Raman Prasad Sinha throws light on the strong poetic tradition of North India — from Sanskrit verses through Bhakti poetry — to both recite and sing the verses

“Take any big Bhakti poet: Kabir, Surdas, Tulsidas, Meera…you will find that each of their poems comes with the instruction on which raga to sing it in,” says Raman Prasad Sinha, Professor of Hindi at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. Sinha, researching on the concept of communication in the early modern poetry of North India for some years now, found it quite intriguing. “It set me thinking, after all, what is its purpose,” he says.

His study led him to a rather interesting connect between Bhakti poetry and the early Sanskrit verses, a body of work not much in agreement with the focus of Kabir and his ilk.

At the 11th International Conference on Early Modern Literatures of North India, held in Shimla recently, Sinha put forward this connect as a strong poetical tradition of North India passing through centuries. “There were, it seems, two ways of presenting poetry in the region — one was to recite it and the other was to sing it. It seems that both these traditions were developed in the process of acquiring better skill in communication.” Recitation required familiarity with metre (chaand), whereas knowledge of raga was a must for singing.

The paper Sinha presented at the conference points out that this relation between raga and rasa of poetry has been addressed since the time of the Natya Shashtra. Here, he refers to ragakavya in Sanskrit. “Basically, ragakavya was meant to be enacted with dance but it can be sung as a song too. It is composed in a single or multiple raga and ‘dhruvak’ (chorus), ‘sthai’ (the refrain at the beginning) and ‘antara’ (the intermediate part) were also used in it. Jayadeva’s ‘Gita Govinda’ is a pioneering example of this tradition of ragakavya.”

About how it entered Hindi poetry, he has interesting details, culled out of “Chrayapada” of Siddhi poetry (8th to 12th Century). It talks of the style of ragakavya bifurcating into two streams.

“While Sanskrit poets like Jayadeva and Kshemendra adopted and developed one stream after getting influenced by Apabhransha poets, in the other stream, the lyrical style of Siddhas, was developed by the Nath Panthi yogis and Maharashtrian saints that later came down to Hindi saint poets. So a tradition was established in North India where music or raga became a part of communication strategy.” Saguna or Nirguna, Krishna bhakata or Ram bhakta, gyan margi or prem margi…all adopted it in the region.

Among the Bhakti poets, he points out that Meera indicated the highest variety of ragas (70) for her poetry while Kabir did the lowest at 16. Tulasidas and Surdas covered 23 and 28 ragas respectively.

Interestingly, Sinha talks of several present-day musicians who have chosen quite different ragas than those originally suggested by the poets to render these compositions. “Though Tulsidas suggested his Ganesha hymn to be sung in Bilawal, it is hardly sung in it. Take for instance, Ashwini Bhide’s rending of it in Bihag, Pandit Rajan and Sajan Mishra’s in raga Kirwani and Ahmed Hussain and Muhammad Hussain’s in Marwa.” Each of these ragas are sung during different times; they are of different nature too.

This again takes Sinha back to the basic question of communication through poetry. “And here I find that the question remains, as to what purpose a raga actually serves for the communication of poetry.”