The fascination with our Indian inherited legends and myths had led Malashri Lal and Namita Gokhale to edit a book a few years ago called In Search of Sita: Revisiting Mythology wherein they collected different accounts of Sita that coexist in myth, literature and folktale. Sita is one of the defining figures of Indian womanhood, yet there is no single version of her story. In a similar manner the editors have now come up with another anthology on Radha, the mysterious woman who defies all conventional codes yet transcends social prohibitions through the power of the spiritual and the sensual, the sacred and the erotic. Finding Radha is the first of its kind: a collection of poetry, prose and translation that enters the historical as well as the artistic dimensions of the eternal romance of Radha and Krishna.
Comprising twenty-four sections/chapters, which are mind-boggling in their diversity, the anthology attempts to address the basic enigmatic question as to who Radha was and how she has captured the imagination of so many writers across centuries. No other goddess combines the elements of bhakti and shringara quite as exquisitely as the divine milkmaid. She spans a vivid rainbow of imagery—from the playfulness of the Raas Leela to the soulfulness of her undying love, from the mystic allure of her depictions in poetry, art and sculpture to her enduring legacy in Vrindavana. In a way that sets her apart from other female consorts, Radha is idealized and dreamed of in a way that is almost more elemental than mythical. Yet across India Radha has always been Krishna’s beloved and never his wife. They represent the great lovers who were destined never to unite. The different sections in this volume therefore include creative interpretations, translations and a few essays that enter the religious, mythic, historical, social and cultural dimensions around the figures of Radha and Krishna.
This anthology interestingly begins with two separate introductions offered by the two editors, which is usually not the norm. Namita Gokhale begins her section with a personal question, ‘How did Radha come to me?’ and herself answers that probably she came when she was roaming the narrow lanes of Vrindavan in search of these elusive mysteries. She realized that Radha is an all-too-human goddess, a sublime yet sensual emblem of mortal and divine love. She is subversive in that she possesses autonomy rarely available to feminine deities. She is her own mistress even in the act of surrender to her beloved. Gokhale further believes that the rebellious figure of Radha was born of the ahistorical collective consciousness of religion and culture.
The other editor Malashri Lal explains that from Puranic literature to contemporary times, writers, painters, musicians and dancers have interpreted the legend of Radha-Krishna in multiple configurations and through a range of philosophies that straddle earthly realism as well as ephemeral abstractions. But Radha, she eludes the grasp, preferring to stay mysteriously out of reach, making possible another attempt and yet another. Hence in this book they encouraged scholars and writers to present reconstructions of Radha’s story. Poised at the cusp of the human and the divine, Radha is said to be an elder relative to whom the mischievous baby Krishna is entrusted. The games children play in innocence and whimsy turn gradually into a love game transcending the taboos of earthly rules. Was Radha a married woman breaking out of marital restrictions, or like Meera, Andal and Lal Ded, was she a mystical seeker of a perfect relationship? Some of these answers are sought through the multifarious perspectives that the different contributors offer.
Several authors in this book have pointed out the dominant image of Radha derived from Jayadeva. The real credit for bringing Radha into the mainstream of devotional poetry goes to him and his immortal Gita Govinda composed in the 12th century. According to Jawhar Sircar, though Jayadeva mixed his Sanskrit with Apabhramsa, an Eastern sublanguage, Brahminical tradition not only accepted him and his Radha-Krishna, but several learned Sanskrit commentaries were actually written on Jayadeva’s work. According to Pavan K Verma the canvas of the Radha-Krishna love was ‘seamless, a painting which amplified and mutated itself in a myriad of reflections.’ This leads to the further issue of whether Radha’s love is bounded by earthly conditions or whether it transcends them to reach another supernatural realm. Makarand Paranjape’s essay tracks the ‘rise and fall of Radha’ in sacred literature showing that ‘from the 13th to the 17th centuries what the Radha-Krishna relationship represented was love that was simultaneously intensely erotic and devotional.’ Paranjape even creates a hypothetical conversation between Radha and Mahatma Gandhi on the meaning of love, sexuality and desire. An interesting essay by Yudit Greenberg compares the Gita Govinda with Shir Ha-Shirim (Song of Songs), comprising one of Hebrew Bible’s twenty-four books portraying the sensuous love between a shepherdess and a shepherd in the land of Israel.
Kapila Vatsyayan’s corpus of writing traces four centuries of the pictorial journey of Gita Govinda. Here a selection from the Darbhanga Gita Govinda is reprinted which introduces the entire tradition of pictorial representation in Rajasthani miniatures and captures the ecological harmony that surrounds the evocations of Radha’s love. Vatsyayan looks especially for the symbolism surrounding the lovers, namely bowers, garlands, bees, cuckoos and peacocks. Several short stories like Debotri Dhar’s ‘A Flute Called Radha’, Indira Goswami’s ‘The Blue-necked God’, and Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay’s ‘Raikamal’ are also included in this anthology.
Alka Kurian’s essay establishes the synchronicity of Radha with the times by giving examples from adaptations of Radha’s legend through Bollywood plots and music. Films like Mughal-e-Azam, Sangam, Lagaan and many others all present an unveiling of societal values when these films were popular. The filmmaker Madhureeta Anand looks for the legacy of Radha among the widows of Vrindavana, many of who now receive help from philanthropic organizations. Renuka Narayanan opens up the less-researched subject of Radha in the literature of South India, and in the article ‘Understanding Radha’s Symbolic Love’, Shubha Vilas focuses on the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition. Other contributors like Devdutt Pattanaik, Meghnad Desai, Bulbul Sharma, Srivatsa Goswami, Harsha V Dehejia, Reba Som, Lalit Kumar and Mandakranta Bose all add to the different perspectives through which Radha can be approached.
The songs of Radha, translated from various regional languages and done by different hands, speak of the plurality of our Indian culture and add to the richness of her enigma. The reader is delighted to read about Radha in the songs of Kazi Nazrul Islam, Rabindranath Tagore in Bhanusingher Padavali, Vidya, Andal, Jayadeva, Vidyapati, Narsinh Mehta, Chandidas, Surdas, Rupa Goswami, Bihari and Subrahmanya Bharathiyar, all translated by different scholars. The anthology ends with two long poems, namely selections from ‘Sri Radha’ by Ramakanta Rath and ‘Kanupriya’ by Dharamvir Bharati (translated from the Hindi by Alok Bhalla) as a fitting finale.
To conclude it will not be overemphasizing to state that the figures of Radha and Krishna in this anthology reiterate the different ways in which Radha touches the heart of every Indian as a living legend even today. After becoming a goddess in her own right, we find that without her Krishna is incomplete.
Somdatta Mandal is Professor of English at Visva-Bharti University, Santiniketan.