Kama’s Flowers documents the transformation of Hindi poetry during the crucial period of 1885-1925. As Hindi was becoming a national language and Indian nationalism was emerging, Hindi authors articulated a North Indian version of modernity by re-envisioning nature. While their writing has previously been seen as an imitation of European Romanticism, Valerie Ritter shows its unique and particular function in North India. Description of the natural world recalled traditional poetics, particularly erotic and devotional poetics, but was now used to address sociopolitical concerns, as authors created literature to advocate for a “national character” and to address a growing audience of female readers.
Examining Hindi classics, translations from English poetry, literary criticism, and little-known popular works, Ritter combines translations with fresh literary analysis to show the pivotal role of nature in how modernity was understood. Bringing a new body of literature to English-language readers, Kama’s Flowers also reveals the origins of an influential visual culture that resonates today in Bollywood cinema.
Valerie Ritter received her PhD in Asian Languages and Literature from the University of Washington and has taught at the University of Chicago and the University of Virginia.
The title of this book refers to the God of Love, Kama, the personification of the classical Sanskrit conception of desire and pleasure, one of the basic aims of human life (purusartha). Kama as a concept encompasses all things concerned with pleasure and refinement, including both enjoyment of the arts and erotics. It is of course the realm of life described in the famous Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana. As a personified god, Kama carries a bow and arrow with which he shoots victims of love and other pleasures; his arrows are said to be tipped with flowers. A story from the Vamana Purana tells us more, describing how Kama tempted god Shiva to leave off his austere meditations for carnal desire:
When Siva left the Pine Forest, Kama tried to excite him once again, but Siva saw him and looked at him with an angry glance, and burnt him to ashes as if he were a forest of dry wood. As his feet caught fire, Kama dropped his bow, which broke into five parts, these turning into five trees and flowers, and, by the grace of Siva, all his arrows turned into flowers and Kama himself died.
Thus, the god of love himself disappears, and his weapons suddenly sprout into trees and flowers. This story about Kama, Pleasure itself, parallels what happened in the Hindi poetry in this period: the definition of refined pleasure changed such that the erotics inherent in poetics transformed into nature poetry-resulting in poems about flowers instead of lovers. These flowers-as all of the stuff of the nature poetry that emerged in Hindi in the modern era-held powerful resonances with both older poetics and new concerns with freedom, political and social. The flowers which formerly adorned Kama’s arrows, messengers delivering pleasure, desire and lust, are now these arrows of desire themselves, reincarnated. The accoutrement has become the thing it had once ornamented, and love poetry becomes nature poetry, in the shift to Hindi poetic modernity. In the end, of course, Kama never really dies, in mythology, and in poetry.
This book examines poetry and criticism surrounding the representation of nature in Hindi poetry, concentrating on the extremely important but overlooked period of 1885-1925, known for its early nature poetry by Sridhar Pathak and "Hariaudh" of the Dvivedi Era, and the early poetry of later avowed nature poets, [ayasankar Prasad, Sumitranandan Pant, and" irala," of the Chayavad (Shadow-ist) era. The analysis of works from this particular span of decades shows that writing literarily of nature was a multivalent strategy, to be innovative with new empirical perspectives and the invocation of sociopolitical concerns, but also to be creatively allusive to traditional poetics, most fundamentally Sanskrit's srngara (the "erotic sentiment" of traditional poetics), newly problematized in the colonial era. The book describes the constituent elements of poetics for Hindi authors of this period, and complicates the usual ascription of modern Hindi nature poetry to Romantic influence. Addressing translations from English, Hindi criticism, both classics and little-known Hindi texts of the period, and the gendered aspects of the reform of srngara as literary mode, the book serves as a guide to understanding the evolution and significance of a major theme of modern Hindi poetry.
The Subject of Nature
"Nature" (prakrti) in Hindi poetry was a subject I came upon through Hindi literary criticism on Dvivedi era poetry. I found to my surprise that one of the seminal works of the era, which altered mythology and traditional poetic themes considerably, was considered a work of "nature poetry." I would never have predicted this; if the author had intended this to be "nature poetry," I thought, critics would surely deem that he had failed in his attempt. It was "mere description" in my view, and in a conventional Sanskritic mode replete with redundant terms for "beautiful," "charming," etc. that smacked of classical poetics in mahakavya, but hardly brought Wordsworth to mind. To the contrary, I discovered that not only did the Hindi critics praise what they saw as the turn toward natural realism, but that the general Hindi-educated population could spontaneously recite the most famous so-called "nature- description" verses of this poem, and with relish. I met many people who had memorized the verses in school, but it was clear they also truly appreciated them. They all knew that these verses represented something new when they were composed, even though now they seem as traditional as modern Hindi could be, in Sanskrit meter no less. My curiosity was piqued. What exactly was this nature-in-poetry that the Hindi secondary literature always cited, and the inheritors of the Hindi canon perceived so clearly? Thus began my inquiry into the subject of this book, which led me through the twentieth-century Hindi literary critical establishment, to the poems themselves. It became clear that nature in Hindi poetry had much to do with the advent of poetic modernity for the authors of these poems and critical texts, but the story was extremely complex and multifaceted. It clearly had much to do with the reappraisal of literary erotics, qua "tradition," and confrontation with English poetic values.
Further, I began to suspect that nature in Hindi poetry has a significance that reaches beyond poetics per se, providing a window into the history of the present-day quotidian aesthetics of North India. In unpacking the high valuation of "natural description" and "love of nature" in Hindi poetics, I rethought what I considered the idiosyncratic decorative culture of North India, of posters of forest cottages, and advertising campaigns of bees on flowers. Even the cinematographic trademarks of Hindi films, close-ups of the single flower, panning the mountain vale, weaving through trees in wooded enclosures, fit in with the aesthetic world of this Hindi nature poetry. Clearly modern Hindi poetic nature of the early decades of the twentieth century was part of a larger cultural fabric.
One of the basic ways in which nature is readable in modern Hindi poetry and in the popular cultural images just described, is through the lens of srngara, the category of erotic sentiment in classical Sanskrit poetics. Deeply intertwined with what we now call Hinduism, and in particular worship of Krishna and his lover-consort Radha, this Sanskrit poetics and theology has transmuted into the everyday habitus of North India, and forms part of a subconscious framework for thinking about human sexual love and erotics in the contemporary world. Most certainly, srngara has affected how love "looks" and "feels" in South Asia.' as a dominant strain in a complex symphony of cultural tropes. An abstracted erotics still flourishes, despite the dismantling of the institutional apparatus for this classical srngara, the traditional poetics of learned Brahmans, and despite the fear of sexual decadence, which animated debates over poetry century ago and still grabs headlines today.
In this book I do not simply make the argument that srngara is a "survival," but rather that that the reinvention of srngara in Hindi high culture accompanied the broader problem of how to be modern-but- Indian. Scholars often criticize the tendency to read srngara overmuch in modern culture. Rightly, they have seen in this scholarly tendency a means of erasure of non-Sanskritic, Muslim, and folk cultures, or an Orientalist fetishization of "timeless tradition." These points are well taken. However, the existence of particular srngarik tropes within genres self-consciously announcing their distance from such "tradition," and the particularities of these modernized srngarik tropes, demand attention. Srngara is integral to the modern Hindi poetic nature, and indeed the ideals of beautiful natural spaces in general in modern India, and a history of it in the modern poetic context is part of the history of inter- actions between colonialism, aesthetics, and theology.
The semiotic potency of the natural images of poetry and popular culture contribute to something like Raymond Williams's "structures of feeling" in modern Hindi-speaking India." We could say that the semiotic world of love in contemporary India is colored by a much older erotic poetics, the ideals of which are, as Lacan had observed in regard to courtly love in the West, "tout a fait concretes dans l'organisation sentimentale de l'homme contemporain, et y perpetuant leur marche.” This situation is palpable in the Indian context, where these images are potent precisely because of their past lives, yet such natural images came to be understood as a feature of what was modern in modern Hindi poetry.
The nature in Hindi poetry can also inform us of the structures of feeling beyond the erotic, namely, the affect of Indian nationalism. Take for instance the name of the memorial at Gandhi's residence at the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad: Hrday-kunj, "Heart's Arbor." What accounts for this particular image of the arbor, of the conjoining of nature and love, in a place of national pilgrimage? The early poetry of modern Hindi will give some insight into this question. Hindi is not the originating source of these images, and not the only language to use them in these ways, but it is an important resource in considering how modern Indian literatures became so, and how national uses of nature are integrated into their larger cultural sphere.
Nature has become a topic of more and more interest in Asian Studies generally, specifically in the context of studies of the constitution of modernity. From these works it is clear that the phenomenon of Nature in rhetoric-political or literary-though linked with European contact, was not a uniform phenomenon across Asia. Julia Adeney Thomas has examined “Nature" as a principle in political theory in Meiji Era Japan (the rough equivalent, chronologically and culturally, to our period of 1885-1925 in North India). Her narrative explaining the creation of the "Japanese love of nature" is based upon a core conception of nature as a negatively valued antonym of culture, an idea that had little effect upon Hindi poetics, and when it did so, took on different significances. Thomas's conclusion that the Japanese iconized Nature became a chauvinistic, nationalist one in the early twentieth century has some parallel for Hindi, but with an entirely different story of how this came about.
Chinese modern literary history, especially as put forth by Shumei Shi, holds some quite striking parallels for the subject of nature in modern Hindi poetry. Foremost among them is the "necromantic" trend, which "conflate[ed] the discourses of biological evolutionism, literary movements, and the Chinese national character, ... [with] heavy emphasis on the necessity of naturalism.:" Further, the emphasis on a teleology of progress in Chinese literary history, leading to a Europe-defined modernism, also has distinct echoes in the Hindi context, as does the modernism Shi describes in the (albeit later) work of Fei Ming, which alluded to a "traditional lyricism embodying the poetic harmony between feeling (qing) and landscape (jing)" in ingeniously incorporating the aesthetics of Tang nature poetry into a modernist language and syntax of disjunction and fragmentation."? Though somewhat later than our chronological purview here, and following a somewhat different course, these Chinese developments mirror the Hindi, and indeed Indian situation regarding the negotiation of aesthetics within the "East-West culture debates"!" of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Literary nature, then, is ripe for discussion in a pan-Asian framework, and even more so, ripe for redress within the specific literary historical circumstances of North India.
The Watershed Era: 1885-1925
As the title of this book indicates, reforming poetics meant reforming the arrows of Kama-the things that delivered aesthetic pleasure, which in nineteenth-century India included a foundational erotic poetics. Kama's arrows then more literally-as incitants of sexual desire-then had to be reformed. Being modern in colonial India had much to do with consternation about sex, not only in terms of how "obscenity" applied to srngarik works, but in confronting English sexual mores and what they might mean in terms of "progress," a keyword of the times." Here we can recall the dangerous, seductive character of Sandip in Rabindranath Tagore's Home and the World (1915) who teases his friend's wife Bimala about reading "an English book in which sex-problems were treated in an audaciously realistic manner," a book "of blunt things, bluntly put," which serves ambiguously in the novel as a symbol of social risk, yet also liberation into a world of "realism." The years of 1885-1925 thusly saw much grappling with poetic values around the problem of erotics.
Authors in Hindi, dedicated to promoting and preserving Sanskrit cultural forms, and Hinduism itself, grappled with a systematized and theologized classical poetics that did not mesh well with the English literary values they had begun to value also. Foremost, the dominant category of srngara, the erotic sentiment, flew in the face of all ideas of modern progress. Authors sought to disengage the subject matter of srngara from its pre-modern moorings and use these images for description of their new poetic truths: "nature" and "emotion," and sometimes the social goals of "love of country," and "independence." In this we find a resemblance to Foucault's repressive hypothesis, in which sex became something "not simply condemned or tolerated, but managed, inserted into systems of utility, regulated for the greater good of all." Likewise, the transmutation of srngara into less overtly sexual tropes could be interpreted as the "proliferation of discourses" that the sexual taboo ironically supplies. However, this book will present a different and complex aesthetic situation, in which the modern poetics of srngara does not become something to be confessed, a secret to be discussed ad infinitum, as Foucault describes, but rather becomes a way for Hindi poets to engage with what they saw as modernity's trappings: ideas of science, nation, and liberty.
This disengagement and re-purposing within the literary sphere has a history in the formation of modern national consciousness. The authors examined here had inherited the drive for Hindi as a national language, and in various degrees, the assumption that literature was an index of civilization and that, ergo, eroticism in literature was problematic. In the words of Jayasankar Prasad in 1909, in his benedictory essay at the beginning of his lndu magazine:
It is universally accepted that literary progress (sahitya Ki unnati) is required for racial progress (jatiya unnati). And from looking at literature alone, the limit of racial progress can be shown or proven. As much progress as a race has achieved, correspondingly will its literature appear elevated.
It is almost as if Thomas Babington Macaulay's racialized damning of Indian knowledge in educational policy-"a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia"15-had taken root in India with a strict definition of literature itself, and specifically in the form of principle: literary progress-literally, unnati, "elevation" -had become a requirement of civilizational progress. The erotic decidedly did not represent progress, a progress that Indian people saw as leading ultimately to political Independence. The entity of "nature" seemed to these authors to hold huge positive potential, as the moral status of literature became paramount.
We know surprisingly little about this period of Hindi when these aesthetic changes were taking place. We know much more about the literary developments in Europe and Bengal: the classic novels of the British Raj by Rudyard Kipling and E. M. Forster, and the works of the famed Bengali Rabindranath Tagore dominate our knowledge of this era. Several scholars have addressed the important and basic topics of the language politics surrounding Hindi and Urdu in this era, and the public sphere created by Hindi print culture. But the questions remain: What was happening poetically, and aesthetically, in Hindi at this time? What about the evolution of Hindi poetry, the poetics of the language that would become the self-appointed scion of Sanskrit's glorious Hindu past? This book will approach answers to these questions, and will address specifically an important feature of the Hindi literary landscape ever since: the reformation of srngara, the poetics of erotics, into the stuff of modern poetry on nature, love, and nation.
Outline of the Following Chapters
Chapter 1 describes the terms by which modern Hindi poetry is commonly understood, the constituent aspects of the literary world of modern Hindi poetry, and the complications of examining this literary field. Examining the historical and social context of these Hindi authors of the late nineteenth century, it becomes apparent that these terms "modern," "Hindi," and "modern poetry," were ambiguous and under contestation.
Chapter 2 shows that a veritable obsession with "nature in poetry" occurred in Hindi literary criticism in the twentieth century, which located the onset of modernity with changes in poetic nature, and linked this in turn to the influence of English Romanticism. I then give evidence that the surfeit of significations of nature and the natural for our polyglot poets complicates this narrative of English Romantic influence.
Chapter 3 addresses the question of what we might glean of the "influence of English" in terms of Hindi adaptations of English poetry in the late nineteenth century, and how these have influenced the conception of English "nature" in the Hindi context. To this end, I analyze two very prominent translations from English into Braj Bhasa of eighteenth-century verse, one Sridhar Pathak's 1889 translation of Oliver Goldsmith's Deserted Village, the other Ratnakar's 1897 translation of Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism. From these we see that certain features of English nature remained significant in their Hindi translation, and that a particular vocabulary was emerging for writing of nature.
Chapter 4 examines both poetry and criticism in Hindi from 1900, in reference specifically to nature, surveying the relevant works of the famed editor of modern Hindi, M. P. Dvivedi, and the most famous original work by Sridhar Pathak, "Kasmir Susuma" (The Beauty of Kashmir). Here we find various reactions: an uncomfortable clash of values of realism and political import with the aesthetics of srngara; the integration of srngara with geographic nationalism; and a rhetorical device for describing landscape in a realist and Sanskritic mode.
Chapter 5 addresses the critical aesthetic maneuver of early twentieth-century Hindi: the freeing of the natural objects of Sanskrit metaphor from their former bodily referents. Specifically I look at Hari- audh's Priyapravas, and several poems from the young Jayasankar Prasad, 1909-1918, that exemplify the phenomenon of what I call "object-poems."
Chapter 6 addresses the perspectival sleights of hand in the writing of two authors of the younger generation, Prasad and Ramanares Tripathi. Here we find elaboration of Nature as principle, with theological overtones; nature as an alternative to the normal social world of love also emerges, which implies a coincidence of nature with freedom, personal and political. Finally, I describe in brief the entrenchment of nature subsequently in the quotidian poetry of the early twenties.
Chapter 7 steps back to examine the gender politics of poetics in this era, as the erotic mood srngara was reformed. Pointing out that cultural authenticity claims in the Hindi sphere impinged upon literary depictions of women, I examine in detail some criticism and poetry on the problematic srngara and on women as poetic subjects, showing that despite rejection of Braj poetry for its eroticism, Khari Boli poetry retained some features of heroine-description. I close the chapter with an examination of the scientization of the theory of srngara.
Chapter 8 returns to the problem of nature-in-poetry per se, examining the first major critical essay addressing the import of nature in Hindi, "Natural Scenes in Hindi Poetry" (1923) by seminal critic Ramacandra Sukla. In a close analysis we find a realist landscape Sukla identifies with Indian identity through the ages, and ultimately with Indian political independence. A materialism of nature supersedes the poetic apparatus of rasa for inspiring emotion. Sukla enunciates the shift in nature in poetry in terms of the rhetoric of "independent" nature and the sublime effect of aggregated natural objects.
Chapter 9 looks at the early years of the Chayavad (Shadow-ist) generation, the poets identified with the first "successful" modern poetry in Hindi, with avowed inspiration from the late English Romantics. The term "personification" came to the fore as natural objects appear as hero and heroine. Srngara appeared safely naturalized, philosophized, and even nationalized. Here I show that along with their innovations, Chayavad poets wrote in clear consonance with their Dvivedi era fore- bears in regard to nature.
In the Concluding Remarks I summarize my observations on the poetic traits incurred through this turn to nature. Nature was not reinvented by Chayavad poets along Romantic lines, I argue, but rather the Chayavad poets developed further an already established strategy treading the ground in between the world of srngara and the world of scientific and political yatharth, "commensurate reality," as defined in decades previous.
On Reading Hindi Poetic History The form of this book, with its voluminous translations, explication du texte, and unusual chronological scope, requires some explanation. There is inevitably the feeling of a survey in this work because of the burden of explication of a lesser-known part of literary history, lesser-known even to native Hindi readers. The reader will find many translations of critical and poetic texts, most of which have never been published previously in Western languages. This fact, and my critical goal of historicizing poetic tropes have both conspired to shape this book into a monograph with multiple functions: a literary historical analysis of a particular trope within a particular body of poetry, along the lines of the thousands of such monographs on Western literature, and a venue for translations of the poetic and critical works the book analyzes, for an audience that may be familiar with the great figures of Indian literature and history, but not with the full range of texts I present and analyze. The result is this hybrid sort of work, which has the predictable shortcomings of such experimental endeavors. My hope is that by publishing this study, replete with its many translations, I can speed along the future era when-as in studies of English, Spanish, or Russian literature-scholars can assume their readers have access to and familiarity with Hindi texts examined.
In regard to my critical stance: I am unapologetically eclectic in my approach to these texts. I present this study as an effort in the vein of post-colonial studies, purely in the sense that this work considers the colonial context of this aesthetic world to be essential to understanding it, and seeks hard evidence as to how Hindi poetry evolved vis-a-vis English literary values. This work is informed by an academic style of close reading born of New Criticism, but in orientation quite new historicist. The book ultimately addresses questions about the work of poetry and culture to which structuralist semiotics speaks-what happens when a sign, a trope, a word, takes on a new life? With no conscious stake in anyone particular school of method or ideology that informs literary history and criticism, this is what I intend to illustrate for the particular time, place, and linguistic world described in Kama's Flowers: What happens to a changing sign in British India, within the deeply felt and deeply cherished realm of poetry? What happens when we historicize poems themselves, and trace the reifications and circulations of tropes by observing them at work, and avoid the broad generalizations that have preoccupied so many literary historians of Hindi? In the end we will know more about what and how a poem signified in early twentieth-century India, and about how poetry functions in contexts of acute cultural self-consciousness.
This book seeks to reframe the terms of engagement, addressing the immediate aesthetic pre-history of Chayavad in the Dvivedi era, and only the very beginning of the emergence of Chayavad, through 1925. The benefits of this framework are manifold: we can historicize the tropes of Hindi poetry more completely, rather than taking the typical strategy of considering an author or movement's work in a wide swath of decades. For example, it is rare to find any study of the major Chayavad poets Prasad, Pant, and Nirala, without reference to their poetry of the thirties and beyond. Here, with the delimitation of 1925, we can see the poetic world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries much more clearly, and are in a position to reassess the usual, normative ascription of Romanticism, and all that implies, to the rising Chayavad generation. In taking this approach to Hindi poetry, and Hindi literary history generally, I am somewhat renegade. Some, especially those steeped in the deeply ingrained literary historiography of Hindi and Bengali, may find my arguments contrary to conventional wisdom, which as conventional wisdom, certainly has a point. However, I believe Hindi poetry deserves no less than the careful attention I have given it.
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