This is the second part in a four-part essay that delves into the various timeless epic song traditions of India and highlights their influence over Indian history and culture.
Though the performances of many songs are cherished today, there are a few contemporary epic songs which are most widely known.
In Rajasthan, one epic song tradition uses the visual aid of painted scrolls (par or pad). “Pabuji ki par” is a ballad extolling Pabuji (Prabhuji or Lord, in Sanskrit), a 14-century hero. Beginning at dusk and ending with dawn, the singer (called Bhopa) sings to the accompaniment of the ravanhatta fiddle using a bow with attached ghungru bells. He also shakes his feet sometimes and the ghungru bells, tied to his ankles, enhance the sound. His wife (Bhopi) also sings and sometimes dances— she also holds an oil lamp to the scrolls to illuminate the Pabuji images of the relevant episode. The story is too long to be told in a single sitting but that does not matter because the idea is the darshan of Pabuji.
Pabuji is the son of a Rajput prince and an apsara. He has an older half-brother named Buro, and half-sisters, Sona and Pema. The mother leaves him soon after he is born and he is raised in his extended family. In a quarrel over the spoils of a hunt, Buro and the Khichis clash in which the Khichi father is killed. Pabuji and Buro offer to Jidrav Khichi their sister, Pema, in marriage to make peace. Jidrav Khichi agrees to the marriage but inwardly remains hostile.
Pabuji travels to the Charan lady, Deval, to ask for the flying mare Kesar Kalami. Although Jidrav Khichi had also sought the mare, Deval gives her to Pabuji. Pabuji now discovers that the mare is his own mother in a new form.
Pabuji attacks Mirza Khan, the wicked ruler of Patan, and defeats him. He then travels to Pushkar where he is saved from drowning by Goga Chauhan. Grateful, he promises Goga Buro’s daughter Kelam in marriage. Goga and Kelam get married.
Pabuji has promised the newlyweds camels from Lanka. He travels there with his companions, engages Ravana in battle, and kills him. On the way back to give the she-camels to Kelam, he sees the princess Phulvanti, and they fall in love with each other. Soon, their wedding is agreed to by both families.
Later, in the middle of their wedding, he is informed that Deval’s cattle are being stolen by Jidrav Khichi. Since Pabuji had promised to protect Deval, he with Buro and their men attack Jidrav Khichi, defeating him. Now Khichi enlists the support of his powerful Bhati uncle, and the fresh forces help Khichi carry the day. Pabuji receives a blow to his head and he at once ascends in a palanquin to heaven. The rest of the men are also killed.
Informed of this catastrophe, Phulvanti and Buro’s wife Gahlotan decide to commit sati. Gahlotan is heavily pregnant and, before entering the flames, she cuts open her belly and draws forth a male child, naming him Rupnath. The women are now dead, and Rupnath is sent to Gahlotan’s mother to be raised. When Rupnath is older, he hears the story of his origins from Deval. Revengeful, he attacks Jidrav Khichi and kills him. After this, he retires from the world to become a sadhu.
Another Rajasthani epic describes the exploits of Devanarayan in about 15,000 verses and 335 songs.
The epic singers commit the entire work to memory. Devanarayan is an incarnation of Vishnu who is able to avenge the death of his 24 uncles. The evil party is Raja Basak (Vasuki), the king of the serpents. The Devanarayan singers are Gujars— just like their patrons. It is also sung with a painted scroll (par). However, in the rainy months singing with the par is forbidden.
Although they are characteristic of Rajasthan, similar instruments are used elsewhere in India, too. The sarangi is a popular folk music instrument and is found in various forms in Rajasthan. The Langas use the ‘Sindhi sarangi’. It is made with four main wires. The bowing of these instruments is a skillful exercise, often supported by the sound of the ghungru bells that are tied to the bow to make the beat prominent.
Another remarkable bowed instrument is the kamayacha of the Manganiyars, with its big, circular resonator that produces a deep, booming sound. The ektara is a single-string instrument but it is mounted on the belly of a gourd attached to a body made of bamboo The algoza is twin flutes played together. The satara of the Langas has one long flute and another flute to provide the drone. The narh or nad is a flute into which the player whistles while, at the same time, gurgling a song in his throat or actually singing intermittently to haunting effect.
Bells of different kind, used for accompaniment, include the manjiras— small brass hemispheres that are struck against each other. The jhanit and the tala are different kinds of manjiras. A metal plate, the thali, is also commonly used. This is struck in various ways, producing different kinds of tones and rhythms.
Rhythmic music is also provided by the kartals, which are disc jinglers, struck against each other. The different kinds of drums used include the two-sided ones, the single-sided drums, the shallow-rimmed and single-faced. Single-faced drums are played singly or in pairs. The largest single conical drum is the bam of Bharatpur. The earthern pitcher, locally known as mataka, and the ghada have their mouth covered with skin.
In Gujarat, a popular epic song form is the “Man Bhatt Akhyana” in which the storyteller accompanies himself on a large globular metal pot (man). The narrative consists of stories from the epics, the Puranas and from everyday life. The singer uses fingers with metal rings to slap rhythmically the shoulders of the man. Further accompaniment is provided by cymbals (jhanjh), barrel drum (pakhavaj), tabla and the harmonium.
The principal structural element is a verse unit called the kadavu. The singer sets each kadavu to well-known tunes, repeating musical motifs. Each kadavu concludes with a couplet that summarises the fragment told, setting the stage for the next fragment.
The communities of Charanas and Bhats have been composing and reciting epic verses celebrating the exploits of their royal patrons. They use the raso (rasa or rasaka), a structure consisting of several poems that each tell a portion of the story, depict a scene or speak in the voice of a character. The main raso forms are doha (couplet) and chhand (extended metre). A variant of the doha is the sorath. The number of syllables per line is the same in both forms; however, in doha, the first half of the line is longer and the rhyme occurs at the end of the line, whereas in sorath the second half of the line is longer and the rhyme occurs in the middle. In chhand, the metrical structure has many forms.
Coming to the Ganga Plains, the epics here include the “Alha”, the “Dhola”, and the “Lorik”, which are long, complex stories of intrigue, magic, and battle. The instruments used for accompaniment include the dholak, the lute, and metal percussion.
Alha is a ballad very popular in the Hindi region. It narrates the tales of two warrior brothers, Alha and Udal, who were in the service of Raja Piramal of Mahoba. They show valour in several engagements but Piramal, at the instigation of Prithviraj Chauhan— the king of Delhi— exiles them when they refuse to surrender their five flying horses to him. Alha and Udal join Jaichand, the king of Kannauj, who is Prithviraj’s enemy. There is further intrigue and Prithviraj turns on Mahoba. The city requests Alha and Udal to return to protect it, and they do so, defeating Prithviraj.
There is further trouble over the wedding of Prithviraj’s daughter, Bela, to her husband Brahma. Prithviraj prevents Brahma from reaching his wife (this mirrors Prithviraj’s own struggle with Jaichand), and Brahma is critically injured. The brothers are approached for help. They kill Bela’s brother, Tahar, who had stabbed Brahma. Now, Prithviraj arrives with his army. Brahma dies, Bela commits sati, and Udal dies as well. Only Alha survives, because he has the boon of immortality. He follows the great yogi Gorakhnath to the forest.
Alha’s singing style is very dynamic and full of heroic sentiment. Beginning with a prayer to devi (or, goddess), renditions include various incidents from this very lengthy ballad. Styles of singing differ from region to region but it is usually sung in the monsoon months— the time villagers get after sowing grain in fields after the first monsoon showers. Villagers gather around the village chaupal and the singers, always men, take centrestage. It is also sung for the groom’s processionists walking to the bride’s village, which could take several hours.
Lorik-Chanda Chandaini, or Lorik-Chanda, is the story of the princess Chanda who is married to an impotent husband. She falls in love with Lorik, who is already married. Lorik and Chanda elope and have many adventures in their travels. In due course, they have a son who is named Chadrakar. Ultimately, when they return to their village, Chanda and Lorik’s wife fight furiously. Lorik is sad now and one day he disappears.
Traditional, singers of Chandaini were from the Rawat community. Today, a large number of the performers are also from the Satnami community. Originally, it was believed to have been sung without any instrumental accompaniments. Now, harmonium and tabla and other instruments are used.
Dhola is a version of the famous Nala-Damayanti story. It is also called Nala Purana. Nala has many adventures in his youth. Later, the princess Damayanti chooses him in a svayamvara. This angers Indra and, under the baleful influence of Saturn, the newly-wedded couple has 12 years of troubles.
Nala loses his kingdom and, to support himself, becomes an oil-presser’s servant. He works hard, the oil-presser thrives, and Nala again becomes wealthy. Much later, in a gambling match with Raja Budha, Nala wins the Raja’s daughter, Maru, for his son Dhola. Dhola and Maru are separated when Dhola forgets her but, ultimately, they are reunited.
The Dhola singers are from the poorer communities. The singer accompanies himself on the chikara, a two-stringed bowed instrument. Further support is provided by a drummer on the dholak and a chimta (steel tongs) player.
This essay was originally presented at the seventh International Conference and Festival of Asian Music, Busan, Korea during 26-30 September 2002 and has been republished here with permission.
Subhash Kak is Regents professor of electrical and computer engineering at Oklahoma State University and a vedic scholar.
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