound, figures and native idioms (in the target language vis-à-vis the source language) – which the translator has appropriately employed.

The book carries critical acclaim by Prof IV Chalapati Rao, a veteran litterateur and chief editor, Triveni (the oldest English literary journal in India) and Ambika Ananth, chief editor, Muse India.

To conjure up the verisimilitude of a medieval setting, the translator has drawn on the “diction of British medieval legends of knights and combats, adopted by poets like Tennyson,” and accordingly has employed a number of archaisms and, naturally, indulged in “poetic licenses like substitution, elision, weak-ending etc,” with varying lengths of metrical feet. 

Yet no reader finds the narration stalling – it continues to be racy, exciting and unputdownable just like the original. 

The ballad has its sprinkling of magical realism or divine intervention or deus ex machina.

  1. In the episode - King Anugu’s Southern Pilgrimage and Annexation of Palnad - “Lord Chennakeshav in disguise / Of an old priest...” appears “To him (King Anugu) (L 15-16).

  2. In the episode - Malladeva’s Wedding – Potharaju, the spirit, comes in a brahmin’s disguise and confides the secret about the so-far-unbesiegable fort to Veera Somu (564-574).

  3. In the episode - The Battle of Gurzala - Brahma Naidu (Brahmi) prays to Lord Chennakeshav who blesses the former with ‘victory fair’ (1596).

  4. Again in the same episode, goddess Ganga materialises and calls upon Brahma Naidu to pardon Nalgama (1681-1685).

  5. In the episode - Setting up the Pillar - the venue of the impending battlefield is cleansed and sanctified as per the advice of Shakti, in tribal frame (2174-2205), and Lord Vishnu helps it with a downpour (2211-2218).

  6. In the episode - Brahmi goes to War - Brahma Naidu kills Pachakula Brahma his co-disciple and combat rival, and the latter requests to be treated with the honour of first worship of heroes. And as Brahma Naidu accedes, a divine light emerges from Pachakula’s body and it merges into Brahma Naidu (3256-3262).

By way of poetic licence, the translator has made innovative coinages like “riteful ablutions” (28-29), “girdle up one’s loins” (instead of “gird up one’s loins”) (1640-1642), and “beseated” (2573).

To bring home the purport, the translator has resorted to substitution or expansion wherever demanded. For example, to qualify the tears, he has used an expression different from that in the original. His expression of “saltish woe” in the line “Her tears of joy turned to saltish woe” (245) accentuates the “tears”. 

A liberal profusion of archaisms, the translator has effectively tapped to invest the poem with a medieval touch, an old-world charm. Examples: Kine, Bourns, Twain, Aught, Prithee, Yclept, Fain, Nigh, Sith, Eftsoons, Betimes, Forsooth, List ho, Methinks, Bethink, The while, This wise, and By troth. 

A couple of instances of idiomatic, rather than literal, translation are:

Weeds of black” (28) instead of the literal one “black robes” or “black saris” for the original “neeli kokalu.”

It is interesting to note that the word “kokalu” denoting saris was applicable even to men during those times.

Now see the following line:

And spake the words that scorched like tongues of flame” (666).

One would appreciate that the term ‘tongues of flame’ is apt and idiomatic to reflect the intensity instead of a true translation like “smokeless fire or flame.”

The translator has used many rhetorical devices to enrich the poetic ambience.

For pleonasms we have expressions like “Charitable alms” (12) / “harshly rash” (2421) / “green and inexperienced (2454).”
We have the homonymic play as well:

“...The enemy tops shall fall
Whipped to the ground like tops of my wonted play”

Here the translator has used the homonym ‘top’ to mean two different things, the heads of the enemy, and his playing tops. He could have used “the heads of the enemy” but then it wouldn’t have had the same effect as this homonymic flourish has afforded.

Besides the elisions of syllables, we have even those of words, but in no way hampering the intended meaning:

What sense of justice prompts thee speak this wise?” (2875).

The preposition ‘to’ is implied between “thee” and “speak” in the above line.

While Inversion is an agreed poetic syntax, indiscriminate change of the order of words could land in ludicrous results. A competent translator is always wary of it. And there could be a few instances where the reader has to halt for a while and read the sentence a second time, so as to place the intended meaning in perspective.

a)“Brahmi emerged how fought the cocks to see” (732).

The above line converted into prose, would read as: “Brahmi emerged to see how the cocks fought.”

b)“...Brahmi still
Would taken prisoner be by treacherous plans”

The above line, on conversion into prose, would read as: “Still Brahmi would be taken prisoner by treacherous plans.”

The translator has adorned his rendition with various figures of speech including Metonymy, Zeugma, Hendiatris, and Anadiplosis. 

Observe the sentence:

The war field looked like Death’s table spread” (3120)

Here poetry lies in using the pivotal metonymic term ‘table.’ 

While the expression - Bala “broke their bows and them” (2974) is zeugmatic, we have Hendiatris in the line “And ruled the field untamed, unmatched, unscathed” (1094), and Anadiplosis in the lines “But give us leave, and leave his end to us” (3137), and “So much the ploughman heard; and heard not he / Furthermore...” (97).

To lend cadence and sonority to the lyrical flow, we find Alliteration, Assonance, Consonance, Sibilance, and Internal Rhyme in good measure.

Here is an example of Alliteration:

Nagamma’s bud of beauty to blossom in full bloom:
Feminine graces filled her body in a frenzy of colours
And youthful hearts’ desires flushed and flashed around.”

In the line – 

Kannama lashed his sword and gashed the foe” (1174),

we have assonance with the bonus of sibilance highlighting the combative scene.

And the consonance in the following lines befits the martial atmosphere: 

Butting into enemy ranks like fire
And cutting and gutting the foe like a hungry lion
?” (2407-2409).

In the sibilant line – 

Crawling Time like a serpent stung their bliss” (242),

we find that the hissing sounds are appropriate what with the serpent imagery.

Internal rhyme, as in the following lines, renders the strains mellifluent:

With scorched heads and parched tongues...” (333).
“That she was here and there and everywhere”

Then we have the euphonic rhythmic effect as of a regular drum-beat: 

The Koyas of woods and hills, and the bandits of dell and dale” (278).

Now see the line depicting the cockfight:

The cocks did peck and strike and wrestle, beaks locked” (980).

The five guttural sounds in the above serve to accentuate the intensity of the fight.

Similarly, in the following example, the verbal music is in perfect sync with the theme:

As brandished blades created lightnings around
And trumpeting elephants thundered abreast
And chariot-wheels speeding split thunderbolts,
It terror struck all around like doomsday come
” (2921-2924).

Whenever we have to break some bad or sad news, we don’t straightaway blurt it out. We start gently, slowly, gradually, and precede the core of the news with several qualifications... and then only come to the nub. Now see the English translation, in this light:

O king! How may I speak? Nalgam in pride
Denied our peaceful plea and rightful claims
And treacherously, unjustly and heartlessly
He got Alraj killed by poisoned flowers
.” (2040-2043).

Here the translator has followed the same climaxing order as in the original by retaining the structural nuance.

The Cock Fight Wager section is one of the most impacting in the original. The translator has succeeded in capturing its racy narration and hair-raising effect (944-1126).

The riveted attention of the spectators with their bated breath that thronged the venue of the Cock Fight has been well described: 

As they forgot to flutter their lashes at all,
As they forgot to breathe for life at all,
The spectators all petrified stood aghast,
Expectations stilled, while the cocks fought on
.” (944-947)

Isn’t it akin to the frenzy and tenseness of the spectators of our one-day cricket cliff-hangers more so when it’s between India and Pak?

A reading of the Cock Fight episode reminds us of the ferocious & protracted fight between the elephant and the crocodile in Potana’s Gajendra Moksham, an adaptation in Telugu of the Sanskrit Bhagavata Purana. So also while the characterisations bring to our mind Chaucer’s Prologue to Canterbury Tales; the biblical simplicity and lucidity of style, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress

The flaws in translation are very minimal:

Nagamma’s beauty has been compared to the “sculptured Aphrodite graces” (363).

The translator could have avoided this un-Indian and alien imagery – of the Greek goddess of love and beauty, for the spirit of translation is, after all, to import into it the real cultural contexts from the source text. Rather he could have compared Nagamma’s beauty to Rati Devi. 

However, when it comes to comparison of Manchala’s beauty, the translator has rightly chosen to retain the Indian image by using ‘apsaras’ – a synonym of the original ‘achcharalu’ [“She beats apsaras of heaven...” (2577)], though he could have said “heavenly courtesan” or “celestial nymph.”

Gadde-raathi Kanuma’ has been translated as ‘Thorny-Stone Pass’ (1479). This reviewer feels that ‘High-rock Pass’ could have been better and closer. Similarly, the ideas underlying “eating cares” (2091) and “teeth tattering” (2253) could have been better conveyed as “gnawing cares” and “teeth gnashing”.

The forehead mark of Chennakeshav (a form of Lord Vishnu) has, in the translation, been described as “trident mark” (1564), though that likening is not there in the original. The translator could have better avoided this image, since as a matter of tradition, trident (trishula) is a symbol of Lord Shiva – and this comparison may not find favour with the Vaishnavas.

Besides the above, it is hoped that the writers would take care to purge the book of the printer’s devils while bringing out the next edition.

The book, with its cover design by the legendary living artist cum film director Bapu, has as many as seven useful appendices including bibliography, chronology of the events of the legend and the lineage of the royals concerned. In addition, the Epilogue briefly touches upon the other versions of the post-war story.

It is hoped that this book in translation will ignite the interest of the non-Telugu readers, and “enriches the corpus of Indian literature,” in the words of Ambika Ananth. The original writer, Dr Prabhakar Reddy, who has received an award for his service to Hindi literature (vide Para 3 of this review), is on the job of having the original translated into Hindi as well, our national language. To sum up, the duo - Dr Prabhakar Reddy for his idea and Prof Subba Rao for his effective translation - deserve accolades.

1.Numbers within brackets refer to those of the poetic lines. The book, thoughtfully, shows the lines of the English verse toward the left, and the original stanza numbers toward the right of the text.
2.The book priced at Rs200 / $20 can be had from Dr Koduru Prabhakar Reddy, Proddatur – 516 360, Kadapa Dist, Andhra Pradesh. 
3.Contact Nos.:
Dr Koduru Prabhakar Reddy (Original writer) Cell: 9440170808 / LL: 08564-253594. 
Prof Chintagunta Subba Rao (Translator) Cell: 99491 19418.



Gulzar : Guftagu with Sukrita Paul Kumar
Pavan K Varma : In Conversation with Charanjeet Kaur
Atreya Sarma U : ‘The Battle of Palnad’
Sanjukta Dasgupta : Julian Barne’s ‘The Sense of an Ending’
Anish Krishnan Nayar : Poems of Irom Sharmila
Devyani Agrawal : Writing of Khaled Hosseini
Madhu Singh : Bhisham Sahni’s ‘Wangchu’
Minu Mehta : Public Choices & Private Voices
Sudeshna Kar Barua : Toru Dutt’s ‘Our Casuarina Tree’

Book Reviews
Nuggehalli Pankaja : ‘Perfectly Untraditional’
Pramod K Das & Narayan Jena : ‘The Poetics of History'
Rita Nath Keshari : ‘Golden Island’
Sneha Subramanian Kanta : ‘The Second Choice’

Ambika Ananth – Editorial Comment
Krishna Chakravarthy
Zinia Mitra
Jairaj Padmanabhan
Sandip Sahoo
Sasnarine Persaud
Shobhana Kumar

Gautam Maitra : ‘Varsha’s Encounter ...’
Kanakasabapathi K S : ‘Dora’
Shaily Sahay : ‘Roodrabhisheka’
Tulsi Charan Bisht : ‘Twilight’
Atreya Sarma U : Editorial Musings

Copyright ©2017 Muse India