By Tanya Jha
“…because mythology is more abstract, less associated with local details, and transcendent, it is consequently more susceptible to external influence.” (Blackburn, 1977)
Amidst a group of enthusiastic audience, who had managed to make space for themselves in a jam-packed room of Delhi’s cramped theatre, an unusually oversized man, wearing a pale yellow costume of a kathakali dancer, jumps out from nowhere leaving the audience aghast for a while. Muttering incomprehensible words, the pot-bellied man begins to limp around the stage with a fluttering left-eye converting the amazement into loud guffaws. A voice from behind, accompanied by melodious tunes of an unconventional harmonium, speaks in a baritone voice introducing the Machiavellian clownish devil of the story, Shakuni, who in turn introduces the characters while chalking out war strategies planning to get Karna appointed as the captain. The light dims and the voice in the background announces Karna’s captainship with rousing claps from the audience, accompanied by loud beats coming from back-stage. Dressed in a hand-sewn dhoti and an ang-vastram, Karna walks in full-vigour from behind the stage and sings the praise of his friend, Duryodhana, in a local Tamil dialect, while his popping eyes out intermittently to display his theatrical skills.
Karnakuttu, as the play is called in Tamil, is annually performed at temples in Tamil Nadu and in small metropolitan theatres around the country. The stories are usually picked from the Mahabharata and meddled with the elements of Tamil folk culture to bring it to the local audience. This folkloric version of the Mahabharata provides a different perspective to the epic depending upon the common belief of the region in which it is performed.
The Mahabharata has been transcreated into various forms in different Indian languages with epic characters exchanging dialogues in their local language and narrating a maneuvered story to suit the society’s psycho-sociological needs. In Tamil Nadu, we have a clownish devil, Shakuni and Hulk-like, Karna; in the Chhattisgarhi tradition, we have Bhima as the folk-god. Apart from being worshipped as gods, these characters are also used as funny caricatures to address the socio-political issues of the society in some places of the country.
Bhima – The folk hero
Bhima, who is usually seen gorging on sweets and big baskets of fruits in the Mahabharata tele-series, is not such an important character. However, he is a folk-hero in Odisha and Chattisgarh, who is worshipped as a rain-god with many supernatural deeds to his credit. The folk artists of the region sing Pandavani (Chhattisgarhi version of the Mahabharata) with Bhima as its legendary hero, whose deeds and adventures form a major part of the legend. Kichaka-vadha is one of the most famous plays of the region, which glorifies Bhima as a brave and duty-bound husband, who overlooks all the barriers to fight for his wife. Bhima-Charita is a yet another epic, written by poet Rama Saraswati, in Assamese that incorporates the elements of an oral folk tradition to narrate the story of Mahabharata with a major focus on the life-journey of Bhima, who proved his valour and intellect at various instances in the story. Writers like Rama Saraswati, Sarla Das, Vidyapati, etc. have made a laudable contribution to bringing the folkloric Mahabharata to the attention of the masses retaining the essence of oral tradition in their literary works.
The tribal versions of the Mahabharata are replete with ‘disjointed episodes’ as noted by the author Bhagwandas Patel in his book, Bhilo ka Bharat, that pays less attention to the exact location of war or statehood. With no distinct knowledge about the political boundaries and castes, the local artists modify the supposedly political text to suit their cultural needs. “For them, the word ‘Bharata’ means war and not ‘nation’ (against the common belief),” says the head of publication department of Bhasha Research and Publication Centre, Aruna Joshi. The primary motive of such interpolations is to redefine the essence of the Mahabharata, which according to many critiques had a number of flaws in terms of story sequencing and characterisation. With no clear distinction between good and bad, the epic is open to culture-specific interpretations and this is what the tribal communities of Chhattisgarh and Odisha do. Gurang Jain, a sociologist based in Ahmedabad and a tribal activist, says, “Tribals feel more attracted to episodes which talk of displaying power, valour, and prowess. Also instances where women are emancipated and respected are given special attention; reflecting the fact that tribal communities are respectful of their women and consider the women-centric episodes of the Mahabharata as praiseworthy.”
The original text is full of wailing women characters, who are seen falling prey to political conspiracies hatched within the four walls of the palace. Distancing themselves from the tarnished political games, these local communities in their local performances debar all those episodes in the Mahabharata that show women as weak and helpless. The revered folk-hero, Bhima, is worshipped because he exhibited his fearlessness in the face of familial obligations to fight for his lawful wife, Draupadi’s tribulations. Bhima’s stature stands out as a character not only for his unparalleled bravery but also for his disengagement in any kind of political misconduct throughout the story.
Draupadi – ‘The Folk Goddess’
Draupadi, the chief heroine of the Sanskrit Mahabharata, takes on many unexpected guises in her Tamil cult but her dimensions as a folk-goddess remains rooted in a rich interpretative vision of the great epic. In his book, The Cult of Draupadi, Alf Hiltebeitel shows the cult to be ‘singularly representative’ of the inner tensions and working dynamics of popular devotional Hinduism.
Draupadi finds more space in the local tradition which the classical text fails to render to her. This Draupadi is so different from the Draupadi constructed by Vyasa that one can easily surmise that both have little or no resemblance. The Vanniyar Community of Tamil Nadu where the Draupadi-Amman Festival is celebrated annually constructs a different vernacular Mahabharata, one that is interpreted through the centrality of the Goddess. The traditional folk song of Tamil Nadu, ‘Pucari’, is sung in the festivals to praise the beautiful and the compassionate mother-figure, Draupadi. Unlike the original text, here she is regarded as the protector of the five Pandavas. It is such an act of mythicization which enables Draupadi’s construction as a Goddess. Therefore, in this incarnation she is not talked about in terms of her disrobing since this does not work out for her stature as a goddess (as constructed by the Vanniyaar Community). Hiltebeitel notes that even the ‘Pucari’ songs omit the scenes of disrobing. The story of the Southern Indian Goddess Vira-Panchali, the divine incarnation of the Pandava queen Draupadi, captures the idea that consumption of blood satisfies the sexual urge of the Goddess and the maturity domesticates her. It is believed that she abstained from sexual relations with any of her husbands during her forest exile. This purity and sanctity can be taken to extend the meaning of a ‘virgin’. The famous fire-walk ceremony, which is deeply entrenched with the Draupadi-cult rituals, exemplifies the aforementioned point. One of the principal characters of the epic, who had to go through difficulty throughout her life, is freed from the structural boundaries of the story and deified to worship her as a compassionate goddess.
Popping his eyes out to show his aggression, a sweat-drenched Duhshasana attempts to disrobe Draupadi by pulling the rope tied to her hair in the play, Terukuttu, which followed Karnakuttu. Another Tamil play in the cramped Delhi theatre shifts the attention from Karna to Draupadi to unveil the story as understood by the local folk artists. Addressing Draupadi as ‘Amman’ and pulling her by the rope, instead of her hair, Duhshasana brings her out to the centre-stage. Wrapped in a bright-red saree, she stands like a goddess, asking questions, which neither the Pandavas nor the gasped audience had an answer to. Defying the deus ex machina, there is no supernatural power (Krishna) coming to her rescue, but she herself turns into a God-like figure and leaves the spectators aghast. The light in the corner dims and, after a moment of silence, the room echoes a loud round of applause by the audience.
The Indian folk tradition is very close to the ancient oral tradition that dwelt on the nuances of dramaturgy. Providing a new angle to the age-old epic, the Mahabharata, these folk artists have kept the real essence of the epic alive despite bringing few changes in the story-line and sequencing. With incorporation of their local folk tradition, be it in Chhattisgarh, Odisha or Tamil Nadu, the artists have made an attempt to tie the loose ends left in the original text, which catered to the contemporary beliefs of the society. On one hand, the glorification of Bhima as a folk-hero alludes to the appreciation of courage to stand against injustice despite all odds; on the other, the deification of Draupadi focuses on the dejected state of women in the society, who need to be given respect and voice. The Mahabharata is indeed an unfathomable ocean with innumerable interpretations. It shall continue to inspire the local folk artists to highlight its various aspects which the directors of the long-spanned tele-series could not bring into light.
(Apart from the play by a group of folk artists from Tamil Nadu performed at Delhi’s Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, the author also consulted the following works: Mahendra K’s “A hero of the Mahabharata in Folklore of central India” (1996), Paul J’s “Tribal Mahabharata’ and epical deviations,” TOI editorial (2003), Sakshi S’ “Draupadi in folk performances” (2015), and Hiltbeitel’s “The cult of Draupadi” in Mythologies from Gungee to Kurukshetra, Vol. 1)
Tanya Jha takes equal pleasure in hard-core mythological novels & texts and in colourful comic-books. Apart from this, she is a slave of music and a hopelessly romantic creature.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Bollywood Nationalism’, edited by Dr. Roshni Sengupta, Leiden University, The Netherlands.