Birds of a feather: Vamana bhatta bana's hamsasandesa and its intertexts.

Author:Bronner, Yigal
Position:Critical essay

Courier poetry is perhaps the richest and most vital literary genre of premodern South Asia, with hundreds of poems in a great variety of languages. But other than dubbing these poems "imitations" of Kalidasa's classical model, existing scholarship offers very little explanation of why this should be the case: why poets repeatedly turned to this literary form, exactly how they engaged with existing precedents, and what, if anything. was new in these many poems. In hopes of raising and beginning to answer such questions. this essay closely examines one such work, the Hamsasandesa of Vamana Bhatta Bana (fl. ca. 1400), and its close correspondence with two important intertexts: Kalidasa's Meghasandesa and Vedanta Desika's Hamsasandesa. I argue that Vamana Bhatta Bana's work is an intricate mosaic that is put together from pieces--both absences and presences--that are taken from both these poems and that make sense only if we are familiar with their sources, and that this mosaic is nonetheless a surprisingly new and independent statement. On the basis of this analysis, I go on to suggest that novelty in the genre is partly made possible (and manifest) precisely through dense engagement with the vocabulary. figures of speech, situations, and other building blocks of the intertexts. a practice that often results in a heightened mode of density.


A resident of Alaka, Kubera's mythical northern city, gets exiled to the south as a punish?ment tor neglecting his duties. He is lonely, lovesick, and worried about the well-being of the beloved he left behind. At some point toward the end of his exile, he decides to send her a sign of life and a message of encouragement, for which purpose he identifies a rather unlikely courier. This whole incident is detailed in a short poem in Sanskrit that uses the Mandakranta meter and consists of two parts. In the first, the hero leads his airborne courier above much of the Indian subcontinent and across the Himalayas, all the way up to Alaka. In the second, the courier is gradually directed to the miserable beloved and asked to deliver a moving message that describes the hero's efforts to summon her through artwork, imagination, and dreams, efforts that fate is quick to disrupt.

Sound familiar? Think again. This is not a description of Kalidasa's famous Meghaduta, known as Meghasandesa in the south (hereafter MS), but of a poem written about a thousand years later, probably at the close of the fourteenth century, the Hamsasandesa of Vamana Bhatta Bana (hereafter HSVBB). (1) Given even the few details I have already mentioned, it is easy to see why the sole printed edition of this poem--brought out by an obscure publisher in 1941 and based on a single imperfect manuscript--never became the target of any serious analytic study. (2) Even if it momentarily appeared on the radar of a handful of scholarly surveys, it was deemed a particularly slavish imitation of Kalidasa's masterpiece, one of dozens if not hundreds. (3) Indeed, at first glance, the resemblance the "daughter" poem bears to its "mother" is particularly striking, including its frequent use of vocabulary that is lifted straight from Kalidasa's template. such as niyatavasati (permanent address) and a kailasat (all the way to Kailasa), to give examples only from the very beginning of the poem. (4)

But we should not rush to equate repetition with repetitiveness. From its stunning opening words to its beautifully alliterative closing stanza, the HSVBB sets out to innovate and to surprise its reader every step of the way, and I will argue that its methods of achieving this effect provide a particularly useful starting point for a much-needed study of innovation in the vast corpus of courier poems, perhaps the richest and most vital of South Asia's premodern literary genres. (5)

In this paper I would like to discuss some of the ways in which Vamana Bhatta Warp uses this immensely rich textual corpus, the result of a thousand years of intense courier activity, in order to say something new about yet another courier. In this discussion, I will repeatedly invoke the analytic tool of intertextuality, which has often been blunted through its employment for two equally futile task': the rather mechanical identification of sources or "influences" in essentially dyadic structures, and the license to hear anything in a text's "echo chamber" in a manner that is presumably unstructured and hence unrestricted by authorial intention. (6) Instead, I argue that innovation in this world is enabled by an intricately structured and conscious engagement with a plurality of significant intertexts. In the case of Vamana Bhatta Bana's poem, I will show that novelty arises primarily through a reflexive engagement with the important "mother-poem, through an equally playful conversation with a highly influential but now largely ignored "sister" poem, and through correspondence with a pool of additional texts, some in languages other than Sanskrit. I believe that it is the combination of these intertextual relations (or axes) that charges the HSVBB's well-worn format and subject matter with new energy.


It is crucial to understand that from the very start Vamana Bhatta Bana sets out to undermine key aspects of the Kalidasa template he is using. To begin with, contrary to the precedent set by Ka Hasa and followed by many other courier poets, the HSVBB seems to need no introduction. It does not start by describing its hero's plight from a narrator's viewpoint and makes no apologies for his strange choice of courier.7 Instead, the poem begins in medias res and in the hero's own voice: we immediately hear him requesting a gander to carry his message. Note the respectful but affectionate designation he uses in approaching the bird: saumya (0 good Sir!). Kalidasa's demigod hero, the yaksa, has already addressed his cloud in this fashion, but only later in the work, after they have become acquainted, and certainly after the poet has introduced both him and the cloud to us (MS 49, 83). The redeployment of saumya in the very first verse of the HSVBB is an early indication that repetition does not always amount to repetitiveness, and that familiar items may serve new tasks in this poem.

Even more startling than the absence of an introduction is what the hero says when he is introducing himself, ostensibly to the gander but really also to the readers. It turns out that the speaker is not just another lovelorn fellow in exile but the original yaksa himself, the hero of Kalidasa's famous poem, and it is hard to think of an opening line that is more intertextually charged than his first three words, so 'ham yaksah, which could be translated variously as "It's me, the yaksa," "I'm that yaksa," or perhaps even "It's me again, the yaksa." Finally allowed to tell his story after a millennium, the yaksa is in a hurry to set the record straight and correct a whole range of things that Kalidasa got wrong. For one thing, he wishes to reveal his identity. Kalidasa deliberately kept him anonymous--the MS famously opens with kascit ... yaksah ("A certain yaksa," MS 1)--and intentionally employs indefinite language in touching on various aspects of his biography. By contrast, the yakp in the HSVBB immediately gives his name. Daksa, as well as that of his beloved, Kandarpalekha (HSVBB 1.1), and later supplies other information that Kalidasa never disclosed, such as the exact amount of time left on his exile calendar (two months; HSVBB 2.120).8 Moreover, there are many things that Kalidasa got terribly wrong, such as the actual location of the yaksa's exile (not in Ramagiri but much farther away, on Mount Malaya, near the southernmost tip of the Indian Peninsula), the route that the courier is to travel, and, of course, the courier's identity: not a cloud but a gander. (9)

Where is this new information coming from, and what is its significance? Clearly there is an element of parody here. Vamana Bhatta Bana carefully chooses his words so as to echo and tease Kalidasa's. The words so 'ham yaksah carry a playful dig at the intertext's kascit ... yaksah, and naming the yaksa Daksa may be a humorous note on the fictional nature of Kalidasa's character, as in other rhyming names of the Joe Shmoe variety. (10) But many of the changes and innovations mentioned thus far make little sense in the context of Kalidasa's MS, although some of them may be traceable to a larger discursive domain that emerged around it. For example, Vamana Bhatta Bana may have taken his tally of the remaining months of exile from the vast commentarial literature that emerged on Kalidasa's poem, where such calculations abound. (11) If this is the case, our author may have intentionally introduced into his courier poem information that first originated from the discursive intertextual space created around Kalidasa's, or it may be that by Vamana Bhatta Bana's time the MS was no longer separable from the traditions found in its commentaries. But all of this does not explain the most important changes that Vamana Bhatta Bana has inserted into the yaksa's story, namely, the relocation of his place of exile, the dramatically different path on which the courier is sent, and, of course, the courier's identity.

In this context we should note another intriguing aspect of the HSVBB. It seems reasonable to assume that authors of poems in this genre send their couriers to regions and places with which they, the authors, are personally associated. This, presumably, is why Ujjayini, the supposed seat of Kalidasa, occupies such a prominent place at the heart of the cloud's journey in the MS (MS 27, 30-38). Vamana Bhatta Bana is known to have lived and worked in two Deccani kingdoms. He was first associated with Vijayanagara, probably in the last decades of the fourteenth century, and then joined the court of Vemabhupala in Kondavidu, in the Andhra country, where...

To continue reading