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Ishq, Sringara, Love and Prem

Gillian Wright

Edited by Francesca Orsini
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 368, price not stated.

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 10 October 2007

Dil e nadaan tujhe hua kya hai Akhir is dard ki dava kya hai? Ghalib   Sringara, viraha, ishq, prem, love—these are the themes of this cultural history of love in South Asia. The only way to succeed in such a mammoth venture is frankly to admit your limitations, which is exactly what the editor Francesca Orsini does. Recognizing the impressive body of work on Sanskrit, Tamil and bhakti works the papers in this book focus chiefly on medieval and modern sources in north India other than the bhakti saints. As Love in South Asia is founded on the premise that culture and language play a crucial role in defining love, its contributors highlight and celebrate the plurality of the idioms of love in South Asia. These they find in literature, literary history, philosophy, social history, anthropology and in Bollywood movies.   This book is the product of two workshops at Cambridge University, where Orsini teaches Hindi. Half of the contributors are, I have to admit, from my old college, the School of Oriental and African Studies in London University. Only one, Anuradha Kapoor of Delhi’s National School of Drama, appears to be actually based in India. The book is therefore testimony to work on South Asia being done by scholars, many of them Indian, abroad.   The first paper, by Daud Ali, in a way sets the scene. He looks at the Gupta age, the age of love as sringara. To a certain extent although nuances in the perception of love change, much remains constant. For example, in the Gupta age, as Ghalib’s verse above, erotic love was considered a psychological and physical affliction. The affliction increasingly took its toll of the lovers, from insomnia to collapse and death. Taking Vatysayan, Kautilya and the plays of Kalidasa and those attributed to the Pushyahuti king Harsha, amongst others, Daud Ali tries to reconstruct what love could have been like in the complex arrangements of aristocratic households in early medieval India. The complexity arose partly because of a raja’s multiple relationships with queens, concubines and courtesans. These were the days when queens had to be guarded against, as they would try to promote their sons who, given the chance would ‘like crabs, devour their fathers’. The sons of lesser ladies had the advantage of a lack of status in a highly hierarchical society and therefore no powerful relatives while girl ...

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