Re-imagining Raja Rasalu in the present
BY HASHIM BIN RASHID
How do you absorb a folktale and re-present it to the present? This is the question that any theatre-goer must ask as he steps into Ajoka’s re-rendering of Raja Rasalu – a folk metaphor locating itself in Sialkot of the second century AD.
Re-capturing the folktale
The first act of the play announces the arrival of Raja Rasalo. Rasalo’s origin as deriving from myth and mysticism is predicted. The play begins in the court of Raja Salvahan of Sialkot. Salvahan has two wives. One wife bears him a son, Puran. The other wife, Loona, is infertile. When Puran grows old she tries to seduce him. He refuses – but she claims he tried to rape her and in a moment quite like the Yousaf story he is thrown into a well – but with his arms and legs cut.
Puran is left in a well for 12 years where he is discovered and restored to health by a group of Yogis. After this he becomes a yogi himself. It is Puran who becomes Puran Bhagat who, after Loona comes to pray to him, announces that she will bear a son who should be named Rasalu. But he says she shall have to shun him for 12 years lest she want him to die an early death. He promises great repute for the boy.
Rasalo is thus born and then turned away from court. Upon his return does the traditional folktales climax begin. His father, noting the yogis warning, turns his back on him. Rasalo leaves the court, with his adventurous spirit, and begins to on a journey into realizing his selfhood.
Thus we move into the second act of the play: the realization of Rasalu’s character. This section plays out as a journey into magic realism.
Rasalu’s adventures are battles with beasts leading up to a culminating moment in a game of chaupar with the reknown chaupar player and king Sarkap. Sarkap is known to play for the challengers head. Rasalo challenges Sarkap and wins three times. The third loss signaling Rasalu’s right to take Sarkap’s life. This right he gives up ordering Sarkap to let him marry his newborn daughter. This is the point where the folktale ends.
Moving beyond the folktale
The Raja Rasalu folk tale end with the hero Rasalu marrying the newborn Princess Kokilan. In Ajoka’s world this is where the climax of the story begins. The play turns into a parody on the role of the female.
Kokilan expresses her discomfort with her child marriage to her mother – who says she cannot speak of the circumstances in which the marriage was made. When Kokilan meets Rasalu she challenges his ability to tame the world through hunting. Rasalu gives her the chance to experience the world of the forest. Kokilan is able to take a wild dear into her arms – but upon seeing it Rasalu’s response is to use his archery to kill the deer that Kokilan tamed.
In this part of the story the traditional masculine folkhero Rasalu is challenged by the female, Kokilan, who presents her grace as the value with which she encounters, tames and conquers the world of the wild. A world which Rasalu can only experience by dominating it through violence. Rasalu reacts to Kokilan’s assertion of her independence by turning her back into the palace. The opening of her hair, her attempt to experience the world and her becoming intimate with the world become her crime that become punished with confinement.
Kokilan confined to the palace finds herself a lover. Rasalu gets word of it – but acts as if he believes Kokilan’s denial. Kokilan’s plans to run away with her lover – but on the night she is due to do so, Rasalu feeds her the meat of her lover. Kokilan refuses to believe it – but Rasalu shows her the body. Upon this she commits suicide. It is Rasalu who, at the conclusion of the play, places both bodies together and puts a white garb on them – with his face and body representing the defeat of his values.
The Raja Rasalu folktale
Raja Rasalu is a folktale that traces itself to Sialkot in the 2nd century AD. The folk representation of Rasalu is as a hero. The folk representation of Rasalu presents him as a hero challenging and defeating a number of mythical monsters. The folktale ends with Rasalu marrying King Sakpar newborn after defeating him on a game of chauper.
Matters of language
One of the most challenging aspects of the play for the viewer is the language: a mix of Siraiki, Punjabi and Hindi. The play is a musical. Many a viewer is not able to understand the language in which the play is delivered. This means: while one doesnot understand the language, one is able to experience it. The power of the early part of the play lies in the relation with the performance. The later part of the play makes for less heavy language. The folk meets contemporary language and one is able to connect with the play in a different manner. This connection is more direct.