Maithili Literature: A Brief Introduction

 Maithili has a very rich literary tradition since the 14th century. It is still very vibrant. In fact, this is what has kept it going.

Brief Literary History:The oldest prose-text in all Indo-Aryan languages has been written in Maithili: `Varna-ratnaakara’ by Jyotirishwara. Vidyapati as a poet and Umapati and Nandipati as play-rights in 15th-16th century and the Malla kings from Nepal were popular in entire eastern India. The medieval period in mithila was devoted mainly to Sanskritic learning and philosophy, and many schools of philosophy, such as `Nyaaya’ actually began from Mithila. The “Modern” according to some (cf. Jayakant Mishra 1976:  221)  covered the  period 1860-1970 A.D.  Although Das (1991: 352) labelled th period of 1800 A.D.  onwards the  period  of  “Western  impact: Indian response”,  the  first  significant contact with the west was felt in Mithila  only  after 1860. That makes sense as to why most historians of Maithili literature identified this moment as historically  significant time for Maithili literature.

Initial Period: The tradition of poetry that is possible to be rendered into songs  – evidenced  in the lyrics of bhajans or various  forms  of  songs  –  was firmly established by the great Maithili  poets  of earlier  centuries  including Vidyapati,  Umapati,  Govinda  das,  Mahesh Thakur, Chaturbhuj, Lochana, the Malla kings (Jagajjiyotimalla), Yoganarendramalla, Jagatprakashamalla,  Bhupatindramalla,  or  Ranajitamalla and Chanda Jha continued further in the  modern  era. By then the immortal songs of the poets of yester-years  had  entered into repertoire of daily life of the common man.

Early Modern Period: The  other  important literary events  during  the early modern period, i.e. in 1860-1910, included  death  of  three  important writers – Lakshminath Gosain(b. 1787, d.  1872),  Gopinath (b. 1788, d. 1881), and Chanda Jha (b. 1831, d. 1907)  –  all three being poets of distinction. Although we find records of  birth  of about 20 important creative writers during this  period   in Das (1991: 519-765), most of them made positive  contributions   only  during  1911-1956. I would like to mention  the  following  under this category: Bhubaneshwar Jha “bhuvan”(b. 1874, d. 1966),  Ramlochon Sharan (b. 1877, d. 1968), Dinabandhu Jha (b. 1878,  d. 1955), Trilochon Jha (b. 1878, d. 1938), Haimavati Devi (b. 1880, d. 1940), Rashbiharilal Das (b. 1885, d. 1941), Ishanath Jha  (b. 1907, d. 1965), Kashinath Mishra “Madhup” (b. 1907, d. 1908),  and Yatri or nagarjun (1907-1998) as  well as Suman (b. 1907).

The Re-awakening: During 1860-1910, there  were  five  major  writers in Maithili including Raghunandana Das (b. 1860, d. 1938)   – the author of plays such as “Mihtilaa NaaTaK” and  “Duutaangadaviyog” as well as collection of narrative poems, Jivacha Jha  (b. 1863, d. 1923) who wrote the first novel in Maithili –  “Raameshwar” as well as published a collection of essays under the  title  “Ankur”  Tejanath  Jha (b. 1868, d. 1919)  who  wrote  devotional songs (“Bhakti ratnaavalii”), narrative poem (“Raamajanama”), and  a religious play (“Gaurishankara vinoda naaTaka”), Muralidhar Jha   (b.  1869,  d. 1929) who was a novelist  (“Arjun  tapasyaa”)  and  travelogue writer (“Kashmir yatra”) besides editing the  literary  magazine  “Mithilaa  moda”, and Janardan Jha  “Jansidan”  who  is  still  considerd to be the first modern prose-writer of  Maithili  bcause  of  his three novel: “Nirdayii saasu”,  “Shashikala”  and “Punarvivaah”, although he also published many poems. Besides the five above, there were others who were also well-known historians  (M.M. Mukund Jha “Bakshi”), philosophers (M.M. Ganganath Jha) and  other scholars writing in Maithili.

Chanda Jha independently created a field for himslf  with his “Vaataahavaana” (1883),  “Mithilaa  Bhaashaa RaamaayaNa” (1886/ publ. 1891), “Lakshmiishwara vilaas” (1888) or  by  translating  Vidyapati’s Sanskrit  work: “PuruSa  pariikSaa”  (1888).  The  establishment of printing presses  in  Maithila  or  creation of literary and cultural organizations (Mithila Viddvajjan Samiti, Benaras 1896; Maithili Hitasadhan Samiti, Jaipur 1904 or Mithila Research Society, Darbhanga 1905) culminated into  the establishment of Maithili Mahasabha in 1910. It was at this time that  major  periodical publications  were started, or classical works like  the saTTaka plays (“Maithilii saTTaka” 1906  and  “Narmadaa  saTTaka” 1906) as well as the drama entitled “Saamavatii punarjanama”  (1908) by Jivan Jha were created. This is  the  background against  which  we have to view the  literary  devlopments  after 1910

The  establishment of Maithila Mahasabha (or  “Mithili  Conference”  as  it  was known to some) saw a further  spurt  in  the  debates  on the education that was best suited for Mithila,  particularly  for  the preservation of her rich cultural  heritage. Stipends were made available to numerous students to pursue higher  education. Several research societies came up. A number of other literary or cultural organizations were established – both within  and outside  Mithila.  As a result, it clearly dawned  upon  the  new generation  that was taking the lead in the begining of the  20th   century that the future for Mithila lay in what steps they  would take.  A begining was made by study and publication of the  classics  in Maithili in the 1910s. Besides Vidyapati,  they  concentrated on Umapati (of the “PaarijaataharaNa” fame), Ramadasa  and Bhanunath Jha’s works. This was also the time when M.M.  Haraprasad  Shastri was to discover the Charyaa texts, one of  the  most important  works  in the Eastern NIA languags. The  influence  of   Grierson’s  work on Bihar in general, and Mithila in  particular, must  be  also recalled here. His studies on  the  Bihar  Peasant  Life,  folklore of Mithila, Maithili grammar besides  his  magnum opus  – the Linguistic Survey of India, had tremendous effect  on  his work of regeneration and re-evalation of the past heritage.

Literary Magazines: The period 1911-1956 marks the begining of serious Maithili prose writing.  And  this was possible only because a  number  of  literary  magazines flourished during the early period and with them flourished the journalistic register in Maithili. The Hitasadhana from  Jaipur published essays on number of topics: grammar, philosophy, geography, mathematics or even hygiene besides those on  current political  affairs.  The  Moda  published  longish  translations, poems, stories and essays on current affairs. The weekly Mihir which initially had both English and  Hindi edition too, has been backbone of the Maithili journalism.  There  were other significant magazines too during this time: “Maithila  Prabhaa” from Ajmer first (August 1920 until the end of 1924) and later from Agra (only for a year) and “Maithila Prabhaakara” from   Aligarh (1929-30) which mainly aimed at maintaining the  contacts among  those outside Mithila, although these too created  several  important  writers. Their efforts were revived later  once  again through  the publication of “Maithila bandhu” from  Ajmer  (1935-43),  “Maithila Yuvak” (1938-41), and “Jivan prabhaa”  (1940-50).  Then there were “Shrii Maithilii” (1925-27),  “Mithilaa”(1929-31) and “Mithilaa Mitra” (1931-32) which maintained very high  standard as literary magazines, even though they were all short lived. “Maithilaa Moda” started once again in 1936, and so were began  a few other secular literary magazines including “Vibhuuti”  (1937-38)  from Muzaffarpur under the editorship of Bhuvaneshwar  Simha “Bhuvan” and “Bharati” (1937) from Darbhanga under the editorship  of  Babu Bholala Das, the later publication being  the  organ  of the Maithila Sahitya Parishad which was established in 1931.  The  Sahitya  Parishad  provided the  creative  writers,  grammarians, philosophers  and  critics with a common meeting  ground  besides giving encouragement to the publishing activities.

Original Script Given Up for National Integration and Standardization Efforts: By 1930s another important decision was taken. Gandhiji gave a call to the protagonists of different Indian languages to  give  up their scripts in favour of Devanagari to achieve one more step in the direction of national integration. Maithili reacted  positively to the call because it was soon realized that if  Maithili printing and publishing were to grow, the on-again and  off-again  attempts to revive the Tiruhuta writing system had to be disposed off  once for all. The change over to Nagari already had a  positive effect of allowing the language and literature to be used in writing  by the other castes in the society who knew English  and Nagari but who did not use the Tirhuta system which was restricted  to  the Brahmins and certain Kayasthas. Moreover, it  had  to grow  up  as the literary language for the whole  Mithila  rather  than  being resticted to a few geographic  pockets.  Consquently, there was also a realization that Maithili must undergo the  processes of standardization now that the language was being used  in so  many registers and over such vast geographic areas.  The  net  result  was  that by 1936, a Shailii NirdhaaraN Samity (Committee on Determination of Style/Standard) had  gone through a questionnaire-based survey of the problems of  spelling  and  styles,  under the direction of M.M. Dr. Umesh  Mishra,  and  decisions  were taken on standardization of Maithili.  In  implementing these decisions , the role of the most important  serious literary journal of the time – “Maithilii Saahitya Patra”,  under  the editorship of critic and grammarian Pt. Ramanath Jha is worth of special mention. All these surely made printing and publishing  in Maithili and reaching a wider reading public (thanks to  Devanagari)  easier and the cumulative effect of all these steps  was  predictable:  a tremendous boost to the literary  publication  in  Maithili.

Fiction in Maithili: Maithili  did  not have prove its credentials  of  producing  great  poetry.  Starting from Vidyapati, it already had  a  great tradition  of  poems and poetic plays. But considering  the  fact that  most Modern Indian Languages could already boast of a  rich prose  tradition by 1920s and ’30s, Maithili still was to  establish itself  in this new genre which already had  a  history  of  hundred  years  in  other sister languages.  Although  the  first novel(s) in Maithili (“Raameshwar” 1915  by  Jibach  Mishra   according  to  Jayakanta  Mishra  1976,  and  “Chandraprabhaa”  1909   by Srikrishna  Thakur according to the bibliography of  Dutt  (1990:114)) appeared  before 1915, even before 1920s there were a  few  other  published  novels including Rashbiharilal Das’s  “Sumati”  (1918) and Punyananda Jha’s “MithilaadarpaNa” (1923). But it was Harimohan Jha with the whom fiction writing in Maithili changed dramat- ically.  Harimohan Jha himself a product of a family of  scholars  and litterateurs. His father, Janardan Jha “Jansidan” was regarded  as  the first modern fiction writer.  His  didactic  fictions included:  “Nirdayii  Saasu” and  “Punarvivaah”.  Harimohan  Jha,  himself a Professor of Philosophy, but better known to the common man  for his humor and satire, particularly for  his  immemorable character, KhaTTar KaaKaa, raised the novel to the new height. He  made his entry through “Kanyaadaan” (1933) which latter run  into numerous editions, and which projected the importance of introducing a  much-needed (but resented by orthodoxy) social reform and  emphasized  on  the spread of education  among  women.  “Dviraagaman” (1942)  came  as  a sequel to it. This period  saw  many  serious novelists,  the most well-known among whom was Baidyanath  Mishra  “Yatri”  whose works achieved great histication and  raised  a  lot  of  debates and discussions. His “Paro” (1933  with  several editions), “Navturiaa” (1954) and “Balchanmaa”(1967)  established him  as a progressive novelist who writes in an inimitable  style that  marks  his poetry a different entity in comparison  to  his fiction. The period under consideration saw the emergence of many  other  great fiction writer: Kumar Ganganand Singh,  Upendra  Jha “Vyas”,  Yoganand  Jha , Shailendra Mohan  Jha,  and  Brajkishore  Verma  “Manipadma”.  Rajkamal Chowdhury (b. 1929,  d.  1967)  was another  established  name of that period.  Although  his  famous novel,  “Adikathaa” (1958) appeared almost at the fag end of his period, his stories began appearing in print much earlier some of which  were published in an form of an anthology “Kathaa  paraag”  (1958).  His  other well recieved works – “Lalkaa  paag”  (1968), “Nirmohi  baalam ammar” (1970s), “Paatharphuul”  (1967),  etc.,  were  published posthumously.

Short Stories: Although until 1930s there were many short story writers,  prominent among whom were Kalikumar Das and Sivanandan Thakur  “Saroj”  (book-length  work: “Maadhav Maadhavii” 1937), most of them  made use  of  stock emotions. It was only after  1940s  that  Maithili  literature  witnessed  the emergence of some  great  short  story  writers  including  Surendra Jha  “Suman”  (collection:  “Kathaa-mukhii”,  1940), Prabodh Narayan Chaudhury  (collection:  “Bichal phuul”  1940), Upendra Jha “Vyas” (“ViDambanaa”  1952),  Manmohan Jha  (“AshrukaN”  1948: “Sanchayitaa”  1953),  Buddhidhari  Simha  “Ramakar”  (“Prayaas” 1946; “Vardaan” 1947) and a number of  oth ers.  Besides  them,  there was of course  Harimohan  Jha’s  good number  of  collections including “Rangashaalaa”  1949,  “Tiirtha yaatraa”  1953, “Gappak phoRan” 1954, “Carcarii” 1960 and  “Ekaadashii” 1971. His best known collections of stories and ones that  are still popular are: “PraNamya devataa” (1933/1949) and  “KhaT- Tar Kaakaak tarang” (1967).

Emergence of Major Women Writers: In the post-independence period, there had been tremendous surge in literary production. The number of writers is too many to be discussed separately as above. However, one important indicator of literary development is as to whether women writers have taken to writing seriously.   There  were  number of woman writers and  researchers  after 1956.  They  include  the following: Kameshwari  Devi  b.  1928-: “Maithilii  samskaar-giit”; Anima Singh b.1924- with a number  of  studies  on Maithili folk songs, Chandrapriya  Devi:  “Srikrishna bhajanaavalii”  published  in 1965, or Usha  Chaudhurani:  “Shrii Raamakathaa (BaalakaaNDa)”, Shyam Jha; “Giitasangraha bhajanamaalaa”, “Binu maayak beTii” 1967, and “Pashchaataap” 1980,  Kalindi Devi:  “Kalindii-giitaavalii”, Medheshwari: “Giitaanjalii”  1967,   Ila Rani Singh b. 1945-1999: “Vindantii” 1972 and a number of translations  as  well as research work, Shyama  Devi  “Kaamanaa”  1959, Shephalika  Verma b. 1943- both poet and fiction writer:  “Vipralabdhaa”  1978  and other fiction  writers  including  Shakuntala Chaudhury:   “Ashaak   ant”  1978,  Chitralekha   Devi:   “Ubaait  aakhar”1976, Jayanti Devi b. 1944-: “Anupamaa” Adya Jha b. 1924-: “Videshii kathaamruta”, and a book for children “Maithilii paaTha  maalaa”  1970,  Gauri Mishra b. 1934-:  “Thehiyaael  mon  shiital  chaahari”,  and  biographists like Tulika Jha b.  1924-:  “Raajalakshmii:  ek  bhaavachitra” and other miscellaneous  works  like  Rajlikshmiji’s (1915-1976) religious discourses later brought out as “Shrimad Bhaagavat Prakaash” 1969, or “gruha vijnaan” 1971  by   Aparajita  Devi.  Most well-known women writers of today include fiction and story-writers Lily Ray and Vibha Rani. There are a number of younger poets too, who have made their mark: Susmita Pathak, Jyotsna Anand, etc.

 Connection with the Neighboring Literary Languages:

 The attitude of Bengali speakers has all along been very positive, partly because tagore himself was influenced by medieval Maithili poetry, and partly because of striking cultural similarities and a shared system of scholarship in Sanskrit. There was a time when many Maithili writersv would freely be able to read Bengali literature in original. In fact, the largest number of translations into maithili have been from Sanskrit and Bengali.

From Bengali, we find Michael Madhusudan Dutta’s  “Meghanaadabadha”  translated  by  Gouri Shankar  Jha  (1942),  “Virahinii  Brajaanganaa” by Bhuvaneshwar Simha “Bhuvan” (1944), and Tagore’s  Giitaanjalii translated by Jayakant Jha “Srutadhar” as well as by  Surendra Jha “Suman” 1969.  Suman went on to translate several volumes of tagore’s writings later.  Tagore’s entire children’s literature was rendered into Maithili by Udaya Narayana Singh `Nachiketa’. The Bengali novelists like Bankimchandra and Saratchandra  as well as Bibhutibhushan  Mukhopadhyay were extremely popular in maithili, too. Even later authors such as D.L. ray and narayan Gangopadhyay were translated. Bengali plays were very popular in maithili. In fact, Maithili stage developed mainly because of its contact with Calcutta stage.

With Assamese too, the relationship has been very cordial. In fact, there was a time when Assamese authors and performers both wrote and performed in Maithili. Vidyapati’s poems in Maithili (15th-16th Century) also had had influence on Assamese. From Assamese, too, Shankaradeva’s (1449-1558) plays were  translated  and edited: “PaarijaataharaNa naaT”(Tarankant  Jha  1975),  and  “Ramavijay” (translated twice: Prem Shankar Singh  1967  and  Ramdev  Jha 1967). But the modern Assamese person may know Maithili community mainly as migrant workers rather than as cultural ambassadors, as they were perceived earlier.

The relationship with Bhojpuri and magahi communities – the immediate neighbours have been neither very pleasant nor hostile. These two groups have rather been watching the series of achievements of Maithili – both literary and socio-poitical.  But Maithili has been the only one among these languages which has been trying to constantly deny superimposition of Hindi over her identity. The other two seem to have given up their claims and have resigned to accept the status of dialects of Hindi. There is no doubt that in the recent times, Bhojpuri and Magahi had had some very fine poets and short story writers, and they have begun reaching the reading public of other languages through translation. However, no much translation has happened into Maithili from these languages, probably because of mutual intelligibility.

It goes without saying that the relationship of Maithili and Hindi have been most complicated. While almost all Maithils have accepted Hindi as a language of formal occasions, the retention of Maithili for cultual, social, familial as well as literary purposes have also been more or less steady. The trend among the youngest generation to use Maithili in lesser and lesser occasions should be viewed in the context of the same thing happening among Hindi, Telugu or Marathi speakers who are tilting towards use of  English rather than their mother tongue. However, with the inclusion of Maithili in the 8th Schedule, the situation has altered and the use of Maithili in public places and even on formal occasions have begun.