With the untimely death of Allison Busch on October 19, the community of scholars of early Hindi has lost one of its leading young voices. In her short academic career, she made outstanding contributions to the scholarship of Hindi literary culture. Her deep sensitivity for her students, colleagues, and friends embellished her academic achievements and made her the glue for the otherwise-scattered community of Hindi scholars around the world.

Busch was an Associate Professor of Hindi literature at Columbia University’s Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies and a Vishwa Hindi Samman recipient.

She was an indispensable member of the community of early Hindi researchers, which comprises scholars of classical Brajbhasha, Awadhi, Rajasthani, Gujrati and Maithili based in Europe, Japan, China, and North America, with occasional and nominal representation from India. The group meets every year for a two-week summer for a shared reading of classical manuscripts and printed texts in these languages. After a series of conversations and meetings I had with her around my work in 2016-’17 she roped me into this group even though I was a novice and outsider to the field. She encouraged me to delve into this area with her characteristic words: “Hindi needs people from other disciplines to rescue itself.”

‘Poetry of Kings’

Her body of work, prominent among which is Poetry of Kings – The Classical Hindi Literature of Mughal India, published in 2011, pioneered a fresh way of looking at the classical Hindi literature. This book, emanating from her doctoral research at the University of Chicago under the supervision of Sheldon Pollock, was subsequently supplemented by a range of scholarly papers and edited books.

Busch’s work on poets, texts, and genres of literature in Brajbhasha between 1500 AD and 1800 AD has had a redefining effects on the field of the historiography of Hindi literature, offering a new standpoint for looking at this literary corpus. Brajbhasha was the most cosmopolitan vernacular of early Hindi, its spread ranging from Gujrat to the Deccan and Punjab to Assam.

Through her work, Busch has taught that the close and sensitive reading of Brajbhasha literary corpus leads us to a domain where we can delve into the newer ways of finding “Hindi in History and History in Hindi”. Underlining the importance of early Hindi kavya – a literary style used by court poets – she remained committed to demonstrating that these early modern literary texts and culture represent the ethos of modern India.

For a considerably long period, the historiography of early Hindi remained captive to literary categories formed amidst the politically animated intellectual atmosphere of the early 20th century in which the long history of Hindi was framed in terms of epochs.

In his classic Hindi Sahitya ka Itihas published in 1929, Ramchandra Shukla, the pioneering historiographer of Hindi literature,divided the history of Hindi literature into five epochs: Adi Kal (early period, from 1000 CE-1350 CE), Virgatha Kal (period of warrior tales, which overlaps with the early period), Bhakti Kal (the period of Bhakti poetry-1375 CE-1700 CE), Riti Kal (period of methodical or courtly poetry from 1700 CE-1900 CE) and Aadhunik Kal (which saw modern literature being ushered from 1900).

Set against the 20th century ideological battle for linguistic pre-eminence between Hindustani/Urdu and Hindi, and anchored by the doyens of modern Hindi literature such as Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi and the Mishra Brothers (Ganeshbihari, Shyambihari and Shukdevbihari), this classification served to give credence to Hindi’s independent identity. The strategy of according the most extended possible history to the language perhaps sprang from the idea that the longer its history, the greater the authenticity that could be accorded to Hindi.

Pioneering Hindi writer Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi. Credit: By India Post, Government of India - [1] [2], GODL-India, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75155613

Riti poetry

Since then, the historiography of Hindi literature unquestioningly adopted this template of the language’s stage-wise growth, adding more details to each period or revising the beginning and end dates attributed to each stage. Of all epochs, the most controversial was the history of a literary corpus of riti poetry, which has been essentialised as “methodical” – whose form was extremely compliant of prosody and metre – and“sensuous” in its content.

Under this scheme, riti needed to be insulated from Bhakti poetry of both kinds: Vaishnava devotional compositions of Tulsidas and Surdas, on the one hand, and the politically resentful songs of Kabir and Dadu on the other. Bhakti poets of both the strands, it was argued, adopted a less formal mode of composition than their counterparts in the riti tradition.

This frame has had far-reaching implications for scholarship on the history of Hindi literary culture in India. The drive to carve a niche for Hindi along the lines of its corresponding script Devnagari resulted in the language being insulated from the legacies of the wider cultural cosmos in which it had once operated. However, with the claim that Hindi had a distinctive identity of its own, several generations of scholars remained oblivious to its complex relationship with other languages, particularly Persian and later Urdu.

Purging traditions

Thus, to study the history of Hindi literary culture, scholars were not required to have any basic skills in Persian and Urdu or access to their archives. Further, in this line of thought, attempts to identify Hindi’s literary categories with the Indian cultural traditions led many to purge these literary traditions from serious consideration in the context of early Hindi literary cultures.

Riti poetry, owing to its popular perception of being sensuous, was considered a nuisance in the ideological narrative of both the dominant historiographical schools of Hindi literature: the nationalist school and later Marxist historiography. For the nationalists, the sensuality of riti poetry produced in various courts of Mughal India was not only an unworthy literary successor of the devout, liberating Bhakti poetry, but representative of the moral decadence characteristic of the Islamic courts and society.

Marxist historians of Hindi literature, on the other hand, viewed this genre of poetry as hedonistic – products of and meant for the pleasure of a decadent feudalistic order.

For later progressive-liberal scholars, this body of literature represented the compositions of the Brahmin intellectuals serving at the courts. In an intellectual milieu in which “history from below” epitomised historiographical movements such as subaltern studies, the courtly literature of elite Brahmins was fated for abomination.

‘Hidden in plain view’

Studies on the histories of early Hindi literary works carried out by a number of European scholars did not in any way offer a remedy from such insularity. Their excessive obsession with the philological aspects and linguistic structure of early Hindi or its manuscript culture resulted in the neglect of the content of these compositions.

While the earlier generations of scholars working on early Hindi literature attempted to insulate the corpus from other literary traditions and in pushing riti poetry as merely sensual, courtly productions, the historians of the Mughal India moved themselves to the other extreme by focusing entirely on the Persian world and literary works in that language. The presence of other Indic languages and literatures in the cultural and political sphere of the Mughals hardly received any attention.

Allison Busch contended that early Hindi literature was "hidden in plain view".

Disagreeing with these widely held views, Allison Busch sought to show the ubiquitous presence of Hindi poetry in the Mughal India. Contending that early Hindi literature was “hidden in plain view”, Busch argued that Northern Indian vernacular literary culture embedded the practice of recording historical and political changes, and that these works held different perspectives on the political culture prevalant in the Mughal India.

In spite of her dazzling work, the complex transactions between these diverse literary traditions is yet to receive the kind of attention it deserves. With Busch’s works, the dichotomy between the historians of Hindi literary culture ignoring Persian and the historians of the Mughal India not being sensitive to early Hindi literary corpus gets bridged.

Bridging worlds

Busch’s first move restoring the literary corpus of riti poetry to its rightful place was to break down the restricting, artificial barrier between the Hindi and Persian worlds. Remaining committed to the study of both languages, she sought to portray the literary world of the Mughal period as consisting of diverse literary practices and languages, yet with strong currents moving back and forth across the different languages.

She achieved this by entering into a rewarding conversation with several disciplines such as Persian studies and different branches of early modern history, and also attending to the shifts in historiographical approaches in the study of early modern India. Taking a cue from the work of Sanjay Subrahmanyam, David Shulman and Velcheru Narayana Rao on the historiographical traditions in Indian vernaculars, she employed the conceptual apparatus used by them to Brajbhasha.

Theoretically, Busch’s work remained in conversation with her mentor Sheldon Pollock’s conceptualisation of a “vernacular polity”. The early theorisation of courtly literature within the Marxist and nationalist schools remain fixated around the idea of patronages and legitimation theory, wherein they sought to explain how power or kingship gains legitimacy through patronage of the arts and literary works. Pollock’s work shifted the focus from the patronages and legitimation theory to a more widely defined notion of political power that leaves ample scope for taking accounts of courtly literature more seriously.

Aesthetising politics

In doing so, he placed Sanskrit and vernacular kavya at the heart of medieval political life with the argument that kavya aesthetised politics in the second millennium. Courtly life occupied centre-stage in this scheme and other scholars followed this framework, suggesting that courtly settings, in fact, signified an “interpretative community” of scholars based in these sites and engaged in exploring and shaping the politico-aesthetic life in medieval India. Once the courts were brought to the centre of an emerging literary culture in the vernacular, it enabled literary historians to assess the archives of pre-colonial vernacular literature as political processes.

Taking insight from this theoretical formulation on “vernacularisation” and vernacular historiography in early modern India, Busch offered a masterly reading of the archive of Brajbhasha texts so far categorised as riti poetry. Through a diligent perusal of the extensive literary corpus of Orchha-based court poet Keshavdas (1555-1617), which constitute of texts on poetics, aesthetics, history, and political thought, Busch demonstrated that Brajbhasha literary culture since its early days was much more than the popular perception of them as mere sensuality and courtly.

Keshavdas drew upon Sanskritic theories of poetics and rasa towards developing an independent literary tradition in Brajbhasha. Situating the poet in the context of emerging relations between the imperial Mughal culture and regional vernacular polity, Busch showed that Keshavdas’ body of work – popularly known as purely methodical riti – was a product of the emerging political culture of a vernacular polity in northern India, which reflected a significant move away from Sanskritic traditions in search of its regional identity.

Works on poetics

The quest for independent literary status had inspired Keshavdas to compose the works on poetics such as Kavipriya and Rasikpriya primarily meant for literary connoisseurs and burgeoning poets aimed at establishing the field of Brajbhasha’s riti tradition.

An illustration from Rasikpriya. Credit: By Anonymous - V&A Museum [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4175942

Busch’s reading of Keshavdas’ historical works such as Jahangirjas Chandrika, Ratan Babn, andVircharit rendered these texts as “historical kavyas”. Allison Busch’s sensitive and careful reading of the poet’s works highlights vernacular Hindi’s role as a conduit between the Mughals and other Indian courts over the common political space and shared moral and ethical universe.

Riti poetry has been equally damned for being obsequiously panegyric. However, Busch showed that the body of this poetry was no way limited to the practice of eulogies for patrons; instead, these poems often represented dialogues over the language of politics of two different traditions of political thought –
Persian and Hindi.

A significant contribution to early Hindi literary culture remains Busch’s attempt to show that early Hindi kavyas remained alert to the political and historical changes in their time. Drawing upon the literary traditions of tarikh writings in Persian and puranic narratives in Sanskritic traditions, Hindi kavya offered historical narrative that were primarily historical-political narrative.

Exploring Padmakar

Her latest work was on Padmakar (1753-1833), a versatile 19th-century poet who served at various courts of Northern Indian but known for his close affinity with Anupgiri Gosain, a Brahmin-warrior ascetic king in Bundelkhand. Busch’s reading of Padmakar’s Himmatbahadur Virudawali demonstrates how history and political thought were embedded in the writings of the so-called riti poets.

The presence of Virudawali as a genre of the Brajbhasha literary culture required some explanation. As a literary genre across different Indian languages, Virudawalis were written primarily to offer maxims for what a king ought to do particularly when confronted by moral or martial dilemmas. However, its presence in the 19th century was intriguing since the imperial political culture had been vanquished, and local vernacular states too stared at their decline. It needed to be explained historically.

With her thoughtful reading of Padmakar’s use of this genre, Busch illustrated Virudawali’s function as providing synoptic accounts of political achievement in the language of descriptive and didactic features along with being overlain with panegyric in a martial vein. The genre’s use was remarkable as the political dispensation that Anupgiri ushered in was something profoundly new and unsettling. After a period of political turmoil, a Shaivite Gosain (ascetic) had defeated the ruling Kshatriya warrior who carried a badge of lineage as honor.

In her reading of Padmakar, Busch counters the widespread belief that court poets were shameless sycophants, obsequious to their patrons in exchange for recompense. Instead, she suggests that panegyric poems in Hindi were an often powerful instrument of ethical suasion as they were didactic, reminding the kings and warriors of their duties. Here, the poet reminds his patron that kingly duty is not merely vanquishing the opponent but also demanding of good character and abilities to safeguard one’s subjects.

Literary heritage

Despite being committed to Hindi and enormous literary heritage, Busch exhorted the students and young scholars to be multilingual as this is what India’s literary and cultural heritage has been and holds the key to understand its past in its true ethos. With her masterly work and academic professionalism, she has inspired many scholars to relook at the India’s early modern India, particularly of Northern India with a fresh perspective.

Her plea for embracing wider outlook in one’s academic and scholarly work rests on her painstaking demonstration that this is not a merely modern intellectual epithet, it has been the essence of all plural society even in the pre-modern world.

Rabi Prakash is pursuing his doctoral research on the Sociology of Political Culture and Ideas in Pre-Modern India at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.