Half a Life in Mughal India: The “Ardhakathanak” of Banarasi Das

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Mughal painting from 1615-1618 CE. Source

Imagine sitting down to write the story of your life. Most likely, as you think about what to write, your mind would drift to other autobiographies and memoirs you’ve read. You’d ask yourself: What kinds of incidents did other writers discuss? What kind of literary conventions and styles did they use? Essentially, what was an autobiography supposed to look like?

Now, imagine: what would it be like to write the story of your life if you had no other previous model to follow?

In the winter of 1641, in the grand Mughal city of Agra, a Jain merchant, poet, and philosopher named Banarasi Das faced this exact question.

Banarasi Das lived from 1586-1643 CE in urban north India: mostly in the cities of Jaunpur and Agra. For Jains, a “full” human lifespan is 110 years, and Banarasi wrote his autobiography when he was 55. Thus, he titled his text Ardhakathanak, meaning Half Story (unfortunately, he died two years later).

The Ardhakathanak is the earliest known autobiography written in a South Asian language. It’s a truly fascinating look into what life was like during the peak of the Mughal Empire, from the perspective of a citizen, not a ruler. In this post, I’ll highlight a few sections from Rohini Chowdhury’s translation that stood out to me as particularly interesting or surprising.

Most people identify Saint Augustine’s Confessions as the first-ever autobiography, written around 400 CE in Roman North Africa. In South Asia, the autobiography has a comparatively more recent history. The Baburnama may have been the first autobiography written by someone living in South Asia; it is the journal of Babur (1483–1530 CE), the founder of the Mughal Empire. Babur wrote in Chagatai Turkish about his life in central Asia, and later his invasion of India and establishment of an empire. Babur described India in great detail, but he was essentially writing from the perspective of a foreigner.

While the Ardhakathanak may not be the first autobiography to describe South Asia, it is the first known autobiography written in a South Asian language. Banarasi Das wrote the Ardhakathanak in Braj Bhasha, an ancestor of modern Hindi and one of the major literary languages of northern India before the 19th century. So, who was he? I’ll let him introduce himself:

Introducing Banarasi Das

जैनधर्म श्रीमाल सुबंस | बानारसी नाम नरहंस
तिन मन मांहि बिचारी बात | कहौं आपनी कथा बिख्यात

jain-dharm śrīmāl subans
bānārasī nām nar-hans
tin man māhi bicārī bāt
kahauñ āpnī kathā bikhyāt

A Jain from the noble Shrimal family,
That prince among men, that man called Banarasi,
He thought to himself,
“Let me make my story known to all.” (4)

Continue reading “Half a Life in Mughal India: The “Ardhakathanak” of Banarasi Das”

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“That Krishna is a real gem…” Annamacharya’s “Muddugare Yashoda”

My cousin Parnika is three years old, and even at her young age she’s showing signs of being kind of a genius (in my family’s opinion, at least)! In addition to learning English nursery rhymes at her daycare, her dad has been teaching her Hindi children’s songs (like lakdi ki kathi, which I also learned as a kid), Telugu songs, Muthuswami Dikshitar’s Sanskrit nottuswaras, and even some Tamil songs! When they came over to our house the day after Christmas, she insisted that I accompanied her on violin while she sang some nottuswaras and other songs: Tyagaraja’s vara leela gana lola, Dikshitar’s shakti sahita ganapatim, and a few others… stay tuned for when we hit the concert stage together in a couple years. That same evening, her dad told me about this Telugu song, Muddugare Yashoda. I hadn’t heard it before, but after looking it up I thought I had to make a blog post about it! (I also needed some way to procrastinate on packing before I go study abroad in Morocco this upcoming quarter.)

Muddugare Yashoda is a bright, simple song in Telugu, attributed to the fifteenth-century poet-saint Annamacharya (colloquially called Annamayya). Annamayya lived at the hilltop temple of Tirupati, where he composed thousands of songs to the god Venkateswara. He is largely responsible for pioneering a new poetic genre, the padam, which rapidly spread throughout south India. Around his lifetime, something like thirteen thousand (!) of his poems were inscribed on copper plates and stored in a vault inside the Tirupati temple, where they remained hidden until the twentieth century. Although we no longer know their original melodies, many of Annamayya’s compositions were set to music in the twentieth century, and they’ve become a popular part of the Carnatic repertoire. I’ve written about some of his songs in previous posts. David Shulman and Velcheru Narayana Rao have written extensively about Annamayya and translated many of his compositions; if you’re interested, check out their books God on the Hill: Temple Poems from Tirupati (2005) and When God is a Customer: Telugu Courtesan Songs by Ksetrayya and Others (1994).

Many of Annamayya’s compositions are soaked in shringara (romantic and erotic love), and they’re written from the point of view of a female lover of the god. However, Muddugare Yashoda is quite different from Annamayya’s romantic padams. Instead, this song praises the young Krishna in a unique way; by comparing him to the Nine Gems (navaratna in Sanskrit) that have traditionally been prized across South and Southeast Asia.

The Navaratna (Nine Gems)

As their name suggests, the navaratna are a collection of nine gemstones that have a unique cultural significance in India and beyond. Bear with me as I try to summarize Hindu astrology as briefly as possible. Just like other astrological traditions, Hindu astrology is premised on the idea that celestial bodies can influence our lives (Yes, I’m rolling my eyes too). These are called the navagraha (“nine influencers”), and they’re worshipped as deities: the Sun, the Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn, and the two “lunar nodes.”

It’s believed that wearing certain gems can have an astrological value; they can counteract negative influences from certain planets, and harness positive energy from others. Each of the nine gems in the navaratna group corresponds to a different planet, and when worn together, the grouping was believed to act as a talisman, protecting the wearer from negative energy and attracting positive influences from the heavens. Thus, navaratna jewelry arrangements have been popular since at least the tenth century AD, though the grouping may in fact be much older. Here’s the list of the navaratna and their Telugu names (they’ll be useful later on):

  1. Ruby (māṇikyamu) for the Sun
  2. Pearl (mutyamu) for the Moon
  3. Emerald (pacca, garuḍapacca) for Mercury
  4. Coral (pagaḍamu) for Mars
  5. Topaz/yellow sapphire (puṣyarāgamu) for Jupiter
  6. Diamond (vajramu) for Venus
  7. Blue sapphire (nīlamu, indranīlamu) for Saturn
  8. Hessonite (gōmēdhikamu) for the ascending “lunar node”
  9. Cat’s eye (vaiḍūryamu) for the descending “lunar node”

The navaratna arrangement has traveled widely beyond India, and enjoys significance in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and some parts of Malaysia, Indonesia, and other Southeast Asian countries. In fact, the Order of the Nine Gems (Noppha Rat Ratcha Waraphon) is the highest title granted to Thai citizens by the royal family of Thailand!

The term navaratna also has connotations beyond physical gemstones. It’s been used to describe a group of nine special people in a royal court: the navratna of the Mughal emperor Akbar’s court (a century after Annamayya’s time) included the musician Tansen, the poet Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana, and Raja Birbal, the subject of many popular Indian folktales. Navratan korma is a popular north Indian dish that uses nine different vegetables. But anyway, back to the song…

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A diagram showing the navaratna on a 19th-century Rajasthani jade pendant. Source

Continue reading ““That Krishna is a real gem…” Annamacharya’s “Muddugare Yashoda””

Hasya and Hinduism: laughing at (and with) the gods

Despite what Hindu nationalists may want you to believe, satire and mockery has always been one way through which Hindus have related to their gods and goddesses. In fact, for most Hindu traditions, the philosophy and expression of bhakti (devotion) is actually incomplete without humor (hasya).


Earlier this year, in the weeks leading up to the Hindu festival of Durga Puja, a legal complaint was filed against Indian celebrity hair stylist Jawed Habib under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code for “insulting and demeaning” Hindu deities. Habib is the owner of a nationwide chain of beauty salons, some of which ran newspaper advertisements depicting the goddess Durga and her family enjoying a day at the salon in preparation for the festival.

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Kartikeya, Ganesha, Durga, Lakshmi, and Saraswati enjoying a day at the salon. Source

Right-wing Hindus and Hindu extremist groups objected to this advertisement, and extremists soon vandalized at least one salon in Uttar Pradesh. Following massive backlash on social media, Jawed Habib publicly apologized on Twitter and ordered all franchise locations to retract the advertisement.

Why was this cartoon so controversial? The fact that a Muslim-owned business released a cartoon depicting Hindu deities would, of course, be an immediate source of anger for many conservative Hindus. However, many Hindus also described the advertisement itself as “derogatory and insulting”; they felt that depicting Hindu gods and goddesses engaging in the mundane activity of visiting a salon was an insult to their faith.

Yet, whether or not Jawed Habib’s advertising team was aware of this, such “blasphemous”, lighthearted depictions of Hindu gods and goddesses have been a surprisingly common way through which the Hindu pantheon has been approached by devotees and nonbelievers alike. In fact, the very idea of bhakti (devotion), as it has been formulated and expressed in many Hindu traditions, is actually incomplete without humor.

Humor in South Asian literature

The earliest traces of humor in South Asian literature can be located in the Ṛg Veda, which contains verses comparing Vedic chanting by brahmins to the croaking of frogs; other Vedic texts abound with riddles and “verbal games” (Gerow 173). Yet, for the most part, South Asian literary traditions have been dominated by śṛṅgāra, the rasa (aesthetic flavor) corresponding to romantic and erotic love. Despite this primary focus on the experience of love, humor also had its place in the south Asian artistic and literary imagination.

The Nāṭyaśāstra (2nd century BCE to 5th century CE), the foundational text of Indian aesthetics, defines eight dramatic rasas (aesthetic flavors), one of which is the comic rasa (hāsya-rasa). According to the Nāṭyaśāstra, just as different ingredients combine to produce a dish with a unique taste, a work of art or literature allows a connoisseur to experience a specific rasa through its depiction of various emotions and dramatic effects (Pollock 50-51). The comic rasa is linked to the emotion of amusement or mirth (hāsa).

Throughout history, śṛṅgāra has been upheld as the most important of the rasas, such as the tenth-century Kashmiri philosopher Abhinavagupta. However, the Nāṭyaśāstra itself makes an interesting claim about the relationship between the comic and erotic rasas; it states that hāsya arises from śṛṅgāra, as a parody of love (Pollock 51). It is this mockery which is “the essence of the comic sentiment” (Siegel 32). To paraphrase Abhinavagupta, “the ‘comic’ is found in counterfeiting something ‘serious'” (Gerow 176). Just as hāsya is found in the “counterfeiting” of the “serious” experience of love, perhaps hāsya can also be found in mockery directed at gods and goddesses, who are arguably the most “serious” subjects of all.

Wendy Doniger argues that if we divide the vast, interconnected web known today as Hinduism into textual, “pan-Indian” traditions on one hand, and oral-based “village traditions” on one hand, “village traditions and local folk traditions … in fact constitute most of Hinduism and are one of the main sources even of the so-called pan-Indian traditions,” not least because most Indians live in rural areas (Doniger 382). It is in “village Hinduism”—in oral folktales, festivals, and rituals—that “we will find the comic vision of the common people, glorying in Hinduism’s ability to laugh at its own gods, defying the piety of the more puritanical members of the tradition” (Doniger 382). One such folktale, popular even today in south India, is the story of Tenali Rama and the goddess Kali.

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A sketch of Kali nursing a cold, based on the Tenali Rama story. Artist: my friend Anjali!

When were stories poking fun at the gods first told, and when did they begin to be written down? It’s quite likely that throughout history, people have delighted in the humorous aspects of their gods and goddesses. The dilemma faced by historians is that the majority of surviving premodern texts come from elite settings; in the Indian context, this means most premodern texts were authored by upper-caste men in royal courts or wealthy temples. Generally, it wasn’t considered proper for courtly poetry to depict aspects of life connected to villages and the “common people”; thus, many of these writers were rather distant, both physically and through literary conventions, from the humor of “village Hinduism”.

What is clear, however, is that by the “medieval period” of South Asian history, a number of written texts began to demonstrate how “Hindu gods (even uppercase Gods, like Siva and Visnu) [began] … to become not merely human but banal” (Doniger O’Flaherty 72). This article focuses on how two particular types of literature use humor to approach the gods: Sanskrit muktaka poems and Telugu ninda-stutis.

Continue reading “Hasya and Hinduism: laughing at (and with) the gods”

Poetry of the hunt: verses from Kalidasa’s “Shakuntala”

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A prince hunting antelopes and a wild boar. Painting in the Pahadi style of northern Punjab from around 1800-1825, attributed to the family of Nainsukh. Source 

This quarter, I’ve been taking a class on premodern South Asian literature. It’s the first in a two-part sequence: this class deals with literature in Sanskrit, Prakrit, Tamil, and Telugu, while the next class will cover Persian, Hindi/Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi, Marathi, and other north Indian languages. It’s been one of my favorite classes in college so far, and I’ve been learning so much about South Asian history, linguistics, and religion in addition to literature! We’ve been reading translations from the “Five Great Poems” (pañca-mahā-kāvya) of the classical Sanskrit canon, Prakrit love poems, Sangam poetry, a satirical 15th-century Telugu play, and many more. Next week, we’ll be discussing Telugu padams and devadasi songs, which I’m so excited about!

Needless to say, this class has given me many ideas for future blog posts. For now, though, I just want to share a small selection from one of the first works we read: Kalidasa’s play “The Recognition of Shakuntala” (Abhijñāna-śākuntalam), arguably the most famous work in all of Sanskrit literature.

Very little is known about Kalidasa’s life, but it is generally accepted that he lived around the 4th-5th centuries C.E., and resided for at least part of his life in the city of Ujjain in central India. Barbara Stoler Miller, one of the most eminent 20th-century scholars and translators of Sanskrit literature, writes in her 1984 anthology Theatre of Memory: The Plays of Kalidasa that he is “the acknowledged master-poet of Sanskrit”.

I’m not going to summarize the plot of Shakuntala, which you can read here. The selection I want to present comes from the very beginning of the play, when the audience first meets the male hero (King Dushyanta) racing through a forest in his chariot, chasing after an antelope. Describing the following scene, Miller writes: “we witness the king hunting a fleeing antelope in the sacred forest where Śakuntalā dwells. The movement of the chase creates a sense of uncertainty and excitement for the mind’s eye as it is drawn deeper into a mythical world. The poet’s intention to pierce the boundaries of ordinary time and space is suggested by the king’s description of the way in which his perspective is altered as he enters the forest.”

Leaving my own views on hunting aside, I have to say I really loved these three verses, and the last one is my favorite, just for the mental image it creates. The king’s exclamation that “split forms seem to reunite, / bent shapes straighten before my eyes” sounds almost like what someone would say while riding a roller-coaster!

Translated by Barbara Stoler Miller herself, these lines are spoken at the beginning of Act One of The Recognition of Shakuntala (Abhijñāna-śākuntalam). I’ve decided to only include the Sanskrit original for the poetic verses, leaving the prose lines in English. I have some longer blog posts coming up, but for now enjoy these action-packed verses!

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A Conversation Between Desire and Delight: the Poetry of Nanne Choda

As a kid, I loved reading about mythology: Greek, Egyptian, Hindu, you name it. I grew up reading the Percy Jackson books alongside Amar Chitra Katha comics. What I enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) most about mythology was the richness, diversity, and depth of its characters, and the ways in which modern authors were able to flesh out and humanize these gods and heroes in so many different ways. Rick Riordan (author of the Percy Jackson series) had a very different take on the Greek pantheon than Kate McMullan (the Myth-o-Mania books). Similarly, Indian authors today have been exploring the literary possibilities in Hindu mythology and epics; I’ve particularly enjoyed reading Amish’s Shiva Trilogy and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s women-centric retellings, like Palace of Illusions.

However, the more I learn about South Asian history and literature, the more I’ve come to realize that this isn’t just a modern phenomenon. People have been playing with mythology and sacred narratives, emphasizing different aspects, changing up the settings, and adding totally new details and characters, for as long as these narratives have existed! This may seem obvious to everyone else, but it’s been quite a revelation to me. I want to share a wonderful passage from classical Telugu poetry, written around nine hundred years ago, that illustrates this exact phenomenon. But first, some background…

Nanne Choda, a forgotten poet

The poet whose work I want to feature in this post is Nanne Choda; I came across his writing in an anthology of classical Telugu poetry spanning a thousand years, translated by David Shulman (whom I interviewed earlier this summer) and Velcheru Narayana Rao.

Very little is known about Nanne Choda; in fact, his poetry had been lost to history until one of his works was discovered and re-published in the early 1900s by the scholar Manavalli Ramakrishna Kavi (1866-1957). Ramakrishna Kavi claimed that Nanne Choda actually lived before Nannaya, who is generally believed to be the first Telugu poet. While Shulman and Rao acknowledge that “there is an archaic quality to his verses,” they tentatively place Nanne Choda in the twelfth century AD, a century after Nannaya.

He seems to have been the ruler of a small kingdom called Orayuru, which some people associate with the city of Tiruchirappalli in the center of Tamil Nadu. Modern Telugu poets have given Nanne Choda the title of Kavi-raja Shikha-mani (“Crest-Jewel of the King of Poets”), but Shulman and Rao write that “his book seems to have disappeared from the horizon of literary discourse already in medieval times; later poets never mention him.”

The Birth of Kumara

The only surviving work of Nanne Choda is his epic poem Kumara-sambhava, “The Birth of Kumara.” Kumara (also called Skanda, Murugan, Kartikeya, Subramanya) is the son of Shiva and Parvati, and younger brother to Ganesha; he is the god in the Hindu pantheon who symbolizes courage and valor. “The Birth of Kumara” is about the intricate sequence of events that led to Kumara’s birth.

In composing his Telugu narrative of Kumara’s birth, Nanne Choda seems to have taken inspiration from the much more well-known Sanskrit Kumara-sambhava that was composed by the legendary poet Kalidasa (fifth century AD) around seven hundred years prior. Kalidasa’s Kumara-sambhava is considered by some to be “the greatest long poem in classical Sanskrit, by the greatest poet of the language.” Although I don’t think Nanne Choda’s work has been given such hyperbolic praise, hopefully the following selection will surprise you in a number of ways.

Continue reading “A Conversation Between Desire and Delight: the Poetry of Nanne Choda”

From Gokul to Lahore: Krishna through the eyes of an Urdu poet

Edit 8/31/2017: I’m extremely excited to say that an abridged version of this article has been published in the online edition of Dawn, one of Pakistan’s largest and most-reputed newspapers! You can read the article here.

This year, Pakistan’s 70th Independence Day and Janmashtami (the Hindu festival celebrating Krishna’s birth) fell on the same day: August 14th. With that coincidence in mind, I want to share a very unique Urdu poem: “Krishn Kanhaiya.”

This nazm is by Hafeez Jalandhari (1900–1982), an Urdu poet who is most well-known for composing the lyrics to Pakistan’s national anthem, the Qaumi Taranah. Born in the Punjabi city of Jalandhar (now in India), he moved to Lahore (now in Pakistan) following India and Pakistan’s independence and Partition in 1947.

As its title suggests, “Krishn Kanhaiya” is a poem about the Hindu god Krishna. Today, the mere idea of a Muslim poet writing about a Hindu deity raises all sorts of emotions among different groups in South Asia: surprise, joy, curiosity, suspicion, anger. However, there is much more depth to “Krishn Kanhaiya” than meets the eye. This is no ordinary devotional poem. Jalandhari, ever a politically-minded thinker and writer, draws upon the mythology and persona of Krishna in order to produce a poem that is simultaneously devotional and political in nature. It is, in fact, a call to liberate India from British colonial rule. Moreover, this poem, especially when examined in comparison with Jalandhari’s more famous work, the Qaumi Taranah, can tell us a great deal about the cultural politics of South Asia in the 20th century and today.

Setting the scene

Let’s begin with a close reading of “Krishn Kanhaiya.”

In the very first line of the poem, Jalandhari addresses his readers as onlookers (dekhne wālo). Although this may seem trivial, I believe there is a deeper significance to this choice of words. Urdu poetry is usually meant to be heard, not read silently. One popular type of poetry, the ghazal, is sung, while nazms (of which “Krishn Kanhaiya” is one) are usually recited. Yet, Jalandhari chooses dekhne wālo, “those who look,” to characterize the consumer of this poem.

Could Jalandhari’s choice of words be referring to the importance Hinduism gives to seeing God? I don’t think it would be inaccurate to describe Hinduism as a religion which, among the fives senses, gives primacy to sight as a way of connecting to the Divine. The central act of devotion when one goes to a Hindu temple is darshan: gazing upon the decorated image of the deity. And, of course, the incredibly intricate and symbolic iconography of Hindu gods and goddesses suggests the importance of saguna brahman, God With a Form. By addressing the readers of the poem as “onlookers” instead of “listeners” or “readers,” Jalandhari might be encouraging them to engage in an act of darshan in their mind. As they read or hear the poem, he encourages them to also visualize Krishna in their minds.

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The moment of darshan, when the devotee makes eye contact with the deity.

Continue reading “From Gokul to Lahore: Krishna through the eyes of an Urdu poet”

“Blink, and there he was…”

This school year, I’ve been taking Persian to fulfill my college’s language requirement, and (unsurprisingly) it’s been my favorite class all year! I’m working on a longer post on the connections I’ve made and some of the mini-revelations I’ve had while learning Persian, but for now I just want to share some verses of Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273) rendered as a qawwali by the legendary brothers, Fareed Ayaz & Abu Muhammad (who have been featured on this blog before). To my surprise, with just a few months of learning Persian I can recognize quite a few words and make sense of some of the sentences, even though they were composed around eight centuries ago! The video description informed me that “Ayyaar” means “vagabond” in Persian, and love is often described in this idiom in Persian Sufi poetry.

Here are a few verses with translation (please correct me if I made any mistakes). Enjoy!

هر لحظه به شكلي بت عيار بر آمد, دل برد و نهان شد
هر دم به لباس دگر آن يار بر آمد , گه پير و جوان شد

Har lehza ba shakal-aan but-e-ayyaar bar-aamad, dil burd-o-nihaan shud
Har dam ba libaas-e digar-aan yaar bar-aamad, geh peer-o-javaan shud

Blink, and there he was in a different form – that sly Beloved! He stole the hearts of the people, and hid from view.
Every time he came out in a different garb. Sometimes he was young, and sometimes he was old.

خود کوزہ و خود کوزہ گر و خود گلِ کوزہ, خود رندِ سبو کش
خود بر سرِ آں کوزہ خریدار برآمد, بشکست رواں شد

Khud kuza-o, khud kuzagar-o khud gil-e-kuza, khud rind-e-subu kash
Khud bar sar-e-aan kuza kharidaar bar-aamad, ba shikast o ravaan shud

He is the wine flask, he is its maker, and he is the clay used to make it.
He was the drunk who bought that flask. He himself drained it, broke it, and moved on.