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The centre cannot hold: tales of hierarchy and poetic composition from modern Rajasthan


Department of Anthropology, C-209 Andrew G. Clark Bldg., Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523-1787, USA.


In this article I examine Bhat myths and legends concerning kings and bards. Bhats are low-status praise-singers from the Indian state of Rajasthan. In exploring these tales, I examine my informants’ ideas about an issue which has long been seen as a central conundrum of Indian caste theory: how best to characterize the status of those with priestly standing in relation to those classed as warriors and kings. In their stories, Bhats demonstrate the ways in which high-caste persons such as kings are utterly dependent on bardic services – thus rendering performers like themselves central, and kings peripheral. With respect to the debate about whether kings or priests rank first in South Asian schemes of rank and primacy, Bhats themselves think in terms of a third class of persons: bards. Further, I suggest that, in arguing for the social centrality of linguistically talented bards, my informants display a consciousness that is particularly attuned to the discursive construction of social hierarchies. Finally, I seek to explain why Bhats, who are bards of former untouchables now living in an ostensibly modern, casteless democracy, still speak so persistently of kings and royal bardship. My answer to this is that, in fabricating fictive royal bardic identities, present-day Bhats are able to appropriate roles and statuses now abandoned by the former elite bards of post-Independence Rajasthan.