Go to Mathura and even today you will hear the locals speak a dialect believed to be the source from which India’s most spoken language, Hindi, evolved. It is known as Brajbhasha or literally the language of Braj region, a land that extends from Palwal in Haryana to Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh and from Bharatpur in Rajasthan to Etah in UP; a quadrangle in the heart of North India. So dominant was Brajbhasha, that it remained the literary language of a large part of North India till the 20th century CE until Khadiboli, which is the present day Hindi, took center-stage.
Braj poetry gained popularity with the rise of the Bhakti movement from the 12th century CE. The Bhakti movement was a socio-religious movement that spread across India, where the Bhakti Saints, reinterpreted religious teachings in the language of the common man, in contrast to the earlier teachings in Sanskrit. A large amount of devotional poetry emerged in this period in languages spoken in different parts of India, such as Tamil, Marathi, Kannada, Gujarati and Brajbhasha and Awadhi in the North.
Brajbhasha is believed to be the source from which Hindi evolved
Even within this Bhakti wave, Brajbhasha had a special place. After all, it is believed to be the language that the main deity around whom the Bhakti movement revolved, Lord Krishna, spoke. Braj with Mathura at its centre, was also the place where he grew up. Brajbhasha poetry thus became most closely associated with expressing love and devotion for Krishna which was of a mystical nature and spoke of a spiritual union with god. It must be remembered that the Bhakti and Sufi movements had many similarities and both used poetry as a potent tool to connect with the common man.
Brajbhasha poetry gained mass popularity with the works of poets such as Amir Khusro (1253-1325 CE), Surdas (1478-1573 CE) and Kabir (1440-1518 CE) among others. These poets spoke of the life and travails of the common man, and hence touched a deep chord in the wider society, that was growing increasingly alienated from formal religion .
By the 16th century, this language of the common man had reached the Imperial Mughal Court, in Agra, close to Mathura. It was Emperor Akbar, with his progressive ideas who first patronised the language. His love for Dhrupad songs, a style of Hindustani classical music that Brajbhasha poetry is closely connected to, gave the language a big ‘official’ boost.
At Akbar’s court, it was not just the retinue of Braj poets, even key courtiers such as his Finance Minister, Raja Todar Mal and Advisor, Abul Fazl wrote verses in Brajbhasha.
Of the many Brajbhasha poets patronised and celebrated in Mughal courts, a few stand out. They all came from very diverse backgrounds, but left a mark with their poetry.
It was Akbar, with his progressive ideas who first patronised the language at court
Gang Kavi (1538-1608 CE) was one of the first Brajbhasha poets at the Mughal court. He is said to have been associated with both Akbar and Jahangir’s court. Over a 100 of his works survive to this day.
Many of his poems were in praise of Akbar but the topics he covered were diverse. Bikharidas, an early 18th century poet, considered him to be at par with Tulsidas who wrote the Ramcharitmanas.
Even as late as the 1960s, his works were published by Nagari Pancharini Sabha, Kashi under the title Gang Kabitta.
Keshav Das Mishra (1555-1617 CE) is considered to be one of the founding fathers of the courtly Brajbhasha literary tradition. He came from a family of Sanskrit pandits from Orchha, but chose to write in Brajbhasha as it was a language accessible to the common people. He wrote a total of 8 major works which led to a further evolution of Brajbhasha poetry. His work Kavipriya, a handbook for poets written in 1601 CE is one of the earliest examples of Braj textbooks, His works Rasikpriya was a handbook for poetry connoisseurs and his last work, was set in the Mughal court and was called Jahangirjascadrika (Moonlight of the fame of Jahangir) and was written in 1612 CE.
Rahim was one of the Navratnas in Akbar’s court
Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khanan (1556-1627 CE) Rahim was perhaps the most famous of the Brajbhasha poets of this generation. One of the most popular poets of Akbar’s court, few realise that he was the son of the famed Bairam Khan, who was Akbar’s reagent when he ascended the throne at the age of 13.
Rahim was so important that he was even appointed mentor to Akbar’s son Jahangir and was one of the Navratnas (nine gems) in Akbar’s court.
Rahim’s works are well known. Among two of his collections written in Brajbhasha, one focuses on Krishnabhakti ,devotion towards Krishna and the other on Nayikabhedi, different types of female characters in the Barvai or short couplet form. Nayikabhedas were written in the ritigranth style which uses examples from daily life to illustrate abstract concepts.
It is believed that Tulsidas was so influenced by Rahim’s Barvai meter that he wrote the entire Ramayan in this style!
Another one of Rahim’s works that was pathbreaking was the Madanastak, which blends four languages; Sanskrit, Persian, Braj and Khadiboli (modern day Hindi).
The tradition of Brajbhasha poetry carried through generations and centuries with greats like Kavindracharya Saraswati (1628-1658 CE) and Chintamani Tripathi (1600-1685 CE) and it is a testimony to the appeal of this language that Brajbhasha poetry remained the popular medium of poetry till as late as the 1920s, after which Hindi took over. Why that happened is another story…
Did You Know
Rahim’s tomb lies at Nizamuddin East in New Delhi. It was built by Rahim in 1598 CE for his wife; later in 1627 CE his body was placed there too.