Pioneers and Trendsetters


Jayadeva was an outstanding poet in Sanskrit, composer and musician. He lived in Orissa, circa 1200 AD. His celebrated Geeta Govinda was a landmark in the history of art and literature and the Radha-Krishna cult.

An unprecedented philatelic tribute

For the first time in the philatelic history of India, the Department of Posts issued a set of eleven stamps – one on Jayadeva and one each on the ten incarnations of Vishnu (the Dasavatara) as described in the first ashtapadi of his Geeta Govinda. Naveen Patnaik, Chief Minister of Orissa, released the stamps and a miniature sheet of the stamps on 27th July 2009 at Jayadev Bhavan, Bhubaneswar.

All the stamps are multi-coloured and of Rs 5 each. They were printed by the photogravure process at India Security Press, Nasik. The First Day Cover (see below) carries a picture of the poet in a writing posture; in the background are pictures of various incidents in Krishna’s life. The cancellation depicts a peacock feather and a flute, insignia of Krishna.

Each Dasavatara stamp carries the picture of one avatara and the lyrics of the corresponding pada given in the first ashtapadi.

The philatelic materials  the stamps, the miniature sheet, the first day cover, the cancellation and the information sheet  are all colourful and have been very aesthetically produced, reflecting the rich artistic tradition and cultural heritage of Orissa.


We have no authentic information on Jayadeva’s life, even the years of his birth and death. Controversy surrounds his birthplace. According to some scholars, he was born in Kendubilva (Kenduli) in the Birbhum district of West Bengal. The place is now known as Jayadeva Kenduli. He was a court poet of Maharaja Lakshmanasena, the last Hindu king of Bengal.

Some others are of the opinion that he was born in Kendulu Sasan (earlier known as Kenduvilva), a village near the temple city of Puri, and that he composed Geeta Govinda during the reign of Chodaganga Deva of the Ganga dynasty.

Jayadeva’s parents were Vamadevi and Bhojadeva, a reputed Sanskrit scholar. With his father’s guidance Jayadeva acquired vast learning in Sanskrit, poetics and music. He was married to Padmavati, an accomplished musician and dancer in the Jagannatha temple, Puri. He spent most of his life in Utkal, the present Orissa.

The devotional milieu of the place predominantly populated by Vaishnava brahmins, the excellent education he received, and his marriage to a talented artist, all these seem to have inspired Jayadeva to compose his magnum opus, the Geeta Govinda.

Geeta Govinda

The Geeta Govinda is a musical opera of exceptional literary merit. Jayadeva calls it a prabandha. It is organised into twelve sarga-s (cantos), containing 24 songs of eight couplets each, hence called ‘ashtapadi’. However there are eleven couplets in the first song, and only five in the tenth song. The ashtapadi-s are the earliest extant examples of regular musical compositions in India, each song being set in a specific raga and tala by the composer himself. The original melodies have been lost to posterity; the songs are now being sung in improvised tunes or raga-s locally set in various parts of India.

Each ashtapadi is preceded or followed by sloka-s, totaling 93, and they are set in different metres. In them the poet has shown his mastery over the science of metrics and his choice of words, besides a superlative imagination.

The Geeta Govinda is a lyrical poem, dramatising the love sports of Krishna and Radha. Its main theme is the estrangement of Radha and Krishna, caused by Krishma’s solicitude for other gopi-s, Radha’s anguish at his indifference towards her, and lastly the rapture which attends their final reunion. “The special feature of the work”, writes scholar and musicologist Ashok Da. Ranade, “is the lilting language and the inherent dignified but often sensuous eroticism of the compositions”.

The composer has given his signature ‘Sree Jayadeva’/ ‘Jayadeva’ in the last couplet of each ashtapadi.

Ashtapadi-s are specimens of the richest and finest sringara rasa kavya of highest aesthetic quality.

They are marked by soft and fluid syllabic schemes; no wonder they continue to charm lovers of poetry and performing artists all over the country. Since it was composed specifically for dance performance during the night worship of Lord Jagannatha, the composition is so deftly made as to be sung to the beats of a dancer’s foot movements. Because of its portrayal of madhura bhakti, it has come to be regarded as a religious and devotional work as well.

An inspiring kavya

The Geeta Govinda has inspired dozens of poets in Sanskrit throughout the country to compose works on its model on parallel themes. Dr. V. Raghavan observes: “All the music compositions before the Geeta Govinda are to be seen only in the music treatises. Jayadeva’s masterpiece in Sanskrit poetry is imitated endlessly by later poets and composers. It is also the fountainhead of dance and dance-dramas and of the sampradaya of madhura bhakti.”

The Geeta Govinda attained fame during Jayadeva’s lifetime. The construction of the Jagannatha temple at Puri by Chodaganga Deva was completed in the 12th century AD and the ruler ordained the use of the ashtapadi-s in the rituals of the temple. Sung and danced everyday in the temple, they became popular in every household in Orissa. Moreover, the romantic and religious fervour of the poem appealed to all sections of the people. In about a century they spread to all regions of the country, thanks to wandering minstrels and pilgrims. Because of the lucid style adopted by the poet, performers and devotees adapted them to raga-s and tunes that suited the regions.

Another significant reason for the wide spread of the Geeta Govinda is the language of the composition, namely, Sanskrit, which was then the medium of intercourse among scholars, poets and intellectuals.

The songs have been translated into many languages in India and abroad. More than a hundred commentaries have been written in Sanskrit alone, and over fifty in regional languages in India, as also in many foreign languages. Dozens of poets in Sanskrit wrote works on the model of the Geeta Govinda.

Regional adaptations

Following Jayadeva’s style, Badu Chandidas (circa 14th cent.), a poet of Vaishnava padavali-s, wrote Sri Krishna Keertana in Bangla. He set the Radha-Krishna episode in a rural setting.

Similarly, Mahakavi Vidyapati Thakur (circa 15th cent.) known as ‘Abhinava Jayadeva’, composed pada-s in Sanskrit and in two local dialects. The element of Radha-Krishna love in his songs exercised such a potent influence on the Bengali saint Sri Chaitanya (1486-1533) and his followers that the songs became one of the ‘bibles’ of the sect.

In Gujarat, Narsi Mehta (1414-1480) wrote his Sringara Mala (Garland of Love Songs) and Sringara naa Pado (Love Poems) describing the love-play between Radha and Krishna. However, in them Narsi has depicted Krishna as the dominant personality, and Radha a humble devotee. Secondly, the delineation of the love play never degenerates into eroticism. These are the special features of Narsi’s love poems.

Krishna Leela Tarangini

Swami Narayana Teertha (17-18th cent.) wrote the Sanskrit opera Krishna Leela Tarangini on the model of the Geeta Govinda. It deals with Krishna’s life up to his wedding with Rukmini. In literal beauty and musical excellence it is rated next only to the Geeta Govinda.

The Geeta Govinda seems to have reached Tamil Nadu in the 15th century. Writing about Jayadeva in the Biographies of Composers appended to his Sangeeta Sampradaya Pradarsini (1904), Subbarama Dikshitar says: “About three hundred years ago musicians of the South had set the raga-s and tala-s for all the 24 ashtapadi-s and these are being followed now.” When the South Indian bhajana sampradaya paddhati was codified by Marudanallur Sri Sadguru Swamigal (1777-1817) the ashtapadi-s were incorporated into it.

The ashtapadi-s are also performed in some bhajan rituals like Radhakalyanam in which dancing to the pada-s forms an important element.

Krishnageeti and Krishnanattam

The Geeta Govinda reached Kerala in the 14th or 15th century. Recitals of the ashtapadi-s were instituted in temples in Malabar and Cochin. They were sung in the native sopana style with the accompaniment of the edakka. It was choreographed and staged as a dance-drama known as Ashtapadi Attam under the patronage of the Zamorins of Calicut.

Sri Manaveda was the Samudiri of Kozhikode in the 17th century. He was a scholar, grammarian and poet, and he had occasions to watch the Ashtapadi Attam. Inspired by it, he wrote Krishnageeti in Sanskrit in 1654. It contains 62 pada-s, 13 ‘padya geeta-s’, and 321 sloka-s. It is the first known musical composition in Kerala in which the composer himself has set raga-s and tala-s. It was a pre-Trinity work.

It was later choreographed as a musical dance-drama, known as Krishnanattam. It consisted of eight parts (a la ashtapadi-s) to be played on eight nights. It was more of a devotional dance form. The artists were Chakyars, who copied the costumes of Koodiyattam with some modifications. It was nritta oriented; there was very little abhinaya. Unfortunately when Kathakali came into being, the artists started imitating it and, in the process, the original characteristics of Krishnanattam went into oblivion.

A saptapadi in Kannada

Chikkadevaraja Wodeyar who ruled Mysore during 1673-1704 authored Geeta Gopala, on the model of the Geeta Govinda. It is however called the Saptapadi, as each of its two parts consists of seven sections, with seven songs in each section. Like the Geeta Govinda it is also a prabandha, and deals with Krishna’s leela-s with the gopi-s. It is in Kannada, except one song in Telugu. The author has used 25 raga-s for the songs. This too is a pre-Trinity work.

In performing and plastic arts

The Geeta Govinda holds a singular position in the history of the growth and development of the performing arts. As they are soaked in sensuous sringara rasa the ashtapadi-s came to be widely used in the various styles of dances in India; they form the main background music for the Odissi dance at the Jagannatha temple. It is understood that years ago the Saraswati Mahal Library of Tanjavur published a manual setting forth the abhinaya for rendering each song in dance.

The Geeta Govinda appeared as a manuscript with illustrations in 1615. Paintings on ashtapadi themes have also appeared in many parts of India. The Orissa State Museum mounted an exhibition of photographs of the patta paintings (pata chitra) and palm leaf engravings of the Geeta Govinda, belonging to 19th century, at the venue of the stamp release function at Bhubaneswar.

The phenomenon of Radha

Chapters 29 to 33 of the tenth skanda of the Bhagavata Purana describe the Krishna’s sports with gopi-s of Vraja bhoomi — Rasaleela. Among the hundreds of gopi-s there was an ‘aaraadhitaa’ or favourite, but no name is given. Nor does Radha’s name occur in the pasuram-s of any Azhwar. She popularly came to be known as a favourite of Krishna after the Geeta Govinda. Jayadeva was not the ‘inventor’ of Radha, though. Centuries earlier, the name had been mentioned, for the first time, by Hala Sata Vahana in his Prakrit work ‘Gaha Sattasayi (Gatha Saptasati). He wrote it in the fifth century AD, and his Radha-Krishna Vrajaleela formed the nucleus of all the later Vaishnava pada-s and padavali-s.

Buddha as an avatara

Jayadeva pays his obeisance to the ten incarnations of Vishnu in his very first (Dasavatara) ashtapadi, starting with Pralaya payodhi jaley. (As stated earlier, it has eleven couplets or pada-s.) It has attained all-India fame. The poet has not included Krishna in it; instead we find Buddha in his place. Jayadeva considers Krishna (and not Vishnu) the Supreme Being.

Here again, another poet had preceded Jayadeva in treating Buddha as an incarnation. Kshemendra, a brilliant and prolific poet of Kashmir, wrote Dasavatara Charita, a prose kavya in Sanskrit in 1066. In it he extols the ten incarnations of Vishnu in ten cantos. In the ninth canto dealing with the ninth avatara, the poet intermingles the lives of Krishna and Buddha! The tenth avatara is, of course, Kalki.

The Geeta Govinda marked the transition between pure lyric and pure drama. It can be enjoyed by hearing it recited or sung, and could also be adapted in dance form for dramatic presentation. No other work has influenced the visual and performing arts, literature and the Radha- Krishna cult as the Geeta Govinda.