The poet Vidyapati appears to have been born in or around 1352 in Bihar, in the Madhubani village of Bisapi in the region of north eastern Bihar known as Mithila. As a Brahmin, he is likely to have learned Sanskrit at an early age, and certainly his earliest compositions suggest his mastery of the language. Vidyapati received his first commission from Kirti Simha, the Mathili king who reigned from 1370 onwards, and he penned a poem in which he celebrated the king’s prowess; he then became resident at the court of Kirti Simha’s son and successor, Deva Simha, and in his work Bhuparikrama (Around the World), Vidyapati offered political and religious wisdom in the form of romantic stories.
Vidyapati’s most enduring contribution to Indian literature, indeed what he has been remembered for in the last few hundred years, is a corpus of over five hundred love songs. The subject of these songs, which were composed between 1380 and 1406, is the love of Krishna and Radha; surprisingly, perhaps, Vidyapati himself was not a Krishna bhakta, not even a Vaishnava. Vidyapati lived for another forty odd years, dying around 1448, but he never returned to the theme of Krishna and Radha, and indeed in the later compositions his attention was riveted on Shiva and Durga.
There is much that is distinctive about Vidyapati’s poetry, though in some respects he followed the elaborate tradition of Sanskrit court and love poetry that head existed since the time of Kalidasa, and that even his greatest predecessor Jayadeva, who virtually introduced the figure of Radha into the Krishna legend, had exploited to great advantage. This love poetry had established certain stock conventions: thus the eyes of a woman were always described as large and tender, like a doe’s or the flash of lightning, while her skin, limbs, and hands were always described as smooth and delicate like the lotus leaf. In this poetry, a woman’s face dazzles like the moon; her breasts are large, firm, well-rounded, compared to “mountains of gold”, pitchers of water, or fruits; and her hair is black as night, or as long as the tendrils of a vine. However, Sanskrit love poetry also sought to establish moods, and the seasons and nature were rendered commensurate with acts of love-making. It is this tradition which Jayadeva had inherited, and molded to his purposes; and likewise Vidyapati took these conventions and wove from them simple, and yet intricate, poems of the passion of Krishna and Radha. Even more so than Jayadeva, Vidyapati disassociated Krishna from Vishnu, so that the reader is not likely to remember Krishna as an incarnation of Vishnu; indeed, even the divinity of Krishna is of little consequence, since it is as lovers that they are commemorated in Vidyapati’s poems. In the region of Mithila, Vidyapati’s love songs are still sung at marriages, and one suspects that though the pious will think of the love of Krishna and Radha as an allegory of the love of the soul for the divine, or the love of humans for God, the songs are construed almost as a guide to married love.
In the Bhagavata Purana, an unnamed gopi was described as Krishna’s favorite, and writing in the 13th century, Jayadeva spun an elaborate narrative of the loves of Krishna and his favorite gopi, Radha. When Vidyapati wrote, Radha had already, so to speak, arrived on stage. However, unlike the Gita Govinda, which should be viewed as offering a connected narrative of the intricate love-play of Radha and Krishna, so that one can be a witness to all the different moods of Radha as she negotiates her relationship with Krishna, each of Vidyapati’s songs is complete unto itself. One can imagine an evening where one song is sung, or another where a large body of songs is sung together. In yet another respect, the difference is considerable: though Radha is ostensibly the central figure in the Gita Govinda, since it is her shifting moods to which Krishna responds, one can never be in doubt that Krishna is the supreme subject of Jayadeva’s affections and adoration. Vidyapati, on the other hand, lavished attention on Radha, and every texture of Radha’s body — the swelling of her breasts at Krishna’s approach, the stirring of passion within her loins, the mark of Krishna’s nails on her tender flesh – and similarly the nuances of every mood – her bashfulness, her uncertainty about her ability to please Krishna, her anxiety at the separation – are the true subjects of Vidyapati’s poems. Vidyapati certainly seems to have been riveted by Radha’s breasts, as in this poem entitled “Twin Hills”,
Her hair dense as darkness,
Her face rich as the full moon:
Couched in a seat of love.
Her eyes rival lotuses.
Seeing that girl today,
My eager heart
Is driven by desire.
Innocence and beauty
Adore her fair skin.
Her gold necklace
On the twin hills,
Her breasts ….,
or in this poem, “Signs of Youth”:
Radha’s glances dart from side to side.
Her restless body and clothes are heavy with dust.
Her glistening smile shines again and again.
Shy, she raises her skirt to her lips.
Startled, she stirs and once again is calm,
As now she enters the ways of love.
Sometimes she gazes at her blossoming breasts
Hiding them quickly, then forgetting they are there.
Childhood and girlhood melt in one
And new and old are both forgotten.
Says Vidyapati: O Lord of life,
Do you not know the signs of youth?
How much better could any poet have captured the embarrassment, bashfulness, and wonder of a girl growing into adolescence, finding her body blossoming in unexpected ways, uncertain what to do with the increasingly heavy burden of her twin hills? This confusion in Radha’s mind is comically evoked by the suggestion that she hides her breasts and wishes to forget that they are at all there; and elsewhere the dialectic of breasts, genitals, girdle, clothes, the touch of the hand, nakedness, and the breath of air is all poignantly and yet humorously evoked in these lines from “First Rapture”:
She felt his touch startling her girdle.
She knew her love treasure was being robbed.
With her dress she covered up her breasts.
The treasure was left uncovered.
Vidyapati’s poems are another kind of largely unexplored treasure.