Over the years, I have been learning the many ways in which our culture has been engaging with geography. These ways are fascinating. They also raise some questions for me as a geographer who is interested in human-environment relationships, among other things.
Today, I share two examples of these.
A few years ago, Dr Devesh Radhakrishnan, a chemical engineer, and I were chatting about different things. In the course of that conversation, he recalled his Marathi teacher in his school in Mumbai. He has a lot of respect for her and he recalled this respect because of the geography discussion we were having.
He told me about a particular Marathi poem, Shraavan maasi, that she had taught the class. However, instead of directly plunging into the poem, she took time to explain the geography of the monsoon month of shraavana. This month is celebrated in poetry and song in many parts of our culture.
The abundance of the rainfall, the greenery, the changes in the temperature around us, the smells, the sounds, everything is fair subject matter for the poetic soul. The monsoon is also romance.This poem was written by Tryambak Bapuji Thombre (13 August 1890 – 5 May 1918) under the pen name Baalkavi.
It beautifully captures the romance of the monsoon season. I don’t know Marathi. So, I asked my friend Sri Sunil Ganu to translate it to English for me. This is what he sent me:
The month of Shraavan delights the heart
And green grass does around abound
And up above, the double-stranded rainbow stretches
A glorious arch at Heaven’s door, it seems.
At eventide, the wondrous, hushed calm is topped
With golden tinges on houses and trees.
The towering clouds, sun-kissed, stately, wear raiment
A frieze of beauty and golden light.
And a litany of birds flying as true as a garland
Are speckled visitors, it seems, from heavenly spheres !
Fledglings shimmer their wings to rid them of raindrops
And mother deer flock around their young on emerald mounds
Calves graze placidly, their cowherds dance to melodious tunes
And flutes pipe paeans to the beauty of Shraavan
The champak and kevada whirl their scent about
And the kevada cleanses the mind of all that is unseemly.
Damsels flit in flowered fields, their fragrant baskets swing to and fro
Hearts brimming with joy, ladies stream templewards, their obeisance to perform
While on their lips trill songs of wonderment, their odes to the blessed season.
[Translation: Sunil Ganu]
Śrāvaṇa (Sanskrit: श्रावण) is the fifth month of the Hindu calendar. In India’s national civil calendar, Śrāvaṇa is the fifth month of the Hindu year, beginning in late July from the first day of the full moon and ending in the third week of August, the day of the next full moon. In the Tamil calendar, it is known as Āvani and is the fifth month of the solar year. In lunar religious calendars, Śrāvaṇa begins on the new moon and is the fourth month of the year. … This is also the 2nd month of Varsha (rainy) season. [Source Accessed on 26 February 2020]
- What is it about the monsoon that evokes such reactions in us?
- Which part of the monsoon is the poet referring to here? What is the reason for your answer?
What use are you?
I was at a meeting in Bengaluru during 22-23 February 2020 where someone pointed out that much of our view of the environment (i.e., Earth) is driven by how things benefit us! It’s all about what we, humans, can take from Earth.
The discussion then went on to ask how we could change our view to looking at the fact that we share this Earth with so many other beings. We are only one of the many species living on this lovely planet.
This brought to my mind a lovely Kannada poem by Narasimhacharya S.G. (1862-1907) that I had learned from my wonderful primary school Kannada teacher Smt Rajalakshmi. In this poem, a cow tells a human the many different ways in which the cow, dead or alive, is useful to humans. At the end of every verse, the cow asks the human: “Whom did you benefit, O human?” [I am slightly confused as to whether this poem is by Sri Narasimhacharya or Sri Govidacharya – please let me know if you know.]
Read the full poem in Kannada. Here are a few of the lines I translated just to illustrate the mood of the song:
If I let it fall, I am dung; if patted, I am cow-patty
If burned, I am sacred ash for the forehead
If left un-patted, I am manure
Whom did you benefit, O human?
Eating trashy grass on the streets where I walk
I come home and give you milk like amrta …
The ground I till, the yoke I bear …
The wasteland, I make a smiling garden …
Whom did you benefit, O human?
[Translation: Chandra Shekhar Balachandran]
In these two poems, we see examples of how our culture engages with the environment (i.e., Earth).
In the first, it is celebration of the beauty of the seasonal landscape. The season relates to climate. Particular parts of the season, over short time periods over smaller areas are what we call weather. This distinction between climate and weather, your textbook teaches you. However, to appreciate these, you need to turn to human artistic expression: poetry, dance, painting, song, etc. This is because Earth is not just a physical system of equations and scientific relationships. Looking at Earth itself as being sentient can greatly help us understand how to experience joy in life with Earth.
In the second poem, we see an uncomfortable truth: far too often, we humans are obsessed with taking from Earth, but we give hardly any attention to how we, too, could contribute to the upkeep of Earth system. Sri Narasimhacharya’s poem poses very uncomfortable questions and forces us to ask ourselves the question, “Whom am I benefiting by my living on Earth?” Earth is not here to serve human interests only – Eastern philosophies keep telling us this.
If we ignore this, we are undermining our own existence.
- Imagine yourself to be a non-human species (animal or plant) as the poet did above. What questions would you ask a human about humans benefiting the environment?
- As a human, how would you respond to the cow above or the particular species you chose in the previous question?
Join us for the 6th International Geography Youth Summit, IGYS-2020,
24-26 July 2020, Bengaluru
A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition on 26 February 2020
Featured image: “Balkavi” [Accessed on 26 February 2020]