It was more than three hundred and sixty-five years ago, in the winter of 1641, in Agra, that Banarasidas, poet, philosopher and merchant, completed the writing of a unique and remarkable text.Ardhakathanak, as this text is known, is the story of Banarasidas’s own life.
When he wrote his story, Banarasidas was fifty-five years old. He believed that another fifty-five years of life remained to him since according to Jain tradition, a man’s allotted lifespan is a hundred and ten years. He therefore called his story his ‘aradh kathan‘, his ‘half a story’. Banarasidas died two years after the completion of his Ardhakathanak, so that ironically, his half a story becomes in reality his full story.
The Ardhakathanak is also, possibly, the first autobiography in an Indian language. Banarasi had no precedent in literature or tradition that might have inspired him to write his life’s story, or guided him in his task. His motivation to write his story seemed simple: ‘Let me tell my story to all’. The result was an account that is more modern than medieval in tone, and which transcends formulaic conventions and stylized ornamentation.
Banarasidas composed the Ardhakathanak in 675 stanzas, mainly in the doha and chaupai metres. He relates his story in the third person, and recounts the main events of his life in a fast-flowing narrative which he interrupts only to muse on the nature of human existence.
Banarasi’s story is set against a backdrop of Mughal history, spanning the reign of three great kings – the Mughal emperors Akbar, Jahangir and Shahjahan. Banarasidas does not provide us with any political or social commentary of the times, but he does give us some glimpses of a merchant’s life under the great Mughals. This makes the Ardhakathanak important not only from the literary point of view, but also as a historical record of the period.
At the end of his ‘half a story’, Banarasi becomes as intimate to us as an old friend; the ups and downs of whose life we know almost as well as we know our own, and whose intellectual and spiritual struggles we identify with, and perhaps even share.
Rohini Chowdhury has translated Banarasidas’s Ardhakathanak from the original Braj Bhasha into modern Hindi, and into English. Her Hindi translation was brought out in 2007, by Penguin India. Along with Rohini’s prose rendition, the book contains Banarasidas’s original text as well.
Rohini’s English translation,in free verse, Ardhakathanak (A Half Story), was published in 2009, also by Penguin India. The book includes Banarasidas’s original text, as well as a scholarly, insightful Introduction by Rupert Snell.