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|Vidyapati Thakur is one of the most renowned
of the Vaishnava poets of Hindustan. Before him there had been the great Jayadeva, with
his Gita Govinda made in Sanskrit; and it is to this tradition Vidyapati belongs,
rather than to that of Ramananda, Kabir, and Tulasi Das, who sang of Rama and Sita.
Vidyapatis fame, though he also wrote in Sanskrit, depends upon the wreath of songs
(pada) in which he describes the courtship of God and the Soul, under the names of
Krishna and Radha. These were written in Maithili, his mother-tongue, a dialect
intermediate between Bengali and Hindi, but nearer to the former. His position as a poet
and maker of language is analogous to that of Dante in Italy and Chaucer in England. He
did not disdain to use the folk-speech and folk-thought for the epxression of the highest
matters. Just as Dante was blamed by the classical scholars of Italy, so Vidyapati was
blamed by the pandits: he knew better, however, than they, and has well earned the title
of Father of Bengali Literature.
Vidyapatis Vaishnava padas are at once folk and cultivated artjust like the finest of the Pahari paintings, where every episode of which he sings find exquisite illustration. The poems are not, like many ballads, of unknown authorship and perhaps the work of many hands, but they are due to the folk in the sense that folk-life is glorified and popular thought is reflected. The songs as we have them are entirely the work of one supreme genius; but this genius did not stand alone, as that of modern poets muston the contrary, its roots lay deep in the common life of fields and villages, and above all, in common faiths and superstitions. These were days when peasants yet spoke as elegantly as courtiers, and kings and cultivators shared one faith and a common view of lifeconditions where all things are possible to art.
It is little wonder that Vidyapatis influence on the literature of Eastern Hindustan has been profound, and that his songs became the household poetry of Bengal and Bihar. His poems were adopted and constantly sung by the great Hindu lover, Chaitanya, in the sixteenth century, and they have been adapted and handed down in many dialects, above al in Bengali, in the Vaishnava tradition, of which the last representative is Rabindranath Tagore. A poem by the latter well resumes and explains the theory of the Vaishnava lover:
Not my way of Slvation, to surrender the world!
Rather for me the taste of Infinite Freedom,
While yet I am bound by a thousand bonds to the wheel:
In each glory of sound and sight and smell
I shall find Thy Infinite Joy abiding:
My passion shall burn as the flame of Salvation,
The flower of my love shall become the ripe fruit of Devotion.
This leads us to the subject of the true significance of poems such as Vidyapatis. It is quite true, as Mr. Nicholson says, that students of oriental poetry have sometimes to ask themselves, `Is this a love-poem disguised as a mystical ode, or a mystical ode expressed in the language of human love? Very often this question cannot be answered with a definite `Yes or `No: not because the poets meaning is vague, but because the two ideas are not at all mutually exclusive. All the manifestations of Kama on earth are images of Pursuit or Return.
As Vidyapati himself says (No.63):
The same flower that you cast away, the same you use in prayer,
And with the same you string the bow.
It is quite certain that many poems of Vidyapati have an almost wholly spiritual significance. If some others seem very obviously secular, let us remember that we have no right to detach such poems from their context in books and still less any right to divorce them from their context in life.
It should not be forgotten that Vidyapatis songs, like those of all the Vaishnava poets-from Jayadeva to Rabindranath Tagore-were meant to be sung; and as the latter says himself, "In book of songs the main thing is left out: to set forth the musics vehicle, and leave out the music itself, is just like keeping the mouse and leaving out Ganapati himself (Jiban-smrti, p.148). The padas of Vidyapati may still be heart on the lips of Bengali singers, albeit often in corrupt form.
Copyright IGNCAŠ 1999