Falling in love in modern-day India may turn out to be a messy affair, fraught as it is with patriarchal, caste, class, religious and social biases. Yet, as scholars keep reminding us, love, expressed in a wide range of registers—from spiritual longing to pure carnal desire—has always been part of a rich and centuries-long tradition in the subcontinent. You only need to turn to the history of poetry to get a grasp of the baffling vocabulary of mystics, saints, mendicants and folk composers, who offer their love to their chosen deities of worship.

In Love And The Turning Seasons, Andrew Schelling selects poems across 2,500 years of the subcontinent’s literary history, featuring diverse names. Mystics like Antal, Kabir and Mirabai appear in this anthology—in translations by A.K. Ramanujan, Arun Kolatkar, Dilip Chitre, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, among others—alongside the poems of Lal Ded and Punjabi folk lyrics. The two excerpted below are, respectively, by the Tamil mystic, Antal, and Mirabai, the Rajput queen who relinquished royal life for Lord Krishna.

I dedicated my swelling breasts
to the lord who holds
the conch and flaming discus.
If there is even a whisper
of giving me to a mortal,
I shall not live.
O Manmatha,
would you permit a roving jackal
to sniff and eat
the sacrificial food
the Brahmins offer
to celestial gods?

(Translated by Vidya Dehejia)

***

You pressed Mira’s seal of love
then walked out.
Unable to see you
she’s hopeless,
tossing in bed—gasping her life out.
Dark One, it’s your fault—
I’ll join the yoginis,
I’ll take a blade to my throat in Banaras.
Mira gave herself to you,
you touched her intimate seal
and then left.

(Translated by Andrew Schelling)

Love And The Turning Seasons—India’s Poetry Of Spiritual & Erotic Longing: Edited by Andrew Schelling, Aleph, 304 pages, Rs399.
Love And The Turning Seasons—India’s Poetry Of Spiritual & Erotic Longing: Edited by Andrew Schelling, Aleph, 304 pages, Rs399.

Excerpted with permission from Aleph Book Company. The book will be available in retail and physical book stores from 20 February.

Close