Oral Epics in India: Exploring History and Identity

Home/ Oral Epics in India: Exploring History and Identity
Course TypeCourse CodeNo. Of Credits
Foundation ElectiveSLS2HS1084

Semester and Year Offered: Winter 2019

Course Coordinator and Team: Tanuja Kothiyal

Email of course coordinator: tanuja[at]aud[dot]ac[dot]in

Pre-requisites: None

Aim: The aim of this course is to explore some oral folk narrative traditions as historical texts and examine through these the processes through which multilayered socio-historical identities emerge. The course explores relationships between orality, memory and history and processes of social transmission, as rooted in societal processes. The traditions that may be explored in this course include Pabuji, Devnarayan, Dhola, Umar Marvi jo kisso and Khandoba, among others, in the genres in which they are performed like swang, kissa, kathaa vachan, phad vachan, jhurava etc . The traditions that may be explored in this course include Pabuji, Devnarayan, Dhola, Bharthari-Gopichand, Heer Ranjha, Ponnar Shankar, Bharath, among others, in the genres in which they are performed like swang, kissa, kathaa vachan, phad vachan, jhurava etc .

Course Outcomes:

  1. At the end of the course the student is expected to understand the various dimensions of orality and the relationships between orality, memory and history. The student will have engaged with a wide variety of theoretical literature on oral transmission, study of oral traditions, memory and social mnemonics, making of cultural memory and historical traditions.
  2. The course involves a detailed study of two oral epic traditions as texts and performance, which allows students to apply the analytical tools acquired in the first part of the course in the analysis they undertake as part of the course.

Brief description of modules/ Main modules:

Course Structure

1.Indian Oral Epics: Introduction ( 3 weeks)


  • Discovering India’s Spoken: William Crooke and the folklore of India
  • “Studying Oral Epics”: Some methodological concerns
  • Orality and History
  • Orality and Memory


  • Types of Oral Epic Traditions in India
  • Patterns of Development in Indian Oral Epic Traditions: Martial, Sacrificial and Romantic
  • Oral Epic Traditions and Pan-Indian Narratives


  • Dominant Ideologies in Oral Epic Traditions
  • Heroism
  • Fate
  • Sacrifice
  • Divinity
  • Death and Deification

Ist Assignment Take Home Essay 20%

2.Some Oral Epics and their Narrative structures (3 weeks)

  • Dhola
  • Annanmar
  • Heer Ranjha
  • Khandoba

(This section would entail engagement with both the textual as well as audio-visual forms)

3. Contextualising Oral Epic Traditions (1 week)

  • Locating Oral Epics in Time and Space
  • Oral Epics as Historical Traditions
  • Understanding Ritual Context of Oral Epic Traditions

4.Oral Epics and Social Identity ( 2 Weeks)

  • Representations of identities
  • Authorships and Representations
  • Oral Epics as Counter-narratives

5.Gendered Spaces in Oral Epics (2 Weeks)

  • Representations of Women in Epics: Martial, Sacrificial and Romantic
  • Women’s Voices as Counter Systems
  • Deification of Women in Oral Epics
  • Nymphs, Goddesses, Virgins/ Mothers, Wives, Satis

IInd Assignment Project (30 +10%)

6. Oral Epics as Performances (2 weeks)

  • Situating Performers/Priests
  • Performance as Narration
  • Performance as Dialogue
  • Performance as Discourse
  • Performance as Ritual
  • Performance as Art
  • Performance as a Counter-System

(This section would require the class to engage with audio-visual source materials)

End Semester Exam 40%

Readings (Essential and Suggestive: Readings for each module would be marked at the beginning of each module)

  • Autsen, Ralph, In Search of Sunjata: The Mande Oral Epic as History, Literature and Performance, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1999.
  • Bakhtin, Mikhael, Rabelias and his World, tr Helene Islowsky, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1984.
  • Beck, Brenda, The Three Twins: The telling of a South Indian Folk Epic, Indiana University Press, 1982.
  • Blackburn, S.H. and A.K. Ramanujan (eds), Another Harmony: New Essays on Folklore in India, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1986.
  • Blackburn, S.H., P.J. Claus, J.B. Flueckiger and S.S.Wadley (eds), Oral Epics in India. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1986.
  • Finnegan, R., Oral Poetry: Its Nature, Significance and Social Context, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1977.
  • Gold, Ann, A Carnival of Parting: The Tales of Raja Bhrathari and Gopichand, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.
  • Halbawachs, Maurice, On Collective Memory, (Ed. and Tr.) Lewis Coser, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992.
  • Harlan, L, The Goddesses’ Henchmen: Gender in Indian Hero Worship. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003.
  • Heesterman, J C, The Inner Conflict of Tradition: Essays in Indian Ritual, Kingship, and Society. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1985.
  • Henige, D, The Chronology of Oral Tradition: quest for a chimera. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1974.
  • Hiltebeitel, A, Draupadi among Rajputs, Muslims and Dalits: Rethinking India’s Oral and Classical Epics, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2001,
  • Hutton, Patrick, History as the Art of Memory, University of New England Press, London.
  • Kapur, Anuradha, Actors, Pilgrims, Kings, and Gods: The Ramlila at Ramnagar, Seagull Books, 1990.
  • Kamphorst, Janet, In Praise of Death, History and Poetry in Medieval Marwar (South Asia), Leiden University press, Leiden, 2008.
  • Kothari, K., “Musicians for the People: The Manganiyars of Western Rajasthan”. In K. Schomer (etal.) (eds), The Idea of Rajasthan, Explorations in Regional Identity. Vol 2. Manohar, New Delhi, 1994, 205-237.
  • Ladurie, Emmanuel Le Roy, Carnival in Romans, tr Mary Feeney, George Braziller, NY, 1979.
  • Malik, Aditya, Nectar Gaze and Poison Breath: An Analysis and Translation of Rajasthani Oral Narrative of Dev Narayan, OUP, New York 2005.
  • Mayaram, Shail, Resisting Regimes: Myth, Memory and the shaping of a Muslim Identity, OUP, Delhi, 1997.
  • Norra, Piere, ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire’, Representations, No 26, Special Issue: Memory and Counter Memory (Spring 1989, 7-24)
  • Ong, Walter, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, Routledge, 2002.
  • Ramanujan, A K, “Three-hundred Ramayanas: Five examples and three thoughts on translation”. In P.Richman (ed), Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1997. 22-46.
  • Ricouer, Paul, Memory, History, Forgetting, tr Kathleen Blaney and David Pellaver, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2004.
  • Rubin, D.C. Memory in Oral Traditions: The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-out Rhymes, Oxford University Press, New York, 1995.
  • Smith, J. D., “Old Indian: the two Sanskrit Epics”. In A.T. Hatto (ed.), Traditions of Heroic and Epic Poetry. Vol. 1: The traditions, The Modern Humanities Research Association, London, 1980, 48-78.
  • Smith, J D, “The Singer or the Song?: A reassessment of Lord’s “oral theory””. Man (n.s.) 12, 1977, 141-53.
  • Smith, J.D., “Rajasthani. How to sing a tale. Epic performance in the Pabuji tradition”. In J.B.Hainsworth and A.T. Hatto. Traditions of Heroic and Epic Poetry Volume Two: Characteristics and Techniques, Modern Humanities Research Association, London, 29-41, 1989.
  • Smith, J D, “Worlds apart: Orality, Literacy, and the Rajasthani Folk-Mahabharata”. In Oral Traditions, 5/1, 1990, 3-19.
  • Smith, J.D., The Epic of Pabuji. A Study, Transcription and Translation, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991.
  • Thapar, R., “The Historian and the Epic” Cultural Pasts, OUP, New Delhi, 2000, 613-630.
  • Vansina, J, Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology, tr. H M Wright, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, NJ, 1965, 2006.
  • Vansina, J, Oral Tradition as History, James Currey Ltd, Oxford, 1985, 1997.
  • Wadley, Susan, Raja Nal and the Goddess: The North Indian Epic of Dhola in Performance, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2004

Tentative Assessment schedule with details of weightage:



Date/period in which Assessment will take place



Ist Assessment: Take Home Assignment

Mid February 2018



Project and Presentation

 End March 2018

30% +10%


End Semester Exam

As per SLS Schedule



Class Participation Grade

Weekly Thought Piece