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Mukundaram Chakrabarti, Kavikankan

Mukundaram Chakrabarti, Kavikankan our information regarding the mediaeval Bengali poets is often based on hearsay or received oral tradition. It is impossible to verify their authenticity. In the case of Mukundaram, the composer of chandimangal Kavya and a number of other authors of panchalis (ballads celebrating the glory of particular deities) brief autobiographical statements introducing the ballads provide a more authentic source for their life story. There are two such notes in Mukundaram's works. These famous autobiographical note also provides a graphic picture of life in a mediaeval Bengali village, especially that of a Brahmin family dependent on agriculture for their livelihood.'

We learn from one of the two statements, the less familiar one, that Siva was incarnate under the name Chakraditya in the village of Damunya (Daminya in local pronunciation), by the river Ratna in Burdwan District where one Dhusdatta built a temple in his honour. But the god left the temple to set up his abode under a pipul tree. One Hari Nandi donated the land for the worship of Siva and he appointed Madhav Ojha, the poet's ancestor to look after the shrine. The village was pre-eminent in South Rarh as all the three upper castes were settled there. The poet, by the grace of Siva, wrote poems in honour of the deity already in childhood. He gives the following genealogy for his family:' Jagannath Mahamisra one of the nine sons of Madhav Sharma, son of Umapati, son of Tapan Ojha. The poet was the youngest son of Gunaraj (alias Guniraj, alias Hriday) Misra, Jagannath's son and his eldest brother was Kabichandra. For seven generations, the poet informs us, the family had lived in Damunya: cultivating the land was their means of livelihood. The text is a little ambiguous on this point. It is not clear if the family cultivated the land themselves (with the help of agricultural workers, of course) or 'rented' it out. We are also told in another fragment that one Digar Datta, probably a Kayastha landholder, brought Madhab Ojha to Damunya and helped settle the family in the village holding some office under him, probably in the service of Siva. But the poet's grandfather, Jagannath, became a devotee of Krishna as Gopal and gave up non-vegetarian food.

The overlord of Daminya, Gopinath Nandi Niyogi lived in the town of Selimabad and Mukunda's family enjoyed their landholding in the village for several generations under the Niyogi family's protection. When Raja Man Singh was the governor of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa (or immediately after his viceroyalty) Mukundaram's family fell on evil times. One Mamud Sharif became the Landlord or of the region. A regime of extreme oppression ensued. Gopinath Nandi was imprisoned. Land revenue became an instrument of oppressing the subjects: revenue-free land was entered in the account books as rent-paying, the money changer cheated heavily and Brahmins and Vaishnavas became the special objects of persecution. The villagers decided to run away, the traditional method of protest by a harassed peasantry in mediaeval Bengal. Mukunda joined the bandwagon with his wife, baby son and a brother. Some three miles from his homestead in the village of Baliya, one Rup Ray, a virtual bandit, seized what little Mukunda possessed. They managed to survive through the goodwill of some people they encountered until they settled down temporarily on the bank of a water tank. By now the family did not have even any food to eat and the hungry child had to be content with water and stems of the water lily. The tired poet fell asleep and the goddess chandi appeared in a dream: she asked him to compose a panchali in her honour. The family next crossed the Shilai River and reached the village of Arada where the king of the territory inhabited by Brahmins, Bir Bankura Ray held court. The poet was appointed his son's tutor. Prince Raghunath accepted him as guru and at his instance Mukunda eventually composed the famous Panchali, Chandimabgal. The poem was presented in a ceremonial presentation by one Prasad Dev under the prince's auspices. The poet and the singer were both amply rewarded by the prince ' with ornaments, luxurious clothes and a horse to ride. The historian of Bengali literature, Sukumar Sen has discussed the uncertainties regarding the chronology of the poet's life. He concluded that a date near about 1544 is probably the time when Mukunda was forced to desert from his ancestral village.

Of the three parts in which the narrative of the panchali is divided, the goddess Chandi is Siva's wife, Uma: the familiar Puranic story of Daksha's great sacrifice and Uma's death is the subject matter of the first part. In the second, the story centres on the lives of the hunter Kalketu and his wife, Phullara and narrates how the hunter hero introduced the worship of Chandi on earth. The origins of the tale is traced back to some jataka stories and even the worship of a long-riding Phrygian goddess. The third part of the poem is about the deity who appeared as sitting on a lotus in the sea near Sri Lanka and the trading voyage of the merchant Dhanapati to the island kingdom. Its origins are traced to the tale of Bijaysimha's conquest of Lanka and, probably, the tradition of sea trade with Ceylon which persisted till the seventeenth century. However, the route to the island as described in Mukundaram's panchali is garbled and semi-mythical.

Sukumar Sen described Mukundaram's panchali as a work of rare excellence, superior to most writings of the genre. It weaves into a mythical tale descriptions of life-style of both the poor and the rich as well as the problems of a polygamous household.

Recent research has identified another dimension of the panchali literature, hitherto unrecognised. It has been pointed out that the lower orders of the Bengali population were neither Muslims nor Hindus before the fourteenth century. The time when large sections of them, in eastern Bengal became Muslims through their association with the pioneering Pirs who came and settled in Eastern Bengal, a similar process led to the Hinduisation of underprivileged worshippers of a variety of local deities in western Bengal. The panchalis, all written by poor Brahmins, and conferring high puranic status on local deities, was a major instrument in this process. It gave the Brahmins a new and wide clientele among the underprivileged Bengalis and brought the latter within the fold of Brahminical Hinduism. Mukundaram's Chandimangal played a leading role in this process. [Tapan Raychauduri]