Bundela Kings were generous patrons of literature. This is why the royal palaces harboured several noted poets. In the medieval ages, Orchha, a Bundela kingdom in the central part of northern India, emerged as a center of vernacular poetry in Brajbhasha. It enjoyed a rich tradition in the fields of literature and poetry. In the court of Vir Singh Dev, King of Orchha, there were many great literary persons. Among them the most famous was Keshavdas. Who does not know him?
Keshavdas, the court poet of Raja Vir Singh Dev of Orchha, was born in Orchha in a Sanadhya Brahmin family. His father Kashinath and the elder brother Balabhadra Mishra were both Sanskrit scholars. Initially he was in the court of Indrajit Singh, the brother of the Bundela ruler Ram Singh. When Vir Singh Dev Bundela came to power, Keshavdas joined his court. His most famous disciple, Rai Parveen, was equally well known for her ravishing looks as well as her lyrical voice. Her enchanting beauty and her sharp repartees dazzled even Emperor Akbar .He was granted a jaageer of 21 villages.
Keshavdas was considered a great scholar of poetics, metre, style etc. which were followed by other poets of that age. His advent marks the decline of 'Bhaktikaal' and rise of 'Ritikaal' in Hindi literature. That is why he is called the pioneer of 'Ritikaal'. His literature contains reflexes of devotional and romantic poetry.
His writings in Brajbhasha echoed the themes of epic literature reaffirming the Vaishnava theology and the visual culture in palace murals, temple sculptures, and manuscript paintings. Words and images were congruent to a remarkable degree reflecting the Bundela worldview dominated by the religious ethos of Ram Rajya.
Keshavdas wrote eight major works over the course of his career. Among them Rasikpriya, Kavipriya, Ratnabhavani, Virsinghdevcharit, Chandmala and Ramchandrachandrika are hailed as classics of the Riti tradition. But Keshavdas is best known for his Rasikpriya, a pioneering work of the Ritikaal. His great poetic manuals Rasikpriya and Kavipriya deal with love and beauty. These compositions were written for Rai Praveen, the renowned dancer and poet, and his most gifted student, and for his patron Prince Indrajit who was a scholar. His Rasikpriya, a pioneering work of the riti kaal, contains excellent presentation of different mental stages, language and gestures of hero, heroine and their companions through Krishna, Radha and Gopis. The book is in Brajbhasha, a leading medieval dialect of Northern India
In Rasikpriya he praised the Betwa and Orchha as the most beautiful gifts of God on the earth. Greyed by years he rued the day when pretty girls he eyed on the Betwa addressed him as Baba:
Keshav Kesni asi karee, Asi Ari hu na karay
Chandra Badan, mriglochani, Baba kahi rahi jaaye
(O Keshav, what havoc these grey hairs have brought to thee. May such fate not befall your worst enemy? Girls with moon-beam bodies and gazelle eyes Call me Baba and go their ways.)
Ratnabhavani and Virsinghdevcharit are idealized narratives of Bundela princes in which historic facts are embellished to extol and admonish. They contain allusions to Orchha’s landscape, its palaces gardens and rivers. They are quasi-historical literary works on the life and deeds of Ratnasena and Vir singh Dev, as understood through the prism of Kshatriya dharma. Virsinghdevcharit is considered to be a biography of the Bundela king, Vir Singh Dev Bundela. Chandmala and Ramchandrachandrika are the retellings of the Ramayana.
Therse manuals of Keshavdas met with almost insatiable reception. In the course of his literary production, the poet subtly adapted his art to the political requirements of the Orchha rulers who during his time rose to an influential position at the imperial court.
Khushwant Singh comments, ‘I read a long note prepared by Pukhraj Maroo, erudite Commissioner of Sagar, on poet Keshavdas who immortalised the Betwa. His father was Rajguru of the rulers of Orchha. In his turn Keshavdas became the Rajguru. He used the Bundelkhandi dialect in his poetry. He excelled in Shringara Rasa. Some of the manuscripts of Rasika Priya are famous for their illustrations.
Busch, Allison, “Literary Responses to the Mughal Imperium: The Historical Poems of
Keshavdas. South Asia Research, vol. 25(1):31-54, May 2005.
Busch, Allison. Poetry of Kings: The Classical Hindi Literature of Mughal India. Chapter 1:
Keshavdas of Orchha, pp. 23-64. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Kambo, Dharam P. Orchha. New Delhi: Vashima Printers, 1984.