Articles and Reviews

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Political Narrative

     In general, to the rural, illiterate and simple singers of oral narratives, political matters are too distant and too complex to talk about.  Hence it is that the bulk of oral literature tends to be a-political.  However, the policies and acts of the British colonial power in India were so heartless and exploitative that they affected the lives of even common people in this country.  

Hence, most of the political narratives we have in Kannada are those that describe, touchingly, the brave but doomed protests by the native princes, chieftains and common men against the British and their policies.  It is a matter of irony that most of these anti-British narratives were first collected and translated into English by a British officer. 

     The persons and the incidents these ballads talk about are far from being imaginary: there was a local insurgence at Halagali against the ‘Disarming Act, XXVIII,’ passed in 1857; and the protagonists of many popular ballads like Channamma the queen of Kittur, Tippu Sultan of Mysore, and Rayanna of Sangolli are all historical figures who waged vain battles against the British and met tragic ends.

     John Faithful Fleet (b.1847) came to India in 1867 and served  in many senior administrative positions in Maharashtra and Karnataka.  Despite the pressures of administration, he found time to collect, translate into English, and publish many folksongs and ballads.  He published five ballads of political content, with the prose translation of the ballads followed by the original ballads in the Roman script, in The Indian Antiquary, Vols. 14-19 (1885-89).  He even gave sample musical notations of these ballads.  In his opinion, “ … their historical and political value consists in their giving us the genuine native view, never intended for European ears, of our system of administration, and of what is thought of the various measures that we have taken to introduce and enforce it …  .”

      Of the five ballads thus published, the one much anthologized and very popular is “The Bedas of Halagali,” which appeared in 1887.  Halagali was a small village, a part of the Mudhol princedom, in north Karnataka.  ‘Beda’ connotes a particular warrior-tribe, whose main occupation is hunting and fighting.  Hence, when the ‘Disarming Act’ was passed in 1857, it hit at the very means of living of this tribe; and forced them to revolt.  Of course, it was put down ruthlessly.  The British officers mentioned in the narrative were Lt. W. Alexander Kerr (‘ker saheb’) and W. Henry Havelock (‘heblak saheb’ of the narrative) 

          This composition belongs to a sub-genre of poetic narratives called ‘Lavani,’ (similar to the ballad form in English).   According to M. M. Kalburgi, the form of this composition is described by the 17th-century rhetorician called Gunachandra.  Fleet considers it similar to the Sanskrit metre called ‘Arya.’  Each foot consists of four short syllables, and there can be any number of such feet in a line.  A unit of four to five lines is called a ‘nudi’ which has end-rhymes; and there can be any number of such units in a composition.  The formal units of a composition are: ‘palla,’ (refrain to be sung in the beginning and at the end of each unit), and ‘chaala,’ ( narration of the story).  Also, certain lines are sung in a loud pitch (‘era’), and some others in a low pitch (‘ilu’).  

Primarily, Lavanis are meant to be sung publicly.  While Lavanis with a martial theme are sung by one person, to the accompaniment of a tambourine, Lavanis with marital/love themes are sung in the form of a dialogue between a man and a woman; such a form is called ‘Gee Gee pada.’ 

       Lastly, it is interesting to see how the same incident appears differently from different perspectives.   “The Bedas of Halagali” vividly describes the systematic looting of every house by the victorious British soldiers, the death of hundreds of insurgents, and the final cruel act of setting fire to the whole village.  But Fleet, at the end of his introduction to this ballad makes only this laconic comment: “… with a small loss on the part of the Bedas, and a few wounded on the British side, the village was taken, and was burned as a punishment and an example” (The Indian antiquary, 1887, p. 356).

Dr. C.N.Ramachandran


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