Casting Kings: Bards and Indian Modernity

Casting Kings Bards And Indian Modernity By Jeffrey G Snodgrass
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Nature as idea and concept, culturally laden as it is in Western thought, plays a central role in this ethnographic text. Ambiguous and complex, "nature" reflects the variegated responses Sawar informants had to their surroundings and to their "beggar" past forced labour under the local king. The framing questions of this South Asian history are: what was it like in the time of kings?

Specialists of South Asian history, anthropology, subaltern studies, and the environment will welcome publication of this book. The Past of Nature and the Nature of the Past. Furthermore, in his opinion they could not be considered traditional puppet artists. Bhats in fact claimed that the folklore institute employing this carpenter, and possibly even this man himself, was stealing their secrets. They told me also that the institute hires members of the Bhat community. The Tribals, I was told, are poor and desperate and work for half the salary demanded by Bhats.

The Bhats are sympathetic but not entirely forgiving. But, alas, still more detective work on my part revealed that even this story is far from true. Bansi Lal and Bedami informed me that Bhat ancestors learned to dance puppets in the early part of the twentieth century, picking up the technique from a nomadic troupe from a region in what is now Pakistan. Late one night, Muslim artists wandered into a Bhat village and put on a private puppet performance in the mansion of the local landlord. Though the performance was intended for Rajput eyes only, a Bhat peeked through cracks in the walls of the royal haveli.

The Bhat tradition of performing puppets does not fare much better in terms of its age. Some of my most trusted informants suggest that it is less than a hundred years old—certainly not a thousand years old, as some Bhats claimed. I was told that not only is this tradition not old but it was taken from a Muslim community originating in Pakistan, a fact that is ironic given that Bhat plays celebrate Hindu warrior struggles against Muslim invaders. The word would quickly spread that a moneybags had arrived. Like electricity coursing through the settlement, Bhats scrambled to locate anything that was, or that 16 casting kings Bedami and Kamla Bai pose with a granddaughter.

Udaipur, Rajasthan.


Once an old Bhat of about seventy sprinted by me, nearly knocking me over, a rotting wooden chest in his arms. These hijinks further illuminate why the opening story of a theft of space vehicle plans might be compelling to Bhats. Every day we sat together in a dark cubbyhole near the middle of the labyrinthine Jaipuri slum which was his home. Sensitive to my changing moods, he offered the following story, somewhat curtailed from its original form.

It was told in response to my growing agitation and determination to learn what members of the Bhat community had done professionally previously to their usurping of puppetry: Once, four bards [bharets]12 from Marwar learned of the great generosity of Raja Resamji, a king living in a village in Kach in the state of Gujarat.

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These client-beggars [yacaks] heard that he was a Pannaji with his grandchildren. Jaipur, Rajasthan. So they loaded up all their belongings—their children, everything they had—and journeyed to Kach. The trip was long and arduous, and the bards became tired and sick on their journey. They almost died of hunger, and their horses in fact did die. Still they kept traveling, but it was such a long trip! Your life cannot be saved. We must prepare you for your funeral! The servant was so convincing that the king believed that he was in fact dying.

Resamji lay down on a burial platform, readying himself to be carried to the cremation ground. He allowed his servants to wrap him in his funeral shroud. What a bother! On hearing this poetry, the king, covered by his funeral shroud, became agitated, thinking that he was losing face before these wandering minstrels. For causing hardship and loss to client bards? I will be insulted forever!

They are acting as if I am already dead!

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He started to move around, trying to shake off his shroud, though this movement was hidden from the eyes of the bards. Everyone in the village started rejoicing, the king was stirring!

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The people are not acting as if their king just died. Like the loss of a few pubic hairs! Now Resamji got really angry. He struggled off of his deathbed and tore at the funeral cords that bound him. He stormed out of his castle and threw his death shroud to the bards. We accept gifts only from the living! He would intercept the bards on their journey home, regaling them with gifts after all!

Combining modernity and tradition

Taking a shortcut, the king and his retinue set up their tent at a spot the bards would surely cross. The king ordered his servants to feed the bards when they arrived and to gift them generously. If the bards should inquire about the identity of the host, then the servants should say all the gifts come from King Jarecha. Resamji gave explicit instructions not to mention his name. If the tent had belonged to king Resamji, the bards would not have been able to accept any hospitality, given their vow.

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The bards were fed well, given clothing to wear, and treated with the utmost respect. Resamji, on the other hand, he is nothing, he is lowly and crazy! Still he instructed his servants to give the bards even more gifts: four horses and 1, rupees each. Finally one of the bards grew suspicious. He could not possibly gift so generously.

Whose tent is this? If you do not tell, then we will go without accepting anything. It was my worker and not me who was responsible for all this deception and evil work. Who would return to all that chaotic noise? Halfway down the road, A horse was given by Resamji! On hearing this praise, Resamji presented the bards with even more horses and gifts.

There were once kings such as that. They would pursue bards on the road in order to give them alms; they would do this just for their royal name! First this king caused hardship [dukh], but then he brought happiness [sukh]. And Pannaji, looking toward his own looming death, seemed to identify with the king, similarly wondering how he might be remembered. But the introduction 21 state, and especially the desert region of Marwar, is as famous for a variety of relatively small seminomadic caste communities associated with performance: puppeteers, certainly, but also musicians, poets, comedians, snake charmers, professional mimics, and the bards that feature so prominently in the tale of Resamji.

Side by side with actual wars, which were not only costly but later prohibited by the British Raj,17 were battles of reputations. Bardless, a family was defenseless in these games of name and status. They helped kings secure alliances, negotiate treaties, or avoid war altogether. Leaders, especially those of Tribal origins, also used bards to fashion noble genealogies once they ascended to power.

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Resamji is reduced to a beggar, pleading with bards to take his offering; bards are treated like potentates, compelling kings to scurry after them. Sensing my hardly veiled enthusiasm for this emerging version of Bhat history, my Bhat friends, who had passionately protected their traditional puppeteer identity, now spoke with equal enthusiasm of their royal bardic heritage, explaining the various functions they performed for their Rajput lords.

Their praise poetry, in presenting the virtues of the families of potential brides and grooms, was used to forge marriage alliances. In exchange for services such as these, Rajputs bestowed gifts on their bards in the jajmani economy.

These gifts included cash 21 or rupees; adding one rupee to a gift is auspicious and also grain from the harvest, mounds of sweets such as laddus and gulab jamans, golden-threaded turbans, colorful shawls, as well as goats, buffalo, and other domesticated animals. They explained that traditionally members of the Bhat community worked halftime at best for noble patrons.

During the wedding season Bhats had to be in their natal villages, since they were central to festivities. It was during these forays that they put other skills to work, such as their newly acquired puppetry. Eventually, with the explosion of the Indian tourist industry, many Bhats settled more or less permanently in certain Indian towns and cities, abandoning for the most part their nomadic lifestyle and returning to their natal villages only when their lords really needed them.

Bhats emphasized that certain royal patrons, living in the western Rajasthani districts of Nagaur and Sikar, from where Bhats originate, have recently fallen on truly hard times. They have frittered away their fortunes on drink and are hardly able or willing to support their beloved bards.

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Still, many other Rajputs, I was told, continue to patronize their Bhat bards to this day, although not always in the royal manner that Bhats might hope for—Bhats frequently pointed to their tattered clothing and the lack of meat in their diet as signs of introduction 23 how far they had fallen. But Rajputs, or at least the honorable ones, always treated their bards with love and respect, especially when a bhat returned to their home villages after a long absence.

How could they not, my informants asked, given that Bhat bards kept old memories and past glories alive, and in many cases these were all that their lords now possessed? Bhats also told me that many of their former patrons own the tourist hotels where Bhats now market their puppets.