- Raja Nal and the Goddess: The North Indian Epic Dhola in Performance
Susan Wadley's book Raja Nal and the Goddess is a study of a north Indian oral epic, Dhola, and is based on more than thirty years of researching and recording the epic by the author. The audio recordings are archived as the Wadley Collection of Folklore in the Archive of Traditional Music at Indiana University and in the Research Center for Ethnomusicology, American Institute of Indian Studies, Gurgaon. Pieces cited from this collection in the present book suggest that in its entirety the Wadley Collection must hold valuable materials for further research.
The book is divided into two parts and seven chapters. The first chapter contains a "vastly condensed retelling of the epic," which is based on another condensed version. A proper performance of the epic would last "thirty or fifty [End Page 404] nights," but the author got a version told in six hours from which she wrote her own version of the epic (9–55). While the pragmatics of this arrangement is clear, it means the author's version is the first one to reach the readers. It is obvious that presenting the epic could not have been an easy task, given the number of versions the author had to accommodate. Chapter 2 is a literary and cultural history of the epic. Chapter 3 discusses two performers of the epic, and their performed texts are quoted, which brings out some important features of oral storytelling and of the aesthetics of polyphonic narration. Chapters 4–7 are mainly analyses of various aspects of the epic Dhola, particularly its hero, Nal; the goddesses; and women. As the book tells us, Dhola is an oral epic performed in north and northwest India, although many audio and chapbook-style versions of it have been available in the local markets for a long time. The performers and audiences of the epic are generally rural. The epic—full of romantic and passionate heterosexual love—portrays powerful women (5). It is also noteworthy that in the period in which the author has studied this epic, she has been witness to its waning and to performers giving up their performance practice. Wadley locates the genesis and popularization of Dhola in the emergence and struggle for political recognition of a particular caste—known as Jat (59)—since the eighteenth century, and the performance's waning in the competition provided by the film and television industries that have invaded the north Indian countryside over the last four decades. Interestingly, we learn on page 211, in the first endnote to the preface, that the place (where the author has researched) "Karimpur is a pseudonym" and that the author has used the pseudonym because it has already been made famous by the works of American anthropologists William and Charlotte Wiser. The author is willing to reveal the "true" name to anyone interested, but has held it back in this work. I did not understand why.
Susan Wadley's love for the epic is obvious and touching, and her overall interpretation is that it is about "being human"—that is, about being fallible. The crux of the analysis is in establishing similarities and contrasts between the text and its context of performance. This context is dealt with under generalized categories like "North Indian Hindu society." The changes in this context over a period of thirty years do not come to the fore, or their changing relation to Dhola. The caste's political fate during the period in which Wadley locates the epic has changed dramatically over the last three decades, and they have gained considerable political power, but the author does not explore if there might be a connection between this contextual reality and the waning of the Dhola performance. The author builds very few connections with real historical time. Wadley also refers to the condition of women in the region in very broad terms signifying poverty and social discrimination. Indeed, this is a [End Page 405] region of extremely...