IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 21 | Theme South Asian Literature


Narrative Traditions of Rajasthan

My analysis of the form, content, and function of medieval Dingal heroic poetry and contemporary oral epics of the peoples of the Great Indian Desert details the manner in which Rajasthan's past is connected to its present. The bardic language, Dingal, and 'virkavya' (heroic poetry) took shape in the context of the medieval social and political formations in Rajasthan. For centuries, Caran bards, court poets, and chroniclers contributed to the tradition of Dingal 'virkavya'. Today, medieval virkavya as well as extant oral traditions continue to inspire Rajasthani prose and poetry. Although contemporary literature is only partially of interest to my historical research, I would like to highlight some aspects of yet another unwritten literary history of South Asia. Here, I shall show how Rajasthani literature, like narrative genres world-wide, is shaped by the interplay between written and oral traditions.


The development of written and oral Rajasthani narratives can be illustrated by a study of the medieval and modern tradition of the adventures of Pabuji Dhandhal Rathaur, a fourteenth-century Rajput hero. Epic poems and panegyric couplets dedicated to Pabuji were part of the Dingal manuscript tradition from the beginning of the sixteenth century onwards. Caran bards memorialized his self-sacrifice on the battlefield in verses like Pabuji ra duha, Pabuji rau chand, and Pabuji ko yash varnan. The oral qualities of the bardic tradition were retained long after the verses became part of the manuscript tradition of the area.

In modern times, poets revitalized Dingal virkavya to air their anti-British sentiments. Hence Mahakavi Moraji Ashiya exalts Pabuji's self-sacrifice in Pabu Prakash (1932), a Dingal poem exuding patriotic pathos. After Independence, the Rajput ideals of virkavya proved well suited to expressing a nationalist love for the young nation. The self-sacrifice of Rajput warriors on the battlefield (tyagi), for instance, easily translated into a desire to dedicate one's life to the motherland. Poets glorified medieval Rajput heroes and contemporary freedom fighters employing Dingal versifications and bardic idiom.

Rajput tyagi is likewise an ingredient of modern, regional definitions of Rajasthani identity. Last year, Pabuji's story inspired Nirmohi Vyas (1934) to write a Rajasthani play titled The Hero Pabuji (Pranvir Pabuji 1999). The dramatic plot highlights Pabuji's battle with his foe, Jindarav Khinci. It is unclear whether it is a coincidence that this play was published in the aftermath of Indo-Pakistani skirmishes in Kargill but, in his introduction to the play, Swami Sanvit Sonagiri suggests the contrary. He applauds the manner in which Pranvir Pabuji kindles 'eternal values' like the sacrifice of individual lives for a just cause. Sonagiri's subsequent remark is part of the ongoing project of regional identity building. He holds that 'ethnic' topics like the life of Pabuji are a more potent source of inspiration for Rajasthani writers than adopted and, by implication, insipid Western literary themes.

It is easy to see how, in Pranvir Pabuji, oral narrative influences contemporary Rajasthani writings. The play not only represents the written tradition about Pabuji, the influence of the extant oral epic of Pabuji is also clear. Although the play is written in contemporary Rajasthani prose, it begins with a versified invocation sung by traditional Bhopo bards. The epic of Pabuji, as orally transmitted by the Bhopos, dates back to at least the sixteenth century. This oral Bhopo tradition was first mentioned by Munhata Nainsi in his seventeenth-century chronicle of Rathaur history (Smith 1991:100).

Current evils

Oral narratives are also a source of inspiration for Rajasthani prose writers like Vijay Dan Detha (1927). Detha is ranked among Rajasthani pragatishil (pragativad) or progressive prose writers who express a modern political, often reformist awareness through their writings. Using contemporary literary genres (short stories and novels), Detha rewrites folk narratives and experiments with oral narrative techniques and vernacular idiom. In his collection of translated Rajasthani short stories, The Dilemma (1996), animal fables are modernized to create an awareness of current evils like capitalist greed. And the age-old tale about the prince who kidnaps a princess is re-actualized in a story about the village belle who abducts her female friend. The pair lives happily ever after. Detha has merged new folktales with modern motifs in his 1984 Rajasthani story Anek Hitler (Many Hitlers). It relates the tale of five Vishnoi brothers who saved up together to buy a tractor and subsequently fall prey to feelings of deadly vengeance. The moral of the story is obvious: destructive feelings lie dormant in everyone's heart.

The writings of Vyas and Detha illustrate how the content as well as the form of oral narratives affects contemporary literature. Likewise, oral recitation remains central to present day Kavi Sammelans or gatherings of Rajasthani poets. 'Poets recite their poetry on stage as it is the best way to reach the vast audience of mainly illiterate Rajasthanis', said C.P. Deval (1949), a poet of Nunin Kavita (New Poetry), during the Kavi Sammelan this year in Deshnok. Poets of Dingal verse, progressive poetry, and Nunin Kavita gathered at Deshnok's Karni Mataji temple to recite their work in public.

Deval, editor of the Rajasthani section of Medieval Indian Literature, a volume to be published by the Sahitya Akademy this year [1999], is of the opinion that Rajasthani literature will retain its oral qualities as long as Rajasthani is not recognized as a national language. Deval holds that Rajasthani Nunin Kavita (along the lines of Hindi Nai Kahani) has had relatively little following in Rajasthan for similar reasons. 'The small, literate class which speaks Rajasthani is only taught Hindi in school, while a major portion of Rajasthan's population remains illiterate to this date', argues Deval. 'And literary Rajasthani magazines and publishers are few. New ideas as expressed in Hindi prose and poetry have had only a moderate influence on the literary tradition of Rajasthan. It remains overwhelmingly oral in character'.

The interrelated development of written and oral narratives is worth considering when drawing a new literary map of the Subcontinent. This is an assertion that will hardly surprise anthropologists and other students of oral traditions. But, keeping in mind text-based and equally text-biased studies of the written traditions of South Asia, it is important to emphasize how the content and the form of the texts we study are influenced by the interplay between written and oral traditions. *


- Bhati, N.S. (ed.)
Pabu Prakas Mahakavi Moraji Ashiya krita
Jodhpur, 1983

- Detha, Vijay Dan
The Dilemma, Delhi, 1996
Aneka Hitler, Delhi, 1984

- Sahitya Akademy
Medieval Indian Literature
Vol. III, forthcoming

- Smith, John D.
The Epic of Pabuji, A study, transcription and translation
Cambridge, 1991

- Vyas, Nirmohi
Pranvir Pabuji
Bikaner, 1999

The hero Pabuji is the subject of a folk-epic in Rajasthan, North India. Janet Kamphorst is a historian who is preparing a PhD dissertation on the historical context of the development of the written Dingal 'virkavya' tradition and extant oral epics of Rajasthan. She works at the CNWS, Leiden University.
E-mail: jankam65@hotmail.com

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 21 | Theme South Asian Literature