Oral Epics in India
Stuart Blackburn et Joyce Flueckiger

Stuart H. Blackburn and , Introduction in Stuart H. Blackburn, Peter J. Claus, Joyce B. Flueckiger and Susan S. Wadley, Eds., Oral Epics in India, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1989.

We use the term "oral epics" to refer to contemporary performance traditions of Indian epics, including the Sanskrit epics. We use the term "folk epics" when drawing attention to the distinction between the Sanskrit epics as literary texts and other epic traditions that are sung, heard, and patronized primarily by low and middle castes in small towns and villages.

[Īl y a en folkloristique] a fairly strong consensus on its three primary features: epic is narrative, it is poetic, and it is heroic. Felix Oinas typifies this consensus when he writes that "folk (or oral) epic songs are narrative poems in formulaic and ornamental style dealing with the adventures of extraordinary people" (Oinas 1972:99). […]

One link between praise-songs and the oral epic is that both are poetic, the second generic feature of the epic. Although Indian oral epics certainly contain poetry, the research supporting this book signals a shift of attention from poetry to song. Several contributors have found that the language of the epic is more influenced by song rhythms than by poetic meters (Beck 1982:68-80; Blackburn 1988; Smith 1979; see also Wadley, Chapter 4). Indian poetic meters do not necessarily correspond with the rhythmic structures found in music and it is these rhythmic structures that prevail in many Indian epic performances. Although epic performances are dominated by song, many also include significant prose and nonsung sections (vacaṉam, vārtā, arthāv), which are used to explain or elaborate the sung material. The poetry/prose distinction, therefore, is misleading when discussing Indian oral epic performance. A more useful performative distinction exists between what is sung and what is not sung. Significantly, the indigenous terms for several Indian epic traditions literally mean "song" (Chhattisgarhi gīt, Tamil pāṭṭu, and Tulu pāḍdana). Propp (1984:150) goes so far as to say that "musical, vocal performance is so essential to it that works not meant to be sung do not qualify as epic." The same can be said of Indian epics.

The third generic feature of the epic, its heroic nature, is perhaps the most fundamental as well as the most troublesome. Much of the literature contrasts the "heroic" epic against the supernatural myth and fairy tale (märchen); "heroic," in the epic context, is seen to be martial as opposed to magical, human rather than celestial. Rarely, however, is there any clear division between the heroic and the supernatural in the epics themselves. […]

Epic heroism in India, as elsewhere, touches on both the human and the supernatural, and on gradations in between. Since any sharp division between the human and the divine is alien to Hinduism and to Indian culture generally, a major theme of many Indian oral epics is precisely this relation between gods and humans (see Smith, Chapter 9). Moreover, epic heroes are often deified after death and thereby literally cross the boundary between human and divine (Beck 1982:19; see also Blackburn, Chapter 1).

Martial, sacrificial, romantic

The variety of the heroic in Indian oral epics is significant because there appears to be a correlation between the type of heroism in an epic and both its social and its performance contexts (see Blackburn, Chapter 1; Flueckiger, Chapter 2). For this reason, we have found it useful to distinguish between three epic types: martial, sacrificial, and romantic. The martial and sacrificial epics are similar in that both are concerned with power, social obligation, and social unity; they turn on the themes of revenge, regaining lost land, or restoring lost rights. What distinguishes the martial from the sacrificial epics is the emphasis in the struggle. Martial epics ceiebrate external — often military or political — conflict and a warrior ethic. The sacrificial epics, in contrast, center on a heroic act of self-sacrifice, or even suicide, by a woman. She is often a leader of her caste and becomes a goddess or a satī (a woman who immolates herself on her husband's funeral pyre).

While both martial and sacrificial epics stress group solidarity, the romantic epics often celebrate individual actions that threaten that solidarity. The primary conflict in romantic epics is not territorial control or the preservation of caste purity, but rather a quest for love. The goal in the romantic epics is personal freedom rather than external control. The main character, often a woman, is a strong-willed figure, either cast out or self-exiled from her social group, who must rely on trickery and cunning rather than on martial skills. Heroes and heroines of the romantic epics may die, and even die in battle, but their deaths are without the sociological significance of the deaths in the martial and sacrificial epics. If the martial epics recount the rise and fall of castes or kingdoms and are externally focused, the romantic epics follow the fortunes of individuals (usually lovers) and look within. In these respects, the martial epics are close to legend, the sacrificial epics closest to myth, and the romantic epics approach the folktale. By expanding the "heroic" to include female and nonmartial heroes and by replacing "poetry" with "song," we suggest that Indian oral epics are a cultural variant of an international genre.

In India something further is required to raise it to the status of epic. This special quality is the relationship epics have with the community in which they are performed, a relationship acknowledged by performers and audiences in many parts of India when they call an epic "our story." Epics stand apart from other "songs" and "stories" in the extent and intensity of a folklore community's identification with them; they help to shape a community's self-identity. While other genres may also be vehicles of a group's self-image, the oral epic is the most geographically widespread form that still preserves a community's identity (see Roghair 1982; Narayana Rao 1986). It also frequently represents a more diverse social group than do other genres. Given their geographical and social spread, oral epics are able to present regional worldviews; oral epics thus make a statement that other folk genres do not. Perhaps the epics presented in this volume share this feature more than any other. [The "same" narrative, even performed in similar styles, may thus be epic in one community and not in another. For example, the tradition of Ḍhola is performed as a long, sung narrative in both the northern plain of Uttar Pradesh and the central Indian region of Chhattisgarh. In U.P., it is an epic tradition, whereas Chhattisgarhi performers and audiences do not perceive it to be a true story or a story specifically identified with their community.]


Living epic traditions are not static but continue to change and respond to the communiti1es in which they are performed.

As expressions of a social group's self-image, epics are especially sensitive to shifts in that group's history. It is not surprising, therefore, that many oral epics in India and elsewhere seem to have originated, or taken on their epic proportions, in times of crisis and transition. In India many of these events occurred fairly closely in historical time: the Ālhā and Palnāḍu epics narrate events from the twelfth century A.D., Pāpūjī has been traced to the fourteenth century, and the Aṇṇaṉmār story apparently centers on a war in the mid-fifteenth century. Documented historical evidence, however, is not necessary for a community to claim a particular narrative as "its own," that is, to believe that it tells the history of its caste or region. Whether Indian oral epics chronicle the rise or fall of a kingdom or they document less dramatic changes, all are vital to a community's vision of its past. What the Kalevala did for Finnish nationalism in the nineteenth century, oral epics continue to do for caste, language, and regional groups in India today.

Oral Epics and the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa

If certain epics may be called caste, local, or regional, some would argue that the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata are India's national epics. Certainly these Sanskrit epics have an influence on Indian culture that is difficult to overestimate. Various levels of interaction between the Sanskrit epics and other Indian epics are explored in this volume. On one level are the regional retellings of the Sanskrit epics. Although the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa have become classical, literary texts, with standard editions, they also live in contemporary performance traditions. One such tradition is the shadow puppet theater in Andhra Pradesh described in Jonathan GoldbergBelle's chapter. This tradition is based on Telugu literary texts of the Rāmāyaṇa, which are themselves heavily indebted to Vālmīki's story in Sanskrit. This puppet tradition, however, has a major performance feature not found in the Sanskrit or Telugu Rāmāyaṇas: a series of clown episodes that display marital infidelity, homosexuality, and exaggerated sexual organs. This is hardly the message of Vālmīki or his imitators, but this Telugu tradition is not an unusual example of how classical and folk epics are related.

On another level, several folk epics are closely linked to the Sanskrit epics through the reincarnation of heroes. The heroes of the Aṇṇaṉmār and Ālhā epics, for example, are reborn from the Mahābhārata and those of the Pābūjī epic from the Rāmāyaṇa. However, this is not necessarily evidence of a common history for the Sanskrit and folk epics, nor do the resemblances always represent an imitation, either deliberate or coincidental, of the Sanskrit epics by the folk epics. Rather, references to the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata or their heroes are often simply a means of legitimizing the folk epics. In the Pābūjī epic, for instance, Lakṣmaṇa is reborn as the hero Pābūjī and Rāvaṇa as Pābūjī's chief enemy, but the resemblances between this folk and Sanskrit epic stop there.

A more extended, systematic identification of folk epic heroes with those of a Sanskrit epic is present in Ālhā, as Karine Schomer points out in her chapter. Yet, like many folk genres that challenge the dominant social order, this epic inverts the Mahābhārata in significant ways: the Sanskrit heroes are reborn as low-status retainers in Ālhā and, this time, they lose the war. In Schomer's words, the Ālhā epic is "a Mahābhārata of the Kali Yuga," making the symbolic messages of the older epic more accessible to modem audiences. Despite extensive borrowings from the Sanskrit epics, folk epics carry new meanings because they live in new social settings.

Character-based commonalities between folk and Sanskrit epics are admittedly superficial. Two chapters, however, suggest that ideological and structural parallels lie beneath such commonalities. John Smith argues that folk and Sanskrit epics share a profound fatalism that attributes the social, sexual, and moral problems of mankind to the ill will of the gods. Folk epics, Smith suggests, are not glorifications of human heroes, as is often assumed, but manipulations of them. In her chapter Brenda Beck discovers a structural unity underlying folk and Sanskrit epics in a triangle of characters at the core of the stories: a lead hero or heroine, a secondary male, and a secondary female. In Beck's view, the convoluted, intergenerational plots that distinguish the epic from other narrative genres are produced by variations and repetitions of this core triangle. These generalizations do not apply equally well to all of the epics under discussion. They do, however, reveal striking similarities that may well be part of a broader relationship between the Sanskrit epics, their folk retellings, and other epic traditions.

Epics in Performance

A critical difference between folk and Sanskrit epics is their realm of performance. Because performance details of the epics (such as the caste and sex of the performers, patrons, and audiences) are scattered throughout these pages, they are gathered in a chart in the Appendix. A few generalizations at this point, however, might be helpful to the reader. Epics are a public performance genre in India; therefore the singers are almost exclusively male. In the Rajasthani par tradition, a husband and wife team may perform together, but there are no reported instances of women performing epic traditions alone. Performers are also overwhelmingly from the lower end of the social hierarchy. Singers, musicians, dancers, and ritual specialists are all from the middle- and low-level castes and are often untouchables. (Some singers of the Ālhā epic are Brahmins, but this is an exception to the rule.) Patrons tend to be from the middle-level castes, the dominant landowning and merchant groups. Classical performance traditions of the Sanskrit epics, dramas, and public discourses, in contrast, are controlled by high-level castes, often Brahmins.

Performances of Indian oral epics also display a wide variety of presentational styles that fall into two broad groups: song-recitation and dance-drama. Song-recitation, usually performed by a small group of men with some musical accompaniment, is the primary form of performance; dance-drama is a secondary form in that it only exists where song-recitation also exists. Variations on these two general performance styles include song-recitation with a painted scroll, shadow puppet theater, and possessed dancer-singers. Several oral epics are performed in more than one style. This diversity of performance styles is perhaps another measure of the genre, for only a story of extraordinary cultural importance would be performed in so many ways.

The performers and the choices they make guide public performance and variations in style. Susan Wadley's chapter explores this aspect of oral epic performance in India. In several epic traditions performers have a choice of styles in which they may sing, and from them Wadley extracts a common performative strategy. This strategy consists of specific delivery styles (song, chant, prose) used for specific functions (advancing the story, developing a theme, linking segments, etc.). Her explication of performances of the Ḍhola epic clearly shows how shifts in song genre are linked to shifts in content and mood, again illustrating the importance of song (rather than "poetry") in Indian oral epics. These patterns, and not simply poetic meters, are the aesthetics of performance and are probably more culture-specific than any narrative feature. More research is needed, however, before the performance strategy of Indian oral epics can be lined up against that of epics from other cultural areas.

An aspect of epic performance about which we have more information is its association with ritual. Beck (1982:19) has pointed out that ritualistic performance is generic to the oral epic in India; we can now refine this generalization to say that it is characteristic of martial and sacrificial epics in which the hero/heroine is deified. Komal Kothari contends in his chapter that the tradition of deified dead continually feeds into and supports the martial epic traditions of Rajasthan. The central belief is that singing the hero's story summons him as a god, whose power is then present to protect the community and to cure its camels and cattle.

Performances of the martial and sacrificial epics also commonly involve spirit possession, trance dance, and sometimes acts of self-mutilation. Even traditions without hero deification usually include some ritual elements: an invocation to frame the performance or devotional songs interspersed with the narrative. Other folk genres in India and epics in other parts of Asia are also ritually performed, but the prominence of ritual in Indian oral epic performances distinguishes them from their counterparts in Africa.

Epics Oral and Written

How "oral" are Indian epics? As no chapter directly addresses this issue, we consider it here. In considering the orality of a text, we may speak of its composition, performance, and transmission. Numerous combinations of oral and written forms are possible in these three processes. Some Indian epics remain oral on all three levels and have no written text at all. Others are orally composed, recorded in some written form, and then orally performed and orally transmitted. The Sanskrit epics differ from other Indian epics in that they exist in highly literate and national (even international) culture and are transmitted as books. In uncounted folk traditions, however, the Sanskrit epics as well as the other Indian epics are primarily transmitted through oral performance. Dennis Tedlock (1983:250), drawing on Ruth Finnegan's earlier observation (1977:22-24), points out that oral epics across the world tend to develop in or in contact with literate cultures. Indian oral epics are no exception. Nevertheless, the variety and importance of written texts in Indian epic traditions are noteworthy. They are inscribed on palm leaves, handwritten on paper, printed in cheap chapbooks, or bound in volumes that claim to be the "authoritative edition" (Narayana Rao 1986). In most Indian epic traditions these written texts give a certain legitimacy to the singers, their performance, and the tradition as a whole.

Performers also use written texts in a variety of ways during epic performances. Some performers are nonliterate and keep the text sitting in front of them for the sake of authenticity. Other performers seem to memorize and repeat parts of the written text in performance. Some contributors to this volume have emphasized the fixity of epic performances with which they are familiar (Smith 1977; Blackburn 1988; see also Kothari, Chapter 5); others have called attention to the improvisational nature of oral performance (see Wadley, Chapter 4). Large parts of a written text may be memorized, but a performance is never an exact duplication of that text. Even in the extreme case in which an entire bow song text is recited verbatim in performance, the tradition remains oral (Blackburn 1988). The story of a hero-god lives not because of its palm leaf manuscripts, but because it is orally performed.

One significant difference between the written text and oral performance of an epic is the episodic nature of the latter. Immensely long epic stories, which would take hundreds of hours to sing if performed in one sitting, are commonly divided into more manageable segments. The Palnāḍu epic, for example, contains thirty kathalu (stories), each of which may take one or more nights to perform. The Pābūjī epic is similarly divided into twelve parvāṛo (episodes) and the Ālhā into various laṛāī (battles) which organize the performance of these epics. These performance segments are not, however, evenly weighted, like chapters. Certain episodes are more popular than others and are repeatedly performed; others are rarely heard and may even be unknown to certain singers. Furthermore, even when an epic story is well known to the audience, the complete story, from beginning to end, is rarely presented in performance — or even in a series of performances. The full story is sometimes found in written and published texts, but we prefer to speak of an epic tradition that encompasses not only text and performance but also what is unwritten and unperformed.

As both text and performance, the oral epics discussed in the following chapters exert enormous cultural force. Epic performances ritually protect and cure, while epic narratives express local ideologies and form pathways between regional and pan-Indian mythologies. But most important, oral epics in India have that special ability to tell a community's own story and thus help to create and maintain that community's self-identity.