Mahabharata: The Tharu Barka Naach
Mahabharata: The Tharu Barka Naach
as told by the Dangaura Tharu of Jalaura
translation by Dinesh Chamling Rai with Ashok Tharu and Kalpana Ghimere
edited by Kurt Meyer and Pamela Deuel
Kathmandu, Himal Books, 1998
A review by Rama Parajuli and Pratyoush Onta
“It is not known when the Barka Naach, the Dangaura Tharu version of the Mahabharata, was first performed in Dang Valley,” write editors Meyer and Deuel.
Early in this century a village leader named Mahatawa Rul Lal Tharu of Jhalaura collected scattered manuscripts that contained parts of the text of the orally rendered Barka Naach, which literally means “big dance”. After teaching himself to read and write, Rup Lal produced a single version of it in Tharu language in 1922 and with the help of some Tharu priests, organized its performances in five-year intervals until the early 1960s. Funds necessary to support a complete production of the Barka Naach, the editors report, then dried up. When he died in 1970, Rup Lal’s manuscript was passed on to his son, Chandra Prasad Tharu.
During their pan-Tarai study of Tharu material culture and architectural designs, Meyer and Deuel met Chadra Prasad in 1993. Impressed by his knowledge of Tharu songs, they provided financial support for the production of an abridged version of the Barka Naach in February 1994. Some weeks ago a full version of the same was performed. The book is a textual introduction to the performance and a guide that could accompany its video version.
The editors claim that the Barka Naach is culturally unique to the Dang-based Dangaura Tharu and constitutes a part of their larger legend of the Barkimer (“the Big war”). Its performance, they write, “is closer in form to the classic Greek drama: the story is told through the dancing of performers and the singing of the traditional Tharu text by a chorus.” They also describe, in brief, how the Tharu version of the story differs from that of the classic Sanskrit Mahabharata.
The Barka Naach consists of an opening prayer, ten songs and the closing prayer. The opening and the closing prayers, it is reported, are mandatory in each performance while selections can be made from the main body of dance songs to suit the circumstances of the performing groups. These dance songs are, as the editors note, action stories, largely devoid of the “philosophical teachings that pervade the Mahabharata.” They are also very much Pandavas-oriented. In particular, the second brother, Bhim receives attention.
Many of the heroics of the third brother Arjun in the classic version is attributed to Bhim here, he being a particurlarly popular folk deity of the Dangaura Tharu.
The ten dance songs describe the following episodes of the Mahabharata: the conspiracy of the Kauravas to kill the Pandavas by burning them inside a wax house; Bhim’s killing of Raksasa Danu; Draupadi’s swayamvara; the dice contest in which the Pandavas lose everything; Pandavas in a 12-year exile; their 13th year of exile (living incognito) in the house of King Bairath (Virat); Bhim’s fight with King Bairath’s elephant; Bhim’s killing of Kichaka who had harrassed Draupadi; attack on King Bairath by Duryodhan’s company (longest song); decimation of the Kauravas at the end of the battle in Kurukshetra. The epilogue describes the Pandavas’ journey to heaven. Each song contains a refrain. While only those who are familiar with the original Tharu version can say how authentic the English one is, the translation reads well.
The chief intended audience of the book is clearly the lay western reader who is only sparingly familiar with the classic version of the Mahabharata. The glossary is mostly helpful even as it does not contain the word paidhar which forms a part of the title of each song. The family tree of the Kauravas-Pandavas provided at the end is useful even as it does not contain all the characters encounted in the songs.
Some of the introductory text could have been better edited (DDT did not eliminate malaria from the Tarai in the 1960s as claimed; ‘controlled’ is more the case). The book is produced elegantly. However the publishers would have done the readers a service by keeping the title consistent. The front cover title is as given here but the inside jacket says The Barka Naach: the Tharu Mahabharata which should have been the title for the front as well. The jacket blurp (which contains an incomplete sentence) and the inside text would have benefited from a close reading by a careful editor.
It will be left to those who are familiar with the published large corpus of Nepali folklore to compare this Tharu Mahabharata with other folk versions. For scholars of south and south-east Asian folklore, a larger comparison could be a worthwhile project. A study of Rup Lal’s (as yet unpublished?) book “describing the role of the Barka songs in Tharu culture” mentioned by his son should also be done. Finally some contemplation on how Rup Lal’s rendition might have reified the oral tradition of the Dangaura Tharu Barka Naach as performed in the 19th century would also be useful to understand how the written word intervenes in the reproduction of a largely oral culture.
(R. Parajuli is a reporter for Kantipur and P. Onta, among other things, hosts the discussion program Dabali over Radio Sagarmatha on Wednesday mornings)
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