Text, Textuality, and digital media
Professor Arjun Ghosh
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian institute Of Technology Delhi
Hello, welcome back so we are going to in this course in this particular lecture we are going to look at a very specific rendering of Dastangoi. As we had been noting in the previous lecture that the important source today for the Dastangos is the series of the Dastan-i Amir Hamza printed by the Nawal Kishore Press. Now what is interesting about the about this entire printing project is that, it it was the series of books were published the volumes were published across 25 years and what we had was set off 46 big volumes, only one such set actually survives today.
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And each had about a 1000 pages and they could have many many stories within it. So what happened is and this kind of kind of story telling collection of oral oral narratives is something that was done at various parts of the world as well as certainly India. For example, the Grimms story Fairy Tales is one example, where these stories were collected from around Germany and other adjacent areas, and the is what we know today is the collection of stories called the grimms fairy tales, alright.
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You also have the Thakur Mar Jhuli or the repertoire of the grandmother as one can say, which were collected by someone called Darshan Raj Mujumdar in Bengal which collected many oral narratives which which were were prevalent within Bengal. So similarly, the Nawal Kishore press did that for the Dastangoi repertoire of stories and they were collected and these 46 huge volumes were created.
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However the most interesting most popular sort of series section of that is the Tilism-E Hoshruba as I said, the enchantment that steals away all the senses, the Tilismi, that magic which takes away one’s consciousness almost and it is these printed tales which which survive till today. And becomes a very important source for the contemporary Dastangos, because the Dastangoi tradition actually ebbed away with the coming of print of of films and television, but these were revived and when they were revived by very importantly artists like Mahmood Farooqui and and Danish Hussain and their their associates in around 2005, they try to try to keep as much of the original form but they realised that the contemporary audience requires a very different setup.
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So if you had noted, the previous instances of storytelling were by single storytellers but the innovation that has been worked out in the modern Dastangoi tradition is that it is told by two story tellers, very importantly that allows a certain kind of conversational storytelling. That is possible when two characters are interacting among themselves, the the two Dastangos can also imitate that, so it is a very performative form, alright.
And very very importantly, they have also over the years, they have moved away also from narrating only stories from the Tilism-E Hoshruba. They or the stories of Amir Hamza, they now take on many contemporary stories and stories from other sources. So one of the sources that they have they have sort of converted into a Dastangoi is a very important work done by engaged in by Vijaydan Dehta Padmashree, and he was also a recipient of many awards, including the Sahitya Academy Award and he his Vijaydan Dehta’s lifelong activity lifelong achievement has been collection of many stories from across Rajasthan, and and making them available for for the for the contemporary readers the children which produce which gives them a sense of what other other other cultures that the cultural traditions that they belong to.
Very important point about about Vijaydan Dehta. Dehta’s way of telling these stories, we had already looked at how when the Nawal Kishore Press was putting together the narratives of Amir Hamza, when they are they are written down. that is when the writers are making their own in bringing in their own inputs and writing it down which is which is the case with any any oral narrator any oral story teller. They would well, telling the story, tell it in their own language, tell tell it in their own format, bring in their own stories, make their own innovations. But in print, the moment this the thing comes when the story comes into print, it gets a solidity. It seems as if that is the story, but it is only the the the the story, the version of the story, which is that of that of that that teller of that particular tale, alright, which in this case is Vijaydan Dehta.
So Vijaydan Dehta makes a very very important choice when he when he writes down, notes down these stories. He tells this in the local, tries to maintain the local Rajasthani language, primarily Marwari but he tries to include many other Rajasthani languages. And this is a choice because we would understand in today's day and age, Rajasthan to be a Hindi speaking state. But what he is trying to do is that Hindi is not one language, Hindi is a collection of many languages which are spoken across across India.
We are going to study more about Hindi and Hindustani and the history of Urdu later on in the course. But to tell you that you would have to be aware that the Hindi that is spoken in the eastern part of the country is very different from the Hindi that is spoken in the western part of the country. But print by its very nature, and this is something that we are going to study later on within the course when you study Benedict Anderson, that print brings a certain kind of fixity to to the language, but Vijaydan Dehta tries to tell the story as much as possible in the, in in in within a certain Rajasthani language, principally Marwari but he calls it Rajasthani trying to put together shape a Rajasthani cultural tradition within the story. The particular story that we are going to study today and please watch the video, which would be there in the links of a particular rendering of the Dastan-i Chouboli. Dastan-i Chouboli is a set of four stories which are again within a overarching framework of of of of a narrative. And we know within the story that, you know, there is the it is the will or the guile of the of the of the of the Choti Thakurayan who who goes into Chouboli’s house to to sort of challenge, to to take on the challenge that Chouboli has thrown.
So to tell you the story in a nutshell, for the moment that, you know in this particular narrative there is the Thakur, the Thakur has has his wife who is the Thakurayan and one of the things that the Thakur does is to show his prowess on a moonlit night or by the light of the moon by the moonlit he he makes his wife which is the badi Thakurayan stand on the terrace of house then walks 108 hands away. Hath is a is a is a measure that is there and takes aim or his bow and arrow. And the aim is that he should the bow-- the arrow should go through the nose ring of of the of the Thakurayan.
And it is extremely bewildering for the for the Thakurayan and disconcerting for her. And she remains always worried. Now once, one of her relatives who comes to her and she shares her her her pain with her and she says that this is not what a what a man should do, this, if anybody does it, she throws a certain challenge to the to the to the Thakur, and the Thakur when the badi Thakurayan tells this to the Thakur he says what, I am going to do the same thing to her I am going to marry her today, so the choti Thakurayan gets has to get married to the to the Thakur and when the Thakur again tries to take aim on the Choti Thakurayan which is his new wife, the Choti Thakurayan says tells, throws a challenge to him that there is this princess Chouboli who has thrown this challenge that anybody who can break her vow of silence, anybody who is talented enough should break a vow of silence, can, I will marry that person.
And Chouboli is supposed to be very very beautiful, very attractive. She is supposed to be a famed beauty. And you know, and Thakur being what he is, is very very proud, is proud of his male prowess. He cannot he cannot ignore this, ignore this challenge that the Choti Thakurayan has told to to the Thakur, has has thrown before the Thakur really, in fact, he is so clouded by his idea of his prowess that he is he thinks that this is nothing but of course the story-- this is this is no kind of a challenge to him. He can easily sort of win the hand of Chouboli.
And of course make him his third wife, so to say. And he, once he goes there of course he is not able to, he is not successful. He is not able to get Chouboli to speak. And as a result like many other princes who had come to accept Choubolis challenge, have have been thrown into the dungeon where they are, they are made to grind and grind pulses and grind grains and and that is how they are spending their lives. So of course, the Choti Thakurayan being a being a wise woman, she understands what this entire, that that that that it was not in within the Thakur and the Thakur would not have been able to, make, he is not witty enough it it is not merely the physical prowess that is important, but it is your wit intelligence, which is also important in the world.
And the Choti Thakurayan then now goes to to, on a mission to actually rescue the Thakur. And what what she does is she takes on a male attire. There is cross-dressing, she takes on a male attire and goes to Chouboli’s palace. And she takes on this challenge. And in the process tells four stories a set of four riddles and each time Chouboli speaks, the challenge is that Chouboli should speak four times. And each time Chouboli speaks.
And when she speaks this fourth time of course the bow is broken and Chouboli gets married, is supposed to get married to the Choti Thakurayan, which is again a bit of a danger because a woman getting married to a woman which is a which is a which is a suspense within the story, which is there, worked into the narrative and, you know, ultimately the Choti Thakurayan tells of his of his of her secret to Chouboli and they become, they become friends or sisters, so to say.
And the Thakur is freed as a, as a part of a deal. And, and the story ends there. So that is the story in a nutshell. Now, Vijaydan Dehta, he he puts together all these stories, some of Vijaydan dehtas stories are very famous. For example, you know the Bollywood Film the Shahrukh Khan Film Paheli which is based of one of the stories by Vijaydan Dehta.
So, the Dastangos, they also take on these one particular story from his collection and that is the Dastan-i Chouboli and and converts it within the Dastangoi form. And what is interesting for us to note here, is the way of course, what we are going to, what we are going to use as a text for this particular lecture is the video that I have shared, which is a performance of a Dastangoi and also the English translation of the of the Chouboli stories were published in this volume which is given in the reading list translated from Rajasthani by Christie Merrill and Kailash Kabir, alright.
So, we will look, take a closer look and what we are going to look at in the story is are these elements, these this specific narrative elements, which are, which are traces or features of oral narratives, okay. Now what we are going to look at, one is we are going to look at the story and we are also going to look at the performance which is access through the video. The one thing that I must tell you is that when you are looking at the performance, you must understand that that performance is is a single instance, right.
Not all performances of Chouboli would be exactly the same, that is because performativity is ephemeral. They come and go because you have it recorded means that what you are seeing is just that one performance, right, whereas other performances of the Dastan-I-Chouboli could be very different. Simply the actors could be different, the storytellers could be very different. So you want to look at the performative elements, but we are also going to access the text through the translation, alright. Now, very important elemental of of of of the new oral form is an invocation of of of the supernatural. Now, if you look at the if you look at the video you find there are two invocations. One is the invocation, which is in Persian. And sorry invocation which is in Urdu, and the other invocation, which is seeking the blessings of Lord Ram, the story begins May Lord Ram bless us that this tale of Chouboli, be reborn again and find new readers in the new listeners in age after age.
That, so this is, this is something that you would find that is that is inherent within any storytelling tradition and and when when oral narratives move into print, it becomes part of the print tradition as well. Famously, those of you who have who would have read Milton's Paradise Lost, Milton's Paradise Lost is an adaptation of an epic form. Epic oral form into print. But it begins with the new location where, where where Milton invokes the heavenly Muse in order to, so that he is able to tell the stories of God. Because he is an ordinary mortal.
And this is part of the story. I mean, in any any traditional performance form, be it a play or a be it a nautanki or you know, it could be a Bharatanatyam performance- there is an invocation of God. There is a prayer that begins with the prayer, alright. Because what the idea that the storyteller is performing a certain role is carrying a certain tradition, through him or her, and and seeks a certain blessing of external supernatural forces. It is part of the tradition. So it is, it is there in the print as well. It is there in the performance as well, that the the the that the storytelling begins with an in vocation.
Then invocation also marks a very importantly, it also marks a sense that, you know, now the story actually begins. It prepares the audience to pay attention that there is something serious is about to happen. Imagine when a film happens when a film starts, before the film when you go to a, if you go to a movie theatre, you find there might be advertisements and others people are moving around. The moment the credit starts rolling or moment the opening, opening sequence starts of the film, people start settling down or they should really settle down. And and that sort of marks the beginning. It is like opening the page of the book.
It, it marks off that, okay, now we are ready for the performance. So the invocation marks, it is it is a ritual which not only the storyteller perfo-- participates in but also the audience participation. And through that they get used to just as a way, let us say, when I begin the lecture, I say, welcome everybody. It is tells you that, okay, the lecture has begun. It also dtells the recordist that the lecture has begun, so he must, he knows where to cut, alright.
So that is very important, invocation is a very important aspect of of oral storytelling. Now, you see when when this story is being told, there is a very important element which I am going to point out some of the important elements that are there within the story. You have this, at the very beginning that he made her place, place her feet exactly on the prints.
You know, they were they were a pair of footprints which were painted in a, in a hinglu red, and he made on the terrace and he makes this Thakurayan place her feet exactly on those prints and wait. He would then go to his sport 108 hands away where he had a pair of footprints, painted for himself, placed his feet exactly on those footprints and stand ready. Then he pulls back. Then he would pull back the bowstring, note-- notice this, the tense of of the sentences- he would pull back. It is in past perfect. This is what he would do, right.
So, it is like he continuously does that. It is not one occasion, but in many occasions, so this is detailed description of what the Thakur does to the Thakurayan, the exact process. Next time he is going to, he is going to repeat it, the audience already knows what is the process through which he has got. He may repeat it, but the story teller might repeat it, but choose also not to repeat it, the second occasion or the fifth, the third or the fourth occasion when with the same action happens could be abbreviated. So oral narratives work with both ways. One is through abbreviation as well as through a refrain through repetition and both of them interplay with each other because, it becomes a way for the audience to sort of understand or visualize the entire story.
Remember Dastangoi was a tradition where,, which had a lot of visualization, but after the 19th century, the visualization went away. The the the volumes which Naval Kishore press also printed did did not have images other than maybe on the cover. And certainly the performance that you are, you have, referred to, did not have any illustrations.
So the visualization in these circumstances for the audience is through the words, the details that descriptions that are provided by the by the narrator. So he says, he would he made her place her feet exactly on those prints and wait. He would then go on to his spot, 108 hands away where he had a pair of footprints painted for himself. Placed his feet exactly on those footprints and stand ready. Then he would pull back the bow string to his ear and let the arrow go whistling through the air towards the Thakurayan straight through her nose ring and whizzing out the other side. With each arrow, the Thakurayan could feel her organs doing flips inside, and this is the important point here: to tell the audience how of of just emphasizing, the audience in some members in the audience has in the process just got lost in the description and has not been able to capture exactly what the danger really is. What the what the risk really is.
He says, if he missed his mark, even by a hair, there would be nothing separating her from the beyond but the grace of Lord Ram. And this is, this is where the story really begins. And sometimes the Thakurayan tried many times to convince her Lord to stop, But the routine addicted Thakur was not about to give up his daily practice any which way, he is you know you, he did this, everyday every morning night he would do it. Each time his reply was the same. It would not be right for a big man to follow a woman's advice. Someone who is known some-- big as in not in size but big in status, big in fame. If I am somebody who is an big within the whatever the social hierarchy, maybe certainly he is a Thakur. So he is from the upper upper upper castes, right.
So, each time his, he is a warrior cast, right, so he he is, he is not supposed to follow a woman's advice. You do what you have to do. I do what I have to do. If a big man gave up his daily practice at a woman's say, then he was not big at all. So there is this male pride in him that that is there. And this becomes a fulcrum of the story, really, if we really try to analyse the story because at the end it, he he he has he owes his life to a woman, his other wife that is the choti Thakurayan, whom he marry in the course of this particular story.
So, he he is unable to challenge Chouboli. He is not able to break Choubolis bow despite his great show of bravado, great show of, you know a great show of a courage or skill. It is all a show. He really is not where where really matters. He is not able to perform, alright. So that is the fulcrum, that if a big man gave up his daily practice at a woman’s say, then he was not big at all.
So this is something that that becomes the opening sequence of of this particular opening sequence of this particular performance. How does, so any narrative as you understand, any narrative and it has to begin, it has to begin with we know, it begins with certain a beginning, and then it develops and then it, there is a resolution to it, right. So at the beginning, you have first of all, we know who the characters are, where the, where the story is placed, some some sense of what of exposition or introduction to the story. Then there is a conflict. A conflict has to begin and the conflict gets more complicated as every pose or move forward. So here you are. There is in the story. There is the character of a Thakur and there is a character of the Thakurayan, alright, and here is a case or the Thakurayan is troubled by a certain practice of the Thakur and she is not able to get out of it. That is where the suspense is created. That is where the conflict is created, again the Thakurayan get out of it. But then we come to the next part of the story where the choti Thakurayan throws this challenge to, to the Thakur.
So now look at the second description, which comes on page 37 of the volume. In the end, the Thakurayan had to stand there in the footprints. It was full it was a full moon night the moon and all the stars hanging in the sky laughed at her ill luck. Now I would I would advise you to go back to the go back to the video recording and listen to this particular portion. You see there is there is a far greater, far more picturesque description of the moon lit night, right, which was not there in the first part because this is a particular occasion and a particular moon, the moon is not, does not shine the same way every day.
This is a different tense and, it is a particular occasion which where where the Thakurayan is actually going to talk about what the choti Thakurayan told her, right. So this is a particular occasion and if there is a particular moon and therefore there is a particular description on this description, which is far more picturesque, you know, in the far more symbolic, in the, in the actual, in the performance that, am I referring to.
Now this description is not something that is that need come specifically as part of this story. This could be the description of a moonlit night. It could be just a, just a template of the description of a moonlit night, which the story teller just picks up whenever he has to describe a moonlit night he, maybe in his mind have two or three, descriptions of a moonlit night and he picks one of them, one that he feels most appropriate for the occasion and puts it in here, there is no written text. It is all there in the mind.
All is everything is embodied and a and a better storyteller, the more you know, talented storyteller would be one who would have a greater repertoire of these epithets, greater repertoire of these templates of description and pick one each of the description at at that point of time. So a far more, and, and therefore, where when it is there in print, it will always read the moon and all the stars hanging in the sky laughed at her at her ill luck- that is the description that we will always read when we read any any edition of this printed volume. Whereas, if we when a person is telling a story, can maybe introduce a few birds there may be a river passing by, the description could be buried for different performances.
Now, so, so the after this particular occasion the Thakurayan says, tells, so she used the pretext of telling him what the-- used the pretext of telling him what the Seth’s niece had said. Because Thakuryan did not have the courage to tell answer back to the to the Thakur. He says, this is what your niece has told me. Who, the niece is the one who, the woman who was going to become the Choti Thakurayan, and who has told the Thakuryan earlier, that he is, she would not have allowed the Thakur to treat her like this. And says, says, this is what your niece said about feeding such a rogue of a husband, roasted chickpeas fodder. And that is, you know, and serving him water used to clean her feet, sitting astride his back and riding him around the bed seven times. Now this is a repetition.
This passage keeps on getting repeated within within the first few sequences of the of the story. And it also gets repeated at the end because this is exactly what, what the Thakur has to do when, when he fails to make Chouboli speak and goes into the dungeon. And that is where he has to grind the grains and eat them. So this is so obviously the choti Thakurayan is successful and these words when when they are repeated, it has this effect on the audience because audience hears it once and then hears it a second time, they can connect the dots, they can remember it better.
And it is important that they remember it through the story because while all through the while that the Choti Thakuryan is telling the stories to Chouboli, there is constantly refers, reference to what is happening in the dungeon. That there are prisoners in the dungeon who are, you know, who are grinding grains.
And, and the audience knows that in the dungeon there exists the the the the presence of the of the of the Thakur is also there, alright, which nobody else knows only the Choti Thakurayan knows and the Thakur knows and the audience knows. So that that difference in level of knowledge, is what creates the suspense within the story, alright. Lets move forward. So, and then further down, that, you know, we find that there is a there is a particular episode where, the Choti Thakurayan is not left with any choice as to whether to marry or not. When the Thakur says, I am going to marry the marry my niece, there was no choice. It was not, just not in the stars for Thakurs to possess forgiving natures. When the uncle saw that he was not getting anywhere, he said he would ask the girl’s parents and see what they said.
But the Thakur made it clear that there was no need to ask anyone. It was his wish. And so it be after all the parents, her parents’ village fall under his Thikhana. Once royal wishes were made known, nothing else need be considered. This is an aphorism and oral narratives work on aphorisms. These are givens and it is a reiteration of the given and any, any sort of arrangement that is worked out within the oral these narratives, because these narratives are part of a traditional, traditional society, which has its very hierarchical set of rules, right, and the oral narratives remind the audience of those rules- that once royal wishes were made known, nothing else would be considered.
So the audience knows that there is no other way the Tha-- Chot-- the niece has to marry, marry the Thakur. But any arrangement that is worked out is worked out within this, this without questioning this larger aphorism. Very important for us to note that in this story there is a very important, this this element of the cross dressing, right. And what we end up is a situation of a possibility of a same sex relationship, which could have emerged because at the end, the, the person who is able to make Chouboli speak four times, would would get married to Chouboli. So the audience knows that the young man is actually a woman.
And so what, what what would happen if that marriage actually happens? It would challenge challenge social norms, gender norms. That remains a certain tension within the within the story. So, at once, it is a challenge to patriarchal norms, but it also succumbs to patriarchal norms at, at the end because ultimately the marriage actually does not happen. The marriage happens to the Thaku--, I mean Chouboli gets married to the Thakur and not not not to the Choti Thakur-- to the Choti Thakurayan, right.
Now, let us let us pay attention to this particular particular passage. There is this challenge of of the of the of the of the of Chouboli which is narrated here, which which which the choti Thakurayan throws. Why is your chest also puffed up over this trifle you are, you are, you want to just you know throw arrows at me and you think that is a matter of great prowess. This is merely a trifle. The real challenge is one that is thrown by Chouboli. You put on a nose ring and stand there, so I can, I can shoot. Why do not you do the reverse this is, this is very interesting. Where the where the Choti Thakurayan choti Thakurayan says, why do not you do the reverse? You put on the nose ring and stand there and I can shoot a thousand arrows through your nose ring. Easy as a flick off my left wrist. I mean I can, I can do it as well.
What you are doing. I can do it as well. No, to do something truly extraordinary. This is ordinary. Hitting a target with a bow and Arrow is, is a lot of people do that. That is very ordinary. Doing something extraordinary, if you want to try something really extraordinary, you would have to win the hand of the Princess Chouboli and bring her home to this fort. 17 Times 20 Rajas and lords have scrubbed their faces clean, ready to make Chouboli speak four times and wed her. This has been tried. It is so this is the challenge. This is the challenge that is thrown. This again, the description is detailed. If you, but all of them are sitting in a dungeon grinding fodder for
their horses. If you can pull off this feat, it would be something truly remarkable now more impressive than shooting arrows through the nose ring.
Now look at this. There is a linguistic trap here because the Choti Thakurayan, before she got married, she had said that if someone, if my husband tried to hit throw arrows at me, shoot arrows at me, I would make him grind chickpeas and eat the fodder, right, and this is exactly the task which has been said: that if you fail in making Chouboli speak, then you will have to grind the fodder.
So this is a kind of a linguistic trap. The audience would be, because of the description, be able to link the two things and understand the wit that the fact that, that that the Choti Thakurayan has a, has a certain intelligence, has certain wit and understand the character and what they can expect out of her. But anyway, for the moment we forget about Choti Thakurayan, and it is the it is the it is the Thakur who tries to first go and win the hands of Chouboli.