Innovations and Turning Points: Toward a History of Kavya Literature is a joyous, exuberant and passionate celebration of the Sanskrit language and its most ornate literary form – kavya.
A book of eight hundred pages of essays about kavis and kavya is not something that can be read from end to end in a single sitting. Nor is it a book that one lolls around with. This is a book that demands that you sit upright and concentrate as you marvel at the treasures it contains. Its jewels are often blinding and the reader may want to rest her eyes and her mind before reaching into the chest for another ornament to admire.
In plotting this history of kavya, the editors, as the title states, have chosen to look at turning points in this complex and surprisingly diverse genre, to examine who made a difference and when, to ponder what that difference was and how it affected the trajectory of a living language whose literature grew and responded to historical, political, aesthetic and emotional moments. Coming as they do from a conference of very scholarly birds, the essays are dense and mostly very specific – to particular texts, to sub-genres, to poets.
Traditions – oral, written and Buddhist
A volume so vast can hardly be summed up pithily, so I’ll take a couple of general ideas that caught my fancy and reflect on those. First of all, the book reminds us that there is far more to our literary constructions than the oh-so-fetishised oral tradition. Of course, much early literature was composed, shared and disseminated orally. Much folk literature still is. But in our pride and joy in these spontaneous outbursts of literary grace, we must not overlook the fact that the metric and imagistic complexity of kavya demands that it be composed in writing. It is likely that some shorter verses were composed orally at competitions and festivals, but that should not take us away from the larger idea that, as a culture, we venerate the written word as much as we do the spoken one. We take as much pleasure in reading as we do in listening.
Further, what we know as Hindu literatures are often preceded by Buddhist texts in Sanskrit. For example, Asvaghosa’s Buddhacarita and Saundarananda are as much mahakavyas as Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa, which follows much later. The Lalitavistara Sutra is probably the first of the great prose poems, the gadyas, which were refined by Subandhu and Bana. Bana, (also known as Banabhatta), the court poet of the emperor Harsha, is best known for his Harsacarita (‘The Acts of King Harsha,’ a royal biography) and for Kadambari which is sometimes called the first Indian “novel”. This volume chooses Bana and seventh century Kanauj as a pivotal moment in the development of gadya. These were sprawling narratives written in poetic prose, replete with puns, ornamented speech, sentences that run for a whole page, passages that can be read backwards and forwards, compounds that boggle the mind with their length and complexity. More than that, gadya introduced “new topics (such as everyday poverty) that had been previously considered unpoetic, new metrical patterns and new techniques of connecting individual verses together in extended groups, and a new willingness to use striking phonetic and compositional tools…” (p.234).
One of my favourite essays in the book, “The Nail Mark that Lit the Bedroom” by Yigal Bronner, is in this section. With equal amounts of humour, affection and erudition, Bronner unpacks the particular compound noun from Subandhu’s Vasavadatta that forms the title of the essay, displaying the linguistic tricks of which Sanskrit is capable.
From breezy confidence to humility
The title of this volume calls attention to itself, Toward a History of Kavya Literature. It is a clear indication of the long distance that has been travelled in the scholarship about and historiographies of literature(s). In fact, it brought to my mind a similar volume (also located in the specific scholarly positions at the University of Chicago’s South Asia program), The Literatures of India, edited by Gordon Rodarmel (1974) with essays by such men as J.A.B. van Buitenen, Ed Dimock, C.M. Naim and A.K. Ramanujan, all of whom went on to frame the discourse about literatures in the languages they worked with.
I find the contrast in the titles of these books worth mentioning, the older book so secure in its remit to indicate a canon as it chronicled a history, the newer book (no less star-studded in terms of its contributors), so circumspect about the position it takes in terms of how its contents are presented and how delicately scholars place themselves in relation to that material. The Rodarmel book, too, in its time, was seminal. It challenged some foundational ideas of how we thought about literature by choosing to talk of the “literatures of India”, rather than of “Indian literature”. By using the plural, the book and its contributors forced us to consider that there are many literary inspirations and aspirations in the subcontinent, that Sanskrit was not the only classical (and literary) language worth considering, that the stories we tell and the books we write have, more accurately, many sources. And many ends.
Also worth noting is that the new book, despite its many hundreds of pages (it is almost four times the size of the Rodarmel volume), focuses on one genre of writing from the subcontinent, unlike the older one which breezes through about 2,000 years with confidence and ease. Despite its heft, the editors of the Kavya volume modestly say, “This book, however, is not a history of Sanskrit kavya. We may be generations away from such a work… What we hope to offer is a series of pilot studies, sometimes the first serious interpretive essays on major kavya works…arranged in a rough chronological sequence that highlights structural, stylistic, thematic, and generic breakthroughs.” (p.26)
The joy and love of foreign researchers
The breadth and depth presented by the Kavya volume is simply astounding. Most importantly, Toward a History of Kavya Literature places the ball firmly back in the courts of those who challenge the right of non-Indian scholars to write about Indian literatures and culture. I have not encountered such an intelligent, passionate and erudite collection of essays that treat their material with so much respect. And love. And joy.
This is an exuberant but entirely serious celebration of the Sanskrit language as expressed in its most ornate literary form, kavya. For example, Bronner, when he speaks of his favourite compound, says, “Seen through Subandhu’s self-reflexive subjects, when reminded of the night’s events, and with the aid of a self-reflexive language that calls attention to its own musical, iconic and other para-linguistic aspects, love emerges as a special blend of pain and pleasure or, indeed, intensity and sweetness. Pleasure surely outweighs the pain, but the ultimate smile is nonetheless inseparable from the ache that produced it. The sit sound is thus the nexus of an internal, creative transformation on several levels – of pain to pleasure, presence to memory, and sound to meaning – powerful enough to transform the external world and sufficiently savory to bring about a new day of love.” (p.259)
Match that, ye locals.
Arshia Sattar is a translator and teaches classical Indian literatures at various institutes across the country. Her most recent book is The Mouse Merchant: Money in Ancient India.