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Raja Nal and the Goddess

The North Indian Epic Dhola in Performance

Susan Snow Wadley

Publication Year: 2004

"... [T]ells a wonderful story, one much loved in northern India.... fills an important lacuna in the work on oral epic." -- Lindsey Harlan

Dhola is an oral epic performed primarily by lower-caste, usually illiterate, men in the Braj region of northern India. The story of Raja Nal, "a king who does not know he is a king," this vast epic portrays a world of complex social relationships involving changing and mistaken identities, goddesses, powerful women, magicians, and humans of many different castes. In this comprehensive study and first extended English translation based on multiple oral versions, Susan Snow Wadley argues that the story explores the nature of humanity while also challenging commonplace assumptions about Hinduism, gender, and caste. She examines the relationship between oral and written texts and the influence of individual performance styles alongside a lyrical translation of the work.

Published by: Indiana University Press


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pp. xi-xiii

More than thirty years ago, on a hot, humid monsoon day when the men of the village known as Karimpur1 in Mainpuri District in western Uttar Pradesh could not work in the fields, they gathered in the village dharamśālā (pilgrims’ way station usually attached to a temple) to hear Ram Swarup Dhimar (Kahar, Water Carrier by caste),2 a resident of Karimpur, sing Ḍholā. I later learned...

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Note on Transliteration

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pp. xv

Proper names are given in common English transliterations, without diacritics or italics. Hindi terms (in the dialects of Braj or Kanauji) and the names of epics and books are given with diacritics on the first instance only, following the rules set by the Library of Congress. Place names are given in their English equivalents. Words such as purdah that are found in the Oxford English Dictionary...

Part One: Dhola

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pp. 1

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1. Introducing Dhola

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pp. 3-8

Sitting on a dung heap, considered a mad man, Raja Nal, the hero of Dhola, sums up one of the most potent messages in Dhola, a north Indian oral epic sung in the Braj region in what is now western Uttar Pradesh and eastern Rajasathan. Dhola is ultimately about Raja Nal and his acceptance of the nature of human mortality after his metaphoric descent into madness when, for six months, his body...

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2. The Story of Dhola

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pp. 9-64

There is a king named Pratham and his 101 queens. He is very powerful and his palace is magnificently adorned. From the turrets, flags flutter in the winds, and the walls and ceilings are covered in gold. But Raja Pratham has one sorrow: he has no sons. One day, as he is sitting on his roof with his favorite queen, Manjha, two birds fly by on their way to the nearby lake...

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3. Dhola as Performed: Two Singers

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pp. 65-92

Performance is essential to Dhola because it is through the voices of the singers that the characters are brought to life, usually through the voice of a solo singer. That Dhola is about transgressing norms is given even greater impact because, despite the existence of the chapbook versions, the epic lives through performance. One of the principles of performance...

Part Two: Dhola Interpreted

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pp. 93

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4. The Goddess and the Bhakti Traditions of Braj

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pp. 95-119

Sung by Mangtu Lal, a blind Chamar (Leatherworker) singer in 1994, this sumerī, or remembrance of the goddess, is typical of the opening lines of all Dhola performances, for Dhola is first and foremost an epic about the powers of the goddess, and of women in general. It is the goddess who guides the performance and the performer, and it is the powers of the goddess that are...

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5. Motini, Dumenti, and Other Royal Women

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pp. 120-141

Whether it is the goddesses Manjha, Motini, Dumenti or other women, females dominate the action in Dhola, in contrast to the prevailing norms and scholarly interpretations of north Indian society. The prevailing norms for women, especially of the upper castes and classes, acknowledge that women have some powers, especially in the realm of ritual and religion, although...

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6. Oil Pressers, Acrobats, and Other Castes

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pp. 142-170

Dhola is performed primarily in the multi-caste farming communities of rural north India, and its performances capture the essence of key social relationships in such communities. Rural villages often contain as many as twenty distinct endogamous caste groups, each living in a specified portion of the village, and with its own caste culture, behaviors that are transmitted from...

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7. Who is Raja Nal?

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pp. 171-195

Initially Raja Nal is a king who does not know he is a king; later he is a king in search of recognition of his right to be a king. Raja Nal’s self-identity as Other brings us back to the hierarchies through which cultures “think themselves.” As we have traversed the terrain of Dhola, we have seen hierarchy inscribed by and on the human body and its clothing. We have seen the...

Appendix 1: List of Characters

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pp. 197-198

Appendix 2: Oral Performances

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pp. 199-205

Glossary of Key Hindi Terms

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pp. 207-210


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pp. 211-221

References Cited

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pp. 223-231


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pp. 233-242

E-ISBN-13: 9780253111272
E-ISBN-10: 0253111277
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253344786

Page Count: 264
Illustrations: 12 b&w photos, 1 index
Publication Year: 2004