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Jester’s privilege

Jesters speak truth to power.

Jesters speak truth to power. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

When monarchy was the norm, so were jesters. The jester was the “clown”, a professional hired by the king to poke fun at royalty and their rule. If a king made the wrong decision, it was his job to ridicule him for making the poor decision — an entertaining way to receive constructive criticism. There have been stories of kings slaying someone for causing the slightest harm to their ego, but the jester had been known to be exempt from this wrath. The Jester’s Privilege.

Over the years, monarchy has faded as the standard of governance. However, the jester took other forms. He existed as the clown — drawing comical parallels to the tragedies of life. Since democratic rule has become the norm and circuses have gone out of fashion, jesters now exist as satirists, stand-up comedians, comic artists, poets and so on. The trend of humorous criticism has not died, but what has changed is how it is received.

Stand-up comics could make the most valid point, but it either lands them on Instagram meme pages, or jail. What these artists have to say is either not taken seriously at all, or a little too seriously. Ironically, despite having shifted to a system where the public governs themselves, voicing of public opinion has become “problematic” simply because it is turned on its head and made to sound non-serious. The “privilege” the jester was said to have does not remain at all.

Criticism through humour has always been a significant part of the country’s history, even outside royal courts. Villages in northern India often witnessed comics called harbolo. The word harbolo can be broken down into har, meaning every, and bolo, meaning to say — those who say what is beneficial for everyone. They would roam the streets or sit under a tree with a gathering, calling out the powerful people in the village for the wrongs they did or the mistakes they made. Through rhyme and rhythm, they would draw attention to the otherwise unnoticed acts of politicians and zamindars. People witnessing the act put up by these harbolos would often reward them with money or ration, making a mockery of their primary source of income.

Instances of analysis through mockery exist in Indian mythology, narrating tales of the power Narad had on the decisions made by Indra and Shiva. The two entities — powerful as they were — would still require his advice on important decisions. He was known to use his sharp intelligence, and wit to change decisions made by the gods, if he deemed them inefficient.

Jesters have helped kings be better at governing the public for centuries. Akbar had Birbal, Krishandevaraya had Tenali Ram, and there are countless examples of kings who were made better at their job by their jester.

Even Indian festivals like Holi are based on taking humour with a pinch of salt. The popular saying, “Bura na mano, holi hai!”, is familiar to every Indian household. Regardless of the rich role satire and humour have played in our history, the acceptance they were embraced with seems to be lost.

There have been several satirists, cartoonists, and celebrity comedians who have got into trouble for criticising governments across the world. If acceptance could exist in societies where one-person rule was the norm, why can we not bring the same function to modern democracy?

Despite being a more “accepting” generation, we have lost a part of history that revolved around honest acceptance of flaws. Unfortunately, the jester might still be alive in some form, but the privilege is not.

siddhayaniwrites@gmail.com


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Printable version | Aug 14, 2022 1:12:27 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/jesters-privilege/article65755796.ece