It is almost impossible to characterize India's tribals in ethnographic or historic terms. In the Indian context, the term 'tribal' is too complex to be a synonym for 'indigenous'. The tribals are not necessarily racially distinct, nor are they necessarily the original inhabitants of the areas they inhabit. Throughout India's long history, communities have migrated, been forcefully displaced and rehabilitated themselves. In addition, the Subcontinent has a tradition of long-distance nomadism (which is not the same as the pastoral tradition of seasonal migration within a limited area). Still, the tribals have not been completely cut off from the non-tribals. Since ancient times, exchanges between the two communities have been of profound significance in areas such as medicine, folklore, narrative technique, religious abstraction, music, dance, theatre and even agricultural technology.
Since it is impossible to characterize tribals by any single distinguishing feature, it can be tempting to argue that in the present-day context, tribals are simply the most underprivileged or underdeveloped groups in the country. This argument is valid only in part it is true that most tribals are underprivileged (with the exception of some in the Northeast), but they can be called 'underdeveloped' only if development is understood in the inappropriate terms dictated by international development agencies, terms by which the rest of India looks equally underdeveloped. Given the difficulty of defining tribal identity, we are forced to fall back on the official listings that make up the Schedule of Tribes and enumerate the Denotified and Nomadic Communities. Through a series of legal enactments beginning with the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, nearly 200 communities were 'notified' by the colonial government as 'criminal tribes'. After independence, these communities were 'denotified' and listed in the schedule of tribes, caste and 'other backward communities'. Yet anyone with any experience of tribal culture will find these listings mind-bogglingly oversimplified.
The most useful indictor of tribal identity, then, is language. This book is an introductory sampling of the literary imagination of those communities where speech traditions face the prospect of forced aphasia. The selections are representative works from languages that are spoken but not written, languages that have slowly started acquiring scripts and developing written forms of literature dialects that are fast perishing because they are on the margins of the main language, or simply from communities that have remained outside the caste fold of Indian society.
Most tribal communities in India are culturally similar to tribal communities elsewhere in the world. They live in groups that are cohesive and organically unified. They show very little interest in accumulating wealth or in using labour as a device to gather interest and capital. They accept a worldview in which nature, man and god are intimately linked, and they believe in the human ability to spell and interpret truth. They live more by intuition than by reason, they consider the space around them more sacred than secular, and their sense of time is personal rather than objective. The world of the tribal imagination, therefore, is radically different from that of modern Indian society.
Once a society accepts a secular mode of creativity, within which the creator replaces God, imaginative transactions assume a self-conscious form. The tribal imagination, on the other hand, is still to a large extent dreamlike and hallucinatory. It admits fusion between various planes of existence and levels of time in a natural and implicit way. In tribal stories, oceans fly in the sky as birds, mountains swim in water a fish, animals speak as humans and stars grow like plants. Spatial order and temporal sequence do not restrict the narrative. This is not to say that tribal creations have no conventions or rules, but simple that they admit the principle of association between emotion and the narrative motif. Thus stars, seas, mountains, trees, men and animals can be angry, sad or happy.
It might be said that tribal artists work more on the basis of their racial and sensory memory than on the basis of a cultivated imagination. In order to understand this distinction, we must understand the difference between imagination and memory. In the animate world, consciousness meets two immediate material realities: space and time. We put meaning into space by perceiving it in terms of images. The image-making faculty is a genetic gift to the human mind-this power of imagination helps us understand the space that envelops us. In the case of time, me make connections with the help of memory; one remember being the same person today as one was yesterday.
The tribal mind has a more acute sense of time than sense of space. Somewhere along the history of human civilization, tribal communities seem to have realized that domination over territorial space was not their lot. Thus, they seem to have turned almost obsessively to gaining domination over time. This urge is substantiated in their ritual of conversing with their dead ancestors: year after year, tribals in many parts of India worship terracotta or carved-wood objects representing their ancestors, aspiring to enter a trance in which they can converse with the dead. Over the centuries, an amazingly sharp memory has helped tribals classify material and natural objects into a highly complex system of knowledge. The importance of memory in tribal systems of knowledge has not yet been sufficiently recognized, but the aesthetic proportions of the houses tribals build, the objects they make and the rituals they perform fascinate the curious onlooker. It can be hard to understand how, without any institutional training or tutoring, tribals are able to dance, sing, craft, build and speak so well.
In contemporary practice, the tribal memory is greatly undermined there is a general insistence that tribal children attend schools where non-tribal children attend school, that they use medicines manufactured for others and that they adopt common agricultural practices. All because the world has very little time to listen patiently to the tribals, with their immense knowledge and creativity. We have decided that what is good for us is good enough for them. In the process we are destroying a rich vein of our cultural heritage. Tribal communities are distinguished by the absence of the caste system or any other form of discrimination, and respect for each member of the community can be seen in every aspect of their lives. Among tribals, widows are not ignored, raped women are not stigmatized and orphans are not left to beg. Tribals do not exploit other people's labour for the sake of their own avarice, nor do they destroy nature to build monuments to the human ego.
A proper understanding of the tribal imagination can add to our literature and art. Indian literature has been burdened for the last two centuries by the 'perspective imagination' of Western origin. Because our systems of knowledge have been more or less replaced by Western systems, the tribal is now the only Indian unaffected by the colonial consciousness. To pose the question of memory once again may thus help rekindle our culture.
A vast number of Indian languages have yet remained only spoken, with the result that literary composition in these languages are not considered 'literature'. They are a feast for the folklorist, anthropologist and linguist, but to a literary critic they generally mean nothing. Similarly, several nomadic Indian communities are broken up and spread over long distances but survive as communities because they are bound by their oral epics. The wealth and variety of these works is so enormous that one discovers their neglect with a sense of pure shame. Some of the songs and stories I heard from itinerant street singers in my childhood are no longer available anywhere. For some years now I have been collecting songs and stories that circulate in India's tribal languages, and I am continually overwhelmed by their number and their profound influence on the tribal communities.
The result is that I, for one, can no longer think of literature as something written. Of course, I do not dispute the claim of written compositions and texts to the status of literature; but surely it is time we realize that unless we modify the established notion of literature as something written, we will silently witness the decline of various Indian oral traditions. That literature is a lot more than writing is a reminder necessary for our times.
One of the main characteristics of the tribal arts is their distinct manner of constructing space and imagery, which might be described as 'hallucinatory'. In both oral and visual forms of representation, tribal artists seem to interpret verbal or pictorial space as demarcated by an extremely flexible 'frame'. The boundaries between art and non-art become almost invisible. A tribal epic can begin its narration from a trivial everyday event; tribal paintings merge with living space as if the two were one and the same. And within the narrative itself, or within the painted imagery, there is no deliberate attempt to follow a sequence, the episodes retold and the images created take on the apparently chaotic shapes of dreams. In a tribal Ramayan, an episode from the Mahabharat makes a sudden and surprising appearance; tribal paintings contain a curious mixture of traditional and the grammar of painting are the same, as if literature were painted words and painting were a song of images.
Yet it not safe to assume that the tribal arts do not employ any ordering principles. On the contrary, the ordering principles are very strict. The most important among these is convention. Though the casual spectator may not notice every tribal performance and creation belonging to a previous occasion. The creativity of the tribal artist lies in adhering to the past while at the same time slightly subverting it. The subversions are more playful than ironic.
Indeed, playfulness is the soul of the tribal arts. Though oral and pictorial tribal art creations are intimately related to rituals-the sacred can never be left out-the tribal arts rarely assume a serious or pretentious tone. The artist rarely plays the role of the Creator. Listening to tribal epics can be great fu, as even the heroes are not spared the occasional shock of the artist's humour. One reason for this unique mixture of the sacred and the ordinary may be that tribal works of art are not created specifically for sale. Artists do expect a certain amount of patronage from the community, like artists in any other context; but since those performing rituals are very often artists themselves, there is no element of competition in the patron-artist relationship. The tribal arts are therefore relaxed, never tense.
Finally, the tribal arts have a notable attitude of indulgence towards their medium. When a tribal storyteller narrates an episode, he often stops at a word or phrase and plays upon its tonal qualities, exploiting its phonetic potential to the maximum. Tribal craftsman and painters seem almost to show off their love for the colours they use. Tribals have an intense sense of shapes and geometry, and an acute feel for the texture of the materials they use to make things. In whatever they build or make, they reveal and highlight the shapes, tones and textures they handle. It's as though the message of the medium is more important than the message framed in the artist's conceptual understanding. Hence, every tribal artist conceals his individual identity by foregrounding the medium itself. In their exuberant love for the materials used, tribal creations seem almost like prayerful offerings to the elements that make this world such a mysteriously beautiful place.
One question invariably asked about tribal arts is whether they are static-frozen in tradition-or dynamic. A general misconception is that the orally transmitted arts are entirely tradition-bound, with little scope for individual experimentation beyond the small freedom to distort the previously created text. This misconception arises from the habit of seeing art only with reference to the text; but the tribal arts involve not just text but performance and audience reception. Experimentation in the tribal arts can be understood only when they are approached as performing arts.
Non-tribals usually fail to notice that all of India's tribal communities are basically bilingual. All bilingual communities have an innate capacity to assimilate outside influences, and in this case a highly evolved mechanism for responding to the non-tribal world. The tribal oral stories and songs employ bilingualism in such a complex manner that a linguist who is not alert to this complexity is in danger of dismissing the tribal languages altogether as dialects of India's major tongues.
Lest this anthology be misinterpreted as the arrival of a new sensibility in the field of literary creativity, it is necessary to add a note of caution. The language into which the works have been translated, English, carries massive colonial baggage. When the works of contemporary Indian writers-who inherit a multilingual tradition several thousand years old-were classified as 'new literature', Western academics had no idea how comical this classification looked to the literary community in India. Hence it is necessary to assert that the literature of the Adivasis is not a new 'movement' or a fresh 'trend' in the field of literature; most people have simply been unaware of its existence, and that is not the fault of the tribals themselves. What might be new is the present attempt to see imaginative expression in tribal languages not as 'folklore' but as literature, and to hear tribal speech not as a dialect but as a language. This attitude may be somewhat unconventional, but only until we recall that scripts themselves are relatively new, and that the printing of literary texts goes no further back than a few centuries-in comparison with creative experiments with the human ability to produce speech in such a way that it transcends time. In fact, every written piece of literature contains substantial layers of orality. This is particularly true for poetry and drama, but even in prose fiction the element of orality needs to be significant if the work is to be effective. It should be seems to make any theoretical statement, it should be seen as a statement relating to the basic nature of imaginative language, and nothing more.
Whatever else be the merit of this book, it certainly is not an attempt to 'speak for' the marginalized languages. I have no desire to be romantic about tribal literature. Human languages (even those without scripts) and linguistic creativity (even when it is not a commodity in the arts market) simply deserve greater respect. My modest intention in preparing this volume is to share with the general literary community the joy and excitement I have experienced while working in tribal villages. I have read some of these pieces with my students at the Tribal Academy in Tejgadh, and have seen them respond as genuinely and profoundly as I have seen other students respond to printed or written literature at Baroda University. Only the conventions of the tribal imagination are different; and of course these should not be essentialized, only identified.
When faced with the challenge of choosing works from nearly eighty languages, it is impossible not only to make decisions that will go undisputed but even to decide on a set of criteria. I do not claim that this anthology is representative, or even that it strikes a linguistic, ethnic or regional balance. I have merely followed the dictates of my desire to present as many literary genres as possible, and hence there are excerpts from tribal epics, long heroic narrative, legends, tribal songs, autobiographical writings and a tribal play. The selection in the first five sections are drawn from the works of the denotified communities. It should be noted that most of the denotified and nomadic communities are now seeking dissolution of their communal identities in order to escape their stigmatized existence; most have taken to mainstream their stigmatized existence; most have taken to mainstream education, restricted, of course, to the most elementary levels. Their writing has so far appeared with Dalit writing as a rebellion of sensibility, but in fact the issues on the agenda of the denotified communities are markedly different from those of the Dalits. It is more appropriate to place the denotified communities with the Adivasis. In a way, the developmental trauma of the Adivasis, and the unintended but massive cultural desiccation they face, will eventually make the Adivasis 'denotified' communities as well. In that sense, the two segments of imagination are of a piece. But the reader should be aware that the autobiographies are not from the oral tradition, even if they do not conform to the literary conventions of the major languages, either.
Finally, the reader should note that the story by Mahasveta Devi is not from any tribal language, nor is the author a tribal herself. The story is included because, in recent years, no other Indian writer has drawn our attention to the tribals more evocatively than she has. Her writings on the tribal communities have been the most sympathetic imaginative approximations of the tribal existence.
In the end, this anthology is probably nothing more than an introduction to the rich and varied imagination of the Adivasis and denotified communities. I hope it serves that purpose.
About the Book:
Painted Words is the first collection of its kind: writings in a rich variety of genres by Adivasis and denotified tribals. Culled from all over India, the selections include tribal versions of the Mahabharat and Ramayan, colourful legends, rhythmic epics, poignant songs, oral histories and a simple but chilling play depicting the routine exploitation of tribal citizens. Anchoring such fancies as a magical flower, a bed with golden legs and a girl who lights cooking fires with her tongue are the realities of political graft, wedding-day debacles and rank police brutality.
Edited by one of India's foremost literary critics, Painted Words spotlights a rarely seen, barely understood facet of India's cultural heritage, and shows how deeply intertwined are the mainstream and tribal traditions.
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