Monday, February 28, 2011

Why is India still Turbans & Camels?

Most books on India have a disproportionate number of pictures and stories from Rajasthan.

To outsiders, the idyllic world of camels, cows, colourful saris and handle-bar moustaches seems to convey a more authentic feel that the rest of homogenized India.

While relative proximity to the nation's capital has helped, I feel that the Rajasthan theme is rather overworked and it is time that writers and cameras moved on. Simply being drawn to the visual appeal of Rajasthan is rather superficial.

To me, local culture in other regions is equally rich. Reflecting on William Dalrymple's essay on the oral tradition of Rajasthan titled "Homer In India" (The New Yorker, Nov 20, 2006, Issue 38), I feel I might need to alter this view.

A young Harvard classicist named Milman Parry had a brilliant theory that Homer's works, the foundation upon which all subsequent European literature rested, must have originally been oral poems, and that they contained certain recurring formulas that he thought were a product of traditions of oral transmission.

He believed that to study Homer properly you had first to understand how oral poetry worked, and that since Yugoslavia was the place in Europe where such traditions had best survived he caught a ship to Yugoslavia in 1933 to prove it in the field. Parry was described as a sort of "the Darwin of oral literature".

He writes:

While I was staying at Rohet, I heard about what seemed to be the most remarkable survival of all: the existence of several orally transmitted epic poems. Unlike the ancient epics of Europe--the Iliad, the Odyssey, Beowulf, and the Nibelungenlied (the basis of Wagner's "Ring Cycle")--which were now the province only of academics and literature classes, the epics of Rajasthan were still very much alive.

They were preserved by a caste of wandering bhopas--shamans and bards--who travelled from village to village, staging performances.

It is perversity that the most backward, conservative regions are often culturally the richest? More than any other part of the country, large chunks of Rajasthan remained under the authority of the local hereditary rulers. It was only after the abolition of the privy-purses in 1971 (Thanks to Indira Gandhi) that the age-old feudal structure started to really erode. This raises a difficult moral question.

Moreover, the Gujars are very often illiterate, and illiteracy seems an essential condition for preserving the performance of an oral epic. It was the ability of the bard to read, rather than changes in the tastes of his audience, that sounded the death knell for the oral tradition. Just as the blind can develop a heightened sense of hearing, smell, and touch to compensate for their loss of vision, so it seems that the illiterate have a capacity to remember in a way that the literate simply do not.

This was certainly the conclusion of the Indian folklorist Komal Kothari. In the nineteen-fifties, Kothari came up with the idea of sending one of his principal sources, a singer from the Langa caste named Lakha, to adult-education classes.

The idea was that he would learn to read and write, thus making it easier to collect the many songs he had preserved. Soon Kothari noticed that Lakha needed to consult his diary before he began to sing. Yet the rest of the Langa singers were able to remember hundreds of songs--an ability that Lakha had somehow begun to lose as he slowly learned to write.

In the Yugoslavian case the recordings survived, but the actual oral tradition did not. Death of oral tradition takes along with it an entire subset of culture, leaving behind only a skeleton of words preserved in mummified form on CDs.

Sad, but can it be preserved in a living form? If it can, then what about the moral implications as suggested above?

I agree that it is a bit of a leap to generalize from oral tradition to culture in general; but, are more developed regions of India culturally shallower than more backward regions like Rajasthan?

Local culture in other regions are equally rich, but not as well preserved. If so, then I should not begrude Rajasthan's pre-eminent position on the covers of those books.

When I read about traditions dying, I feel that I am personally responsible in a way.
Yet, culturally we are relatively better off as this paragraph from the essay suggests,

Anthony Lane noted in this magazine in 2001, in the aftermath of the attacks on the United States, that the people of New York again and again compared what had happened to them to films: "It was like 'Independence Day' "; "It was like 'Die Hard' "; "No, 'Die Hard 2.' " In contrast, when the tsunami struck at the end of 2004, Indians were able to reach for a more sustaining narrative than disaster movies: the catastrophic calamities and floods that fill the Mahabharata and the Hindu tradition in general.

But then, we might have much more to lose too.


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