“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”