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‘Timeless Tales from Marwar’ tells stories of the common man

Summer is the time for stories. Especially in Rajasthan, where the desert winds scorch and the evenings are listless from the heat. The annals and antiquities of Rajputana have long held our fascination because of the kings, commoners, battles, djinns and sorcerers that populate them.

Vishes Kothari’s Timeless Tales from Marwar (published by Penguin Random House) is a translation from the Rajasthani of a beguiling collection of stories from the region. Launched by Ashok Gehlot, Chief Minister of Rajasthan, at the inaugural of this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival, the book with an introduction by social activist Aruna Roy was released before the lockdown.

‘Timeless Tales from Marwar’ tells stories of the common man

The blueprint for the book is Vijaydan Detha’s celebrated Batan ri Phulwari, a 14-volume assortment of tales collected from the oral storytelling tradition of Rajasthan. The lifetime work earned Detha a Padma Shri and the moniker Shakespeare of Rajasthan besides a host of other awards.

Detha, fondly called Bijji, was born in Borunda, a town near Jodhpur, from where he unearthed the gems that pepper his work of five decades. Hailing from the Charan caste of bards and poets, he graduated in Hindi, but stepped away from the classical Dingal tradition of poetry his grandfather Jugtidan was renowned for.

Detha’s heart lay in the oral and performing traditions of Rajasthan and it led to him founding the Rupayan Sansthan (that documents literary traditions, folk tales and folk songs of the State) with ethnomusicologist Komal Kothari. Detha’s timeless classics were adapted into movies such as Paheli, Charandas Chor and Duvidha.

“Bijji’s iconic collection is a well-known piece of contemporary literature,” says Vishes Kothari, speaking on phone from Kolkata, where he was born and raised. “He drew from the well of stories that came to him from the radial of Borunda — from daily wage workers and monks, travelling acrobats and wandering minstrels. The wonder in his work is how he kept alive the narrative flavour.”

This was to be Kothari’s challenge. A native of Sadulpur in Rajasthan and a financial consultant, Kothari’s life and work forms an unusual arc. He holds a Masters in Mathematics from the University of Cambridge, prior to which he studied at St Stephen’s College, Delhi, and King’s College, London. He then taught Mathematics at Ashoka University.

“Ten years ago I received Bijji’s book while teaching at Ashoka University. Surrounded by writers, I was encouraged to translate the book as they thought it was rare that I had first language fluency in both English and Rajasthani and was rooted in the culture. Penguin chose it for its Puffin series so the stories are tailored for children,” says Kothari, who has been associated with UNESCO-Sahapedia on projects focussed on the musical traditions of women in Rajasthan, and is a language expert with the Jaipur Virasat Foundation.

Tales of the city

Some of the 17 stories in the collection like Jheentiya are common across Rajasthan. “Some of the iconic stories come from bedtime tales told by grandmothers, origin myths of castes, didactic sermons by monks, allegories and those meant for entertainment. Detha’s style is light. Even when one is reading it you can visualise the storyteller’s nuances. He was a master of both orality and regionality. Some may resonate with those from the culture; the challenge for me when translating was to make it resonate with the general reader.”

On this count, Kothari’s translation scores; his language, while subtle, slips beneath the veneer of old stories to bubble forth with meaning and morals for a modern audience. The descriptions are vivid — handsome rajkanwars and evil witches rub shoulders with benevolent snakes and clever insects. Kothari also sticks to regional flavours when describing food and uses onomatopoeic words like “rivers flow gal-gal and people laugh dag-dag” intrinsic to a dialect. “In Rajasthan, the language changes every 12 miles. I used the Shabdkosh, a reliable dictionary, to get the right frame and didn’t feel the need to change the local lingo. These stories have been told and retold so I didn’t focus too much on originality,” says Kothari, who picks The Joo’s Curse and Naagan May Your Life Prosper, as two favourites from the collection.

The book steps away from courtly writing often associated with this princely state and instead showcases “the voices of common people, especially Dalit women, some of them original storytellers”.

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Printable version | Oct 24, 2020 9:11:58 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/timeless-tales-from-marwar-tells-stories-of-the-common-man/article31876960.ece

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