The volume under review is the latest addition in a series of publications that followed in the wake of Sheldon Pollock’s ambitious millennium-by-millennium paradigm for the study of literary cultures in the pre-modern South Asia. This is a collection of twenty-one essays of varied length and uneven research density classified under four different heads and prefaced by an Introduction written by Tyler Williams and Anshu Malhotra. Almost fifty percent of the contributions come from scholars based in North American universities. The rest are drawn from India, England, Japan, and European continent.
Interestingly, the time span covered by the contributions under the rubric of the ‘early modern’ period is thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries. However, the larger number of the articles concerns the later half of that period. The introduction focuses chiefly on ‘connection and exchange’ in differing contexts: across spaces, themes and genres as well as between languages, literary cultures, and religio-philosophical traditions. This goes well with the editors’ understanding of the ‘early modern period’, following Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s formulation, as a period of ‘increased contact among different peoples and across greater and greater distances’(p. xxvi). The mandatory stock-taking of the existing historiography is mostly descriptive and assimilative. The section on the ‘Vernacular History’ within the Introduction is probably more contentious. It posits a contrast between the ‘texture’-based approach to read history in the vernacular traditions (Rao, Shulman, Subrahmanyam) and the postmodernist approach that points to indispensability of the rhetorical even in what ostensibly is only factual (Hayden White).
In many ways, the opening section (Between Cosmopolitan and Bhåœå) is the strongest. Imre Bangha, in the very first chapter, makes a powerful argument to the effect that what we today call Hindi literature actually emerged from the trans-regional literary idiom of Maru-Gurjar that flourished between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries in Gujarat and Rajasthan.The author’s forays into comparative linguistic analysis helps demonstrate links in verb endings as well as lexical continuities between Maru-Gurjar on the one hand and Hindi on the other with ‘madhyadesi’ in between. However, Bangha is aware of the danger in forging any linear evolution approach or pursuing the elusive question of ‘origin’ of Hindi. As he notes, these are primarily questions of nomenclature. ‘If one goes beyond them, one can see the continuous development of vernacular literary idioms through geographic expansion and regionalization, beginning in the twelfth century’ (p. 24).
Arthur Dudney’s crisp essay entitled ‘Urdu as Persian: Some Eighteenth-Century Evidence on Vernacular Poetry as Language Planning’ is eloquently composed. It is anchored in a rich empirical study of the Persian and the Urdu literary traditions of Delhi in engagement with each other as well as in relation to the rekhta literature of the Deccan. While the link between Persian and Urdu hardly needs to be laboured, Dudney nuances this relationship and demonstrates the element of wilful critical thinking on the part of poet-scholars like Arzu, Sauda and others during the three decades in the middle of the eighteenth century.
Equally fascinating is Luther Obrock’s chapter on ‘Muslim Mahåkåvyas’ that explores three Sanskrit texts of the Sultanate period composed in Muslim courts: Kathåkautuka, Råjavinoda, and Sulai-måccarita. As the author points out, ‘the very existence of these texts does much to break down simple and pernicious binaries of religious community, defining historiographical periodicization(sic) or clearly demarcated boundaries of literary cultures, yet they do much more’ (p. 70). These texts, Obrock claims, ‘make room for the Islamicate within the structures and expectations of the Sanskritic, while actively presenting Sanskrit as a viable medium for elite Sultanate texts’. Thus the idea of translation is deployed to study them. One may ask if the category of translation (even if it goes beyond ‘the simple search for word-for-word equivalence’) does not already presume the ‘pernicious binaries of religious community’ defining historiographic boundaries even as the conditions for transgressing those boundaries are also created. Yet the author’s point about the need to ‘capture some of the complexity and depth involved in the cultural negotiations of pre-Mughal South Asia’ can hardly be over-emphasized (p. 72; emphasis added).
The other two papers of the first section, those by Samuel Wright and Tyler Williams also concern links and transactions between Sanskrit and the vernacular. Wright’s analysis of Rådhåmohan Thakkur’s Mahåbhåvånusåriµð-»ðkå opens up the literary culture of early eighteenth century Bengal to see what happened when vernacular literature of an earlier period (15th-17th century) was subjected thematically to Sanskrit commentary. Rådhåmohan’s focus especially on vernacular songs is remarkable, among other things, because it references systematic manuals of songs (gðta›åstra). It cannot be denied that his efforts would have brought further literary prestige to the genre of vernacular songs. Without illuminating the diachronic context, however, it is somewhat meaningless to assert that in the eighteenth century, ‘for Radhamohan, Sanskrit lexical materials are useful for making sense of vernacular texts as well’. For, such was the case, even when Hemacandra wrote in the twelfth century or when Vi›vanåtha composed his Såhityadarpaµa in the fourteenth. Tyler Williams’ article explores the reverse act of a commentary in Brajbhasha on a Sanskrit text, Vairågya ‹ataka. In the seventeenth century, the genre of vernacular commentary was still new. As Williams points out, Bhagvandas in his vernacular commentary (if one might call Brajabhasha a vernacular) entitled Vairågya V¸nd, explicates the original text of Bhartrihari in detail, ‘transforming that poetic anthology in such a way that it could be used as a religious treatise as well as a literary anthology’ (p. 99). The careful tracing of the circulation of its manuscripts by the author as well as the informed inferences about ways of reading is interesting in itself. It also helps complicate many stereotypes about the presumed relationship, in the dominant historiography, between Sanskrit and other Indic languages.
In the second section on ‘Poetic Genres and Personalities’, this reviewer found two of the essays particularly remarkable from the perspective of purely historiographical novelty. First, Raman Sinha’s piece on ‘Poetry in Ragas and Ragas in Poetry?’, uses a vast temporal and theoretical canvas to explore how poets have (or have not) wilfully deployed a sense of ragas in their poems and songs. Beginning with Bharata’s Nå»ya›åtra and coming up to Tulsidas, Nanak and Mira, this appears to be a very careful and intimate mapping of the recurrence of the musical elements in north Indian poetics. As one can expect in a work of such an expansive chronological reach, the choice of poets and ragas might occasionally appear to be arbitrary. Considering however that historians (like myself) of literary cultures routinely ignore these elements, this is an important wedge that Sinha puts in.
John Cort’s essay in the same section focuses on Digambar Jain Holi songs. Jain ideologues have often been critical of certain forms of celebrating Holi as contravening ‘Jain ethics’. It is understandable then that Jain poets (especially Digambar Jain poets) ‘developed a genre of Holi songs that transformed the elements of Holi into a complex spiritual allegory, and thereby “tamed” the transgressive festival’ (p. 197). The period between seventeenth and nineteenth centuries however, shows that the many ‘Hindu’ Holi songs were also engaged in a process of reframing and taming Holi. Hiroko Nagasaki’s paper on ‘Duality in the Language and Literary Style of Raskhan’s Poetry’ makes the predictable but just plausible point that ‘his works are formed through a meeting of two literary traditions: Sanskrit-inflected bhakti on the one hand and Persian-inflected Sufism on the other’ (p. 169). The quick recourse to this conclusion short-circuits some of the nuances contained in a brief study of the variety of metrical and lexical elements found in the vaishnava poet’s compositions.
The high points of the third section (‘History in Hindi’) are chapters by William Pinch and Allison Busch. These as well as the chapter by Dalpat Rajpurohit, incidentally, include a discussion of Padmakar, the Hindi poet who flourished in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Pinch threads together a riveting narrative about the political careers of Anupgir (aka Himmat Bahadur) and Umraogir Gosain of Bundelkhand, based on a close reading of Man Kavi’s Anøp-Prakå› and Padmakar’s Himmatbahådurvirudåvalð. There could hardly be a better way to demonstrate the significance of early modern (read eighteenth century) Hindi poetry for history. The chapter builds on the author’s earlier work on warrior ascetics but the focus in this case is also on the historical craft of the two poets under consideration. In the process, Pinch raises extremely pertinent questions about some of the issues raised in the Introduction of the volume. Stressing the need to shed ‘Western social-scientific categories and the Enlightenment assumptions’ when one confronts the ‘odd’ incidence of a ‘fighting gosain’, he argues that the latter was hardly an anachronism or abomination. That the poets like Padmakar and Man Kavi were ‘occasionally willing to subordinate questions of historical fact to concerns of genre and politics’ is put in perspective by invoking Hayden White’s idea that the modern historiography is itself complicit in ‘moulding substance to style’ (p. 250). Busch undertakes an intimate literary analysis of Padmakar’s Himmatbahådurvirudåvalð and locates the text within the varied and messy traditions of several literary idioms. The simultaneous attention to nuances of literary expression, that which is linked to past practices as well as that which is historical is remarkable.
Shrivatsa Goswami’s chapter is among the few in the volume that move beyond the archetypal north. It traces the contribution of Gopal Bha»» to the reformulation and textualization of the Chaitanyites’ philosophy and rituals for the new sampradåy that emerged in Vrindavan in the first half of the sixteenth century. Gopal Bhatt’s Bhågavata Sandarbha, a theological treatise and his Haribhaktivilåsa, a manual for living life as per the community’s own moral code are taken up for extended discussion. Written in a simple and direct style, the essay weaves together interesting details about Bhatt (and the Chaitanyites) with the alleged journey (metaphorical and real) of bhakti from south to north. Incidentally, two other texts in this section also concern the Bhatts. Swapna Sharma’s article focuses on Gadådhar Bha»»’s contribution whereas Hawley’s paper traces the contribution of the Telangana Bhatts of Vrindavan over the centuries. Framed in the style of a first person account, Hawley’s essay is loaded with empirical details, raising several important questions on the way about the nature of the historians’ engagements with literary materials as well as about the precise historical background of the Telangana Bhatts.
It is not possible in a review of this nature to comment on every single paper separately. One of the interesting possibilities with a thematic compilation as varied in its temporal and spatial scope as this one is that one gets to reflect on changes across time-line, map the divergent articulations of ideas across varied cultural topography and remark on the rich diversity of approaches from different disciplines. The ‘Introduction’ by two of the editors of the volume, rich in empirical details as it is, missed the opportunity to think through these issues. This is especially unfortunate because the book posits a large span of time (13th to the 15th century) as the early modern period. Many of the valuable insights in the Introduction would have been further nuanced if the editors had noted the differentiated nature of the large swathe of time the chapters of the book engage with. Yet, these quibbles should not distract us from the fact that this is a precious addition to the rapidly expanding corpus of literary studies in the context of early modern north India.
Pankaj Jha teaches in the Department of History, Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi, Delhi.
“The volume under review is the latest addition in a series of publications that followed in the wake of Sheldon Pollock’s ambitious millennium-by-millennium paradigm for the study of literary cultures in pre-modern South Asia.”
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