Jest for life
Mirasis are not only great actors and entertainers, endowed with the rustic wit known for its dramatic punch, they also have a social role in rural Punjab, says C.D. Verma

Recently, I was attending a social function at Rewari in Haryana. The town is steeped in history and culture. Suddenly there arrived a troupe of street singers — tall, lanky, having rustic looks, dressed in blue kurtas and white dhotis and playing on dhols and daflis. They sang encomiums in praise of my friend, a rich descendant of a family of Ahirwal, and addressed him as the pride of the place. The burden of the ballad was that Rewari, the nerve-centre of Ahirwal, the land of the Yadavas, contiguous with brajbhoomi, the playfield of Lord Krishna and Radha, derived its name from Rewati, wife of Balram, the elder brother of Lord Krishna. Rewati had got the jagir of Rewari as a marriage gift.
These rural actors are an integral part of the cultural scene in Punjab and Haryana
These rural actors are an integral part of the cultural scene in Punjab and Haryana — Photo by Pawan Sharma

After each quatrain, the troupe’s refrain was: Neem ki lakdi chandan se kum nahin, Rewari shaher London se kum nahin. My friend handsomely rewarded them in cash and kind for the enthralling ditty. On enquiry I was told that they were a troupe of Mirasis. Every now and then they came from the far-off tribal belts of Rajasthan to entertain the rural folk of Haryana and Punjab, and thus earned their sustenance. This was my recent encounter with Mirasis, about whom I had heard a lot from my father and grand-father right from my early childhood.

Mirasis, who mostly live in Rajasthan and Punjab, are an integral part of the social system. They are rural actors, jesters and entertainers, always witty, humorous and sarcastic. Like the Shakespearean clown, they wag their tongues, and through their sallies and repartees can make fun of and laugh at anybody, howsoever big he may be. However, this tribe of great rural actors and entertainers is now on the verge of extinction. The present generation is unaware of this species of actors and entertainers, for they are rarely seen in the urban areas, though the rural folk do see them off and on, particularly in Punjab and Haryana.

Dr Charan Dass Sidhu, a recipient of the coveted Sahitya Akademi Award, is a doyen of Punjabi literature, who has scripted 33 plays, some of which have been translated into Hindi, Urdu and English. Charan Dass was born and brought up in village Bham (Hoshiarpur district). Therefore, being a great actor himself, and well-versed with the rural ambience, he is quite conversant with all the characteristics and idiosyncrasies of a Mirasi. As I know him personally and intimately, he has something of a Mirasi in him, too, which he amply manifests as a dramatic entertainer.

In an informal talk he said that Mirasis were not only great actors, entertainers and jesters, endowed with the rustic wit known for its dramatic punch, but were also a class apart on which depended most of the errands of society at large. He explained that whenever somebody died in the village, it was invariably Mirasi women who led the keening drill, and directed women mourning over the body. He referred to a film, Rudali, in which Dimple Kapadia directed keening over the body whenever someone died in a Rajasthani village.

He quoted an anecdote (based on a real incident) from his book Dramebazian to dilate on this point. He said: “Close to my ancestral home in my native village lived two families of Mirasis of Mir Bibi and Fazaldin. As a child I was a great admirer of both of them. No socio-religious ceremony could be concluded without their assistance. Both were blessed with a natural talent for dramebazi. Dittu Shah, a rich money lender of the village, was a known penny-pincher. When he died, Mir Bibi, as usual, was leading the keening exercise.

“The mourning women were beating their breasts. Suddenly Mir Bibi thought of a mischief. She changed the tenor of keening. Kaudi pichhey marda sher saru jiha; hai, hai sher saru jiha; moot to machhian pharda, sher saru jiha. (He would die for a farthing, the great departed hero. He would catch fish from urine, the great departed hero). The women stopped lamenting and burst into laughter. The family of the niggardly money-lender was reduced to a rank lower than that of his menials."

The root of the word Mirasi is the Arabic word Miras, which means virasat (inheritance). Historians believe that Mirasis originated from the Arabs, and were related to Hazrat Mohammad. Therefore, they carried the tradition of the founder of Islam. Over the centuries, some of them migrated to Persia, and from there moved to the united Punjab via Afghanistan.

A group travelled to India with Sufi saint Khwaja Moin-ud-Din Chisti, and eventually settled in Rajasthan. They lived as a community outside a village or town. The head of the community was invariably addressed as Mir. As such each one of the member of the tribe in local parlance came to be called a Mir.

The name Mir Bibi proves the point. Perhaps the prefix Mir in the word Mirasi leads one to the same conclusion. Since the Mirasis had the God-gifted inheritance of wit and humour, they were employed by native kings, nawabs and regional satraps as naquibs or heralds. They would announce the arrival of the king in hyperbolic words: Bamulaiza hoshiar; zile subhani, shahanshahon ke shahanshah, tajedare Hind… tashreef la rahey hain. They not only acted as heralds, or dhandis, but as court jesters they also entertained kings and courtiers. Take, for example, a folk-tale connected with Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who had many Mirasis in his court.

Once he called as many Mirasis as the number of steps in the staircase of his palace. He asked each one of them to narrate a joke commensurate with each stair he descends to make him laugh. One who failed would get the severest punishment. As he started climbing down the stairs one by one, the lined-up Mirasis, one after another, began telling jokes. But none could make the king laugh. At last remained the last stair and the last Mirasi. He knew that like others he too was going to be punished. Therefore, at the end of the joke he said: Hun ta has pai kanya. (Laugh at least now, you one-eyed man). And the king burst out laughing.

The Mirasis could deride, lampoon, ridicule, belittle or scoff at with impunity, because they were primarily actors, jesters and entertainers. Yet another folk-tale has it that once a Mirasi asked Maharaja Ranjit Singh: "Where were you when God was distributing looks?" The king replied: "I had gone to get luck," and added: " You have good looks, but you are my menial. I have ugly looks, but I can put you to the gallows." It is luck that rules and not wisdom and wit.

Mirasis have a great social utility in rural Punjab. They perform many a social errand for denizens of their village or town. It is still customary for Mirasi women to lead the keening exercise. In the event of a marriage, or any other social occasion, it is they who follow invites and help serve and entertain guests. Mirasis in troupes are generally seen moving around in streets, and going from house to house singing and dancing to beg for alms in cash and kind on socio-cultural occasions. The Rababis among them recite hymns from holy scriptures before Sikh congregations.

Being followers of Hazrat Mohammad and Sufi saints, Mirasis have assimilated ecclesiastical traits. They enjoy the support and benefaction of Hindu and Muslim saints, faqirs and priests. Their religion is, in fact, a synthesis of Hindu and Muslim tenets, which they follow in precept and practice. Notwithstanding Mirasis being Muslims by birth, and having Muslim names, they sing of Hindu gods and goddesses. As such they remain to be the real personifications of secularism in India.