Three Women Poets: Reading Vidyā
Classical Sanskrit Lyric
The classical Sanskrit lyric is unique in a lot of different ways and it stands out against popular European poetry for many reasons. For example, in a lot of European poetry there is a heavy focus on “self”. Whether that be through first person perspective or each individual author’s expression of their personal thoughts, feelings, and opinions. Classical Sanskrit is far more subjective. The poets must use imagery, suggestion and universal themes to convey an emotion. According to The Norton, the Sanskrit lyric is called “Subhāsits” meaning “beautifully expressed language”. After reading several of these poems, I would have to agree.
Three Women Poets
The three most popular women poets in classical Sanskrit were Bhāvakadevi, Vikatanitambā, and Vidyā. There is not a lot of information about these women, but we do know that all three of them lived somewhere between the fifth and seventeenth centuries. Their work is very well known and while they definitely have their differences, there are a few similarities in their writing. For example, they all write about love, sex, and marriage. All three of them cover their topics using descriptive and suggestive language rather than using graphic language, especially when talking about sex. Using suggestion rather than a more direct approach is a common recurrence in their poems, and in classical Sanskrit lyrics in general.
It is interesting to me that women at this time has a space to write about sex at all. While they might not be taking a super aggressive approach to the conversation, it is still shocking to see women in the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries openly writing about sex in general.
Similar to Bhāvakadevi and Vikatanitambā, Vidyā is one of the most famous and often quoted female Sanskrit poets. According to The Norton, only a few fragments of her work survived. Even with this somewhat limited knowledge, we know that she is best known for her beautiful love poems. This is an interesting note from The Norton, given that the one and only poem it provides us is about an adulterous rendezvous in the woods. Something that stands out in Vidyā’s poetry in contrast to Bhāvakadevi and Vikatanitambā is that almost all of her poems are set in the countryside. Which suggests that she is most likely more accustomed to or comfortable with villages rather than royal court. I think that the setting of her poems and the focus on more common and natural life makes her much more relatable than the other female Sanskrit poets at the time.
Reading poem 807
Good neighbor wife, I beg you
keep your eye upon my house a moment;
the baby’s father hates to drink
the tasteless water from the well.
Better I go then, though alone, to the river bank
dark with tamāla trees and thick with canes,
which with their sharp and broken stems
may scratch my breasts.
If you’re anything like me and poetry isn’t really your thing then it might take a couple reads and a little more attention to detail to get past the surface level of this novel. However, when you dig a little deeper, it is clear that there is a lot to unpack here and there are several ways to read it.
My first read of this poem: “Hey neighbor, my shitty baby-daddy is kinda pretentious, so I have to go get him water from the river. I’ll probably end up with scratches on my body because the journey is kind of dangerous, but as long as he’s happy”. Now like I said poetry isn’t really my thing. So I really thought that Vidyā was just commenting on the sacrifices we make for the people we love, even when they don’t deserve it.
But, as we pay a little more attention to what she is actually saying, it is clear that is NOT what is going on here. Upon a second read it is very clear that the speaker has a less than fantastic relationship with the father of her child. She only references him as “the baby’s father”, rather than “husband” or “lover”. She then makes an excuse to sneak away to the river bank, blaming it on her husband’s hatred of the tasteless water. She warns the neighbor that she may come back from the river with scratches on her body and is all too quick to blame them on the Tamāla trees and their pesky branches. First of all, can she be more obvious? She might as well come right out and say it… not very subtle Vidyā.
As previously mentioned a common technique used by classical Sanskrit poets was the use of dhvani or suggestion. She doesn’t come right out and say she’s cheating on her husband, but the language she uses helps us draw that conclusion pretty easily.
A natural instinct after reading this poem is to look for some kind of justification for her actions. What is her husband a jerk? Was he bad in bed? Was she bored? Did he not give her enough attention? Was their love as tasteless as the wretched well water? Vidyā kind of leaves this up to the reader, there is evidence to support almost all of these potential scenarios. But the way in which she approaches adultery in this poem stands out to me no matter how many times I read it. Personally, I have a hard time being mad at her or feeling even the tiniest bit bad for her baby’s father in this situation. The way this poem is written brings a sort of comical element to the story. It inspires more laughter than it does anger.
Puchner, Martin, and Suzanne Conklin Akbari. “The Classical Sanskrit Lyric.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature, 4th ed., B, W.W. Norton & Company, 2018, pp. 1057–1063.