Mahadevi Varma occu¬pies a unique position in the world of Hindi letters today. She is almost the solve sur¬vivor of the pre-Independence, the ‘heroic’ generation, a relic from a distant, simpler past—a past remembered with increasing nostalgia as we sink deeper into the mud of the present. The grotesque efflorescence of the national movement still lay in the womb of an ironic future; it was, it appeared to be, it appears to have been, a time of innocence and dreams of possibility. Certainly for literary folk. The nation was slowly coming to a conscious¬ness of itself. Modern Hindi literature, seeking to emerge from its folk, dialectal, medi¬eval backgrounds and to define for itself a contemporary identity, was a part of this larger process. There was an ineluctable, gratifying dimen¬sion to literary work, a larger movement of conscious¬ness which endowed literary writing with a range of public resonance that seems merely fantastic today. This is, as it happens, ironic in respect of Chhayavad, since—insofar as it was anything specifiable at all—Chhayavad was an ideology of aesthetic, subjectivity, a refusal of that public world which was the avowed domain of the lite¬rature of the Dwivedi Yug. The public adulation of the Chhayavadi poets—the giants of modern Hindi literature, Pant, Nirala, Mahadevi—is, I suppose, a kind of ‘poetic’ revenge. However, the over¬flow of this adulation into what should be serious critical attention is an unmitigated calamity.
The facile super¬latives, the fulsome fatuities, blend imperceptibly into that predilection for. hagiography which might perhaps be the cultural consequence of pro¬longed historical subservience, an index of the persistence of modes deriving from hierarchi¬cal feudal societies. (The obverse of this proclivity for excessive adulation is the public taste for un-attributable, malicious gossip —and Maha¬devi Varma, a single woman, separated from her husband, leading an active public life, and writing a poetry which might plausibly be read as being haunted by a phantom lover, has had more than her fair share of this as well.) At any rate, hagiography makes for rotten criticism—a fact which might be confirmed by even a cursory acquaintance with most of the writings on Mahadevi. Then again, much literary criticism in Hindi tends—perhaps because of the relative immaturity of the discipline—to be quite slip-shod, both methodologi¬cally and at the level of app¬aratus. So, all in all, Ms Schomer, schooled in another, more rigorous and sceptical academic tradition, had her work cut out for her.
The strengths of Schomer’s study of Mahadevi Varma are evident enough. She app¬roaches her subject with an easy, clear-eyed objectivity, unencumbered by those accumulated biases and habits which, while they give one a sense of belonging to a certain culture, also endow one with a certain blindness towards it. This ‘Martian’ freshness works at several levels. For example, while discussing Prasad’s tortuous defence of Chhayavad in Yatharthavada our Chhayavad, in terms of classical poetics, Schomer catches him in the act of practising the kind of ex post facto etymologizing long recognized by Indian tradition as a valid intel¬lectual process.
What she is pointing out is, I suggest, familiar enough; we all know the intricate sequ¬ences by which improbable entities are triumphantly con¬joined by earnest intellectuals in a sort of parody of lexical absolutism. However, some¬one more imbued with the hierarchical protocol of Hindi literary culture might have hesitated to point out, parti¬cularly in the case of someone like Prasad, just how bogus it is as an intellectual strategy.
To take another example: in rough shorthand, Chhayavad is understood to be a kind of Indian Romanticism. Certainly one of its leading figures, Pant, openly proclaimed the influence of the English Romantics upon him. Further, Chhayavad is understood to represent a sort of discovery of Nature, a turning away from the abstractions of the earlier poetry of the Dwivedi Yug towards the immediacies of Nature. However, as Schomer delicately points out,
Nature in Chhayavad was enhanced and intensified by the imagination rather than precisely observed and des¬cribed. In most cases, botanical reality is not too greatly violated, but one does occasionally find a flower blooming in the wrong season or at the wrong time of day.
Someone more immersed in the culture would, I suspect, have been swept along by the undeniable music of the poetry without distracting references to physical particulars. Here, Schomer’s distance from the culture is a distinct asset.
Schomer brings a proper scepticism to bear upon the ‘modern Mira’ myth which has developed around Maha¬devi Varma. She clearly has no time for the kind of ‘criti¬cism’ which assiduously finds in Mahadevi a rare blend of all that was best in Gautama Buddha, Jesus Christ and Gandhi, Mahatma. Schomer coolly points out that although Mahadevi sometimes affects a certain embarrassed impatience with the Mira mystique, it is something which she has her¬self ‘alternatively (sic) resisted and cultivated as the years went on.’ However, in trying to get at the evidence, Schomer has run into the usual pro¬blems. We are not a tidy, record-keeping people to begin with—and this natural care¬lessness, coupled with a pro¬per, middle-class sense of dis¬cretion, leaves but little scope for the fearless pursuit of truth. Outside the area where she could rely on printed sources, Schomer has had to depend upon oral sources—a commendable enterprise, parti¬cularly when none other seems feasible. But then there are, there must be, the inevitable half-truths, the evasions, the conscious and unconscious distortions—and it is in the very nature of oral evidence that these must be difficult to root out.
For all her manifest advan¬tages of academic discipline and cultural distance, however, Schomer’s study labours under some serious disadvantages. The most serious of these is that her subject-matter is poetry in a language other than the one in which her book is written. Schomer is herself aware that this is a problem—that, perhaps, the essential being of poetry is untrans¬latable. Thus, to take one random example, Mahadevi’s ‘ Yug yug ka panthi aakul man’ becomes, in Schomer’s English, ‘My troubled heart, since ages on the road’. Schomer, one must hasten to add, is hardly to blame. However, in seeking is compensate for these inevit¬able transmission losses (for her English-language readers), she seems to me to fall into a kind of cultural apologetics, a recourse to explanations in terms of ‘Eastern mysticism’ which, to my mind, is a defect—even though its origins may well lie in a generous cultural relativism. She is perfectly right in pointing out that,
because of culture-bound divergences in poetic sensibi¬lity, the Western reader may fail to be touched by what moves the Indian reader the most: the basic theme of un¬requited love and the emotional tone of pathos.
In order to make up for this, Schomer promises, in a final chapter, ‘an interpretation of Mahadevi’s poetic world’. I am not quite sure that she delivers on that promise.
Some portion of the inade¬quacy of this work derives from the raggedness of its theoretical underpinning. At first glance, the work appears to be a strange and daring hybrid. It opens with a synop¬tic survey of Hindi literature, leading up to the advent of Chhayavad. Thereafter, Schomer devotes three chapters to a survey of Chhayavad it-self, its shaping influences, its formal characteristics, as gleaned from a study of its major practitioners, and the critical controversies which it aroused. Then the author de¬votes one chapter to an account of Allahabad, ‘city of literary people’, the city in which Mahadevi has spent most of her adult life. We then move back in time, and Schomer enters upon a bio¬graphical account of ‘Mr Varma’s Daughter’. This modulates, over the next few chapters, into a bio-critical account that is capped by the final chapter of ‘interpretation’ mentioned earlier, ‘The Self-consuming Lamp: Mahadevi’s Poetic World’. Much of this weaving back and forth, it should be said, is competently done—but the underlying rationale for all this remains, for my taste at any rate, hazy, and the connections tenuous.
In the very first paragraph of her Preface, Schomer declares that her book is ‘about an indi¬vidual, a movement, and an age….’ This breezy assertion is hardly sufficient, and merely begs or bypasses the interesting and critically fertile—if also ambiguous—relationships between ‘individual’, ‘move¬ment’ and ‘age’. Schomer writes that her study ‘com¬bines biography, intellectual history, and literary criticism’—and so it does; but the relationship between its ele-ments remains, in the final analysis, additive rather than organic.
Commenting on the ‘overall narrative framework’ of Maha¬devi’s poetic work, Schomer makes the excellent observa¬tion that this narrative is really only an implied narrative, of which the individual lyrics are but discrete moments. How¬ever, in concluding that
the love myth developed in Mahadevi’s poetry seems to be an example of the Radha-Krishna rather than the Shiva-Parvati pattern
—i.e., a recurrent, perpetually extended (because perpetually renewed) state of yearning, rather than a progress towards fulfilment—Schomer seems to be throwing away her insight prematurely. After all, the Radha-Krishna and Shiva-Parvati legends are not in themselves, necessarily, analy¬tical termini. They are, in practice, implied narrative which endow specific moments—in this instance, the poetry of Mahadevi—with parti¬cular resonances. And the notion of the implied narra¬tive, regressed further, would suggest an access to the buried emotional life of a whole cul¬ture. The implied narrative of culture would be, in this sense, a little like religion—its concerns and its silences, its apparent disjunctions and its network of sympathies, elo¬quent of a life that is, vari¬ously, submerged.
Critics other than Schomer have remarked the apparent difference in intrinsic quality between Mahadevi’s poetry and her prose—see Amrit Rai’s 1946 essay on Mahadevi in Nai Sameeksha (new edi¬tion, Allahabad, 1982). The prose writings, whether the passionate feminist editorials of Chand magazine, later pub¬lished as Shrinkhala ki Kariyan (1942), or the intimate sketches of Ateet ke Chalchitra (1941) and Smriti ki Rekhaen (1943), are characterized by an intense social awareness, a historical rootedness, a sense of pain and suffering, not as titillating metaphysical abstractions but as experiences both more im¬mediate and provocative of outrage. Her poetry, on the other hand, is suffused with a kind of moist, undifferentiated sadness—persuasive, but soon cloying and monotonous. The lyrics are distinguished by wonderful individual lines, but larger structures bring out the discursive inadequacy of her poetic enterprise. At its worst, her poetry degenerates into a kind of mystical muzak, a repetitive and sub-critical claim on our attention. I doubt that Schomer will agree with much of this, although I am grateful to her for having pointed out the paucity of verbs in Chhayavadi diction! Still, Schomer does remark the apparent cleavage between the two halves of Mahadevi’s personality, and it is to her critical treatment of this that I propose finally to turn. Schomer defends Mahadevi’s poetic practice on the grounds that it derives from the Chhayavad sensibility with its stress on the imagi¬nation and its particular kind of first-person subjectivity.
She also writes that Maha¬devi’s poetry is in accord with her ‘own very clear statements about her poetry’. This, I would suggest, is naive; the form of Chhayavad was itself determined by the practice of the poets who were identified with it—and one is commit¬ting a rather elementary logi¬cal error if one offers a defence of Mahadevi’s Chhayavadi practice on the grounds that it is in accord with Chhayavad’s principles or with, her own. The principles were derived from the practice in the first place.
More seriously, it is not a matter, ultimately, of prefer¬ring one or the other: poetry or prose, virahini or concerned social activist. The poetry of the virahini is Schomer’s chosen subject, my own taste is for the prose—but the cri¬tical task, I would imagine, is that of assimilating and mak¬ing sense of the radical dis¬junction between the two. I doubt that there are easy ans¬wers here. It may indeed be the case, as Schomer suggests, that Mahadevi uses her poetry ‘transformatively’, a kind of therapy to induce desired emo¬tional states in herself. I think one would also need to look into the inertial persistence of traditional ways of making poetry, the means by which a sense of the limits of the ‘liter¬ary’ becomes ingrained. One might be led to an examina¬tion of the phenomenon of Chhayavad itself, a movement devoted to aesthetic subjecti¬vity in a time of fundamental upheaval which, paradoxi¬cally, received great social acclaim. One might, in a per¬versely counter-factual way, try to imagine the poetry Mahadevi would have written if she could have found an adequate ‘poetic’ vehicle for her ‘prose’ sensibility. And one might then seek to under¬stand the factors that preven¬ted her from doing so, both at the level of individual sensi¬bility and at the level of the historically determined limits of imaginative possibility.
Alok Rai is Reader in the Department of English, University of Allahabad.