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Vikram aur Baitaal French style

When I first received information about the narration of Indian tale 'King and the corpse', I was not so sure about its Indian roots for a story with a corpse in its title sounded morbid, unfit for general public consumption and very non-Hindu* like. As I read further, I realized that the story in question was Vikram and Baital. Suddenly, my childhood memories of sitting in front of Door-Darshan watching Ramanand Sagar's 'Vikram Aur Baitaal' came flooding in along with a burst of nostalgic enthusiasm and intrigue.


Le roi et le cadavre


I thought long and hard as to how a French person, assuming he is born and brought up in a primarily Western culture with no Indian influence whatsoever, adapt a story that is so ingrained in Hindu traditions, heritage and thought process. Only Emmanuel de Lattre could provide the answer. A phone call later, I started getting the answers.


Emmanuel is a narrator by profession. He is also an actor, percussionist, dancer, clown and writer. On story telling, he recounts that once an older colleague told him that when an old man dies in Africa, a story book is lost. With this sensibility of preserving a part of oral heritage and transmitting it to his public through his various narrations, Emmanuel started working on Vetala-panchvimshati** in 2005. His job included adapting it to fit the sensibilities of his largely Western audience while preserving the original flavour of intrigue and Eastern wisdom. Using his multi-dimensional experience, he brings his narrations to life by bringing depth to the meaning of words and sounds through a carefully calculated gesture or word here and a note of music there. Vikram aur Baital comes alive in a Paris theatre as the story progresses to the rhythm of music modulating as the viewers hold their breath through moments of suspense or surprise and laugh and awe at the twists of the four tales that Emmanuel recounts.


Emmanuel has rewritten 12 of the 25 Baital stories that he finds completely relevant to today's world despite their ancient roots and Indian origin. He says that each time while reading these stories, he discovers an element that was previously hidden and it is this intrigue of learning a new facet that he wants to share with his public- to let them glimpse an enchantment through his voice and accompanying music. The public are invited to solve the enigma along with him. Giving a modern touch to his adaptation through language and using music and space to enhance and justify it, Emmanuel has married Indian wisdom to suit French perception of aesthetic and poetic subtleties. Given time and a receptive audience, Emmanuel would like to be able to play his 12 stories of Vaital. He has not yet played in India but who knows, says he, one day he may.


Le roi et le cadavre


If you are as intrigued as me, time to head for the theatre Falugière. Don't go looking for a moral preaching but for the fun of listening to a tale as you would have preferred hearing it from a favourite aunt or grandmother huddled together with your cousins on a sunny winter afternoon. If you have been to the narration of the King and the Corpse and wish to share your feedback with others, write to contact [at] indiansinparis.com. I will post it here with due credits. Dramatisation of King and the Corpse has been done by Basil Désiré Djédjé and voice setting by Bruno de la Salle while polyphonic narration unfolds with Emmanuel's voice, Gaëlle Branthomme's cello set to Indian beats of tabla by Matthias Labbé.


Story of Baital Pachisi

The semi-historical king Vikramaditya was the son of king Gandharbasena who, in turn, was the son of Indra, the ruler of celestial realms. Vikramaditya ascended the throne at an early age, either succeeding his father Gandharbha Sena or his elder brother Bharathari, who renounced the kingship to become a sage. Quite popular with his subjects, Vikramaditya was said to be a wise and just monarch, receiving the complainants, counsellors and emissaries in his courts everyday. Once, a spiritual mendicant brought him an apple everyday for a few days. On cutting the apple, a ruby was found inside. To solve the mystery, the king went to the mendicant who, in turn, asked the king to help him perform some rites. Vikramaditya agreed. The mendicant then asked him to bring a particular corpse hanging on a tree in the cremation ground. The spirit of the corpse 'baital' agreed to go with the king on two conditions- one, that the king remain silent while he carried the corpse and two, the baital would narrate a story enigma to which the king, if he knew, must provide the solution, failing both, his head would explode into various pieces. Every night for twenty five nights, Vikramaditya would provide a satisfactory answer to baital's questions owing to his great wisdom and insight and every night, the baital would fly back to the tree as the king had not been able to keep his vow of remaining silent. Moved by Vikramaditya's perseverance, the baital agrees to help him but also tells him that the mendicant has ulterior motives of killing the king himself after completion of the rites to gain further powers. The king plays along and in the end, the mendicant is killed. In Somadeva's version of 'Betala Pachisi', the king is called 'Trivikramasena, the son of Vikramasena'. Emmanuel de Lattre uses Trivikramsena as king.

Read Richard Burton's Vikram and the Vampire


* Around the time this particular story was written before Christian era, erstwhile India was mostly made up of Hindu kingdoms. Writing and recounting tales was a common form of entertainment. Fables such as the 'Panchtantra', 'Hitopdesha' and 'Jataka katha' all belong to this tradition and draw largely upon Hindu code of ethics and living. With the same code, I assume that dead bodies or cremation grounds, because of their 'impure' nature, are unlikely to get a centre stage in a story unless it has a spiritual or moral significance eg. King Harish Chandra working in a cremation ground protecting his virtue of truthfulness. Muslim invasion of India occurred between 8th- 11th century AD which would bring 'outside' influences to stories, story telling and which might have 'exported' already existing tales abroad and hence the remarks of Richard Burton and Voltaire in the following paragraph.

Hindu fictional and fabled literature such as the 'Panchatantra', the 'Hitopdesha' have been written though not documented in much earlier time than 'Baital Pachisi'. In showering praises over 'Panchtantra', precursor of 'Baital Pachisi', of pre Christian era, French philosopher Voltaire (1694- 1778) remarks that the fables of Pilpay (panchtantra), Lokman, Aesop are quite reasonable when we reflect that almost all the world was infatuated by such works that have educated the human beings. ("Quand on fait reflexion que presque toute la terre a ete infatuee de pareils comes, et qu'ils ont fait l'education du genre humain, on trouve les fables de Pilpay, Lokman, d'Esope bien raisonnables.")

**The stories of 'Vikram aur Baitaal' are derived from 'Baital Pachisi' or 'Vetala-panchvimshati' or the twenty five stories of 'Betala' or vampire. Even though the king Vikramaditya is said to have lived in Ujjayani (Ujjain) around 102 BCE to 15 CE, the first documented version of the story is seen in 'Brhat Katha' (Epic Tale), work of 6th century Gunadhya who may have found inspiration from earlier works of unknown authors. Great sage Bhavabhuti has also worked on these stories as has 11th century Kashmiri poet Somadev who compiled them in his Sanskrit 'Katha Sarit Sagara' or Ocean of the streams of narrative'. He is said to have been inspired by Gunadhya's work. English explorer-author Richard Burton (1821-1890) translated Baital Pachisi for the English world and as per him, it is Betal Pachisi that inspired Arabian Nights, the "Golden Ass" of Apuleius, Boccacio's "Decamerone," the "Pentamerone," and others.