History, Bhakti, and Public Memory (Namdev in Religious and Secular Traditions)

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Item Code: NAI006
Author: Christian Lee Novetzke
Publisher: Permanent Black
Language: English
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 9788178242590
Pages: 331
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.0 inch X 6.0 inch
Weight 450 gm
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Book Description
About the Book

Namdev is central figure in the cultural history of India, especially within the field of bhakti, a devotional practice that has created public of memory around the figure of Namdev for over eight centuries. Born in the Marathi-speaking region of the Deccan in the late thirteenth century, Namdev is remembered as a simple, low-caste Hindu tailor whose innovative performance of devotional songs spread his fame widely. He is center to many religious traditions within Hinduism, as well as to Sikhism, and he is a key early literary figure in Maharashtra, northern India, and Punjab.

In the modern period, Namdev appears throughout the public spheres of Marathi and Hindi and in India at large, where his identity fluctuates between regional associations and a quiet, pan-Indian, nationalist-secularist profile that champions the poor, oppressed, marginalized, and low caste. Christian Lee Novetzke considers the way social memory coheres around the figure of the Namdev from the sixteenth century to the present, examining the practices that situate Namdev’s memory in multiple historical publics. Focusing primarily on Maharashtra and drawing on ethnographies of devotional performance, archival materials, scholarly historiography, and popular media, especially film, Novetzke vividly illustrates how religious communities in India preserve their past and, in turn, create their own historical narratives.


This book is about how a religious figure of fourteenth-century India has been remembered over seven centuries, through multiple media, including performance, writing, and film. The figure is Namdev, a sant important to Hindus and Sikhs in central, western, and northern India. The book focuses primarily on the cultural history of Namdev's legacy in the area coterminous with modern-day Maharashtra. The theoretical rubrics used to understand this long tradition of recollection through multiple media are encompassed by the term "public memory" and are derived from both the study of "publics" of various kinds and the study of memory, particularly in ways similar to what Jan Assmann has call "mnemo-history" or the “history of cultural memory." In the book I argue that the ubiquitous religiosocial category of bhakti, or “devotion," in India that surrounds Namdev is best understood neither as a "bhakti movement" nor "personal devotion" but, rather, as an ongoing effort to construct publics of belief, maintained through intricate systems of memory. The book endeavors to uncover both the practices of memory that surround Namdev and the publics that maintain, and are sustained by, that memory.

I have divided the book into two parts that address different but interconnected aspects of Namdev's Marathi public memory. The first three chapters are organized primarily around issues of practice, while the remaining four chapters endeavor to understand Namdev's Maharashtrian legacy in historical terms by asking questions about the kinds of publics that would have engaged with Namdev's memory. Throughout I invoke the major theme of how public memory is constructed as an explicit component of bhakti. Several secondary themes also recur, such as questions surrounding the nature of authorship in various practices and times. The book is designed to ask and answer questions about how Namdev's legacy in the history of the Marathi-speaking region maintains itself over centuries, what issues it takes up or discards, and why we find a link between the devotional sentiments of bhakti and the public realm of memory.

Chapter 1 begins by observing the search for the "historical" Namdev and how this figure appears in modern Marathi scholarship. This gives the reader a sense of how Namdev is received in the modern period as a real character from the past, and how his character is presented to various publics, those of scholarship and those of belief (which often overlap). I also hope to show the spaces where a social scientific concern for evidence meets the archive of religious materials. Like the historical search for the identities of saints and prophets the world over, this is an important academic endeavor, but in many ways remains a minor aspect of the lived tradition that surrounds Namdev in Maharashtra just as the search for the "historical" Jesus is not of concern to most Christians. Far more central to how Namdev is remembered is hagiography, the sacred biography of a miraculous life. As a guide through our survey of this public memory in this chapter we call on the work of the doyen of Marathi hagiography, the eighteenth-century kirtan performer and author Mahipati, who had largely set the definitive narratives for the lives of the Marathi sants. His principal work, the Bhaktavijay (Victory of the Bhaktas), not only details Namdev's life, and that of his contemporaries, but significantly relies on work attributed to Namdev in order to tell the lives of the early sants. Mahipati's position as the most authoritative source for Marathi hagiography, and in particular of the Varkari sants, makes him an ideal escort through the broad public remembrance of Namdev in Marathi. The practice highlighted here is thus of hagiographical structure and the ways in which the character of a sant is tied to stories of his or her life. However, I also point out what Mahipati omits: stories that were current in his time but judiciously excised from his accounts. Thus we observe the larger process of presenting a sant in a particular way, reflecting the desires of an audience and the proclivities of an individual storyteller to address, and perhaps craft, his or her public of reception.

In chapter 2, I depart from the usual format for studying devotional figures in South Asia, especially those with a legacy of songs or compositions surrounding their names. Rather than move immediately to textual sources, I approach, through ethnography and a close reading of particular songs, the performance tradition that lies at the heart of the Namdev tradition in Marathi, the kirtan. From chapter 1, the reader might observe how Namdev's miraculous biography is shot through with references to the power of kirtan, yet is conspicuously silent on the role of writing. Chapter 2 engages this apparent lacuna by demonstrating first the importance of kirtan in songs attributed to Namdev and in his hagiography and second the primary position of Namdev in the genealogy of the practice of kirtan from the fourteenth century to this day. I also show how literacy and writing are demoted to a lesser form of remembrance. Through an explanation of the parts that make up a kirtan performance, and the relationship of performance to its genealogical sources of songs, stories, and practices, I present a notion of "corporate authorship" whereby authorship is never a solitary site for authority, but rather involves several participants, especially the live performer, the purported author of the songs used in performance, and the sant who originated the particular performance art itself, Namdev.

With this notion of the centrality of performance within Namdev's remembrance, and the corporate character of authorship as it functions there, in chapter I look to the literary remnant of the Marathi Namdev tradition. In this chapter, I demonstrate how kirtan, along with Namdev's public memory, conditions the uses of writing within manuscripts that contain his songs. We see stark contrasts in how Namdev's verses are recorded when set against those of other sants, such as Jnandev and Tukaram. This provides an opportunity to construct a more nuanced view of how writing functions in the Namdev Marathi tradition, supplying a kind of ethno-history of textuality within the sant's legacy. Despite the avowed nonliterate character of the Namdev Marathi tradition, writing remains our principal key to historical questions, which makes it all the more imperative to understand how a nonliterate sant and the songs associated with him are portrayed within a host of written records. Thus the practices of performance and writing, of orality and literacy, are observed together as they interact over centuries to form the textual record of this Marathi sant. Chapters 2 and 3 are therefore interrelated, parts of one another, in the pursuit of how public memory is sustained at the juncture of writing and oral performance, but in a tradition that privileges the oral-performative over the written.

In chapter 4 I turn the emphasis of the book toward the historical study of the possible publics to which Namdev was vital. This chapter takes on a perennial problem in the study of devotional figures, the apparent plethora of later composers who amend the attributed corpus of an earlier sant. The bane of text critics, this accretion over time of songs and stories associated with a sant is often considered a kind of historical detritus that must be removed from the core legacy of songs of the "original author." In the case of Namdev's Maharashtrian legacy, we see three or more figures appear, beginning in the sixteenth century, who use a portion of Namdev's ideography or bhanita, the title “Nama," to sign songs of their own composition. These songs seem to have been purposefully composed to enter in the stream of the earlier Namdev's public memory: the songs take up themes and subjects associated with the first Namdev, and mimic points of style and reference; and the ideographs chosen by these later authors invoke aspects of the former Namdev's remembrance, borrowing key phrases from his songs or aspects of his received biography into their own ideographs. I describe this process as a kind of authorial anamnesis, a mnemonic system based on repetition, imitation, and similarity. However, we also see how these later authors distinguish themselves from the first Namdev, primarily through an assertion of their own sovereign authorship surrounding other texts. Given this interplay between mimesis and distinction, chapter 4 endeavors to understand how these later “Namas" deliberately contributed to Namdev's public memory in a way that further agitates a normative notion of the sole author, and how this is a project of historical memory, on the one hand, and encoded maintenance, on the other.

Chapter 5 recalls a story from certain, sometimes marginal, Marathi biographical sources that tell us Namdev was a robber and a murderer in his youth, a story many of his Marathi followers consider apocryphal. I do not argue for the historical veracity of this narrative (and have found no historical evidence to support the claim that Namdev was a robber or murderer) but, rather, observe how, when, and to whom it was told-circumscribing the shape of the story's likely public-and speculate on why it held particular currency in the eighteenth century in the Marathi Deccan region. Building on the characterization of Namdev as a “social bandit," to borrow Hobsbawm's term, I survey how a similar story arises in which Namdev is set in confrontation with a figure of temporal authority, usually a sultan. In these encounters, he betters his political superiors through his religious devotion, and in one case, with violent resistance as well. Continuing an argument set out by David Lorenzen on the uses of the “good demon" Prahlad in northern Indian devotionalism, I suggest that both stories-Namdev as robber and as interlocutor with a sultan-spoke to publics in the eighteenth century who had suffered war, famine, and economic oppression under various feudal and dynastic reigns.' I connect these stories with pilgrimage networks and cycles of military conscription to suggest that the performance of the narratives would have held the attention of audiences who could relate to the situations into which Namdev had been projected. Therefore, I argue the narratives serve historiographic purposes in that they purport to tell true stories of the past, interpreted and made relevant in the language of the historical present-the eighteenth century, in this case-and consumed primarily by a subaltern public.

Chapter 6 begins by observing how the legend of Namdev as a robber, current (though disputed) in eighteenth-century Marathi circles, became a liability to the efforts of some of Namdev's followers to write him into the proto-history of the Indian nation. We witness attempts to recuperate an image of a Maharashtrian Namdev who was not a robber or murderer, but was a figure who challenged temporal political might in the name of “humanism" and secularism. In the public spheres of Hindi, Marathi, and English in the late nineteenth-and twentieth-centuries, Namdev is considered a progenitor of the Indian nation, a case made with resort to a number of biographical details. In these nationalist narratives, his confrontations with sultans and Brahmins account for his rejection of prejudice based on class, religion, or caste. His peregrinations through the subcontinent, evident in biography, in his presence in multiple traditions, and in sites of memory scattered throughout India, are said to attest to his early circumscription of the yet-to-be-formed Indian nation, tapping the imagination of the Indian public as a geographically, linguistically, and religiously diverse region that nonetheless is a social unity. The broad linguistic range of the songs attributed to him, and in particular the notion of a Hindi speaker whose mother-tongue is not Hindi, are said to represent his desire for cultural cohesion. The chapter concludes with a reflection on the interaction of nations and religions, and in particular the way Namdev comes to mark a post-Nehruvian “Hindu secularism," which nevertheless still stands in opposition to the religious nationalism of the Hindu Right.

In chapter 7 I recall two films that commemorate Namdev's public memory, both entitled simply Sant Namdev. By engaging these two films in the context of the long history detailed in the preceding chapters, the reader has an opportunity to observe how centuries of public memory are presented in this modern medium, and how a new set of social and economic circumstances are addressed by marshalling this public memory. The first film was made in Marathi in 1949 by Keshav Talpade and was shot in black and white. Although produced on the heels of independence, the film concerns itself almost entirely with Namdev's Marathi public legacy, giving only brief reference to Namdev's pan-Indian influence, the sphere one might expect a “postcolonial" film to engage. The film also emphasizes the association between Namdev's bhakti, his public memory, and the experience of economic and caste-based oppression. I position this film in the context of the anti-Brahmin sentiment that developed in the late nineteenth century and reached a zenith in Maharashtra following the assassination of M. K. Gandhi in January 1948.

The second film, shot in 1991 in color, was made by Yeshwant Pethkar. The film uses both Marathi and Hindi in its dialogue, though it is properly considered a “Marathi" film. This Sant Namdev was made in a way that was meant to encapsulate the broad reach of Namdev, yet hit upon the specific features of his legacy that have endured through the centuries. Financed by Namdev devotees throughout India, the film adjudicates his roles in Maharashtrian and in North Indian religious life, providing a logical narrative to connect the various elements of his hagiography, and even seeking to grapple substantially, through suggestion, with the legend of Namdev's robber days. Throughout the film the viewer is made to understand that Namdev was a performer of kirtan, a bhakta of Vitthal, and a unifier of Indian religious and cultural life. The film also attests to the vivacious legacy of Namdev's public memory, so rich in content that there appears a never-ceasing demand that his remembrance be articulated anew. Unlike its predecessor, this film makes explicit connections between Namdev and a clear national imagination.

The book concludes by rehearsing some of its major themes and situating these themes within possible future avenues of study. The conclusion reinforces the way the shape of the book tracks Namdev's memory in Maharashtra, first highlighting practices then historical episodes crucial in this process of remembrance. I also reflect on the much larger project of understanding the relationship between history and religion within ever widening circles, from Namdev's spheres of public memory, to postcolonial India, to modernity at large.

In an effort to make this book more accessible to nonspecialists, while maintaining linguistic exactitude for the specialist, I provide diacritical marks only for the first instance of a non-English word of Indian origin. All subsequent appearances of a word occur without diacritical marks. For instance, the first appearance of a word would appear as kirtan and thereafter as kirtan. In some cases, the first letters of the word change, as in the first appearance of the word simpi and subsequent appearances as shimpi. I have maintained this convention for common nouns and proper nouns denoting religious or other communities, however, I have retained the diacritics throughout for the titles of texts. I have not used diacriticals for the names of individuals, languages, places, or other words of non-English origin that have a commonly accepted English spelling. A glossary appears at the end of the book that provides definitions for all commonly used nouns as well as the nouns' diacritical notations. In some cases in the text, I have given original text in Marathi and Hindi with diacritics. In these cases, because they are singular instances, I have not provided glossary definitions as the word or phrase is defined in relation to the preceding translation.

Finally, a statement must be made about the content of this book. The violence, litigation, and censorship that followed the release of lames Laine's book Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India in 2003 has occasioned an atmosphere of academic and public anxiety in Maharashtra (and elsewhere) over any work about any revered figure in Maharashtrian cultural or political life. I want to state clearly my position on several issues that are important to those who revere Namdev. Let me affirm emphatically that I do not assert any belief that Namdev was a thief or murderer at any point during his life. I reference the tale, which is widely known, and refer readers to excellent work, which I have cited in this book, that refutes all such claims about Namdev's life. My work engages the ways in which Namdev has been remembered in Maharashtra, and this story is part of this remembrance. In addition, I discuss the idea that many figures composed in Namdev's name over the years, an idea expressed in at least a century of scholarship in Marathi. But I do not make any claim about which songs are attributed to which figure, nor do I state the belief that any single song attributed to Namdev is not composed by Namdev of the fourteenth century. I cite scholarship and offer conjecture, but make no truth claims whatsoever on this issue.

Should anyone, for whatever reason, find in this book anything insulting to the memory of Namdev, or anyone else, it will have been contrary to my intentions. I have profound respect for the legacy of this extraordinary figure and for Namdev's followers throughout India. I have benefited from their generosity, openness, and warmth during my research. Whatever the historical and biographical arguments that surround Namdev, there can be no doubt that a charismatic figure lived in the early part of the second millennium, and this figure's legacy is richly, and deservedly, remembered today. Everything in this book that is not cited or explicitly marked out is my opinion alone. No one other than me should be held accountable for any statements in this book and any reactions, political or otherwise, arising from its publication.


List of Illustrationsix
Preface: The Shape of the Bookxi
Introduction: Namdev, Bhakti, Public, and Memory1
1A Sant Between Memory and History35
2Public Performance and Corporate Authorship74
3Orality and Literacy/Performance and Permanence99
4Namdev and the Name: Anamnetic Authorship from
the Sixteenth to Nineteenth Centuries135
5Memories of Suffering in the Eighteenth Century162
6A Sant for the Nation in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries193
7The Idea of Namdev in Two Films in the Twentieth Century217
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