Songs of freedom
Reviewed by M. Rajivlochan

1857: The Oral Tradition
By Pankaj Rag.

Rupa. Pages 212. Rs 395.

1857: The Oral TraditionTHIS book adds an important facet to the studies on the revolt of 1857. Pankaj Rag collects various folk renditions of the memories of 1857 and gives us a unique picture of how the people of Awadh and central India felt about the events of 1857. Towards this end, he painstakingly collects folk songs to weave a poetic tapestry much akin to that of another famous one found in Bayeux. His effort has been to bring together a large body of hitherto ignored literature that has documented the local traditions of central India, match it with the archival reconstruction of the times and place before us the soul, as it were, of the people.

Rag begins with a detailed discussion of oral traditions and contemporary literature in the context of 1857. Here he recounts in brief the history of the revolt in UP and CP on the basis of the various extant documents and histories of the freedom movement. The more interesting part of his book is the depiction of Rani of Jhansi, the tribals of central India and the taluqdars of Awadh in folk songs.

The Rani of Jhansi, as Rag discovers, was much braver than what Subhadhra Kumari Chauhan depicted her in the famous poem and had been preceded by many others who were strongly opposed to the British. Chauhan herself, Rag tells us, was building upon the tradition of the ‘harbolas’, the local minstrels of the Bundelkhand region. They would roam the countryside and sing the songs of bravery of the people in opposing British rule. Much before the mutiny of 1857, the songs of the harbolas had created an atmosphere of rebellion here. It was not just the Rani of Jhansi who was rebellious in nature. The entire population of Bundelkhand seemed to be against the British presence in their midst. While many hoped to stand against the British, when it came to actual action, most also withdrew into their forts and let the foolhardy fight their battles for freedom. The songsters of Bundelkhand captured such withdrawals, but without labeling it as betrayal; the heroism of the people who fought to drive out the British, however, formed the bulk of their songs.

The most important feature of the songsters’ renditions, Rag tells us, was that they primarily focused on the lives and times of the common people. People of all castes, the songsters of Bundelkhand said, joined hands to drive out the British even when many of the feudal lords of the region preferred loyalty to the colonisers. Lower castes, untouchables, Brahmins and Banias all stood together in their opposition.

Similarly, the tribals of central India too find considerable place in the folk traditions of this period even when they have been almost entirely ignored by professional historians. Rag puts together the lore and recollects the bravery of the Gond tribals in opposing the British. Making good use of the official archives and matching them with the folk traditions, Rag tells us of the efforts by the tribal leaders to create a united front against the British. Such efforts were often undermined by self-servers who foresaw the difficulties in conducting military operations against the modern British forces. Yet, the opponents of the British always managed to collect a large body of common people to help them.

However, all this has been missing from the written histories of the region, since the historians chose to confine their searches to official records. Rag fills this gap admirably by going into the details of folktales and songs of the period that are extant till today to reconstruct the heroism and anti-colonialism that permeated the society of central India. This book comes out as an important corrective to the histories of 1857 written till now.