You can hear it here


Literal Translation

Did not spend a cowrie or a quarter of a penny, did not pay a price
Bought Shyam, lady, I bought Shyam

Some say this must be theft, some feel a borrowing
As many times as breaths in a whole life, I counted the name of Hari

Child cowherd on the Yamuna, black slave in the house of saints
He only is Tuka’s Vitthal and Das’ Sri Ram

As many owners so many names, so many hearts are his towns
Yet no one recognizes him poor, lordless, nameless


This beautiful devotional song starts with the shocking statement that the singer has purchased Shyam.

Shyam, which means dark complected, is a name of Krishna, which means black.

The singer spent no money on this surprising commercial transaction but instead counted the name of Hari [another name of Krishna] as many times as there are breaths in a full life.

Krishna, the child cowherd, is described as the slave of those who realize him, the object under different names of true seekers, and the resident in the hearts of devotees who pay the price of a lifetime of breaths to own him. While accessible to all, yet no one recognizes him in his humble forms.

Apart from this devotional sense and an intimacy with the divine alien to English, the other difficulty is the word “bai” or “lady”. Here it is addressed by the singer to herself. It is used as an indicator of surprise or incredulity, as if the singer has got away with something.

The key to translating this poem is to find an apt expression for counting a lifetime’s breaths uttering the name of Hari because that is the signal sacrifice needed. The rest of the translation will turn on the expression found for this devotion.


Poetic Translation (in ten syllables per line)

Not a penny was spent, no price was paid,
My Shyam I possess — O, the sale was made.

Some say I borrowed, some that I lured,
In each breath of my life his name endured.

Cowherd on the river, slave of the saint,
Vitthal and Ram and names many and feigned,

Named by his owners, their hearts are his homes:
Meek and nameless, incognito he roams.


Please read the comments below for an organic discussion of this translation, or read the “finished” version of these translations here: (pdf).


17 thoughts on “Shyam

  1. Superb!

    I’d not forget the names mentioned in it, Tuka and Das. Maybe sixth line could be:

    Tuka’s Vitthal, Das’s Ram, many names, feigned,

  2. We have to get out of the 10-syllable limit to include those names – in which case, it can be done thus in 15 syllables per line for that couplet:

    Young cowherd on Yamuna, anonymous slave of the saint,
    Vitthal of Tuka and Ram of Das and names many and feigned,

    thereby carrying the “name” theme with “anonymous”.

  3. Or a slight variation (because English requires a “the” before the name of a river):

    Young cowherd on the Yamuna, a faceless slave of the saint,
    Vitthal of Tuka, Sri Ram of Das, and names many and feigned,

  4. But the line which I suggested is deca-syllabic. With 15 the reading of the whole piece becomes uneven, jerky; the breath has to be the same throughout.

  5. Here’s the Locksley Hall beat with 15 syllables:

    In the spring a fuller crimson comes upon the robin’s breast
    In the spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest
    In the spring a livelier iris changes on the burnished dove
    In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.

  6. How about:

    Tuka’s Vitthal, Ram of Das, named or feigned,

    Called by his owners, …

  7. English does not always require “the” before the name of a river.
    ‘Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
    Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space.
    Kingdoms are clay: our dungy earth alike
    Feeds beast as man: the nobleness of life
    Is to do thus; when such a mutual pair

    And such a twain can do’t, in which I bind,
    On pain of punishment, the world to weet
    We stand up peerless.’

    Shakespeare, Antony & Cleopatra

  8. Rajeev, thanks for the Shakespeare reference. I suppose “the river” could be changed to “Yamuna”, both being 3 syllables. The accents are different, though, the_ ri^ve_r, Ya^mu_na^. I’d leave it at the abstract river.

  9. There is another Shakespearean reference (to ‘Tiber” again; this time in Julius Caesar). I recall another one, from Thomas Cambell (Hohenlinden.

    But redder yet that light shall glow
    On Linden’s hills of stainèd snow;
    And bloodier yet the torrent flow
    Of Iser, rolling rapidly.

  10. May be I am unduly influenced by Americanisms: the Mississippi, the Nile or explicitly Amazon River, Rogue River, Colorado River. In other appellations also – Mount Everest, Mount Shasta, Mount Rainier, Lake Superior, Lake Tahoe, etc. But “I’m going to Tahoe” is used to mean the general region around the lake. I suppose in English or anywhere in India, Everest will stand on its own, but I haven’t heard it without the Mount in the US.

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