Open Page

Some vignettes from the Mahabharata

Indian folk culture has many surprises to offer

“..[B]ecause 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 people who had managed to make space for themselves in a jam-packed room in one of Delhi's cramped theatre houses at the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, an unusually over-sized man wearing a pale yellow costume, something like that 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 baritonic voice introducing the machiavellian clownish devil of the story, ‘shakuni’. He then introduces the characters while chalking out war strategies, planning to get Karna appointed as the captain.

The light gets dim and the background voice announces Karna’s captainship, rousing claps from the audience with loud beats coming from back stage. Dressed in a hand-sewn dhoti and an ‘angavastram’, Karna walks in vigorously from behind the stage and sings in praise of his friend Duryodhana in local Tamil dialect. He is popping his 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 theatre houses around the country. The stories are usually picked out from the Mahabharata and infused with 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 on the common beliefs of the region it is performed in.

The Mahabharata has been trans-created into various forms in different indian languages with epic characters exchanging dialogues in their local language and narrating a manoeuvred story to suit the given society’s psycho-sociological needs. In Tamil Nadu, we have a clownish devil, Shakuni, and the hulk-like Karna. In the tradition that prevails in Chhattisgarh, 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 society in some places.

Bhima, the folk hero

Bhima, who is usually seen gorging on sweets and large baskets of fruits in the Mahabharata tele-series and not as an important character, is a folk hero in Odisha (central India). He is worshipped as a rain god with many supernatural deeds to his credit. The folk artists of the region sing ‘Pandavani’ (in the Chhattisgarhi version of the Mahabharata) with Bhima as its legendary hero whose deeds and adventures form a major part of the legend. ‘Keechaka-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 yet another epic written by the poet Rama Saraswati in Assamese that incorporates elements of oral folk tradition to narrate the story of the Mahabharata with a major focus on the life-journey of Bhima who proved his valour and intellect at various instances in the story.

Writers such as Rama Saraswati, Sarla Das and Vidyapati have made a laudable contribution to bringing the folkloric Mahabharata to 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 awareness about 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 Aruna Joshi, the head of the publication department of Bhasha Research and Publication Centre. 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 debar all those episodes in the Mahabharata that show women as weak and helpless in their local performances. The revered folk hero Bhima is worshipped because he exhibited his fearlessness on 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 remain rooted in a rich interpretative vision of the great epic. Alf Hiltebeitel shows the cult to be ‘singularly representative’ of the inner tensions and working dynamics of popular devotional Hinduism in his book,The Cult of Draupadi.

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 they have little or no resemblance. The Vanniyar community of Tamil Nadu which celebrates the 'Draupadi-Amman' festival 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 in the original text, here she is regarded as the protector of the five Pandavas.

It is such an act of mythicisation that 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 aspect 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 fire walk ceremony that is deeply entrenched with the Draupadi cult rituals exemplifies this point. One of the principal characters of the epic who went through tough times throughout her life is raised 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” that followed Karnakuttu. A yet another Tamilian play in the cramped Delhi theatre house, 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 raising 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 Godlike figure and leaves the spectators aghast. The light in the corner gets dim and after a moment of silence, the room echoes the loud round of applause by the audience.

The Indian folk tradition is very close to the ancient oral tradition that dwelled on the nuances of dramaturgy. Providing a new angle to the age-old epic poetry, the Mahabharata, these folk artists have kept the essence of the epic alive while bringing few changes in the storyline and sequencing. With incorporation of their local folk tradition — be it Chhattisgarh, Odisha or Tamil Nadu — the artists have made an attempt to tie down the loose ends left in the original text which catered to the contemporary beliefs of the society.

On the one hand, the glorification of Bhima as a folk hero alludes to the appreciation of the courage to stand against injustice despite all odds, and on the other, the deification of Draupadi throws light on the dejected state of women in society who need to be given respect and voice. The Mahabharata is indeed an unfathomable ocean with innumerable interpretations. It shall continue to inspire local folk artists to highlight its various aspects which the directors of the long-spanned tele-series could not bring into light.

Why you should pay for quality journalism - Click to know more

Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Feb 25, 2020 7:20:35 PM |

Next Story