Sankaradeva: the First Assamese Literary Critic

Sankaradeva had very definite ideas and also clear ideals about artistic creations including poetry. These we can cull from his actions and remarks scattered all over the biographies. Sankaradeva has been described as the first Assamese literary critic. The following incident is cited in this connection:

After coming down to Western Assam under Koch rule from the Āhom kingdom in Eastern Assam, Sankaradeva was inquiring about the leading personalities of the area. He was told by his (new) disciple Nārāyana Dāsa that one of them was Pitāmbara ‘who made poetry’. Naturally, Sankaradeva’s curiosity was aroused. ‘What kind of poetry does he make?’, he asked. In reply, a piece of Pitāmbara’s poetry was quoted:-

vilāpa kariyā kānde devi Rukamini
kona ange khuna dekhi nāilā Yadumani

“The lady Rukmini weeps and wails : In which part of my body did Yadumani see any deficiency that he did not come?”

Sankaradeva’s reaction was extremely sharp:-

He is a Sākta given to kāma (lust), don’t talk to me about him.

Now this certainly is literary criticism. A piece of literature has been analysed and criticised as being contrary to some ideal. But what exactly is this ideal? Outwardly, it would seem that Sankaradeva’s objection was to the grossly erotic suggestion fit for a Sākta. But Sankaradeva himself as a poet resorted to elaborate descriptions of physical charm on certain occasions. Why then this aversion? The real objection is to the incongruity of Rukmini, a true devotee of Lord Krishna, having been made to appear as if she was obsessed with the carnal desire to have Krishna as her paramour. The objection is based on the ground of artistic propriety.

Need for Harmonious Relationship

Sankaradeva was very clear about the need in artistic creation of a harmonious relationship between the content and the manner of its expression. When Ananta Kandali, the poet-follower, came to Sankaradeva with specimens of his renderings from some parts of the Bhāgavata, Sankaradeva’s remark was that the former was wide off the mark;

He had lengthened the portions depicting war and shortened those dealing with bhakti:-

bhakti par hal hraswa, yuddhat kailā dirgha

Being a Vaisnavite poet, Ananta Kandali should have given greater importance to the bhakti element and less to the war element that catered to the popular taste.

Great Value to Art of Contracting

Sankaradeva gave great value to the capacity of a poet or artist of contracting or summarising as opposed to that of elaborating or expanding. It is evident from the following incident:-

When Sankaradeva requested Madhavadeva to translate the slokas of the Janma-Purāna, the latter hesitated saying that he did not possess the capacity for the job. But at the Guru’s insistence, Madhavadeva did the rendering and showed it to him. Sankaradeva was so pleased with the work that he remarked:-

You had said you did not have the capacity...I can only expand, but cannot contract. I see that you can both contract and expand.

tumi hrasva dirgha save pārā daho

He then cited the metaphor of killing an elephant and squeezing it into a small container:-

hāti māri bhurukāt bharowā

The metaphor is only symbolic of Sankaradeva’s ideal of aesthetic possibility and desirability.

Application of restraint, avoidance of excesses and a kind of sophisticated search for simplification seem to have been the desiderata for all creative efforts of Sankaradeva.

The Application of Restraint

Once Sankaradeva, Madhavadeva and two other disciples, Nārāyana Dāsa and Jayanti Madhāi were travelling on a boat. The atmosphere must have been most inviting for a poet and, as if on a sudden impulse, Sankaradeva gave a call - kavitā karo āhā - “let us make poetry”. The three companions of Sankaradeva produced three compositions. The modest Guru found Madhava’s composition to be too high flown where Sankaradeva was shown as being at the center of the universe. He admonished his beloved disciple saying that he had ‘put up no walls’ and thus his poetry had overflown the boat (“naukā chādi upasi gal”). Madhavadeva immediately got the message and hastened to ‘put up walls’. This signifies the application of restraint.