Emerging Scholarship on Vernacular Languages in Early Modern North India: A Conversation with Imre Bangha

For historians and scholars of Indian languages, literature, and culture, the period between 1500 and 1800 CE has emerged as an exciting field. Approached from the theoretical perspectives of early modernity, this period offers spectacular insights and narratives of unprecedented changes in social, political, and intellectual life. The rise of regional and vernacular languages, the formation of their distinct identities, and their transformation into languages of literary production remains an exceptional feature of this period.  Scholars working with the archives of regional languages have come up with interesting and thought-provoking observations on the relations between language and political culture. Facilitated by discoveries of wide-ranging archives of literary and other forms of cultural production, scholars of early modern India highlight the fluidity in identity formation and absorbent culture that mark the social and political life of this period. New insights emerging from these fields have also persuasively helped revise the established understanding of medieval India based on the historical constructions in the 19th and 20th centuries.  

The historians working with vernacular language archives employ methods of intellectual history and philology to make significant contributions to the field. They offer tangible textual evidence on changes in languages and literary cultures vis-à-vis social and political life. Imre Bangha, a scholar of early modern vernacular literary culture in northern India, has been instrumental in bringing back questions of language and identity formation in early modern vernacular languages, while also throwing new light on these issues. Currently, Bangha teaches Hindi at the Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford, combines rigorous philological analysis of texts (based on a close reading of extant manuscripts and their variations) and a nuanced approach to the social history of languages and scripts. His work has contributed to pushing the boundaries of early modern studies of languages and literature of northern India. In the process, he has sought to revise widely held views on Hindi literary historiography. He has published critical editions and translations of the works of some of the little-known yet important literary figures from the early modern period, such as Ānandghan (It’s a City-Showman’s Show! Transcendental Songs of Ānandghan with R C C Fynes, Penguin India, 2013) and Ṭhākur (Scorpion in the Hand: Brajbhāṣā Court Poetry from Central India around 1800: A critical edition of Ṭhākur’s Kabittas, Manohar, New Delhi, 2014). He has also authored several important articles on these topics and writers. He is currently working towards publishing similar editions of the works of Bājīd, a 16th-century poet and theologian of Rajasthan; the Awadhi poet Tulsidās best known for Rāmćarit-mānas; and Viṣṇudās, a 15th-century court poet and among the earliest Brajbhasha poets from Gwalior. He is also working on two monographs: one, a history of the emergence of the Hindi literary tradition; and two, an account of Hindustani before modern Hindi and Urdu.   

In this interview with Rabi Prakash and Varadarajan Narayanan, Bangha discusses his work on a number of individual Hindi poets of the early modern period, the complex history and formation of the Hindi language and its literary traditions, the scope and limits of philological and manuscript studies, and the future of early modern studies on vernacular languages and literature of India. 

Question: You have had an interesting journey with regard to your higher education. After completing a Master’s degree in Indology and Hungarian Language and Literatures at Budapest, you came to India to deepen your knowledge of the languages and decided to pursue your PhD at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan. Many Indian scholars, on the other hand, prefer going to Europe and the US for their doctoral work on Indian languages and literary histories. How would you explain your choice and, looking back, what do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of making such choices?

Bangha: I acquired the fundamental essay-writing skills and philological rigour in Hungary and in Hungarian. However, proper mastery over living Indian languages can hardly be achieved outside India. Furthermore, I wanted to study India from as close as possible and considered that Western academics ask and answer Western questions on India. Their research is only peculiar in their subject but not in their approach. I preferred the simplicity of life in India. As a Hungarian, we were not as rich as Western Europeans but a simple lifestyle in India, such as living without expenses in an ashram, allowed me to find the best Brajbhasha teachers in Vrindaban at a time when Brajbhasha was dying. There were no good reference books in any Western language. My first Indian teachers, M G Chaturvedi, Govind Sharma, and Sharanbihari Gosvami complained that no Indian came to them to study their centuries-old knowledge and were happy to share it with me. In Santiniketan, I was fully independent in my research in a beautiful university campus and a supporting teaching environment. Nevertheless, I travelled a lot in India to learn from my teachers in Vrinadaban and to explore the archival richness of my topic. It was the Vrindaban Research Institute (Vrindaban, Mathura) of Ramdas Gupta that exposed me to more scholars. It hosted Western and Indian scholars who were doing fieldwork in Braj. Interestingly, I met almost every Western scholar of classical Hindi first in India. The institute worked with manuscripts though I originally was more interested in the literary and religious aspects of the texts. One of its regular visitors, Naresh Chandra Bansal, directed me to a so far unknown Ānandghan manuscript, a handwritten book in the collection of the City Palace in Jaipur. A few months later I escaped from a Bucharest–Calcutta [now, Kolkata] flight at the stopover in Delhi and went to Jaipur to see the manuscript. It turned out to be the most important discovery on Ānandghan since the work of the great scholar Vishvanathprasad Mishra in the 1950s. It was the earliest manuscript copy of Ānandghan’s poetry showing that his quatrains have already been manipulated in his lifetime. Later on, Bansal ji invited me for a few days to his home in Kasganj, Uttar Pradesh, which had almost all available catalogues of Hindi manuscripts. After this, I went on discovering further early and later manuscripts of the poet and rewriting his life that till then was shrouded in legend. This was a time when the rich Rajasthan archives started to be accessible and offered material to rewrite the history of Hindi that was created from Benares and Allahabad. Although some of my efforts in studying with Indian scholars did not work out, those that worked made the experience one of the most wonderful things of my academic career. The enthusiasm and selfless teaching of my Indian teachers was a wonderful thing, not so easy to find in other parts of the world. Moreover, my studies were balanced with occasional social work in an orphanage in Calcutta [now, Kolkata]. One receives much more from India if one is fully present there. However, I missed learning how to write and present well in English and how recent Western, and now global, academia work. It took me almost a decade to make well-received academic presentations in English. 

Question: For your doctoral dissertation, you worked on the Brajbhasha poet Ānandghan, more popularly known as Ghanaānanda (d 1757) who had an interesting literary journey. He began his career as a scribe with training in Persian and grew to be a poet of the ‘rītimukt’ style, (free from the conventions of poetry) and finally became a Vaishnava Bhakti poet.  While the 20th-century historians of Hindi literature locate him in the larger scheme of rīti categories such as ritimukt, rītibaddha (in accordance with rīti), or swachhanda premdhārā (free flow of love), you seem to argue against such characterisations and prefer to describe him as an early “romantic poet” in Hindi who pioneered individualism. What makes you describe him as a pioneer of individualism and an early “romantic poet,” and in what ways would he be a precursor to the 20th-century Hindi literary movement for “romantic poetry,” or Chhāyāvād? 

Bangha: I found early modernity in practice via Ānandghan much before I was acquainted with its theories. (I use the name Ānandghan and not Ghanānand because that is the name that he is referred to in manuscript sources.) The problem with rītimukt (free from convention) or svaććhand kāvyadhārā is that practically, Ānandghan is it's only proper representative. Ālam (f 1683–1703 CE) and Bodhā (b 1747 CE) are included because legendary love stories are attached to their names; the Bundelkhandi Ṭhākur (1766–1823 CE) is there because in one of his poems he lashed out against the mechanical use of rīti. Otherwise, these poets did not express anything close to the intensity of personal feelings in Ānandghan’s quatrains, in technical terms, his kabittas and savaiyās. Furthermore, Indian scholars have already pointed out that rītimukt poetry uses the classicist aesthetics of rasa and alaṅkāra not any less than other rīti works. Furthermore, there has been no sign of consciousness among the poets of this group about any particular interconnectedness. They do not refer to each other or appear to be in dialogue through their poetry. In an earlier article in which I used the term “romantic,” I demonstrated that the idea of rītimukt poetry is a  20th-century construct under the influence of an emerging modern-type individualism that found expression in the Hindi Ćhāyāvād poetry. But why is then Ānandghan’s poetry so different from other poetry? An unprovenanced anecdote of Ānandghan’s meeting with Dev (b 1683 CE), the foremost rīti-poet of his times, tells that Ānandghan said to him that “You write what the world experienced (jag-bītī), I write what I experienced (āp-bītī).” His contemporaries thought that he was expressing his personal love for a Muslim dancer in these poems. Those who appreciated him realised that he had put an unprecedented emphasis on individual feelings: samujhai kavitā ghana ānãd kī hiya āṁkhina neha kī pīra ṭakī (“Only that person understands Ānandhghan’s poetry who has seen love through the eyes of his heart”). He also singled himself out as different from other poets: loga hai lāgī kabitta banāvata mohi to mere kabitta banāvata “People make poetry with effort but I am made by my poetry.” This is modernity (if not postmodernity) much before colonial modernity. As time passed, I have discovered further aspects associated with modernity in the poetry of Ṭhākur.

Question: From your work on Ānandghan, we understand that, in his personal life, he faced much wrath and social isolation for his bold and individual expressions of love in his writings and that he was even forced to disown many of these poems later on. What is also interesting is the fact that when his poems and compositions were edited and compiled into anthologies at a later point in time, his language was altered, and many of his highly original expressions were purged in favour of making them more aligned with bhakti poetry by his contemporary or later compilers. These edits are mostly related to his boldness in individual expression of personal love.  How do we understand such “acts of editorial excision” and “politics of anthology” in this period? We see that most of the scholars who compiled the verses of earlier writers, tampered with an author’s preferred vocabulary and thereby sought to smoothen their literary and ideological predilections. What does the case of Ānandghan tell us about the culture and politics of anthology in the larger social and intellectual culture of 18th-century north India? 

Bangha: Ānandghan was a Nimbārkī (a follower of one of the four Vaisnava Sampradayas, based on the teachings of Nimbārka, a philosopher and theologian of Bhakti) ascetic probably from an early age. His career as a secular courtly munshi in Delhi is a 19th-century legend. His contemporaries objected to his use of the same word for god Krishna and his earthly beloved perceived to be a Muslim dancer. Such an approach has already been familiar from Persian and Urdu poetry but less so in Sanskrit and Hindi. (The only exception may be Paṇḍitarāja Jagannātha (1590–1641) a few generations before Ānandghan. He was considered one of the most important writers on poetics, he was associated with the court of Shahjahan. According to legend, he fell in love with a Muslim woman in Delhi and expressed his love in his poetry. Subsequently, he was excommunicated by the Brahmin community.) The radical editing of Ānandghan’s quatrains is unprecedented. It was not directed against what I singled out as early modernity in his poems but was theologically motivated. It was meant to protect him by separating the two aspects of love. We are not able to put our finger on anything similar in earlier Indian poetry. However, this was not unusual in the circle where the early manuscripts come from, the Kishangarh–Rupnagar world. Heidi Pauwels and I have just discovered that the prince poet Sāvant Singh, also known as Nāgarī Dās (1699–1764), has also edited a rīti couplet of Bihāri (1595–1663) to suit his bhakti ideas. Tempering with texts is perennial but its dynamics are different in orality, in manuscript culture and in print culture, and in the cyber-world. In manuscript culture, it almost succeeded. All three extant manuscripts from Ānandghan’s lifetime are tempered texts. It was Brajnāth (fl. 1748), a highly respected courtier from Jaipur who reinstated the version close to originals. He had to pay a price for it as he lost his “honour, standing and had to act against his character” (lāja baṛāi subhāya ko khoi kai). This was something that I was familiar with from communist Hungary when there was tempering with some of our literary classics. The story that unfolded even if fragmentarily from the study of the handwritten sources was that of personal courage and tragedy in the 18th  century.

Question: One of the main concerns of contemporary scholarship on early modern literary cultures of North India has been to question the representation in earlier histories of literature that Hindi and Urdu are two distinct languages. Such historical narratives argue that Hindi and Urdu are two distinct and parallel literary traditions, embedded in two mutually exclusive religious and civilisational foundations. You have surveyed extensively the early texts in different scripts, many of them representing mixed languages in medieval India such as Maru-Gurjar (a literary language used primarily in Rajasthan and Gujarat), Sādhukarī (language of itinerant ascetics) and Rekhtā (an early form of Urdu). With reference to early Rekhtā, you suggest that “Nāgari Rekhtā” (Rekhtā written in Devnāgarī, Kaithī, and Gurūmukhī) was as prevalent, if not more, as Rekhtā in Persian Arabic script, in northern parts of India. What is Nagari Rekhta and why is it critical to understand its significance in the Hindi–Urdu formation in the 19th century? Could you elaborate if Rekhtā was only one among several mixed languages and not the only one in this period, what makes Rekhtā so distinctive as a “mixed” language?

Bangha: One important point to make is that literary idioms were rarely the spoken languages and dialects but are elevated versions of them. This elevation is essential for them to be literary. It also involves transregional features often mixed with local elements. Rekhtā is the elevated, literary form of spoken Hindustani. Before Urdu was standardised in the 18th century, there is no point in talking about different Hindi and Urdu traditions. These are ahistorical projections of modern concepts. The script was an important but not defining factor. Both Hindi and Urdu scholars were either unaware or neglected the existence of Rekhtā in the Nagari script as it did not suit any sectarian–nationalist agenda. British and other scholars have shown Hindustani as the most practical spoken language of northern India since the early 17th century, but it has apparently a much longer prehistory. However, it is difficult to find its documented traces in the north in Sultanate times. Ramvilas Sharma argues on linguistic grounds that the grammar of Hindustani (and later of Hindi and Urdu) is based on the dialects of the areas surrounding Delhi, but its phonology has been simplified in Agra. This would mean that its grammar crystallised at a time when Agra became prominent, that is under or after Akbar. However, we have short Rekhtā poems already from the time of Babur in a less crystallised language. Various religious and social groups found that composing in Hindustani gave them a tool to reach out to the widest range of people. The religious reformer Prānnāth (1618–1694) wrote at the end of the 17th  century, “Everyone prefers the language of his own family. Now in whose language shall I speak? — There are millions of languages here. Idioms in the world are countless, but I will speak in Hindustani since I consider it accessible to everyone.” His language was less Persianised but many early Nāgarī Rekhtā texts are as highly Persianised as those in the Persian script. Persianisation of Hindustani meant elevating it to be literary Rekhtā. This Rekhtā needed to be further elevated to be a successful competitor of Persian, the language of the exalted court, that is zabān-e urdū-e mu‘alla. Rekhtā, therefore became highly standardised, more Persianised and linked to one single script and orthography in the mid-18th century. In this way, by 1772, it became the zabān-e urdū-e mu‘alla. Urdu is the first modern language of India with such a high-quality standardisation that is associated with print culture. Here is another aspect of pre-colonial early modernity, but India did it without the printing press.

Question: Many of the contemporary scholars like you, who painstakingly collect, read, and prepare critical editions, find that manuscripts of a good number of works attributed to early writers are hard to locate, from the time of these authors. Their works are available only in compilations from the 16th and 17th centuries. Terms such as “Hindī sāhitya kā ādikāl” (7th to 12th century CE), “Bhaktikāl ke ādi kavi” (13th to 15th century CE), and “Urdū kā ibtidā’ī zamāna” (11th to 16th century CE) are all mostly historical constructions based on the texts written down or compiled much later. However,  for a society that has relied on oral transmission of compositions, making the written manuscript the basis of literary history amounts to invoking extremely stringent standards of modern literary historiography, such that these manuscripts can then be subject to philological exercises. What according to you is the rationale for insisting that manuscript evidence should form the basis of literary histories and also what are the scope and limitations of the philological approach to the study of the early literary history of Hindi and Urdu? 

Bangha: We have seen the tempering with the text in the case of Ānandghan, when we had texts from his lifetime. Orality presents a fluid textual culture. I have found that early Avadhi or Maru Gurjar works have been updated to Brajbhasha in manuscripts. Much of this updating involved modernised spellings, such as what in older manuscripts was written in the Maru Gurjar form kahiu (said) became Brajbhasha kahyo in the 17th–18th centuries. Sheldon Pollock mentions in his monograph The Language of Gods in the World of Man: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India from 2006 that in medieval Europe, Latin was read out aloud in a way that it was close to contemporary language use and this attitude kept an archaic language intelligible without much further learning. In the case of archaic Indian languages, we can find the same phenomenon as a scribal attitude. In oral and manuscript transmissions, such updating and moulding of texts may have happened over generations to such extent that it is impossible to make any statement about an original. Moreover, author attributions are also questionable in the modern sense. If someone composed a poem in what they thought was the spirit of Kabīr or Mīrā Bāī, they or some later performer may have attributed it to those poets sealing it with their poetic signatures. The modern ethnomusicological study by Edward O Henry from 1991, for example, shows that householder jogīs call themselves Gorakh Bābā or Kabīr Dās and sing bhajans in their names. At present, we do not have the methodology to uncover what the originals were and probably will never have. We have to work on the basis of what we have and the methodologies we have. On that basis, much literature attributed to the Hindi Ādikāl is not from the Ādikāl. If we have early dated manuscripts, it is easy to have a terminus ad quem for a work. We may also argue for a relatively reliable transmission if we have later manuscripts. Sometimes, the presence or absence of certain ideas in a poetic work gives us some orientation. I also argue that examining where the language stands on the developmental lineage of Apabhramsha—Maru Gurjar—Avadhi/Brajbhasha, etc, can also help us date a work if the language has not been updated. Sometimes archaisms in a modernised language give us a clue of earlier layers. Sometimes modern and archaic variants of the same passage exist in various manuscripts.

Question: Hindi nationalist historiography of the 20th century, though problematically teleological, could be applauded for taking into consideration the linguistic plurality in medieval India, and also for giving due importance to the oral culture of literary compositions. In this scheme, Hindi came to be understood as a language marking the final point of development in the Sanskrit, Shaurseni-Magadhi, Prakrit, and Apabhramsha lineages. However, in recent theorisations concerning the emergence of literary cultures, we see that attention to oral literature has diminished.  Now, “literature” amounts only to written texts. This change in perspective seems to have its foundations in Sheldon Pollock’s view on the emergence of a literary language in terms of two stages; first, when a language is committed to writing and, second, when it begins to produce literary works. Orality is omitted in this scheme. You seem to broadly agree with such a perspective. Do you not think that privileging the “written” form to define “literature” lessens the significance of cultures of literature preserved in memory and transmitted orally?  How can the historians of literary cultures ensure a balance between the oral-memory archive and the written textual archive to retrieve a broader literary history?

Bangha: Pollock’s work is a highly learned, path-breaking study of India’s written culture over millennia. As I read further and further, my views keep developing. While initially I more or less endorsed Pollock’s take on what literature means, after conducting further research and reading Francesca Orsini’s and Katherine Butler Schofield’s criticism of Pollock drawing attention to the complexity of the relationship between the oral and the written I would nuance this idea. Pollock’s take would overlap with my initial research primarily based on written material. Initially, I thought that we only started to have recordings of performances not more than a century ago and we cannot guess from them how performance might have been in the  16th or  18th century. Of course, we have descriptions of performances and normative texts but they may either give a fragmented picture or be prescriptive texts never put into practice. Therefore, what remains is the written. However, further study of sociolinguistics showed me that the language of non-written tribal literature (orature) is already different from the everyday language and at times even incomprehensible without deeper “study.” Furthermore, the earliest available manuscripts of Kabīr taught me that what we have in them are not authorial texts; their earliest layers are rather snapshots of performances with hypermetrical exclamations, explanations and other performative devices. Moreover, I found that the metrically reconstructed oral world of the earliest Kabīr texts share more with written high literature than one would have been inclined to admit after reading Pollock.

Question: Another limitation of these two stage theories about the making of a literary language concerns the formation of a “regional” language out of a larger and shared script and literary idioms.  In such a scheme, a regional literary language does not need first develop a script and then begin to produce literary works; rather, a regional language develops out of a trans-regional vernacular. For example, it has been argued by some that literary Marwari emerged out of the larger Maru-Gurjar and Apabhramsha languages. This may well apply to many regional languages in northern India, such as Rajasthani, Madhyadeshi, and later Brajbhasha, Awadhi, and Gujrati, among others.  How does one explain the emergence of a regional language out of a shared script, linguistic structure and literary idioms? Would these instances and the explanations one may have for them pose limits to the two stages theory about the emergence of a literary language? 

Bangha: Rather than thinking in the binaries that Pollock’s work suggests, I would recommend positing our data on scales at the two ends of which are Pollock’s binaries. Apabhramsha, for example, was not as cosmopolitan as Sanskrit was and many cosmopolitan vernaculars would in several aspects function as cosmopolitans. Distinguishing languages according to their script is a powerful modern idea endorsed by the Rupee notes and other modern realia. Although script determines accessibility to the written, it does not define language. The Gita Press is publishing Tulsidās in Bangla, Oriya and a wide range of regional scripts. There are Telugu-script manuscript copies of the Rāmćarit-mānas in Hyderabad. The question of vernacularisation is when it is realised that a particular script is useful to write down in its vernacular. The emergence of regional literary idioms may be due to various localisations of a previous transregional language and not to an organic growth from the spoken language. This requires further research but the shared transregional features of Maru Gurjar, Avadhi and Brajbhasha point in this direction. The local in them may be a tiny bit that everyone recognises. The situation is similar to Indian, American and British English. They are mutually comprehensible but even a lightly trained ear immediately recognises the local in them. Just to give an example, the word for “not” in Mathura and Vrindaban is pronounced as nāy नाँय but in literary Brajbhasha it is nāhi/ nāhiṁ नाँही/नाहीं. The latter is closely connected to Maru Gurjar nāhi/nāhī नाहि/नाही and not to local usage. However, using Brajbhasha ćalyo चल्यो, “went,” instead of Maru Gurjar ćaliu चलिउ localises the language in Braj.

Question: Elaborating your larger theoretical stance on the emergence of a literary language, you have proposed that the emergence of early Hindi could be located in the literary vernaculars of western India, namely, Maru-Gurjar and Apabhramsha (though the boundaries between the two remain fuzzy) which then paved the way for the emergence of what you call Madhyadeshi Bhasha (the language of central India), an early form of Brajbhasha, during the 14th and 15th centuries. The archives of Maru Gurjar and Apabhramsha are dominated by Jain literature. In fact, Apabhramsha literature mostly comprises Jaina texts from Western India, and this literature is absorbed into the Gujrati literary history. However, Apabhramsha literature (especially the Jaina texts) has not been given much attention in the making of the early history of Hindi literature.  You have carefully argued that “literary idioms” of these two western vernaculars (Maru-Gurjar and Apabhramsha) were appropriated and crystallised into Madhyadeshi Bhasha. What would explain literary idioms of Jain literature and its language being adopted but its political and theological perspective being purged out in the larger scheme of Brajbhasha’s bhakti and riti corpus, even though Jains monks and scholars remained active participants in Bhakti? Related to this, why do we not see due importance being given to the Jain archives in the larger history of Hindi literature?

Bangha: My research examines Maru Gurjar, not so much Apabhramsha. I would not call Apabhramsha vernacular. Apabhramsha-Hindi continuities have been examined immensely but the intermediary role of Maru Gurjar has hardly been recognised. Maru Gurjar in its full-fledged form is a simplified Apabhramsha and much of its grammar has parallels in Avadhi and Brajbhasha and not with Sanskrit as Apabhramsha does.
Hindi literary histories always included Jain, (Buddhist) Siddha, Nāth literature into the Ādikāl. However, following Ramchandra Shukla’s Hindī sāhitya kā itihās, many have dismissed Jain literature as over-theologised, didactic writing. Nevertheless, subsequent research argued that the Ćaryā-literature of the Buddhist Siddhas is not really Hindi. And what we have from the Nāths, (the followers of Gorakhnath, a 12th-century Yogi), is so late in manuscripts that we cannot really talk of the Nāth literature of the Ādikāl. This does not mean that it did not exist. In all probability it did as did many other aspects of orature but we do not have the means to reconstruct them. With the dismissal of Siddha and Nāth songs, only the Jain texts remain. This is the main subject of the ‘Ādikāl’ volume of the Hindī sāhitya kā bṛhad itihās. Maru Gurjar is one step in the development of Hindi, Gujarati and Rajasthani, presenting a stage when these lects were not yet separated. We can call it proto-Gujarati-Rajasthani-Hindi.

Question: For some time now you have been studying and writing on the compositions of a lesser known poet Bājīd (late 16th and early 17th century).  He is one of the Muslim disciples of Dādū Dayāl, the 16th century Bhakti saint and poet of Rajasthan, whose work has survived. Bājīd is known to have written extensively on a diverse range of issues, and not merely on Dādū-Panthī theology, yet he is now remembered only as a Bhakti poet. How does one explain the neglect of such a writer of diverse subjects?  What does Bājīd’s expansive corpus ranging from the books on ethics, philosophy, love, to hagiographical accounts of historical and mythological figures tell us about the nature of scholarship within Bhakti tradition? 

Bangha: Judging from the ubiquity of extant manuscripts in Rajasthan, Bājīd was one of the most popular Sant poets of the region before print culture. However, hardly any of his work made it into print and he has been largely forgotten. Apparently, he was not part of the clearly organised Dādūpanth. His connection was somewhat loose, and his work was copied not so much as promoting sectarian identity as to express general Sant teachings. He has produced a wide range of works across a range of literary idioms, such as Ḍhūṇḍhāṛī (Jaipuri), Marwari, Sadhukkaṛī (Sant bhasha) and Rekhtā. Our knowledge on how sectarian affiliations worked in the early 17th century is still fragmentary but they may not have been as clear and rigid as we perceive them today. While later hagiography is unanimous about Bājīd’s affiliation. The name of his guru only appears in some interpolated lines in only one of his many works. It still remains a question whether the interpolation, missing from the 1600 AD manuscript copy of his Nāmmālā, was later added by the author or, more likely, by a later Dādūpanthī scribe. Although the absence of naming one’s guru cannot be used as an argument to deny affiliation, it seems that someone at a certain stage of transmission did not feel so. At that early stage, the Dādūpanth was fascinated by writing and fully exploited the newfound possibilities in the more and more widespread use of paper. The philosophy and literature of the panth was still in the formative period and authors may have felt more freedom to experiment than within a stricter framework.
There are lots and lots of forgotten poets and works in Rajasthan that are coming to light as more and more manuscripts are consulted. The major 20th-century histories of Hindi literature did not have access to these archives and a large part of the great contribution of Rajasthan to Brajbhasha and Sadhukkarī was ignored.
Bājīd’s works are primarily not scholarly treatises but literary pieces that talk about a variety of subjects, but primarily of Sant theology and ethics. In this regard they are different from the emerging scholarly tradition of astrology, aesthetics, musicology, etc, in Hindi from the end of the 16th century. Bājīd’s works are relatively short and rather tend to illustrate a particular point than systematise knowledge. They are, however, rich sources for the study of various disciplines.

Question: One thing that distinctively emerges from the recent scholarship on medieval and early modern Hindi literary culture is the use of multiple languages within the corpus of a single author, and sometimes even within a single work.  What would help us explain and understand such features? Taking the cases of (Vaishnava) Ānandghan and Bājīd, what would explain the motives and factors that would have led these two figures to employ multiple languages in their literary works? 

Bangha: Ānandghan used the purest form of Brajbhasha with hardly any Perso-Arabic or Sanskrit tatsama words. This is in sharp contrast with 17th century Brajbhasha that freely accommodated Persian words. At the same time, he was aware that tatsamas are as alien to Brajbhasha as are Perso-Arabic words and he used Brajbhasha with an unprecedented expressive power without any need to rely on “foreign” words. He was deeply rooted in the rīti-tradition. His alaṅkāras would match anything in Sanskrit. He used traditional similes but gave them a new turn. This attention to purity suggests a multilingual person who is very conscious of not mixing his languages. Since I have been living in Britain for more than 20 years, I try to avoid using foreign words in my mother tongue Hungarian while monolingual Hungarians do it more freely. Apart from Brajbhasha, Ānandghan also experimented with Persianised Panjabi in his bhakti poetry. A kind of Panjabi Rekhtā. Just as Hindustani, Panjabi was more highly Persianised in the  17th century. He may have done it to cater for a more Panjabi bhakti audience or simply to impress others. It may well be that there was a Panjabi vogue in Kishangarh-Rupnagar (in modern day Rajasthan) at that time. Sāvant Singh, Kishangarh’s king and his beloved Rasik Bihārī (Banī Ṭhanī) also composed bhakti poetry in Panjabi. The practice was then taken up in Vrindaban in sects worshipping Radha and Krishna jointly. One can argue that Panjabi was comprehensible to audiences trained in Brajbhasha, in other words it was part of the same semiosphere.
In Bājīd’s time, around 1600, Brajbhasha was not yet the dominant language of Sant poetry. There was also considerable Sant poetry composed in Marwari. On the example of Marwari, the Sants living in the neighbourhood of Jaipur also created a local literary idiom rooted in Ḍhūṇḍhāṛī. With the passing of time, Brajbhasha became more and more popular and Sants also started to use a more Brajified Sadhukkaṛī. Bājīd experimented with this entire range. It should be mentioned that the language of several of his works may have been manipulated. Just like in the case of Mīrā Bāī, where we have both Rajasthani and Braj versions of the same songs, there are Bājīd manuscripts with Braj and Ḍhūṇḍhāṛī versions of the same work. Often we can only speculate which version may be that of the author and which one is the updated text of a later scribe. 

Question: You have been involved in preparing critical editions of some texts of Tulsidās, and now we believe of Bājīd as well. While there is no doubt about the need for critical editions, some have pointed out how such editions privilege one version over others, which are now relegated to the footnotes. First, please describe what’s the nature and extent of variations one would see while consulting different versions of the works of a poet like Tulsidās and Bājīd? How does one explain the emergence of these variations? What are the challenges in preparing critical editions of vernacular texts of the early modern period and what is the kind of expertise it requires to prepare such editions? 

Bangha: Postcolonial studies have played an important role in widening our understanding of the underpinnings of colonial knowledge systems and remind us how much our own knowledge is determined by our social situation. While this has immensely enriched academia and made us more inclusive, it also vilified disciplines, such as philology, especially that aspect of it that produces critical editions. However, postcolonial studies present a rather simplified understanding of philology and this attitude has more or less killed Hindi philology by the turn of the millennium. By simplified reading, I mean privileging a linear reading, ignoring the variations. Many Hindi editions that are criticised in this vein are indeed weak. Let me just mention Parashuram Chaturvedi’s edition of Mīrā Bāī kī padāvalī. This has been the most popular edition of the poetess and served as the basis of many later editions, commentaries and schoolbooks. It has been criticised that it presents a “Brahmanical Mīrā Bāī.” However, this is not a critical edition. Chaturvedi does not tell us where he has got his texts from or what were his criteria for inclusion. This is not philology and one would need philological study to check this Mīrā against layers of manuscripts. This is, for example, what J S Hawley has done in his study on the few song-texts that are present in 17th-century manuscripts. They show a rather different image of Mīrā Bāi who is interested more in the state of being in love than in Krishna. Philological work nowadays does not ignore the wider interdisciplinary field either. Parita Mukta, for example, examined what poetry of Mīrā Bāī was performed in Rajasthan and Gujarat around 1990. This presented further images of Mīrā. 
As far as proper critical editions are concerned, they are tools for further research. A trained reader would give as much attention to the variants, and indeed their contexts, as to the main text. A critical apparatus is not a rubbish bin but a treasure trove. If one can read a text with its variations, it opens up a second dimension hidden to the eyes of a linear reader. Such variations inform us of contemporary debates and of the reception of the text. Just remember the case of Ānandghan! Ideally, early modern Indian texts should not be read as one-dimensional linear ones but rather should be presented acknowledging the multiplicity of voices in it. Even weak and dated critical editions with variations can help one to perceive something of this. 
One can argue that whenever a scholar presents a text, he violates it by taking it out of its earlier context. However, this violation is an epistemic necessity as its alternative is silence. We cannot expect people to travel around India to try to negotiate their ways into archives and see available versions of the work in question. When I sign the register of an archive, I often find that the institute has not been visited for months or a year before me. If scholars hardly do it, how can we expect others to consult classical texts in archives. Furthermore, there are various kinds of critical editions. One can transcribe a manuscript as it is. But already this involves human intervention by breaking the words or making guesses about unclear graphs. A popular approach is presenting one manuscript, normally the oldest one, and giving variations in footnote. There are editors, who present a composite text on the basis of all or select available material, and there are synoptic editions that present the text of the “same” poem in its integrity in its every version, as has been done in the Millennium Kabīr vāṇī. In the latter case, the privileging of one reading is minimal. Moreover, doesn’t every human statement privilege one aspect of reality over the other? Don’t you need philology to point out that there are readings beyond the ones that are privileged in certain editions? One important aspect is that knowing the language to an extent to be able to prepare a critical edition requires several years of study, a long time that many people are not ready to invest into in our fast-moving world.
I advocate a humbler approach in our judgment of earlier generations of scholars since as we make a judgment we are as much conditioned by our times and social standing as were the earlier philologists. A statement of positionality does not redeem it, as there are unconscious aspects of one’s position. I rather suggest to approach previous scholarship not through directing our glance to its shortcomings and judge it by them but through appreciating its achievements. Time will gather dust on most of what is worthless in such works and we can concentrate our efforts on what is really valuable. I go as far as using the word humility, which involves both the acknowledgement of the limits of our approach and the respect of scholars’ contribution to universal knowledge.
As far as challenges are concerned, the contemporary Indian public is not ready to accept that there are variations in Tulsidās. When Swami Rambhadracharya prepared a new edition of the Rāmćarit-mānas (in 2005), that presented a text different from that of the Gita Press, a court case was filed against him. My study of the texts of Tulsīdās uncovered early modern debates about his texts, especially about his statements regarding women. Some manuscripts present more misogynist readings than the others. Manuscript circulation was a public domain. Debates unfolding in it reflect not so much Tulsīdās, whose originals are now lost forever, but rather the intellectual domain of the 17th  to 19th  century. Bājīd presents a different case. This important poet fell victim to print modernity, although judging from the number of manuscripts, he was one of the most widely read Sant poets of early modernity. 
Philology is not a narrow monodisciplinary subject. In order to prepare a critical edition, one needs a thorough linguistic knowledge of the literary idioms and traditions  of the religious scene. To this sometimes palaeography and a knowledge of material culture can be added. The text in the manuscripts is often corrupt to the extent of incomprehensibility. Sometimes the manuscripts are moth-eaten and characters, words or lines, or parts of them, are missing. For Bājīd, the edition requires acquaintance with Sant Bhasha, Braj, Ḍhūṇḍhārī and Marwari as well as with the terminology of Sant traditions. We need to have years and years of experience to get a sense on how to separate words as the text is presented as a single flow in a manuscript. After some time one can sense where corruption might have happened, and why and what may have been there before corruption. Whenever I sense a corruption, it requires a note, detailing what the original was and why I emend the text. Often, we have to think with the mind of, say, an 18th century scribe and to try to reconstruct his scribal preferences. All this needs to be documented knowing that the text I present is anything but final and readers may have a different understanding of it from mine.

Question: Second, the practice of translating and preparing critical editions of texts from both classical and vernacular languages in the subcontinent have a history of a little more than two hundred years. When you look at these activities, what have been some of the most important developments in these two areas of work and what are some of the problematic aspects in such endeavours from the past? 

Bangha: The history of engaging with Classical Hindi in the past two centuries reflects the history of India. The earliest modern attitudes present continuity with early modern tazkira (Persian commemorative texts)-like perceptions. Then there is the colonial attitude of surveying and historicising. Many of the achievements of colonial, positivist science have been promptly internalised and put into the service of the Indian struggle for freedom. This was also the heyday of Indian philology. The roughly 20 years before and after independence saw the most heightened activity of redeeming the Hindi past. Some of the best minds of the country worked on Hindi literature as they perceived it to be a service to the homeland. 
The history of editing methodologies is also determined by the time. By the second half of the 19th century, India grew into being one of the leading countries in lithograph publishing as far as the number of publications is concerned. This relatively cheap way of printing initially reproduced scribal attitudes and, just as in manuscripts, they did not separate words or break lines and the name of the scribe was also printed on them. From the middle of the 19th century, we see a search for early, reliable manuscripts. Some books printed on their cover the details of their source manuscripts. The majority of the books, however, did not indicate any source and simply stole the text of an earlier edition, often modifying it at will without any notice. By the last quarter of the century, editors started to prepare composite texts based on collating various manuscripts. In the 20th century, the search for old manuscripts and publishing Hindi Classics from more and more reliable sources became two of the major activities of the Nāgarīpraćāriṇī Sabhā, an important institution in the context of India’s freedom struggle. Since the struggle for freedom also involved retrieving the nation’s literary achievements. Hindi and other regional language scholars drew on the achievements of Sanskrit philology and prepared critical editions with various methodologies that they described in their long introductions. However, after independence, philological activity gradually lost its momentum and with the death of the great Indian scholars and their students, not much remained of this tradition. This loss, however, was compensated by two new developments. Firstly, the cataloguing of manuscripts, especially in Rajasthan saw an unprecedented intensity and these newly accessible archives, especially the rich princely libraries, started to present new material. Secondly, the end of the 20th  century also marked the globalisation of the classical Hindi heritage. Following the French scholar Charlotte Vaudeville, more and more international scholars entered the field translating or editing classical Hindi texts.
Knowledge of classical Hindi in India declined in the 1970s and 1980s leading to the present situation when most of the ground-breaking research is done outside India in English. 
I hope that in the emerging generation of Indian scholars the interest for this important component of India’s and of mankind’s past will receive its due place.

Question: In recent years, the early modern period has been the subject of a large body of exciting work.  In your view, what has the introduction of the theoretical category of “early modern” helped us understand about the period between 1500 and 1800 CE? What are some of the issues that remain unexplored about this period? What are some of the issues that need attention when it comes to theorising about early modern in Indian vernaculars? What, in your view, are the directions studies on early modern vernaculars in India should take? 

Bangha: The introduction of the concept of early modernity reinstates the study of early modern vernaculars, the literature of which was characterised as feudal and having nothing to do with modernity. The most extreme case happened with Hindi, where under such ideas linguistic and literary continuity with anything prior to 1800 has been rejected by intellectuals embarrassed by the religious or the sycophant aspects of this literature. If we are able to present that modernisation was not a colonial gift and that India was already on the way to develop its own modernity, maybe it would again legitimise a dialogue with one’s literary and linguistic heritage.
We live in an age where knowledge of English is a must in sciences in India. Colonial documents are accessible in English and the amount of historical works using primarily or exclusively English sources outweighs those that engage with other languages. Such works will continue focusing on the colonial legacy. This is an important aspect of Indian, British, and global history. There have always been people who looked for the greatness of Indian culture in the classical heritage accessible in Sanskrit. The idea of early modernity underlines the importance of the vernacular knowledge of India in an era where vernacular knowledge is fast diminishing in the country.
There is a richness of manuscript material both literary and non-literary that is still awaiting readers; this material includes the scientific works mentioned in the previous question. As far as theorisation is concerned, the multilingual aspect always needs to be studied. It might also be useful to compare manuscript circulation with print culture in the form of case studies. The richness of early modern manuscript circulation is a peculiarity of South Asia.
I cannot say what directions such studies should take. However, I can express my hope that the study of early modern vernaculars will be conducted more and more in the modern vernaculars themselves, and engagement with the failures and achievements of the past, and not its neglect or misrepresentation, will produce a better present. I also hope that the masterpieces of vernacular works will be available globally in good translations, not just in English but also in other languages since they express unique and important aspects of our shared human experience.

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