THE POETRY OF JAI SHANKAR PRASAD
By D. V. K. RAGHAVACHARI, M.A.
Jai Shankar Prasad holds a very high place among the mystic poets in modern Hindi literature. Having acquainted himself with the literatures of Sanskrit, Urdu, Hindi, and English, he began writing verses even at the age of fifteen. Since then he has contributed a lot to Hindi literature. His works include in all eight collections of poetry, nine plays, three novels, five volumes of short-stories, and several essays in literary criticism, historical research, and philosophy. His splendid lyrics have been collected in Kanan-kusum, Karunalaya, Prem-pathik, Jharna, Ansu, and Lahar. The romantic epic, Kamayani, is his master-piece. Moreover, he is considered to be the pioneer of ‘Chayavad’. He is certainly one of the greatest Hindi dramatists. He popularised, for the first time, themes drawn from the so-called dark age of ancient Indian history; most of his plays concern themselves with Buddhistic culture. He initiated the use of blank-verse in Hindi poetry. He contributed a remarkable style, in which the passionate could be felicitously blended with the intellectual, to the ‘other harmony’ of Prose. He achieved a similar success in the field of short-story writing; he established a Prasad-school of short-story writers. He brought to bear on his critical says a wealth of scholarship and wise divination unequalled by others. To have been the first in whatever he attempted and the best one, too, is no mean compliment to his many-sided literary personality.
From a highly sensuous love Prasad turned towards an intellectual passion opening abundant vistas of spiritual experience. At the same moment his love avoids the two extremes of becoming ethereal and of becoming earthly. The human soul itself becomes incandescent with pure love and partakes of divinity. His love is placed somewhere between the human and the divine spheres. The first sight itself abandons the heart on the drifting current of love, bringing memories from the uncharted regions of soul-life:
‘The immaculate sweet crescent smiled
When first I saw thee. And anon I felt
I knew thy face since long, since the birth of Time.’1
There is again separation and anguish. He seeks love in the moon, in the stars, in snow, in waves, in trees and in flowers. The happiness afforded by the grandeur of the universe seems futile unless it be governed by the consummation of true love:
‘The bliss that could be hardly contained
Throughout the endless corridors of space
Was captive all in the clasp of His hand
In the high hope of love’s happy return.’
The Viraha becomes cosmic:
‘In love and in passion,
In joy and in sorrow,
From house to house, stricken with pain,
Are felt the pangs of separation.’
There is a plea for mercy:
‘Gentle cloud of mercy! rain, o, rain;
And cool with kindly shower the earth,
Sorrow-singed and deep-wrinkled with pain
Of cheerless storm and strife. Reign, o, reign,
Pity supreme! and bring tranquil mirth
To those that wear in life’s battling train!’
There is a stern realisation of the complex nature of the world. The good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the joyous and the sad are so imperceptibly mixed up that only devoted love can get the best out of life. It is the mental attitude that determines one’s happiness:
‘Wedded to meet and part
At the sacred altar of life,
Joy and sorrow play
And eye and heart contend,’
Tennyson too, could have no complaint against the law of nature:
‘I curse not nature, no, nor death;
For nothing is that errs from law.’
Like the great Victorian, Prasad was convinced that no man can solve the problem of life by enduring faith alone:
‘In the yonder shade of the tree of love,
Rest awhile! weary traveller of the world,
Cool-comforted in trembling flower-dust,
Tear-swept and strewn along the banks of Faith!’
His natural descriptions are moist with a strange fancy and delicate imagery that almost swoon into rich rhythms bearing the promise of a much nobler art:
‘Wake up! since night has melted away
And at the sky’s luminous fount
Her starry tankard fills
The maiden-queen of dawn;
While the little birds tremulous
With rich song fill every bough,
Chirping with gladness and glee!
And with her skirt of slender saplings
Flowing in the gentle breeze, look!
The young Lathika green and transparent-veined
Has fetched too, her crystal vase
Of dew-fed, honey-stained, emerald buds!’
As a mystic poet, Prasad reached the summit of his achievement in Kamayani, his Divine Comedy. The motto of his early poetry,
‘Honey-tingling and cool-blushing,
Never-fading and sweet-smiling,
The many-unfolding golden lotus
The image be of my heart’s devotion,’
found ample fulfilment in that great romantic epic. The impact of reason on mystic experience gave to his poetry the garb of myth, and the myth itself stands for the eternal and the unchanging elements of the human mind, even in its solitude:
‘Along the lonely paths,
A little child like me,
With face, with hands like mine,
Plays ever silently.’
Prasad was at the same time experimenting with other forms of literature as drama, short-story and the novel. And to every realm he brought his rich imagination and rare individuality. As his experience as a writer grew in quality and abundance, he could evolve his own standards of artistic expression. He had to dwell apart and lonely; for, he was not a man who could stoop to conquer. The fitness of his plays for staging was highly disputed at one time, and remains to this day one of the vexed questions of literary criticism. Some critics described him as obscure and his poetry as highly sentimental, his prose as poetry run mad, and his dramatic work as an avoidable extravagance. But Prasad went on filling every rift with rich ore until he discovered the key to his genius. The vision haunted him and compelled him into new creation:
‘Rising and falling, it comes again and again,
Leaving traces of tender danceful feet.’
is his ‘magnum opus’. In the medium
of the romantic epic he found the adventurous thrills of abundance and variety.
The story had the essential heat of conflict which could be richly exploited by
his dramatic talent. It was to be cast in the form of an epic in which the
theme had to be universal and where things should happen on the grand scale;
and it could find an easy adequacy in the wealth of imagery and power of
expression which he had in plenty. Yet it was not to be rigid in construction,
for, rigidity would be unfavourable to the gentle flow of his verse; and so, it
had to be fashioned as a romance, too. The intensity of a thronging life
inundated by joy could not find a happier expression than in the exuberance of
romanticism. And further, it was to be the culminating point of the mystic
creed and the crowning achievement of his Philosophy of Perennial Bliss
(Ananda). The characters were as old as Time and the Upanishads; and the
Puranas gave him enough material for allegory. The march of the ‘evolutionary
appetite’ of his art towards a greater perfection found its fulfilment in his Kamayani.
is as universal in its subject-matter as
‘Fain from dust would that its strenuous flight
To realms of loftier skies be winging.’
That is Mukti. That is Ananda. Kamayani is a table of torment and in it the heart of Man is made to sojourn in the primal wonders and the recurring mysteries of life. But like other long poems of the world it never leaves us in the midst of the torment. It is also the story of Man’s final victory, of his return to harmony with Nature.
story is as simple as it is old. In the Satapatha-Brahmana and the Bhagavata
we find the episode of the Deluge or the Jalapralaya. Before the creation
of mankind the Sakti had given shape to the Universe and filled it with Devas,
as a part of Her Leela. The Devas defied the divine order; and so the wrath of
Rudra took the form of a vast inundation. In the all-consuming Jala-plavan,
‘That mad revelry! Was it dream or deception?
The brightest stars but filled their nights of lust,
In tumult was their hope of consummate bliss;
Fame danced, a red ray of frenzied delight!’
The gods knew very little of the infinitely gentle and the infinitely suffering. Tagore, in his ‘Farewell to Heaven’, says:
‘Pitiless, heartless, happy heaven looks down upon our sorrows. What pain by the Asvattha is felt when even a dry leaf should fall from among its many verdant branches, is not felt by the gods above us when, we on earth homeless and pale as burnt-out stars, in a trice, fall into the fathomless deeps of life and death.’
In this state of mind Manu discovers on the distant horizon, a figure clad in radiance. He addresses her:
‘Who art thou, the herald of spring,
Slender in the stress of storm,
A ripple of fancy, a ray of hope,
Revealing a world of blissful quiet?’
Sraddha, who is also called Kamayani, being the daughter of Kama, the God of Love, answers him that she has come from the country of the Gandharvas in quest of a greater presence in whom she could merge her own identity in order to achieve a new integrity. Manu accepts her as his companion. She stands a little away like a flower waiting for a sun-beam. Sweeping in strenuous outlines to the heaven of his mind a glorious vision rises up, in which he sees Kamayani as his partner since ages. King Pururavas felt a similar experience when, on seeing Urvasi for the first time, he found that he had grown more than a man:
‘And, thou, who art thou, mystery! golden wonder!
Moving enchantress! Wast thou not a part
Of soft auspicious evenings I have loved?
Have I not seen thy beauty on the clouds?
In moonlight and in starlight and in fire?
Some flower whose brightness was a trouble? a face
Whose memory like a picture lived with me?
A thought I had, but lost? O was thy voice
A vernal repetition in some grove,
Telling of lilies clustered o’er with bees
And quiet waters open to the moon?
Surely in some past life I loved thy name,
And syllable by syllable now strive
Its sweetness to recall. It seems the grace
Of visible things, of hushed and lovely snows
And burning great inexorable noons.’
In the purity of unrestrained surrender, she gives herself to Manu:
‘Said she: “I dedicate myself to thee and thine;
I am the weaker: I ask not for recompense!”
Manu accepts her as his companion. The helpless surrender of one who has all beauty of earthliness and all luxurious experience of the soul reminds us of Panthea’s dream:
‘I saw not, heard not, moved not, only felt
His presence flow and mingle through my blood
Till it became his life, and his grew mine,
And I was thus absorbed, until it passed,
And like the vapours when the sun sinks down,
Gathering again in drops upon the pines,
And tremulous as they, in the deep night
My being was condensed.’
She does not merely surrender herself to Manu; she rather avenged herself with beauty. Manu, the archangel, the great son of heaven, moves unto her bosom with a burning sense of yearning, even as King Pururavas advanced towards Urvasi:
‘He woke with his own voice. His words that first
Dreamed like a languid wave, sudden were foam;
And he beheld her standing and his look
Grew strong; he yearned towards her like a wave,
And she received him in her eyes as earth
Receives the rain.’
In the Satapatha Brahmana Manu has been described as the lord of Sraddha: ‘Sraddha: de: vo: vai manuh.’ In the Bhagavata man has been considered to be the fruit of such a union:
‘Tato: manuh sraddhade: vah sangna:ya:ma:sa bha:rata
Sraddha:ya:m janaya:ma:sa dasa putra:n sa a:tmava:n.’
In taking such a story going back to the very tap-root of our culture for his artistic treatment, Prasad struck gold, for he could bring back a symbolic vision of the race-mind and of the primeval twilight in which mankind lived. And the story is full of romantic possibilities and purposeful allegory.
A short time after this union, the weaknesses of Manu, inherited from the Devas, reassert themselves to the detriment of pure love. The ‘ahamkara’ in him desires to ‘own’ Kamayani. Manu suffers from the same disease of sin as Adam did–‘gregariousness and uxoriousness’, as Prof. E.M.W. Tillyard would describe them. Sraddha who seeks the completeness of her personality in motherhood, dissuades her lord from sacrificial rites involving ‘himsa’ and tries to soften him to a more ready acceptance of love and compassion towards the whole created universe as the creed of his life. Manu feels that his self-importance is at stake and burns with jealousy when the young fawn are fondled by his wife in anticipation of a mother’s sweet task of caressing her new-born child. He is angry with her, does not understand the strange tumult of new delight in the mother’s heart in its proper light, and leaves her alone in her helpless condition in the cave and goes into the wide world in quest of greater happiness implying an ampler satisfaction of his own vulgar desires.
In the course of his adventures, Manu arrives in the ruined country of Saraswata where the Devas, losing faith in their Devi, had once fought against their own kin, the Asuras. The God of Love, Kama, curses mankind for the sin committed by Manu in abandoning Sraddha:
‘Manu! thou hast forsaken Sraddha!
Hast taken her lightly, the embodiment of love!
Let this new creation of yours
Be torn therefore in endless strife
And break into a thousand creeds
And invent for itself Damnation
Through problems of its own creation;
Unity, let there be none; no cessation
Of the conflict. Far, far, the object
Of its desire be; near, nearer and nearest
For ever be distress undreamt,
Despair unwanted and anguish unsought!’
The world trembled and shook with fear as when Eve disobeyed the divine decree:
‘Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through all her works gave signs of woe,
That all was lost.’
Manu discovers another strange apparition, of beauty on the far horizon, for the second time after his fall:
‘A lofty laurel of imperious reason
Crowned her dark mysterious locks
Scattered snake-wise on her radiant face
Moon-like. Pity and scorn and passion and discord
Twinkled in her trembling looks
Lotus-eyed and sweet-intoxicant.
A full, bud-like mouth, made for song,
Round, and melting red into a dream-like dimple
At the lips’ parting, broke into melody
In full-throated ease ravishing and charm-entwining.
In her bosom dwelt all the wisdom of the world.
Brimming held forth her hand the Kalash
Of Karma with foaming Soma divine,
The while to the starry welkin of thought
The other gave a prop fear-secure.
Her languid, billowing, avenging form
Was in lusty luminous ether clad.
And on a delicate tip-toe poised were
Yet to faint her liquid lingering feet,
Abandoning her into a sudden rhythm of dance.
She is Ida (Ila). We may here note the vivid contrast between Ida and Sraddha. Ida (Intellect) represents power and glory, passion and pride, youthfulness and strength. Sraddha represents detachment and devotion, piety and faith, mellowness and spiritual beauty. Ida attempts to tempt Manu and she succeeds. He is drawn towards her irresistible charm. With her he rules over the new country, and, under his able administration, a new flush of life enters the land. Its various branches of activity are over-hung with the fruits of a Renaissance. Man becomes an intellectual prodigy wedded to materialistic planning. But mankind is divided into various creeds and colour-groups, castes and classes that are held together only by a fear-complex and an almost religious faith in the inevitability of the social system. Manu is intoxicated with success. His ‘ahamkara’ knows no bounds. He brands himself as Prajapathi and declares himself immune from the laws of society. Ida tries to persuade him to the right path but fails. Manu argues in his own way:
‘Wherefore shall I my own creation fear?
Have I not the right to err if but once?
The Universe is itself an unrestrained flux
And in its commotion are involved
Vast changes affecting the shape of a thousand stars
And the moon and the sun and the planets;
The torrid desert is swept by the swelling sea;
And a quivering flame burns in everything,
The destroyer and yet the preserver,
The winter that stores the vernal bloom!
To transcend the bounds of Annihilation–
That is my life’s aim. The sturdy moment
Of Self-assertion in a smouldering heap
Of ruined hours is the stirring symbol
Of active life and the rest a nightmare!’
We find Manu already on the defensive, which obviously betrays a weakening of his moral rectitude that could burst into a spate of reproachful indignation against the Gods for their cruel vanity. The ancient realm of night that devoured Faust is slowly encroaching upon his flawless conscience. In Carlyle’s words:
feels that he is with others, but not of them. Pride and an entire
uncompromising, though secret, love of self are the main springs of his
conduct. Knowledge is with him precious only because it is power; even virtue
he would love chiefly as a finer sort of sensuality, and
because it was his virtue. Go where he may, he will find himself in a
conditional world; widen his sphere as he pleases, he will find it again
encircled by the empire of Necessity; the gay
Ida is disgusted with the obstinate attitude of Manu and seeks to abandon him. The sense of possession has entered into his mind. He tries to own and dominate Ida. No sooner does he lay hand over her dissolving form than do the doors of the Fort fall down and a discontented populace, outraged by the incident, rushes into the palace in a rebellious mood and puts him to flight.
Kamayani suffers estrangement and wanes away in the diurnal wheel of hope and despair. Manu never returns to her. Her only light in the cottage is her son:
‘Kamayani! she swooned to earth,
A flower, ravished of honey,
A mere skeleton of lines, an outline mere,
The relic of a picture, the vital hue lost;
A pale moon, dawn-washed,
Shorn of radiant beam;
A dull twilight, a gray patch luminous,
Sans moon, sans star, sans sun!’
She turns to the
‘Maridakini! shall you not speak?
Shall you not speak? dear Divine!
Or joy or sorrow–which exceeds?
Or infinite stars in the sky,
Or countless bubbles in the sea,
Which abound? Speak, Mandakini!
In all your blue waves the stars
Are mirrored; and now: to meet
The sea yonder yearn and tremble!
Speak: if they be but shadows of one!
Speak Mandakini! speak Mandakini!’
The child calls her. She embraces him and forgets her sorrow:
‘Mamma! a foaming sweet laughter tinkled,
And her empty house was filled with song.
She took him in lap, pressed to heart her child;
With flowing hair he came; and, two dusty hands
Shook her, teased her, wheeled her about and embalmed
Her burning anguish and broke her hushed emotion.’
She has a disturbing dream in the night. She sees in it that her husband is under duress. She goes in search of him with her little son. Manu is stricken with remorse and, tormented by his own ingratitude, departs during the night without her knowledge. Ida, who has also repented in the meanwhile, reaches the abode of Sraddha and confesses to her her failure to guide the new creation. Sraddha receives her cordially and points out the weakness in her method:
‘The light and shade of joy and sorrow–
That simple path hast thou left;
Hast divided life into parts outwardly,
False to nature; hast burdened the soul
Of creation with hatred and lack of faith!’
Thus saying, she puts her son under Ida’s care with the exhortation to him and, through him, to all the coming generations:
‘O, my Saumya! Ida’s affectionate care
Shall lighten the burden of thy sorrow:
She has reason and thou aboundest in faith.
Do thy duty ever without fear–
And thus shouldst thou redeem mankind
From fall. Spread thy wings of Compassion,
Hear, my son! the words of thy dear mother!’
Into these few lines has been crowded Prasad’s philosophy of a new life. The ‘summum bonum’ of life, according to him, is an active combination of intellect and faith. This is strengthened by the later part of the poem.
At length Kamayani discovers Manu on the banks of the Saraswati. Throughout the creation he finds an all-pervading spirit of benefaction and, as soon as he sees his lost companion, he cries in agony which is also an ecstasy at the same time:
‘O, my Sraddha! Take me
To those dear, dear Feet!’
She takes him to the edge of the three-dimensional world where they have a glimpse of a more joyous Universe of greater dimensions. They discover three luminous points in the distant space, representing will, knowledge, and action. The poet here becomes a pure mystic and the scene in which Sraddha leads her husband, showing him a higher destiny and a more blissful world, reminds us of the ‘Divine Comedy’ where Beatrice takes her lover; Dante, round the seven circles of heaven. Sraddha explains to Manu that those qualities taken individually cannot make life complete, and that the successful blending of them all could alone produce a harmonious pattern for life. Her tender smile runs through those luminous points which mingle together into a single focus of light that gradually widens into the effulgent Universe of Ananda:
‘Awake in the tender eyes of Dawn,
And rest on the gentle eye-lids of Night
And dream over the dewy locks of Pity,
Innumerable stars bright
Rise like bubbles. None accursed,
No sinner here; Life is even,
Flooded with radiant Joy!
This world is True and for Ever,
And, undyingly Beautiful!’
Ida and Kumar (Kamayani’s son) pay homage to the figures of Manu and Sraddha while they fade away into Eternity:
‘They understood Infinity, and saw
Time like a snake coiling among the stars.’
The poet turns once again to Nature, light and shade, plants and herbs, flowers and honey and butterflies, ‘star-dust and fairy moon-beams, and evokes an idyllic atmosphere lulling us slowly into a bewildering world of dreams.
‘Sri Sri’, the inspirer of the younger generation of modern Telugu poets, declared as his motif:
‘I too shall blossom,
A white petal unblemished
In the Lotus of the Universe.’
Nowhere is his ideal better achieved than in Kamayani. Kamayani is the most splendid poem of the modern era in Indian literature. It has shown that there is a hope for real poetry in our country. Nay, it has shown a hope for the survival of the human race itself. If mankind achieves that equanimity and detachment stressed in this mighty poem, the hope would not be a forlorn one.
The achievement of Prasad has been summarised by Dr. Indra Nath Madan:
‘Prasad symbolises the protest against the gross materialism of the age. He stresses the beauties of Nature for those who have no leisure to enjoy the reddening of the rose, the charm of spring, the buzzing of bees and the flowing of the breeze. He felt, as early as 1913, that the head was becoming empty. He pleads in almost all his poems for a return to the objects of Nature. According to him life is not a mass of contradictions, conflicts, abstractions and logical concepts; it is a flowing stream of bliss and consciousness. He has embodied this mystic experience of life in Kamayani, a landmark in the history of Hindi mystic poetry.’
1 All translations of Prasad are by myself.–D.V.K.R.