Meera Vs Meera: A Critical Gaze at Multiple Images of Meera Bai | By GJV Prasad
Most of us in India have grown up with stories about Meera, with listening to her bhajans. We may have heard the stories from elder members of our family, read books and graphic fiction, watched movies, and listened to MS Subbalakshmi or other famous singers. We may even have read Kiran Nagarkar’s epic novel Cuckold. Meera is an icon, someone to be interpreted and adopted by each generation in its own light. According to Hada, Meera received a new lease of life during the freedom movement and after independence. However, it is the image of the ‘saint-devotee’ bhakti poet that has proved to be all pervasive regardless of the subtle changes in the demands of perception since colonial times. It is this image of Meera that Hada sets out to deconstruct, to give us multiple images, to show us Meera in all her complexity, regardless of true historical sources from her times, endeavoring to read other histories and biographies in terms of their times and ideologies. This is a massive effort to enable us to understand a famous icon of our land, and he sets about it with all humility of a true scholar. One realizes the worth of this effort even though one is reading an English translation by the redoubtable Pradeep Trikha who should be congratulated for carrying out this mission.
Who was Meera? In a sense, every chapter of this book tries to explicate it, by traversing the terrain of Meera’s life as if on a swing looking at the ground, and indeed the horizon, from different points of view, bringing to our notice different aspects of Meera’s life and works, in order to situate them in different frames of argument and references, to give us as complete picture as possible – a narrative strategy that has been used with success by others before, especially when the sources are scanty. It is a voyage of discovery for us with Madhav Hada, a voyage on a swing, as we settle down with this book, to critique various writers and positions, to debunk historians of all hues, to scorn hagiographers and dissenters alike, to swat like flies those who would not look at Meera’s material conditions, as also those who would ‘willfully’ misread them because of their own ideological positions. Yes, before one can smile at Madhav Hada’s disdain for leftist historians and feminists, and for colonial writers, we realize his disdain has no biases, he is against all people who have tried to ‘appropriate’ or ‘read’ Meera for what he sees as their own purposes. How can you not like him, or be in sympathy with his project? At the very outset Hada points out:
‘During the colonial period, European historians focused on the elements of love, romance and mystery in Meera’s life in their accounts. They added imagination to her stories, to serve their colonial interests of appropriating Meera’s image, and to project it as they desired, in the eyes of their European peers as well as the Indian masses’. (p. 7)
For Marxists and Feminists critics, he is of view that:
‘Marxist critics and neo-feminist activists focused on the narratives related to Meera’s courage and self-determination. Thus, researchers, whether Indian or from other countries, have interpreted Meera’s life stories according to their own criteria, pre-dispositions, and standards. While taking advantage of the fact that there is little substantive evidence about her life, they have used their own methods and parameters of interpretation—leading to varied conclusions, forming new and desired images of Meera. As a result, many ‘Meeras’ have been created. For some, she may be a ‘saint-poet’; for another, an extraordinary rebellious woman. For some, she is a woman shrouded in mystery and romance, ‘addicted to love’. However, as we will be discovering throughout the book, in reality, Meera never negated life.’ (p.8).
In his attempt to clear the cobwebs around Meera’s life the conclusion to the Chapter, “Life” states that, ‘The reconstruction of Meera’s life should be carried out only based on her real life. To fathom and investigate her realities is certainly a daunting task. Meera’s life, which might deviate from her life as seen by the masses, more clearly, was carved out of their expectations, dreams, wishes, and thus something or the other keeps on adding or being removed from her actual life till this very day.’ (p.82)
In six chapters, Madhav Hada leads us through Meera’s life, her society, religious narratives about her, her poetry, her canonization, and her image construction. Regarding the society of medieval India (that is of Meera’s times) it is often measured as ‘a rigid, repressive, and non-progressive one’ but on the contrary the writer cites ample historical evidences from the vernacular as well as contemporary histories to prove that it was a progressive society because public opinion was often valued by the state. The status of women was neither ‘passive’ nor ‘submissive’, ‘…they played a pivotal role not only in the family but also took part in state of affairs. Matrimonial alliances were often established… Women’s honour and dignity was of paramount importance…Widows led a different kind of life; they were not completely neglected and uncared for. Although… practices like ‘sati’ existed in the society, it was neither so popular nor mandatory.’ (p.131)
He alerts us to sources not regarded by others, looks at both the oral and the written sources and tries to trace the different interpretations and indeed the different facts that make up our various versions of Meera. Is she a victim, an oppressed woman? Is she a romantic, a pious woman who lived out a love story? Is she well and truly part of the elite, with privilege and agency, charting her own life, patronizing others? Is she a saint-poet, one who was otherworldly, not made for the intrigues of the court and for the life of the material world? Who is/was Meera? From chapter one to six, we move from who was to who is! For Madhav Hada knows that what we have and what we make of Meera are religious and historical memories. The Chapter, “Canonization”, undertakes a critical reappraisal of Colonel James Todd’s, Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan and Travels in Western India as pointed out:
‘Despite a lack of historical sources to validate this image, she was popularized as a saint and her ‘canonization’ took place. This image did not assess her with respect to her worldly hardships, constraints or circumstances. This did not acknowledge her as a mortal being with emotions and frailties. But Tod’s fame and influence gave this image a nearly undisputed legitimacy, and popularity. Several factors were behind this. Tod’s preconceived notion of oriental magic, mystery and romanticism, his colonial interests of exerting influence on indigenous communities and his relationship with Rajput rulers.’ (p. 182)
These two historical sources later became the seminal texts for several historians from Rajasthan. If anything, that is established about her comes from sources written centuries after she lived, then we have to accept that every generation or era has made its own Meera, taking what they wanted from the stories told about her. He argues that her poetry has enough internal evidences that reveal her as the family woman, the queen, the one who knew the ways of the home and the court, one who could take care of herself, one who had agency and exerted it, one who had privilege and used it, one who was devout and one who lived her life fully, as well as anyone during her time could.
However, Meera employs imagery drawn from her earthly world. There are invigorating examples of different elements of nature, rivers, ponds, trees, plants, animals, birds, wind, lightning, earth, sky, clouds, rain, forest, sea, castle, attic, clothing, jewellery, etc. Unlike other saint-poets, Meera does not turn a blind eye to her mundane surroundings, rather, draws inspirations from them to enrich her journey within, there are several examples of this such as:
“Piya Mohi dursani deejey ho
Ber – ber main terhun ya kirpa kijey ho
Jeth mahina jal bin paanchi dukh hoi ho
Mor asada kurleh ghan chalrak soi ho
Saawan me jhad lagiyo sakhi teejan khelyo
Bhadrvey nadiyan bahey doori jin miley ho
Seep swati hi jhel ti asoonja soi ho
Dev kaati mein pujey mere tum hoi jo
Mangsar thand bhut hi pare mohi begi
Pos mahi pala ghana, abhi tum nihalo ho
Maha nahin basant panchami fagaan sab gavey ho
Phagun phagan khel hain banraav jaiarave ho
Chait chit mein upjie darshan tum deeje ho
Baisaakh banrai phulvey koyal kurlijey ho
Kaag udanvat din gaya bujhun pandit josi ho
Meeran birhan byakul darshan kad hosi ho”
[O dear one, meet me,
Persistently I call out, shower grace (upon me),
During summer month in scarcity of water,
The bird is in peril,
During rains peacocks quack...
In rainy season, showers are incessant,
My female friends celebrate teej (festival),
Rivers are overflowing; now do not stay far away,
Seashells will capture pearls in the month of Asoj,
In month of Kartik gods shall be worshipped,
You are my lord, aren’t you?
In Mrigashira it would be too cold, envelope me in your care,
Winter months will be cold and frosty,
Now you have to see...
During basant–panchami, all are singing songs of spring,
At the beginning of summer, the heart leaps, grant me a sight of you,
In Baisakh, full of pride, black cuckoo sings
Throughout the day I’ve kept crows at bay,
Now will enquire the soothsayer,
Meera, suffering pangs of separation,
Is bewildered, when will you meet me, Lord?] (p.163)
Thus, Meera vs Meera shows us how tangled the history is – where was she born? When? When did she marry? What happened to her in her life? How was she received everywhere? Why are some stories more prevalent about her? How much can you believe them? He reads all texts closely to tease out the possible truths. It is to Hada’s credit that he doesn’t give us easy answers even as he shows us all that he can. Even the merging of Meera in Krishna in the temple is viewed from multiple points of view – all with great reason and with great respect to Meera. The book is a must read for the community of scholars interested in cultural studies. In the concluding chapter “Image Construction” it is pointed out that the process of ‘image construction’ immediately began after Meera’s death due to political and religious reasons, stellar role was played by the colonial historians who had often regarded Indian society as uncivilized, ‘crude’, primitive and ‘non-progressive’. The reason given by Hada is:
‘In early postcolonial years, the mind of the middle-class Indian was still heavily set under the Western influence, despite being aware of India’s cultural integrity and pride. On one hand, Western ideologies were still prevalent, yet national consciousness was stronger than ever. Consequently, in this state of insoluble dilemma, Indian intellectuals considered it as their responsibility to recover Indian past and heritage. As a result, the colonial-era image of Meera spread by leaps and bounds in popular books, newspapers and magazines, comic strips, and movies, with little to no deviation from what the European rulers have created of her. The idealized accounts of her life and love fascinated the Indian middle class.’ (p.201)
Still the curiosity remains that Who is our Meera? Who is your Meera? Madhav Hada leaves it to the readers. Read his in Hindi or read him in Pradeep Trikha’s admirable English translation – and make up your mind. It is an engaging translation that flows like a stream with socio-cultural zests retained and aesthetics of language customized.
Bio.: Professor (Retd.), Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org