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

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.

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”

Imagining white gods: colorism in Hindu art

It’s no secret that light skin is favored over dark skin throughout the Indian subcontinent, an attitude that is found in many other societies and is generally referred to as colorism or shadeism:

“Everyday media culture in India … consistently marginalizes dark-skinned Indians, especially dark-skinned women. Matrimonial classified advertisements in Indian newspapers specify routinely that prospective grooms prefer women with ‘‘fair’’ or ‘‘wheatish’’ complexions. A majority of the Indian female actors in Bollywood are light-skinned women, and the few dark-skinned women actors who have overcome the restrictive norms of skin color wear thick make-up to conceal their dark facial skin.

Interweaving colorism into a seamless package of physical attributes, the faces of Indian models in advertisements are almost universally light-skinned with smooth complexions, shining black hair, and slim bodies. The most lucrative products in the Indian cosmetics sector since 1998, a decade after India’s initial incorporation into the global economy, are chemical and herbal products that promise to reduce darkness and preserve light skin by preventing further tanning.”

Colorism in India doesn’t just exist in the realm of cosmetics and modeling; it finds a stronghold in religion as well, which makes understanding it even more complicated. One of my earliest posts on this blog talked about how the popular Western depiction of Jesus Christ as a white man has actually had some pretty serious consequences. In this post, I’m going to touch on some questions that are much closer to home:

  • Can colorism in the Indian subcontinent be attributed to British colonialism alone, or are there much older causes?
  • How has colorism influenced popular depictions of Hindu deities?
  • What are the social implications of depicting Hindu deities with extremely fair skin?
  • Are colorist attitudes beginning to change among Hindus, and among all South Asians in general?

Origins of colorism in South Asia

I think it makes a lot of sense to imagine a connection between British colonialism in India and colorism in South Asia today. However, all the explanations for colorism that I’ve come across make it very clear that colonialism did not introduce notions of colorism into South Asia; rather, it significantly strengthened pre-existing attitudes. So, where did these pre-colonial attitudes come from?

Devdutt Pattanaik, a popular writer on Hindu mythology, asks the same question: “Wherefrom comes this love for gori-chitti [light-skinned] complexion, this desire for fair brides in matrimonial [advertisements]? People say it is the hangover of our Aryan past -– that the nomadic tribes who came from the [northwest] held the dark-skinned settled communities of the subcontinent in disdain. Aryan gods like Indra were white.

But this white supremacist flavor does not hold firm in the face of other evidence. Some say Shiva was a Dravidian god, a god of the settled communities –- but he is described as Karpura-Goranga, he who is as fair as camphor. Some say that Vishnu and Ram are gods of the Aryan imperialists –- but both are described as dark. This theory of Aryan invasion, with roots in 19th-century racial theory, seems too simplistic and rather pedestrian to modern scholars despite its great popularity…”

If the origins of colorism can’t be adequately explained by the Aryan invasion theory, where else should we look? Radhika Parameswaran, a professor at Indiana University’s Media School, attributes colorism to perceptions about caste status:

“The castes that are not connected to manual labor outdoors tend to have higher status and prestige according to social norms. Lighter skin color is viewed as a status symbol for the middle and upper castes, who did not have to do manual labor.

From a historical and anthropological point of view, the relationship between caste and skin color is murky. There is no established causal relationship or even correlation between skin color and caste. But here’s what I will tell you, there is a strong perception that skin color and caste are linked and as long as that perception lasts, it will matter a great deal. So, I would say there is a widespread and entrenched perception that lighter skin color equals higher caste.” (emphasis mine)

Continue reading “Imagining white gods: colorism in Hindu art”

Approaching God through paradox and wonder: adbhuta rasa

I just listened to a fascinating lecture given by Vasudha Narayanan, an eminent scholar of Hinduism and professor at the University of Florida. Simply looking at the title of her talk, “Paradoxology: The Art of Praising the Deity,” my head started to spin a little, but Prof. Narayanan’s speaking style was so engaging that I was able to keep up (mostly).

The phrase “down-to-earth” definitely doesn’t apply to her topic, however. The subject of Prof. Narayanan’s lecture was the idea of paradox, and how paradox is a fundamental way in which Hindu traditions conceptualize and experience God.

The title of the lecture was actually a sort of esoteric religious studies pun. In Christianity, a doxology is “a liturgical formula of praise to God”. Paradoxology, therefore, would imply looking at how paradox is involved in doxologies, (of course, Prof. Narayanan explores this in a Hindu context). Just to be clear, I’m going to provide a couple definitions of “paradox”, because it’s a really tricky word (please let me know if I’m not using it properly…):

  • a statement or proposition that, despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory.
  • a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true.
  • a situation, person, or thing that combines contradictory features or qualities.

Paradoxes can be found in devotional poetry and mythological stories from many different Hindu traditions. Off the top of my head, I realized that paradox is a big part of Rudram, a selection of verses from the Yajur Veda that describe the god Rudra (precursor/an aspect of Shiva) through an astonishing variety of epithets, basically saying that Rudra is present throughout the universe, in nature, in all beings, etc. So, there are verses like “Salutations to Him who is elder and to Him who is younger; Salutations to Him who is born before and to Him who is born after” (6.1.1-2). I’m actually currently working on a post about the poetry of Rudram, so stay tuned for that.

In Prof. Narayanan’s lecture, however, she was talking about the Sri Vaishnava tradition in South India, which worships Vishnu and his incarnations, especially Krishna. In many Sri Vaishnava poems, for example, paradoxical statements are used to describe Vishnu: “You are nectar and poison; death and immortality.” There are countless popular mythological stories about the life of Krishna that are also quite paradoxical and mind-boggling.

One story that Prof. Narayanan relates is one that I remember hearing as a little kid; it’s one of the more popular stories about the young Krishna. In fact, it’s so popular that Yann Martel wrote about it in Life of Pi (one of my favorite books):

Continue reading “Approaching God through paradox and wonder: adbhuta rasa”

“Lost”: A poem by Surdas

Lost, lost, lost to Mohan’s captivating image!
 Lost to his earrings,
  lost to his eyes so vast,
Lost to his eyebrows, lost to his splendid forehead mark,
 lost to Murali, his flute,
  lost to her fluid sound,
Lost to the locks of his hair, lost to his splendid turban,
 lost to his cheeks,
  lost to the wildflower garland on his chest,
Lost to the vision that captivated Brahma and the gods,
 lost to the shawl on the shoulders
  of that lovely Mountain-Lifter,
Lost to those arms, around the necks of his friends:
 lost to the way that beautiful Shyam
  walks with his clan,
Lost to the yellow cloth he’s cinched around his thighs—
 Surdas says, I’m lost to Madan Gopal,
  that intoxicating cowherd lad.

bali bali bali mohana mUrati kI bali kuNDala bali naina bisAla, by the sixteenth-century bhakti poet Surdas, who wrote in Braj Bhasha

Source: Surdas, and John Stratton Hawley. The Memory of Love: Surdas Sings to Krishna. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Kalinga Narthana Thillana: an experiment in rhythm and language

I’ve written about thillanas before–they’re a type of Carnatic composition, usually performed as upbeat, fast-paced pieces near the end of a concert or dance performance. There’s something very playful and energetic about this thillana, and I’ve been listening to it many, many times in the past few days. It’s a great example of the rhythmic complexity of Carnatic music.

“Kalinga narthana” literally means “Kalinga dance” in Sanskrit, and it refers to a popular mythological story in which the god Krishna, as a young boy, danced on the serpent Kaliya (aka Kalinga) to stop him from poisoning the Yamuna river. You can read more about it here.

From a very informative introduction given by Dr. U. R. Giridharan:

“Oothukadu Venkata Subbaiyer (popularly known as Oothukadu Venkata Kavi) was born in the early 18th century in the village of Oothukadu, in the Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu. He was a devotee of Lord Krishna, and is believed to have composed over 400 compositions on Him. His compositions are known for his unpretentious, candid devotion and humility, at the same time showcasing his great skill and erudition in handling the language of the lyrics (whether Sanskrit or Tamil) and his deft use of music to suit the mood and rhythm he had chosen.

The Kalinga Narthana thillana describes the dance of the young Krishna on the hoods of the serpent Kaliya (also called Kalinga). A thillana contains many rhythmic words and intricate sequences that are fused with repetitive musical notes. It is similar to the Hindustani tarana.

Oothukadu Venkata Kavi had even set the singing style in such a way that, at one place, a particular word is enunciated to resemble the hissing sound made by the great serpent. He has liberally used gati-bhedam, that is change of rhythm, something that very few major Carnatic composers have done before or since. Jatis [rhythmic syllables] and lyrics intermingle, thereby giving a dramatic and striking effect of the rapid and cadenced foot movements and adroit swings of the dancing Lord.

This song was first brought to life during the last century by the famous Harikatha exponent, the late Brahmasri Needamangalam Krishnamurthy Bhagavathar. Though essentially suitable for classical dance performances and Harikatha, of late many singers of Carnatic music have started singing this composition in their concerts, captivated by the charm of the rhythm and style of this thillana.”

Here’s Aruna Sairam’s rendition of the Kalinga Narthana thillana.

Continue reading “Kalinga Narthana Thillana: an experiment in rhythm and language”

A qawwali group sings about Krishna

From Wikipedia: “Qawwali is a form of Sufi devotional music popular throughout North India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. It is a musical tradition that stretches back for more than 700 years. Delhi’s Sufi saint Amir Khusro Dehlavi of the Chisti order of Sufis is credited with fusing the Persian, Arabic, Turkish, and Indian musical traditions to create Qawwali as we know it today in the late 13th century in India.

The word Sama is often still used in Central Asia and Turkey to refer to forms very similar to Qawwali, and in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the formal name used for a session of Qawwali is Mehfil-e-Sama. The poetry is implicitly understood to be spiritual in its meaning, even though the lyrics can sometimes sound wildly secular, or outright hedonistic. The central themes of qawwali are love, devotion and longing (of man for the Divine).”

Although qawwali is seen as a fundamentally Muslim musical tradition, the history of Sufism in South Asia is defined by its syncretism and interaction with Indian traditions. Even today, qawwali is just as popular with Hindus as it is with Muslims.

The song I want to highlight in this post is sung by Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad’s amazing qawwali group from Karachi, Pakistan. I had the opportunity to see them perform in Seattle last September the day before I left for Chicago, and it was an unforgettable experience.

Interestingly, this Hindi bhajan is addressed to the Hindu god Krishna, who is also called Kanhaiya. “The last verse evokes the Sufi idea of the stages of descent of God into form, the movement from One to many. The poetic image has the woman saying ruefully that she was better off single, instead of suffering the pain of separation from Krishna, now that they are ‘two.'” It may have been composed by Nawab Sadiq Jung Hilm of Hyderabad.

Continue reading “A qawwali group sings about Krishna”