Just as William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns aroused a newfound fascination in me for the rajdhani Dilli, so does his latest book make me fall in love with India all over again. This time, for a completely different reason. Nine Lives delves into spirituality in modern India, expressed through various conventional and unconventional forms. While, on the one hand, there is the age-old tradition of idol-making for temples in Tamil Nadu, on the other hand there is the power and practice of Tantra shastra, usually kept at bay by us city types because of its eerie association with black magic and voodoo. Of the nine pehloos that Dalrymple chooses to relate after intense research but through easy story-telling, of the most interest to me is the pratha (ritual) of performing Pabhuji ki Phad in Rajasthan. An age-old custom, the phad is a long drape on which are painted myriad stories and incidents of Pabhuji’s life. Pabhuji is a local nomad-turned-chieftain-turned-deity who is today synonymous with the God of the Thar Desert and is credited with keeping the livestock alive and healthy, and providing sufficiently for the survival of the desert tribes. The spirit of Pabhuji roams the desert at night and breathes through the grains of sand, quite like the night-watchman, making sure his subjects are safe and the goats and camels are taken care of.
The narration of the legend of Pabhuji is called phad baachna. The phad itself is hung in the background in all its intricacy and grandeur. The responsibility of narrating this timeless legend is, however, not for everyone to take up. It is done by the bhopa and his bhopi. The bhopa is the bard, who typically tells the story with his wife, the bhopi. The bhopa sings a verse while the bhopi holds the lantern on the part of the phad that depicts the episode being sung. The bhopi then repeats the verse for emphasis. The bhopa plays the ravanhatta, an elementary stringed instrument to keep the rhythm going. A rapt audience sits through an entire night of performance, listening over and over again to the tales of valor and chivalry of the great Pabhuji. Blame the advent of modern civilization for the length of the performance. In centuries gone by, a performance would go on for four or five nights. It would almost be an insult to Pabhuji to wrap his tales up in one night, non?
Some very interesting facts stood out as very striking to me. For one, the bhopa’s choice of profession is as much a matter of destiny as it is that of talent. Yes he has to be a magnificent and powerful singer and has to begin learning the innumerable verses right from when he is seven or eight years old. But there’s more! He can perform only if his wife, the bhopi, is as good a singer as he is. Given that these tribes still practice child marriage, there is no way of knowing whether an aspiring bhopa’s wife would be able to sing, leave alone keep the verses in memory. There are examples of a bhopa having to turn to other menial work because destiny did not gift him with a wife who can sing. And of course, in such tribes, the idea of performing with a lady who can sing well but is not your wife is not a possibility. Secondly, a bhopa commands immense respect in the tribal community. Unlike us urban audiences who take the liberty to sneak out for pee breaks during performances, a bhopa’s audience dare not move while he is singing. It is only when the bhopa is tired and needs to re-energize himself that people stretch their limbs. Throughout the performance, the audience calls out verbal affirmations and applauds the bhopa’s talent. How else will the bhopa get the energy to pull through an entire night? Thirdly, a bhopa is usually illiterate and commits all the verses to memory. An alarming fact is that one of the bhopas was sent to school and educated. Soon after, he began forgetting his lines and had to peep into his diary from time to time! I’m tempted to question whether education is playing its rightful role in preserving our rich heritage of oral literature, but let’s not get there today.
Just a few days after I read this story and it completely took over my imagination (a night-long performance in the darkness and starkness of the desert by a tribal couple with a lantern in hand referring to a tapestry), the most celebrated Rajasthani artiste of India today, Ila Arun, came to Bombay. Coincidence? Well, wait, not yet! She could have done anything really, but she was performing the phad. She had adapted one of Henrik Ibsen’s plays The Lady of The Sea into a Pabhuji ki phad format. The play is aptly called Mareechika, meaning “mirage”, since the sea is nothing but a mirage in the expanse of the Thar desert. The performance was divided into acts and scenes with Rajasthani folk song and dance copiously flowing through the two hours. Ila Arun and Ravi Jhankal played the bhopi and bhopa. What a pleasure watching them sing, dance, holding a lantern to the phad and playing the ravanhatta! Though not in the desert and not night-long, the performance helped to partially quell my desire to board the next flight to Rajasthan. Quite thoughtfully, to give full credit to the original creator, Ila Arun named the legend Ibsenji ki phad – the mark of a true artiste.
The bhopi mentioned in passing that the best phad is made in Bhilwara. She probably knew that at least one person in the audience would not miss the information; because I am already dreaming of a desert holiday and what will adorn the wall of my living room.