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In the World of Allegorical Poetry

This article is part 1 of 2 in the series Bhallata


Literature has for its aim the creation of rasa, the aesthetic experience; it does not admit any other purpose. Bhaṭṭanāyaka stated this point blank – kāvye rasayitā sarvo na boddhā na niyogabhāk, ‘Literature offers enjoyment to every reader; as far as it is concerned, there exists neither an instructor nor an adherent.’ However, it is, at times, touted as a tool to prompt societal reform. This view is current not just among literary critics but also among the lay. It assumes a bigger dimension in the context of epic poems in India, with Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata being held as sacred texts featuring divine personalities.

Reconciliation seems difficult because we do not value enjoyment enough. It may also be due to an incorrect understanding of the process of art creation. Emotions, as all of us experience them every moment, are seldom pure or sustained. They are contaminated by circumstances beyond our control; therefore, they are not aesthetically harmonious. In art, these disparate emotions are transformed into rasa, a shared experience that is universal. Emotion is personal while rasa is impersonal. It is this impersonal nature of rasa—which brings about a suspension, albeit momentarily, of personal likes and dislikes that form the ‘ego-centric predicament’ of the mind—that makes its experience enjoyable. Since everybody strives to secure happiness and art offers it unconditionally, it is valued dearly. To appreciate art fully, regulation of sensibilities is essential, and this is why connoisseurs are more ‘refined’ than the rest. Therein lies the transformative power of art.

Constructive criticism supports refinement at many levels. Anyokti is a genre of literature in Sanskrit that aims to do just that, apart from providing immediate enjoyment. While talking about one thing and subtly pointing at another, it presents zoomed-in versions of various pictures of society and helps eradicate execrable blemishes and celebrate virtues. It does this not explicitly, but in a suggestive manner – by hinting at circumstances that are not altogether alien to the readers, but assumed to have taken place amidst different seasons, under different skies. The idea is to point at values that are relevant to all times. If this is done directly, with a spirit of reformation, the ensuing literature becomes dry and didactic. In order to evade dullness, paramount importance is given to the attractiveness of expression in this form of literature. It is because of this reason that anyokti verses tend to be more ornate than others. Ultimately, the import of an anyokti poem resonates with an innate emotion, nirveda in most cases.

Prof. Harold Bloom succinctly summarizes the objectives of reading literature. I quote it here as it helps understand anyokti better: “We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are.”[1]

Anyokti is known by different names such as anyāpadeśa, vyājokti, aprastutapraśaṃsā, and prastutāṅkura. It is a unique form of literature that takes its birth from a single figure of speech – aprastutapraśaṃsālaṅkāra, in which the description (that often takes the form of blame) of an implicit subject is to be understood by that (praise, usually) of an explicit object. Defined as an ‘instance of implicature,’ this figure is best suited for sophisticated flattery or veiled criticism. The efficacy of the primary figure of speech is boosted by employing ancillary ones such as paryāyokta, vyājastuti, vyājanindā, viṣādana, ullāsa, avajñā, hetu, viśeṣaka, leśa, virodha, viṣama, and śleṣa.

Since anyokti is invariably connected with a figure of speech, it is categorized under guṇībhūtavyaṅgya, a class of poetry in which suggestion is subordinated to expression. We see a vague reference to it in the Vedic hymn that describes gods as having a penchant for the ‘symbolic’ or ‘suggestive’ and being averse to the ‘obvious’ or ‘explicit’ – parokṣapriyā iva hi devāḥ pratyakṣadviṣaḥ. Its genesis proper, however, can be traced to the manoratha-lakṣaṇa in Bharata’s Nāṭyaśāstra, which speaks of expressing one’s desires by a pretense of referring to somebody else’s condition:

हृदयस्थस्य वाक्यस्य गूढार्थस्य विभावकम्।
अन्यापदेशैः कथनं मनोरथ इति स्मृतः॥ (१७.३६)   

Anyokti may perhaps be assigned to two other sources: one literary and the other theatrical. Allegorical stories immortalized by the tradition of Pañcatantra offer wide scope to present values in the form of animal fables. Same is the case with Hitopadeśa, Jātakamāla and suchlike works. Nāṭyaśāstra, the foundational text of Indian theater, devotes its thirty-second chapter to dhruva-gītas, stock songs composed in Prakrit and set to tāla that can be readily used in any play. These songs have profuse references to plants and animals, thereby representing the anyokti genre.

We do not find references to anyokti in Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata, barring rare cases such as the gṛdhra-gomayu-saṃvāda in Mahābhārata. Anyokti has been active in classical literature from the time of Kālidāsa, who employed it in his play Abhijñānaśākuntalam (5.1). With time, separate sections came to be devoted to anyokti verses in various anthologies of subhāṣitas. Noteworthy among these is Subhāṣitaratnabhāṇḍāgāra that deals with it under sixteen headings, each with multiple subdivisions. Rivers, mountains, plants, animals, birds, poetic conventions, emotions – all find mention in anykoti verses. Bhallaṭa, Nīlakaṇṭhadīkṣita, and Jagannātha are the important poets who have enriched this genre of literature. Among them, the most gifted is undoubtedly Bhallaṭa.

Bhallaṭa was the court-poet of Avantivarma. He lost his patronage when the successor king Śaṅkaravarma (883-902 CE) took over as the ruler of Kashmir. Śaṅkaravarma was a tyrant who annexed temples, levied heavy taxes on the subjects, and reveled in dismissing Sanskrit from his court. During his time, a porter by name Lavaṭa rose to the position of the king’s treasurer. While he drew a handsome salary of two-thousand dīnāras, a gifted poet like Bhallaṭa suffered a state of extreme penury. He had to resort to lowly jobs to make ends meet. Kalhaṇa’s Rājataraṅgiṇī has documented this:

त्यागभीरुतया तस्मिन्गुणसङ्गपराङ्मुखे।
आस्वेवन्तावरा वृत्तिः कवयो भल्लटादयः॥

निर्वेतनास्सुकवयो भारिको लवटस्त्वभूत्।
प्रसादात्तस्य दीनारसहस्रद्वयवेतनः॥

कल्पपालकुले जन्म तत्तेनैव प्रमाणितम्।
क्षीबोचितापभ्रम्स्होक्तेर्दैवीवाग्यस्य चाभवत्॥ (५, २०४-२०६)

Bhallaṭaśatakam consists of one hundred and three elegantly moulded verses that represent the highest quality of satirical poetry. It has been quoted in the works of celebrated aestheticians such as Ānandavardhana, Abhinavagupta, Kṣemendra, Kuntaka, and Mammaṭa. That he lost the king’s patronage had a deep impact on the poet’s mind, giving rise to a variety of emotions — disappointment, rage, helplessness, detachment etc. It is the interplay of these emotions that Bhallaṭa has tried to bring out in his verses. Frustrated and embittered as he was, we would not know of Bhallaṭa had he gone on rambling about them in an unpoetic manner. His angry outpourings are enjoyed to this day only because of their poetic merit. It is also important to note that Bhallaṭaśatakam was not composed merely as a reaction to contemporary issues. If it were to be so, the poem’s value would be no greater than a newspaper’s!

Bhallaṭa’s style—the pāñcālī-rīti—is extremely forceful and constantly reminds us of the tribulations that he encountered. He makes apt use of idioms to describe complex topics like society’s ungratefulness, the perils of power vested in the hands of the incompetent, inexplicable nature of fate, luck and so on. Adhering to the nature of anyokti, he uses elliptical similes to describe plants, animals etc., which, serving as double entendres, carry undertones of deeper meaning throughout. His verses do not have an overdose of alliteration and assonance; they are used appropriately, depending on the subject. The nature of his idiomatic expression deserves a separate study. Sanskrit has immensely benefited from the way he has used idioms to describe not just matters of importance, but also everyday objects and situations.

Bhallaṭa is a remarkable wordsmith; we never see him lost for words. This has enabled him to handle meters effortlessly. He is particularly fond of the meters Śārdūlavikrīḍitam, (used 36 times) Vasantatilakā (24), and Śikhariṇī (10). The following meters are sparingly used: Anuṣṭup (8), Dṛtavilambitam (7), Rathoddhatā (4), Gīti (3), Hariṇī (3), Mandākrāntā (2), Sragdharā (2), Upendravajra (1), Upajāti (1), Pṛthvī (1), and Āryā (1).

The usage of certain plants and animals in verses is doubtless bound by a cultural context. This has to be borne in mind while interpreting them. Reading hegemony of any sort into this, as some writers have done in the past, is just parading stupidity. It is also possible that poets might have made use of them as a defensive mechanism: while direct criticism of social machinations may land the poet in soup, doing so by referring to plants and animals adds an extra layer of insulation.

One simply cannot compose anyokti verses in the same league as Bhallaṭaśatakam offhand; it has to happen over time, drawing from the poet’s keen sense of observation and experience. Unlike Jagannātha who wrote mostly on trite themes, Bhallaṭa was an original poet. He carved out innovative themes himself. All his verses are products of intense experience. Bhallaṭaśatakam, a pathbreaking work, is akin to Kālidāsa’s Meghadūtam or Jayadeva’s Gītagovindam. More than 1200 years have passed since its composition and it continues to stand peerless.

[1] Bloom, Harold. How to Read and Why. New York: Touchstone Publishers, 2001. p. 29

To be continued.

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Shashi Kiran B N Bhallatashataka In the World of Allegorical Poetry shashi

Shashi Kiran B N

Shashi Kiran holds a bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering. His interests include Indian aesthetics, Hindu scriptures, Sanskrit literature, and philosophy. A literary aficionado, Shashi enjoys composing Sanskrit verses set to classical poetic meters.
Shashi Kiran B N Bhallatashataka In the World of Allegorical Poetry shashi