First there was the Prabhat film Sant Tukaram. I saw it as a child. For years afterwards Vishnupant Pagnis who played Tukaram was the saint incarnate for me. My favourite song was “Aadhi beej ekale”.

First there was a single seed.
Sprouting, it became a sapling.
The sapling grew into a tree.
The tree birthed flowers and fruit by the thousand.

Later when I came to read Tukaram’s abhangas, I could not find it in my parents’ copy of the gatha. My father said it was the only abhanga in the film that was not written by Tukaram. The scales fell from my eyes. Were other things in the film equally untrue? Perhaps the scene that had upset me most wasn’t true. It wasn’t true that Jija had dragged her son through the village to the temple to show Tukaram how his children were suffering. A few decades later, my father decided to retire, leave the city and live a rustic life in the environs of Pune.

He spent every weekend for months looking for a plot that was large enough for a garden, a vegetable patch, a cowshed, a poultry house and a bungalow; and inexpensive enough for his middle-class pocket. He found one located in a dip of land in Talegaon Dabhade near to the tala (lake) that had given the village its name. Talegaon sat shoulder to shoulder with Tukaram’s Dehu. Plot bought, my father spent every weekend for a year building a tiled bungalow of his own design. He called it “Abhanga”. My parents’ spacious bedroom had a wide picture window which framed Bhandara Hill on which Tukaram had spent days in contemplation after the great famine of 1629 had devastated his life. The bungalow was full of light and fresh air. The blue of the sky and green of the trees entered through every window, blurring the line between inside and outside. Father did not live very long after the great move. A mere 18 months later he was gone.

But it had been long enough for him to welcome three grandchildren into “Abhanga”. One was my daughter Renuka, whom he would fondly call Awali. Mother protested. Awali was a shrew. Surely he did not want to call his granddaughter that? Father said, “You’re wrong. Awali was an innocent girl. It was Jija who became a scold because of the rotten deal she got. But look how she fought. And brought up her children single-handed.” Mother withdrew her objections. After Father’s premature death, Mother found Tukaram for herself.

A Warkari kirtankar, Manohar (Dada) Sabnis, used to come from Pune to Talegaon once a week to teach abhangas to a group of women in the village. Mother was not a religious woman, but, like her late husband, she loved music and poetry. She found both in the abhangas Dada taught. Unlike other bhajan teachers, he did not compose them in modern or classical melodies. He kept to the simple, traditional tunes that Warkaris sang and that Mother loved.

When Mother relocated to Mumbai, she got a group of women together and started her own bhajan class at home, naming it Swanand Bhakti Mandal (“Bliss-in-self” devotion group). She invited Dada to come to Mumbai once a month to teach the group. Dada would stay with us for two days, teach and leave. Mother would record the abhangas he taught on her tape recorder, practice them through the week and rehearse them with the group. Tukaram filled the air and we sang his verses as well as the Swanandis. The Swanand Bhakti Mandal continued to assemble even as Mother lay on her deathbed. And they were there to sing her a farewell abhanga the day she died. The injunction to translate the best in Marathi literature came to me from Mother when I was 16. Yet I would never have dared touch Tukaram had it not been for Jerry [Pinto] saying to me one day that he would like to translate him.

Jerry carried away my Tukaram gatha that evening, and a few weeks later, sent me a list of 25 abhangas that he had selected. I went through the gatha and selected 26 more, including all of my mother’s favourites. Jerry’s idea was that we should translate them jointly. I thought we should do them separately, creating two versions for every abhanga. It would make an interesting jugalbandi – one bandish, two distinct voices singing. Like all great writers and poets, Tukaram calls for multiple translations.

Abhangas are written in the ovi metre in which lines are necessarily compact. With Tukaram they are also dense with hidden layers of meaning. Each translator would have her/ his own way of unpacking them. It was for this reason that I felt two independent translations rather than a joint one might give readers a better idea of the original. Moreover, Jerry is a poet. I am not. I assumed that he, as today’s practitioner of Tukaram’s art, might want to do what Arun Kolatkar and Dilip Chitre had done in their translations of Tukaram – recast the abhangas as independent poems that ran parallel to his. My aim as a translator on the other hand, was not to take any liberties but to run as close as I could to the sense, movement, rhythm and form of the originals. However, in translating the present selection of 51 abhangas, I felt defeated again and again by the sheer weight of the ideas that Tukaram implies but leaves unsaid and the sweet musicality of his language, so difficult to transfer to English. The consonants in English resist flow; the open vowels of 17-century Marathi are made for fluidity. Words like “maooli” are enveloped in soft shades of emotion that “mother” simply does not evoke. Words like “triputi” signal metaphysical concepts that have no equivalent in Western philosophy. As one crawled through these brambles, one had to be careful to keep the precious poems in one’s arms unscathed.

Tukaram’s abhangas, copied by many hands and gathered over many years, fall into no particular order, natural or otherwise. Secretly we are always looking for order. As translators, editors and tellers of stories, we were keen to give our selection a narrative order that would allow readers a view of the abhangas beyond their immediate sense. We realised that our selection fell into three overlapping but distinct groups – Tukaram and poetry, Tukaram and life and Tukaram and Vitthala. We have arranged the abhangas accordingly.

Excerpted with permission from Behold! The Word Is God: Hymns of Tukaram, translated from the Marathi by Shanta Gokhale and Jerry Pinto, Speaking Tiger Books.