Articles and Reviews

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Oral Mahabharatas and Varnashrama Discourse -Part 1

                   “JHUG JAAYEN VAARTA AAGE HA” :1

     The hold the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha narratives have had on Indian imagination for at least two millennia is both fascinating  and intriguing.  Since the time Vyasa and Valmiki composed their epics in Sanskrit, those epics  have been re-told, re-interpreted, and revalued in every Indian language, in every mode and in every form of literature and arts.    What A. K. Ramanujan says of the Ramayana holds true of the Mahabharatha also:  both constitute as it were the ‘second language’ of India2.

     Such a phenomenon of telling and retelling the same narrative  through the ages raises many questions not easy to answer.  Does this phenomenon reflect a lack of  imagination and slavish reverence toward tradition in the Indian mind?  On a different level, how do we view these retellings of the classical epics?  Are they different versions of  ancient and hoary ‘original’ works, or, are they revisions, revaluations, and subversions of the ‘original’ works?   And, in this confluence of literary re-tellings, where do we place the oral versions? 

     In this paper, I have limited myself to a consideration of three oral Bharatha-narratives, Bhil Bharath and two Kannada Bharathas.   In the first part of this paper, I have  introduced these oral narratives, focusing on their divergences from their literary cousins.  In the second part, there is an  attempt to relate these divergences to the socio-cultural discourses of the communities which have given birth to  these oral narratives.   

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(1)  Bhilonka Bharath:

     This narrative belongs to the oral traditions of a tribal community, called Bhil, living in the  Banaskanth district of northern Gujarat.   In the Bhil language ‘Bharath’ means ‘war.’  The Bhil Bharath contains 27 parts, composed partly in prose and partly in verse.  (This type of a mixed mode is called in Sanskrit and  Kannada Champu mode.)  

To the Bhil community, this narrative is integral to their seasonal  public- rituals.  The ritualistic presentation of the narrative is rather elaborate.  The principal singer called Bhopo and his associates called Raagiya conduct a communal worship, in the beginning of which the Bhopo spreads on the sanctified ground a square piece of red cloth; and  then he arranges rice grains on the cloth to form varied pictures.  These pictures on the red cloth symbolize the Sun and the Moon and also the major characters of the narrative; and thus, symbolically they create a new world inhabited by the Bharath-characters.  Then, the Bhopo lights the small lamps placed on the four corners of the red cloth and prays for the welfare of the whole community.  Normally, everyone present in the audience also participates in this prayer.  Afterwards, the Bhopo begins his performance. 3

     Generally, the entire narrative is not presented in any one performance and the parts that are chosen on a particular occasion are decided by the special nature of the occasion and the particular season.  For instance, during the ‘Hooro’ festival, conducted to commemorate  those who gave up their lives wreaking vengeance against the enemy, such parts as ‘Karna-Pandav,’ ‘Draupadi-Vasuki,’ and ‘Eko Danav’ are sung;  during funeral rites, such parts as  ‘Shankhoddhar Yagnya’ and  ‘Kuvara Sona,’ and  on the occasion of ‘Dhulaaka paat’ such parts as ‘Bhaktika praakatya,’ ‘ naarad aur Kaurav,’ and ‘Krishna Lila’ are presented.  The parts to be presented depend on the seasons also: ‘Bhajan vaartaa’ (‘vaartaa’ means story) during autumn, 4 ‘kaabariyaani koli’ during winter, and ‘nava aamiyaano geeto’ during spring.

    This narrative in 27 parts (or ‘adhyaay’)  is so different from the literary Bharathas that a brief synopsis of the entire narrative needs to be given here:

(1)  marriage of king Shantanu and the goddess Ganga; the birth of their three sons: Gaangeya, Chitravirya and Vichitravirya; the death of Shantanu.  (2)  By the blessings of the seven sages, five Pandavas to Kunti and 28 Kauravas to Gandhari are born.  (3)  curse on Pandu – Pandu’s death – his funeral rites.  (4)   Kunti abandons the child born before her marriage, hiding it in a field; the gardener of the Kauravas finds it,  takes it home, and names it as Karna;  Karna grows into a brave warrior and ends up becoming an officer in the Kaurava army.  (5)  Vasuki, the king of serpents in the netherworld, sees a hair of Draupadi, falls in love with her, reaches her palace, and forces himself on her.  

(6 )  Once, following Draupadi in her nocturnal movements, Bhima comes to know that she is actually a demon in the form of a woman and that she has cast her spell on all her husbands except Dharmaraya.  (7)  Bhima realizes, when he unsuccessfully attempts to sing like Sahadeva, that accompanying a main singer (in public performances) is not to be slighted.  (8) This 16-page long episode narrates the adventures and hardships the Pandavas undertake to help their dead father attain ‘sadgati.’  ( 9)  The Kauravas, in their boyhood, unable to bear the mischief of Bhima, attempt to kill him as a sacrifice to a goddess.  

(10)   Hidimbaa, the ogress, falls in love with Bhima and marries him; a son called Ghatotkacha is born to her; Bhima and Ghatotkacha save Kunti from the Kauravas who had kidnapped her.   (11)   Krishna, accompanied by Narada, enters the world of the demons, is caught by them, and escapes through his cunning.  (12)  A demon called Eko gets imprisoned in a cage by Krishna’s cunning.  (13)  At the time of Subhadra’s marriage with Arjuna, the demon Eko enters her womb; later he is born to her as her son.  (14)  Offended by the arrogance of the Kauravas, Narada comes to meet the Pandavas.  

(15)  Bored with her life in heaven, Indrani, the wife of Indra, comes down to earth, and wishes to marry a brave human being; Abhimanyu accepts her and defeats Indra who challenges him for a fight.  (16)  The king, Virata, agrees to give his daughter Uttara in marriage to Abhimanyu; the marriage party overcomes, with Krishna’s help,  all the obstacles placed by the king to test them.  (17)  Following Krishna’s distribution of three continents to the Pandavas and one to the Kauravas, the Kauravas get angry and decide on war.  (18)  In order to win the war, Krishna advises the Pandavas to acquire some rare things; and Arjuna goes down to the nether world to get them. 

(19) The Kauravas declare war;  since Arjuna is not with them ; Abhimanyu comes forward to accept the challenge.  (20)  This is another long and important part.  Since Abhimanyu’s marriage with Uttara has not been consummated, word is sent to her to immediately come and join her husband.  But, Krishna sees to it that her journey is delayed; and by the time she reaches the Pandava camp, Abhimanyu has already left for the war.  (21)  Abhimanyu dies in the war;  the Kauravas  also die.  (22)   Arjuna is in uncontrollable grief over the death of his son; finally the soul of Abhimanyu comes to him and consoles him that everyone’s days are numbered.  

(23)  The success in the war turns the head of Arjuna and Krishna teaches him a lesson.  (24)  Dharamabayi is worried that she will be put to shame in her daughter’s marriage since she has no brothers; Bhima agrees to be her brother and conducts the marriage of his ‘niece.’  (25)   Arjuna meets Kali in the nether world and comes to know that it is going to be his age.  (26)   All the four Pandavas and Draupadi fall down on the way to the Heaven; only Dharmaraja reaches the Vaikuntha alive.  (27)  In order to demonstrate that women have fleeting nature, Krishna comes out of  Radha’s house, enters it again as a bangle-seller, and seduces her successfully.

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