It is quite rare for a Hindi poet to be depicted in manuscript illustrations of the works he is believed to have composed. Yet this happens with Surdas (16th century), the great blind poet of the Hindi language family. Is it Surdas’s blindness that makes it possible for us to see him? Furthermore, what does it mean that this poet is so constantly asking us to look—to look at the scene from the life of Krishna that he is describing? The great word here is darshan, that special quality of sight that matters so much to Hindus. Aesthetically speaking, how does Surdas offer us darshan—and then, how do his illustrators do the same in a visual medium, not a verbal one?
John Stratton Hawley—more informally, Jack—is professor of religion at Barnard College, Columbia University. He has written or edited sixteen books; three more are forthcoming. These largely concern Hinduism and the bhakti traditions of north India, as in Three Bhakti Voices: Mirabai, Surdas, and Kabir in Their Time and Ours (Oxford, 2005 and 2012) and The Memory of Love: Surdas Sings to Krishna (Oxford, 2009). The edited volumes range more widely, e.g., Saints and Virtues, Fundamentalism and Gender, and (with Kimberley Patton) Holy Tears: Weeping in the Religious Imagination. Jack Hawley has served as director of Columbia University’s South Asia Institute and has received multiple awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Smithsonian, and the American Institute of Indian Studies. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow and was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.