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  • Raja Nal and the Goddess: The North Indian Epic Dhola in Performance
  • Leela Prasad
Raja Nal and the Goddess: The North Indian Epic Dhola in Performance Susan Snow Wadley Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004216 pp., $22.95 (paper)

Susan Snow Wadley presents a spirited translation and a carefully situated study of Dhola, a popular and engrossing epic performance tradition from rural North India, particularly Braj (Western Uttar Pradesh and eastern Rajasthan). Performed by men of various castes—Water Carrier, Shepherd, Farmer, and Leatherworker, for example—Dhola takes about forty nights to complete, with "the translated text from any one night running over one hundred typed pages" (9). Wadley's innovative rendering of the epic is based on a six-hour narration by an expert storyteller, Raghubar Kachi, that she supplements with other episodes and actual words of singers. Although Wadley modestly says that she draws on recordings of "only twelve episodes," her study is the synthesis of more than three decades of scholarship and engagement with the epic tradition that includes a study of oral and chapbook versions from different decades, performances by several troupes, commercially sold tapes, and in-depth interactions with the two performers profiled in the book. Recordings made over the years are archived at Indiana University and the American Institute of Indian Studies, New Delhi.

The story of Raja Nal revolves around his birth in the forest, far from his princely home in Narvar; his childhood as an adopted Merchant son; his marriage to the celestial Motini and later to the mortal Dumenti; and his tragic end with the rest of his family that includes his son, Dhola, and his daughter-in-law, Maru. Wadley finds that at the center of this epic, one that weaves itself around numerous human relationships often complicated by mistaken identities, the powers of goddesses and women, magic, and a social world identified by many castes, is a profound philosophical question: what does it mean to be human? The question is worked out through the travails of Nal who is constantly subjected to tests that challenge the limits of human endurance. Suffering banishment from his kingdom, leprosy, blindness, and "madness," Nal is compelled to resort to many disguises that put him in the shoes of different castes and trades (Merchant, Acrobat, and Oil Presser). Wadley's clearly written introduction prepares the reader for the rich story ahead by identifying key motifs in the epic: social order versus anarchy, devotion to the goddess Durga, powers of women especially in the realm of magical arts, identity as constructed by caste and status, and, finally, mortality itself. [End Page 157]

Chapter 2 contains Wadley's rendering of Dhola, followed by a brief cultural and literary history of the epic and of Braj. Dhola is a fascinating conjoining of diverse cultural motifs and at least two well-known oral and written story traditions: Nala-Damayanti from the Mahabharata (the section of Nalopakhyana) and Dhola-Maru from a sixteenth-century Rajasthani Jain ballad. Wadley takes care to note, however, that performers and patrons articulate Dhola's literary and cultural connections variously. Dhola, she argues, also reflects the political times of late-seventeenth-century Braj during which it was most likely to have been consolidated. The epic's overt interest in the theme of "recognition as a king" parallels the rise in power of Jat agriculturalists who contested Rajput authority that was abetted by declining Mughal powers.

Wadley's brief overview of Dhola's foray into the commercial audiocassette market of the 1980s and later is extremely interesting. Audiocassette productions of Dhola show how Dhola continues to be adapted for wider audiences—not without critique from "traditional" performers—by substituting the cikara (stringed instrument) with the better-known violin, harmonium, or synthesizer; by engaging Hindi film tunes; and by delivering the story in urban dialects.

Chapter 3 gives an intimate sense of Dhola-in-performance as Wadley explores the performance styles and life stories of two "knowledgeable" and "passionate" singers with whom she has interacted for decades: Ram Swarup Dhimar of Mainpuri District of Western Uttar Pradesh and Matolsingh Gujar of Dhamari in Bharatpur District of Rajasthan (typos, however, variously place him in "Kama District...


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