Barahmasa, a genre of poetry that blossomed into a musical oral tradition, continues to be the enduring pan Indian expression of love and emotion.
The cultural and linguistic diversity of a land as vast as India has startled many an observer. Yet, one only needs to scratch the surface to find beneath the differences, roots going deep and spreading wide that have held together Indian civilisation like a banyan tree that throws down aerial roots, which eventually grow into a grove of several trees. What at first sight appears to be a small forest turns out to be a single organism nourished by the same roots.
To quote just one such example, poet Jayadeva and his epic Gita Govinda — that finds expression in dance forms of Kerala and Manipur, in paintings from Rajasthan to Jammu, in the religious scriptures of the Sikhs to worship rituals in Nepal — is a thread that binds different regions and religions of India. What is equally striking in this case is not just the geographical spread of Jayadeva’s epic, but its ability to permeate every mode of cultural expression — poetry, dance, painting and religion.
Another such theme that resonates through the heart of India is the Barahmasa (Baromasi in Bengali, Baramaha in Punjabi). Like the Gita Govinda, it remains little commented upon in contemporary times, but forms the very essence of our cultural being, finding expression in poetry, music and art, and forming an integral part of Jain, Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim cultural expressions through the centuries.
Although the Barahmasa was a genre of poetry and art that mostly flourished in north, western and eastern India, manuscripts containing Barahmasa poetry have also been found as far south as Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu.
Barahmasa — The Song Of Twelve Months Of Separation
Barahmasa literally translates into 12 months or the song of 12 months. These folk songs originated as laments of wives separated from their itinerant husbands, who lived the nomadic lives of warriors or traders, often staying away from home and hearth for a period of 12 months. This theme of separation, or viraha, is the leitmotif of the Barahmasa genre. Each month of the year with its unique attributes — the oppressive heat of Ashadh, the rain bearing clouds of Bhadon, the cold lonely nights of Posh — is woven into a song that blends pangs of separation of the beloved with rich, lyrical description of the seasons.
What makes Barahmasa stand out in the vast canon of India’s historical literature is the fact that it is entirely a folk genre produced in the vernacular. There are no known examples of Barahmasas in Sanskrit. Though India’s classic literature, dating back to the Vedic period, has produced very fine descriptions of the seasons, these belong to a different type known as sad-rtu-varnanas, or description of the six seasons. These sad-rtu-varnanas can be found in practically every great work of Indian classical literature from Kalidasa’s Meghdoot to Tulsi’s Ramcharitmanas. The Barahmasas, on the other hand, are simple village songs, most of which have remained unpublished, passing down through the centuries via oral traditions. For this reason, the Barahmasa is special.
Barahmasa has not remained confined to purely oral village traditions — such was its popularity that it could not help but spill onto classical literature, producing a genre known as literary Barahmasas. The renowned Czech Indologist Dusan Zbavitel has shown that the oral folk traditions preceded the literary Barahmasas, and not as one might expect the other way round. Zbavitel further divided the various types of Barahmasas found in India into the following five types: Religious Barahmasa, the farmer’s Barahmasa, the narrative Barahmasa (included in an epic poem), the viraha Barahmasa, concerned with the sufferings of a wife separated from her husband during the 12 months of the year, the ‘trial of chastity’ Barahmasa.
These types are not mutually exclusive, it not uncommon for one type of Barahmasa literature to fit into two or more of the above categories.
The Origins Of The Barahmasa
Scholars such as Charlotte Vaudeville and Dusan Zbavitel are of the opinion that the Barahmasa originated in the western Indian provinces of Rajasthan and Gujarat, particularly among the Yadavas, Gurjaras, and the Marwari trading communities. This is reflected in the form and content of the Barahmasa songs, especially the viraha Barahmasa that describe lyrically the pangs of separation of a wife while her husband is away for a period of 12 months.
Because of its folk origins and its popularity among the peasantry, Barahmasa also served as a useful vehicle for the dissemination of religion. This leads to its eager adoption first by the Jain monks of western India, and later by the Nath yogis of northern India and the sufis and Bhakti sants of central and eastern India.
The Jain Barahmasa — The Oldest Known Barahmasa Literature of India
The oldest known written Barahmasa poetry we know of has been located in Patan, Gujarat, and is attributed to a Jain muni by the name of Dharam Suri. The historian Agar Chand Nahta, whose family owns a collection of over 85,000 historical works of Jain and Prakrit literature from western India, believes that this manuscript dates back to the late twelfth or early thirteenth century, and is composed in a mixture of old Gujarati and Apabhramsha.
Most Jaina Barahmasa poetry revolves around the legend of Neminatha, the twenty-second Jain tirthankara, and his wife Rajimati, the daughter of Ugrasen, the Yaduvanshi king of Dwarka. According to Jaina legends, Neminatha, on the day of his wedding happened to chance upon the large number of animals that his father-in-law had arranged for slaughtering for the marriage feast. Deeply saddened by the wanton loss of life that would occur on his account, Neminatha renounced the ways of the world and retired to the mountain refuse of Girnar. His fiancee, Rajimati was left pining for Neminatha for 12 months after which she too renounced the world and joined him at Girnar. It is this act of Neminatha’s going away, and Rajimati’s pain of separation that forms the subject matter of most Jain Barahmasa literature.
This theme of viraha or separation was grafted onto the leitmotif of the Barahmasa folk poetry by Jain munis to drive home the message of the illusory nature of human attachment and renunciation as the only means to conquer it. The viraha-Barahmasa then became a powerful vehicle to turn people’s hearts away from earthly affections.
The Bengali Baromasis — Bengal’s Indigenous Mangal-Kavya Tradition
The oldest Barahmasas from eastern India are found in an indigenous form of Bengali devotional literature known as Mangal-Kavya that represents the folk traditions of Bengal. The Mangal-Kavya are a vast body of literature produced between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, devoted to Bengali folk deities. They are generally classified into three categories depending on the central deity that is the subject of the kavya — Manasa Mangal, Chandi Mangal and Dharam Mangal.
For instance, in one such Mangal-Kavya from the fifteenth century devoted to Mansa Devi, the snake goddess, its poet Bipradas Pipilai narrates how the goddess Mansa was offended by the merchant, Chand, over a period of 12 months and her speech is in Baromasi form. More celebrated Mangal-Kavya works of the Chandi Mangal sub-genre by Dvija Madhab and Mukundram that contained baromasis appeared in the sixteenth century.
However, these early baromasis of the Mangal-Kavyas did not develop into lyrical forms on their own, remaining mostly didactic insertions into a larger narrative epic — what Dusan Zbavitel in his five-point classification of Barahmasas called the ‘narrative Barahmasas’. It was only with the spread of Sri Chaitanya-inspired Vaishnavism in Bengal, that folk poetry of Barahmasa too began to reflect the themes of love between Radha and Krishna. And with the spread of the lore of Radha-Krishna, the viraha theme, too, began to be fleshed out in more detail in Bengal’s baromasis of separation bestowing on it the lyrical richness that it hitherto lacked.
It is likely that the cultural exchange between eastern and western India, spurred by Marwari traders, allowed the transposition of the viraha theme into Bengali baromasis from Gujarati Jain legends. This transposition may also have allowed for a convergence between the Jain and the Vaishnava religious traditions. According to Jains, Neminatha was a cousin of Krishna and imparted to Krishna the knowledge and wisdom that would later materialise in the Bhagwad Gita.
The Sikh Barahmasa
In the Sikh tradition, the Barahmasa, (known in Punjabi as Barahmaha) occurs in the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy scripture of the Sikhs at two different places. The first Barahmaha, composed by Guru Nanak in the early sixteenth century, is the first recorded instance of Barahmasa poetry from northern India.
The hymns in the Guru Granth Sahib are organised under 31 ragas and Guru Nanak’s Barahmaha appears in the twenty-second raga called the Raga Tukhari. The second Barahmaha called the Barahmaha Manjh (from raag Manjh in which it is placed) was composed by Guru Arjan, the fifth Sikh Guru in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century. Both these ragas appears unique to the Sikh musical tradition called Gurmat Sangeet as one does not find any mention of these in ragas (the Hindustani tradition). It is believed that Guru Nanak composed these ragas from folk tunes of Punjab that were popular with the masses and later set the folk poetry of the Barahmaha to these ragas.
Both the Barahmahas play on the theme of separation of the wife from her beloved, using it as a metaphor for the yearning of the soul to unite with god which is the central message of the Guru Granth Sahib.
Much later, in the nineteenth century, Shiv Dayal Singh, founder of the Radha Soami tradition in Agra — a sect that borrows heavily form Sikhism and the north Indian sant tradition — composed poetry in the Barahmaha genre that followed the ethos of the Sikh Barahmahas in narrating the torment that the human soul feels anew in each month of the year upon its separation from the almighty.
Barahmasas By Sufi And Muslim Poets
From the fourteenth century onwards we also begin to see Barahmasa compositions in Muslim and Sufi literature known as Masnavis. One of the earliest such specimens is the Chandaayan composed by Mulla Daud in the fourteenth century inspired by the legend of Lorik and Maina; written in the Awadhi dialect and popular in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s famous Padmaavat composed in the sixteenth century is another instance of a Masnavi that contains a Barahmasa.
Barahmasas were composed in Urdu too. The Bikat Kahani composed by Afzal Jhinjhanvi (D 1625) is believed to be among the earliest Urdu Barahmasas. From the seventeenth century onwards, Muslim Sufi poets of Punjab such as Bulley Shah (1680-1757) and Miran Shah Jalandhari (1839-1914), composed Barahmasas in Punjabi written in the Persian (shahmukhi) script.
What made the ancient Barahmasa folk poetry such a perfect fit for Sufis of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was the overlap between the concept of viraha or separation from the beloved and the Sufi understanding of ‘ishq’ as a burning desire for the divine.
The scholar Charlotte Vaudeville has noted that whether being used in Jain devotional literature or Sufi poetry, viraha is represented as unbearable torment. The difference, however, lies in the nature of this viraha — the Jain muni aims to put an end to the torment by renouncing the attachment, which is the cause of it, the Sufi considers that the torment in itself is holy, since it comes from god and leads to union with him.
Barahmasa In Indian Painting
Exercising such a strong hold on the psyche of Indians through the centuries it was but natural that the Barahmasa should find its way into Indian painting as well. Just like the Gita Govinda series of painting, inspired by Jayadeva’s epic work, became a uniting thread for Indian miniature painting, so did the Barahmasa leit-motif come to feature prominently in the oeuvre of nearly all schools of painting in north and central India. Just like in poetry, Barahmasa paintings feature detailed descriptions of each season that follow strict guidelines laid down in the Chitrasutra, a sixth century treatise on painting that is a part of the older Vishnudharmottara Purana. These guidelines were faithfully followed by Indian painters of all schools down to the medieval era.
While we have records of Barahmasa poetry from the thirteenth century onwards, Barahmasa painting begins to make an appearance only from the sixteenth century. Like the poetry, the Barahmasa paintings beautifully delineate the sentiments of lovers by projecting them on to the natural features of each month.
The Enduring Legacy Of The Barahmasa
The Barahmasa continues to shape Indian aesthetic sensibility in the twenty-first century. Kripal Singh Shekhwat and Shakir Ali, two traditional artistes from Rajasthan, have produced contemporary work in Barahmasa genre that has earned them widespread recognition. Mrityunjay Awasthy, a Punjabi singer of contemporary-folk, based in Canada has produced modern renditions of this ancient rural ballad, introducing the slow, seasonal rhythms of the Barahmaha to a generation reared on hip-hop.
When one thinks of it, it seems incredible that a predominantly oral tradition dating back at least a millennium should continue to exercise a hold on our imaginations. Returning to the banyan analogy we began with, we realise that such a cultural continuity is possible only because the unseen roots of Indian culture go very deep, well beyond the canon of classical literature that is visible on the surface. The Barahmasa owes its popularity to the unrecorded, oral village songs that enriched it with emotion and bestowed an evocative power on what could well have been a mere didactic recitation of the months of the year. Kissed by the romance of viraha and blessed by its association with the divine, the Barahmasa has been raised through the centuries to a lyrical genre and an art form that endures.