Here at HardMoshi, we’re particularly interested in the return of the retinue.The idea of a coterie of hangers-on as a symbol of political power has waxed and waned across time and space. In recent years something that used to be seen as both unnecessary and a strong indicator of vanity and corruption has been making a quiet comeback. And we’ve been here to chart it every step of the way, from Vladimir Putin’s gangsta rap style entourage to the F-17 escort that accompanied Xi Jinping to Pakistan to the Beijing APEC dancers.
We haven’t yet done a focus on India, however, which is a pity because in India the entourage concept has a historical foundation that is possibly unequalled elsewhere in the world. Thanks to the classical Indian passion for classifying and systematising, Sanskrit actually has a selection of distinct official terms for jobs that are basically the ancient equivalent of holding Snoop Dogg’s umbrella.
They have key roles in many classical dramas, where often their name and role are one and the same: pithmarda, ganika, bhikshuki, bandhula, vita, vidushaka, cheta, satri, vagjivana, paricharaka… It’s a mark of how distant we are from the era when this was commonplace that even modern scholars often have trouble telling what any given one of them actually did. While we are aware that, for example, a ganika was a sort of equivalent of a hetaira, a vidushaka was more or less a court jester but with more dignity, a bhikshuki was a (religious?) medicant of some variety etc., it’s neverthless difficult to say with any great precision what any of these people’s nine-to-five would have ressembled. Quite often the roles are miscellaneously rendered into English as “parasites”, which would appear to be as good a translation as any. Indeed, the plays in which they feature can seem something like a debauched Marxist utopia, in which no one does any actual work but abundance prevails.
They’re not just present in dramas, however. They wend their indsidious way through the chapters of the Arthashastra, seldom centre stage, but always on hand when an unsavoury job needs doing – something which seems to suggest that the plays were, indeed, an accurate representation of real life.
Even in the Kama Sutra – a text directed more towards upper middle class dudebros than heads of state – these people are considered a sufficiently important part of life that one is expected to just generally hang out with them (and – presumably – feed and fund them) on a daily basis apparently as a matter of duty:
Meals should be taken in the forenoon, in the afternoon, and again at night, according to Charayana. After breakfast, parrots and other birds should be taught to speak, and the fighting of cocks, quails, and rams should follow. A limited time should be devoted to diversions with Pithamardas, Vitas, and Vidushakas, and then should be taken the midday sleep.
To modern individuals the idea of being obliged to spend any amount of time with a bunch of scroungers who are constantly trying to foist some unwantable service like juggling or sitar solos upon you sounds, frankly, like a preview of Hell. To a citizen of a violent and unpredictable pre-modern world, however, personal connections – even with as sketchy a bunch of characters as these evidently were – could be the difference between life and death.
And, of course, as the old Cold War order breaks down and life grows more unstable, this sort of relationship is bound to make a come-back. We might call the people involved public relations officers and personal assistants, but the dynamic will be much the same.