- Two Poems
PIYA BINU NAGINI KARI RAT
Black night without love is a she-cobra If the moon would rise I could turn back the sting But spells have proved futile charms worthless— now even love is extinguished Without his dark love, Sur is a lost snakebitten girl convulsing with venom [End Page 86]
GOPALHI PAVAM DHAUM KIHI DES
To what land has Krishna departed? I’ll find him, I’ll go out in drag with a bowl and an antler, I’ll be a saffron-robed, ash-pasted beggar yogini Matted hair and weird earrings— I’ll dress up as Siva and bring a dead yogin to life Dark One, it’s your fault that Sur Das has only one theme— the torment of a god’s disappearance [End Page 87]
Sur Das is the legendary blind singer of medieval India who is said to have lived during the sixteenth century.
Andrew Schelling is a poet and translator. His most recent book of poetry is From the Arapaho Songbook, a verse sequence drawing on Algonkian language studies. He has also published six books of India’s classical poetry and numerous essays on Asian poetic traditions. In 2011, Oxford University Press, Delhi, released his edited volume The Oxford Anthology of Bhakti Literature. He teaches at Naropa University and also serves on the faculty of Deer Park Institute, in India’s bird-rich Himalayan foothills.
Sur Das is the legendary blind singer of medieval India. Actual dates are obscure, but he lived during the sixteenth century, his life overlapping with Kabir and Mirabai, two other renowned bhaktas or devotional poets. An enormous number of songs attributed to him—legend puts the count at 125,000, though four or five thousand actually circulate in India—are collectively titled Sur Sagar, “Ocean of Sur.” Traditional stories describe Sur’s childhood as one of physical abuse and grinding poverty. Blindness came early, and his passionate, hopeless adoration of Krishna was a lifelong theme. Singing with broken hope and grave dignity to Syam, the Dark One, Sur regularly assumes the voice of Radha, the god Krishna’s cowherding consort, who laments her beloved’s wanderings and infidelity.
Scholars cannot locate much to substantiate a historical Sur Das. Some think it better to speak of a centuries-long tradition than of an individual who composed the songs. Yet the tales are so vivid and the bluesy lyrics so compelling that the name, or more properly the title Sur Das, serves as a respectful address for a blind man in India. In particular it refers to the blind singers often seen on the streets or on trains. Sur’s songs have become standards for classical raga singers and show up on countless recordings.—A.S.