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  • Kavya and UsReading Innovations and Turning Points
  • Jesse Ross Knutson (bio)

Even stupid people can study systematic thoughtwell enough under a guru’s tutelage.But kavya comes from inspiration,only sometimes, for some people.

— Bhamaha, Kavyalankara 1.5 (7th century CE)

Sanskrit kavya literature is famously difficult and famously difficult to translate. Just two decades ago, the readable English versions could all fit comfortably on a single shelf.1 It is an aesthetic so omnipotently self-referential that to truly tell its story is an act of translation in its own right, and at least as challenging. This is the significant achievement of a recent collaborative volume edited by Yigal Bronner, David Shulman, and Gary Tubb, Innovations and Turning Points: Toward a History of Kāvya Literature (hereafter ITP)—a compelling act of intellectual translation and a groundbreaking contribution to the field. [End Page 140]

Even explaining why and how kavya is difficult inevitably leads to opacity. Kavya’s forms and contents answered only to each other for over a millennium, achieving an extreme jouissance in which the writerly itself became readerly and form itself became content. Partly because the form was so studied and technical, it could, ironically, be reproduced, so long as someone had access to some of the blueprints. Hence it was able to span such unwieldy time and space, reincarnated endlessly in the multitudinous languages of South and South-east Asia over nearly two millennia, as ITP faithfully represents.

The kavya tradition is so intricately layered in its design, both within and among works—over time, space, and language—that, no matter what its momentary theme, it always takes itself as a primary theme. In his de facto keynote to the volume—the first in the series of individual case studies that make up the book—David Shulman discerns a “gnomonic”2 self-modeling at the heart of classical kavya, Kalidasa’s fifth-century Dynasty of Raghu (Raghuvamsa), in which the poem dramatizes its own repetitive structures and patterns of meaning, such that its own process of reproduction becomes a primary content, and it stands in a bewildering iconic relationship to itself. This mind-bending auto-iconicity, observed throughout the kavya tradition, might seem to make it impenetrable, and yet it can also become—as it does in this book—a method.

The tradition’s dialogue with itself is—even when muted—too loud and clear to ignore, and the most sensitive scholarship listens like a psychoanalyst as kavya talks to itself and about itself. Sheldon Pollock articulated something akin to this in another collaborative volume on South Asian literary histories3—an essential precedent for the one under discussion here—as a fundamental methodological point of departure: “to think in a historical-anthropological spirit: trying to understand what the texts of South Asian literature meant to the people who wrote, heard, saw, or read them . . . to ask what literature has been decided to be and how local decisions may have changed over time . . . to write not literary criticism, but what has been taken as the criticism of literature.”4

Kavya decided itself to be, from its inception, nothing if not a separate world unto itself. The earliest literary theorists declared it another life beyond death, offering a separate, celestial body made out of poetry.5 Yet it was fully embedded and consummately materialistic: the central mode of political expression in its time.6 It was the apex social form in classical South Asia: members of the courtly aristocracy and the monarchical state bureaucracy were interpellated into being by the tropes of kavya.7 It was thus paradoxically at once public and hermetic, fashioning elite structures of feeling and providing a model of self-referentiality for art in general as much as for real-world rulers and powerbrokers. In a way it did make its own world, and thus, however artificial, it was always actual. Listening to what it says about itself thus makes profound historiographical sense.

These cryptic comments can at the very least suggest something of the complexity a book like ITP must negotiate in making the kavya tradition speak. Partly for reasons alluded to above, kavya has long been out of...


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pp. 140-148
Launched on MUSE
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