Folk Imagination: Women in Indian Love Legends

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Sohail Abid  |  October 9, 2012

—by Naresh K. Jain

According to A.K.Ramanujan, an important way to explain the diversity of Indian culture is the interdependent coexistence of two traditions—the pan-Indian Sanskritic Great Tradition and the many local Little Traditions.[1] These latter, according to Ramanujan, comprise at least three elements—bhakti, tantra and folklore.[2] These ‘counter systems,’ as he likes to call them, ‘invert, oppose, and otherwise reflect on the so-called Great Tradition’ and one cannot understand Indian culture in all its plurality without coming to terms with them.[3]

In this paper I am concerned only with folklore and with the representation of women in the love legends. This representation of women does not always conform to the prevailing gender stereotypes. Women are not necessarily the docile, submissive, tongue-tied, powerless creatures a majority of Indians accepts them to be. I wish to suggest that because of folklore’s nearness to mother earth and also because of its greater freedom from the constraints of decorum and propriety, folklore is capable of surprising us with unusual portrayals. These representations may be more realistic than what we come across in classical literature; they may interrogate, even subvert, conventional man-woman relationships; or with the help of a humorous inversion, call the entire rhetoric of romantic love into question. Such a folkloristic treatment of gender relations not only comes like a breath of fresh air, but it also functions as an antidote to the overt seriousness with which themes are often treated in classical literature.

I intend to take up several love legends and show how different the representations of women in them are from those that are usually present in tales of love from literature of the educated class, or from classical literary traditions as these do not always present a complete picture of woman’s deep-rooted values, her own images and ideals, her conflicts and burdens, her prejudices and fears.

I shall begin with the Punjabi love legend of Mirza Saheban, which in importance is second only to Heer Ranjha. I have chosen Mirza Saheban because it presents a truer, more representative picture of a woman’s heart than do other legends. The legend depicts a woman in love whose loyalties are divided between her family and her lover. When her marriage is fixed by her parents against her wishes, she sends a message to her lover, Mirza to rescue her from the forthcoming hated marriage. The marriage party arrives. But so does the lover, and the lovers run away. Their elopement is, however, soon discovered. The lovers are given a hot chase and are spotted resting under a jand tree. Sensing danger, Saheban repeatedly urges Mirza who is in deep slumber to wake up and leave for his home at Danabad, but he is too confident of his prowess to heed her warning. Soon the pursuers arrive.

Mirza wakes up, shoots an arrow that throws Saheban’s brother, Shamir, off his mare, and goes back to sleep. This alarms Saheban for she knows that Mirza is a champion marksman and will kill her brothers if they came face to face. She, of course, loves Mirza, or else she would not have defied her family and eloped with him. But she loves her family, too, and wants that no hurt should come to her brothers. So, she again urges Mirza to wake up and leave, but to no effect, as he is exhausted and continues to sleep. The text of the legend by Piloo, who is the first folk poet-singer of the legend, is fragmentary but it is presumably at this point that she throws Mirza’s quiver containing 300 arrows over the jand tree, out of his reach. Obviously Saheban’s chief concern is to avoid a direct confrontation between her brothers and her lover. Her motives will become clearer if we dwell on her response to the unenviable situation in which she finds herself. Her repeated pleas to Mirza to wake up and take her to his home, Danabad, fail:

(i) Take me to Danabad, this life irks me.
Arise, O Jatt, sleeping under the acacia tree and be on your guard.[4]

(ii) Misfortune is upon us, and we shall not win the victory.[5]
(iii) Up, sleeping Mirza; these are horsemen![6]

(iv) Awake for god’s sake:
Saheban has not reached her home: save the broken rope of my life.[7]
(v) Up, sleeping Mirza, why are you full of pride?[8]

(vi) Then said Saheban: ‘Mirza, hearken to my advice.
Mount Bakki and take the way to the Kharals and take me to Danabad.[9]

But each time she tries to wake him up from his slumber, he merely boasts of his invincibility and goes back to sleep. A typical response is:

I know of no hero who can harm me.
I will slay every brother that you have.
Let me sleep awhile…[10]

But when disaster overtakes them both, he forgets his own foolhardy pride and loses no time in accusing her of betraying him:

Thou didst practice deceit on me, Sahiban and wert joined to the Syals.[11]

A few lines later he repeats the accusation:

Thou didst play me false, Sahiban, and hung my quiver in the acacia tree.[12]

Though the narrative does talk of Mirza’s pride, it tries to minimize his responsibility by emphasizing the role of destiny:

Partly the Lord of Death and partly pride slew Mirza
And the beauty of Mirza was hidden in the grave.[13]

Piloo’s text has for long been looked at from a patriarchal point of view, from the point of view of Mirza, and his accusing words, as he lay dying, have stuck to Saheban until recent times. In popular perception she stands for a woman who failed her lover at the most crucial moment in his life and thus did not measure up to love’s highest standards. Bawa Budh Singh, a pioneering figure in research in Punjabi literature, vocalising this view believed that Mirza’s death was caused by Saheban’s stupidity: ‘A very brave and splendid young man dies before his time because of the foolishness of a woman.'[14] This prejudice is reflected in the saying that there have been only two and a half lovers in the Punjab: Hir and Ranjha, Sohni and Mahiwal, and Mirza. In the popular imagination, Mirza is a dashing carefree young man who is as brave as he is handsome and who stands for the masculine values cherished in Punjabi society. Bawa Budh Singh believed that Saheban was a weak woman who, unlike Heer, was neither firm nor spirited. In fact he goes on to suggest that if Mirza had been matched with Heer, there would have been a thundering love story never to be forgotten by the people.'[15]

It is only in recent times that Saheban’s dilemma or ‘weakness,’ as it has been called, has come to be seen as being peculiar to women. The male-dominated society expects her to switch her love to Mirza completely after marriage. Romantic love commands exclusive loyalty, it is indeed considered a religion and there is no place in it for a third person or for a rival loyalty. This is what love ideally is, or should be. But the reality is far different. Far from being false in love, Saheban is shown in the legend as a ‘real’ woman of flesh and blood who loves her family and her lover both and wants to ensure that no harm comes to either. Of all the women in Punjabi love legends she alone is shown to be in a state of dramatic conflict. Heer, Sohni and Sassi are all uni-dimensional characters in their loyalty to the person they love. In presenting a woman in love torn within herself, folk imagination takes a leap towards realism and gives us a picture that is closer to ground reality.

The voice of patriarchy in the legend can be heard in the remarks made in the text against women and in Mirza’s condemnation of Saheban’s treachery. Mirza’s mother tries to dissuade him from going to her:

Evil are the women of the Syals; be not bewitched by them.
They will take out your liver and eat it; lay not this trouble upon me.
You are going for the sake of a woman, but you will lose your life.[16]

Mirza’s father is even more blunt and dismisses women as being without intelligence and unworthy of friendship:

Evil is love for women; foolish are their ways,
Smiling they make love and weeping they tell it abroad.[17]

The voice of patriarchy in these remarks against women and in Mirza’s condemnation of Saheban’s ‘treachery’ is loud and clear. But there is another voice, less strident but real nevertheless, that expresses a woman’s concern for the safety of her lover and her brothers and her growing desperation at the inevitability of the confrontation. It is a voice that points to an Indian woman’s dilemma and her unenviable destiny of having to switch loyalties after marriage. If we keep our ears close to the ground and try hard to listen, we shall certainly hear this voice. This is principally where the distinction and the aesthetic richness of this love legend lies, as it presents a female protagonist who is complex, and in a state of conflict and anguish. The irony is that she is misunderstood by the very man who she loves and with whom she chooses to die.

In depicting a woman in love with divided loyalties, the folk imagination in Mirza Saheban could be said to be questioning the ideal of love that claims exclusive loyalty from its votaries. As Faiz Ahmad Faiz says, ‘There are other sorrows in the world, other than those of love’ (Aur bhi dukh hain zamaane mein mohabbat ke siva).[18] In focusing on the dilemma of a woman torn between a brother and a lover, the legend presents a social reality and embodies tensions that are still alive in Indian society. In locating the crisis of the legend in the consciousness of a sister, the folk poet has made the legend at once more realistic, culturally more significant, more dramatic and also more woman-oriented.

My second legend is called Jasma Odan. It is a well-known love legend that has been popular in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Chhatisgarh. In Chhatisgardh it has a different name: Dashmat Odanin. The popularity of the story is indicated by the fact that a well-known publishing house has produced a comic on it and also it is often performed on the stage.[19]

In the Gujarati version the legend relates to an intrepid woman of the well-digging caste of Ods who go and camp wherever they are able to find work. Jasma who is married to a lame husband catches the fancy of the king who has commissioned a pond to be dug and who tries to seduce her by every conceivable means to be part of his harem. But she remains loyal to her husband and the king fails in his attempts. The king, however, is adamant and tries to use force. Sensing danger, the Ods try to run away. The king’s soldiers chase them and kill Jasma’s husband and all her tribesmen and women. Finding even force unavailing, the king repents. The legend ends with Jasma cursing the king by proclaiming that that the pond that he has had dug would remain dry.

One of the Rajasthani variants of the legend is in the comic mode and the comic mode enables the narrator to view the events from an unusual angle and invent situations and say things that are bold and unconventional, even subversive. As is to be expected, the main events of the story of this variant are more or less similar to those narrated above, but the changes made in the narrative help to hold the targets of laughter to greater ridicule. There is, for instance, a king who is besotted with Jasma and who unsuccessfully tries to wean her away from her husband. In the Gujarati version collected by Dr Sudha Desai[20] Jasma is married to a dark complexioned, deformed husband. In the revised version of Shanta Gandhi,[21] Jasma’s husband is shown to be lame. But in the present variant, Jasma not only accepts her husband who is jet black in his complexion but rises splendidly to his defense and also to the defence of things that are dark-complexioned. For instance, when the king points out to the husband’s dark complexion and contrasts it with his own pink complexion and her beauty, she replies:

Why do you keep repeating ‘dark, dark’? Whatever is dark in this world is good. A dark beard is a symbol of manliness. Kasturi which is precious and exceedingly fragrant is also dark. The buffalo is dark in colour and it gives milk which people drink all over the world. Dark elephants are said to be the pride of an army. It is dark clouds that bring down pouring rains. Expel all these things and I shall leave off Ratanpal.[22]

This remark bordering on subversion is particularly relevant in a country where fair complexion is among the most valued assets of a woman. Every mother, however dark she herself might be, looks longingly for a bride who is fair-complexioned.

There is one respect, however, in which this variant is quite different from the other variants and the narrative makes use of this difference very effectively. The difference lies in the fact that the protagonists, Jasma Odan and her husband, are not born Ods but belong to the landlord class. Jasmarani is the princess of a place called Tambavati and Ratanpal is the landlord of Surat Khamaich, and they voluntarily opt for the lowly life style of the Ods of digging wells and ponds at the suggestion of Jasma in order to be together at work and in life. This is a startlingly novel idea put forward in this hugely funny variant. And this idea is put forward by a bored wife whose lot it is—as it is no doubt of numerous other wives also—to wait for the return of her husband from his work or other outings. The whole episode needs to be examined in detail.

This episode occurs soon after Jasma’s marriage with Ratanpal. We are told by the narrator of this variant that Jasma’s husband, Ratanpal Rathore was fond of hunting. He would leave home early and return only after the lighting of the lamps in the evening. At first she waited patiently. On the fourth day she bluntly spoke to her husband, in a manner that is uncharacteristic of a new bride.

My father too has several palaces of this kind. What do you want me to do all day—strike my head against them? You leave early and come back after sunset. You and your hunting! Look for some work in which we can be together—all day and all night.[23]

The narrative does not refer to any reply that he gave her. So we are left to presume that Ratanpal saw the justice of her suggestion and went about making thorough enquiries—from as many as thirty-six castes. The teller of these tales is a Langa, whose full name is Akbar Khan Langa. So, says the narrator, Akbar Khan, Ratanpal first came to him or rather came to the Langas. Listen to this conversation:

‘Listen, people of the Langa caste. What do you do?’
‘Look brother. In good times, we go to Soorachand. Our wives keep waiting for us. Somebody returns after three months, another comes back after four.’
‘Your work isn’t suitable.’

He went around asking members of other castes. Then he came to the Ods.

‘What are you? And what work do you do?’ he asked them.
‘We dig the earth. We dig ponds, we make canals. This is what we do.’
‘And your women?’
‘Our women remain with us. We fill sacks with dug earth and load them on the donkeys. And they walk the donkeys along the bank of the pond and return after emptying the sacks there. That’s all the distance between us.’
‘That’s it! We too will adopt this work.'[24]

This clinches the issue for the new couple and the next day they provide themselves with a mat, a donkey, a spade and a small hoe, and handing over the palace to his elder brother Ratanpal goes out with Jasmarani and a maidservant and they adopt the Od way of life. Here is the ideal of togetherness of man and woman in work and life expressed with an oddly pleasing simplicity and directness so characteristic of folk narratives. The remarkable thing about it is that it takes a woman to think of living together like this and that the woman commands an authoritative voice which she makes heard. This is in contravention of the established patriarchal norms, which often commodify the woman, divest her of agency, and turn her into a tool of servicing the husband and the children through the ideals of wifehood and motherhood.

In Mirza Saheban, it was Saheban who was divided between her love for brothers and her love for her lover. Here it is Jasmarani who looks at things from a woman’s point of view. A typical self-occupied male would hardly ever think of the time women spent waiting for their husbands to come back home. Women in folk narratives are often far wiser than we think they are.

This absurdly simple solution for bridging the distance between a man and a woman is in tune with the comic spirit pervasive in this version and is but one of the many instances of how the version undermines romantic love and the vocabulary used for it. For example, it is usual to talk of the wound inflicted by a glance of a beautiful woman. This is what happened when the brahmin attendant of the king of Jaitpur looks at Jasmarani. He has been sent by the king to invite the Ods to come to Jaitpur to dig a pond and thus cure the king of leprosy. When the brahmin happens to see Jasmarani, he is so struck by her beauty that he falls down unconscious. Listen to how Jasma punctures the rhetoric of love when her maid holds her responsible for making the brahmin fall:

‘Nhan mein gaj garvaayo nhan ko haath kaban/Ankhiyan re deetha saiyn marai aa to allah ri amaan’// ‘I didn’t strike a spear in the ground nor do I have a bow and an arrow in my hand./ If he falls merely by my looking at him, it is god’s doing.[25]

Later she says:

‘Geri bai ni lakri bai ni. Har aankhai dekh parau marihai to aa tau bhagwan rai diyarai hai.’/I didn’t strike him with a stick. So if he falls merely by a glance of mine, this is what god has given.'[26]

Subsequently, Jasma’s beautiful face and the chance uncovering of her ribs seem to cause a flash of lightning in the sky. The interesting thing is that while the narrative laughs at the excesses of romantic love and infatuation, it holds up Jasma Odan as an example of rare beauty.

This is one of the several examples where the narrative mocks at the rhetoric of love. Two illustrations of the absurd behaviour into which the king’s infatuation leads him could be mentioned here. First, so besotted is the king with love for Jasma that while the brahmin rides the horse, the king walks to the pond on foot. Second, there is the episode in which the king asks the Mankiya donkey to walk slowly so that Jasma would urge him to move faster and he would get to hear her speak. Here is one exchange between the king in love and the Mankiya donkey.

King: ‘Mankiya gadhewara manjhyau araj suneh/
Jad je aavai Jasmarani thoon khorau ee paanv dharai’//
‘Mankiya donkey. Listen to my entreaty. Walk a little lamely This will make Jasmarani come and urge you to move faster and I would get to hear her voice. I shall be able to hear how she speaks.’
Mankiya donkey: ‘Khodaun huwa tau daab dai hoon baandhau ee bhookh maran/
Au isak maanai baadsaa hoon kyun sool sahaan.’//
‘If I become lame, hot iron would be applied to me and I would get tied to one spot and starve.
You king indulging in love, why should I suffer?'[27]

The implication is that he may be a donkey all right but he isn’t ass enough to suffer on account of an old king’s foolish fancy. This debunking of infatuation could not, I suggest, be more complete. Also, this is how powerful people have always exploited their underlings to do their dirty jobs for them.

Perhaps the most subversive episode in the legend relates to what the parrot asks Jasmarani to let him do what he wants to in the garden episode. When Jasmarani goes to the garden to meet the king and does not find him there, she asks a parrot to tell the king that she had come.

Souva re pankha neelkhntha tujhe pagai heer/
Are jad aavai au badsya tun saakh bharai baayi ra beer.[28]
Oh parrot with green feathers. Diamonds are tied round your feet.
When the king comes back, my brother, swear that I had come.[29]

The parrot asks her not to call him her brother nor call him to be a witness for her. If she had called him her ‘devar’ (brother-in-law), he would have agreed to be a witness for her. The narrative shows Jasma conceding to his request and calls him her devar. But the parrot is not so easily satisfied. Having won a small concession, he asks her to call him her husband. Jasma agrees to this request also. She calls him her ‘maanush,’ her man. But the parrot wrests yet another concession—he asks her to let him roll over her breasts and she agrees. But he makes yet another request—to let him kiss her lips. And she lets him do so too. All these concessions relate to the increasing nearness of relationship that culminates into sexual contact. The point of all these concessions that the parrot wrests from Jasma, to my mind, is to provide an ironical contrast to Jasma’s steadfast devotion to her husband. By doing so the legend seems playfully to mock at the traditional loyalty that a woman shows towards her chosen man. She agrees to grant the parrot’s sensual requests because they have been made by a parrot and therefore do not amount to any serious infringement of morality on her part. The legend thus seems to cast a glance at the comparative nature of our culturally-inscribed morality.

Here then is a variant of a legend that both subverts and affirms the traditional value of chastity and both are accomplished through its female hero, Jasma. And Jasma emerges from the legend as a no-nonsense woman who refuses to accept a man’s supremacy and who voices an ideal of equality and togetherness of man and woman. She comes out as a strong woman who proves to be her man’s true partner. The legend also deflates the rhetoric of love without denying the magic of a woman’s beauty.

We meet an equally strong woman in the Kumauni legend of Rajula Malushahi. As in many love legends, the basic story in Rajula Malushahi follows the pattern of initial meeting—hurdles–union or final separation. Rajula is the daughter of Sunpati Shauk who is a prosperous businessman and who, as his name shows, is a Shaka or Bhotia living on the Indian side of the Tibetan border. Malushahi on the other hand is the son and heir of the Katyuri king Dulashahi of Bairath.

There are several versions of the legend available. In most of them the young people are pre-destined to marry each other. They are in fact pledged by their parents to marry each other even before their respective births. In the course of time the pledge is forgotten but the young people fall in love and desire to marry each other. The girl undertakes a journey that is long and hazardous in order to meet her lover, facing dangers and challenges that would have scared a less fearless girl. On the way she visits the temple of Lord Baghnath whose blessings she seeks for her success in her quest. When she finally reaches Malushahi’s palace she finds him in deep slumber and leaves a message daring him to come to her place and marry her. The rest of the legend is concerned with Malushahi’s journey in quest of Rajula and its consequences. Magic and dream play an important part in most of them. In the happy ending variants the lovers are united whereas in the tragic versions Malushahi and his entire army are poisoned and everyone dies.

In almost all the versions Rajula is portrayed as being more active in love than Malushahi. She undertakes a journey that is as long as it is hazardous in order to meet her lover Malushahi. Her decision to venture out alone in defiance of her father shows her decisive nature and indomitable spirit and that run counter to the romantic convention that requires man to be active and woman to be a passive recipient of his attention and adoration. I wish to focus on Rajula’s perilous journey, particularly her visit to the temple of Lord Bagnath on way to Bairath and her visit to Malushahi’s bedroom and show that in least two versions of the legend, Rajula acts in a manner that is extraordinary and audacious.

We shall first take up Rajula’s visit to Lord Bagnath’s temple to seek his blessings for the success of her mission. In some versions the visit is wholly pleasant. She prays to the god for help and she gets the blessings she asks for. But in three versions the meeting with Lord Bagnath takes on the character of an encounter. For instance, in the tragic version given in Urbadatt Upadhyaya’s book, Kumaun ki Lok Gathaon ka Sahityik aur Saanskritic Adhyayan, Lord Bagnath talks of the difficult path of love that she has chosen and blesses her but advises her to dress herself up as a yogi while looking for Malushahi. Rajula defiantly dismisses his suggestion saying that if he (Lord Baghnath) had been considered auspicious, he would have been installed within homes, not in cremation grounds. She thinks that all gods are false and that her Malushahi is the only truth and sets out in search of him.[30]

In the tragic version of Khushal Singh given in Krishnanand Joshi’s book Rupahle Shikharon ke Sunahare Swar (‘Golden Notes from Silvery Mountains’), Rajula’s encounter is with a god who she thinks lusts for her. She has just escaped from two enemies—an old man who lusts after her when he sees her and then from two young men who are ready to fight it out between themselves to decide who shall have her. In the temple she reminds Lord Bagnath that he is the god of her mother’s place and pleads with him to bless her so that she can meet her lover. At that time the god is shown in deep meditation but Rajula’s words disturb him and coming out of it he bursts into a loud laughter (Khut khut hansnaya Bagnath deba)[31] and says that since she belongs to the same place as Saryu Ganga who is her consort, she is his sister-in-law, her saali (Saru Ganga baathailai Rajula tu meri saayi hunchhi.[32] The implications of this remark are deep and serious as is clear in the saying prevalent in north India—Saali adhi Gharwaali (Sister-in-law is half a wife), which means that the woman addressed as saali is available for some kind of sexual play.

Unable to comprehend the god’s words at first, Rajula is stunned. But when the meaning sinks into her, she is furious and reprimands him, accusing him of harbouring sinful thoughts. This episode is also somewhat reminiscent of Vishwamitra and Menaka’s episode, the only difference being that Rajula though as beautiful as Menaka has not been sent to disturb the saint’s tapasya and is actually deeply offended at the god’s response. At this Lord Bagnath resorts to the use of the weapon of pronouncing a curse on her saying that she would have to wander about long in search of her lover. Rajula’s response is splendidly audacious—she remains undismayed and returns the god’s compliments by cursing him back—

Sunn ho sunn Baginatha, tero phitkaro mein laaglo,
Meri phitkaaro twi laagi jo, tero bachan baithijo.
Listen, O Baginatha, I will suffer because of your curse,
My curse will fall to you: May your speech be locked up![33]

Notice the use of an additional vowel in Baginath—it is Baginatha now—and this shows the contempt that she has for the god. In trading a curse for a curse she gives evidence of being a person who considers herself empowered. The third danger turns out to be the most formidable of all as the harasser is none other than god himself—the very god whose help she had come to invoke for meeting her lover Malushahi. The episode undercuts patriarchal authority and its role in the legend. It pits Rajula’s strength against the might of a god and she happily comes through the ordeal triumphant.

In Gopi Das’s narrative of the legend (collected by Konrad Meissner), Rajula asks for the god’s blessings promising to make numerous offerings on completion of her mission. But Bagnath is so enraptured by her beauty that he asks her to stay a few days with him and promising that he would grant her whatever she asked for: ‘Rajula, Shauki, you stay a few days in my Bageshwar. Then only, Rajuli, will I grant you the boon you ask for.'[34] Rajula is stunned and her reply shows how outraged she is: ‘Your boon, oh god, shall fall on your head. You are the god of my mother’s family and yet you say a sinful word.'[35]

The encounter between Rajula and the god in Dr Prayag Joshi’s version sung by Hardas in his Kumaun Lok Gathaain becomes fiercer still. Here, the god appears in his own person and out of infatuation pulls Rajula’s hand. When Rajula understands the meaning of this gesture, she knocks out the god’s eye:

Bagnath appeared and caught hold of Rajuli’s hand.
See, old Bagnath caught hold of Rajuli’s hand.
O god! He who sees the three worlds cast a glance at Rajuli.
Strong muscular arms with a face like a langoor.
Matted hair on the head, ash-smeared body.
He desired her passionately like a jackal.
The eighty-year old god of my maternal uncle’s place, why have you slipped?
If you were potent, you could have got me my Malushahi raja.
You who belong to my maternal uncle’s place, you catch hold of my hand![36]

Rajula is iconoclastic both literally and metaphorically dealing a blow to patriarchy, if not demolishing it altogether. Besides being a testimony to Rajula’s heavenly beauty, the episode also highlights an entirely new image of a woman—decisive, agile, full of self-esteem and self-empowered, and above all, ready to confront the biggest of her foes. How often does one come across such subversion in literature?

Rajula’s conduct in the sleeping Malushahi’s bed-chamber illuminates yet another aspect of her personality. In most of the versions, Rajula finds Malushahi asleep in deep slumber and is unable to wake him up. She writes a letter saying that she came to see him in Bairath out of love for him. Now if he is serious he should come to her place and marry her. Then she leaves him. I shall refer to interesting details in two variants. In Khushal Singh’s narrative collected in Krishnanand Joshi’s book, Rajula, in spite of her deep love for Malushahi, shows remarkable restraint when she finds him asleep and maintains a poise that is born of a quiet confidence in her love and her valuation of her own worth. Eager to ask him if he recognizes her, she checks herself thinking that no one welcomes an uninvited guest.

Aaphi aiyi tiriya ko bharmai ni huno.
No one respects a woman who comes unasked.[37]

The implications of her withdrawal are that love becomes real only when it is fully reciprocated and second that it must be consonant with dignity. In asking Malushahi to reciprocate she is suggesting a new, more equal basis for man-woman relationship.

‘Sunn Raja Malushahi mainkni dhoko chhiyo to teri Bairaathon ayuun.
Twi kani dhoko holai aalai jab meri jalnar.[38]
Out of love for you, Raja Malushahi, I came to your Bairaath.
If you love me, come to my Jalnar.

There is another detail mentioned in the version sung by Gopi Das collected by Konrad Meissner in his Malushahi and Rajula: A Ballad from Kumaun.In this version Rajula wakes Malushahi up and prepares as many as twenty-two dishes and serves them in twenty-two bowls with rice in two plates. When he starts eating she sees him taste all the twenty-two dishes one by one and only then does he begin his main meal. Reacting to this she reprimands him:

You are a glutton, king! I’ll lose my honour if I stay with you. In your house there are seven queens already. You saw that I was beautiful, king, and you kept me. Tomorrow someone more beautiful than me will turn up. Then king, you’ll keep her too.[39]

Later, she tells him: ‘Malushahi! I had put (the food) for you into twenty-two small bowls. What I had put in the bowls, that was also on your plate. So, if you were content with one thing, you would have eaten the food on your plate. You are a greedy glutton. Only when you had first tasted the food in the twenty-two bowls, did you begin to eat (the food on your plate). Tomorrow someone more beautiful than me might be born in the world, you will take her too. Her too you will keep in your house. So you are not the right man for me.’ (italics added).[40]

The lovers, of course, apparently make up their quarrel and Rajula, in fact, gives him an oil massage that sends him to deep sleep but the remarkable thing is that Rajula brings herself to say what she says in plain blunt terms—and she says it to her royal lover. Through these words, the narrator makes Rajula censure the age-old feudal practice of kings to add more wives to their harem to suit their fancy. This is folk imagination at its boldest and most robust and unfettered. At such moments the ideal of a woman presented in the legend is that of an androgynous person—combining devotion, affection, care and endurance with fearlessness and action and courage and toughness. Failed by her father and her god and fuelled only by her faith in herself and her love, Rajula goes through life meeting the challenges as they come. No wonder Jugal Kishore Petshali who has written a long poem called Rajula Malushahi (1991) calls the story of this fifteenth century legend to be the story of our times: ‘How love by becoming fearless can realize itself and become meaningful—herein lies Rajula’s distictiveness.'[41] Rajula is truly a triumph of the folk imagination. She is a forerunner of the woman of the future.

The three portrayals presented above give a peep into the representation of women in folklore. All three are women in love and they are all unusual portrayals, unusual in different ways. The women are bold and pro-active and through their initiatives, each of them attempts to define the contours of man-woman relationship based on love in a refreshingly new manner. Covertly or overtly they interrogate romantic love and ask the right questions about the destiny of a woman in love. Two of them even make a strong, audacious plea for a more equal man-woman relationship. Occasions such as these when one gets to taste the heady pleasures of uncensored folk imagination are not too common but because of the inherent, unfettered nature of the folk imagination, the odds are that folk literature will always offer such occasions if we will look for them.

Endnotes

[1] A.K. Ramanujan, ‘Where Mirrors are Windows,’ in The Collected Essays of A.K.Ramanujan, gen. ed. Vinay Dharwadker, 1999; rpt. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 7–9.

[2] Ramanujan, ‘Where Mirrors are Windows,’ p. 26.

[3] Ramanujan, ‘Where Mirrors are Windows,’ p. 7.

[4] Richard C. Temple, Legends of Punjab, in three volumes., vol. III, 1884; rpt. Gurgaon: Deepak Reprints, 1993, p. 18, lines 179–80. The text of Mirza and Sahiban is on pages 1–23. The Roman transliteration of the Punjabi text appears first and then the English translation.

[5] Temple, Legends of Punjab, III, p. 19, line 189.

[6] Temple, Legends of Punjab, III, p. 19, line 191.

[7] Temple, Legends of Punjab, III, p. 19, lines 197–98.

[8] Temple, Legends of Punjab, III, p. 21, line 240.

[9] Temple. Legends of Punjab, III, pp. 21–22, lines247–48.

[10] Temple, Legends of Punjab, III, p. 18, lines 183–85.

[11] Temple, Legends of Punjab, III, p. 22, line 258.

[12] Temple, Legends of Punjab, III, p. 22, line 269.

[13] Temple, Legends of Punjab, III, p. 23, lines 277–78.

[14] Surinder Singh Kohli (ed.), Bawa Budh Singh Rachnavali, Alochana (The Writings of Bawa Budh Singh: Criticism), Patiala: Panjab Bhasha Vibhag, 1982, vol. 1, p. 443.

[15] Kohli (ed.), Bawa Budh Singh Rachnavali, Alochana, vol. 1, p. 443.

[16] Temple, Legends of Punjab, III, p. 13, lines 59–61.

[17] Temple, Legends of Punjab, III, p. 14, lines 76–77.

[18] Faiz Ahmed Faiz, ‘Mujh se pahli si muhabbat mere mahboob na maang’ (Don’t Ask Me for that Love Again), in The Rebel’s Silhouette, trans. Agha Shahid Ali, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 4, translation mine.

[19] Jasma Odan, New Delhi: India Book House, New Delhi, n.d. This author saw a production of it directed by Hema Singh at Sri Ram Centre, New Delhi a few years ago. A more recent production of a Chhatisgarhi version of it was staged at the Town Hall in Raipur on 8–9 July 2003. It was later staged in Bilaspur, Korba and other places in Chhatisgarh. The Chhatisgarhi version was written by Rahul Kumar Singh and directed by Mirza Masud and was very well received.

[20] Sudha R. Desai R, Bhavai, Ahmadabad: Gujarat University, 1972, (contains an old version or what is called the Vesa of Jasma Odan,’ pp. 399–418).

[21] Shanta Gandhi, Jasma Odan, New Delhi: Radhakrishna, 1984 (contains Sudha Desai’s Gujarati version of Jasma Odan and Shanta Gandhi’s Hindi recreation of Jasma Odan).

[22] Sohandan Charan (ed.), Rajasthani Geya Premakhyan (Rajasthani Ballads of Love), in two volumes, vol. II, Jodhpur: Rajasthan Sangeet Natak Akademi, 1991–92, pp. 137–38. Jasma Odan appears on pages 103–54. The Rajasthani variant appears on the left and the Hindi translation of it on the right. The English rendering has been done by me. Though the remark is made for a man, it is subversive in its intent.

[23] Charan (ed.), Rajasthani Geya Premakhyan, II, pp. 121 –22

[24] Charan (ed.), Rajasthani Geya Premakhyan, II, pp. 123–24.

[25] Charan (ed.), Rajasthani Geya Premakhyan, II, pp. 125–26.

[26] Charan (ed.), Rajasthani Geya Premakhyan, II, pp. 127–28.

[27] Charan (ed.), Rajasthani Geya Premakhyan, II, pp. 133–34

[28] Charan (ed.), Rajasthani Geya Premakhyan, II, pp. 141–42.

[29] Charan (ed.), Rajasthani Geya Premakhyan, II, pp. 141–42.

[30] Urba Datt Upadhyaya, Kumauni ki Lok Gathaon ka Sahityik aur Saanskritic Adhyann, (A Literary and Cultural Study of Kumani Legends), Bareli: Prakash Book Depot, 1979, p. 162

[31] Krishnanand Joshi, Rupahle Shikharon ke Sunahre Swar (Golden Notes from Silvery Mountains), Bareli: Prakash Book, Depot, 1982, part 1, p. 46.

[32] Krishnanand Joshi, Rupahle Shikharon ke Sunahre Swar, part 1, p. 47.

[33] Krishnanand Joshi, Rupahle Shikharon ke Sunahre Swar, part 1, p. 47.

[34] Konrad Meissner, Malushahi and Rajula: A Ballad from Kumaun (India), as sung by Gopi Das. In three parts. Part I: Kumauni text and translation and appendices. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1985, I, p. 101.

[35] Meissner, Malushahi and Rajula, I, p. 101.

[36] Prayag Joshi, Kumauni Lok Gathain [Kumauni Legends] Part III.Bareli: Prakash Book Depot, 1994, 223. The ballad of Malushahi as sung by Hardas in Kumauni and its Hindi translation are on pp.187–211.The approximate English translation here is mine.

[37] Krishnanand Joshi, Rupahle Shikharon ke Sunahre Swar, part 1, p. 59.

[38] Krishnanand Joshi, Rupahle Shikharon ke Sunahre Swar, part 1, p. 59.

[39] Meissner, Malushahi and Rajula, I, p. 145.

[40] Meissner, Malushahi and Rajula, I, p. 147.

[41] Jugal Kishore Petshali, Rajula-Malushahi, New Delhi: Taxila Prakashan, 1991, p. 7.

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