Dilip Chitre was fascinated to Tukaram‘s poetry ever since he was a college going student. To introduce him to the world beyond Marathi speaking and knowing readers Chitre decided then to translate Tukaram. In one of the interviews, Chitre says: “It was in 1956 that I, then an 18-year old undergraduate in a college in Mumbai, decided to translate as much of Tukaram‘s poetry into English as I could. It was not exactly a vow, for I was my only witness. But it turned into a lifelong project of translation encompassing not only the work of Tukaram but also of his dazzling forerunner, Jnandev, the 13th century Marathi mystic and poet who pioneered the Bhakti renaissance in Maharashtra. In one go, I was trying to discharge several debts: my debt to Marathi, my mother tongue; my debt to English, my chosen other tongue; to both the poetic traditions I inherited; to two of the great masters of world literature who were virtually unknown outside Marathi; and last, but not the least, to my contemporaries among whom I lived and from whom I sought sustenance.”
For Dilip Chitre, Tukaram is quintessential and classic poet of the world. Chitre says that poetry as a genre is incomplete without Tukaram. He believes that Tukaram is not a poet of Marathi and Maharashtra but of the entire world. Chitre had a fascination for Tukaram because of the fact that he shunned social hypocrisy in a brutal expression while pursuing the path of devotion.
A masterpiece, Says Tuka, which won Sahitya Akademi award for literature as well as for translation, consists of ten sections that deal with the different states of mind of Tukaram. The abhangas explore the relationship between the god and devotee. Tukaram sang his abhangas to Vitthoba, when Maharashtra followed a two caste system—Brahman and Shudra. Only the Brahman was supposed to contemplate upon God, religion and its intricacies. Tukaram went against them and talked of the god as well as composed and sang the devotional songs called abhangas. His abhangas spoke of God Vitthoba.
Tukaram‘s writing poetry on religious themes in colloquial Marathi was unacceptable to the Brahmins who alone were allowed to learn Sanskrit, the language of the gods and to read religious scriptures. Tukaram’s first offence was to write in Marathi, and his second was that he was born in a low caste. That‘s why his poetry on religious themes was seen by the Brahmins as an act of heresy and of the defiance of the caste system itself.
Tukaram had a revelatory dream in which the great saint- poet Namdeo and Vitthal appeared and informed him to compose poems, the abhangas to be sung in praise of Vitthoba as Namdeo himself had done. This dream referred to the vow taken by Namdeo to Vitthal that he would compose “one billion abhangas” in His praise. Namdeo was unable to achieve this steep target in his lifetime. Therefore he asked Tukaram to finish his incomplete task.
In the beginning, Tukaram looked at poetry as a serious business. For him, all poetry was empirical and so was religion. Experience or “realization” was the crucial test. In his poetry, honestly and sincerely, he depicts his own past life and his anguished search for God. With his recent mystical enlightenment, his poetry acquired a magical quality. His poetry can be seen as a historical document. He represents the vital link in the mutation of a medieval Marathi literary tradition into modern Marathi literature. His abhangas encompass the entire gamut of Marathi culture. At the same time, he belongs to the future and bears the universal hallmarks and taste. To him, poetry was a precise description of the human condition and not merely a form of entertainment. Poetry, for him, is not ornamental either. Language, he believed, was a divine gift, therefore the divine must be repaid through poetry with selfless devotion.
The poems of Dilip Chitre can be better understood and interpreted if these lines are studied in the light of following brief account of Tukaram‘s personal life. Before he was twenty-one, Tukaram had to witness a series of deaths of his mother, his father, his first wife, and children. The famine of 1629, during which he lost his wife, was a devastating experience for Tukaram. The horror of the human condition that Tukaram speaks of comes from this experience. After the famine, Tukaram lost all urge to lead a householder’s life. He showed no interest in farming or the family’s trade. The famine and his other strenuous experiences reduced Tukaram to penury and humiliation of bankruptcy. He was incapable of repaying debts he had incurred and the village council stripped him of his position as Mahajan and passed strictures against him. He incurred the displeasure of the village Patil.