Stains of the Jambul

Modern Mythmaking 22 Comments

Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, December 05, 2010

Last week, 80-year old Vithal Umap, passed away during a stage performance. He was one of the great bastions of folk theatre in Maharashtra and I had the honor of watching him perform a few years ago at Ravindra Natya Mandir. I watched this old man transform from a passionate storyteller to a demure Draupadi in seconds as he narrated and performed before a spell bound audience ‘the sacred tale of the Jambul fruit’, Jambul Akhyan. I was so impressed that I paid him a visit at his house and offered him as a gift the illustration that accompanies this article.

Like all folk theatre, this performance began with the invocation of gods and goddess. Umap told me, “They say that gods and goddesses, formerly known as Gandharvas, are very happy when there is a performance. This is why in the old days people used to invite storytellers and artists to their homes to perform during weddings and festivals so that happy gods and goddesses would bless the patron and his family.” That was before the British came to India and introduced the practice of ‘tickets’ where you pay for every performance reducing theatre into entertainment and transaction rather than an offering to the divine.

The performance narrated an event from the Mahabharata when Draupadi, common wife of the five Pandavas, plucked a Jambul without realizing that it was a special fruit that a Rishi had sworn to break his fast of twelve years,with. “You have contaminated the fruit,” said Krishna, “If the sage finds out, he will curse you and your husbands. But if you open up your heart and confess to a secret that you have hidden from your husbands, the power of the truth will cause the fruit to join the branch once again.”

With great trepidation, Draupadi looked into the eyes of her husbands and said, “I love five of you. But I love a sixth too. I love Karna, the charioteer who serves Duryodhana. I regret not marrying him on account of his caste.”

The revelation came as a shock to the Pandavas. They were not sure whether to be angry with Draupadi or ashamed of themselves. They realized they had failed her individually and collectively. Having revealed the truth of her heart, Draupadi had been cleansed. She was now able to refix the fruit to the tree and the Rishi was able to break his fast.

It was a simple story with a disturbing theme of extra-marital affections of a woman. As the play concluded, Umap spread out his arms and looked at the audience and wondered aloud, “Tell us, gods and goddeses, and assembled noble people, does the fall of a leaf into the river contaminate it?” And then as we left the theatre we were all given a Jambul fruit and told to eat it. “Before you judge Draupadi, eat this fruit. If it stains your mouth purple,” we were told, “know that you too hide a secret in your heart that you dare not share with the world.”

As the Jambul stained my mouth, I realized the sophistication of folk theatre. In the raw grating honesty of this performance there was more wisdom than anything one encounters in modern sanitized commerical storytelling. No wonder it is loved by the gods.

It is through bards like Umap that for thousands of years the wisdom of India spread across the countryside. It feels sad that despite this, his community was treated as inferior and low, Dalits who were denied basic human rights for centuries. “While we danced and sang, the upper castes went to schools and colleges,” he told me with a smile that lacerated my heart. May his soul rest in peace.

  • R.Nataraja

    Hello Sir,
    Good one. Didnt know ths part of story in Mahabharatha.

    All izz Welll!!

  • Meetali

    Dear sir,
    Was not knowing of such a incidence in Mahabharata, it was too good and knowledgable to read this article.

  • Deepankar Sinha


    Did not know this story in the Mahabharata. Does your book Jaya cover this?

    Also, how in almost all the stories, there is always a rishi who is pissed and curses people. Who gives them this power to do this?


    • Devdutt

      Curses and boons are narrative tools to explain karma

  • Vijaya

    Devduttji, you have conveyed the message very succintly.

    Presently folk art and cultural programmes are stained have been stained with Bollywood paan.

    Children and even adults do not really know about our religion or heritage. Their entire perspective is confined to the frame set by the Bollywood and television.

    Btw, is it possible this story is one of the many ‘add-ons’ using the same characters from the Mahabharata?

  • Another whooper from the Guru … does not matter whether the story is an ‘add on’ to the great epic or was incorporated in it originally. It does educate the mind and improve the being !

    • Satish Gundawar

      I agree! This is the right assessment! Aam khavo… gutaliya mat gino!!

  • Many folk tales are woven around celebrities – mortal or immortal. Like so many other “popular stories”, this one does not appear in the original book. However, as Devduttji says, there is a powerful message in the story and hence it has survived for so long.

    Like Christ saying let the guilt-less cast the first stone – we are all guilty of something. All of us hide our real selves behind various facades. Some of us have better facades than others, but we all have them.

  • Manjit

    Its very sad that our folk arts are on the verge of extinction. The trueness and earthiness of our folk arts is expressed brilliantly in this article. Are there any avenues to watch such arts in Mumbai?
    I am also wondering why doesn’t the plastic film industry of India tries to make something vaguely related to the ancient wisdom books of India?

    • The Film industry is now totally funded by Dawood!! its common knowledge…

      • Dwij Gurram

        Not only film industry but also literature is being hijacked by anti-hindu elements…DO NOT BELIEVE ALL THAT YOU READ!!

  • This one is a definite WOW!!! It reinforces that even our folklore(keep aside the classics) is so deep.

  • Hari

    Namasthe DevDutt ji

    Dalit is a word given to us by the west in the very recent times to evangelize and harvest souls in India. The british played our Varna and Jati elements of Bharath very well to their advantage and we are still falling for it. What a success to Macaulay’s “born in India, heart of a brit” mentality.

    • Devdutt

      We cannot blame British for everything…we did treat a whole bunch of people rather horribly ….let us admit and acknowledge that

      • Prasad

        It is important to see the characters of Mahabharata or Ramayana as human beings. Unfortunately these episodes are being used by many to discredit the whole of our heritage. While I do understand the injustice done to some sections of the society, it is more based on the vocations these sections have practiced to pursue and it would be utterly wrong to attribute to castes which is a more recent invention during the british rule. I tend to agree with Hari and consider it difficult to understand that these sections have even after 60 plus years not been provided the opportunity for uplifting while at the same time crying that they have been ill treated. BTW, there were many instances of great sages from the lower classes of society in our mythology but it has become a subject to take advantage to condemn some on this pretext and it is more of power politics playing the spoilt sport than any thing else. Right to this and Right to that are only to verbally pacify the gullible public but do not seem to be a real effort to uplift these sections.

      • Dwij Gurram

        Its was britishers who first started segregating people as a “divide and rule” policy…Patnaik you cannot overrule the british involvement in this!

  • anjali bhavan


  • sneha

    Namaskara Devduttji,
    Folk traditions are not just vanishing many forms are getting corrupted too. The ballad singers recite maha kavyas with no schooling and education per say…a great hertiage is slowly getting wiped out. Kudos on bringing attention to it. Hope more peope start appreciating and cherishing folk treasures. They r truly a window to the past

  • Mysk

    Dear Sri. DevDutt,

    For what may have happened decades or centuries ago, allegedly by my forefathers, I don’t feel responsible. From at least 30+ years that I have been on this earth, especially in India, I have faced a reverse form of casteism, where I am being discriminated against in education and work alike. If intellectuals like you still feel that I have to pay for something my forefathers may or may not have done, I feel that there’s seriously something wrong with the current fabric of our country that such discrimination happens day in and day out on the common folks like us. Carrying on reservation in its current form is a surefire way to doomsday.

  • Sweety Shinde

    Yeah sure. If Rukmini was offered one, she would admit lusting after Shishupal; Satyabhama for Jarasandha and Subhadra for Duryodhan.
    Interpolators, stop targeting women to unleash your perverse ideas. Mr Umap, would your mother ever like/respect a male who called her a prostitute?

  • niranjanprabhu

    Rula ke rakh diya aaj aapne. Thanks for sharing this beautiful story, not so much about the Mahabharatha but about Vithal Umap! May Krishna give him deliverance.

  • Dwij Gurram

    Its a Figment of imagination of the British …stop degenerating desi nari!