I am a “Maithil Brahmin” by caste. Now, how much should I care about my caste – that too at a place like this blog, which I would like to call my “intellectual” (whatever that is) outlet!
No, I have no intention of going into caste business. I rather intend to take up Maithil as a culture.
How good an authority I am to write about Maithil culture? I dare say, hardly any good. Even now, I can not speak Maithili very fluently. But it is not so much to make the world aware about Maithils that I pick up this topic (hopefully series), but rather to make it a motivation for finding out things for myself.
Mithila has been mythologically associated with King Janaka, whose daughter Janaki (Seeta) was married to (the then) Prince Rama of Ayodhya (yes! Ramayana). Students of Hindi Literature (who do not contribute to my readership I am afraid) would know the Maithili poet Vidyapati. People interested in Art might also have heard of “Madhubani Painting”. More than that about the history of Maithils and Mithila, I shall be able to tell you only after I have found something out myself (hopefully some of my relatives and family members would be of help here).
For now I will concentrate on the aspects of Maithil culture, which I have observed, having been born and brought up(?) as a Maithil.
The origin of the word “Maithil” must be in “Mithila”, the name of the area covering a big part of North Eastern Bihar. This was the kingdom of Janaka, as mentioned earlier. So, the residents of “Mithila” should be called “Maithil”. And their language “Maithili”.
Thanks to Mr. L. P. Yadav’s fame, Bihar and “Bihari” Language is often associated with Bhojpuri. Also because of several audio cassattes of Bhojpuri songs available in various parts of (North) India, Bhojpuri is a more easily recognized language. To clear some of those misconceptions – “Bihari” is no language at all. In various parts of Bihar several languages are spoken. Bhojpuri has no special status as the language of Bihar (No, this does not mean an antagonism towards Bhojpuri Just to put things in perspective. In fact many people in my family speak Bhojpuri fantastically.). All of these languages can be called the dialects of Hindi, but several of them have their own rich treasure of literature, poetry, songs etc. These include Bhojpuri, Maithili, Magahi and several variations of them. There is very common saying there about variations of languages, “Kos-kos par paani badle, teen kos par bani” (”Water changes at every Kos, language at every three Kos.” – Kos is a measure of length). So several variations of the languages are there. Almost every district, sometimes different villages in a particular district too, can be identified with a particular variation of the language. I can testify this in the case of variations of Maithili. My father often figures out the district (or village) a person comes from by his/her language! Similar variations are also observed in rituals, traditions etc.
In Maithil society at a broad scale the culture and language is divided by the regions “uttar” (North) and “dakkhin” or “dkashin” (Souht). Now, I often feel confused about the division of the regions in “uttar” and “dakkhin”. But districts like Darbangha and Madhubani (and possibly Saharsa, Supaul) typify “uttar”, while districts like Banka, Bhagalpur (and possibly Purnea, Katihar) typify “dakkhin”. Actually, its pretty much a continuous scale. As you descend from Darbhanga, the amount of “dakhhinapa” (southernness!) starts increasing. Interestingly districts like Araria are also considered “dakkhin” (south), while if you look at the map, they are pretty much on the northern border of Bihar and India. I should like to think that a division of east and west would have been more proper! If you are confused by the above description, you can have a look at the map of Bihar at Maps of India.
Now, I already said the scale is pretty continuous. My maternal family comes from Darbangha, while the paternal family comes from Bhagalpur. So, when I go to my maternal uncle’s home, I often hear “dakkhin” being talked of it in terms of Bhagalpur, whereas while I visit my paternal village, they also talk of some other places as “dakkhin”. So, its also relative to where you are presently. People in my village talk of several villages in Banka as “dakkhin”.
Well, and the “uttar” is generally considered to be better than “dakkhin”. As in, the language and behaviour of “uttar” is supposed to be more refined. There is no antagonism here really. It is universally acknowledged by people from “uttar” as well as “dakkhin”. People from “dakkhin” aspire to get their children married in “uttar” or to speak proper Maithili, while interacting with someone from “uttar”. There are several jokes about people from “dakkhin” trying to speak “proper Maithili”; several of them in my own paternal family. But its not possible to enjoy them unless you know the nuances of the language; so I will omit them here. Language of “uttar” is softer and sweeter than that of “dakkhin”. There are some fingers on “uttar” too. “Darbhangiya ke boli mein ras, maati mein ras nai” (”For people from Darbhanga, there is sweetness in language, but not in the soil” – soil symbolizing “true nature/heart”) – an old lady had teased by mother (as I mentioned my maternal family is from Darbhanga). And my mother is quite good at giving quick replies. She said, “Hamar boli ta Darbhanga se bhental chhai, lekin mait ta dakkhine ke chain. Hamar dono cheez mein ras”. (”I have got my language from Darbangha, but my soil is of South. So, with me, both of them are sweet!” – since she is married in south, her soil is of south. I will keep feminism out for a while from this discussion )
Just for mentioning it, Darbhanga is pretty much considered to be the seat of Maithil culture. Earlier the district also included Madhubani, which for quite some time now is a separate district. “Madhubani Painting”, as is not difficult to see, derives its name from Madhubani.
Now, something about Maithili and its variations. Maithili has influence of Sanskrit, some of the following “apabhransha” (the languages that came fromm Sanskrit, but distorted it and became common people’s languages. Pali and Prakrit are the best known ones.) and Bengali languages. Sanskrit influence should need no explanation. The script used for writing Maithili is Devnagri. Though popularly the script used for writing Hindi is used for writing Maithili too, but the actual script associated with Maithili is very close to the one used for Bengali. My maternal grandfather, who was a Sanskrit teacher and knew Maithili well, was very adept at reading Bengali for this reason. It is said that “Darbangha” was originally “Dwar Bang” (”gate to Bengal”). Maithili, in it pure form, is a very sweet and soft language. DD (Prof. D. D. Sarma, SSCU, IISc Bangalore) had once quipped that Maithili was made to take the richness of Bengali without the harshness of the language! (No offences intended for my Bengali friends. I like Bangali very much. But. yes, myself find it little harsh/loud too! And this statement came from a rather proud Bengali, anyway So, I consider myself as discharged of any blame.) Another effect of Bengali can also be seen on the pronounciation of several words, where the “a” with consonants is emphasized at times, but not always (unlike, say Oriya or Sanskrit, where consonant is almost always pronounced with emphasis on “a” and unlike Hindi, where it is almost never emphasized.). If you do not understand the above description, forget it. It does not come from any linguistic research, but is my naive observation. And might very well be exaggerated.
I will end this post here. More in a later one (hopefully!).