An emerging field of poetry composition: Bi-textual Poetry (Slesa)
Bi-textual poetry (popularly termed as Slesa by scholars in the South-Asian literary tradition) is a form of poetry which uses the concept of the mechanisms of simultaneity in order to convey two different meanings by using the same words.
Introduction and History of Slesa
Slesa was initiated as a new technique or instrument of portraying dual meanings and emotions under the same context in the sixth century B.C.E by Sanskrit scholars as a part of the South Asian literary tradition. The word ‘Slesa’ can be simplified and understood as ‘embrace’ since it depicts and signifies the tight amalgamation of two descriptions or narratives in a single poem. Many poets and playwrights such as Dandin, Subandhu and Dhananjaya of the sixth and seventh centuries transformed it into a plot device by adding puns and bi-textual narratives in the plots of different stories.
Usage and excerpts of Slesa from different literary texts
“Here’s a king who has risen to the top,
He’s radiant, his surrounding circle glows,
and the people love him for his levies,
which are light.” (An excerpt from the verses composed by Dandin)
The poem clearly depicts moonrise as a king’s rise to power. This dual effect as observed in our inferences is achieved by the careful juxtaposition of lexical items that aid the poet in order to portray two different contexts of lunar and royal within a single poem or verse. The presented poem can be inferred by analyzing the dual narratives used in it: udaya refers to the eastern mountain, and the moon ascends over it as well as a king’s rise to power can be understood to be udaya. Mandala refers to a circle, like the moon’s disc but it has a more elaborative meaning in terms of the political discourse of a king’s circle of allies. Karas signifies the moon’s rays, but it also denotes the taxes a king levies and the moon itself is conventionally considered to be the king of the stars. So, conclusively the poem is dual in a consistent pattern and both the contexts of usage of words can be instantly identified by the reader.
Each ‘translation’ of the particular lines of the poem or the verse if considered separately or individually, leads the reader to miss the poem’s main objective of the poem which it intends to convey through the simultaneous depiction of two different contexts within a given line. One can easily observe oronyms (strings of words which can be divided into two separate words conveying different meanings) used by the poet as they possess the ability to carve words into two different ways. For instance, the word naksatra generally means ‘planet’, but it can also be read or understood as two separate words, ‘na’ can be understood as a negative phrase in order to express disapproval or objection for something while ksatra can be understood as a member of the Hindu ‘Kshatriya’ clan or a warrior protecting his clan from their allies.
Mechanism and the element of simultaneity in Slesa
Slesa uses oronyms as well as homonyms in order to create a simultaneous depiction of two different interpretations from the same words. Many scholars like Dandin have observed that Slesa, in many cases is not specifically used as an ‘embrace’ of the signified elements, say the moon and the king and it is also a union of two sets of signifiers along with the signified. It is not an allegory or a suggestion based on certain factors, but it is a unique manipulation of language with an objective of making its inference subjectively dual. This manipulation also involves the construction of the utterance in order to allow it to be segmented into words in more than one way. Such words rarely appear in Western literature whereas they can be found in large numbers in Sanskrit poetry.
Different Manifestations of Slesa
Around the sixth century B.C.E., South Asian literary theorists and poets began to experiment with the increased usage of puns and bi-textuality as poetic devices in Sanskrit literary texts and as a result Slesa as a discrete form of poetry emerged in the realm of South Asian literary traditions.
Slesa was used prominently in Sanskrit literature in order to describe specific characters and specific situations. Slesa was also used in long descriptive passages and even whole chapters of poems were devoted to it, where the usage of double language was crucial. For instance, there are full-fledged bi-textual poems which simultaneously narrate and depict the two epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata.
There are several evidences of Slesa being used in inscriptional orders proclaimed by kings and members of the royal family. Also, there are certain evidences where Slesa is used in a bilingual text narrative format which can be simply put together as a poem being narrated in two different languages in order to give justice to the element of simultaneous depictions or bi-textuality such as using languages like Sanskrit and Prakrit, Sanskrit and Tamil, Tamil and Telugu, Sanskrit and Urdu.
Also, a fact which cannot be ignored is that Slesa was not limited to the linguistic medium and it soon conquered the artistic domains such as sculpture and architecture. There are several temples which depict the usage of ‘puns’ in an artistic manner such as the ancient temple in the South Indian port city of Mahabalipuram which has a sculpture panel which can be visually interpreted as a counterpart to ‘double- epic’ poetry.
Recognition of Slesa in South Asian Literary culture
Slesa has not been recognized as a popular poetic device or even as a significant ‘literary heritage’ for the South Asian literary works and in terms of its identification and familiarity within literature, some of the Sanskrit scholars believe it to be an isolated ornament of speech in poetry and a topic of discussion in Sanskrit poetics, but few of them examined it in detail. Bi-textuality seems to have vanished from the scholarly tradition since no Sanskrit scholar has understood the intensity of its meanings and its implication in terms of a poetic device.
Themes of Romanticism, Orientalism, Nationalism and Biases
Since scholars of both the Western and South Asian traditions have always expressed a strong distaste towards Slesa, as a consequence of this, it has been compared and differentiated in a reductant sense with the revolutionary movements of Romanticism, Orientalism and Nationalism. Criticisms towards this poetic device have been observed to such an intensity that many academic institutions tended to remove Slesa works from their curricula and they also influenced scholars and readers to not study them. Slesa is considered to be an extravagant display which is “decadent”, “torturous”, “disgusting” and even “indecent” and “criminal” and hence correlated as a deep descendant of Romanticism.
Since Indians have always adopted an Orientalist approach towards uniting the citizens of different castes, creed, race, religion and color and thus helping in enhancing a spirit of nationalism and since the region of the Orient was always towards embellishing, reviving and adding new elements to their cultural movements they considered Slesa to be an old and deteriorating concept in Sanskrit poetry and nothing new arose as an element in poetry after ‘Kalidasa’, so it soon lost importance and remained a mysterious poetic device limited within the pages of the ancient Sanskrit poetical compositions and bi-textual narratives.
Slesa is also often viewed by scholars as natural to the Sanskrit language. But, by simply putting the fact that Sanskrit is one of those prominent languages which has more than hundred synonyms of a word and it also consists of a large number of puns in its formation doesn’t make such a poetic device to be its literary counterpart or its preceding mother language. All languages do consist of a fair amount of potential ambiguities. Indeed, there are Slesas and similar devices in other languages, even though on a smaller scale.
- Bronner, Y. (2010). INTRODUCTION. In Extreme Poetry: The South Asian Movement of Simultaneous Narration (pp. 1-19). NEW YORK: Columbia University Press. doi:10.7312/bron15160.7
- Patel, D. (2010). Journal of the American Oriental Society, 130(4), 659-661. Retrieved March 10, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/23044588
- Bronner, Y. (2010). THEORIES OF ŚLEṢA IN SANSKRIT POETICS. In Extreme Poetry: The South Asian Movement of Simultaneous Narration (pp. 195-230). NEW YORK: Columbia University Press. doi:10.7312/bron15160.13
- Bronner, Y. (2010). AIMING AT TWO TARGETS: THE EARLY ATTEMPTS. In Extreme Poetry: The South Asian Movement of Simultaneous Narration (pp. 91-121). NEW YORK: Columbia University Press. doi:10.7312/bron15160.10