Analysis Of Indian And Islamic Stories Centered Around A King And His Jester

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There are several Indian and Islamic stories involving a king and his jester. For e.g.: Haroon-al-Rashid and Buhool, Mahmood of Ghaznar and Talnak, Shah Abbas and Inayat. And on the Indian side, we have King Krishnadeveraya and brahmin Tenali, and Raja Krishna Chandra of Nadiya and barber Gopal Bhar as well as Akbar and Birbal. C.M. Nair in his article says “in each of these stories we find a king whose power and magnificence verges on the fabulous for that region and time, paired with a jester whose wit and cunning is equally legendary.” Paradoxically these stories glorify these figures as well as humanize them at the same time. These kings were seen as figure heads of the “divine” and the “sacred” but these stories bring them to human level by making the jester constantly defeat them in a battle of wits.

As David Shulman writes “The folk perception of the mighty king requires the presence of his irrepressible jester. Whatever the king constructs- together with his ministers, his wives, and his brahmin priests and advisers, his poets the jester can be counted on to undermine or unravel.” Shulman has also shown a historic link between the Brahman clowning, which he traces through “high” or “classical” traditions of Sanskrit drama and the Tamil Sangam literature toKerela’s dramatic tradition of Kutiyattam, and the present day clown figures in village folktales and theatre in South India. He also observes a transformation in the clown character from the constrained character of the vidushaka in Sanskrit drama to the radical jester in later folk culture. The vidushak, who generally speaking, is a grotesque, bumbling fool gorging on food and whose main importance in the narrative is to act as a foil to the serious and virtuous hero. They have an unequal presence in the story, the Nayak or the protagonist can exist without the vidushaka but the latter doesn’t have this luxury. He is clearly not a central character to the plot of the story and is present mainly for comic effect. The audience is meant to laugh at the vidushak rather than with him. This comic figure of the vidushak undergoes a transformation when we reach the folktales of Tenali Rama and Birbal. In these tales, the jester plays a crucial role in the story and is a central part of the narrative. Though their relationship is still unsymmetrical just like the Nayak and vidushak, in these tales the king too cannot survive without his jester while jester cannot exist independent of the court. Yet, these being repeated, go with the figures kings, but these stories humanize them despite this asymmetry, the jester always triumphs over the king. He becomes the central character and the story now revolves around his comic ingenuity.

The story of Akbar and Birbal though 200 years apart in the timeline has a striking similarity in their structure and narrative. It almost seems as though they have a monopoly over wit. The stories show them as the smartest individuals of their times having unparalleled wisdom. They are the ones everyone else in the court is jealous of and are trying to replace. In the story “Pot of Wit” Akbar sets a challenge and asks people of every village to send a pot full of wisdom and if they couldn’t do it then they would have to send the pot filled with jewels. Akbar is completely confident in his assessment that only Birbal would be able to solve the question and to nobody’s surprise he was correct.

Birbal and Tenali Rama use wit for mainly two reasons-to serve justice on behalf of the king as in the story “farmers well and witty Birbal”or to receive favors from the king. The structure and the narrative of the stories seem to suggest it as a competition in which courtiers are constantly fighting for gifts and favors from the king, fighting to take the highest position, but we are told explicitly and repetitively that it is a futile endeavor since nobody can be as smart as Birbal and Tenali. In the story “Hundered Gold Coins” Akbar’s brother in law wants Birbal’s position and is able to attain only because Birbal resigns. However, he has given the title back because he cannot do justice to the job and fails in comparison to Birbal. Similarly in “Tenali and the barber”, we see the king giving barber a post in the court because he is pleased with him but the ministers are worried at this decision and Tenali gets the king to see the error of his ways. The stories suggest only they and a select few are deserving of the titles.

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In the stories of Birbal and Tenali, there is an us vs them binary. Our protagonist vs the other minister in the court (for e.g. “Hundred Gold Coins and Birbal”), or them vs different merchant or pundits coming from foreign lands to test their wits (for e.g. “Tenali and the three dolls”) or even sometimes the king as in “The Most Precious Gift” yet our heroes emerge victorious every time. It is interesting how the battles are always fought on the plain of wit and humor rather than physical strength which is typically the attributes associated with men.

Birbal and Tenali are an integrated part of the court and operate accordingly. Mullah Nassuridin is not working in a similar fashion. He too is a smart and witty character but not a court jester so to say. He is not as interested in competing in the court and how can Akbar have a “monopoly” over wit when you mentioned earlier that the kings were humanized, their flaws brought forward like those of any other human? Wit and humor as well for men gaining gifts for his intelligence. Rather he seems more philosophical rather than rhetorical. His stories compel us to ask questions like the story “How Truth Was Created” or they bring out, to some extent the absurdity of the world we live .The world and people at large seem fool and butt of the joke for e.g. in the story “People Talk”, no matter what mullah and his son do people will always find faults and something to complain about. To him, the world with its fixed absurd rules seems hysterical and they consider Mulla Nasrudin to be mad as in” Mulla Nasrudin and the wise men”. He is the wise man that can see through the façade and superficiality of absurd customs but they see him as mad, following in the tradition of genius and people ahead of their times being considered insane.

However stories also exist in which Mulla Nasarudin is clearly a fool character. For e.g. in the story- Nasreddin’s ring Mulla had lost his ring in the living room. He searched for it for a while, but since he could not find it, he went out into the yard and began to look there. His wife, who saw what he was doing, asked: “Mulla, you lost your ring in the room, why are you looking for it in the yard?” Mulla stroked his beard and said: “The room is too dark and I can’t see very well. I came out to the courtyard to look for my ring because there is much more light out here He could be compared to Shakespeare’s fools such as Twelfth Night’s Feste and King Lear’s Fool. Feste is not without his jests and his gibes – when Olivia asks him ‘What’s a drunken man like?’ Feste responds, ‘Like a drowned man, a fool, and a madman: one draught above heat makes him a fool, the second made him, and a third drowns him’. But underneath and through his whimsy runs a current of world-weariness and cynicism. When Orsino offers to pay him for singing, Feste declines: ‘I take pleasure in singing, sir.’ ‘I’ll pay thy pleasure then,’ says Orsino, but Feste disrupts the gentle mental fencing with a bitter thrust: ‘pleasure will be paid, one time or another’. Throughout the play, Feste balances the sort of clowning commentary upon the world of (and beyond) the play. Similarly, Mullah is the butt of the joke himself while also critical of the world around him.

These folktales have existed throughout the world and we have various pairings of kings and their wise jesters in literature. These tales are usually centered around personalities (kings) that inspire awe and reverence. The task of the jesters is to keep these larger than life figures in check by using their wit and in turn humanizing the all-powerful kings by making them appear foolish in comparison to them.

They were present in the traditional Sanskrit texts in the form of vidushak and in their transformed version in oral narratives of later times. In their transformed form these. And then as a transformed version jesters are the main characters of the story and the plot revolves around them. In Tenali and Birbal stories they are the clear protagonists while most everyone around them is trying to compete with them. Birbal and Tenali are said to have unparalleled wisdom and triumphing over all those who wish to take their place making their competitors appear like fools. In comparison to them Mullah Nasrudin seems akin to wise fool who is comic and foolish himself while bringing out the comicality and absurdity of the world around him. All these stories of wit and humor despite written in different time and space are still similar and point towards universality of certain ideas. These stories still continue to be read and enjoyed by people worldwide.

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