Keshavdas Mishra, Sanskrit scholar and Hindi poet, best known for his Rasik Priya, a pioneering work of the Riti Kaal of Hindi literature.

Keshavdas Mishra( Keshavdas or Keshavadasa) was a Sanskrit scholar and Hindi poet. He is best known for his Rasik Priya, a pioneering work of the Riti Kaal (procedure period) of Hindi literature.

Life of Keshavdas

Keshavdas Mishra was a Sanadhya Brahmin, born in 1555 probably near Orchha at Tikamgarh. His ancestors were pandits and inferences from his writings suggest that the preferred language of his family was Sanskrit. 

Those ancestors included Dinakara Mishra and Tribikrama Mishra, both rewarded by Tomara rulers in Delhi and Gwalior. His grandfather, Krishnadatta Mishra, and his father, Kashinatha Mishra, worked as scholars to the rulers of the Orchha kingdom. His elder brother, Balabhadra Mishra, was also a poet.

Despite the familial connection to Sanskrit, Keshavdas chose a vernacular style of Hindi, known as Brij Bhasha, for his writings. The self-deprecation following up on this significant shift — he once defined himself as a “slow-witted Hindi poet” — denies his significance, described by Allison Brusch as “a decisive milestone in North Indian literary culture”.

His choice meant leaving a highly formalized, stylized, and the accepted genre that was supposed to be a de facto requirement of any poet, let alone one wishing to work within the royal courts of the time. It was not that Hindi poetry was new, since it had long been propagated, mostly orally and in particular by religious figures, but rather that it was deprecated.

According to Busch, “To be a vernacular writer was to exhibit both a linguistic and an intellectual failing”.

A large part of the success of Keshavdas can be attached to the paradox that he used the Sanskrit tradition in his vernacular poetry. The literary status of Brij Bhasha was already growing trust among the common people in the generations quickly preceding him, in large part because of the Bhakti movement that sought to revitalize Vaishnavite Hinduism and which was focused on the towns of Vrindavan and Mathura. 

This movement of religious improvement led to the building of many new temples. Those who propagated and accepted Brij Bhasha at that time considered it to have been the language that was spoken by Krishna. Bhakti poets such as Swami Haridas gave new vernacular devotional works that abandoned Sanskrit, which had been the traditional language of religion and the Brahmins, and their songs were sung communally rather than in isolation.

The rise to the significance of Keshavdas was also inspired by the politics of the time. The Mughal Empire held sway in the area, with Orchha being a tributary state. The tributary rulers declared their remaining power through cultural channels, and Keshavdas was associated with Orchha’s court from the time of the reign of Madhukar Shah. Busch calls him as “a friend, advisor, and guru to the Orchha kings but … also a consummate poet and intellectual”.

Initially, he was in the court of Indrajit Singh, the brother of the Bundela ruler Ram Singh. In 1608, when Vir Singh Deo came to power, Keshavdas joined his court. He was granted a jagir of 21 villages. Keshavdas died in 1617.

Major Works of Keshavdas

Ratan Bavani is the earliest work credited to Keshavdas. Madhukar may well have ordered it, although this is not certain. It stands out from all subsequent works of Keshavdas because of its compositional style and distinct anti-Mughal political stance.

Busch says that it “must have had great resonance, and perhaps even provided some solace, for this newly defeated, and newly Vaishnavised, principality”. The poem has 52 sextet verses that mix the raso style of western India with Vaishnavite influences and rewrites themes of classical Indian literature with a localized perspective. 

It describes Vishnu as a supporter of Ratnasena Bundela, the fourth son of Madhukar, whose warrior exploits during the Mughal conquest of Orchha are glorified. The reality of even the basic information presented is unclear — for example, it ignores that Ratnasena Bundela fought for Akbar as well as against him — but this appears likely to have been by design.

Three anthologies of poems are attributed to him, Rasikpriya (1591), Ramchandrika (1600), and Kavipriya (1601). The Ramchandrika is an abridged translation of the Ramayana in 30 sections.

His other works include Rakhshikh (1600), Chhandamala (1602), Virsinghdev Charit (1607), Vijnangita (1610), and Jahangirjas Chandrika (1612).

Rasikpriya

He praised the Betwa and Orchha as the most beautiful things on earth and it was he who made them famous. Greyed by the years, he rued the day when pretty girls he encountered on the Betwa addressed him as Baba— an old man.

केशव केशन अस करी जस अरिहूं न कराहिं,

चंद्रवदन मृगलोचनी ‘बाबा’कहि-कहि जाहिं.

Keshav Keshan as karee, Jas arihu na karaahin,

Chandravadan, mriglochani, Baba kahi kahi jaahin

(O Keshav, what havoc these grey hair have brought to thee. May such fate not even befall one’s worst enemy. Girls with moon-like faces and eyes of a gazelle call thou baba due to them.)

Virsinghdev Charit

Virsinghdev Charit was a hagiography of the Bundela king, Vir Singh Deo, who was his patron.

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