Who can tell what will survive the ages? Sometimes I think of all the beauty we have already lost to neglect, or worse, to elision. So when the scant biography of the 7th century Sanskrit poet Vidya, given to us by her English language translator Andrew Schelling, opens with this acclaim – “All agree that Vidya is the earliest and the finest of Sanskrit women poets” – we must not fail to read into the line that follows – “Or, if any woman wrote before her, the work hasn’t survived.”
There is a whole other corpus of literature that is forever lost to us, a shadow corpus of voices that did not even enter what we call the oral tradition, and which never had a chance of inscription.
When we are fortunate enough to still have the actual work of a historical artist, hagiography should be given only second place. In some ways, the fact that Vidya is little known except to scholars and readers of classical literature has allowed her poetry to be appreciated on its own standing, and not on the basis of what is said of her. This is a unique position: to neither have been co-opted nor forgotten. Schelling says that about 30 poems by Vidya survive; of these I’ve found half of them translated into English in his books.
Usually, the work will speak for its makers in ways that interlocutors cannot. The Vidya in these poems was scandalous: “As children we crave / little boys / pubescent we hunger for youths / old we take elderly men. / It is a family custom. / But you like a penitent / pursue a whole / life with one husband. / Never, my daughter / has chastity / so stained our clan.”
She was sly, funny and interested in extra-marital affairs: “Neighbour, please / keep an eye on my house / for a moment. / The baby’s father / finds our well-water / tasteless, and refuses / to drink it. I’d better / go, though alone, / down to the river, / though the thick / tamala trees and stands / of broken cane / are likely to / scratch my breasts.”
She lived long enough to experience bitterness: “Now that the days / are gone when I cut their / tendrils, and laid them / down for couches of love, / I wonder if they’ve grown brittle and if / their splendid blue flowers / have dried up.”
She was also South Indian. To quote: “But a gossip / by nature, / southern by birth, / I can’t hold my tongue.” And as though anticipating a later poet who would describe her as “Canarese Saraswati”, she wrote: “Not knowing me, / Vidya, / dark as a blue lotus petal, / the critic Dandin / declared our goddess of verse-craft / and learning entirely white.”
Before you seek Vidya out for yourself, here’s a small and beautiful stanza, echoing to you from a distant century: “I praise that silent / listener / her whole body bristling – / only a poet / linking words with ineluctable cadence / can touch / her entrails with fire.”
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 1st 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.