Field Notes: Telling the tale of Gopi Chanda in Chhattisgarh

in Article
Published on: 13 December 2018

Preeti Bahadur Ramaswami, Mushtak Khan




The tale of Gopi Chanda and that of  Raja Bharthari are interlinked. Both their protagonists  are kings who become yogis on account of circumstances that are  predestined. Their fates are linked to Nath Jogis, a community of renunciates, who both feature in these tales and were tellers of these tales, which were often told in tandem. The tale of Gopi Chanda is especially popular in Bengal, for Gopi Chanda’s father Raja Trilok Chand. ruled from there. According to the legend, he was married to  princess Mainavati who was the sister of Raja Bharthari, establishing an immediate, familial link between the two characters and tales. What also binds the two tales is their emotional core: the dilemmas experienced while renouncing the world.



In Chhattisgarh, there are but a few performers who recite this tale now. Its  fate now seems to have become unsutured from the tale of Raja Bharthari, which is sung and performed along with other oral epics in circulation in this region, such as  Chandaini and Pandavani.


Satnamis as performers of the Gopi Chanda


This module presents the version of this tale performed by Dani Ram Banjare, a Satnami,  who believes he is one of the few performers of this story surviving in Chhattisgarh today.  He was led to this story by his guru, Sahdev Pandit, also a Satnami, who urged him to learn and perform this tale as there were few who knew it  and he would have few competitors. He learnt the tale therefore, not as one who belonged to a community that knew this story and performed it, but as one who adopted it as a professional performing genre.   The Satnamis were a ‘lower caste’ community from Chhattisgarh who organized themselves into a sect or panth in the nineteenth century. They are often cited as performers of several oral epics in this region, particularly  the Lorik Chanda. When asked about communities amongst whom the practice of storytelling, or that listening to them, is still active, respondents often point to the role of the Satnamis. All of this suggests that storytelling formed an important part of practices adopted by this relatively recently constituted community. The performance of the tale of Gopi Chanda by Dani Ram Banjare, then, also epitomises this trend.


According to Sonau Ram Nirmalkar, an  authority on performing traditions in Chhattisgarh, the  Devars, traditionally a bardic community from this region, used to sing the Gopi Chanda but rarely do so now. As a child Dani Ram Banjare often heard the tale from  Gorakh Panthi jogis when they came wandering through his village seeking alms. He remembers hearing both the tale of Bharthari and Gopi Chanda together, (sanlagn). He also remembers hearing the tale from a remarkable Satnami performer of this epic, Tula Ram , who sang it in a distinctively female voice, adopting, curiously, a female personna in singing the tale. Their styles probably shaped

his own performative style which is distinctive and sonorous. This  distinctiveness is underscored by the ‘costume’ he dons for the performance:  accoutrements with cowrie shells and beads worn by Ahirs/ Rauts, a pastoral and bardic community.  He sings and dances while performing the tale, and ‘tails’ of beads and cowrie shells swirl to his rhythm.  An orchestra of the harmonium, the ubiquitous banjo, and the tabla accompanies him, as against the earlier mode of singing with the tambura that Sahadeva Pandit followed.  He is accompanied by Janaki Bai- together they alternate the roles of lead performer and Ragi.  While his is  a very stylized recitation of the tale, that of Janaki Bai follows a more conventional  performative manner.


Versions of the tale: is there a regional one?


There appear to be at least  two versions of the tale prevalent across north India. According to the more prevalent  version Gopi Chand is a Nath Panthi yogi reborn to fulfill his mother Mainavati’s yearning  for a child. On this episode rests his fate- for Gopi Chanda is meant to surrender to his preceptor,  return to the ways of a yogi and forsake all the worldly comforts of a prince when he turns eleven. The young Gopi Chanda is not able to reconcile himself to his destiny and he resists.  The story unravels as series of events that capture his agony and predicament at every turn , and the audience is moved to empathise with this very human condition. This version was published by the Gita Press Gorakhpur in conjunction with the story of  Raja Bharthari, validating it as the main version of the tale. Both Sahadev Pandit and Sonau Ram Nirmalkar have used this printed version of the tale. The version sung by Dani Ram Banjare, however, differs substantially. According to this version, the young and beautiful Gopi Chanda becomes a yogi of his own volition in order to save his father from the clutches of fairies with magical powers. His mother tries very hard to dissuade him,  and his sister collapses from the shock of seeing him transformed into a yogi, but the young Gopi Chanda stays steadfast and undergoes many trials to eventually succeed and bring his father back. While the source of this version is not clear, it is possible that it signals a Chhattisgarhi variant of the tale.


The story according to Dani Ram Banjare:


In Ujjain was born a lineage of rulers, Indrasen, his son Gandharvasen who had two sons Vikaramjit and Bharthari and one daughter Mainavati . Mainavati was married to the ruler of Bengal,  Trilok Chand. Some time after his marriage Trilok Chand sets off on a hunt to Kamarupdesh (the land of magic) armed with an army of nine lakh soldiers. The enchantresses of that land (jadugarni ) use magical powers to turn him and his army to stone. Back home, the tulsi plant wilts, and Mainavati understands what has befallen her husband.   The grief stricken Mainavati is pregnant and gives birth to a beautiful boy Gopi Chand. He grows up very close to his mother who takes pains to  hide from him his father’s fate. While playing with his friends the young Gopi Chand learns that his father is not dead but has been turned to stone . Gopi Chanda resolves to save his father despite his motehrs pelase to desist and stay back.


Gopi Chanda sets off to acquire yogic powers that alone can help him overcome the magical powers of the enchantresses. The path is fraught with pain, and the narrative abounds in descriptions of his physical transformation from prince to yogi , detailing signs of renunciation to  signal points of emotional connect with audiences. His mother is unable to recognize him when he asks her for food and alms, and his sister nearly dies of grief seeing him in the garb of a yogi in place of  the rich vestments of a prince. Gopi Chanda presses on in his mission, first serving the tulsi, personified as a spirit and goddess,  to revive her and gain her blessings and then the gurus  Jallandar Nath and Gorakh Nath, and ultimately Shiva Himself. Equipped with their powers and blessings he is able to rescue his father and bring him back. On the way he also weds and brings his young bride with him.   


 Based on conversations with Sonau Ram Nirmalkar, Rakesh Tiwari and Dani Ram Banjare



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 .