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Tales of Pabuji: A Rajasthani Tradition

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Reviewed by Nancy Traubitz

Those searching for cultural connections  through art and literature, especially teachers of world studies and Asian studies classes, will welcome this short but rich exploration of the Rajasthan oral epic of Pabuji. The tales, not widely known beyond rural Rajasthan, are based on an actual medieval Rajput prince, a younger son of a younger son in what was to become the ruling line of Jodhpur. Throughout Rajasthan he is seen as a Robin Hood-type hero born in the remote desert village of Kohu. Although not accepted as a deity by highercaste Hindus, Pabuji is widely worshipped as a divine incarnation and patron protector of livestock and camel drivers among herdsmen and others of rural Rajasthan. Sadly, this important background information is barely hinted at on the video case.

Courtesy of Filmakers Library

The narrator of Tales of Pabuji mentions that the Pabuji epic has twelve books. Teachers attempting to relate this epic to the traditional form for epics of the West like The Odyssey then discover that the video divides the narrative into five segments. “The Birth of Pabuji” explains Pabuji’s birth as the son of Dhadal Rathor and a nymph he convinces to be his wife after he steals her clothing while she bathes. She agrees to the marriage on the condition that he will never enter her chamber without her permission. When Dhadal eventually breaks his promise, he finds their son, two-year old Pabuji, nursing a tigress. The tigress/ nymph disappears after promising her son to return as a mare, complete with a tiger skin saddle, when he is twelve years old. In “How Pabuji Took Kesar Kalami” she keeps her promise.

“How Harmal Went to Lanka” traces the journey of one of Pabuji’s men to collect information on the camel population and defenses of Lanka and on its demon king, Ravana. With Harmal’s information Pabuji defeats and kills Ravana and brings the Lankan camels home, a promised wedding gift to his half-sister, Kelam. In “The Marriage of Pabuji” the hero attempts to avoid marriage and then escapes the marriage ceremony to keep his promise to protect the livestock of the goddess Deval. In the final segment, “The Great Battle,” the wounded Pabuji and his mare are carried away in a magic palanquin.

Framing each of the Pabuji segments, the video summarizes the ritual performance of the bhopo, an itinerant priest who chants the epic in a nightlong session before his par, a cloth painting about fifteen feet long and four to five feet wide which functions as visual aid and portable temple. Superimposing puppet-like animation onto the traditional stylized images on the par and onto footage of contemporary village life, the video narrates the epic while at the same time introducing and explaining the bhopo performance tradition. Expository segments provide a glimpse of how contemporary par are painted. Background and narrative segments are set to traditional Rajasthani music of the ravanhattho or spikefiddle, an essential part of the bhopo performance.

Without considerable classroom preparation, the video’s rich and comprehensive approach may confuse viewers. For example, unless teachers have prepared themselves and their students for a discussion of ancient medicine, the use of opium by Pabuji’s heroic companion Dhebo raises difficult classroom issues. Students will also need to be informed about the tradition of heroic disembowelment. The video does not explain comparative folklore traditions into which some of the actions of the hero fit, such as the exchange of weapons in the final battle, and only references or omits entirely many of the Pabuji tales, including the post-apocalyptic final segment. Despite the issues raised by sati and blood revenge, students will want to know what happens after Pabuji leaves the scene.

Background information for classroom use can be extracted from John Smith’s comprehensive text, The Epic of Pabuji: A Study, Transcription and Translation (Cambridge University Press, 1991). Smith provides information and instructions on how to download the complete text of the epic at: http://www.bombay.

Information on the tradition of cloth paintings to which the par belongs and examples of such scroll paintings are at the pichwals Web site:

Maps of Asia to help place Pabuji geographically and historically related instructional materials and model lessons are at the Asia Society’s Asian Education Resource Center K12 Web site:

The epic of Pabuji and the performance tradition of the bhopo will interest teachers of literature, social studies, music, art and theater. However, for most students the animation techniques juxtaposed with bits of footage from actual performances and village life in Rajasthan will need to be explained separately from the narrative thread of the six hundred-year-old story. Without source material to sort out geographical locations, names of characters, and cultural expectations, students with some background may tangle anything they know about religious beliefs, especially concerning Rama, Indian visual arts and Indian music, into the Pabuji epic. Students with no background preparation may come away more confused than enlightened.

At the end of the video students are asked to speculate on what will happen as television becomes more common in rural India. Whatever the answer, the filmmaker’s claim that this video offers a rare chance to “catch history by the tale” as this art form disappears over the edge of time is true.