Exploring the Poetry of Nagaridas

It was under the patronage of the connoisseur regent Sawant Singh of Kishangarh (1699–1764) that the distinct style of the kingdom’s miniature tradition flourished most extensively. Raja Sawant Singh was known for commissioning iconic illustrations of love and devotional scenes that often overlapped thematically, captured exquisitely by the precise brushstrokes of atelier artist Nihal Chand. A true apostle of culture, the prince was not only a lover of the arts but also a distinguished poet in his own right. His verses, dedicated to both Radha-Krishna in the Bhakti tradition and his inamorata Bani Thani. were infused with the intoxicating perfume of love, interlacing the sacred with the profane through alternating depictions of piety and passion. 


The language of his poems, too, was the corollary of a dialectic interlacing of sorts. With Nagaridas as his nom de plume, Sawant Singh indeed penned his verses in standard Brajbhasa but also dabbled in the linguistic genre of rekhta poetry. There were a number of technical uses at the time for the Persian word rekhta, which translates to "poured, mixed, or scattered.” The term was attributed to a courtly vernacular that came into being with the Delhi Sultanate, encouraging the combining of both Persian and Hindavi words. 


“Guftagu rekhte me hamse na kar, yah hamari zaban hai, pyare”, which translates to “It is my own tongue, my dear, don’t contend to me in rekhtah.” (Tr. by Faruqi in Faruqi 2001 p. 23) The aforementioned lines by Mir Taqi Mir provide evidence of the shayar’s terminology for his vernacular of choice, which he refers to as rekhta instead of Urdu. Both Mir Taqi Mir and Mirza Ghalib have been credited with the development of rekhta as a  literary language, which is a precursor to what comes to be known as Urdu in the late 19th century. Nagaridas’ usage of the same is intriguing for multiple reasons, the most notable being the stylistic Persianate shift in his writing which is worlds apart from the rasa lila aesthetic of his Brajbhasa.


In his most famous Bhakti verses such as Bihār-candrikā (illustrated in the celebrated Boat of Love painting by Nihal Chand) and Braj-sār (illustrated in The Pavilion in the Grove painting by Nihal Chand) the poet-prince conjures a mood of tranquil tenderness between lovers that is almost too much to bear. Lulled by quiet waters and with ladies-in-waiting in attendance, both poems allude to a deepening of passion which arrests the senses through a material transposition. The gossamer-thin clothing glittering with jewels is as much an embodiment of sacred romance as the peaceful bhava of all characters. In the second poem, Nagariya writes –


“The lover in love-play offers betel to his lady. She looks at him, raising a brow.
The betel stops mid-air, its gait lamed by her eyes.
A tender young girl—sophisticated, passionate—
As her face lights up, the moon illuminates the pavilion.
Large eyes under arched brows, her beauty defies words:
Sweet passion drizzles in her glances.
To please her, he lifts his hand to place betel in his darling’s mouth,
But stops mid-gesture, arrested by her charming beauty.
The lover, mesmerized, savors to the full this moment,
Captured just by the flexing of the arch of her brow.”


Here we see that Krishna himself is arrested by the hypnotic beauty of his Radha. The verse depicts the aftermath of love play, simultaneously demystifying the holiness of the god and augmenting the pious reverence of the scene at hand. The material transposition of the spiritual ardour occurs through the betel leaf, which is suspended in midair as a consequence of the ensnaring gaze of Radha. It is the very incarnation of love captured in verse and frozen in frame between celestial beings, so that the reader may examine the beauty of the moment. The act triggers a temporal slackening, where time slows to highlight the sacredness of the image produced. 

Nihal Chand’s vignette has a similar effect on its viewers. Staged in the pavilion of the palace, we are invited into the intimate frame by virtue of the ashta-sakhi gopis who wait on Radha in the after-play. According to Heidi Pauwels, Professor of Asian languages at the University of Washington, “The voyeuristic delight is further enhanced by the depiction of the lovers with their back to the viewer, turned to each other in profile.” Through these expressive devices, the illustration conveys a silent blessing upon those fortunate enough to witness the moment. The tone is hushed and reverent, that of prolonged impassioned worship. 


Isq-caman or The Garden of Love is arguably one of Nagaridas’ most popular rekhta verses and exemplifies a notable shift in theme and mood. When writing rekhta, Hindu poets like Nagaridas were careful not to make an obvious connection between the beloved and God. Nagaridas' interpretation of love in his Isq-caman differs from that of the Sufis because he views the lover, god, and the beloved as three distinct entities. Whereas, according to Imre Bangha, Associate Professor of Hindi at Oxford "Khuda, God, and mahbub, the beloved, are the same” in Sufism. 



Heidi Pauwels, Reading Pictures: Towards a Synoptic Reading Combining Textual and Art Historical Approaches

Heidi Pauwels, Cultural Exchange in Eighteenth-Century India

Heidi, Pauwels Romancing Rādhā: Nāgarīdās’ Royal Appropriations of Bhakti Themes

Imre Bangha, Rekhta, Poetry in Mixed Language: The Emergence of Khari Boli Literature in North India 





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