The Vulnerabilities and Fluidities of Maithili

The give-and-take with other literary and cultural spaces have resulted in not only a large volume of translations but many new trends and movements.

Talking about the concerns in Maithili creative writing and thinking, I would say that both in the rich folk song tradition of Mithila as well as in the writings of contemporary times, the theme of injustice keeps returning. There is injustice of epic proportions against Sita, also known as ‘Maithili’, who is tried and tested by her husband and society on the question of fidelity. One of the most influential poets in Maithili literature, Kavivar Sitaram Jha responds to this with a parallel text, ‘Sitaayan’ – much like Satinath Bhaduri’s ‘Dhorhai-Charit-Manas’ which could be aligned with the hugely popular ‘Raam-Charit-Manas’ of Goswami Tulsidas. The theme of injustice reverberates also in the folk-epic of Raja Salhes, originally collected and published by the celebrated Linguist-Magistrate of the British era, Sir George Abraham Grierson in 1882.

Dalit Uprising and Consciousness

Following the story of ‘Surma Salhes’ or the eternal fighter Salhes, as he withstands insults, discrimination and many struggles against the oppressive upper caste rulers before becoming a powerful king himself, Raja Salhes has been manifest in various forms, like the popular Folk-Theatre, or ‘Naach’ performance so common among the Dalits in Mithila, as well as the celebrated novel, ‘Raja Salhes’ by Brajakishore Verma ‘Manipadma.’ In the folk memory, Raja Salhes is still remembered as a great Dalit warrior by the Dusadh and Paswan communities in Mithila.

More than being a text that records a subaltern history of Mithila, Raja Salhes could be taken as an aspiration of the suppressed communities to win over at least five different kinds of injustices perpetrated by the ruling class. One part of this performed folk-epic deals with how Salhes frees two women, Laalpari and Sabujpari from the clutches of the local chieftain, Raja Narayan when he tries to rape them, and eventually how he defeats the common men and women from being terrorised by the zamindars which have been its central theme. In the process, we find him taking the fight also to Shaini Raja to unshackle the free bird Heeraman who was left in the safe custody of Princess Chandravati of the Pakariyagarh royal family. There were other battles, too – for instance, against the political machinations as practiced by Raja Chuuharmal of Mokama and other royalties.

Many of these texts also show protest on another count – especially on the strict code of marital relationships that existed in Mithila. In spite of being from the lower castes, both Salhes and his younger brother, Motiram are married to Kshatriya women, which is thought to be impossible at all times in Mithila. It could also be taken as a revolt against the dominance of Brahmanism on this cultural space, as Salhes and Motiram defy the practice of discrimination in places of worship, and enter the temple to offer prayers.

Divinity, Politics and Alienation

In another novel, Ardhanarishwar, serialised in Mithila-Mihir in 1967-68, the issue of gender equality came up once again, where Manipadma had taken the position that each one of us has both masculine and feminine characteristics embedded in their disposition. The novel is specifically important for its effective articulation of the ancient Indian philosophical position. It tried to establish a harmonious relationship among the Shaiva, Vaishnava and the Buddhist philosophies.

In several other folk-texts of Maithili (such as ‘Deena-Bhadri’) we find a common theme – which is a critique of the Theory of Divine Kinship. Many writings of Modern Maithili took up this cause of arguing against acceptance of a traditional position that argue for a superiority of Brahmanism or the blind acceptance of the Twice-born castes over the rest of humanity. The modern Maithili poets and authors – beginning from Yatri (better known as ‘Nagarjun’ in Hindi) to Rajkamal Chaudhary and many other rebel poets spent all their energy in continuing this fight against an imposed culture based on the faulty concept of superiority of certain castes, rather than devoting their time on love, beauty, sublimity and nature. In this tradition, one could count Jeevkant, Keertinarayan, Ramanand Renu and many others. Novelists such as Lily Ray or fiction writers such as Prabhas Kumar Chowdhary or Rajmohan Jha had all been a part of this protest march, although Mithila was unlike Bengal, in that there were no tradition of Indian People’s Theatre Association or Street Plays carrying out protestation. It is not surprising that besides Andhra and Bengal where the extreme left politics could take root – in spite of many steps in land reforms etc., it was both the Terai region of Maithili speech community in Nepal and in the Maithili speaking areas of Bihar that the politics of the ultra-left continued to garner support. The critical and the compassionate themes therefore revolved around protestation in Modern Maithili’s oral as well as written literatures. The key ideas and discourses evolving in current writing have been politically sensitive. By politics, I would also include the politics of language – the attempt to subvert the dominance of the Darbhanga-Madhubani Brahmanical dialect of Maithili and foreground the Saharsa-Purnea variety by many is another kind of protestation.

Another major concern for Maithili creative writing is the issue of alienation. Feeling separated from nature, from one’s village life (as one moves over to another cultural space for better life), from one’s beloved who is left far behind to toil in hardship keeps coming back in a majority of poems. The generation of Harekrishna Jha, Rajmohan Jha, Vidyanand Jha, Mahaprakash, Subhash Chandra Yadav, or Jeevkant keeps going back to this theme so often. It is a different matter that besides references to the allusions to exile in the Ramayana and Mahabharata stories, or the treatment meted out to the abandoned women in early Indian writings such as Damayanti, Shakuntala, and Radha, the theme of inequality of women has dominated the prose and poetry of many Maithili poets such as Ushakiran Khan, Lily Ray, Jyotsna Chandram, Ila Rani Singh and Shefalika Verma. Nachiketa’s ‘Jahalak Diary’ too falls in this category where one looks at the world outside from the confines of a prison.

National Recognition

Going into the details of the Maithili literary movement, many may point out that for many main-stream writers in Maithili, the compulsion of our peculiar linguistic plight has also been a great concern. While Maithili has received constitutional recognition as an 8th scheduled language based on its vibrant poetry, songs, plays, fiction and painting plus performance tradition – it has faced an utter neglect by politicians of all hues in Bihar who would rather try to promote Urdu as the second official language of the state. Bhojpuri and Magahi are perpetually neglected anyway. Interestingly, This fact had long been shown by both political analysts, Jyotirindra Dasgupta (Language Conflict and National Development: Group Politics and National Language Policy in India) and Paul Brass (1974, Language, Religion and Politics in North India) that Hindi-Hindu correlation and Muslim-Urdu Correlation, especially the latter, is weak in the case of Bihar. The Census figure of Maithili has dramatically gone up because the Muslims in the Mithila region have been speaking in and returning to Maithili as their mother-tongue. The dilemma is that many writers in Mithila being bilinguals, with Hindi as their school language, and some having realised that Hindi book market offers them a greater opportunity of name and fame, write in both Maithili and Hindi. Therefore, Hindi has somehow remained the intimate enemy for this entire cultural space.

The conjecture of Paul Brass vis-à-vis this linguistic space has been that no literary movement in support of a language has been successful unless it has had the support of either a religious force (as in case of Panjabi and Urdu) or a political party (as in case of Tamil or Telugu). Therefore, Maithili language movement was doomed to be a failure. However, much before Maithili had turned out to be a success case, in 1983 – the report from Centre for Social Studies in Surat (by Singh, Udaya Narayana, Pradip Bose & N. Rajaram, 1983 ‘The Maithili Language Movement: A Sociolinguistic Investigation’) had argued that a continuous economic deprivation suffered by a literary group may also be yet another force that may backfire and become a great rallying point in favour of an emerging literary language. From 1947, because of the devastations suffered by periodic draught and resultant famine as well as huge floods, Mithila region in Bihar has been the worst sufferer of nature’s fury. In addition, there has neither been any investment in this region nor any avenue for the young learners to have decent education and employment opportunities. As a result, the best and the above-average from Mithila had to spread out to all other parts of the country, coming in contact with the best minds who contributed so much for their own languages.

Emerging Dialogues

The nature of dialogue that is building within the space of Maithili as is evidenced from the rich exchanges both on and off stage, on social media platforms and in the real-life or virtual seminar platforms among the writers, audiences and the hard-core critics has been about shedding its inhibitions, prejudices, and fixities of various kinds. Translation has brought in many new ideas, styles and genres. Borrowing formats has enriched the experimental designs. Maithili poetry has benefitted immensely from all this, as much as short fiction. Scholars engaged in teaching and researching in and on Maithili in the universities in both India and Nepal, however, have been stuck with old questions and styles. They often miss out as to what is happening in the real-life writing scenario, and how our writers are bringing in the best of trends from elsewhere. But this lack of pace notwithstanding, many poets and authors have taken up the task of producing literary appreciations and critical analyses – which is a very healthy sign. The likes of Taranand Viyogi, Deoshankar Naveen, Uday Shankar Jha ‘Vinod’, Mahendra Malangiya, Ramlochan Thakur, Kedar Kanan, Narayan-ji, Shyam Darihare, Ajit Azad or Arunabh Saurabh are growing in number, bringing a very different challenge before those faculty members and researchers engaged in the teaching and researching Maithili in colleges and universities.

Literary festivals, a new trend in Mithila, beginning from the one in Patna under the title Maithili Literary Festival (later also held in Delhi, under the guidance of Vinodanand Jha) and now an additional fest at Madhubani (thanks to Savita Jha Khan), have only added to the colour and flavour of new writings. But one movement that has stood out is the ‘Sagare Raait Deep Jaray’ events held every month on a given day for over the last three decades, where the best, budding and prospective short fiction writers and critics (including stalwarts like Bhimnath Jha, Mohan Bhardwaj or documentation experts like Ramanand Jha ‘Raman’) assemble in a village that hosts the night-long reading event. It begins with a series of readings of mostly unpublished and fresh short stories, soon after a simple meal at night offered by the villagers, and continues with critical comments in the morning, dispersing after a cup of tea. In the period when Maithili publishing had become lean, this sustained short story writing, and it is only now that these have started coming out in anthology forms.

Meanwhile, the nature of our literary magazines and e-zines have also changed where we find a lot of discussion of the issues that concern the neighbouring speech groups as well. For various reasons, as many of the best-known authors today live in the regions outside Mithila. The give-and-take with other literary and cultural spaces have resulted in not only a large volume of translations but many new trends and movements.

The literary journals such as ‘Mithila Mihir’ (edited by Sudhanshu Shekhar Chowdhary), ‘Mithila Darshan’ (Prabodh Narayan Singh, initially and then Babu Saheb Chowdhary, and now Nachiketa with Ramlochan Thakur and Kunal), ‘Aakhar’ (of Keertinarayan Mishra and associates), ‘Agnipatra’ (of Ramlochan Thakur and Virendra Mallik), ‘Vaidehi (edited by Krishnakant Mishra), or in the e-zine ‘Videha’ (edited by Gajendra Thakur) translations into Maithili have always occupied a special position. Besides, eminent translators such as Surendra Jha ‘Suman’, Prabodh Narayan Singh, Govind Jha or Bhaskar Jha have always made a series of attempts to bring in the best of writings from other corners of the world, thus enriching Maithili.

This essay is part of a larger series by Inter-Actions on the discourses and ideas emerging out of the different languages of India. As a growing number of ecological, environmental and humanitarian crises confront our society, we see a range of emotional and pragmatic responses in the public space. The one crucial element that remains missing, and which may be the key to effectively addressing and sustainably solving these problems, is the intellectual one. This series aims to understand the thoughts emerging from different languages of India, and situate where this thought may lead us. To read the other essays, click here.

Knowledge is power, and our intention is to bring the power to you. We have initiated a thought movement that aims to strengthen democracy by bringing to you direct voices of important trailblazers and pathmakers, and reclaim deep and patient reflection as an important seed for relevant and sustainable action! Help us take this movement forward. Support Inter-Actions today for as little as Rs. 100.
Donation to LILA is eligible for tax exemption u/s 80 G (5) (VI) of the Income Tax Act 1961 vide order no. NQ CIT (E) 6139 DEL-LE25902-16032015 dated 16/03/2015