The Similes and Metaphors of Surdas

“No Hindu god is closer to the soul of poetry than Krishna, and in North India no poet ever sang of Krishna more famously than Surdas.”

John Stratton Hawley, “The Memory of Love”

In this post, I want to share a few songs by Surdas, who is regarded as one of the greatest poets of north India. I’ll begin with a short history of Braj Bhasha, the language in which Surdas composed his songs, followed by the few details we know about his life. I’ve then included three of his songs, with brief explanations before each one. All of the translations and background information come from The Memory of Love: Surdas Sings to Krishna, a set of translations by John Stratton Hawley — I highly recommend checking them out!

A Brief History of Braj Bhasha

The history & politics of language in North India and Pakistan are extremely complicated and contested, but I’ll try my best to give a balanced summary here. Modern Standard Hindi, the official language that is taught in Indian schools and used in newspapers, is a pretty modern language (as is Modern Standard Urdu in Pakistan). It was derived from the common language spoken around Delhi, called khadi boli. “Hindi literature,” defined strictly as literature written in modern standard Hindi and the Devanagari script, actually only dates back to the late nineteenth century. (You can read more about the history of modern Hindi here).

This doesn’t mean that before 1900, nobody in north India was writing anything. Rather, instead of khadi boli, poets and writers largely drew upon two main “linguistic streams,” as Hawley describes them: Awadhi, and Braj Bhasha. These are commonly describes as “dialects” of Hindi today, but that’s not entirely accurate. In reality, khadi boli has largely wiped out and homogenized the many different literary and spoken languages of northern India, including Awadhi and Braj Bhasha but also languages like Bhojpuri and Magadhi.

Awadhi comes from Awadh, the region in the Gangetic plans southeast of Delhi, encompassing cities like Varanasi, Lucknow, and Ayodhya. The Ramcharitmanas, Tulsidas’s sixteenth-century retelling of the Ramayana, is considered by many to be a classic of Awadhi literature. Awadhi also boasts of Sufi literary classics like the Chandayan (1379 CE) and Madhumalati (1545 CE).

Braj Bhasha comes from Braj, the region south of Delhi, encompassing the city of Mathura and its surroundings. Braj is the land of Krishna; Krishna is said to have been born into Mathura’s royal family, and was raised in the countryside of Braj. Hawley writes,

“Krishna was to Brajbhasha what Ram was to Avadhi—in fact, even more so. His charmed life, clever exploits, and expertise in the arts of love and war made him a principal focus of cultured speech, song, and art throughout India in the first millennium C.E., and the Braj region always asserted a special claim on his personality. Hence it is no surprise that when Brajbhasha rose to literary prominence in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the poetry of Krishna was very much to the fore.”

Hawley, The Memory of Love, p. 6

Hawley argues that Braj Bhasha became a literary language thanks to the Kacchvaha Rajput kings of Amber and the Mughal emperors. During the fifteenth centuries, these rulers gave extensive land grants in Braj, “helping to create a dense temple culture that became home to a new wave of Krishna worship,” making the region an important site of pilgrimage (well-connected and defended by the Mughal roads), and allowing for “the langauge and worship of Krishna to flourish as never before.”

Continue reading “The Similes and Metaphors of Surdas”

Three Songs for Holi

A Holi celebration in Mathura, India. (Source)

As I write this, on a chilly March day in Chicago, millions of people are celebrating festivals welcoming the beginning of spring. Zoroastrians, Iranians, Afghans, and many others are celebrating Nowruz, the New Year. Jews are celebrating Purim. And across the Indian subcontinent today, people are celebrating Holi — the festival of colors!

Holi has been celebrated for hundreds of years in South Asia, if not earlier. The Sanskrit poet and playwright Kalidasa, who lived in the 4th-5th centuries CE, mentions spring festivals dedicated to Kamadeva, the Hindu god of love and desire. Today, Holi is associated primarily with Krishna, who is said to have played Holi with the gopis (cowherd girls) of Brindavan. Some have argued that the modern celebration of Holi with colors originated in the Punjabi city of Multan, now located in Pakistan. Holi is one of the least “religious” Hindu festivals, and it’s a well known fact that many Muslim rulers of the subcontinent, including the Mughals, celebrated Holi with gusto.

Holi has inspired, and continues to inspire, music and dance traditions all over South Asia — in fact, in Bollywood, there’s a distinct category of “Holi songs”! In this post, I want to share three Holi-related songs that I find particularly interesting. Hope you enjoy, and happy Holi!

A Gender-Bending Hori

The first song I want to share is a hori — a genre of traditional folk songs that are specifically sung and performed around Holi. They fall within the thumri genre of Hindustani music, a “classical” music tradition of North India. These songs are generally in the Braj Bhasha or Awadhi languages, and they’re usually about Krishna and the gopis (particularly Radha). This article describes horis as such:

thumri places a lot of importance on its poetry … The poetic play of words and their embellishment as the singer often repeats lyrical phrases in different emotive and melodic ways to emphasize the meaning and Alankaars (poetic ornamentation). The ragas are usually of lighter moods, such as Khamaaj, Kaafi, Des, Piloo, Gara, Pahaadi, Bhairavi. Often, the melodic structure of the thumri is only loosely based on the specific raga, hence is referred to as “Mishra” (mixed) raga. The tempo could be slow, medium or fast-paced … The Hori Thumris are most often based on the romance of Krishna and Radha. They talk about their play and pranks with colors during Holi. The gamut of emotions could vary to embarrassment, sulking, jealousy, and heartbreak as well.”

This hori is narrated from the point of view of a gopi, who is talking about how she’s going to play Holi with Krishna: she’ll turn his dark skin red with powder and she’ll dance with him.

Something I want to draw particular attention to is the line saying that she’ll dress Krishna up as a woman, and dance with him. Krishna dressing up as a woman (also known as stri-vesha) is actually fairly common as a poetic and artistic image across the subcontinent.

Continue reading “Three Songs for Holi”

On Nationalism and History: Poems by Fahmida Riaz and Sri Sri

“Three Dynasties” by Indian painter MF Husain, depicting three empires that ruled South Asia: the Mughals, the Mauryas, and the British.

If you’ve been watching the news recently, you may be aware that tensions between India and Pakistan are at an all-time high, following a terrorist attack on Indian military forces in Kashmir, Indian strikes in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and Pakistan’s capture of an Indian pilot. I’m not here to offer any political analysis, but something I have noticed on Twitter and other social media is jingoistic, hypermasculine nationalism, calling for strong military responses on both sides.

Caught in the middle, as has been in the case for too long, are the voices of Kashmiris — the people who are most affected by conflict between these two nuclear powers. Let’s not forget that Kashmir is the most militarized region in the world, and for decades Kashmiris have been unable to engage in their right to self-determination, guaranteed under international law.

In response to the increasingly-ridiculous nationalism displayed by the media and by people on social media (why would any rational person call for war between two nuclear powers?!), I thought I would share — you guessed it — some poetry. Below, you can find one poem by a Pakistani poet, and one by an Indian. If anyone knows of good translations of Kashmiri poetry, please let me know. In the meantime, I hope you find these poems as striking and thought-provoking as I did.

Naya Bharat (New India) by Fahmida Riaz

This first poem is by Fahmida Riaz, a progressive Urdu poet, feminist, and human rights activist in Pakistan, who passed away just last year. She wrote this poem, Naya Bharat (New India) in response to the rise of Hindu nationalism in India — in particular, the demolition of the Babri masjid in 1992. The poem is narrated from a Pakistani perspective to an Indian, and is a bitterly sarcastic take on the religious nationalism that has plagued South Asia for decades. Linguistically, this poem is a unique mix of common vocabulary and high-register Perso-Arabic and Sanskritic vocabulary — a truly Hindustani poem, defying classification as purely “Hindi” or “Urdu”.

Continue reading “On Nationalism and History: Poems by Fahmida Riaz and Sri Sri”

My Favorite Books of 2018

Over the past year, I’ve become a bit of a Kindle evangelist. I still prefer reading physical books, but the upside of carrying a Kindle around is that I’ve been reading way more than in previous years. Whether on a train in Morocco, the subway in DC, or the L in Chicago, I’ve now gotten in the habit of pulling it out and reading at least a few pages in between stops. (I’m also that person who reads while walking on the sidewalk — I’m not proud but at least I haven’t walked into a pole/person yet!) Now would be a great time for Amazon to #sponsor my blog, but in the meantime here are some of my favorite books I read in 2018.


Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid’s writing is always politically relevant, and this book is no exception — published in 2017, Hamid tackles the global refugee crisis and debates over (im)migration with a healthy dose of magical realism. More than the political narrative, though, this novel is a truly captivating and tender portrayal a human relationship. I was blown away by this book and couldn’t stop thinking about it for at least a week after finishing it.

Continue reading “My Favorite Books of 2018”

Poetry of Light: Three Languages, Three Religions


Happy Deepavali/Diwali! Diwali is popularly known as the “Festival of Lights” — in fact, the word dīpāvali means “row of lamps” in Sanskrit. Deepavali has always been one of my favorite festivals — for me, it marks the beginning of the “holiday season”, with Thanksgiving and Christmas following. I have fond memories of my mom making a rangoli in front of our house, lighting sparklers with my family in the chilly Seattle fall weather, and putting up our Christmas lights (which I guess we should call Diwali lights?) — not to mention delicious food! At my university, we celebrate Diwali with a public puja in our university’s chapel (which I conducted last year!) and a separate celebration with dinner, sparklers, and performances.

This year, I’m co-president of our South Asian Students Association, which puts on the annual Diwali function. Our celebration is in two days, which means I have plenty of other work I could be doing, but instead… I want to share some South Asian devotional poetry (is anyone surprised?).

The following poems are in three different languages (Tamil, Punjabi, and Bengali) and come from three different religious traditions (Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam) but they all deal in different ways with the idea of light, which is what Diwali is all about! I hope you enjoy these poems, and that the light of Diwali guides all our efforts in the year ahead.


The following poems come from a major Tamil text called the Nālāyira Divya Prabandham (Sacred Collection of 4,000 Verses). The Divya Prabandham is an anthology which contains Tamil poems by twelve poet-saints of the 7th-9th centuries CE, who were all all devotees of Vishnu. These poet-saints are called Āḷvārs, means “those who are immersed deep” in love for Vishnu. The Divya Prabandham was compiled by the 10th-century Vaishnava theologian Nathamuni, and its verses are still popular today, sung in musical performances and temple rituals.

This first poem is by the first āḷvār, Poygai Āḷvār, who is believed to have lived around the 7th-8th centuries CE. Scholar Vasudha Narayanan writes that in this poem, Poygai “sang that he was lighting a lamp of adoration and weaving a garland of adoration for Vishnu”. This poem begins on a grand scale, in which the whole world is a lamp lit for Vishnu. The following translations are by Vasudha Narayanan; you can listen to a recitation of this poem here.

வையம் தகளியா வார்கடலே நெய்யாக
வெய்ய கதிரோன் விளக்காக – செய்ய
சுடர் ஆழியான் அடிக்கே சுட்டினேன் சொல் மாலை
இடராழி நீங்குகவே என்று

vaiyam tagaḷiyā vār-kaḍalē neyyāga
veyya kadirōn viḷakkāga – seyya
suḍar āzhiyān aḍikkē suṭṭinēn sol mālai
iḍar-āzhi nīngkugavē enḍru

With the earth as the lamp
the sweeping oceans as the ghee,
and the sun with its fiery rays
as the flame,
I have woven a garland of words
for the feet of the Lord,
who bears the red flaming wheel,
so I can cross the ocean of grief.

Continue reading “Poetry of Light: Three Languages, Three Religions”

It’s Time to Pay Attention to Hindu Nationalism in the United States

This summer, I spent more time than I would have preferred thinking about Hindu nationalism, mainly because of an event called the World Hindu Congress (WHC). The WHC was a conference held from September 7-9 in the suburbs of Chicago, and it was organized by Hindu nationalist groups like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHP-A) and the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh. Although it was billed as a religious gathering for Hindus worldwide, it’s clear based on the organizers and speakers that this event was a platform for Hindu nationalism. For example, one of the speakers was Mohan Bhagwat, head of India’s largest Hindu nationalist organization: calling for “Hindu unity” in his keynote address, he said that “wild dogs” can overpower even a powerful lion, a remark that has sparked controversy in India.

Thankfully, progressive Hindu and South Asian Americans spoke out against the WHC. I’m a member of the Sadhana Coalition of Progressive Hindus, and we are a member of the Coalition for the Defence of the Constitution and Democracy (CDCD), a coalition of South Asian human rights, Muslim, Hindu, Dalit, and secular activist groups. Right before the WHC, we organized a press conference in New York City about the WHC and the dangers of Hindu nationalism more broadly (watch it here). The press conference featured this powerful statement by Swami Agnivesh, a Hindu monk and human rights activist who has suffered multiple physical attacks by Hindu nationalist mobs:

Additionally, Chicago alderman Ameya Pawar released this strong statement against the WHC and its organizers:

Illinois State Senator Ram Villavalam also opposed the WHC, stating that “I do not support any group and/or an event arranged or led by organizations that intimidate minorities, incite discrimination and violence, commit acts of terror based on race or ethnic background, promote hate speech, and/or believe in faith based nationalism.” Even Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who was initially named chairwoman of the WHC, later announced that she would not be attending the conference, describing it as a “partisan Indian political event.” Members of Chicago South Asians for Justice disrupted Bhagwat’s speech during the conference and were met with physical violence from conference attendees, an incident that received front-page coverage in Indian media.

WHC conference attendees’ violent response to protesters. Photographer: Skanda Kadirgamar (source)

To me, Hindu nationalism is just one example of the global rise in right-wing, ultranationalist political movements that are wreaking havoc all over the world; from white supremacist movements in the United States to neo-Nazis in eastern Europe. Obviously, right-wing nationalism and fascism should be opposed wherever and whenever it occurs. However, Hindu nationalism is particularly frustrating (and frightening) for me because, as a Hindu myself, Hindu nationalists claim to be speaking on my behalf.

There are many ways through which Hindu nationalism can be criticized. To begin with, its founders were inspired by the fascist movements of 20th-century Europe, particularly those of Hitler and Mussolini. On a daily basis, Hindu nationalists in India intimidate and attack Indian religious minorities, caste-oppressed groups, and intellectuals (many of whom are Hindus themselves). Hindu nationalism seeks to homogenize Indian society as a whole, subsuming India’s diversity in an upper-caste, patriarchal, north Indian “Hindu” identity. The WHC is a clear example of how Hindu nationalism enjoys ideological and financial support in the United States as well.

Most critiques of Hindu nationalism that I’ve read address it from a moral or cultural argument. Certainly, Hindu nationalism should appall anyone who cares about fundamental human rights or India’s religious and cultural diversity. However, I wanted to approach Hindu nationalism from a slightly different perspective: international security and stability. I wanted to convince American observers who specialize in international relations and Asia-Pacific affairs that they should see Hindu nationalism as their problem, and as an American problem. I wrote this article for The Diplomat a few weeks ago — I’d welcome any (constructive) feedback!

Rising Hindu Nationalism in South Asia: Implications for the United States

It’s time for Washington to take the challenges posed by Hindu nationalism seriously.

August 22, 2018

At the beginning of the month in the northeastern state of Assam, the Indian government effectively stripped 4 million people, mostly Muslims, of their citizenship, branding them as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. The government also announced it will be deporting “illegal” Rohingya refugees, and a politician from India’s ruling party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), declared that “if these … illegal immigrants do not leave India respectfully, then they should be shot and eliminated.”

Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s international image has become more robust, and the United States has designated India as its partner in balancing China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific. However, these recent developments contradict the U.S. vision for India to “strengthen the fabric of stability” in the region. Since Modi’s election in 2014, there has been a significant increase in anti-minority rhetoric and mob violence committed by Hindu nationalist groups against Muslims and other minorities. Although India’s strategic importance has led the U.S. government to largely ignore these domestic issues, the dangerous effects unleashed by Hindu nationalism have had a destabilizing effect in South Asia, compromising India’s ability to play the leading regional role the United States seeks.

In some ways, Hindu nationalism, the political ideology that guides Modi’s BJP party, resembles right-wing nationalist movements around the world, advocating for economic protectionism and increased border security. Its distinguishing factor, though, is its core belief that India’s national identity should be synonymous with a Hindu identity. In a country where a fifth of the population is not Hindu, Hindu nationalism’s hardliners argue that India should become a Hindu state, and have openly incited violence against minorities, particularly Muslims and Christians. For decades, liberal voices in India have spoken out against the values espoused by Hindu nationalists. Now, Hindu nationalism is threatening South Asia’s security and stability.

Read the rest of the article at The Diplomat!

Back to Basics: A Persian Ghazal by Amir Khusrow

This summer, I’ve been interning at a think tank in Washington, D.C, assisting with research on South Asian politics and security issues. With one month left, I’ve enjoyed my time here so far — I really like the other interns, I get to work with some friends from UChicago who graduated a few years before me, and I’ve learned a lot about various issues and developments on the subcontinent, such as the Pakistani elections, the Taliban and Afghan peace process, and India-China relations. I’m also doing some independent research on Hindu nationalism — stay tuned for an upcoming post all about that.

At the same time, though, this is my first experience in a 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday, office environment. And as much as I enjoy my internship, I have to ask: How do millions of people do this? How do you go to work and also have time for hobbies, reading, exercise… the rest of life? (And sometimes even multiple jobs?!)  I know this is very naive of me, but I really didn’t realize until this summer how much being a student really spoils you in terms of having a fluid schedule. So, that’s been a bit of a reality check.

This summer, I wanted to clear out a significant portion of my 40ish unfinished blog posts… and as you can tell, that hasn’t happened yet. Part of it is due to my internship and time constraints, but I think I’ve also been digging myself into a hole here. Out of my most recent blog posts, most of them are long essay-type posts, with lots of citations and pictures. Whenever I think about writing a new post, I’ve been putting mental pressure on myself that every post has to be long and insightful. However, I just scrolled through my earlier posts from past years, and quite a few of them are short and simple — a song I liked, or a movie I had recently watched. I think I want to return more to that style of blogging, or at least have more of those kinds of posts to balance out the longer essays. This way, I can post more frequently without feeling the pressure to make every single post of mine an intellectual masterpiece. So don’t set your expectations too high, but hopefully I can revive this blog with a more active presence!

With that, I want to share a beautiful ghazal by Amir Khusrow, one of the most renowned poets in the history of the Indian subcontinent. Amir Khusrow was a poet, musician, and scholar who lived from 1253-1325 CE, spending most of his life in Delhi. The son of a Turkic father and Indian mother, he was a prolific poet, renowned for a number of literary and musical innovations. Khusrow is called Tuti-e-Hind (Parrot of India), and he is said to have invented the tabla, sitar, and the entire genre of qawwali. Though these claims don’t have any historical evidence, they speak to just how iconic he is as a cultural figure.

Continue reading “Back to Basics: A Persian Ghazal by Amir Khusrow”