Re-imagining Raja Rasalu in the present


How do you absorb a folktale and re-present it to the present? This is the question that any theatre-goer must ask as he steps into Ajoka’s re-rendering of Raja Rasalu – a folk metaphor locating itself in Sialkot of the second century AD.

Re-capturing the folktale

The first act of the play announces the arrival of Raja Rasalo. Rasalo’s origin as deriving from myth and mysticism is predicted. The play begins in the court of Raja Salvahan of Sialkot. Salvahan has two wives. One wife bears him a son, Puran. The other wife, Loona, is infertile. When Puran grows old she tries to seduce him. He refuses – but she claims he tried to rape her and in a moment quite like the Yousaf story he is thrown into a well – but with his arms and legs cut.

Puran is left in a well for 12 years where he is discovered and restored to health by a group of Yogis. After this he becomes a yogi himself. It is Puran who becomes Puran Bhagat who, after Loona comes to pray to him, announces that she will bear a son who should be named Rasalu. But he says she shall have to shun him for 12 years lest she want him to die an early death. He promises great repute for the boy.

Rasalo is thus born and then turned away from court. Upon his return does the traditional folktales climax begin. His father, noting the yogis warning, turns his back on him. Rasalo leaves the court, with his adventurous spirit, and begins to on a journey into realizing his selfhood.

Thus we move into the second act of the play: the realization of Rasalu’s character. This section plays out as a journey into magic realism.

Rasalu’s adventures are battles with beasts leading up to a culminating moment in a game of chaupar with the reknown chaupar player and king Sarkap. Sarkap is known to play for the challengers head. Rasalo challenges Sarkap and wins three times. The third loss signaling Rasalu’s right to take Sarkap’s life. This right he gives up ordering Sarkap to let him marry his newborn daughter. This is the point where the folktale ends.

Moving beyond the folktale

The Raja Rasalu folk tale end with the hero Rasalu marrying the newborn Princess Kokilan. In Ajoka’s world this is where the climax of the story begins. The play turns into a parody on the role of the female.

Kokilan expresses her discomfort with her child marriage to her mother – who says she cannot speak of the circumstances in which the marriage was made. When Kokilan meets Rasalu she challenges his ability to tame the world through hunting. Rasalu gives her the chance to experience the world of the forest. Kokilan is able to take a wild dear into her arms – but upon seeing it Rasalu’s response is to use his archery to kill the deer that Kokilan tamed.

In this part of the story the traditional masculine folkhero Rasalu is challenged by the female, Kokilan, who presents her grace as the value with which she encounters, tames and conquers the world of the wild. A world which Rasalu can only experience by dominating it through violence. Rasalu reacts to Kokilan’s assertion of her independence by turning her back into the palace. The opening of her hair, her attempt to experience the world and her becoming intimate with the world become her crime that become punished with confinement.

Kokilan confined to the palace finds herself a lover. Rasalu gets word of it – but acts as if he believes Kokilan’s denial. Kokilan’s plans to run away with her lover – but on the night she is due to do so, Rasalu feeds her the meat of her lover. Kokilan refuses to believe it – but Rasalu shows her the body. Upon this she commits suicide. It is Rasalu who, at the conclusion of the play, places both bodies together and puts a white garb on them – with his face and body representing the defeat of his values.

The Raja Rasalu folktale

Raja Rasalu is a folktale that traces itself to Sialkot in the 2nd century AD. The folk representation of Rasalu is as a hero. The folk representation of Rasalu presents him as a hero challenging and defeating a number of mythical monsters. The folktale ends with Rasalu marrying King Sakpar newborn after defeating him on a game of chauper.

Matters of language

One of the most challenging aspects of the play for the viewer is the language: a mix of Siraiki, Punjabi and Hindi. The play is a musical. Many a viewer is not able to understand the language in which the play is delivered. This means: while one doesnot understand the language, one is able to experience it. The power of the early part of the play lies in the relation with the performance. The later part of the play makes for less heavy language. The folk meets contemporary language and one is able to connect with the play in a different manner. This connection is more direct.

Source : www.pakistantoday.com.pk, OCTOBER 23, 2010

We need another Rasalu

THE ROMANCE OF RAJA RASALU AND OTHER TALES compiled and annotated by Neelam Husain; illustrated by Laila Rahman; pp 304 + 46; Price Rs3,000 (hb); Publishers Simorgh Women’s Resource and Publication Centre, PO Box No 3328 Gulberg-II, Lahore (Pakistan).

The reason for the reproduction of folk stories related to an All-Punjab hero, Raja Rasalu, and other tales related to Punjab and the land across the river Indus has been given by compiler Neelam Hussain in the last portion of her introduction to the book: “If we are to counter the dehumanizing influences of modern consumerism and resist the lure of its goblin fruit, we need to stake claim to agency and rewrite our own stories. It is not an impossible task, for stories are being written and rewritten all the time. But in order to do so, we must borrow some of the folktale’s magic; to open our minds and hearts to the whisper of numberless voices that fill the air around us, waiting to be heard, and rediscover in ourselves, our lost ability to imagine others, kinder more tolerant worlds.

“The foremost aim of the folktale is to entertain -- to give pleasure to the listening circle. We have only to accept this offer and pay heed to the storyteller’s voice. This is how it was before, but things could change and they might change.”

The issue is that after partition or independence the reproduction of folktales of different regions was totally ignored by the intelligentsia and the government. Why we the Punjabis, the Pakhtoons, the Sindhis, the Balochis, the Bengalis and the Kashmiris and other smaller nationalities ignored this important base of our history, culture, heritage and traditions.

Lok Virsa was also very shy of producing the chapters of the district gazetteers related to culture, history and heritage because these gazetteers contained the stories of the shameful past performance of the ruling feudal families of Pakistan. Anyhow Lok Virsa did one thing and that is it reproduced books and monologues written by the British administrators on folklores and relevant matters. For instance, no exhaustive book has been written in Urdu on the folktales of Kashmir, therefore, an English book was reproduced.

Likewise many other zones which had books by the British writers were reproduced. But with what point of view the colonialists collected this material is explained by Neelam.

The folktale was devolved by the colonial encounter, not only because it was subjected to the patronising scrutiny of a European aesthetics but because of its association with either subject people and the fact that most often it was repository of the “old wife and the bard” as represented by the “bhats, the mirasi, the bharain, the jogi, the faqir and the ilk, who were at best seen as a sorry set of drunkards.” It merited attention only to the extent that it provided the colonial administration with insight into the ‘native’ mind and “furnished much useful information as to the manners, habits, and feelings of the native Hindostani.”

Ironically this process did not end with the Raj. In the newly-created Pakistan, the folktales along with other narrative forms that comprise the oral tradition, fell foul of officialdom’s post-independence attempt to construct for the people an exclusive ‘Muslim; identity rooted in Saudi Arabia, rather than its own soil.”

The bureaucratic setup was so powerful that from it came the voice that Arabic should be made the national/official language of Pakistan, which incidentally was not in the interest of the ruling political leaders, rulers, classes and the bureaucracy mainly fed on English and Urdu. Arabic seemed to be a threat to vested interests attached with Urdu, therefore, Baba-i-Urdu Maulvi Abdul Haq from Karachi declared publicly that Urdu was the only Islamic language of Pakistan while rest of the languages were non-Islamic which clearly meant Bengali, Sindhi, Punjabi, Pushto, Balochi, Kashmiri and their dialects.

In such a situation one can well imagine what treatment was officially extended to the folk heritage of Pakistan. On the other hand such a language was advocated, which had even no folksongs, what to talk of folklore.Neelam, the editor says: “The stories in this book have been selected and compiled from four texts transcribed in the later half of the nineteenth century by British folklorists and comprise the Legends of the Punjab, by R.C. Temple (1884), Tales from the Punjab by Flora Annie Steel (1894), and Romantic Tales of the Punjab and Folk Tales from the upper Indus by Reverend Charles Swynerton (1883) and (1892) respectively.

“Few changes have been made to the original texts; some of which are editorial and other necessitated by the amalgamation of three versions of a story into one.”

The major events of Rasalu’s life are associated with Gandhara and Potohar area and Neelam has maintained the same geographical limits narrated in the aforementioned books and compilers. But our district gezetteers tell us that his traces are also found in far-off Hmimachal Pradesh, Pakpattan, Uch in Bahawalpur, Mari Fort in Dera Ghazi Khan where he classed with Raja Hodi.

Raja Rasalu’s message was fight every oppressor in the shape of man, animal or super human power. Rasalu we still need who could challenge the oppressors of our time. — STM

Source : DAWN.COM, November 05, 2010

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