|Members of the Dungri Bhil tribe
keeping the tradition of their epic alive
Suddenly, it would seem, tribal art and oral epics are everywhere, a change from their marginalised status. There are books for children about Adivasi life, Gond artists are almost mainstream and are used to illustrate books and the covers of books. Warli art has been used on bedspreads, cushion covers, pillow cases, trays, pencil boxes and embroidery on saris.
Metal work by various groups has been available for ages, and includes some wonderful pieces on women reading books while sitting upright or lolling about. Folklorists in various universities and institutions have been writing down oral epics. And a great many tribal stories are still relevant today: stories about the conflicts of man and animal space, for instance.
It all sounds like flavour-of-the-month, but it isn’t. There’s Verrier Elwin, and more recently Mahashweta Devi. But, and this fact is often unacknowledged, there were numerous British civil servants who spent a great deal of time researching folklore of various kinds, songs, stories, ballads. A great deal of material would have been lost without them.
The most recent offering comes from Bhagwandas Patel who documented and edited an epic of the Dungri Bhils called Bharath. It’s a version of the Mahabharat, recited for centuries by tribes between Gujarat and Rajasthan, which Bhagwandas Patel recorded in Gujarati. Later, a Hindi version of the epic was published.
The English version, translated by Nila Shah has just been published by the Central Institute of Indian Languages and Bhasha Research and Publication Centre, both of whom, among other things, have as their goal the promotion of languages of “Scheduled Tribes.”
The language of the Dungri Bhils is, we are told, “the largest non-scheduled language… their language must be put on the firm path of development for they have survived the test of time.” The epic belongs to a “living oral tradition…Considering the immense odds against which tribals have been fighting, it is not short of a miracle that they have preserved their languages and continue to contribute to the amazing linguistic diversity of India.”
Bhagwandas Patel says, “These longer narratives are seldom sung or performed at a stretch… Different episodes are sung and performed and sung on corresponding social or religious occasions… the sage-composer or the singer of such narratives must possess prodigious memory and an adaptable but highly traditional language reserve.”
Here are some lines which characterise the qualities of an oral epic from a section called Pandu, the King: “One day the Sun declined behind the western hills./ The Sun declined behind the western hills./ The parakeets returned to their nests./ Lamps were lit in every niche of the palace./ Lamps were lit in every niche of the palace./ Pandu, the king, had drifted into deep slumber./ Pandu, the king dreamt a dream./ He dreamt a dream./ Iyaro, the God of Hunting , appeared in his dream./ ‘Go out hunting in the Meru-Sumeru mountains, O king, said the deity’/ ‘Go out hunting in the Meru-Sumeru mountains.’/ The king awoke with a start.”
Notes at the end of the text provide equivalents to the characters of the Mahabharata: Kutma is Kunti, Kasna Avtar or Avtar is Krishna, Andh Raja is Dhritrashtra, and so on. There are also notes on performance: As a verse ends, the lead singer plucks the string of his tambur a few times. Prose narration then commences. And the call ‘O Maharaj!’ is an address, meaning something like ‘O sir!’. The latter is anyone, a listener, or in this case, the reader. The lead singer often uses expressions to encourage the accompanists, and sometimes expressions are used to encourage the singer or narrator.
I wish such books had greater visibility. Karnataka University, institutes in Pondicherry, the Sahitya Akademi, the National Book Trust do a great deal of interesting and important work. But they have yet to acquire marketing skills.
Great stories for children
I loved Eunice de Souza’s column on children’s reads for the summer — ‘Rapid round-up for kids’ (PM, May 10). With a severe dearth of intelligent sales staff in most bookshops, I’m often at a loss as to what to buy for my son, apart from the usual comics and Percy Jackson series. I’m not a major fan of Tolkien, but I really liked the excerpt provided by Eunice in her column. Also, I’m glad she mentioned Ranjit Lal. There are many Indian authors writing in English for children now, most of them undermined by their foreign counterparts. Thank you, Eunice for bringing summer reading and Indian authors to the fore.
- Krittika Mishra