Gestures of Cultural Justice: Narrative Justice for Phoolan Devi in Epic Recounting

Brahma Prakash ( teaches at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
1 March 2022

The epic tale of Phoolan Devi has inspired several studies and artistic works around her life and struggle. This includes her representation in the works of literature, cinema, painting and other genres. They brought complex discourses around the politics of representations and the question of genre and medium itself.  None of these studies, however, examines how Mallah, the caste Phoolan Devi belonged or the local subaltern communities want to project Devi in their narrative discourses. Thinking through the epic and ballads on the life of Phoolan Devi, created by her own community in particular and Bahujan community in general, this article reads the representation of Devi as a case of narrative justice. From Devi’s image as a revengeful figure and the Bandit Queen of popular culture, Phoolan Devi has slowly emerged as the queen of justice for the local subaltern communities. Contrary to the sensational approach of popular and the voice to the voiceless approach of the scholarly writings, the epic narratives around Phoolan are more steady and up to the mark to engage with the contemporary discourse of caste, gender and intersectional representation. Though there are many ballad singers and performers who sing the story of Phoolan Devi in birha and alha style, I discuss the alha of Phoolan Devi by Ajay Sahni, a singer from Mallah community. I situate their representations or recounting of Phoolan’s life as part of cultural justice that involves the battle over the relations of representation and “correcting” the discourse of narrative injustices. This article also raises the question of genre—which is a genre more capable of bringing the agency and struggle of a particular community. As the epic performance brings the question of morality and recognition in strong ways, the forms become explicitly political, unlike the other genres. Both the epic forms alha and birha situate the discourses of what is to be human. The form is specially very popular in Bundelkhand region from where Phoolan belonged to. This makes the genre very special to discuss the question of representation. 



That which is denied must be imagined.


                                        -Sartre (1964:218)


This article is a small section of my working monograph “The Epical Subjects and the Questions of  Cultural Justice in India.” The work embarks on the fundamental claim embodied in the famous phrase that “justice should not only be done but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.” The statement marks an inherent performative and affective attribute of justice to be considered as cultural justice. The sense of justice lies in the embodied acts that have to be performed but that also has to be felt at the corporeal level. One part of justice is a performative that appears in the rhetorical language of the judiciary and its ritualised action. Dwight Conqurgood argued that “all the interlocking rituals of criminal punishment-arrest, detention, interrogation, trial, conviction, incarceration, execution—are performed so that citizens can see “justice done” (2002: 343). The second part of justice lies in affect, in the feeling that carries the sensible and therapeutic aspect of justice. If the injustice lies in the bone, the feeling of justice should enter into the guts and veins. It should heal the cut marks on the skin. It should touch the inner being and feel sensation. Though both the performative and the affective forms cannot be separated in the act and reception of justice, they are not the same.

Cultural justice recognises that the practice of fundamental human capacity is a cultural right of every citizen. It underlines that justice itself has to be sensitised in its body, action and pronouncement. Cultural justice is often subsumed under social justice as both deal with questions of power, inequality and hegemony. Cultural justice, however, offers a more precise lens through which to consider the cultural dimensions of injustice’ (Cantillion, et al 2021).  Furthermore, cultural justice also refers to “doing justice to culture, pursuing justice through cultural means, and seeking justice for cultural claims” (Ross 1998: 2). Second, it is crucial to theorise cultural justice when cultural injustices are increasingly recognised in the scholarships (Galtung 1990; Bourdieu 1992; Thiong’o 1998; Guru 2011). It exists in various forms of humiliation, cultural appropriation, cultural violence, cultural genocide, forced assimilation, naming, symbolic violence and in the various others forms of cultural hegemony.[i] Third, a resistance against cultural hegemony also asks to recognise the new forms of cultural productions that are happening in the sphere of culture and spiritual domains but cannot be captured through an economic and social lens. Beyond, counter-narrative and cultural resistance model, there is a need to see such cultural productions as a new site of cultural justice. It attempts to theorize a broader cultural phenomenon in the field of art and culture where subaltern communities are seeking to carve a new space to enact justice. The theory of cultural justice would aim to recognise the role of art, aesthetic and cultural production for the empowerment and emancipation of citizens and communities. That can only happen with the radical constitution of the art and cultural sphere. Fourth, cultural justice would be a conscious attempt to sensitise the dead and desensitized spheres of the Hindu caste society. A society cannot make a moral claim of equality and imagine justice when they are desensitised at every level. If savarnas consolidates their cultural hegemony by perpetuating myths, symbols and cultural assimilation, cultural justice is an act of resisting these processes through cultural means. Last but not the least, while social justice and economic justice are based on equality, cultural justice is based on the recognition of differences and diversity.

Jyotirao Phule can be considered one of the earliest thinkers of cultural justice by recognising the cultural basis of Aryan supremacy and Brahminical hegemony. The question is not that whether Aryan and non-Aryan history exist or not, As it pointed out by Gail Omvedt (1971: 1975), “the purpose of this interpretation was not so much to provide a full history of India,” the purpose was “to establish a cultural and racial basis for the unity of the non-Brahmin masses.” Similarly, Bali raja was an attempt to create a positive history for the agricultural communities. His discourse becomes relevant to understanding the cultural production of subaltern communities. In the history of denigration and silences, cultural justice is projected to create a positive history for the future.


Theorisation of cultural justice necessarily needs to underline the field of cultural injustices in the specific contexts as a culture always makes a particular claim; even violence is also perpetuated keeping culture in mind. In this regard, Nancy Fraser (1995) describes cultural injustices rooted in social patterns of representation, interpretation, and communication. She gives an example of cultural domination (being subjected to patterns of interpretation and communication that are associated with another culture and are alien and/or hostile to one’s own), nonrecognition (being rendered invisible via the authoritative representational, communicative, and interpretative practices of one’s culture), and disrespect (being routinely maligned or disparaged in stereotypic public cultural representations and/or in everyday life interactions). Fraser’s scope of injustices needs to be expanded in the Indian context where specific sorts of violence are practised.  But cultural justice is not only about creating a counter-discourse against the prevalent forms of cultural injustices, though this is an important step. Cultural justice is also a movement for a new culture and aesthetics, not based on the hierarchies and sciences of beauty, saundaryashastra but the (re)distribution of the sensible and emancipation of the senses, nyaysamvedna (justice of the senses). It aims to change the very canons of art and the discourses of aesthetics.  The aim is not to discard the works done in the field of social justice, economic justice or political justice, rather the aim is to expand the notion of justice. At this point, cultural justice makes a foundational claim that a theory of culture has to be the core of any theory of oppression and hierarchy. Unless we do not recognise this factor, we will keep undermining the sensibilities that justice can engender for potential human capacities.

In Real Love, Andrew Ross suggests that cultural justice refers to “doing justice to culture, pursuing justice through cultural means, and seeking justice for cultural claims”. Taking Ross three considerations, I would like to discuss the epic performances based on Phoolan Devi: First, how epic performances does justice to narrative and culture (or offers narrative justice). Second, how it does justice through cultural means and how does it seek justice for social, cultural and political claims. In brief, this article presents three accounts of justice: i) in relation to the memory, ii) How affective narrative of the plot offers a sense of justice to both songs and participants iii) This also shows how social emotions fundamentally organize and orient our stories. Unlike political parties and popular media, the performers play a different role. But before I move further, I should provide a background.


The Battleground


The upcoming assembly election in UP is taking a cultural turn in which all political parties and caste organisations are trying to find their heroes and histories to make representation in democracy.  With Nishad (Mallah) voters in mind, Phoolan Devi has emerged as a crucial but contentious figure of this politics of cultural appropriation. Therefore, when Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP) and Samajwadi Party announced that they are going to instal the statue of Phoolan Devi across UP, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) went to stall that move. The VIP and the SP move could have easily established Phoolan Devi in the political pantheon of Indian democracy with other figures, such as Jhansi ki Rani and Jhalkari Bai. Seeing the legend of Phoolan Devi, this cannot be stopped for a long time. And sooner or later, Devi is going to be unveiled as an iconic figure in Indian politics. She does not fit into the narrative of the BJP, which would rather prefer to project king Nishad Guh from the Ramayana. In the popular image, Nishadraja can be seen washing the feet of king Rama which can be seen as a denigrated representation of Nishada in the contemporary discourse. In another image, he can be also seen necking with Rama, showing love and friendship. The BJP wants to show that as Nishad king Guha stands for the Ramarajya, the Nishad community should be standing in the BJP’s mission for Ramarajya. This appropriation has already paid its cultural currency to the BJP.

The appropriation of Phoolan Devi is also challenging in comparison to the previous communities heroes whose stories were largely based on the mythical narrative of a ruling kings and queens who lost the power for the moral duty. It is that moral sacrifice that becomes the site of political claims. The previous icons also had a long history (whether it is King Suheldev, King Mihir Bhoj, and King Maharana Pratap or Rani Laxmi Bai) in comparison to Phoolan. There are also several dedicated statues for many mythical historical figures and political leaders representing the interest of particular castes and communities, however, they cannot said to be that epical or influential.  The epical stature of Phoolan Devi embodied in the gruesome story of her life and struggle, imbued in folk heroism, mystified with her mythical power make her as much power as other figures of the past. She has become part of the folk cultural memory. “Have you become Phoolan Devi,” male members in north India taunt women and girls when they try to assert their powers. No other figure in recent history can match that epical embodiment of Phoolan Devi. Though she emerged as a legend in her own lifetime but to live the legend in people’s memory her afterlife must be performed. This is done by epic singers at the local level. These singers carry the memory of Phoolan Devi and offer narrative justice to her.


There exist a number of studies on the representation of Phoolan Devi in popular culture (Ghosh 2011; Caldwell 2004). One of the most popular of this representation was the Bandit Queen. The film is a dramatised interpretation of Phoolan Devi’s biography written by Mala Sen. The film was initially censored in India, but it was disseminated to a foreign, Western, market and became a great success. The name Phoolan Devi became much more widely known in the West and Western audiences took the film as a representation of Indian womanhood. The controversial representation of Phoolan Devi in Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen has already created an intense discussion around the questions of subaltern agency and representation.  In the view of Leela Fernandes(1999), “the film sparked a contentious and distinctive debate on the politics of authenticity, agency, authority, and responsibility in the representation of the “real” life experience and struggle of an individual.” Using a postcolonial lens, some scholars presented Devi as a representation of Indian women in relation to the question of nation. Some other studies try to show her in the light of  devi (in the lineage of the violent goddess) like Durga and Kali (Ponzanesi 2017). In an important study, Kathryne Hansen tries to locate Devi as virangana between chaste wife and mother goddess. She discusses how Phoolan’s life has inspired  local folk poets and singers and they composed her life in nautankis, Brahmasis, Birhas and other folk genres (1988: WS31). In many of the media stories and narratives, Devi was presented as a vigilante figure. From Bandit Queen, Dasyu Sundari (Bandit Beauty), Khushwant Singh’s Flower Child of India, Phoolan Devi saw the sensational representation often bereft of her sociality. She became a media phenomenon, “the object of sensationalistic exaggeration and romanticization nourished by lack of concreate information” (Hansen WS31). She was either too romanticised as a revenge figure or simply ridiculed as criminal politician. In the sharply divided caste and gendered society, Devi, on the one side was portrayed as “an irresistible, insatiable man eater’ with ‘elements of wild beauty, seductiveness and extraordinary danger,” on the other side she became “a symbol of women’s liberation” and “new woman” beyond the rural and urban divide (Hansen 1988: 32).


Sarita Heer (2014) has analysed the image of Phoolan Devi in fine art (painting print, and mixed media installation)?  Heer argues that in each of the different works, the artists, through media and subject, unpack their personal politics regarding the Bandit Queen. Rekha Rodwittiya’s take on Devi situates her within the context of Indian womanhood. Ganesh’s series is about the various interpretations of Phoolan Devi as they tie into her identity as a queer, South-Asian American.  Sandrasegar’s installation considers Phoolan Devi and Indian womanhood as dichotomies that reveal the unstable nature of Indian nationhood. I argue that the fine arts images of Devi reveal how these three artists, from their different perspectives, understand Indian womanhood, hence nationhood. Rekha Rodwittiya’s painting, Untitled (Phoolan Devi), 2001 shows the placing of a heart on Devi’s chest. The heart contains a representation of Jhansi Ki Rani, the warrior queen. The multiple mythologies that these works present remain far from the community’s representation of Devi. One is not arguing that epic singers create an ideal representation of Devi. In fact, against the ideal representation of Devi, they create a dynamic representation in which the image if Phoolan cannot be kept in binary.

 I argue that unlike the existing representations of Phoolan Devi in popular media culture, the local singers and performers present Phoolan Devi as an icon of the future. Against an irrational revengeful figure, they are trying to project Devi as a figure of justice. I further argue that by doing this, the community is also participating in the therapeutic act of narrative and culture justice. If injustice happens at the symbolic and aesthetic level, then narrative justice is required to play a vital role. It can be argued that the narratives recounted by the local epic singers not only offer a model of cultural justice, they also become a vehicle in mobilising alternative social and political discourse. For the local community singers, the stake is bigger. The representation of Devi is ultimately is their own representation. It is a mirror image of the community. Devi’s image has been continuously sustained and recreated by the local singers and performers to address the discourse of the time. In making and unmaking of Phoolan Devi also lies the history-making of the community. In recent years under the influences of larger Dalit Bahujan discourse, Devi’s image has moved beyond the image of virangana and posits a new discourse of justice.


Narrative Justice

 I would like to present a short section of those reflections in relation to the narrative and cultural justice in the epic performances of Phoolan Devi. I briefly discuss the works of Ajay Sahni, one of the many epic singers who uses alha style of singing to create a narrative justice for the communities at large. I also consider these singers and bards as memory keepers who keep the embodied “archives” of the injustices done and justice delivered to the communities in their repertoire. Sahni’s “Fauladi Phoolan” (The Daring Phoolan) was produced by the Akhil Bharatiya Nishad Ekta Manch that also shows the aspiring representation of the community in the larger discourse. In his recounting of the story of Phoolan Devi, Shahni presents an account of discrimination against women by saying that how patriarchal society mourns the birth of daughters and celebrate the birth of sons. He also criticised the society in which women are as an object of consumption. He also narrates other atrocities against women. Then he comes to Phoolan Devi’s story and recounts her birthplace, proudly naming her parents who gave birth to a woman like Phoolan Devi, he also mentions her caste and poverty-stricken background. By placing Phoolan in the epic tradition, the singer challenges the idea of the epic based on the stories of the privileged in which heroes come from a noble family. The alha then following its repertoire presents the emblematic projection of her birth. What happened when Phoolan was born? Here is a rough translation of the alha, Sahni sings:

            Listen to this heart wrenching story of a daughter

            It was the night of the 10 August of 1963

            In the district of Jalaun, the village is called Ghura ka Purwa

            It is in the Uttar Pradesh


            The parents were Moola Devi- Devi Din

            They belonged to the caste of Mallah

            Bind, Sahni, Navik, Manjhi

            Kashyap, Kevat and Nishad

            Are different names of the caste

            In which came the new-born


            Everyone joined the celebration 

            Lighting lighted her home from the sky

The rain came roaring in the Chambal 

To welcome her came dancing the cloud members

They danced freely moving in the sky

Shining in dark complexion

She was lovely, she was gorgeous

Listen, listen she was  Phoolan

She was the one who showed everyone

That what it means to be a woman


In most of the epic ballads of Phoolan Devi, the singers easily merge history and fantasy. It can be also seen as reality and desire. The reality he discusses in the first part and the desire he showed in the second stanza. This becomes a special technique in which epical subjects are formed, not in the negation of the social reality but a parallel social world is created in their imaginative praxis. The playfulness works as a catalyst for the community. Shani narrates further:


Coming from the low caste

She performed an extraordinary act

The babusaheb (the upper castes)

who expected a servitude of the low caste

Without any dissent

Were taken back

By the defiant words of Phoolan.

It was a case of mere teasing

And Phoolan, out of expectation

 Was rousing, she was in fire.


Phoolan was growing harsh

In the harsh beehad (moor) of Chambal

Tolerating the harsh situation of live

and harassment of everyone

Even at that height

Phoolan has shown them

A courage to fight.

People soon realised that

She is not the other women

She is not going to tolerate anything

            She is not going to be afraid of anyone

            She was unafraid daughter of the oppressed

In the mix of history and the anecdote, the epic singer soon makes Phoolan as part of the future. From recounting of the past, Phoolan became a projection in the future. More than of the past, it is reconstruction of Phoolan Devi for the future, who will not be afraid of anyone and will not tolerate any injustice. Then he recounts again:

The injustice with Phoolan begin at home

She was given to three times older Puttilal

The physical pain was unbearable

for the little Phoolan

She kicked her husband

And ran away to home


Listen the breaking nerve of the story

She was abducted by Babu Gurjar

He did not hear the tears of Phoolan

He did the torture unimaginable

Heart of the beehaad cried out

Vikram Mallah could not see the pain

Brutality invited his ire

His rifle started blowing the fire

He killed the Gurjar in the ire


He became the leader of the gang

And added a new leaf in the history

Shattering the caste hierarchy

The fake arrogance of Thakurs was blown in the wind

The loving pair of Phoolan-Vikram was in the scene

This does not go well with many

And Vikram was killed

In their cowardly act.

And the flower (Phoolan) was pelted again

The butchers were standing around again

Phoolan was like fallen cow

But it was not the end

The ordeal was not yet over


She was captured by the gang of Lala Ram and Sri Ram

Both were Thakurs by caste

They have crossed the limits of shame

Ten monsters sexually harassed the deity

In day and night

She was stripped

And made to walk in the village

With Thakurs roaring laugh

Was there not people in the village

Who could have stopped them?

What is the meaning of such Thakurs (Kshatriya)?

Which Thakurina came out to criticize the act

Whose voices not have been heard?

The name of village was Behmai.

One day she was able to run away

She reached the camp of Baba Mushtakin, the great

Lying wounded and pool of blood

He was dacoit with a great soul

He had respect for women

He gave Mansingh Mallah to Phoolan

Under the command of Phoolan  

The gang of Phoolan took the arms

She walked wrapped red coffin on her head

And raided the village of Behmai

Where she was raped 

She killed 21 Thakurs

Phoolan played the Holi in blood

And turned the Yamuna river red

Her anger and injustice of the years

flooded in the red blood

The blend of anger and revenge

But the regret remain

Lala Rama and Sri Ram escaped


             On 14 Feb 1981, the nation and world left shaken

            How a woman has taken the arm

Remember! It was world of the men

How could have they tolerated the crime of a woman 

Above all, she was the daughter of a Mallah, low caste  

This was the reason that

the pain felt was more severe

It was a special pain combined with the caste

Then Sahni goes to narrate her death by some cowards, who killed Phoolan in a treacherous act.

With bullets, Phoolan fell to the ground

The earth took her in the lap and cried out

            The sky also cried hundred times

            She kept facing the pain from the birth

            She again felt the pain in the death

Now he takes a didactic turn and sings,

Phoolan takes birth everyday here

But she does not react

Therefore the atrocities keep rising

Exception like Phoolan comes in hundred centuries

No one should have to become Phoolan and Nirbhaya

No one should suffer such injustices

Let this stories spread across.

In recounting of Sahni what we clearly see is the formation of a cultural justice that seeks to shift representation of gestures, voice, and agency. They are the prominent medias that are often ignored despite of their popularity and radical intervention in the wider discourse of the representation. Second, the singers stance are implicated in the ideology of community and therefore their treatment of subject remain more sensible than popular media. Once the sensation is over, popular media does not take interest in such image making. For the local community singers, this memory becomes paramount; it cannot be simply closed. They remain “suppressed and forced underground at times, but constantly re-emerging into popular consciousness through memory and celebration” (Hansen 1988: WS32). These local community singers as memory keepers of the community has to perform, otherwise, it can lead to cultural amnesia. They have to perform justice in the songs and narrative, in memory and history, according to time and space. They have to sustain the memory in every condition. Therefore, unlike popular culture which harps on the sensationalisation of the story, local epic singers and performed have a larger stake for themselves. They have to keep the memory alive, not only against the prevailing social order but also against the hype of popular culture.  It does not mean that community singers and popular culture do not engage with each other but they engage with their own interests and stakes.

Narrative justice lies in the act of narration, in the recounting of the past event to address the present; the narrator and the chorus become the judge to deliver them justice. They lay out the plot, they ask the matter to their chorus and community members; they show their anger and empathy, unlike judges who are not supposed to behave in that emotional way. It is the narrator who infuses justice with their selected words, bodily gestures and postures and connecting themes. The question that arises is that who gives authority to these epic singers and performers? In the case of cinema, we can say that it is the moral authority of the director, in the case of painting we can say that the artist subjectivity becomes the perusal ground to seek justice, what about these epic singers who might also come from different caste and gender background. It is ultimately tradition and memory that gives the storyteller this authority. The narrative teller creates a sense of participation. They take a walk with the community on the landscape so much so that they start speaking from their bodies and imaginations. The storyteller makes us own the story. Walter Benjamin (2002) succinctly underlines this point in his writing: “A man listening to a story is in the company of the storyteller.” But one can ask that how this companionship becomes possible. Benjamin will argue that,

 Memory creates the chain of tradition which passes a happening on from generation to generation. It is the Muse-derived element of epic art in a broader sense and encompasses its varieties. In the first place among these is the one practice by the storyteller. It starts the web which all stories together form in the end. One ties on the next, as the great story- tellers, particularly the Oriental ones, have always readily shown (p 98).

As Benjamin will point out that memory does not work as a fact, it works as a chain of truths whose grains lies everywhere but cannot be located. It is the grain of truths that validate both the story and epic singer to carry out the story. The story makes reference to history and promises, it shares the fate of the oppressors and inspires the generations to follow the “good” order. Many times, the narrative discourse bring contradictions too. But this is not the point. Elsewhere I have argued that the performance practices of subaltern communities are full of such contradictions. While contradictions arise from improvisation and the flexible nature of performance, they also represent their sociopolitical locations (Prakash 2019: 206).

This narrative discourse needs to be read as an act of radical renunciation. One of the meanings Geral Genett (1983:26) proposes in about narrative is that it is an event that is recounted. Narrative discourse depends on that action of telling. He says that narrative discourse is produced by the action of telling in the same way that any statement is the product of an act of enunciation (p 26). He presents three frameworks to look into the discourse: in relation to tense, time of the story and time of the discourse. In this case one can ask when was the time of the story, this can be located in history but this also shows that time of the discourse is a reworking of that story. In other words, they are not narrating the story, in their act of recounting, they are presenting a new discourse. In some of the old alhas and birahas, Phoolan Devi is treated very much like a bandit. That elements remain in the presentations of birha singer Haidar Ali “Jugnu” and Om Prakash Yadav. But in the changing discourses, the epic singers have not only recreated new Phoolan based on the Dalit-Bahujan discourses, they have also expanded the discourses. Genett also talks about the narrative discourse in relation to aspect, the way story is perceived by the narrator. How does a narrator perceive a story? It will depend on the social location and ideological position of the narrator, however, one of the most vital parts of this perception gets shaped by the emotional system. In this regard, P.C. (2011:1) Hogan has argued that “story structures are fundamentally shaped and oriented by our emotion systems.” His arguments can be extended further to say that narratives are socially experienced bond. But within the emotion systems, the narrative can unfold in different ways as the narratives can “motivate us to sustain or change the situation by making us experience the situation as desirable or aversive” (Hogan 2011: 3). While emotions are socially bond the narrative can go beyond the “socially-determined” situation to produce a new possibility. Genett has discussed another important point in relation to the mood of the narrative (p 29). It has to be pointed out that not all genres can take all kinds of moods. The story in its structure carries a mood. This also becomes reason that unlike other folk genres, the alha and birha carry the narrative discourse of Phoolan better than other genres.

The performance of the epic narrative distributes justice in symbolic, gesture and narrative terms. The stories in most the case are troubled. The question of justice becomes an important marker and the basis of the moral discourse. Here, the focus is not on the restoration of the dead victim. In Hogan words’ “It is, rather, on the actual restoration of processes that should assure justice throughout the foreseeable future”. This is what epic singers do here. Their focus are largely on the situations and processes that created the victim. By saying that no one has to become Phoolan Devi to seek justice, the singers want to assure justice throughout the foreseeable future. This is not a passive acceptance but a radical foreclosing of the injustice done.

Gestus of the Justice

Judges slamming down their gravels on the desk are typical imaginations of the courtroom in India. It is the symbol of authority and the power of the judgeship. Hammer is used to punctuate a decision or signing a request. The alha and birha singers use their powerful gestures to make truth claims. In Fiction of Authority, Susan Lanser (1992) asks us to move beyond plot and content issues towards narrative aspects of the technique. We need to also see how these issues are presented narratively. In the epic singing of Devi, the narrative brings the body in active gestural forms. The performers punctuate truth and justice through pause, silence, noise and postures. In the epic imagination, Phoolan Devi very much appears against the figure of the idealised woman. Justice is also about how does justice look like? How does it (she) speak? Is she blindfolded like Lady Justice symbolising Goddess Justitia from the Roman tradition or justice looks like Manu standing in front of the Rajasthan High Court carrying the Hindu Law book in his hand and giving stern warning through his gestures? 

Alha and birha performers gesticulate their songs and actions using lots of hands, body and facial movements. Music also gesticulates the action in which one can hear the sound of horse neighing, gunfights and sounds of violence. Though the level of gesticulations depends on region to region. Alha singing and musical compositions differ from region to region. In some places only one singer play and perform. In the Bundelkhand region, one man alone sings and play dholak accompanied by another man on manjira. In the Awadhi region, alha is sung with 4-5 accompanied musicians who also work as a chorus. If the main singers gesticulate the action, the musicians and chorus gesticulate the music. In the Bhojpuri region, the singer can be surrounded of a strong team of cymbal players who punctuate the music with a powerful sound.  In many places, for example in the area of Mathura bowed string instrument, Chikara is used which itself becomes a powerful instrument to gesticulate the actions and attitudes in the performance (See Babu Ram Singh’s performance for reference). This action can be closely, if not the same, understood from what German playwright and theatre thinker, Bertolt Brecht terms as gestus. The gestus in simple words can be understood as a combination of gestures and attitudes. But this would not be enough. It was Brecht’s one of the key aesthetic terms and one of several strategies for epicisation, interpretation and reception. He will insist on gestic language of poetry, theatre and music. As we are discussing in the context of epic performance, Brecht would say that actors should interpret gestic materials of fable (narrative). Epic performance in the sense becomes all gestic activities. The gestus also manifests in the way the poet and singer refer to antiquity (history) and to the audience, the way it employs both the gestures and attitudes in a performance. In Brecht’s view, “history offers a parallel, but no model”; using the history, epic singer and performer warns against “the dangers and downfalls of previous classes and societies—urging his audiences to take warning from them” (Varopoulou 1999:62). Therefore, singers use gestures in relation to a distanced social situation. Phoolan Devi’s suffering is the name of the social situation in which singers are part, not part of, therefore, he is in a position to comment on that situation. I am not trying to say that epic singers of Phoolan Devi epitomise the Brechtian principles of gestus. Gestus here rather becomes principles to understand that movement.

When alha and birha singers sing, they draw their voices from their base. One can see their nerve are visibly tensed, the blood boils in the veins and body becoming vessel. They often sing with a full-throated voice. It appears they are speaking from the site of battle, completely immersed into the scene. But soon they will turn to their social commentary and will relate the fable with the present.  They sing from the body and blood gesturing their whole body. They beat their chest and ask the question, whether that village did not have any male members who could have stopped the Thakurs. What did happen to Thakurines? Whose voices could not be heard? The questions create the landmark with musical punction. With shock, sensation, rawness, the performers and participants make an exchange through whole body and limbs. The performers will sneer, roll their eyes, furrow their brow and make their nostril and ear flare. With the musical instruments imitation, the noise of neighing of a horse, the gunfight, the roaring of the cloud, falling of the sky, what we see is music gestus. They make proclamations,  they show defiance through their gestus. Though these expressions differ from region to region, however the gestus remain one of the major performative languages of alha and birha. Unlike their patriarchal depictions in which male and Rajput caste valour are presented in alha and birha stories, the coming of Phoolan Devi also challenges the existing gestures. New performers have to create a new gesture to incorporate the new discourse. These changes are visible in the gestus of justice produced by the new singers. Their movements are getting less masculinised in comparison to traditional singers. The traditional narrative used to present every episode as ladai but this does not seem to remain the case.


There are many ways to think about the formation of cultural justice,  from an act of justice itself as a performative act with its rhetorical and gestural languages in the courtroom to the (re)distribution of sensible at the corporeal and sensorial level. Thinking through the framework of cultural justice, I have tried to show how local epic performers present a case of such justice by providing a narrative discourse. Though cinema and other media can also said to present a case of narrative justice the epic narratives remain different in its body and immediacy. The recounting of Phoolan Devi is not a case of what Eric Hobsbawm (1971; 1972) has termed as “social banditry”. In narrative recounting she is not presented as dacoit who is attacking the village and the city like Robinhood.  In a different context, Will Wright (1975: 195), points out, that the heroic outlaw is a legendary figure grounded in myth more than in reality and politics. Tales of outlaws may appeal to an audience because of the dramatic elements embedded in the stories.  There is no doubt that this could have been seen earlier when local alha and nautanki performers started composing their performance on Devi. But this does not seem to be a case now. However, this can be indeed said that Devi has also acquired the power of myth which makes her character multivocal, an essential quality to make the person epical. 

Her every act presented in the narrative discourse is a discourse of women, caste and patriarchal society. In the new discourse, Phoolan Devi is getting projected as a figure of justice or as a Justice Queen unlike her revengeful and reductionist image of bloody revenge seeker. A different notion of justice is also invoked in her embracing Buddhism in 1995 at Deeksha Bhoomi, following the path of Baba Saheb Ambedkar and representing her people in Parliament, a Phoolan Devi, not with anger and taunting gun, but with a smile, a positive and confident Phoolan standing like a leader of social and cultural justice.















Brahma Prakash ( teaches at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
1 March 2022