Christian Lee Novetzke. Religion and Public Memory: A Cultural History of Saint Namdev in India. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. xxii + 309 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-14184-0.
Reviewed by Madhuri Deshmukh
Published on H-Asia (October, 2009)
Commissioned by Sumit Guha
This book traverses continents, academic disciplines (history, literature, performance studies, and religion), and several time periods to illuminate the strange workings of one of Maharashtra’s most enigmatic and beloved figures. Namdev, a bhakti (devotional) poet believed to have lived in the fourteenth century in the central western state of Maharashtra, has appeared and reappeared in numerous memory archives of North and western Indian devotional traditions over the last seven centuries. In this book, Namdev becomes a sort of focal point for bringing into view numerous interrelated theoretical reflections on the workings of history, memory, literacy, and performance in South Asia. This is the kind of scholarship that Maharashtra studies needs, one that respects regional specificity but draws it into dialogue with the larger world, both within and outside of India.
The book opens with a series of theoretical formulations that are subsequently brought to bear on the study of Namdev. First, Christian Lee Novetzke very insightfully reframes the concept of bhakti, generally characterized as an intensely personal experience of divinity on the one hand, or as a movement against orthodoxy or caste hierarchy on the other hand. However, Novetzke points out, bhakti--like “religion” in India in general--is never just “personal.” It is still articulated through the very public modes of performance and textuality, and thus is also inherently heterogeneous. Novetzke makes the notable point that the practices of bhakti are animated by a sort of “will to remember” (p. 131). Bhakti is an “ongoing effort to construct publics of belief, maintained through intricate systems of memory” (p. xi). Drawing on numerous European memory studies scholars, Novetzke makes the point that memory “returns the observer to the immediacy of the event,” and is thus the “site of continuity,” whereas “history is the source of dissociation from the past through its scientific, factual mastery” (p. 73). And indeed in the Namdev tradition, Namdev is always remembered as someone proximate, even intimately so.
The opening three chapters of the book explore the textual and performative practices that enact the public remembrances of Namdev, including a detailed comparative analysis of the hagiographical writings on Namdev in both Marathi and Hindi, an analysis of specific purportedly autobiographical texts by Namdev, an examination and overview of the written legacy of poems and songs attributed to Namdev, and a close study of the compendia and anthologies of Namdev songs since the nineteenth century. Novetzke cuts through this rather dense thicket of primary research using insights gleaned from ethnographic observation, French postmodern theorists, medieval European literary traditions, South Indian devotional practices, Sanskrit textual traditions, and, of course, Marathi performance practices.
A significant contribution of the book is its original analysis of one of Maharashtra’s main performance traditions, the kirtan, the primary medium through which the Namdev tradition has been conveyed. Novetzke draws out the ways in which this medium, itself a fluid and mutable one, shapes the fluid legacy of Namdev, a process he calls “the dialectic of performance and permanence.” Eschewing the more common teleological ordering of orality and literacy, Novetzke draws out the ways that performativity and orality--especially the kirtan form--structure the written legacy of Namdev as well as the concept of “authorship” in the tradition as a whole.
Determining “authorship” is one of the central conundrums that modern scholars of bhakti literature confront, and Namdev has been the cause of not a little anxiety on the subject. Most scholars agree that there are other Namdevs who composed songs than the purportedly historical Namdev of the fourteenth century. This uncertainty about authorship is present in the legacy of most of the saint-poets, such as Kabir, Surdas, Mirabai, and others. But, with Namdev, this situation is compounded by the fact that Namdev is uniquely remembered as creating a “purposeful distance from literacy ” (p. 99). Namdev, considered by many to be the founder of the kirtan in Maharashtra, is always remembered as a performer of songs and never as a writer. This does not mean, however, that the idea of “authorship” is not relevant to the tradition. By looking at “authorship” through the lens of the performative tradition of kirtan, Novetzke is able to draw out what he calls the “corporate authorship” of the Namdev tradition. This does not simply mean that there are many Namdevs, but that many and one coexist in a sort of dialectical dance of history and memory. As Novetzke puts it, “The Namdev tradition of kirtan in Marathi allows the historical author to be reinvented ever anew, an idea that does not sit well with the modern notion of authorship” (p. 92). The kirtan brings together several layers of authorship: the authorship of the kirtan performer; the genealogical authorship of the historical poet; and the authorship of the kirtan form itself, which is subdivided by styles of different founding performers. The historical Namdev is “embodied” by the performer of the kirtan, and he or she becomes “the corporeal site of corporate authorship” (p. 91).
In the Namdev tradition, writing takes second place to performance. The written legacy of Namdev compositions is primarily carried in the informal handwritten notebooks of kirtan performers called baDas, not in the more formal manuscript tradition of pothis. Though there is some room to quibble here with some of the interpretations of the texts and some of the descriptions of the context, Novetzke offers a close reading and analysis of a baDa that convincingly illustrates how the performance imperatives of the kirtan shape the ways that Namdev’s poems are written down and the ways that Namdev is remembered in writing. To my knowledge, this book offers the very first analysis in English of baDas as an important written resource for the bhakti tradition in Maharashtra.
In the second half of the book, which focuses on the post-seventeenth-century public remembrances of Namdev, it becomes apparent that while this book is well grounded in the performative and textual Namdev traditions, its animating theoretical objectives are more lofty: the cultural study of the idea of history itself, or perhaps more accurately, of histories as they are performed, enacted, and articulated in different ways. In his analysis of the remembrance of Namdev by specific publics at specific times in Maharashtra, Novetzke complicates the idea of history, without, however, discarding it altogether as a necessary and useful analytic paradigm. History and historiography are shown to be at work in the religio-poetics of the Namdev tradition, but of a different kind and in a different register.
In this second part, Novetzke takes his analysis of “corporate authorship” further, suggesting that inherent in the many voices that speak as Namdev, there is a sort of anamnesis at work, a conscious effort to recollect and even mimic the past. The many “Namas” or Namdevs appearing between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries make explicit references to the fourteenth-century “original” Namdev, while at the same time maintaining a distinct identity and speaking to the needs of their own time. Scholars vary on the number of “other Namdevs,” whose songs appear in various compendia, but most recognize at least three or four who are distinctly different poets. Instead of seeing this proliferation of Namdevs over time as a failure of proper textuality and historicity, Novetzke sees it as authorial continuity created through the practices of “mimesis and replication,” which are “systems of public memory” that have roots in other practices of repetition in South Asia, such as the repetition of the divine name (p. 156).
In the midst of this discussion, Novetzke takes the opportunity to challenge the historical understanding of the period between the fourteenth-century Namdev and his namesakes writing in the eighteenth century. This period is often characterized in vernacular scholarship as a “Dark Age” of Muslim conquest and suppression. Novetzke, in contrast, sees the creativity of the many “Namas,” emerging in the age of another great Marathi poet, Eknath of the sixteenth century, as a “renaissance,” an indication of a “robust system of remembrance” (p. 144). Here, Novetzke seems to practice what he is analyzing in other sources: he uses the memory of Namdev as a “device of history” to reshape our understanding of the past.
The final few chapters analyze some of the famous stories and narratives about Namdev, and the use and deployment of these stories as responses to specific conditions in the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries. For example, Novetzke examines two famous stories, one about Namdev as a robber who repents and becomes a great saint (a tale of social banditry), and another about an encounter in which Namdev one-ups a sultan or a Hindu king. Novetzke attempts to trace the genealogies of these stories by a detailed study of their written transmission, and through this route, attempts to situate these stories as responses to specific historical periods. He examines why certain stories appear and disappear at certain times. Some of the analysis is historicist in nature here, but based on a sort of historical speculation arrived at through literary analysis of nonhistorical texts. These stories allow Novetzke to explore the ways that Namdev becomes a “device of history,” and this suggests new and innovative ways of approaching history in South Asia, though some may question whether this should be considered “history” at all, and also ask why the designation of history remains so important.
Students of modern South Asia are likely to find the penultimate chapter, which examines the controversies generated by Namdev memories in the twentieth century and engages the current scholarship on nationalism, of particular interest. The battles over the historical legacy of Namdev in the twentieth century become part of the story of nation-building, the more proper subject of modern historiography. Novetzke here examines the debates and battles over the image of Namdev as a figure deployed in the service of regional nationalism, and as a figure transcending region, caste, religion, and class to embody the diversity and aspired inclusivity of the Indian nation. In the latter case, Namdev becomes a metaphor for a national political ethos Novetzke calls “Hindu secularism.” As such, Namdev comes to embody a modern religious “humanism” that brings together castes and religious communities (like Hindu and Muslim), an alternative religious nationalism than that of the Hindu Right. “Namdev’s nationalist legacy,” Novetzke writes, “resembles a creature that moves like a religion but sounds like secular history” (p. 215). Novetzke puts this “creature” into dialogue with a host of European and South Asian theorists of nationalism.
Novetzke covers much ground, and in the process raises a number of serious theoretical questions about history and religion in India that deserve discussion. While the book does not really engage any of the theological or properly philosophical content of the texts and performances of the Namdev tradition--which would have given more depth and content to the effort to see sacred figures as central to a study of the past--it still nevertheless attempts to draw out a theoretical orientation rooted in the ideas inherent to the tradition itself. Yet the book’s heavy emphasis on bhakti as a sort of theoretical apparatus of “systems” of memory sometimes seems to glide over the affective and lived experiences of remembering Namdev, a figure renowned for his childlike love, another important aspect of bhakti. Perhaps affect and emotion, central to performance traditions, still remain outside the purview of history, even as it is recalibrated here via memory studies. The theoretical emphasis also sometimes elides the life of bhakti on the ground and its multiple expressions, especially in localized and village-based traditions of folk songs and stories, such as women’s songs of the stonemill or the numerous formal and informal singing groups called bhajani mandals. Some of these traditions can hardly be called “public” in the same way as the kirtan, and yet all are important everyday expressions of bhakti. In other words, kirtan is one important way of remembering Namdev, but there are other ways. Women’s songs of the stonemill, for example, are not composed for a public audience, and yet they are central to the life of both male and female devotees in numerous ways. Thus, though the book does an admirable job in showing the centrality of performance to the written tradition, the written tradition still remains the center point of this study.
Nevertheless, on the whole, this book makes a significant contribution not only to Maharashtra studies but also to the study of bhakti in South Asia as a whole. Scholars of South Asia will benefit from its creative approach to an old and enduring tradition. While remaining grounded in vernacular primary sources, it still manages to open up new theoretical spaces and approaches for future studies. To a scholar of Maharashtra, it is heartening to see a study of Maharashtra that is a sort of must-read for South Asia scholars as a whole. Hopefully, it will garner the readership and serious consideration it deserves.
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Madhuri Deshmukh. Review of Novetzke, Christian Lee, Religion and Public Memory: A Cultural History of Saint Namdev in India.
H-Asia, H-Net Reviews.
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