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The Nehru Memorial Museum & Library


‘Between Hearsay and History: Medieval narrative traditions in Rajasthan’ , 25th November, 2014.


In medieval Rajasthan oral and textual bardic traditions patronised by the Rajputs, played a very important role in fashioning political and social identities. Usually, but not always, composed by the community of Charans, in forms like raso, vachanika, beli, kavitt, duha, soratha these traditions were both genealogical as well as narrative in content and context. An interesting form witnessed in medieval Rajasthani historical literature is the vat or bat which emanating from Sanskrit varta, can be interpreted variously as a telling, an account, a story or a fable. Unlike the stylized language of the verse, the language of the bat is in the vein of relating an incident, of reportage, almost testimonial, thus primarily oral. The bat recalls events and conversations, while incorporating myths, legends, poetry and hearsay to make an interesting tale to be told. They could refer to hostilities and settlements as well as conquests or marriages. Sometimes genealogies were included in and reiterated through bats.
All these forms complimented each other effortlessly, as is visible in the vast compendium of Rajput history, the Khyat (account of glory) by Munhata Nainsi in the late seventeenth century. In some sense an aristocratic Rajput identity was forged through these traditions by their persistent reiteration of protection of land and forts, as being central to “Rajput ethos”. Nainsi’s Khyat, makes extensive use of bats as a way of recollecting events that brought Rajput warriors in contact with each other. Most of the bats collated by Nainsi are anonymous, unlike the duhas, sorathas or kavitts that are attributed to Charan poets. The bats scripted by Nainsi appear to be collectively memorized accounts, perhaps passed over generations, practiced as recitals, altered by incorporations and deletions over time. Shrouded in anonymity, the bats were nevertheless conscious acts of remembering and forgetting that crafted a certain kind of Rajput past.
By the nineteenth century, a large body of bardic composition was dismissed as sycophantic doggerel and hyperbole. Even Vir Vinod, a work by renowned Charan historian Shyamaldas Dadhavadhia, attempted to move away from the bardic style and method. However, Rajput histories like that of James Tod as well as others that followed Tod continued to employ bards as informants and incorporate older bardic compositions in their work. Such accounts and compositions were expected to feed into a larger narrative of Rajput history, rather than tell a textured story by themselves.


Dr. Tanuja Kothiyal is a faculty in History at the School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University. She has been interested in studying networks of circulation, of people, resources and ideas in medieval and early modern western Rajasthan. Her doctoral thesis, awarded by the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, examines the relationships between mobility and identity formation in late medieval and early modern western Rajasthan. She has also been interested in exploring oral narrative traditions in western India, as ways through which alternate/counter narratives were produced and circulated. Her teaching, in fact, draws heavily from this research as she introduces students to explore and imagine oral tradition as history. Dr. Kothiyal has a Masters and M. Phil degree from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is currently engaged with converting her doctoral thesis into a manuscript, to be published under the title, Nomadic Narratives: A History of Mobility and Identity in the Great Indian Desert, is being published by Cambridge University Press, India.

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