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Shaking Hammira : playfulness and tragedy in a Sanskrit historical epic

Sander Hens (UGent)
(2020)
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(UGent)
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Abstract
This dissertation offers a reappraisal of Nayacandra Sūri’s masterpiece, Hammīramahākāvya (HMK), the “Great Poem of Hammīra”. This early fifteenth century Sanskrit epic retells the story of the warrior-king Hammīra Chauhan of Ranthambhor (r.1283–1301) and his defeat at the hands of Alauddin Khalji, Sultan of Delhi (r. 1296–1316). HMK is part of a potentially wider movement of historical poetry, which has attracted considerable interest in the past decades, mostly from historians invested in reevaluating premodern representations of the controversial and long-ignored Delhi Sultanate period (1206-1555). However, as literature or poetry, worthy of interest in its own right, HMK is highly undervalued. This is also the case for many other specimens of historical poetry, which remain largely unread. The result is that our understanding of South Asian historical poetry – the individual poems, as well as its literary-historical significance as a popular literary genre – is very limited. We don’t know what complex poems like HMK ‘actually say’, and how they represent historical realities. This dissertation challenges the currently prevalent socio-political mode of analysis, which tends to classify – and devalue – historically themed poems as political eulogies, sponsored by elites to promote their values and underwrite claims to power. This study stresses the importance of taking seriously HMK’s deeply playful, subversive and innovative character. I do this through a close literary reading of HMK against the backdrop of its context of composition in early-fifteenth century Gwalior, while exploring the text’s relation to earlier and later trends of historical and non-historical literature. Listening for playfulness - and understanding poetry as play - means looking beyond surface layers. It means paying attention to various poetic and narrative effects and techniques: purposeful dissonances between eulogistic format and tragic content; audible silences; intertextual games; ironic cues; parodic effects; subversive nods to the political present; meta-poetic/historic distancing techniques; meaningful inversions of narrative templates and historical memories; the structuring function of complex poetic imagery and symbolic characters; the repeated intertwining of meta-poetic, intertextual, thematic, and religious-philosophical levels, etc. By doing justice to such literary features this study not only hopes to bring important nuances to recent historiographical analysis of HMK, it also challenges still prevalent Orientalist ideas about the supposedly static, uncreative and unimaginative nature of ‘medieval’ Sanskrit poetry: those many Sanskrit poems composed in what Sheldon Pollock famously called the ‘vernacular millennium’. Apart from offering a more sympathetic understanding of HMK’s aesthetic goals, this dissertation explores the great literary appeal of the Hammīra legend itself, and its barely acknowledged influence on later ‘chivalric’ Rajput literature. I highlight the cultural- and literary-historical significance of the many stories about Hammīra ‘the Bold’ (haṭha), who became one of the most popular historical heroes of premodern North India. The spirit of the Rajput king Hammīra – and the template of his story – animates much of Northern India’s Rajput culture, which continues to be instrumentalized in present-day India to underwrite political agendas. This dissertation demonstrates that HMK, one of the first full-fledged literary expressions of the Hammīra legend, playfully shakes up the heroic foundations of this popular story. HMK’s author deliberately debunks and hollows out the eulogistic frame, while exposing the tragic futility of war, power politics, and hero-worship in all its inner contradictions.
Keywords
hammira, historical poetry, Sanskrit, playfulness, tragedy, Rajput literature

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MLA
Hens, Sander. Shaking Hammira : Playfulness and Tragedy in a Sanskrit Historical Epic. Universiteit Gent. Faculteit Letteren en Wijsbegeerte, 2020.
APA
Hens, S. (2020). Shaking Hammira : playfulness and tragedy in a Sanskrit historical epic. Universiteit Gent. Faculteit Letteren en Wijsbegeerte.
Chicago author-date
Hens, Sander. 2020. “Shaking Hammira : Playfulness and Tragedy in a Sanskrit Historical Epic.” Universiteit Gent. Faculteit Letteren en Wijsbegeerte.
Chicago author-date (all authors)
Hens, Sander. 2020. “Shaking Hammira : Playfulness and Tragedy in a Sanskrit Historical Epic.” Universiteit Gent. Faculteit Letteren en Wijsbegeerte.
Vancouver
1.
Hens S. Shaking Hammira : playfulness and tragedy in a Sanskrit historical epic. Universiteit Gent. Faculteit Letteren en Wijsbegeerte; 2020.
IEEE
[1]
S. Hens, “Shaking Hammira : playfulness and tragedy in a Sanskrit historical epic,” Universiteit Gent. Faculteit Letteren en Wijsbegeerte, 2020.
@phdthesis{8674579,
  abstract     = {This dissertation offers a reappraisal of Nayacandra Sūri’s masterpiece, Hammīramahākāvya (HMK), the “Great Poem of Hammīra”. This early fifteenth century Sanskrit epic retells the story of the warrior-king Hammīra Chauhan of Ranthambhor (r.1283–1301) and his defeat at the hands of Alauddin Khalji, Sultan of Delhi (r. 1296–1316). HMK is part of a potentially wider movement of historical poetry, which has attracted considerable interest in the past decades, mostly from historians invested in reevaluating premodern representations of the controversial and long-ignored Delhi Sultanate period (1206-1555). However, as literature or poetry, worthy of interest in its own right, HMK is highly undervalued. This is also the case for many other specimens of historical poetry, which remain largely unread. The result is that our understanding of South Asian historical poetry – the individual poems, as well as its literary-historical significance as a popular literary genre – is very limited. We don’t know what complex poems like HMK ‘actually say’, and how they represent historical realities. This dissertation challenges the currently prevalent socio-political mode of analysis, which tends to classify – and devalue – historically themed poems as political eulogies, sponsored by elites to promote their values and underwrite claims to power. This study stresses the importance of taking seriously HMK’s deeply playful, subversive and innovative character. I do this through a close literary reading of HMK against the backdrop of its context of composition in early-fifteenth century Gwalior, while exploring the text’s relation to earlier and later trends of historical and non-historical literature. 
Listening for playfulness - and understanding poetry as play - means looking beyond surface layers. It means paying attention to various poetic and narrative effects and techniques: purposeful dissonances between eulogistic format and tragic content; audible silences; intertextual games; ironic cues; parodic effects; subversive nods to the political present; meta-poetic/historic distancing techniques; meaningful inversions of narrative templates and historical memories; the structuring function of complex poetic imagery and symbolic characters; the repeated intertwining of meta-poetic, intertextual, thematic, and religious-philosophical levels, etc. By doing justice to such literary features this study not only hopes to bring important nuances to recent historiographical analysis of HMK, it also challenges still prevalent Orientalist ideas about the supposedly static, uncreative and unimaginative nature of ‘medieval’ Sanskrit poetry: those many Sanskrit poems composed in what Sheldon Pollock famously called the ‘vernacular millennium’. 
Apart from offering a more sympathetic understanding of HMK’s aesthetic goals, this dissertation explores the great literary appeal of the Hammīra legend itself, and its barely acknowledged influence on later ‘chivalric’ Rajput literature. I highlight the cultural- and literary-historical significance of the many stories about Hammīra ‘the Bold’ (haṭha), who became one of the most popular historical heroes of premodern North India. The spirit of the Rajput king Hammīra – and the template of his story – animates much of Northern India’s Rajput culture, which continues to be instrumentalized in present-day India to underwrite political agendas. This dissertation demonstrates that HMK, one of the first full-fledged literary expressions of the Hammīra legend, playfully shakes up the heroic foundations of this popular story. HMK’s author deliberately debunks and hollows out the eulogistic frame, while exposing the tragic futility of war, power politics, and hero-worship in all its inner contradictions.},
  author       = {Hens, Sander},
  keywords     = {hammira,historical poetry,Sanskrit,playfulness,tragedy,Rajput literature},
  language     = {eng},
  pages        = {xiv, 300},
  publisher    = {Universiteit Gent. Faculteit Letteren en Wijsbegeerte},
  school       = {Ghent University},
  title        = {Shaking Hammira : playfulness and tragedy in a Sanskrit historical epic},
  year         = {2020},
}