Ask someone who lives in the West to name an Indian classic, and the answer is almost foreordained: the Bhagavad Gita. This poetic work, depicting a didactic encounter between an exemplary human being and the god Krishna, has been translated into European languages hundreds of times. Yet surprisingly few inhabitants of the populous states of north India can recite more than a phrase or two of the Sanskrit original. The Krishna they know as the subject of classic poetry is apt to come from quite another source: Hindi poet-singers of the early modern period, and the greatest of these is Surdas. Like Homer, he is remembered as having been blind. Like Shakespeare, he has infused a tradition of living performance. And the Krishna to whom he sings is largely the god of love rather than the key to life's other battles, as in the Gita. Why then is Surdas still so little known outside his homeland? It has to do with the definition of a classic.
When European scholars and colonial administrators tried to make cultural sense of India in the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they typically started their quest by studying Sanskrit. Latin and Greek were what made for a serious education in Europe, so as it became clear that these two had a sister language in Sanskrit-"more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either," as Sir William Jones famously proclaimed in 1786-it was natural that this ancient tongue should be accorded a parallel place of honor. Persian entered the picture, too. After all, it had been at the core of the Mughal administrative culture that the British were eager to supplant. But nothing rivaled Sanskrit. As a Western canon of Indian literature began to emerge, works like Kalidasa's . Sakuntala, the Bhagavad Gita, the Bhagavata Purana (in an abridged version), and the Upanishads led the way.
These were classics, no doubt, and Sanskrit was certainly a learned language, but for many centuries it had ceased to be anyone's mother's tongue-if ever it was. Sanskrit means "refined," and a significant part of its vocation had always been to ride above the unruly rhythms of ordinary, local speech. So if you were a Britisher living in north India, you would have to turn to some other me-dium if you actually wanted to communicate with the people who surrounded you. Some version of Hindi would be your best bet, and indeed Hindi is customarily reckoned as the fifth most widely spoken language in the world today. Yet it took European scholars a while to appreciate the fact that Hindi too had its classics. These long-cherished works speak to the people of north India-then and now-as Shakespeare speaks to the British or Moliere to the French.
Modern Standard Hindi, the national language that is taught as a compulsory subject in schools across India, has existed as such for only about a hundred years. Its grammars, dictionaries, and textbooks draw on a register of common speech called khadi boli, which has come to have a literary aspect, but only since the early years of the twentieth century. Hindi’s more venerable classics tend instead to be drawn from two linguistic streams that have flowed strong and hard for half a millennium, reaching back to the days when the Mughal Empire brought much of India under a common rule, and even before.
These two streams are conventionally called Avadhi and Brajbhasa. Their labels associate them with particular geographical regions, though as literary idioms they could be adopted by writers and performers living far away from these regional centers.
Avadh or Oudh is the Gangetic region southeast of Delhi. Its cultural capitals induded Jaunpur, Banaras, and Lucknow, but Sufi centers such as Jais and Kalpi also figured in the mix. Hindus, though, often conceive the capital of Avadh to be Ayodhya (you can hear the resemblance), since Ayodhya is regarded as the city where the god Ram held sway. It was the Hindu poet Tulsidas who, writing toward the end of the sixteenth century, crystallized the epic of Ram-the Ramayana-in a vernacular form that many people consider to be Avadhi greatest classic. Yet in doing so, Tuladas made use of epic and poetic conventions that had been established by Avadhi writers whose subjects were less Hindu than Sufi. Examples are Maulana Daud’s Candayan and Manjhan's Madhumalati, written in 1379 and 1545. Interestingly, these two authors called the language in which they composed Hinduki or Hindavi, that is, Hindi or simply 'Indian." The more restrictive label Avadhi was applied only considerably later.
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