It is impossible for anyone to observe the unobstructed flow of literary tradition across India through the ages. Also since most of the endeavours are at the level of an individual or a close-knit team, a consolidated knowledge about this is difficult. So I can only present here a small bit of whatever I have gleaned from my observations.
In Sanskrit, to a person fairly skilled in language, composing verses set to chandas (meter) is as natural, pleasurable, and beautiful as breathing – quite easy too. Hence, let us turn to metrical poetry-based modern Sanskrit humour literature. Even here, the size and quality of parodies deserve attention. Although there have been many compositions over the centuries in the footsteps of Kālidāsa’s Meghadūtam, it is only in the twentieth century that a number of light-hearted and funny parodies of this form have been composed. Since many works are well-endowed with ability to imitate both meter and design of the original, the humour is delectable, and the impact is higher due to the starkness of contrast. The Kākadūtas brought out separately by C. R. Sahasrabuddhe and Rajagopala Iyengar must be mentioned. While Sahasrabuddhe’s work is about a message sent by an imprisoned thief to his beloved, the composition of Iyengar’s involves a common man relaying tidings to his life partner. In the first work, the descriptions of North Karnataka and Maharashtra are suffused with humour.
Jagannath’s Moghadūta (futile messenger) is perhaps the best of the parodies of this kind. Its language, structure, and irony are all beautifully effective. The messenger here is a cap. A politician is attempting to send his message through a Gāndhī-ṭopi (political cap), but in vain! Along every step of the way, the very words of Kālidāsa have been employed to superb effect for parody. If we were to illustrate, we would ideally have to quote the entire work here. Still, let us see a randomly picked verse:
वक्रैःकार्यैरवमतिजुषां टोपि! चूडासि तस्मात्
सन्देशं मे हर विलपतःक्रुद्धकन्याहतस्य।
गन्तव्यं ते गृहमतिकटुस्वान्तवत्याःसदापि
श्वानौ द्वारि श्रवणपरुषं बुक्कतौ यत्र बद्धौ॥
“O hat! Since you are the crown jewel of the wicked, who perform ill deeds, I, who suffered a slap from that peeved girl, weepingly ask you: do carry forth my message. You must go to the house where that stone-hearted one lives. At its very door stand guard a pair of chained barking dogs.”
Those who know the Meghadūtam can readily testify to the fact that several of Kālidāsa’s words are inserted here verbatim, however, with a telling effect of parody.
R. Sahasrabuddhe’s ‘Cahā-gītā’ is a spoof on the highly celebrated Bhagavad-gītā. This work of parody seeks to glorify the popular beverage tea by spoofing the verses right from the invocatory hymns.
For people in general, the very mention of Sanskrit brings devotional literature to mind. What’s more, the popular perception is that Sanskrit has nothing more than a collection of hymns, devotional lyrics, chants, and prayers. As a result, innumerable spoofs have been written in this area; prime examples being Muddu Viṭṭhalācārya’s Palāṇḍu-prārthanā (prayer to an onion), K V Krishnamurthy’s Matkuṇāṣṭaka (an eight-verse prayer revering ‘bed bug’), and Śunakaśataka (a hundred-verse prayer venerating dogs), Bālagaṇapatibhaṭṭa’s Ādhunikapūjā (where the deity is given a shampoo and soap bath, dressed in polyester clothing, deo-sprayed, offered electric āratī, restaurant-made food and ice-cream, etc). H V Nagaraja Rao’s Śrīsāmānyasuprabhātam is a delightful parody. The theme is the unpleasantness in store for a common man, right from day-break. We can see one poem of this work for example.
काको विरौति निकषा तवगेहमेकः।
लब्धावकाश इव संसदि दुष्टवक्ता
सामान्यमानव सखे! तव दुष्प्रभातम्॥
“Near your house, with its beak wide open, a crow rends the air with its cacophony, like a vile tongued politician who got a chance to speak in the parliament. O common citizen, wish you a bad morning!”
The dawn warble of the birds which is generally seen in Suprabhātas, has been twisted thus.
The present writer’s (i.e. Dr. Ganesh’s) unpublished Nāgarasaptaśati, treading the path of Śṛṅgāra-saptaśatis of Hāla, Jayavallabha, Govardhana and others, is a parody without imitation. This work proposes to comprise seven-hundred discrete verses, which are like standalone jokes. A poem from this work goes thus:
सचिवं कोऽप्याह शतं
देहि! शवं पत्रकर्तुरथ संस्कृर्तुम्।
दत्वाऽह सहस्रं स तु
कुरु तूर्णं पत्रकर्तृदशकस्य॥
“Someone sought a hundred rupees from a politician for the funeral rites of a journalist. He in turn offered a thousand and said ‘perform last rites of ten of them!’”
Yet another unpublished work of the present writer, Mārmikaśataka, is also a unique work of humour, where wisdom and profanity are woven together.
Similarly notable are the imaginative, fun-filled poems which B. S. Ramakrishna Rao used to publish – especially in the form of page-fillers in the Saṃvit newspaper.
In satirical literature, there are works of a technical nature as well. The huge corpus of śāstric literature in Sanskrit, which has flourished wonderfully over the ages, has been always available to support such endeavours. S. Jagannath’s Lokālaṅkāra-paṅkīyam is a marvellous satire based on Alaṅkāra-śāstra (study of literary embellishments). Similar to the way in which over a hundred and twenty four traditional figures of speech are demonstrated in the Kuvalayānanda, there are hundreds of laughter-evoking ‘modern’ alaṅkāras formally characterized in this work. The figures of speech in this work, named on the lines of nirvikalpālaṅkāra (non-admittance of alternative), jaḍālaṅkāra (inertia/stagnation), ajñānālaṅkāra (ignorance), nīrasālaṅkāra (joyless), doṣālaṅkāra (faulty), are beyond comparison. For instance, we can see visargālaṅkāra (renunciation):
“Renouncing what one possesses is visargālaṅkāra. I am giving up drinking, since it is becoming expensive.”
It can be readily seen that this unique humorous work where we see a side-by-side definition (lakṣaṇa) and illustration (lakṣya) of alaṅkāras, is a parody of Jayadeva’s Candrāloka. The present author’s Lokayānāṣṭa Nāyikāṣtaka is also on similar lines. It compares the state of the passengers in a public bus [when this work was composed, the public transportation in Bangalore was the ‘BTS’ (Bangalore Transport Service) bus], with Nāṭyaśāstra’s Aṣṭanāyikās (the eight classical types of heroines). For example, Vāsakasajjikā (she who is preparing expectantly to be reunited with her beloved), Svādhīnapatikā (she who has her beloved under her sway), Abhisārikā (she who casts aside modesty and braves all obstacles to secretly meet her beloved), and so on. The bus itself is glorified as the beloved in this parody.
Araiyar Śṛīrāma-śarma is a pundit-poet who has composed several Sanskrit works. His Gālīśataka is a collection of different kinds of verbal abuses. Here we can see hundreds of gender specific invectives sourced from a combination of humour and anger. This is a perfect mirror to the elitist typecasting that Sanskrit has generally been subjected to! Coffee Prabandha is another delightful humorous poem by Śṛīrāma-śarma about the popular beverage. Yet another work of this kind is Gāndhī-ṭopi. The poet’s Karapaṭaśataka—about a handkerchief—is a peerless work written in the style of earlier centuries. Just like a piece of clothing has fore and hind parts, even this work has two parts of fifty poems each, correspondingly named Mukha-pañcaśaṭ (‘front-side fifty’) and Pṛṣṭa-pañcaśaṭ (‘back-side fifty’). The poems therein are to be enjoyed in public and private respectively! His Śṛṅgāra-yātra is an expansive work of around three hundred verses. This is a collection of humorous insights drawn from the author’s varied travel experiences. The mushy and even pungent presentation of sweet and bitter happenings—visible only to the keen-eyed—observed during his road and train travels, is remarkable.
Āsūrī Ānandāḻvār’s Sammārjanī-śataka (a hundred verses about a broom), which was composed at the beginning of the contemporary era, stands tallest among all these kinds of poetic works of parody. The inspiration for this sophisticated and beautiful work about a broom is the Mahiṣa-śataka, which is perhaps the all-time unexcelled work among all literature of this kind. Let us see one of its verses for example:
बध्नाति कङ्कणगुणं करयोर्यदायं
बध्नाति मार्जनि! तवापि तदैव सूत्रं
“O Broom! This writer, during his marriage ceremony, while tying the sacred thread on his wife’s wrist—so that she may become his permanent partner in poverty—tied one around you as well, so that you too may, in her hand, untiringly toil!”
What a masterful stroke of humour weaved with empathy towards the humble thread that binds a broom!
Shridhara Bhaskara Varnekar ranks among the most eminent contemporary Sanskrit poets. The work Mandasmitaśataka of this Sahitya Akademi Award winner, which has flowed from his natural flair for humour, is a beautiful satire on many current affairs. Like him, the highly celebrated Abhiraj Rajendra Mishra who has composed hundreds of works in Sanskrit, has, bejewelled his innumerable poems, here and there, with glittering humour. His works that stand out are the Abhiśāpaśataka, Vimānaśataka, and Subhāṣitoddhāraśataka, among others. His language is beautiful. The natural beauty of his phraseology is the main reason behind his attractive style.
The young poet Dr. Shankar Rajaraman is a litterateur with a high calibre of classical talent. Among his many literary works, his spoof-poems on doctors and dogs are truly exquisite. What deserves our respect is the fact that in spite of being a doctor himself, Shankar has the magnanimous sense of humour that lets him compose poems mocking his own profession. A couple of ślokas from Shankar’s oeuvre are notable:
को वान्तः प्रविशेन्नरः॥
“A doctor is verily the sentry who stands guard at the door of Yama’s abode. No one may enter without bribing him!”
The irony here is multifaceted. Also, it is key to note that the word āmiṣa means ‘bribe’ as well as ‘(one’s own) flesh.’
श्वान एकोऽपि चेद्भवेत्।
न जातुचन जायेत
“In Vaikuṇṭha, Śrīhari is ever asleep. If there were but even one dog, Lakṣmī wouldn’t have been in others’ possession!”
It must be said, however, that the Kaṇṭakāñjali by Kaṇṭakārjuna (nom-de-plume of Arjunwadkar) is the most exquisite achievement in modern Sanskrit humour literature. Here we can see spoof, satire, bite, irony, sympathy, gravitas, and various other emotions. It would not be an exaggeration to say that we don’t see another work of poetry in any other Indian language which lays bare the decline of values in post-independent India with such delightful mix of irony and humour, in such a consummate style. In around two hundred individual verses, all facets of contemporary life have been made fun of. Its bedrock, however, is profound despondency. Indeed, all of its poems are quotable here but we shall see just one as an example:
नित्यं व्योमरथैः परैर्नभसि नः सीमा समुल्लङ्घ्यते
नित्यं घ्नन्त्यभिपत्य नः कृषिकरान् रक्षाकरांश्चारयः।
नित्यं च स्वभुवोऽस्मदीयजनतां क्रौयान्निरस्यन्ति ते
नित्यं चापि वयं बलप्रतिबलं लेखोत्तरं कुर्महे॥
“The fighter planes of our nation’s enemies keep transgressing our borders regularly. Our enemies keep killing our farmers and soldiers; they are casting out our kith and kin from their homes. Well, we are no way taking this lying down. We have flooded the newspapers with our incessant verbal retaliations.”
These days, even such kinds of reactions are dying down. Composed in the regal śārdūlavikrīḍita meter, a noteworthy aspect of this work is its Sanskrit-suffixation of many Hindi and English words.
In the category of anyāpadeśa (anyokti), there’s an abundance of crystallized humour. Notable of them are Mahalinga Shastri’s Vyājoktiratnāvali, Rajendra Mishra’s Āryānyoktiśataka, the present writer’s Aprastutam, Varnekar’s Mandormimālā and many others. Standalone independent verses of Jagannath Pathak, Bhaskaracharya Tripathi, Bhaskara Bhatta, Rudradeva Tripathi, Vankatachalam, Velankar, and Shankar are memorable. Among the works of modern poets, even the free-form (non-metrical) ones of Keshavachandra Dash, Harshadeva Madhava, and others are filled with spoofs. When it comes to using gravitas to achieve humour, a few works of Radhavallabh Tripathi need to be mentioned. Of all these writers, Pullela Shriramachandrudu significantly stands apart. His standalone verses are hued with catchy and piercing wordplay. We can see one śloka of his:
पुंसां स्त्री कारणं मता।
कारणं किं गवेष्यताम्॥
“If it is indeed true that woman is the reason for worldly bondage, may the reason for her bondage with the world be investigated into.”
What we saw thus far, in general, is poetry-based humour. Even in prose, in the recent times, there have been several works of humour. Prashasyamitra Shastri, Rajendra Mishra, Banamali Bishwal, Madhuranatha Shastri, Keshavachandra Dash, Ramakarana Sharma and several other writers have been persevering at this through their stories, novels, and essays. Not all are success stories but their achievements are far from insignificant.
Humour has flourished well primarily in plays. In each of his top-notch plays—more than twenty in number—that bear exquisite classical touch, Jaggu Vakulabhushan has brought about humour in a balanced way. Particularly in plays like Adbhutāṃśuka, Pratijñākauṭilya, Syāmantaka, the humour gushing forth through minor characters is endearing. Nighnatāpasa especially has a positively rib-tickling effect from introduction to conclusion. Even in serious works like Pratijñāśāntanava, here and there we see bright spots of apt humour. The preludes of Abhiraja Rajendra Mishra’s innumerable plays are a laugh riot. Several of his plays are comedies. The endeavours of Parikshit Sharma, Narayana Shastri, Mahalinga Shastri are also significant. Celebrated scholar V Raghavan’s Vimukti and the present writer’s Anveśanam are comedies bearing philosophical touches of Sāṅkhya and Vedānta. V Raghavan’s Vidyānātha Viḍambana is marvellous satirical play in four acts that mocks the poetician Vidyānātha (who lived during the thirteenth century) for his overdose of hyperbole in his panegyric verses on his patron. Several short plays from Samskrita Bharati are full of humour from start to end. S R Leela’s Gāndhī-smaraṇam is a stage-adaptation of an English play with generous doses of off-beat humour. Especially Dr. Shankar Rajaraman’s Nipuṇaprāghuṇakam, a contemporary bhāṇa based on the tinsel world is refreshingly beautiful for its classical diction and delightful humour.
Due to the lack of space here, it is not possible to provide details of many more writers and works. However it is abundantly clear that modern Sanskrit literature has produced works of humour of significant merit. To this end, Viśvabhāṣā, Sudharmā, Gāṇḍīvam, Śāradā, Madhuravāṇī, Saṃskṛtacandrikā, Saṃskṛtapratibhā and many other newspapers, magazines, and journals have been striving relentlessly. The contribution of Sambhāṣaṇasandeśa in this direction is immense. Especially, its columns like Ehi hasāma and Smāram Smāram Sukhinassyāmaḥ are unforgettable.
As can be gleaned from this cursory overview, the body of work in humour literature in modern Sanskrit vocabulary is multifaceted, wide-ranged and encompasses both tradition and novelty. In my opinion, the intrinsic quality of humour therein is a fruit of tradition. Even today it is highly attractive. Seen thus, humour in Sanskrit is different from humour in all other Indian languages, and for this reason, it always merits our critical investigation and careful nourishment. Apart from this, the forms of humour literature analogous to those in other languages do not seem to have retained their own identity. It is vital that newer varieties of natural idiomatic expressions come to vogue. This will, doubtless, infuse humour with even more lustre.
This is the second part of a two-part translation of a Kannada essay by Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh titled ‘ಆಧುನಿಕಸಂಸ್ಕೃತಸಾಹಿತ್ಯದಲ್ಲಿ ಹಾಸ್ಯ’ from his remarkable anthology ಹುಡುಕಾಟ. Edited by Hari Ravikumar.