French author Martine Le Coz first came across the story of King Salhesh in 2012, during a visit to Jitwarpur village in Bihar’s Mithila region. This was not her first tryst with art and culture from the state—she first “met” India through Mithila drawings at the age of 20; her work with artists from the region has led to three books, Mithila, L’Honneur Des Femmes (Mithila: Women’s Honour, 2013), Les Filles De Krishna Prennent La Parole (Krishna’s Daughters Speak Up, 2016), and a set of oracle cards (drawings and texts) called Sept Saris (Seven Saris, 2018).
During the 2012 visit, she realised Salhesh was a constant presence in Jitwarpur paintings. His life is the subject of epic tales, passed down generations of the Dalit Dusadh community. As she spoke with families in the village, she found that while many episodes from his life were known, there was no complete written account of his life and times.
The story is unusual in many respects. Le Coz, who visited India last month at the invitation of the French Institute in India (Institut Français en Inde) and the publisher Navayana to celebrate the European Event Long Night of Literatures and to launch her book in the country, has summarised it in the afterword: Jaybhardan, son of Somdev and Madoderi, king and queen of Mahisautha, went walking in the woods with his younger brothers and heard a poor pregnant woman weeping. Asked why she was weeping, she responded: “I am but a poor, impure woman. A worthless person that people insult and spit on. The child I bear will undergo the same humiliations as I, for we are the dregs of mankind.” Jaybhardan, the future Salhesh, decided to use magic to reduce his body to the size of an embryo to replace the child in the woman’s womb.
“In this way, he made himself equal with the humblest of human beings so that the differences between the privileged and the humiliated would vanish,” writes Le Coz, the novelist, poet and artist whose historical novel, Céleste, won the Prix Renaudot in 2001.
Le Coz’s retelling of the epic tale has been translated from the French by Regan Kramer and published earlier this year as The King Of The Mountain: The Saga Of King Salhesh. Though she has recounted the story, the book marks the coming together of scholars, artists and academics. The pivotal role was played by Urmila Devi, a painter from Jitwarpur, who introduced Le Coz to a new element of the story “(which) confirmed Salhesh’s singularity. The Dusadh believe that although he belonged to the social class called Kshatriya, comprising sovereigns and warriors, he chose to withdraw from it to become a poor man,” writes Le Coz in the afterword.
Her attempt to delve into the story was supported by Parmeshwar Jha and David Szanton, founders of the Mithila Art Institute in Madhubani. Le Coz teamed up with the institute administrator, Kaushik Kumar Jha, and artist-teacher Rani Jha to gather documents, images and historical accounts. Urmila Devi’s narrative came as a revelation even to Rani Jha, who had spent considerable time collecting poems, literature and songs related to Mithila culture.
There were, however, gaps in the narrative, with historians vague about the time frame of Salhesh’s reign. Maithili novelist Braj Kishore Verma “Mandipan” estimated it to be around the seventh century, given his presence in the songs and poems of the time. “The rebirth of Jaybhardan (Salhesh’s birth name), heir to Somdev’s throne, as an ‘untouchable’, was a major discovery. Yet we found no trace of it with any of the historians we consulted. This is not too surprising as the Dusadh are Dalits, erstwhile ‘untouchables’, and their culture is essentially little studied by high-caste scholars,” explains Le Coz in an email interview. “Fortunately, Urmila Devi and her husband recounted the episode to us. She also illustrated it with great virtuosity. In her drawings, a mysterious strength appeared and knocked at my heart.”
The story of King Salhesh is a reminder of stories that have not been given a hearing, adding to the marginalisation of the community they relate to. S. Anand, founder of Navayana, the independent and anti-caste publishing house, writes in his essay, A Triangle And A Dot, in the book that the story of Salhesh is to Dalits what the Mahabharat and Ramayan are to most Hindus. “But unlike the savarna Hindu instinct that feels compelled to confirm the historical veracity, and thus the supremacy, of its myths, Jaybhardan-Salhesh has one foot in history and one outside of it; he is a historical immortal,” he writes.
To Le Coz, the figure of Salhesh goes beyond notions of good and evil, or any other doctrine. Rather, he is all about the experience of fraternity.