Culture & Society

Insights And Reflections: Taranand Viyogi Unveils Maithili Literature

Taranand Viyogi is a renowned Maithili author, poet, translator, biographer and cultural theorist. He spoke to Ashutosh Kumar Thakur on his journey as a writer, contemporary Maithili literature and topics such as Dalit writings in Maithili

Taranand Viyogi

Can you share some insights into your early life and the experiences that influenced your journey as a writer?

I was born in a displaced family of agricultural labourers; we were forced to leave our home due to the construction of the Sapta Kosi High Dam. My grandfather moved to Mahishi, Saharsa district, Bihar, after losing everything in Parsauni, Sitamarhi district, Bihar, and like many others, we resettled in different places. Growing up, I found myself in a village where no one shared our lineage.

Despite the hardships, my father’s resilience shaped my perspective. He may not have had much influence, but he was known as a peace-loving and straightforward person. Although he lacked formal education, he understood the value of it, emphasising the importance of learning to me from a young age.

Mahishi, my village, had a long tradition of imparting Sanskrit studies, which I embraced by attending the Sanskrit high school. Here, the values instilled by my father flourished, and I immersed myself in thousands of books. It was in this environment that the idea of writing took root within me.

When I heard that a beloved song was written by a fellow villager, poet Rajkamal Chaudhary, it sparked my interest in writing even more. At 15 years of age, I delved into his work, and by the time I took my matriculation exam, my own pieces were being published in ‘Mithila Mihir’. Seeing my work appreciated by readers brought me immense joy and solidified my identity as a writer.

How would you describe your evolution as a writer from your early works to the present day? Were there any specific challenges?

You said it well about the challenges. It was those very challenges that made the impossible possible. When you’re an outsider and constantly faced with hostility, those are the challenges we face. I was born into a Shudra family living in a Brahmin-dominated village, and my passion for reading and writing naturally propelled me to excel in my school. Yet, this success became my biggest hurdle in childhood.

I’m naturally friendly and helpful, traits instilled by my father, which also served as survival strategies in my early years. Let me illustrate with a couple of incidents. Back then, our village lacked paved roads and electricity, and my house had no lantern. Despite this, I’d sit up every night engrossed in a book. One night, my mother woke up to find the kerosene lamp burning, worried about the expense and scarcity of kerosene. Another time, as a ninth or 10th standard student, I overheard a man hurling abuses at his mother and sister for walking too fast. His words stayed with me, reminding me to walk slowly so that others could comfortably ask questions or seek understanding.

Poet Baba Nagarjun entered my life at a critical juncture, saving me from a destructive path. As a Brahmin, his presence shielded me from the worst consequences of the village’s Brahmin-dominated society. I witnessed many Shudra youths succumb to bitterness and ruin due to mistreatment by Brahmins.


Babhank Gaam’ is a celebrated work of yours. Could you elaborate on the inspiration and creative process behind these poems? 

In 2000, when my poem ‘Babhanak Gaam’ was published, it caused quite a stir in Maithil society. The publication of ‘Babhanak Gaam’ angered many in my village. A Brahmin poet-friend of mine even bought bulk copies of the issue and distributed them to every household, hoping to incite violence against me. However, later, Shri Dharam, renowned Hindi and Maithili fiction writer, wrote an article on the poem, and its translation garnered fame outside the village. Ratanlal and Sanjeev Chandan even did a YouTube show on Ambedkarnama, but upon reading it, you might hesitate to call it a Dalit poem. The poem’s compassion is for the unborn children of Brahmins, questioning why they’re denied the chance to enter life with the mindset of civilised beings. 

Regarding inspiration and process, no one has asked me until now, and I haven’t shared. You know my deep connection to my village. Given a choice to vacation anywhere in the world, I’d choose my village. Every year during Dussehra, I used to return to the village, inviting friends and young writers for gatherings and discussions. We’d hold writing camps in the evenings, to write fresh compositions until late into the night. 

During the Dussehra of 1999, a young writer, Pankaj Parashar, told me that some Brahmin gods stood outside my door at night, hurling abuses at me. This wasn’t new to me as I had been deputy collector for over five years. I understood the source of their resentment. Despite the changing world, Brahmins in the village still questioned why civilised people visited Shudra homes. It saddened me that even after years, the village remained unchanged, and I worried for its future generations. ‘Babhanak Gaam’ was written that evening in response to this incident. Pankaj was also enraged and penned a sharp poem. 

From the beginning, I wrote various types of poems in Maithili, expressing my feelings in my own way. They were published in magazines and garnered some attention. When my first collection, ‘Hastkshep’, was published in 1996, it was reviewed by Jeevkant, the renowned poet. While many praised the collection, Jeevkant titled his review ‘Maithili Mein Dalit Kavita Ka Hastekshep―Intervention of Dalit poetry in Maithili’. This caused a controversy, with accusations that he was conspiring against Maithili’s sacredness and bringing up Dalit poetry. Despite Nagarjun being hailed as one of Mithila’s greatest poets after Vidyapati―the renowned Maithili poet of 14th and 15th century―true Maithili people still hold insults against him. Mithila hasn’t changed at all. 

Nagarjun was a remarkable poet and writer. How did your relationship with Nagarjun influence your writing style and perspectives? 

During the days when I spent time with Nagarjun―while I was just a small child―he was a towering personality in every aspect. I had been writing diaries since childhood, and Baba’s words held such importance for me that I made sure to jot down every detail of our interactions. This is not something many people are able to do. Do you know why? Because accepting someone so influential, even as a child, can bruise your ego. I wrote those diaries not because I had to document something, but because I knew they would be invaluable in my life. Since I had always sought to align myself with Baba’s teachings, it’s hard to discern as to what extent his style and outlook influenced mine. 


How do you perceive the present state of Maithili literature, and what trends or changes have you observed over the years? 

The unfortunate state of Maithili language and literature is that it is largely controlled by narrow-minded Brahminists and third-rate brokers, despite the presence of approximately a thousand writers, with at least 40 per cent being non-Brahmins and 50 per cent producing high-quality literature, talented individuals are not receiving the recognition and awards they deserve in the present Maithili environment. It’s worth noting that in the past decade, Maithili women’s writing has seen unprecedented growth, which I greatly admire. 

Amidst the global dominance of English, the survival of Maithili is feasible, yet doubts persist about the continuity of its intellectual tradition that may decline to the level of languages like Magahi and Vajjika in a few decades, prompting the need for intervention to prevent such damage. 


As a writer engaged in Subaltern expression, what challenges have you encountered and what triumphs do you see in bringing marginalised voices to the forefront through your writings in Maithili? 

Maithili is an invention of the marginalised. When the tradition of reading and writing emerged 1,000 years ago, the Brahmins referred to it as ‘Bhakha’, while Sanskrit was their language of erudition. Even Vidyapati faced condemnation for writing poetry in Bhakha. Today, Maithili remains the language of religious rituals for the majority of backward Dalits in Mithila, while Brahmins use Sanskrit. 

In the medieval times, Maithili became the language of employment in the royal courts of Nepal and Mithila, gaining interest from educated pundits. However, in the 20th century, it was made the ethnic language of Maithil Brahmins and Karna Kayasthas during the reign of the Darbhanga Raj dynasty. This appropriation left Maithili as the language of the exploiters, while it was stripped from the exploited.  


Pandit Govind Jha wrote somewhere that ‘Mithila is not just one culture but at least two: Mithila within Mithila, with cultures so different and distant that they seem like residents of two different planets’. Despite attempts to explore greater Mithila in writings, this route remains uncommon for most Maithils, who are unaware of Maithili literature beyond occasional discussions on folk culture. 

You have authored a notable book from a Maithil perspective on Kabir. How do you perceive the representation of Kabir’s philosophy in Maithili language? 

This is a collection of Kabir’s Maithili verses, which, in about 80 pages, introduces the uniqueness of his Maithili phrases, the tradition, Kabir’s Mithila background, and the origin and development of Kabirpanth. When Kabirpanth started in the 17th century, one of the first four main ‘Maths’ was in Mithila. 


Interestingly, no sect of Vidyapati existed in Mithila; he went to Bengal. If any sect continued to exist in Mithila, it was Kabirpanth. Only two books of Vidyapati Padawali were found in Mithila, in the houses of ordinary householders who were lovers of songs. At that time, there were likely less than two hundred manuscripts of Kabir Padawali in Mithila. But who conducts research and for what purpose? Kabir’s voice is one of the bitter criticisms of the Brahmin religion. The great linguist Subhadra Jha argued in 1956 that Kabir was born in Mithila and fled due to conflict with Brahmins, eventually settling in Maghar in Uttar Pradesh and then in Kashi. 


In the book I tried to make it clear that those Maithils who spread the light of Kabir in Mithila and established it as their religion must have been marginalised people. However, it’s unfair to label them as marginal. 

Your latest book, ‘Maithili Kavitak Hazar Varsh’, is garnering attention. What motivated you to delve into this subject, and what can readers expect from this work? 

This book begins around the 8th and 9th century, when modern Indian languages were taking shape, and concludes at the end of the 19th century. This millennium has been called the millennium of indigenous language and culture for a reason. It showcases how people in a particular region adopted and expressed themselves in their language over a thousand years.  


For example, the title of its last chapter is 'Ithias Vanchit Kavi’. There are dozens of poets from the 18th to 19th century whose works are still available today, yet Maithil historians and critics ignored them because they were against Brahminism. In today’s liberal knowledge exchange era, this narrow-mindedness has only intensified. 

This book primarily focuses on poetry because there was no tradition of prose writing in Maithili before the 20th century, despite claims such as Jyotireshwar Thakur’s ‘Varnaratnakar’, which overlook Mithila’s rich tradition of folklore, including Lorikgatha, and G A Grierson’s surprise at finding ‘Salhes Gatha’ in prose structure but sung collectively with musical instruments like Dholak or Mridangam, which is discussed in a lengthy chapter. 


The misconception is that Vidyapatis, in the courts of Oinwar kings, made the kings of Mithila the originators of Vidyapati-like poets Mithila, but the absence of any talented poet like Vidyapati in 600 years challenges this notion. 

My attempt was to shift the focus of history towards the people, as most works expressing the aspirations of Mithila’s people remain oral, uncollected, and uncriticised, yet this effort should be seen as a beginning, not completion. 


Are there any emerging voices such as Dalit women writing or minorities writing in Maithili literature that you find particularly promising or noteworthy? 

Muslim writers have long contributed to Maithili literature such as the notable works of Fazlur Rahman Hashmi. At present, there are many active young writers whose works reflect a different perspective. Among them, I would like to mention Ziaur Rahman Jafri, Gufran Jilani, and Mukhtar Alam. Manzar Suleman shows promise in criticism, provided he maintains consistency. Although still in its early stages, Dalit women’s writing has the potential to garner attention. Vibha Kumari, from a Kabirpanthi family, showcases a unique strength in her creations. 


Can you envision a future where significant works of Maithili literature, when translated into English, could achieve recognition comparable to the JCB Prize-winning achievements of Perumal Murugan from Tamil, contributing to the broader promotion and appreciation of Maithili literature on a national and international scale? 

First of all, hearty congratulations to Perumal Murugan, and best wishes to him, because I believe his success is also a recognition for all of us.  

While some efforts have been made in Maithili in this regard, I am reminded of a statement by the renowned sociologist Hetukar Jha, who described the decline of ancient Mithila and the emergence of present-day Mithila marked by the dominance of caste over knowledge, and the rise of selfishness over ideological generosity, leading to discrimination against people and subjects of different castes. 


I am pleased to share that the most celebrated novel ‘Kanyadan’ by our eminent author Harimohan Jha has recently been translated into English by Lalit Kumar under the title “The Bride” and published by HarperCollins. This translated work has received numerous national awards and has been praised by a wide range of critics. I am hopeful that other significant works by our authors will also be translated into English in the future. 

(Ashutosh Kumar Thakur is a Bengaluru-based management professional, curator, and literary critic)