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Janabai and her Disciples: Modes of Translation

A Research Blog from the 2022 Recipient of the Rising Star Award

Nitya Pawar (Ashoka University, India)

My research focuses on a medieval Marathi saint-poet Janabai (1258-1350 CE) through her poetry and reception. Janabai is one of the Marathi saint-poets who was active in the 13th – 14th century. Outside of Maharashtra, she has little to no presence despite her teacher/master, Saint Namdev (1270-1350 CE), having a huge pan-Indian public. Even in the context of Maharashtra, her story is primarily tied with that of Namdev, except in the grind-mill or stone-mill songs which are folksongs sung by primarily rural women of Maharashtra as they work on the grind-mill or perform other household chores in a group. My research engages with her at three sites: her 18th-century hagiography and the 90s charitras (profiles/biographies) of her, her contemporary presence on social media and in performance settings, and poems attributed to her. I theorize the understanding of bhakti with regard to Janabai as essentially the bhakti of a translator, particularly a translator for whom the exact meaning of the ‘original’ is not quite available, implying and aligning with the idea that translation is not really about the transference of the exact meaning but creating meaning; the value of translation is in the act of translation quite like the idea of bhakti.

I call my dissertation “Janabai and her Disciples” because in bhakti usually, it is difficult to differentiate between the saint figure and his/her disciples, a phenomenon which becomes quite evident in the mythology surrounding Janabai. However, Janabai’s case becomes further complex as her discipleship overlaps with her social position as a dasi or a servant. Possibly for this reason—that she served as a dasi, she is associated with the shudra varna, the fourth and last class of Indian social order where the Shudras primarily exist to serve the upper classes such as Brahmans, Kshatriya, and Vaishyas. My research shows that the explicit mention of Janabai as a shudra woman did not happen until the 90s. I suggest that the transposition of the terms dasi and shudra happens as a result of the act of translation, in this case, translation means anuwad or speaking after. In this sense, I refer to every person who engages with Janabai after her time as her disciple.

Further, my research discusses Janabai’s contemporary presence in the domains of social media and the setting of professional performance. In this context, I demonstrate how the boundaries between a student/disciple and a teacher or  guru are blurred. I suggest that this is a form of translation in which a disciple becomes their own guru too. Occupying such a dual position–between the ‘source’ and ‘targeted’ culture–is again a role that a translator plays. In Janabai’s case, the practice of such translation becomes further complicated and more like translation as she chose her guru. And yet, the guru may or may not have paid attention to her, quite like the manner in which most translators choose the texts they wish to translate and the text they wish to translate has no cognizance of them. Translation and bhakti both then become purely acts of love and faith.

In thinking about the language of Janabai’s poetry I engage with the idea of untranslatability. Here, I discuss how the subject of her translation is beyond the definition and/or meaning. Her translation stems from longing for her god. Longing assumes absence or distance, quite like her relationship with her guru. This longing is translated through her physical labor which gets translated to her art, her poems, and songs that allow her to transcend the closed space of the domestic and for god to step into her home. This two-way translation or transition in which Janabai and god both undergo a sort of movement from/in their respective spaces suggests Janabai’s aspiration to grow beyond her.

Primarily then, my research engages with the idea of learning in Janabai’s poetry through different modes of translation. It has been my intention to place her in the intellectual tradition, not just the religious one; thus, I have deliberately tried to foreground her persona of a learner, as someone who inspires learning through her own aspirations.

My work and Janabai herself are situated at the intersection of caste, gender, and learning. Janabai is probably the only Shudra woman saint of the Maharashtra Vitthal bhakti tradition. Thus, one of the key contributions my research makes is to place her as an intellectual in the feminist discourse through sustained engagement with her corpus while also juxtaposing translation and bhakti. In that sense, I, along with Janabai, inhabit a space at the intersection of intellectual, embodied, and religious, which all together define spiritual in Janabai’s case.