Elided Histories: Narratives of the Pandvani

in Article
Published on: 17 June 2019

Preeti Bahadur Ramaswami, Mushtak Khan

Sometime around the turn of the century a young uncle and nephew duo sang stories of the Pandavas in the Raipur-Bilaspur region. The mama-bhanja duo, as they came to be called, sang at churahas and in open spaces, without microphone and without a stage. Entire village turned up to listen to them, staying up all night, abandoning their homes to thieves who raided them, night after night. Perplexed by this phenomenon, the local police held the mama-bhanja duo accountable for this law and order problem and locked them in jail. But the two sang the Pandvani even in jai, and were soon released. The Pandvani, however, ceased to be performed at night in Chhattisgarh after this incident, an embargo that stays to this day.

Narayan lal Verma and his Ragi, alias the mama-bhanja duo, are the earliest known singers, in public memory, of the Pandvani whose renditions created an aura around them as performing artists. In many ways, the story of  the transformation of the Pandvani, from oral lore sung by bards and other communities in this region, to a highly idiomatic performative genre shaped by individual artistry and prowess, begins with them. Yet their story is rarely told. Despite the legends that float around them, performers of the Pandvani speak of them only after persistent prodding, and with mystifying reluctance. The histories of the Pandvani in Chhattisgarh are rich and complex. This essay attempts to excavate these narratives--of the stories, lore and text that were brought together as the Pandvani, and of performers who gave it voice and identity.

From Oral Lore to Text: The Role of Jhaduram Devangan

Around 1940, a few years before India gained Independence, a young Devangan weaver Jhaduram Devangan was commissioned to weave a sari. The sari was woven and handed over, however, the new owner had no money to pay in cash. In lieu of cash he handed Jhaduram a copy of a bhasha of the Mahabharat by Sabal Singh Chauhan. The text cast a spell on the young weaver who memorized it while spinning cloth, often committing mistakes in his yen to learn the text. The course of the Pandvani was altered immutably--for Sabal Singh Chauhan’s bhasha was now woven ineluctably into the course of the Pandvani. Legend has it that Jhaduram Devangan heard the Pandvani singer Itvari Sahu sing a version of the Pandvani that was known orally in this region and was enraged. It was incorrect he fumed, and, worse still, deviant. The version sung, according to Jhaduram Devangan, contained episodes that belonged to the realm of imaginary, or non scriptural. A public challenge ensued to perform the Pandvani, which ended with Jhaduram’s victory, armed with his newly acquired prowess with the text.

What this episode did was effect a shift in the singing of the Pandvani, from oral lore of the Pandavas that was known across this region to text based singing. Jhaduram Devangan took a public stand on the Pandvani, stating that stories of the Pandvani that were in circulation in this region had no sanctity or sanction. What unravelled was a process of sanskritization that was unique. A stigma came to be attached to singing stories that were based on oral lore--these were not shastric, and belonged to the realm of the imaginary. In later years this created a binary in public discourse within this region. By the 1980s  the singing of regionally known lore of the Pandavas came to be termed kapalik or imaginary, as opposed to vedamati or text-based singing. These terms, created in public discourse within the region gradually expanded in scope to include styles of rendition for increasingly professional spheres of performance.

A pejorative ring still accompanies any mention of  kapalik performances. Post independence, the rise of radio and television media created the need for professional artists who could perform at different fora within the state and outside it. Schools of rendition were created and ‘traditional’ ways of singing the Pandvani were instituted. In all of this the practice of singing regional lore was pushed into marginal existence. What is more, performers were ashamed to admit any cognisance of this form that half a century ago formed the very core of  the Pandvani in Chhattisgarh. Seen within the context of a predominantly lower caste population within the region, this process of sanskritization within the Pandvani is a pointer to larger issues germane to Chhattisgarh--on the movement towards upper class practices around the time of Independence, or towards literacy and written texts. This was a movement that was led from within ‘lower caste’ communities, for Jhaduram Devangan was a Devangan weaver. If the story is true--this shift was brought about entirely from within.


Chhattisgarh: A Place of and for Performativity

In many ways these stories of the Pandvani are born of the special place performativity has held in this region as a way of life. In Chhattisgarh, the sheer artistry associated with performativity as a mode of being is highly regarded and valued. Oral accounts and field notes collected from a range of contemporary performers (2018-19) all point to the fact that the Pandvani, as indeed other lore in this region, was once sung and recited widely, across communities. Telis, Satnamis, Devars, Pardhan Gonds--all sang the stories of the Pandavas. Their singing styles were recognisably distinct and based on oral sources. Unfortunately, rapidly fading memories of a clutch of individuals are the only pointers to forms of performativity for the Pandvani that predate the move to text-based renditions. Chetan Devangan, a Pandvani singer who has single handedly spearheaded a movement for archiving Pandvani histories, can recollect the ways in which particular Pandvani singers sang. The mama-bhanja duo, who were Kurmis, began their performances with Rame rame bhaiyya... he says. They held the khartal, khanjari and chikaaraa in their hands, and performed standing in the light of the mashaal. Others began with the refrain Sana nana nana


Across Communities: A Well Spring of Lore

The time that Jhaduram Devangan started performing, the year 1945, was ripe for transformation. The following two decades were to see decisive shifts in the performance of the Pandvani, shifts that set its future course. Public memories, recorded in 2018-19, of singers who were reciting the Pandvani before these transformations took place point to how widespread the tradition was. Not all of them are remembered as great performers, like Narayan Lal Verma and his nephew. But their names, and sometimes faces have remained in public memory as voices that recited the Pandvani in days gone by. Undoubtedly these were performers that the next generation of singers, those that became a class of professional artists, heard and loved, but seem reluctant to recall.

Amongst those performing in the 1950s were Samaru Ram Dhurv, Gond singer from Sargaon, Raipur district, Bodhan Suryavnshi, Satnami singer from Jhalmala, Mahasamund district, Kulpat Singh Suryavansh from Dhurvakari village, Bilaspur, Dewar, Pathari singers from Ratanpur, Demru Dewar from Kukusda, who sang only of Draupadi's chirharan, Govindram Lodhi, a Khatik (butcher community) from Chandragarhi, Kanhaiya Bande, a Satnamisinger from Lavangaon. (Stash of names mainly from the Raipur-Durg-Mahasammund area.)


Without Orthodoxy: The Transmission of the Pandvani

Before Jhaduram Devangan made the text of Sabal Singh Chauhan a touchstone of credibility for singing the Pandvani, what  was sung were independent episodes that recounted exploits of the Pandavas. Some of these stories were distinctly regional. For instance, the lore of Bheem recounted by Pardhans, bards to the Gonds, in which he, as an Adivasi God, plays the mandar and brings rain. Byah katha recounted the marriage of each of the Pandavas in episodes that wove magic and humour into the exploits of the Pandavas. Here, too, Bheem featured as a hero. Kathas/stories that formed part of the Mahabharata but had a life independent of the text were in circulation in Chhattisgarh, as in other parts of India. Of these the most popular were Karna katha, or stories that sang of the generosity of Karna, often not regarded as part of the  Pandvani repertoire, rather as bhajan. These tales were sung and performed by the Pardhan Gonds, Telias, Satnamis, Devars, at occasions such as death rituals (dasgatra) that lasted ten days or at birth rites (chhati), or in post harvest months by Vasudevas as they went from village to village. Intertextualites between the Ramayana and the Mahabharata surfaced often in the recounting of these tales, sometimes on account of the relationship between Bheem and Hanuman.

A range of Chhattisgarhi terms are used to describe them depending on region and usage--kevadanti (folklore), dantkatha (folklore), khatgayan (aberrant  song), or pawara (stories). Stories were transmitted orally and mnemonically. The routes of transmission were not formalised. Even though Vasudevas, Devars and Pardhans were bards, the transmission of stories and lore (of Pandvani and others as well) took place across communities. Teli, Nishaad, Pardhi, Satnami--all sang and recited stories. A Teli could learn from a Nishaad, and a Pardhi could learn from a Satnami--the circulation of tales knew no boundaries. This was a trait peculiar to this region, and probably contributed to the performative spirit of its people.

So Teejan Bai learnt from her grandfather, who was a Pardhi, while Laxman Singh Dhruv of Chirko village learnt from Bisahu Sahu (Teli) and Khilavan Sen    (Nayi). Indira Jangde, village Kuthrel, zila Raipur,  learnt from Mangani Das Jhangde, her father-in-law, a Satnami. Kumari and Chameli Nishaad, from village Aklordeeh, Durg district, learnt from their father Sewaram Nishaad. Jhaduram Devangan learnt from Durg Singh Thakur who made a tika (commentory) of the Mahabahrat available to him.

Without the edifying moral universe of the shastras, the Pandavas are neither heroic beings nor divinities in these tales, and are often ridiculed. In some areas. Humour and lighthearted banter form part of the ways in which these tales were told, weaving gammat or improvisation as a distinctive cultural trait. Performers added songs, other tales (chepak katha) to embellish stories, for it is through embellishment that they displayed their artistry and prowess. All these strands fed into the telling of Pandvani lore in this region. Jhaduram Devangan rallied against these very cultural traits in the telling of the Pandvani. Why did he seek orthodoxy in a region that was free from it?

The Devars and Vasudevas are rarely heard performing any more, partly due to the stigma attached to seeking alms. Most of the Pardhans in the Janjgir and Bilaspur districts have forgotten stories of Bheem. Jhaduram Devangan’s interventions kept oral lore and its practitioners away from professional performance circuits that began to emerge post Independence, and their ways of performing have become part of a hidden history of artistry in this region. (It was with some difficulty that the authors were able to locate and record them.) It was only Teejan Bai who was able to carve a space for this lore, as a performing artist, and create a reputation that exalted this form of singing .


The Style Wars:  Vedamati vs Kapalik

Jhaduram Devangan and Teejan Bai stand on opposite sides in professional performance contexts for the Pandvani that emerged in post independence India. Jhaduram Devangan believed that he was raising the bar for the Pandvani as a genre, by weeding out oral regional stories he regarded inauthentic and imaginary. In redefining the Pandvani, he was seeking to place it at par with a pan-Indian tradition based on the Sanskrit epic. There is every likelihood that his interventions gave the Pandvani greater visibility and contributed to its place in national and international fora. However, within Chhattisgarh, this process polarised the field and created binaries of authentic versus imaginary, folk (dantakatha/ khatgayan/ kevadanti) versus canonical (shastriya). Within the plains of Raipur and beyond, this discourse had great social impact. A sense of shame was generated around these tales, and everything related to them pushed into oblivion.

Teeejan Bai effectively stayed this process. She learnt stories by listening to her grandfather reading stories of the Mahabharata from a text. Very early on, she captured audiences with her voice, packed with power and emotion, and by the way she embellished her stories. Crucial to this was the manner in which she brought Chhattisgarhi oral lores back into her narratives--they were often absorbed into the telling of episodes of the eighteen parvs. When she strayed from the text, the largely upper class, urban local intelligentia gave it an identity, terming it the kapalik shaili or the imaginary style.

New and Old Circuits of Storytelling

Oralities: The fact that Teejan Bai’s grandfather, a ‘lower caste’ Pardhi was reading the text suggests that written texts were in circulation in this region amongst non upper caste communities. Teejan Bai herself illiterate, heard the stories from her grandfather who read from a book, and memorised them.  An oscillation of oral and literate worlds was at play in Chhattisgarh, aiding the circulation of stories in the last century. As with Teejan Bai, Rekha Jalkshatri, learnt the tale of Raja Bharthari from her grandfather who had read a written version. He recited it to her for her to learn the story and perform it.  Rekha herself never read the story from a book, being illiterate. Over the past century, written texts circulated freely in this region, aided by the proliferation of printing presses. Textual version of stories known orally came to supplement oral lore and turn episodically known tales into ‘full’ versions that could be performed on stage. Seen in this context, Jhaduram Devangan’s interventions with Sabal Singh Chauhan’s Mahabharat was not a solitary occurrence.  

From Individuals to Groups: From recitations that took place mainly during rites of passage occasions, the Pandvani came to be performed at events when audiences flocked to hear the story for its own sake. Performances were earlier held in the open by a lead performer and his ragi, standing (khada saaj) with one or two instruments including the tambura. These became staged affairs of groups, (mandalis, parties), accompanied by an orchestra of harmonium and tabla players and later the banjo.Together with what was being recited, what changed also was how it was recited.

Before the advent of state-sponsored mediations--radio, cultural institutions and programmes--there were significant changes in the format and nature of performative traditions in this region, led from within. The most significant was occasioned by the rise of the Nacha, a popular theatrical form that was being shaped and reified in the 1920s. Dau Mandiraji, a wealthy Malguzar from Ringni Raveli, gathered Nacha artists into a group and slowly modified the form to include social satire, gammat (improvisation) and other very distinctive performative elements. In place of performances that took place out in the open, in chaupals, all through the night under the light of mashaals, he introduced petrolamps that allowed performers to sit and perform. Beyond the Nacha, these changes were to have far reaching consequences for the form, setting and social organization of performance traditions in Chhattisgarh. A new recognizability for individual artists was engendered and mandalis and groups slowly became the norm. The mama-bhanja duo were in many ways at the cusp of these changes--they still performed standing, but audiences, from all accounts, flocked to hear their recitations for their own sake, responding to their skills as talented artists.  

The Nacha was to become the conduit for other changes in the performance of the Pandvani as well. In the 1950s, Habib Tanveer, the noted Delhi based theatre director was looking for Chhattisgarhi artists he could induct into his company Naya Theatre. In addition to Nacha artists, he also came into contact with Pandvani performers, inducting  Punaram Nishaad, a Pandvani artist, bringing him to Delhi. Nacha and Pandvani performers were now exposed to a different sensibility--one that resulted in the absorption of theatrical elements in the performance of the Pandvani. The transformation of the Pandvani was now complete--replete with costume and make that reflected a Chhattisgarhi identity for audiences within and beyond the region.

Inspirational Gurus: The Lure of the Pandvani and its Lineages

Beyond style, vedamati and kapalik also came to notate schools of the Pandvani, with Jhaduram Devangan and Teejan Bai at their head. Pandvani performers came to be associated with either one of them who were seen either as direct mentors, or inspirational models, instituting in effect, lineages of the Pandvani. Of the two, Jhaduram took on pupils with a greater sense of commitment and investment. Chetan Devangan, one of his pupils, holds a Pandvani mela every year in his memory, a fact that illustrates the aura of Jhaduram Devangan. Punaram Nishaad, who received the Padma Shri even before his mentor, some say unethically, has gone on record to say that he was inspired to learn the Pandvani  when he heard Jhaduram Devangan. So had Reva Ram Ganjir. In a similar vein, Meena Sahu admits to being inspired by Teejan Bai. Prabha Yadav, in turn, first heard Meena Sahu perform when she was very young and craved to perform the Pandvani. Recognising this, she was taken by elders from her village to Jhaduram Devangan, She stayed in his home for tutelage for several years. Being inspired by a guru qualified admittance into her or his lineage as much as actual apprenticeship.

The lure to perform and be recognized as a performing artist created an entire movement in this region in post Independence India. Performing is a state of being in which inner and outer selves are affected. Teejan Bai says that she was drawn to this form hypnotised by Krishna’’s flute that would play in her head, and that stories from the Mahabharata came to her in her dreams. On one occasion, she states, a heavy downpour caused her harmonium and tabla to be washed away. Her accompanists fled. But she carried on singing, for she still heard the tunes, 'as if Mahadev himself had descended to play for her'. Jhaduram Devangan claims to have had visitations by the Pandavas and Krishna, making him divinely ordained for the task of reciting their stories. Mythologies of divine inspiration were drawn by both Teejan Bai and Jhaduram Devangan, creating an aura around both of them as performers and around Pandvani as an art form. Prabha Yadav was only about ten when she left her home to learn the Pandvani from Jhaduram Devangan. The Nishaad sisters from Aklordeeh have devoted their lives to the Pandvani, for while Kumari Nishaad sings the Pandvani, Chameli Nishaad plays the banjo.

Pandvani Timeline

1884-971 Narayan lal Verma, Bhuvan lal Verma, mama-bhanja duo from Ravan Jhipan who created a stir with their singing before Independence.

1928 formation of the Ringni Raveli Nacha mandali by Dau Mandiraji.

1927 birth of Jhaduram Devangan who starts performing a text based version of the Pandvani around 1940.

1963  Akaashvani Raipur, a key patron of performing artists, established.

1971 Punram Nishaad (born 1941 in Ringni Raveli ) travels to Delhi with Habib Tanveer

1975 Sangeet Natak Academy confers award on Punram Nishaad

1975 the Pandvani creates ripples internationally. Pandvani performers begin giving performance tours abroad.

1984 Shikar Samman conferred on Jhadruram Devangan

1987 Chetan Devangan institutes Pandvani mela to honor Jhaduram Devangan as Pandvani Guru. After his death in 2001, it becomes a  yearly mela held in his memory.

1988 Padma Shri awarded to Teejan Bai.

1991 Tulsi Award to Jhaduram Devangan

2000 Padma Bhushan awarded to Teejan Bai

2019 Padma Vibhushan awarded to Teejan Bai


This content has been created as part of a project commissioned by the Directorate of Culture and Archaeology, Government of Chhattisgarh, to document the cultural and natural heritage of the state of Chhattisgarh.