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Six The Text in a Changing Society
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Avadhi, Khari Boli, and "Hindi-Ization"

In the course of my research I sometimes encountered educated people who told me that they could not understand the Manas . "It's in Avadhi," one man said, "not in Hindi, and so it's just like a foreign language to me." Although the performance genres that I have described undoubtedly help spread knowledge of the text, they also presuppose a considerable familiarity with it; the most effective Katha performances require an audience knowledgeable enough to interact with the performer and even to complete his quotations from the text. Yet Tulsi's epic is more than four centuries old; unlike its Sanskrit ancestor, it was not composed in a frozen literary language but in a fluid spoken dialect. Thus, it seems inevitable that the archaism of the text will obscure its meaning and erode its popularity. Hein observed that an important function of the Vaishnava dramas he witnessed in Mathura in 1949-50 was to mediate texts that were no longer readily comprehensible to their audiences. He warned that "the thought and language of Surdas and Tulsidas . . . present all the difficulties Shakespeare would have for us if in addition he had been a Scotsman. The gap which the players are called upon to bridge is widening, and the time will come when the best dramatic skills will not be able to make the old poetry live."[180] The growing use of standardized Khari Boli—the dialect of the Delhi re-gion—to mediate the Manas in oral performance is undeniable, as is the fact that much recitation is conducted in a mechanical fashion that gives little importance to comprehension; shall we assume then, that most contemporary devotees, like the man cited earlier, no longer understand their epic?

To answer this question, we must consider the linguistic complexity of northern India and the continued existence, even within the Hindi belt, of variant dialects, particularly in the rural areas where 70 percent of the population still lives. The region has long been characterized by the coexistence of more or less standardized dialects used for intra-


regional communication, with localized ones used for the expression of a village- or district-level cultural identity. Despite Tulsi's assertion that he wrote in "village speech," linguists have come to recognize that he, along with other bhakti poets, evolved new, composite dialects "aimed at a larger audience much beyond their own dialectical region."[181] What Tulsi's literary language had in common with much village speech—and this is as true today as it was in the sixteenth century—was its oral playfulness, its readiness to twist and transform words while still leaving them recognizable in their context. As Edwin Greaves noted in his 1895 study of the grammar of the epic, "Any attempt to indicate all the modifications and changes to which a word is liable in the hands of Tulsi Das would be quite vain. He does not go in search of a word to fit into a certain corner, as a meaner poet would do, but takes the word most suitable in meaning and makes it fit, and it is wonderful how snug and comfortable these words look and sound, after the eye and ear have had a little practice."[182] Thus, when we read that the Manas is composed in "Avadhi," we should bear in mind that this was not, in Tulsi's hands, a precisely standardized language; rather it was a synthetic dialect built on a base of Eastern Hindi grammatical forms but incorporating elements from other dialects and utilizing an enormous vocabulary of Sanskrit, Perso-Arabic, and local words,[183] all of which were subject to the poet's characteristic transformations. "A little practice" was probably as necessary in the sixteenth century as it is today, although comprehension of the variant forms comes more readily to the ear than to the eye.

Greaves wrote nearly a century ago, when Khari Boli prose was already becoming the standard literary dialect of the educated and doubts were being raised concerning the "archaism" of the Manas . Yet Greaves argued that "[the epic's] very difficulties constitute its peculiar value to the student who wishes to learn the language of the people" and went on to observe, "There are some, I know, who look upon the Ramayan as written in, perhaps, interesting, but still, obsolete, language, and who say, 'But the villagers don't talk in the language of the Ramayan'; it can only meekly be replied, 'But they do.' Not, of course, entirely, but village boli is very much nearer to the language of the Ramayan than probably any other book that could be named."[184] Many of the epic


forms that Greaves cited as current in his day—such as kakahabata (what shall I say?), toke and mose (to you, and by me) and dui (two)—remain in everyday use in eastern Uttar Pradesh, where they coexist with the Khari Boli forms that people learn in school. Concluded Greaves, "This is the language of the Ramayan and this is the language of the people."[185]

Gandhi, who promoted the use of Khari Boli Hindi as a national language, was inclined to agree and to praise Tulsi's colloquialisms: "He just picked up words spoken in the streets and used them, because Tulsi Das was writing for you and me. . .. The language of Tulsi Das therefore is our language."[186] Lower-class devotees usually confirmed this assertion; when I asked the Manas singers at Khari Kuan if they understood the words they were singing, one replied, "Brother, this is our own local speech. How could we not know it?" On the other hand, educated people sometimes indicated varying degrees of difficulty with the idiom; one daily reciter estimated that she understood "about half" of the text as she chanted it; to understand it fully, she said, she would have to read it more slowly and with the aid of a prose commentary. Such difficulty, however, may stem as much from poetic style as from dialect; some lines are simply convoluted and obscure, and probably always were. The straightforward narrative of Books Two to Six is, in my experience, more readily comprehensible than the philosophical digressions of the first and last books. Poetically difficult language invites interpretation and commentary, and the obscurities of the Manas have always been germane to its performance traditions. When one expounder told me that the Manas was "difficult," I asked him whether he meant that its language was difficult. "No," he replied, "its language is simple—its inner meaning is difficult," and added, smiling broadly, "that's why we expounders are necessary."[187]

Indians are often bi- or trilingual and relatively comfortable with variant dialect patterns. The fact that Braj Bhasha and Avadhi, in their pure forms, were spoken by relatively few people at any given time did not prevent poetry in these languages from being widely enjoyed. Indeed, until this century, these dialects, together with Urdu, were the preferred media of poetry; a person who wished to express poetic sentiments switched into one or another of them, just as Banarsis shift back and forth between Bhojpuri, Khari Boli, and Urdu, according to the


context and the person being addressed. We may compare this multivocality to that in the American musical idiom, where, for the expression of certain conventional sentiments, white northern singers assume a southern or African American dialect and accent.

Frequency of exposure and knowledge of context are critical to the comprehension of a literary dialect. Elizabethan English varies sufficiently from contemporary speech that we cannot understand many of its terms and idioms without a glossary. Yet we may grasp a good deal of this language when we hear it performed, particularly if we are familiar with the general context of a passage or (in the case of Shakespeare's works) with the plot of a play. Returning to Hein's observation, I suggest that the King James Bible might be a more apt choice for comparison with the Manas than the works of a Shakespeare, Scots or otherwise. A person raised in a household where passages from this Bible were recited daily would become imprinted with its patterns (even though he would not necessarily use them in ordinary speech) and might even feel, as many Christians did until recently, that its archaisms were essential to religious diction, so that in addressing God in prayers or hymns, he would automatically shift into these special forms, which were sanctified by long use. In the same way, many contemporary speakers of Khari Boli use Braj or Avadhi forms when singing devotional hymns to Krishna and Ram.

Both Greaves and Growse, writing a century ago, stressed the ready comprehensibility of the epic to even uneducated people; Growse observed that "a Hindu child generally grasps at once the familiar idiom, and finds no great difficulty in even the most crabbed passage."[188] A century of linguistic change and increasing standardization of urban speech necessitates modifying these observations somewhat. It is notable, for example, that in the nineteenth century the most popular section of the Manas was said to have been Ayodhyakand[*] , even though it was admitted to be long and slow-moving and to contain (especially in its latter half) some of the most convoluted and obscure language in the epic.[189] When I asked contemporary devotees which section they liked best, the answer was usually Sundar kand[*] —which is short, action-packed, and one of the easiest books linguistically; only one old woman told me that she liked Ayodhya best—"Because of the way they talk to each other."


Clearly not everyone grasps the idiom so readily now, especially if he or she was not raised in an environment permeated by the text. An upper-class resident of Delhi, reared on a combination of Punjabi-flavored Khari Boli and public school English and never exposed to the epic at home, encountering it for the first time in a college course on medieval Hindi literature, would assuredly find its language highly irregular. It was one such person whom I cited earlier, who informed me that he could not understand the epic. But it is important to recognize, as was clear in the context, that this man wished to convey to me not only that he did not "understand" the Manas but that he did not particularly like it or believe in it; he wanted to distance himself from its folk ethos and "backward" values. If large numbers of Indians felt this way, then of course the text would quickly lapse into the status of a literary relic. But as long as people continue to value the epic and to perform it—which a great many still do—its language, even though significantly different from their everyday speech, will remain accessible to them.

One more linguistic factor in the popularity of the text should not be overlooked: the ever-growing influence of Hindi as a (usually unacknowledged and often explicitly denied) lingua franca for much of India. Little credit for this development can be given to heavy-handed governmental efforts to impose a highly Sanskritized form of Khari Boli as a national language, yet despite the resistance that such efforts have provoked and the continued vitality of other regional languages, Hindi of one sort or another has continued to make inroads in many regions. The popularity of Hindi films and, more recently, of Hindi-language television (most notably the Ramayan and Mahabharat serials) has obviously contributed to this process, but other, more subtle factors have long been at work. Bharati noted that, despite the explicit emphasis of Hindu Renaissance leaders on Sanskrit texts and education, the actual effect of their activities has been what he terms "Hindi-ization" and the spread of a more homogeneous, bhakti -oriented popular faith, permeated by texts in the "bhakti lingua franca"—one or another dialect of Hindi.[190] Like Hindi itself, the Manas has tended to "win by default" in popular religious practice, as an accessible and relatively nonsectarian scripture equally suitable for a Hanuman puja or a Devi vrat . This has been true not merely in the epic's homeland but also in neighboring regions that do not have a comparably authoritative text in their mother tongue. I was told by a Kannada friend, for example, that he knows of


middle-class ladies in Mysore who have become convinced of the benefits of reciting the Manas and have taken up the study of Hindi solely for that purpose.[191]

Along with the above factors, we may note the effects of increased mobility and especially of pilgrim traffic to important religious centers in Hindi-speaking areas, such as Banaras, Allahabad, Hardwar, Ayodhya, and the Himalayan shrines of Uttar Pradesh, where pilgrims encounter a milieu permeated by the epic's influence as well as bazaar bookstalls filled with inexpensive editions that they carry back to their home regions. This process of dissemination has also been influenced by the diaspora of a people who themselves originated outside the linguistic homeland of Tulsi's epic, but whom historical circumstances have now made among its most active propagators.

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