IN THE EARLY 1760s, Nainsukh of Guler, the great master of the Pahari qalam, painted a time machine. The Philadelphia Museum of Art catalogues it as The Poet Bihari Offers Homage to Radha and Krishna. Once a manuscript folio, to be held and viewed by a royal patron rather than mounted on a wall, this isolated page now rests in a reserve collection far from the hills where it originated. Rendered in opaque watercolour, gold, and silver-coloured paint on paper, Nainsukh’s painting presents us with a heightened moment of encounter. The morning sun gilds everything it touches, including a verdant vista, the marble railings of a palace terrace, and a canopy below which, on a jewelled throne, sit Krishna and Radha. Regal divinities, these figures radiate idealised youth. They and their female attendants are denizens of eternity. But who is the man who approaches them with his hands folded reverently, dressed in a plain white jama, with a striped cloth satchel under his arm, a basta containing a scribe’s writing implements? His attitude, as he looks towards Radha and Krishna, is that of rapture. As they look back at him, we witness the interlocking of gazes that defines darshan, the beatific communion between worshipper and Divine.
This pilgrim traversing the vagaries of time, vulnerability and mortality, is Bihari, the author of the doha (two-line verse) inscribed in gold on the painting’s top margin: ‘Meri bhava- baadhaa harau Radha naagari soi/ Jaa tan ki jhaai paren syaam harit duti hoi’. The invocation opens his masterpiece, the Satasai, a sequence of 713 two-line verses composed in Brajbhasha in the early 17th century: ‘Save me from the obstacle course of this world, Radha/ You whose golden body, reflected in Krishna’s, turns his blue to sap-rich green.’
Bihari may have travelled back into the universe of mythic time, but he hasn’t had much luck travelling forward into our vexed, brutish, polarised present. Although he has been dutifully annotated and translated, no one wants particularly to claim him in the visceral plenitude of his art, as richly veined with the sensuous as it is with the devotional. Nor is anyone over-eager to reclaim his contemporaries in what was known as the kavikul, the ‘family of poets’: Keshavdas, Ghananand, Rahim, Maharaja Jaswant Singh, Aurangzeb’s son Azam Shah, and numerous other representatives of the Riti-Kaal, that splendid efflorescence of Brajbhasha poetry between the 17th and 19th centuries.
Trained in the sophistication of Sanskrit poetics, at home in Persian, and attached to Mughal, Rajput or regional courts, they nonetheless chose to compose in the robust demotic spoken in the Braj-mandala, the Vrindavan-Mathura belt. The Brajbhasha that they turned into a literary language was, in the words of the 18th-century Riti-Kaal theorist Bhikharidas, beautifully interwoven with Sanskrit and Persian. While engaging with these canonical elite languages, the Riti-Kaal poets revelled in a dazzling experimentalism that cut across them, imbued them with the tenderness of a home language.
The ‘Krishna’ of formal discourse became, in their poems, the ‘Kanha’ or even the ‘Kanhaiya’ of folktale, fable, and the lover’s song. As the Hindi literary historian Rupert Snell observes, poets like Bihari did not simply express the diversity of their experience, but also exemplified it, transiting across Sanskritic, demotic and Persianate usage in the space of such a line as ‘pratibimbit lakhiyatu jahaan’. Sacred and secular, bhakti and sringara—devotion and the erotic—flow together in the choreography of these poets. Aware of their mandate as rebels, they often used the self-deprecating yet confidently playful phrase ‘apani mati anusaara’ (‘according to our own understanding’).
Instead of being celebrated, Riti-Kaal poets such as Bihari were consigned to irrelevance during that intellectually formative near-century between 1857 and 1947
Instead of being celebrated as part of modern India’s cultural heritage, the Riti-Kaal poets were consigned to irrelevance during that intellectually formative near-century between 1857 and 1947, when the machines of modernity whirred to life. Where they have survived in public memory, they appear embalmed in the piety of bhakti, presented as saints or sages, with the sap of sringara carefully removed.
As Allison Busch tells the tale in her superb Poetry of Kings (2011), Riti-Kaal poets fell victim to the shifts in ideology and literary taste that took place after the suppression of the Great Uprising of 1857 and the formal establishment of Western educational systems and cultural canons as templates of ‘progress’. With the collapse of the Mughal-Rajput order, Riti literature lost its patrons. An emergent generation of reformist, nationalist and self-avowedly progressive Indians regarded that order with suspicion, as having been effete. The arts associated with it were correspondingly stigmatised. Since British pedagogy emphasised Protestant virtues on one hand and exalted Romanticism on the other, naturalism and the expression of personal sentiment were set up as standards to be prized.
Using these touchstones, seminal modernisers of Hindi like the literary historians Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi and Ramachandra Shukla deplored the Riti-Kaal, identifying it with samantvaad (feudalism) and pejorating it as ‘patan-onmukh’ (decadent). Brajbhasha itself stood condemned for its mellifluousness and grammatical fluidity. While disowning its roots in Urdu, 20th- century official Hindi also disowned its roots in Brajbhasha. Both languages were displaced by a Sanskritised Khari Boli, regarded as the proper base for a new, muscular, nationalist Hindi. By the 1950s, Hindi writers across the spectrum from conservative through liberal to Leftist had rejected the Riti-Kaal as a source of potential inspiration.
What we have lost, in rejecting the Riti-Kaal, is the memory of an extraordinarily confluential period, a precolonial modernity in which individuals collaborated to produce culture across caste, status, region and religion. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, India was distinguished by festive polyglot expression, a far cry from the coarse linguistic antagonism that afflicts the country today.
The Riti-Kaal poets flourished in a public sphere where people wrote in Persian, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi and Urdu. Some of them lived and wrote far from the Braj-mandala, in Rajasthan or the Deccan. Mumbai’s Bhaiyya-bashing nativists might be shocked to learn that Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj had a Braj court poet, Bhushan Tripathi, author of the paean Shivraj-Bhushan (‘Ornament to King Shivaji’, 1673).
While Mughal patronage has been strongly identified with Persian and Sanskrit, the dynasty also supported Brajbhasha. Many Mughal princes and aristocrats wrote in Braj, including Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khanan, son of Akbar’s regent Bairam Khan and an exalted member of his court, whose dohas in praise of Rama are recited to this day. In a succeeding generation, Kavindra Sarasvati dedicated a poem to Shah Jahan, praising him as an ecumenical savant: ‘Kurana Purana jaane, Vedani ke bheda jaane’ (‘He knows the Qur’an and the Puranas, the secret of the Vedas’).
As David Lunn and Katherine Butler Schofield show in their chapter in the recent anthology, Monsoon Feelings: A History of Emotions in the Rain (2018), Shah Jahan’s 18th-century descendant, Shah Alam II, wrote poetry in Persian, Urdu and Brajbhasha. Precariously perched on a sinking throne, blinded by a brigand, Shah Alam II took poignant delight in the thundering, torrential downpour, and its erotic associations: ‘Barsai sarsai ghanaghor ghataa tarsai pi dekhan ko ab nain hamaare.’
All this seems like fiction in our world of lethal binaries. Tragically, our yearning for some pure Indic essence has led us to ignore the actuality of a confluential culture that had been sustained for centuries—with stresses and strains, to be sure, but also with a substantial measure of dialogue and synergy. Tragically, too, we have based our modernity on ideas generated by European Romanticism, among them the dogmas of a self-consistent nation and of an authenticity guaranteed by a singular ‘mother tongue’ (a term that did not exist in any South Asian language before the colonial encounter, as Sheldon Pollock points out, given the multiple first-language abilities of many South Asians). In pursuing these phantoms, we have not only produced strife between languages, but also enacted violence within our languages, killing the sumptuous hybridity that nourished us in favour of arid monolingualism.