Jun 08, 2018

Best Friends Forever

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The Sakhi brings out the all-important role of the woman as an intermediary between devotee and deity, writes Harsha V Dehejia

The concept of sakhi or a female friend of a woman in literature, is ancient but one that has undergone a transformation in the hands of poets and painters alike, as our tradition evolved. One of the earliest reference to sakhis in Sanskrit literature is in the 7th century Amarushataka. She is the perfect companion to the nayika in love, in her joys of belonging and the pain of longing, in her anxiety of waiting and remorse at having rebuffed the beloved, she stands shoulder to shoulder with her.
Kalidasa’s Works

Kalidasa, as one of the foremost Sanskrit dramatists, uses the trope of the sakhi with great finesse. In most of his plays, Kalidasa introduces the sakhi as a friend of the nayika and she plays an important role in helping the nayika through romantic and social intrigues and situations. Priyamvada and Anusuya, the two sakhis of Shakuntala, are exemplars of the role that sakhis play in the love life of a sakhi.

It is well to remember that lajja, bashfulness, is considered an abhushan, adornment, of a traditional nayika and it is this that requires the intervention of a sakhi in matters of the heart.

In the third act of Abhijnanasakuntalam, when the sakhis see signs of love in Shakuntala, Priyamvada brings a lotus leaf and asks Shakuntala to incise a love letter on it with her nails, and she writes: “I know not your mind but day and night Kamadev causes me pain,” and having concealed it in flowers Priyamvada delivers it to Dushyanta and then asks the king to be compassionate to her. The sakhi is a living connection between Shakuntala and the natural world of the ashram and is a reminder that the sap that flows through the trees is no different from what animates Shakuntala; that Shakuntala is as much a product of prakriti as is nature all around.

Love Messenger

Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda is a landmark in the concept of the sakhi as she is not only a love messenger between Krishna and Radha, as she performs a number of functions similar to other sakhis carrying messages, arranging meetings, assuaging feelings, admonishing and comforting both Krishna and Radha. Even more, we have in Jayadeva’s sakhi the seminal formation of an intermediary between deity and devotee, a concept that is robustly developed in Gaudiya Vaishnavism of Chaitanya. We are not to be mere voyeurs in the beautiful romantic relationship of Radha and Krishna, but in identifying with the sakhi we raise for ourselves the celebration and realisation of shringara rasa to lofty aesthetic heights.

Jayadeva’s unique status of the sakhi paves the way for the doctrine of Bengal Vaishnavism and Jayadeva’s aesthetics is transformed into the Gaudiya Vaishnava theology.

All of a sudden, this short love lyric does not remain a mere kavya, poetry, but becomes a shastra, a transformation unique and unmatched in the Indian tradition, leaving no doubt about the exalted status of the Gita Govinda.

Even outside of romantic liaisons, sakhis add to the festivity of any occasion whether it is Holi or a wedding or the making of rangoli and sanjhi. In Chaitanya’s Gaudiya Vaishnavism, as Radha becomes the consort of Krishna, she is no longer able to provide the seva to Krishna that she wishes and, therefore, Chaitanya introduces the concept of ashtha sakhis, the eight sakhis of Radha who each perform a specific function.

Coming after Chaitanya, Bhanudatta’s Rasamanjari occupies an important place. Written in Sanskrit at the close of the 16th century, the Rasamanjari treats the subject of nayikabheda, different types of heroines, with great tenderness. An important go-between in the romantic transactions of the nayak and the nayika is the sakhi or the love messenger.

Bhanudatta classified the sakhis into different types: the one who decorates the body of the nayika in preparation for the rendezvous, one who complains to the nayaka that while the nayika is yearning for love, the nayaka has been cold; one who instructs the nayika that she may proceed to the tryst to see her lover but cautions her of the humming bees and the chakoras who are known to gossip; one who teases the nayika by asking her to say the name of her love; one who jests with the nayika, one who is eager to unite the lovers; and the one who describes the pangs of separation.

Keshavdasa’s Rasikapriya

The journey of the sakhi ends with Keshavdasa of Orchha,the father of Ritikavya and the author of the Rasikapriya. He describes many types of sakhis: the nurse, servant, barber’s wife, actress, neighbour, gardener’s wife, woman of a lower caste, ascetic, and the ornament maker. All of these have one advantage and that is being in close proximity to the nayak or the nayika, and who are able to negotiate courtly protocol.

The sakhi of Rasikapriya deeply understands the various nuances of the dynamics of shringara and uses a variety of methods, from encouragement to scolding, sympathising to commiserating with the nayika — all within the intrigue and machinations of a courtly setting of romance.

Modern-day Nayika

The multi-nuanced and layered sakhi also brings out the all-important role of the woman as an intermediary between the devotee and the deity. The energy between the two flows through her; not only does she carry romantic messages in the scenario of shringara rasa but is also the messenger of petitions and prayers from man to God.

Modern shringara rasa kavya finds the nayika more of a prauda, mature, rather than mugdha, innocent, and, hence, is able to negotiate affairs of romance directly and without the intermediation of a sakhi. This is one of the many features of modernity. While it gives the nayika more independence, it removes the element of compassion and softness that the sakhi was able to provide in ancient and medieval shringara kavya.
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