Tribal Memory, Folklore and Hindu Epic Narratives: Papers presented for “Tribes In Transition-II: Reaffirming Indigenous Identity Through Narrative” (National Conference)

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PLENARY SESSION Chaired by: Prof. M. Asaduddin, Dean, Faculty of Humanities & Languages, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi

Paper Presenters: Dr. Athikho Kaisii (JMI, Delhi), Dr. Pravin Kumar (IGNTU, Amarkantak), Dr Ananya Barua (Hindu College, Delhi). Dr. Saroj Kumar Mahananda (JMI, Delhi) and Norkey Wangmu Yolmo (Sikkim University, Gangtok).

The session began with Prof. M. Asaduddin welcoming everyone in the conference Hall. He is the award-winning translator of Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chugtai, and also the Dean of the School of Humanities and Languages, JMI. He is the recipient of Katha Translation Award 1991 & 1992, the Dr. AK Ramanujan Award 1993, the Sahitya Akademi Award 2004 and the Crossword Book Award 2013. He reminded the participants to look at things in continuity from the Inaugural session so as to provide a comprehensive and in-depth perspective. He further briefly summarised Prof. Virginius Xaxa’s speech and added how there has been a constant tussle between the people from the hills and the plains, and that the narrative of victimhood needs to be looked at from various critical perspective. He then reiterated how such a Conference becomes an excellent forum to discuss things in different perspectives and provide a balanced view. Lastly, he formally invited the first speaker Athiko Kaisii to begin with the session.

Athikho Kaisii, began his paper “Oral Literature and Memory: A Study of Tribal Folklore”, by posing pertinent questions on the idea of Literature, Orature and Text. He focused on the issue of narrative and debates, asking whether orature is contrary to literature, and whether literature pre-existed text. He highlighted how oral literature does not depend upon authorship but on interpretation and oral translation. Kaisii further stressed on the role of memory in tribal literature due to the non-availability of printed text. This memory is preserved in the form of songs, dances, riddles, adages, yells and cries etc. shared and transferred by a number of people providing a kaleidoscopic view of shared knowledge. Kaisii further delved into the history and various definitions of the term Folklore. He particularly discussed two tribes of Manipur – the Maos and the Poumais; further giving insights into their rites and rituals. He concluded his paper by discussing how these folksongs and dances became the medium of cultural transmission.

Pravin Kumar started his presentation on “Depiction of Life Values in Tribal Literature” by highlighting how Adivasi Sahitya is oral and that for them the terms chalna and bolna in Hindi is equivalent to ‘dance’ and ‘song’ respectively. He further defined the term Adivasi as Manusya or human beings and stressed how one should be looked at as human beings first and then other identities can be attached later. Kumar recited various poems and established how Adivasi Sahitya talks primarily of humanity. Social identity is enforced upon us automatically, he said. He further discussed the idea of JalJungle and Jameen, and emphasised how when these three are destroyed in the name of globalisation, the core construction of Adivasi culture and language is also destroyed. He ended his presentation by focussing on the need to include tribal literature and language in the school curriculum, especially in higher education.

Ananya Barua spoke about the various forms of the Hindu epic, Ramayana, in her paper “The Karbi Ramayana in Assam and its Modern Re-telling in Documentary Film”. According to her, the Ramayana exists in various cultures and in different languages in Assam, Manipur, Mizoram and other various parts of the North-East. Rama and Lakshman exist as Rawa and Khena in Mizo folk songs, thus reminding us of the deep impact of the Ramayana in North-East culture. She further gave a detailed account of the tribal group Karbis and how they migrated to Assam. She mentioned how the Karbi film, Sabin Alun, is a living oral tradition of the animalistic tribal society of the Karbis of Assam and examined their oral singing traditions in its multi-layers. She ended the presentation by concluding that Karbi women have taken up the Sita myth and appropriated it as their own to give women a voice.

Saroj Kumar Mahananda began the presentation on “The Familiar Case of the Nishad [Nishada, Sanskrit Niṣāda, “tribal, hunter, mountaineer, degraded person outcast”] in the Mahabharata: An Alternate Reading” by reminding everyone that to make sense of the present, one must revisit the past. And this could be done by revisiting the narratives through different times – mythology, colonial and post-colonial. He questioned the term identity and asked how is it made, for whom and for what purpose? He stated that there is a need of an alternate reading of the past. 

Abhishek Pundir, his co-presenter, then continued to throw light on the case of the Nishads who figure in the Hindu epic, Mahabharata. He started with the dictionary definitions of the term “tribe” and how the Nishads were variously known as Savar/ Shabar/Sahara or Bhil [see also Sabar / Saharia]. He recounted various incidents and scenes from the epics and the issue of Brahmanical appropriation and sanskritization of various Nishad icons. He provided enlightening insights into the politics of representation and its ramifications in modern India by quoting the Census Reports in different years. He ended the presentation by asking pertinent questions such as: “Was Eklavya [Ekalavya] liable for guru-dakshina even though he was rejected as a student?

Norkey Wangmu Yolmo began her presentation on “Yolmo Funeral at Homeland and Abroad” by asking the question: Who are the Yolmos? She stated that Yolmo is a place in the North-Eastern part of Nepal and presents the history of the Yolmo community briefly. She described the distinct Yolmo cultural practices and traditions, distinguishing them from other Tibeto-Buddhist communities. Particular focus was given to the funeral procession of the Yolmos which follows the rules and rituals of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. She further discussed the importance of the chant “Mani Chhepa”, a mantra-dance ritual chanted in the funeral, which ironically also served as entertainment. Due to lack of education and opportunities, the Yolmo tribe has slowly started migrating to India. As a result of this, there have been ruptures in the sacred cultural traditions. New altered customs were brought in, replacing or adjusting the old ones. She ended by saying that every individual must move forward by moving a little backward, to preserve the rich traditions of the past, which would otherwise be lost forever with the passing of the older generation.

After the reading of the papers, the house was opened for questions and comments. A number of perspectives emerged in the general discussion. A participant questioned Athikho Kaisii whether scientific knowledge can be imparted with the help of folklore. He raised the question of the local versus universal knowledge. Another participant asked Ananya Barua whether the need of the hour is to look at these myths from counter-discursive points of view. One participant disagreed with Pravin Kumar and said Adivasis should focus on their native rights rather than human rights, as argued by Pravin Kumar in his presentation. Another participant asked Athikho Kaisii whether the tribal songs and dances are available in a documented format and Athikho replied in the affirmative.

In the concluding remarks, the Chair, Prof. M. Asaduddin summarised the session and gave his brief but expert insight into each paper presented. He agreed how the possibilities of alternate readings to these myths revitalises the discipline and opens the discussions even further. Lastly, he thanked all presenters and participants and invited them for lunch outside.
(Student Rapporteur: Ms. Sarika Chhetry)

Objectives of the conference:
While grappling with the issues of tribal and indigenous identity, culture, history and narrative, the Conference will address relevant questions such as: What is the outcome of the interface between oral tradition and modernity? What is ‘tribal imagination’? What is the tribal sense of history? How can tribal oral traditions be preserved in the digital age? How does contemporary tribal literature compare/ contrast with the traditional genres? Why do tribal and indigenous narratives suffer from low visibility within mainstream academia? What is the significance of tribal and indigenous characters in mainstream narratives? How does the perspective of the ‘outsider’ differ from that of the ‘insider’? Finally, the Conference will try to connect with grassroots workers and activists working on problems of healthcare, education, employment and human trafficking among the tribal and indigenous communities of India.

[Bold typeface added above for emphasis]

Courtesy Dr. Ivy Hansdak, Assistant Professor, Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia University New Delhi (email 4 October 2017)

Source: Report for the ICSSR-sponsored Two-Day National Conference Tribes In Transition-II: Reaffirming Indigenous Identity Through Narrative organised by The Department of English & Outreach Programme Jamia Millia Islamia (New Delhi, 27-28 February 2017)

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