Domenico Di Virgilio
Addressing mortals in the name of Gods
The following paper was read at the 1995 CHIME Conference in Rotterdam.

Foto 1 - Parasnath Tripathi

This is the story of a period in the life of Parasnath Tripathi, a brahman by birth, belonging to the village of Roh Khurd in the district of Pratapgarh, Eastern Uttar Pradesh, Northern India (1).
But it is a piece of Indian history as well, dealing with the struggle for independence from British Rule. And it is the story of the people who fought this struggle and of their culture.

Parasnath Tripathi was born in 1905, he attained primary education and lived at home until 1927 when he left for Bombay in search of a job. And in Bombay he joined the Congress Party and became a political activist. (foto 1)

In those years the Congress Party was the political movement which had the leadership in the struggle for national independence. It was successful in joining the Hindu Tradition with a bourgeois-reformist trend through extremely liked and admired men like M.K. Gandhi and J. Nehru. It was also the political party which led India to Independence in 1947, and has been until recent years a landmark in the political panorama of the Country.

Foto 2 - Parasnath Tripathi with his family

In 1979, while in India and in Uttar Pradesh for field work, I heard about Parasnath Tripathi and I was introduced to him. I asked him to tell me the story of those years, how he became a political activist and a ring leader. He agreed and I went to meet him in his village. (foto 2)

The narration proceeds on two levels:

1) Indirect speech/the telling of events, interrelation with the people listening to the facts ( in this case two Indians and me)= it took place in Hindi language, that is the medium of official history, used by Parasnath Tripathi in contexts other than the village.

2) Direct speech/dialogues and songs= in Avadhi, a local dialect belonging to the Hindi family. The change of language thus underlines a time shift recalling the function and the context of the songs.
Moreover in religious quotations Parasnath Tripathi also uses Sanskrit, as the cultural expression of his own caste.
The militancy of Parasnath Tripathi is directly based upon his 'being', upon the capacity of being recognized inside the community as a brahman (a demigod and a learned man) with a Western education (though limited to primary school).
And as all Hindu village people he knows folk stories. He knows well how to sing them, and how to create new ones. He knows how to address people by means of these stories and he sings: sohar, gari, Alha, nirvahi, kajri, which are all closely related to peasant life. He talks of Hindu High Tradition heroes: Rama, Laksman, Dhruva, Krsna, Arjuna, or narrates of kings: Asoka, Candragupta, Siva Pratap. He sings of men who fought for the independence of the country: B. G.Tilak, J.Nehru, Bhagat Sinh, and he doesn't forget women either: Kamla Nehru, Sarojini Naydu (2).

Parasnath Tripathi is not only a mediator between High Tradition and folk tradition, he shares both. And this is a peculiarity of Hindu culture: a high ability that the High Tradition has to permeate and to mould the world of popular classes, thus softening all social conflicts.
Parasnath Tripathi is a medium in this process and he was perfect at the time: as a brahman he was relied on for Hindu tradition, and as a small landowner he could accept and support reformist points of view.
In his use of folk culture he recalls all Vedic traditions and stories of epics and chivalry, linking them to modern popular heroes. In the narration of Parasnath Tripathi we have the same devices of religious or popular literature (such as Ramayana or Alha) : alternating use of speech and singing, direct/indirect speech, past/present tense, and every time the tale comes alive again.

But we must not think of Parasnath Tripathi as a professional story-teller in the same way as folk cultures do. At the time of becoming a political activist he uses his village cultural background for Congress Party propaganda. And the party tells him to go on, not to worry about his own family that will be properly supported. It is only at that very moment that Tripathi becomes a professionist, and he sings every kind of folk songs, aimed expecially at transmitting the Congress messages. A professional attitude, in this case, much more akin to our written culture then to folk tradition, where the area of professional competence is somehow more restricted. The songs we hear from him, in fact, come from folk repertoire, regardless of gender and castes. Sohar is a women song and no man will sing it unless you will ask him (3).

In Indian folk culture the competence of a professional story teller is based upon the caste system, and brahmans do not usually cover this role. In Eastern Uttar Pradesh story telling means mostly the deeds of the heroes Alha Udal ; other ballads (Raja Gopichand, Vijamal) are sung by wandering jogi (followers of the mediaeval saint Gorakhnath), with the accompaniment of sarangi (4). But an 'ocean of story' can be anyone who has the capacity for retaining memoires of the rich oral repertoire and performing it (5). Because epic song is the first step made by an oral culture towards professional competence: it needs an attentive audience and a skilful narrator. Only a combination like this can make epic deeds worthy of emulation. And this is the accomplishment of Parasnath Tripathi.

In the second episode he proves to be an experienced story- teller, narrating how, by choosing an epic song, he stirred up passions. And this is not the only case. In the long tale made by Tripathi there are many other occurences in which the function of the songs is strongly underlined.
The space/time gap, of course, prevents us from being fully involved in listening. I mean that we can listen to Parasnath Tripathi but is impossible for us to share his/their emotions. What is lost in fact is the cultural context and the historical moment that influenced it.

In the first episode Tripathi addresses Indian women, a part of society that has always been strongly discriminated in a male oriented society, the outcome of a Hindu-Muslim syncretic cultural world. And it is important to remember that in daily life, either at home or in the fields, the women own the greater part of Indian folklore and they are the real singers of this culture; but this is true for other cultures too.
Sohar is a song for a new born male child and it is sung by female neighbours and relatives of the puerpera.

Male repertoire is less rich, and the epic song is a typical example of it. Epic songs are comparatively long, but they can be very long and are always complex in plot and structure. An epic song is usually performed in the evening, but part of it can be also sung during breaks in field works.

Of the two episodes chosen the first one refers to the movement for individual disobedience (Satyagraha in Sanskrit) launched by Gandhi in 1940 to boycott English Administration. In those years Great Britain was fully involved in the Second World War and in 1941 Japan entered the war supporting Germany. At the end of May 1941 there were all over India about 14.000 satyagrahi in prison. Parasnath Tripathi narrates about these people and how he wrote a song, based on the tune of a 'pure gram git' (folk song) called sohar, to give courage to the mothers, sisters, daughters of those imprisoned people (6).(Download - QuickTime mp2 - 1.2 Mb)

Your son has the age of Rama in his youth   ho
putava raheni siri Rama umiriya javaniyai me   ho
Rama for World's sake left his throne in Ayodhya   ho
Rama choreni Ajodhiya kai raja jagat hit khatire   ho
Our son Bhagat Sinh in his twenties   ho
putava Bhagat Sinha janameni umiriya ka bais   ho
Was hanged, the World sings his name mother in law    
sasu hoi gayen phasiya sikar jagat naua gavai    
Understand it: to win freedom we must go to prison   ho
enka ihai samujhava gulamiya kai torai jehaliya me javai   ho
I won't wear these bangles I will go to prison    
nahi pahinai e curiya hamari jehala hamahi jabai    
Rani Durga , Maina, the Rani of Jhansi were women like us   ho
hamahi ma rahin Rani Durga, Maina, Jhasi Rani rahin   ho
mother in law ...    
sasu ...    

The second episode refers to the Quit India Movement launched by the Congress Party in 1942 to force the English to leave the Subcontinent. During the Quit India Movement there was much violence and at the end of the year were recorded 1000 dead, 3000 wounded and over 60.000 imprisoned people. Parasnath Tripathi narrates how, in front of a Police Station, among a multitude not only of peasants, but also of teachers, landlords and civil servants, he chose to sing Alha and the souls of everybody were stirred up and they attacked the Police Station and set fire to everything inside it. (Download - QuickTime mp2 - 1Mb)

I call on the name of Narayan and the Goddess Sharda
Are kaih sumiran kai ke Narayan kaki dhai kai devi Sarada kar dhyan
The boy pointed at his chest and said : Englishman don't talk
Are chatiya khole larika bolai ki he angrejan bolau nahu
Shoot at my chest, let see how you will kill me
marau goliya mori chatiya ma dekhit katik var hoi jay
he said these words and fought the enemy for you brother peasant
eha khai jujh gaye jaliya ma tohare khatir bhai kisan


1 - The content of this paper has been the topic for a more detailed essay published as A people's voice in the Indian movement for the independence in Annali di Ca' Foscari XXIII, 3 1984 (serie orientale 15) pp. 151-175.
2 - Some of the names are that of well known Gods and heroes of Hindu tradition and Indian history (Rama, Laksman, Krsna, Asoka, Gandhi, J.Nehru, B.G.Tilak), others are not so famous among Westerners. Bhagat Sinh was charged with the murder of a police officer in Lahore and sentenced to death. Kamla Nehru, J. Nehru's sister, and Sarojini Naydu both worked for the Congress Party and are symbols of Indian women emancipation at that time.
3 - The role of a folk singer/folk songs has somehow survived in modern times, and though nowadays the media appear to have undertaken the same functions, story telling remains a matter of men behind them. "A ballad singer in old days used to function as an instrument for disseminating information through musical entertainment....His traditional role has not been eliminated in modern times... he continues to be an entertainer and also a propagandist in his own way....When the national sensibility was hurt under the yoke of alien domination, innumerable songs and ballads sprung up. In the last century many songs were composed in folk styles by regional poets and village singers for making the people rise against the existing rule. Those who ventured to raise arms against the British Raj later received high appreciation of the folk singers. The National movement led by the Congress and Mahatma Gandhi also left its imprints on hundreds of folk songs." S. PARMAR, Traditional folk media in India, New Delhi 1975, pagg. 56, 75, 81.
4 - Cfr. D.DI VIRGILIO, La ballata di Vijamal, in Annali di Ca' Foscari XX 3 1981 (serie orientale 12). D.DI VIRGILIO, La ballata di Re Gopichand, in In forma di parole, anno VIII n.3 1987.
5 - "The Ocean of story is a professional story-teller whose stories carry the stamp of old Sanskrit traditions. He is a learned man who possesses a sharp memory, melodious voice for recitation of Sanskrit Slokas and Oriya songs and can imitate the sound of musical instruments and drums and by his gestures can conjure pictures of situations like marriage, war or any other social upheavals." K.B.DAS, A glimpse into the Oriya folk-literature, in Studies in Indian folk culture, ed. by S.S.Gupta, Calcutta 1964, pag. 144.
6 - Historical notes from P. SPEAR, Storia dell'India, Milano 1970, 654 pp.


Home | Contatti