Humor and Historical Writing

The inspection of any of the ancient historical records discussed by Narayana Rao, Shulman and Subrahmanyam in Textures of Time (2001), reveals one extremely striking feature: most of these narratives are particularly comical. The larger claim of Narayana Rao et al. is on another point: according to the authors, the widespread assumption that all Indian histories are just mythological in nature is extremely inaccurate. There would be another kind of historiography in South India, more factual and rigorous and yet still different from the mainstream western traditions of historical writing. Narayana Rao et al. do not really explore the possible interpretations of the very vivid humor at the heart of certain historical narratives. This is perhaps so because what we see today as comical was perhaps interpreted as neutral, or even at times, tragic, at another period of time. Still, the feature of humor seems to us to deserve a more profound analysis, and invites us to speculate a few hypotheses with regards to its deeper meaning and role. In this essay, we shall try to describe the comical features present in the historical texts mentioned in the first few chapters of Textures of Time. We will briefly reflect upon the sparse comments of the authors, before trying to explicit and expand their analyses.

The comical elements are present as early as the first narrative briefly mentioned in the introduction of Textures of Time: the Kumararamuni Katha. It recounts the heroic births and lives of the prince Kumara Rama and his mysterious brother Polika Rama. The humor is one of gesture (“The king was pleased. He laughed so hard the betel he was chewing splattered,” 7) and, possibly, one of action (the fast pace and repetition of the events: “The Turks chopped off heads. The Telagas drove their spears. The Bondilis chopped off heads,” 9). The Prabhavaraka-Carita of Prabhacandra is a very transparent explanation, by a Jain authority, as to how the Pandavas of the Mahabharata could be seen as Jains. The statements may be uttered seriously but the reflection is so openly far-fetched that it creates a sense of absurdity, almost of irreverence, to the traditional narratives. Prabhacandra sheds a very explicit light on the uncertainty of the elders: he recalls the “venerable acarya” to say: “But we do not know whether those [Pandavas] who are described in our scriptures are the same as those who are described in the work [Mahabharata] of sage Vyasa, or yet by still other authors in different works” (15). The humor is not obvious, but one notices at least that we are quite far from the serious tone and self-praising tendencies of other historical stories. The comic elements are much more numerous and blatant when we get to the accounts on 1757’s Battle of Bobbili, and in particular one of them: Peddada Mallesam’s Bobbili-yuddha-katha. This narrative is very puzzling: it combines a series of fast-pace jokes with very precise data. Indeed, the rapidity of comic situations in Bobbili-yuddha-katha is such that only slapstick comedies shows like Benny Hill or Mister Bean could compete in terms of density of humor. There are elements of comedy, first, in the larger contextualization. The confused French commander Bussy is ridiculed when it is made obvious that Dubashi Laskmana, through his role his interpreter, can bypass the authority of the colonizer and fill up his pockets. There is also the recurrent mockery of seemingly insignificant details such as the gastronomic angst of the Bobbili people: “In an hour or two, we will have to eat French food” (30). The Bobbili-yuddha-katha does not censor numbers of intercultural judgments, almost racist humor, such as the fact that “The French are ignorant people with no language” (30). At times, it is the precision of the details given by a historical writing fifty years after the facts, which may start a smile in the reader’s face: “Dharma Ravu (getting angry, his left hand on his moustache and his right hand on his sword): If you wrote us off…” (31). Here, it is the expectations of the modern reader, searching either for factual history of mythological elements, which is puzzled and which creates laughter. The high comical density continues as the narrative goes along. The longer quotation of the Kumararamuni Katha, in the third chapter, is perhaps even more clownish, and would deserve even more an exhaustive description.

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… Unlike in the west during the 16th and 17th century, history writing combined a number of possible genres in South India. While European histories were mostly official and “sponsored” accounts, the variety of traditional influences in India was such that the karanam could not only produce historical accounts of diverse natures, but that, largely, they constituted a sort of counter-power to the royal authorities of their time.

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In spite of leaving the impression of a very enlightening analysis and minute attention, Narayana Rao et al. do not discuss at length of the possible meaning of such an excessive presence of farcical elements. An initial argument could emphasize on the plausibility of an old context, that of these events and their writings, in which numbers of these supposedly comical sections were simply taken seriously, at the first level. There may be a sense of the absurdity of war in the quote on the Turks and Bondilis mentioned before; similarly, when Govinda Mancana Sarma evokes with a dramatic tone the praise of lovemaking peasants with big breasts (94), it may be a poignant testimony of a time that did not recognize the everyday heroism of the working-class. But rather late in their analysis, towards the end of their chapter dedicated to the Karanam class of history writers, there is an indirect mention of humor. Narayana Rao et al. develop the argument that unlike in the west during the 16th and 17th century, history writing combined a number of possible genres in South India. While European histories were mostly official and “sponsored” accounts, the variety of traditional influences in India was such that the karanam could not only produce historical accounts of diverse natures, but that, largely, they constituted a sort of counter-power to the royal authorities of their time. This is what explains the emergence of “irony,” as analyzed by the authors: “In the Iberian case, wryly ironic observation is thus largely exiled from history and must seek a home instead in other forms of social commentary, of which the most celebrated is probably the picaresque novel… In part, this is the direct result of the institutional production of history” (138). In contrast, the karanam culture had more political independence. Irony, and other forms of humor, could become powerful (because almost imperceptible) instruments of political criticism.

References

Image courtesy: Talk in French

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