In this study of Vidyapati, scholar and poet from fifteenth-century eastern India, Professor Pankaj Jha explores how historians might engage with literary texts so as to enrich our understanding of both history and literature. Vidyapati presents an ideal candidate for such a project, writing as he did in at least four languages and in all of the prominent literary genres of the era; so that his oeuvre allows us to explore the ‘slow-moving but tangled relationship between literature and knowledge formation on the one hand, and power and political possibilities on the other’ (p. xxvii).
There are hurdles here for scholars and readers in contemporary India, who are mono- or bi-lingual at best, and often not fully literate in any language: from such an impoverished perch, it is all too easy to be deaf to the ‘deep histories and multilingual debts of apparently monolingual texts’ by authors like Vidyapati (p. xxiii). Jha points to other, anachronistic blinkers as well from the vantage point of modern scholarship. Thus, in modern literary histories of Hindi, a polymath like Vidyapati eluded easy classifications, as a writer primarily of devotional verses (bhakti) or of courtly verse (riti), or of heroic narratives. Even more consequentially, from a modern understanding of one confessional affiliation precluding all other alignments and loyalties, Vidyapati, with his compositions in Vaishnava, Shaiva, and Shakta idioms, poses a conundrum (p. 35). Jha thus attempts to ‘move beyond the preset sectarian and regional confines and relocate him in the wider world of the creative and political traditions of North India, Bihar, and Bengal in the fifteenth century’ (p. 36).