A Cowherd’s Chapbook: An Inquiry into the Ethics of Literary Historiography

On February 2, 1901, the Krishna Press in Bhagalpur published 1000 copies of Bābū Bṛj Bihārī Lāl Maṇḍal’s Mithilā Nāṭak. This was an ambitious undertaking for a small-town press since Maṇḍal was still to gain renown as a playwright and poet. In the postscript of his play, Maṇḍal identified himself as a “fallen” (adham) person hailing from the majhrauṭ branch of the “cowherd” caste (gvālā jāt) and noted, “I have authored this book diligently so that whoever is stressed out—affected by any kind of human misery—can revive their spirits upon reading this book; they will laugh until their belly hurts.” Despite his commitment to alleviating human suffering and his creative engagement with the poetic genres and performative traditions of Mithila, neither Maṇḍal nor Mithilā Nāṭak was critiqued by any contemporary scholars of Maithili literature.

Maṇḍal and Krishna Press were active at a time when both Maithili print cultures and the genre of literary history were very much in their infancy. In the subsequent decades, scholars of Maithili literature published a variety of articles, essays and books with the intent of configuring literary historiography—its critical methods, analytical frameworks and historical sources—and consolidating the process of literary canonization. Maṇḍal was ignored by all literary histories, and the Krishna Press died out in unremarkable circumstances.

Why did Maṇḍal and Mithilā Nāṭak remain outside the purview of literary historiography? In evaluating the aesthetic attributes, creative insights and cultural significance of canonical works, did literary historians adopt paradigms that could expose the imperfection of works like Mithilā Nāṭak? How did Maithili scholars envision the ethics of reading literature and evaluating contributions by diverse peoples? My presentation will reflect on these issues with a view to appraising how ethically regional literary histories may represent their community and cultural past.