Literary Aspects of the Gita-govinda


Gita-govinda Mala, preserved at
Orissa State Museum, Bhubaneswar

Jun 5, CANADA (SUN) — With Reference to Hindustani Classical Music.

Gita-govinda is a work of lyrical poetry written in Sanskrit. It has twelve chapters (sarga), which are further subdivided into twenty-four Prabandhas. Each Prabandha contains two further divisions, usually comprising eight couplets, called Ashtapadis - poems with eight stanzas. The Ashtapadis are preceded by verses composed in a different meter, which describe the backdrop of the subsequent Ashtapadi. There are about three thousand manuscripts of Gita-govinda written in twenty-two different scripts and fifty seven commentaries.

Written by the twelfth century poet Jayadeva, the Gita-govinda is one of the finest specimens of love poetry written in any language. It describes the divine love and pangs of separation of Radha and Krishna. Jayadeva has masterfully interwoven a religious theme with the science of erotica. In Gita-govinda, we have on the one hand, the love of Radha and Krishna as a means of worship and devotion, (the theme of Upasya and Upasaka - of god and devotee), and on the other, the theme of Nayaka and Nayika - of the hero and heroine in love.

Some scholars suggest that Jayadeva has used a diction filled with poetic syntax as well as luxuriant growth of rhymes and inter-rhymes by which the erotic descriptions have been very cleverly sublimated, making it more acceptable and popular, and hauntingly beautiful at the same time.

Form of the Text

The style of Gita-govinda is marked by soft and fluid syllabic schemes that charm lovers of poetry and music all over the world. According to Dr. Sukumar Sen, the renowned language-historian, Jayadeva’s Gita-govinda was the last and most important contribution to Indian neo-classical literature.

According to many scholars the diction and meter of Gita-govinda has a close relationship with Prakrit literary traditions. Professor A.B. Keith and S.K. Dey both suggest that Jayadeva’s work goes back to an Apabhramsa origin. This observation may be debated but there is no doubt that the Gita-govinda belongs to the post-classical literary canon and in all probability the poetic genius of Jayadeva must have appropriated several features of the Apabhramsa literary traditions. Most of the verses in Gita-govinda are composed according to the rules of Sanskrit metrics. But there are also certain verses which very strongly resemble the metrical features of the Prakrit language. There are 283 shlokas/verses in its twelve sargas, out of which only about 86 are written in the Sanskrit meter. The most important of these are Shardulavikridita, Vasantatilaka, Shikharini, and Malini. The rest are constructed according to the rules of Prakrit meter. Mostly the system of four moraic meters is found in the verses. For instance -

“Lalitala/ vangala/ tapari/ silana/ komala/ malayasa/ mire…”

Folios from Gita-govinda Mala

One of the most distinctive features of Jayadeva’s diction is the abundant use of alliteration, the repetition of the same sound, rhymes and inter-rhymes (Antyanuprasa and Madhyanuprasa). Rhyming started around seventh or eighth century, largely under the influence of folk poems or the local vernacular and culminated with all its splendour in Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda. An example of Antyanuprasa is as follows-


It seems Jayadeva had adapted the musical moraic meters of vernacular poetry in order to create a medium of song within conventional Sanskrit poetry. No doubt the Gita-govinda is the most significant poem in the history of Sanskrit literature so far the metrical innovations and rhymes are concerned.

In many of the poems it is the sound rather than the sense that overpowers the whole poetic structure, thus creating an atmosphere of intoxication through its cadence and rhythm. For instance-

“Patati patatre vicalati patre sankitabhavadupayanam. Racayati sayanam
sacakitanayanam pasyati tava panthanam.”

In this verse both the language as well as the message conveyed by it is simple, but it is the sound (of the verse) that creates a lasting impression.

At times Jayadeva has also achieved profundity with his simplicity of expression. For example

“Tvamasi mama Bhusanam, tvamasi mama jivanam, Tvamasi mama bhavajaladhiratnam Smaragaralakhandanam mamashirasimandanam Dehi padapallavamudaram.”

In this verse Jayadeva expresses his love for the beloved and at the same time wishes to be released from this attachment/ love. The use of alliteration (as discussed earlier), the simplicity of the language used and specially the vowel endings employed (a, i, u etc) make the verses musical. Moreover, the absence of the use of heavy syllables (such as gha, jha, dha, etc.) and complex sandhis (as in earlier classical literature) also provide a lilt to the verses, adding to their musicality. Use of the four moraic meter also makes it simpler to sing, as the ‘four beat subdivision’ is one of the most common and popular rhythmic pattern in Hindustani classical music system.

The poems (ashtapadis) of Gita-govinda have been set to music throughout India. They are perhaps the earliest examples of regular musical compositions, each set to a specific raga and tala. (The Tevaram and Tiruvacagam in Tamil are earlier than the Ashtapadis, but only the ragas are mentioned in these texts and not the talas.) The twelve ragas prescribed in the Gita-govinda are Malavagaud, Gurjari, Vasant, Ramakiri, Gunakiri, Malava, Deshakhya, Karnata (Kanada), Deshi Varadi, Vibhas and Bhairavi. The talas are Yati Tala, Rupaka Tala, Mathapratimatha Tala, Ek Tala and Ashta Tala. Although the names of Raga and Tala are designated to each Ashtapadi in most manuscripts, it must be noted that in two of the oldest manuscripts, the Tala names are missing. The names of the Tala also vary in some manuscripts.

Gita-govinda was composed at a time when Indian classical music was not divided into two regional streams, namely Hindustani and Karnatic, and thus was one single tradition. The oldest manuscripts of Gita-govinda prescribe the eleven ragas (mentioned earlier) to the twenty four songs. But none of them offer any kind of notation by which the exact music may be rediscovered. There is also no record of any traditional system of transmission, i.e. from guru to shishya. Thus, there is perhaps no means of tracing the original musical structure of the Ashtapadis. Some of the ragas have faded with time (lupta raga), and others have lost their original nature.

Sharngadeva, the author of Sangitaratnakara refers to the ragasof Gita-govinda as “prakprasiddha ragas”, i.e. ragas that were in vogue in ancient times which later became extinct.

Tradition of Singing Ashtapadis

Today the rendition of Ashtapadis varies from one part of the country to the other. Musicians compose (set to music) and sing Ashtapadis in their own style, setting them to the raga and tala of their own choice. Sometimes the prescribed raga is adhered to, but the nature of the raga clearly varies from its ancient version.

Some scholars claim that the correct rendering of Gita-govinda may still be found at the temple of Lord Jagannatha in Puri, Orissa, but in most cases it is not true as at this temple more stress is placed on the rhythm rather than the raga. Although the original nature of the ragas is ambiguous, the Vaishnavites (followers of Vishnu, one of the trinity of the Hindu religion) still follow the tradition of singing these prabandhas in temples. Jayadeva is also held in high esteem among the poets and musicians of “haveli sangeet”.

There are various Vaishnava Sampradayas (sects), which sing specific Ashtapadis during particular seasons, days and even at a predetermined time of the day. For instance, the “Pushti Sampradaya” follows the tradition of singing “Lalitalavangalata…” in raga Basant on the day of Vasant Panchami, on the advent of spring. This tradition is followed religiously in almost all the Pithas of this Sampradaya. Raga Basant is prescribed for this particular Ashtapadi in the manuscripts also.

“Pralayapayodhijale dhritavanasi vedam…”

is rendered in its original Malava raga on the occasions of Ramanavami, Nrisimha-jayanti and Vamanajayanti at the time of the evening bhog arati (prayers).

“Candanacarcitanilakalevarapitavasanavanamal i…”

is regularly sung during the period between Akshaya tritiya and Ratha yatra, during the ceremony of smearing of chandana, or sandal wood, powder to the deity. The question of the original nature of the raga sung by the Pushti sampradaya however remains unanswered.

Among the “gharanedar” musicians of Hindustani classical music, the practicing vocalists of Gwalior gharana seem to have kept alive the tradition of singing Ashtapadis. According to Shri L.K. Pandit, a senior torchbearer of this gharana, his great-grandfather Vishnu Pandit Chinsolkar, a Sanskrit scholar and kirtankar, was a close friend of Natthan Pir Baksh - the court musician of Gwalior. They regularly exchanged/ shared their ideas and knowledge of language and culture. At the suggestion of Vishnu Pandit, Natthan Pir Baksh composed and sung verses from Jayadeva’s Ashtapadis, thus including them to the court musician’s repertoire. Though written in Sanskrit, these verses were close to vernacular language and also had an interesting inherent musicality in them. Some Ashtapadis were composed by Pir Baksh’s disciples such as Nisar Hussain Khan; his disciple hanker Pandit Krishnaraoji; Pir Baksh’s grandsons Haddu and Hassu Khan; their disciples Bade Balkrishna Buva and Vasudev Joshi. Most compositions were made under the direction of Haddu and Hassu Khan. Nisar Hussain Khan was so fond of singing Ashtapadis that he made it a point to sing “Madhave ma sakhi manini manamaye…..” at the end of most of his concerts.

It has been a tradition of the Gwalior gharana ever since, to sing each Ashtapadi-composition along with dhrupad, khayal, tappa, etc. The Ashtapadis were composed in the raga and tala of their own choice and sung in the true khayal style. The style of tappa with its difficult taan like phrases are also found in these compositions. The talas used are Jhumra, Ada Chautal, Tilvada in slow tempo and Trital in fast tempo.

The tradition of singing Ashtapadis on classical music platforms as well as in temples is still prevalent in Gwalior.

Subhadra Desai is a renowned exponent of Hindustani Classical Music

Source: Kriti Rakshana, the National Mission for Manuscripts


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