The Future of Tribal Oral Culture in the Age of Globalization/ Digitalization: Papers presented for “Tribes In Transition-II: Reaffirming Indigenous Identity Through Narrative” (National Conference)

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Plenary Session 3: Panel Discussion on “The Future of Tribal Oral Culture in the Age of Globalization/ Digitalization”

Chaired by: Prof. Virginius Xaxa, Professor of Eminence, Tezpur University, Assam & Chairman of Xaxa Planning Committee

Panellists: Prof. Joseph Bara (IGNTU, Amarkantak), Prof. Bipin Jojo (TISS, Mumbai), Prof. Anand Mahanand (EFL University, Hyderabad), Dr. Shreya Bhattacharji (CUJ, Ranchi) and Dr. Ganga Sahay Meena (JNU, Delhi).

Joseph Bara began by indicating how the twentieth century had been a landmark period in the history of tribal literature. He gave reference of several colonial writers, historians and anthropologists who compiled data about the various tribes of India. Such colonial documentation included Encyclopaedia Britannica of Tribes in general, several volumes on Santhal folklore, and other writings that were inspired by: i) a strong wave of humanitarianism; ii) the spurt in anthropological and ethnological work. Before colonial and administrative documentation, there had been writings by missionaries, who even took the effort of learning the language of the tribes. But all these writings saw the tribes as the ‘others’ who needed ‘reform’. In some cases, the tribals themselves were closely involved in providing details to the compilers of these works, as in the case of Verrier Elwin and G.S. Ghurye. The whole body of writings on the tribes has been marked by i) Orientalist stereotyping ii) nationalism, because of which they were largely misrepresentations. The speaker concluded by emphasizing on the need to critique the existing narratives and knowledge systems about the tribals in India.

Bipin Jojo’s talk focused on the Tribal/ Adivasi epistemology with a perspective from within. European epistemology was based on ‘othering’ and the binaries of superior/ inferior and core/periphery. To counter the European epistemologies, indigenous epistemologies have arisen from different non-European regions of the world. In the Indian context, the tribal epistemology should take care of four aspects: i) the paradigm of analysis, i.e., there is no postcolonial in the context of Adivasis in India, as they are still experiencing internal colonization; ii) the notion of protection; iii) the notion of modernity; iv) the degree of authenticity, as tribal narratives and forms of knowledge cannot be generalized owing to their located-ness and relativity. They are not universal and absolute, but dynamic, temporal, and based on time, space and person. Further, Western epistemology has considered oral societies as being devoid of histories, while they do appropriate these histories in different ways. The binaries on which these studies are premised are unfair – such as those of oral/written, civilized/ uncivilized, subjective/ objective. They consider documentation as authentic and deride the authenticity of oral cultures. They are unmindful of the fact that the documentation is also not free from subjective ideological interventions. They ignore the fact that oral tradition has the possibility of dialogue which is absent in written. Therefore, it is necessary for tribal studies to counter the epistemologies from outside and develop an epistemology with a perspective from within.

Anand Mahanand spoke about orality and writing, and issues of translation when oral culture is transcribed into written narratives (with reference to Oriya folk tales). Folktales are orally narrated and performed with the speaker’s gestures, voice modulations, imitation of characters, and improvisations. They are also participated by the audience. When oral tales take the form of written narratives, they undergo several changes at the level of language, culture, genre and audience; from tribal language to standardized Oriya language, which in turn involves appropriation of cultures. In terms of genre, they change from oral performances of songs and stories to written narratives. The audience changes from participant performers – both literate or illiterate – to passive readers of a text, often from another community. Tribal folktales reflect the culture, rituals and practices of a people, which get uprooted, alienated and frozen in written narratives in an alien language. From public performances, they become reduced to a private activity. Gestures such as jumping and dancing are lost in the written form. The paper concluded by posing some pertinent questions such as the following: If there are these many losses and issues in translating oral cultures to written ones, then should such endeavours be taken up? If yes, what are the aspects of translation to be taken care of, so that the vivacity of a living culture is not lost in translation?

Shreya Bhattacharji presented on the “Unique Cultural Mosaic of the Lepcha Community of Kalingpong [West Bengal]. This community has been reduced from being a rich and vibrant culture to a dying tribe. Across history they have been prone to attacks and invasions such as the Tibetan influx of the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries, the Bhutanese invasion in the 1700s, religious invasions and conversions. Today, they are spread across three countries – India, Nepal and Bhutan. They are thrice marginalized, and today their culture is almost extinct or deeply threatened. They have displayed a tremendous history of tolerance, despite the several forms of onslaughts on them. Their governance pattern was remarkable by virtue of being casteless, creedless, and having a communal ownership of land. They were a community that gave immense respect to women. They had traditional judicial system by which conflicts were easily resolved. Because of the politics of exclusion and distortion, there is a threat of erosion of this indigenous, socio-cultural, gender-friendly tradition and its institutions.

Ganga Sahay Meena expressed the concern whether Adivasi philosophy can be preserved in the age of globalization and free market economy. To preserve the Adivasi philosophy, the language should be preserved. This is borne out by the survey conducted by G. N. Devy, while compiling details about most of the extinct and endangered languages of the Adivasis in his voluminous work, People’s Linguistic Survey of India.

(Student Rapporteur: Mr. Niyas Ahamad)

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)

Usage in legal and historical records

Read the inaugural Speech by Dr. Ivy Hansdak: “Is tribal identity relevant in today’s world?” delivered during the conference titled “Tribes In Transition-II: Reaffirming Indigenous Identity Through Narrative” | Conference report | Video presentation “Tribes in Transition III” (September 2021): Inaugural Session & Keynote Speech by Prof. Anvita Abbi >>

In the postcolonial scenario of many Third World countries today, religious conversion is frequently perceived as an act of expediency undertaken by converts for purely temporal gains, in terms of entry into a privileged socio-economic space hitherto denied to them. In India especially, where social and political protests by many lower caste Hindu groups have taken the form of conversion to Christianity, Buddhism or Islam, the spiritual dimension of conversion often tends to be subsumed. This marginalisation of individual spiritual belief is closely linked to the denigration of religion in modern times from a knowledge-producing activity to a trope of cultural/national identity. Not surprisingly, in the colonial context this perception of religious conversion is particularly intensified.

Another common perception of conversion, prevalent in India, is that all conversions take place only among deprived lower caste or tribal groups, which are considered more susceptible to allurement or coercion. The reality of upper caste conversions is ignored in this climate of cynicism. […]

Source: “Pandita Ramabai Saraswati: the convert as ‘heretic’” by Ivy Imogene Hansdak in Conversion and coercion: the politics of sincerity and authenticity (Groningen studies in cultural change, 2006)

[Bold typeface added above for emphasis]

“Our moment calls for a bolder reimagination, based not on the constrained, degraded conditions around us but on a more expansive view of history and reality, considering as possible baselines both realities of the past and audacious visions of the future.” – Alexandra Kleeman in “Bolder Reimagining”: 55 Voices for Democracy | Indigenous peoples in the modern world >>

“Is it eccentric to live in beautiful scenery in the hills among some of the most charming people in the country, even though they may be ignorant and poor?” – Verrier Elwin quoted by G.N. Devy in The Oxford India Elwin >>

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