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The dance of the ‘Potbelly king’

Comic time: A Ramlila performance in Chunar by a performer known as the ‘Potbelly king’.  

“Oh Nani! Why didn’t you tell me this before,” I asked.

“Everyone is busy. Nobody listens anymore,” she said.

Our grandparents are a treasure trove of memories. They carry living, breathing stories. As my grandmother narrated the tale of the “Potbelly king”, I embarked on a journey in my mindscape to the cobbled streets of Chunar, a small town on the banks of the Ganga near Varanasi. I sauntered on towards Ramlila, a ritual tradition of folk theatre and tableau based on the Ramayana.

Sita’s Swayamvara was being enacted. I got seated in the audience. There I saw the “Potbelly king”, jumping jovially around the stage amid the other prospective grooms. He displayed his comic theatrics to impress Sita, as the audience roared with laughter.

The “Potbelly king” was none other than my great-grandfather. Nani’s father. Townspeople called him Tondua Raja, aka the “Potbelly king”, as he used to tie a pillow to his abdomen on stage.

My only memory of him is a photo in which he holds the little me in his hands. I conjured up images of my Nani’s childhood, living and playing with her friends in the streets.

She elaborated upon the Ramlila of Chunar. It was a Jhanki style performance and a processional drama, with the actors performing the scenes in the natural settings. As in promenade theatre, the audience followed the journey of Lord Ram and the places he visited, just like pilgrims visiting holy places. The whole community turned into the supporting cast and crew.

The cultural spectacle included Ram’s Baarat. Ram and Raavan led the parade of their armies for the righteous war. Ram rode a horse on one side. Raavan was firmly seated on his throne tied to a bullock cart.

It was a predominantly male ensemble. My Nani with her friends, used to station herself on the terrace of their house to watch this spectacular parade. She fondly remembered how she used to peek into the makeshift make-up rooms of the titular characters while they were being decorated with “stars”.

Chunar is less known than Varanasi. It is famous for red mud pottery, toys and the Chunar Fort. The historic evolution of Chunar fort closely mirrors the political upheavals in India. It was established by Vikramaditya, King of Ujjain, and subsequently ruled by the Mughals. It was also used as an ammunition depot by the British.

The chronicle of Chunar is a tale as old as time. For me, it started with the “Potbelly king” and ended with a local newspaper article announcing “The Potbelly king is no more”. He was a pathway to the world of Chunar which I never inhabited, a place at once so strange yet so familiar. Chunar for me remains a fabled place where the Potbelly king once ruled.

riyaverma0713@gmail.com

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2021 7:21:34 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/the-dance-of-the-potbelly-king/article33048658.ece

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