As a ‘text’ Meera has undergone continuous mutation with time; she has virtually been rendered into a discursive palimpsest. The exigencies of nationalism—the need of legitimacy, authenticity and a consequent search for native nationalistic roots—necessitated the appropriation of Meera as an icon of/for secular/spiritual India; she became an integral sub-text of passive, semi-spiritualized struggle against the colonialists. In Indian literature, especially during the high tide of cchayavad, Meera was adopted/adapted and invoked as an icon of romantic yearnings and mysticism. This literary invocation, when fed into the dynamics of latter day freedom struggle, epitomized the inner recesses of the soul of the nation, and Meera became its inspiring deity. With independence Meera became a symbol of religious syncretism and feminine ethos. However, with demystification of India as a nation, Meera too acquired a commensurate personality; she symbolized both a sense of rebellion and a poignant devotion to an ideal gone sour.
Meera, in short, became a malleable icon, a representation that suited every mould: a feminist icon, a nationalist model, a split personality, a medieval saint poet and a social rebel. Her inherent interpretive malleability makes her an enigma that needs continuous appraisal and reappraisal. Apparently rooted in the wisdom that perspective shifts and counter shifts constitute the staple of academic scholarship, Pallav’s book, Meera: Ek Punarmoolyankan, an edited collection of essays on Meera, is yet another addition to this process of ‘knowledge-expansion.’ This anthology is an important academic attempt to resurrect and reinvent Meera in a way that mirrors and impinges on the changing contours of culture and politics in our times.
The anthology contains twenty-eight critical essays/comments on Meera. The essays are a mix of new and the old, originally written and translated into Hindi, written by veterans and the budding literary critics in/of Hindi. Uneven in merit, but variegated in scholarship, the thrust of the essays in this collection, nevertheless, is to historicize Meera as a woman and a poet not only within her spatio-temporal context but also from the vantage point of the contemporary hindsight. Thematically the essays of this anthology fall into five broad groups: (1) Essays that trace the evolutionary trajectory of Meera, the women and poet, within the larger context of the Bhakti Movement; (2) essays that approach Meera as a poet and concentrate on the poetics and politics of her poetry; (3) essays that bring to bear contemporary critical/socio-ideological slant in their analysis of Meera; (4) essays that problematize the conventional understanding of Meera, the saint-poet-in feudal-setting, from an avowedly feministic-subaltern perspective; and (5) essays that, though straddling the aforementioned concerns, being singularly independent in their analytic trajectory, do not fall under any of the above categories. While Viswanath Tripathi’s ‘Varna Vyavastha, Naari Aur Bhakti Andolan’ and Ramchandra Tiwari’s ‘Bhakti Andolan ki Mool Pravriti aur Meera ki Kavita’ falls under the first category, ‘Gitikavya Ki Sarvotkrisht Pariniti’ by Shivmangal Singh and ‘Kavyanubhuti ki Pramanikta’ by Nand Kishore Acharaya fall under the second category. Madhu Kishwar and Ruth Vanita’s translated essay ‘Vish Se Amrit: Meerabai ka Jeevan aur Karm,’ Kamal Kothari’s ‘Meera ka Dard,’ Manager Pandey’s ‘Meera ki Kavita aur Mukti ki Chetna,’ Anuradha’s ‘Meera ka Kavya aur Stritava ka Nirman,’ Shiv Kumar Mishra’s ‘Stri-Vimarsh mein Meera,’ Gopeshwar Singh’s ‘Meera ke Kavya ka Samajik Pehlu’ are some of the articles that between themselves constitute the third and fourth category of this anthology. Ramesh Kuntal Megh’s ‘Rajputani Meera ki Thakurani Aan’, Himanshu Pandya’s ‘Meera ki Kavita: Prem ke Nihitarth,’ Ramesh Kuntal Megh’s ‘Premdivani, Sanyasini Meera ka Kaun sa Jogi’ and Jeevan Singh’s ‘Meera ki Kavita aur Kavita ki Meera,’ Pankaj Bist’s ‘Vidroh ki Pagdandi’, Anamika’s ‘Kankreet Ki Sadakein aur Meerabai,’ are some of the significant contributions representing the fifth category of the anthology. Among them these essays provide comprehensive continuities and reappraisal of scholarship on Meera, and, thus, seem to fulfill the avowed editorial aim of the book. In his short but terse introductory remark, the editor asserts as much. Without denying extant critical insights on Meera their due, he calls for a critical shift that apart from contextualizing the subjectivity of Meera within her milieu and moment also resurrects her relevance—both historical and discursive—within the contemporary. Treading a critical balance between Meera-the-myth and Meera-the-reality in their essays, scholars like Manager Pandey, Jeevan Singh, Madhu Kishwar and Ruth Vanita succeed in imparting a much needed complexity of awareness and understanding of Meera per se. Meerabai was condemned for her unwomanly conduct in repudiating normal domestic course; she was even disgraced as a raand, a debuched and deviant woman by the local Rajputs. As a poet she was slotted as a bhakti poet and her poetry straitjacketed into devotional mould. Caught within this binary that on the one hand deified her as a saint poet and on the other defiled her as a social deviant, Meerabai’s historical persona tended to take a backseat; she was rendered either into a timeless abstraction or as a temporal anomaly. Rather than foregrounding Meera as a conventional narrative/mythical icon or as a saint poet, the scholars in this anthology seeks to resurrect her as a historical entity that actively intervened in the socio-cultural dynamics of her age. She emerges as an arch symbol of the marginalized and the subaltern. Without undermining her importance as a medieval saint poet, this reappraisal aims at bridging the gap between her public/devotional and her private/activist persona at the juncture of history and ideology. It is through this process of re-visioning, re-evaluation or re-examination that the weltanschauung of the age enters, expands and enriches the extant knowledge domains—iconic, epistemic or ideological.
Free from the burden of the conventional wisdom, young critics like Himanshu Pandya seek human explanations of events/icons around/of Meera rarefied beyond reason; the myth of Meera is pegged to a humanist perspective. Such an exercise of humanizing the mythical woman—both the saintly and the sinful—is a hallmark of their essays. Mira’s reality—hitherto totally subsumed by her spirituality—is also amply hinted, if not fully elaborated upon. Critics like Madhu Kishwar and Ruth Vanita on the other hand take cognizance of Meera in all her materiality—humanly valid, even if culturally impermissible—and even pitch for her as a symbol of feminist revolution. Madhav Hada in his article ‘Meera ki Nirmit Chhavi aur Yathart’ rips open the romantic notions of Meera as an ideal/idol of feudal normativity, beauty and saintly piety and foregrounds the historical invalidity of such constructions.
Essays that focus on Meera’s poetry seek to establish a link between Meera’s life and her aesthetics. Anuradha and Jeevan Singh in their essays, for example, deconstruct Meera’s aesthetics in terms of activism that sprang from her socio-existential angst and was in turn sustained by it. For them Meera’s poetic drive lay in her stubbornness to be free.
Anamika and Pankaj Bist, through their reminiscensical insertions, impart a peculiar poignancy to their exploration of Meera. By collating her subjectivity with that of Meera’s, Anamika not only bridges the gap between the historical Meera and the contemporary women, but also foregrounds a continuity of feminine/feminist tradition and its present day cultural significance.
The anthology is also significant for its archival value. The editor has really searched for his material. In the process he has been able to unearth some of the old, almost rare and even forgotten essays on Meera. Two essays, i.e., Shivmangal Singh Suman’s ‘Gitikavya ki Sarvotkrisht Pariniti’ and Komal Kothari’s ‘Meera ka Dard’ are important examples of this discovery. Their inclusion imbues this anthology with an evolutionary perspective on Meera.
It is not that this book is a total success. Like any other effort at putting emerging critical opinions within one cover, it too gains from and is delimited by the personality/academic thrust of its editor. Whereas an eagerness to incorporate new perspectives without really abandoning the old wisdom provides this anthology a much needed critical balance, an eagerness to accommodate as many contributors as possible somewhat dilutes its academic rigour. Secondly, editorial introductions are a key to the success of such anthologizing efforts. But, in his anxiety not to be too obtrusive, the editor seems to have missed out on this front. He states his critical purpose unambiguously but stops short of offering a critique of the essays within the framework of his postulates. His introduction seems to be a little too expansive. These shortcomings notwithstanding, the present anthology is a significant addition to the burgeoning critical corpus on Meera. By refusing to slot/see Meera as a one dimensional icon, the scholars in this anthology rip open the seams of speculative and simplistic historical and literary constructions that either patronized her as a feudal palimpsest or used her as a spiritual-nationalist myth. Joining issue with the eulogistic discursivity around Meerabai that fossilized her as a medieval bhakti icon, most of the contributors to this anthology try to re-draw the discursive limits around her as a woman, poet and a singer. In steering clear of the stereotypes that underline Meera’s conventional persona, this critical anthology definitely adds complexity to her historical personality. It also underlines the fact that for a more inclusive and nuanced understanding and assessment of Meera the person and the poet, she needs to be freed from the restrictive and reductive mould of Bhakti-iconicity/sainthood.
Anup Beniwal is with the University School of Humanities and Social Sciences, GGS IP University, Delhi.