Book Review: Rajasthan — An Oral History

This book review is part of #TSBCReadsIndia, a reading challenge where one reads a book from each State and Union Territory of India. Presenting the fifth of the 36 books — the book from Rajasthan — in this literary journey across India.

Padma Shri Komal Kothari (1929–2004) was an authority on Rajasthani folk traditions and oral history. Though his academic training was in Hindi literature, his interest in oral narratives and traditions led him to examine local epics, songs, riddles, music, drama, religious beliefs and practices, caste compositions, economics, village power structures, agricultural practices, land and water use, migration, etc. leading to an understanding beyond established paradigms. Kothari was not just interested in exploring the traditional ways of understanding the world; he was more interested in the process by which oral knowledge was learnt, remembered and passed from generation to generation.

Kothari is, perhaps, best known for the documentation, preservation and development of folk music by  working with traditional musicians of Rajasthan, especially the Manganiyars and the Langas, and putting them on the world map. So great and pioneering was his work that he attracted scores of scholars of ethnomusicology, folklore and cultural studies from across world and India.

Rajasthan: An Oral History — Conversations with Komal Kothari (Penguin Books, pp. 358, 2003) by Rustom Bharucha is an attempt to document “Komalda’s intimate knowledge of Rajasthan through extended conversations and dialogue” (p.2). The book is the outcome of such conversations with Kothari on the cultural geography of Rajasthan over a two-year period. As Bharucha says in the “Introduction” to the book:

When a particular session with Komalda runs its course, one is never left with any conclusive argument or insight, still less a thesis. But one thing is clear: something has been learned along the way… In this context he is not merely knowledgeable about oral history; in a sense he embodies this history through his almost ceaseless capacity to talk. (p.2)

Bharucha’s conversations with Kothari are presented over 12 chapters, which are seemingly disparate but are actually inter-connected to form a whole. The conversations weave the past in the present through discussions on land, water, oral epics, folk gods and goddesses, sati, women’s songs, teratali, puppetry, professional caste musicians, folk music, and marketing that folk music. Each of these chapters are preceded, interspersed and post-scripted with Bharucha’s comments and observations. In addition to this, there are exhaustive notes for each chapter, appendices, bibliography as well as a glossary section and an index.

Though the book is well written, intitially I found the the scope and spread of topics a bit daunting. It didn’t help that I found the author’s notes a blip rather than an aid in understanding and immersing myself in the lively and spirited pattern of Kothari’s thoughts. However, Bharucha’s suggestion that the book be read “as providing a certain body of evidence in relation to the lives and indigenous knowledge systems of traditional communities in Rajasthan today” helped in getting with reading this though-provoking book (p. 3).

Bharucha says that “…memory lies at the core of any narrative” (p. 23) and in the case of this book it is Kothari’s memory that is the core narrative. Early on in the book, Bharaucha admits to the problem of relying on the memory of one person, therefore deifying him and his memory which cannot necessarily be verified for academic purposes and validation. But I had no such dilemma and was happy to read the book just as it was presented, for it was the first time I was reading a book like this. (Maybe when I read it the second time around — and I know that I will — I might look at it differently.

It has been more than a year since I read this book and certain statements made by Kothari that leaped out of the pages then, resonate even today.

Most people think that Langas and Manganiyars survive only as singers of folk songs, but they don’t know that these traditional musicians also earn their living by maintaining the genealogy of their [Hindu] patrons (jajmans). (p.28)

Land vocabulary… comes from local communities whose languages (and knowledge systems) have not been addressed, even at ‘sub-altern’ or ‘developmental’ levels. (p.36)

The reality is that certain food substances are no longer available, not merely for human beings, but for animals as well. (p.47)

… nomads are driven by the needs of their livestock (on which their own livelihood depends) rather than by any service rendered to the community. (p.53) … nomadism is not some historical residue of the past, but a continuing phenomenon of the present. (p.55-56)

The question of rights to water cannot be separated from the social hierarchies of Indian society, where we continue to face the problem of untouchability among diverse low-caste and tribal communities… The strong governance in the distribution of water reveals the actual functioning of caste in our society. (p.69)

The chapters that covered folk music and intellectual property rights — two subjects that I’m passionate about — were my favourites in the book. The former helped me go beyond the melody and songs of the Langas and Manganiyars I had heard during my trips to Rajasthan, while the latter chapter introduced me to how acknowledgement that is different from copyright and intellectual property rights, and more important.

It could be argued… that the very idea of copyright is alien in a predominantly oral pre-modern culture. (p. 274)… Acknowledgement is a very important matter… It becomes all the more necessary to provide strength to such unackowledged traditions at a time when folklore is considered to be ‘dying’ and many people lament our so-called ‘dying forms’. (p. 275)

Kothari’s Rajasthan is very different from the Rajasthan that one sees or reads about, which is usually all about grand palaces, grander forts, camels, the Thar desert, its folk music (which has been exoticised and romanticised in every possible way), etc. Kothari’s Rajasthan is about the everyday life, a life that has sustained for generations, the life of the sub-altern people and whose lives are not easily visible or known. This is the reason why this book is so important. By focussing on diversities and local traditions, a Rajasthan that is far more complex, mutable and contradictory is brought to the fore.

I couldn’t be more happier for choosing this book as my read for this state. In fact, this book goes into my list of all-time favourite reads. If you like layered, rich and complex narratives, totally enjoy oral histories and traditions, enjoy pre-conceived notions and perceptions being challenged, and love Rajasthan — then this is the book for you. I can’t recommend it enough. 🙂

Postscript: Komal Kothari mentions in the book about the important relationship between the Muslim Manganiyars and their Hindu patrons, with differences, if any, being sorted out amicably. He stresses how this relationship has survived for a long time, but also cautions how this could change in the future (p. 293). Kothari’s predictions came true in 2017 when the entire community of Manganiyars fled Dantal village near Jaisalmer after one of their members, musician Ahmad Khan was allegedly murdered by caste Hindus. Has a new era of history begun?


  1. It was easy to decide what kind of a book I wanted to read from Rajasthan — a book that was not about its royal history or about its forts and monuments. However, finding a book that met my criteria was surprisingly not so easy. I chanced upon Rajasthan: An Oral History on an e-commerce website, liked what I saw and decided to make this by #TSBCReadsIndia choice for Rajasthan.
  2. If you need more details on #TSBCReadsIndia, please head to this post of mine on the topic or you could leave a comment here which I’ll be very happy to answer.
  3. If you want to know more about The Sunday Book Club then you can read more about it on my blog here or head over to the TSBC Blog.

The #TSBCReadsIndia journey so far: Tamil Nadu | Maharashtra | Madhya Pradesh | Gujarat | Rajasthan | …

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