A colorful legend attaches itself to the name “Chandidasa” who is indisputably the greatest Vaishnava poet of Bengal. Rami and Chandidasa can be considered the Romeo/Juliet, Laila/Majnu or Heer / Ranja of the Bengali language. However though they have been celebrated on the stage and screen time and again, the unfortunate lovers have yet to find a Shakespeare, Nezami or Waris Shah to immortalise their romance for the world at large.
Chandidasa was a Brahmin priest, the worshiper of goddess Basholi. Like most things related to Chandidasa the iconography of this obscure object of his devotion is also hotly debated among scholars. Rami was a surpassingly beautiful maiden of the lowest caste – a humble washer woman. Why should we doubt that she was the living inspiration for the passionate lines in which the poet described the charms of the ethereal milk-maid Radha? No doubt Chandidasa saw his Rami/Radha with the eyes of Krishna. But not quite, as we shall see a little later.
Like other star crossed lovers, our romantic couple too came to grief. Chandidasa was forced by the powerful Brahmin cal community to publicly renounce Rami, and purify himself with penance. He retired broken hearted to the ancient temple of Basholi. The dilapidated structure unable to stand the poets misery collapsed in sympathy and entombed him. Legend is silent about the fate of Rami.
Who was Chandidas? Where was he born and when? The more appropriate question is how many Chandidases were actually there? There is no doubt that there were at least two who lived centuries apart, and at least one of them is a very great poet. Sri Chaitanya (b 1486 AD), we are told by his many biographers savoured the songs of Jaydeva who wrote in Sanskrit in the 11th Century, Vidyapati who wrote in Maithili in the 13th and also Chandisa. Maithili is counted among the ancestors of the modern Bengli language. In the wake of the cultural upsurge of the Chaitanya Movement, a whole new genre known as the Vaishnava Padavali literature dominated the following centuries, somewhat in the manner of Hollywood today, with not much respect for quality. Some of “Chandidas”s peers, the other great Vaishnava poets of Bengal Vidyapati, Govindadasa, Jnanadasa, etc. wrote in an artificial language akin to Maithili called Brajabuli. However the most renowned lyrics of the(?) Chandisa is written colloquial Bengali. His idiom is surprisingly modern. Incidentally Rabindranath in his teens tried to do a Chatterton. He wrote a charming cycle of songs where in he pretended to be an ancient padakarta Bhanu Shingha. No Bengali speaking person consciously or unconsciously is free from the influence of the Vaishnava lyrics, snippets from which, like those from Shakespeare, have gone into the language.
Now before the advent of the print media, poets used to append their names etc. to their compositions. The kind of information that appear on the title page or blurb of our books. The device is familiar to us from the bhajans of Kabir, Sur Das or Mirabai. Lesser poets desiring immortality for their works often passed their pieces off as creations of famous names. That is the source of all the confusion about how many Chandidases there might have been. Among the doubtful crowd, one or two were unmistakably towering figures.
Many lyrics have prefixes to the name Chandiasa like Boru ( or senior) Dwija (meaning twice born) Deen (which means humble) or facetiously enough Adi (or the original!). Based on stylistic considerations and internal evidence, scholars have endeavored to isolate one characteristic voice. He sings the most intense and moving songs. Chief among his concerns is the intolerance and prying cruelty of society, and the consequent sufferings and remorse of separated lovers. No wonder pundits claim to have identified this Chandidas as the one who randomly proclaimed his love for Rami, his devotion to Basholi and even his birth place at the village of Nanoor while signing off. Unfortunately two spanners have fallen into these works.
In the first quarter of the twentieth century an incomplete ancient manuscript was accidentally discovered. It was written in a bygone idiom which is as difficult for the Bengalis of Kolkata to decipher, as Shakespeare is for the Cockney Londoner. There were heated debates about the authenticity of the document. However an analysis of the style and the script, as well as other circumstantial evidence finally resulted in a consensus. This was indeed the work of a pre-Chatanya Chandidasa. The work is now known as the of Sri Krishna Kirtana Baru Chandisa. The physicality of the encounters of the divine lovers in this cycle of songs still rankles prudish tastes. Remember how Shakespeare upset Dr Bowdler. But qualified opinion considers the Sri Krishna Kirtana to be a creation of quality and an invaluable cultural document. So, at least one controversy has found a satisfactory resolution.
If one goes through the total list of villages in Bengal he is likely to count scores and scores that are called Gobindopur over one of these it seems the original Fort William was built. Now there happen to be two villages named Nanoor one in the district of Birbhum (very near Shantiniketan) and another in Bnkura (not far from Vishnupur). Two warring parties under the banners of district Birbhum and district of Bankura were at loggerheads for years to establish their respective claims on Chandidas. Some of the greatest names in Bengali_studies battled on in the pages of the now defunct prestigious journals, till death. The debate has not been resolved but the heat has died down with the demise of the scholarly warriors. All through, in the hearts of lovers of literature, above all the din of controversy, the poetry of Chandidas remains vibrant as ever.
We must briefly examine the nature of the relationship between Rami and Chandidas. The episode may strike the post sixties generations as a bit odd. There are plenty of telling verses from the horses mouth on this particular topic. (Let us forget the question, which horse we are talking about for the moment.) The Rami Chandidas relationship can indeed be described as spiritual, but by no means platonic. It was intensely passionate, but, by the poets own serene declaration, celibate. The beauty of the washer-woman was pure and virginal. Her love twenty-four carat gold with no odour of sex (kama gandha). The foregoing paraphrase is of course a travesty of the original which goes, rajakini prem nikashito hem kam gandha nahi taye /rajakini roop kishori swaroop / bikoshito kisholoy /…. na dekhile pran kore uchaton / dekhile paran juraye!
The lovers propose to be inseparable in their ecstatic communion with each other but, vow never to “touch” : tora poro-pati sone shayane swapane satato koribi neha /ekotre rohibi nahi poroshibi bhabini bhaber deha. In Vaishnava literature there are gradations of sexual encounters from purva raga, the first encounter and the awakening of love through various stages of arousal with brinkmanship in foreplay asampurna rati leading to the climax of sampurna rati or what Donne calls the “right true end of love”....Some excellent verses are also attributed to Rami.
There are some lines by another mysterious poet Emily Bronte who wrote about a mystical experience “My outward sense is dead / My inward essence feels…” Words that seem to be a transcreation of lines by “Chandidas” pronounced centuries earlier “amar bahir duare kapat legeche /bhiitori duar khola.” Please remember, to the devotees, the whole Radha-Krishna parakiya prem or illicit love is an allegory for the headiness of the union of the mortal soul jivatma with the divine (paramatma). In temporal terms, Radha was the maternal aunt of Krishna who was younger in age. It seems the quest of this line of sadhana was for a divine mystical union, in partnership with a sadhan sangini or a female fellow-seeker.
- Padakalpataru (An anthology of Vaishnava poetry in four volumes)
- Chandidas (Basumati Sahitya Mandir)
- Prabasi (Bengali periodical edited by Ramananda Chattopadhay)