Articles and Reviews

Monday, November 01, 2010

‘Riwayat’ : “Water for the Tank”

Riwayat’ : “Water for the Tank”    

 The term ‘Riwayat,’  as H. M. Bilagi, who has collected many such narratives and has made a study of them explains, is originally a Persian term meaning ‘ story’ or ‘an incident.’  Since they are to be sung during the Muslim Moharram festival, they are also called ‘Moharram songs.’  

The saint-poet, Shishunala Sharif of the 19th century, is supposed to have introduced this rare form to Kannada, with his more than a hundred riwayats on different subjects.  After he popularized this form, many others have written riwayats, especially in and around the district of Bagalkot in north Karnataka.  In form, they resemble ‘Lavani’ or ballad: the narratives begin with a refrain (‘chaala’) to be repeated after each stanza, and then in each stanza there are certain lines to be sung in a high pitch (‘eru’) and certain others in a low pitch (‘ilu’).  The last stanza of each narrative bears the name of the poet and, often, his teacher.

     Although riwayats are written narratives meant to be sung publicly, we have included one here to show how different cultures treat the same subject differently.  This narrative also deals with the theme of sacrifice; but here the intended victim is a boy and not a woman, and the narrative has a happy ending.  In fact, this narrative brings two separate stories together: sacrifice of a person for the sake of water and the famous story of ‘Shunashepha,’ in the Mahabharata.  (In this story, the great sage Vishwamitra saves the boy Shunashepha from being sacrificed and builds for him a new heaven itself called ‘Trishanku Swarga’ – ‘the heaven of Trishanku.’  Riwayats reflect the deep and complex interaction between the two cultures, Hindu and Islamic, which has been going on since the last millennium in India.

                WATER FOR THE TANK

You, sitting here before us are gods; I, your child, beg of you;

 (High pitch)  Bestow your love on us; and,
                       Listen, calmly, to the whole story.

(Low pitch)     I stand before you with folded hands, and sing;
                        I am dull-witted, and you are learned and wise.                      
                       Be seated and listen to me with attention.    (1)
              I remember a story; listen to it quietly.
(High)   There was a virtuous king in a town,
             Who ruled his kingdom in a wise manner.
             None  could fault him in his administration.
(Low)       Let me do something noteworthy on this earth,
                 That will keep my name alive even after death –
                 So he thought and  built a huge tank in front of his town,
                 And a beautiful shrine of Sayyad Basha, above it.  (2)
              One cannot understand the games Shiva plays!
               No water could stay there, and the tank remained dry.  
(High)    Then the astrologers were called and consulted:
           Water doesn’t stay in the tank; advise us what we should do.

(Low)      The astrologer told him the  bitter truth:
                Only when you offer a sacrifice to Sayyad Basha,
                 Will there be water in the tank.
                  But the right object of sacrifice is difficult to find.  (3)

                  Parents should have only one son of twelve years.
   (High)    When such a son is brought to this shrine,
               Father should hold his son’s head and mother his legs;
(Low)  And the king himself should sever the neck.
             This is what the gods wish; and only then,
             The tank will be full.  This is not a false advice.  (4)
         Then the king got worried as to who would offer such a son
(High)  He got it announced through drumbeats throughout:
  (Low) Whoever offered their son will get half of the kingdom,
             Which they can enjoy till their death;  willing people
             Should go to the palace.  All people were pressurized. (5)

          Wretched poverty!  There was a  poor man in the same town.
(High)  He asks his wife: I plan to offer our son.  What do you say?
 (Low)  The wife said: As you please; I won’t question your words.
              Then he went to the king and said: I will offer my son.  (6)

                By then, the boy returned from his school;
                And the father said: I will sacrifice you today.
(High) The boy fell on the feet of his father and mother,
            And said with pleasure: Now, my life has been worthwhile.
(Low)  Death is certain for all; why do you think twice about it?
            Don’t cry, mother, shedding tears; death follows birth.  (7)

      The news spread, many gathered before the shrine to witness it.
(High) Soon, the king got the parents and the boy brought there.
(Low)  They arrived there as they had promised;
               And placed the boy in front of the shrine.
            The father held the head and  the mother legs, weeping. (8)

           The king stood there with his open sword, and said:
            If you have anything to ask for, you can do it now.
(High) Then said the boy: if I am fated thus, can it be changed?
(Low) Whom should I plead with now?  My parents themselves,
         Stand here holding me; and if I think of beseeching  the king,
         The king himself is standing here, to sever my head.  (9)

     If I think of praying to the God, He Himself demands me.
(High) Having spoken these words,
             The boy faced the people gathered, and folded his hands.
(Low)  Hearing these words, the people gathered there,
            Shed profuse tears; the tears streamed to the tank.
         The tank was filled with water, and the king was happy.  (10)
         As promised, the king called the poor man,
       And gave him half of his kingdom, and recorded it.
(High) Then, quickly, the king called the boy, placed him
         High on a palanquin, and took him out in a procession.
(Low) The procession, with drum beats, passed through the town.
         Thereafter, the husband, his wife, and their son lived happily;
          And here this song comes to an end.    (11)

Bagalkot is a fine city; and  beautiful riwayats are born here.
(High)  Hey, Peera the man of courage! Hey Dastagiraa!!
              Our saint Kesupeera gives shelter to all.
(Low)   The poet Laldongri, our teacher, is like the rising Sun;
      You mediocre poets, sit quietly;
      Do not open your mouths; your songs are horrible.  (12)
Dr. C.N.Ramachandran

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