Make of my body the beam of a lute
of my head the sounding gourd
of my nerves the strings
of my fingers the plucking rods.
Clutch me close
and play your thirty-two songs
O lord of the meeting rivers!
These sensuous lines to the god Shiva were left to us by the 12th century poet Basava, a religious guru of revolutionary ideas who preached the immorality of caste and the intrinsic value of people who happened to be born poor. His deceptively simple verses were written in Kannada—a Dravidian language of the south, spoken by some 50 million Indians today--but we can read many of them now in the beautiful translations of the 20th century poet and scholar A.K. Ramanujan.
Over the centuries, Basava’s words have inspired many other Indian poets, writers and dramatists—and some very British poets, too, including Ted Hughes. Hughes found in Ramanujan’s translations of Basava a voice so uncannily natural that it reminded the famously immodest Hughes of himself. He said he heard in Basava the sort of poetry he wrote when young and relatively unstudied—a style that moved like “a voice in the air”.
Today, Basava himself is a bit like a voice in the air. As scholars dispute the dates and details of his life, his followers speak of him in reverent fables; to them, he is known more respectfully as Basavana, elder brother, or even Basaveswara, Lord Basava. His verses, though, are what explain him best. They have a directness that reveals an independent thinker, social reformer and religious teacher who sometimes struggled to resist worldly temptations. Each of his poems evokes his passionate devotion to Shiva—lord of the meeting rivers, as Basava called him—and left classical formality behind.
I don’t know anything like time-beats and metre
Nor the arithmetic of strings and drums:
I don’t know the count of iamb and dactyl
My lord of the meeting rivers,
As nothing will hurt you
I’ll sing as I love.
“I’ll sing as I love”—no high language, just an open invitation to all, including the unlettered. This informal, almost spoken quality, joined to unconventional or even anti-conventional politics, is why the 12th century guru speaks so powerfully to many writers in India today.