Our enduring oral traditions need to be mainstreamed

India’s enduring oral traditions need to be mainstreamed

Oral traditions preserve history, knowledge of the times, lifestyles, and our connection with other cultures

Gopichand Katragadda

India has a rich oral tradition that has survived into the modern ages. Some 10 years ago, for a family event, I had the opportunity to organise a Hari Katha. The storyteller (Haridasu) was a talented lady from the borderlands between Andhra and Karnataka. The Haridasu was a singer, musician, storyteller, actor, stand-up comedian and salesperson, all rolled into one! The accompanists were talented players of the mridangam and the harmonium. The artists were not full-time Hari Katha exponents. I guessed that the harmonium player was a tailor, as he had designed the harmonium to work on air pumped by a leg-activated mechanism, much like a sewing machine.

In addition to Hari Katha, the Telugu lands also have the Burra Katha and Oggu Katha traditions, amongst other oral forms. The Oggu Katha rhythm and style have been picked up by activists like Gaddar to sing stories of oppression and songs of revolution. India is a treasure-house of these beautiful oral traditions across its length and breadth. These traditional forms of storytelling are barely surviving. However, the old storylines themselves are thriving in modern storytelling, including in our movies.

A popular Tamil oral tradition is the story of love between a tribal girl and the warrior god Murugan. It is said that the Kuruvas (a mountain-dwelling pastoral tribe) found a baby girl abandoned amidst creepers in a forest. The head Kuruva took her home and named her Valli, the creeper. Valli grew up to be a dusky beauty, admired and loved by all the forest-dwellers.

Once, when the tribesmen were away, Valli and her friends were guarding the crops of their tribe from atop an elevated platform. A hunter from the mountains wandered into the Kuruva lands, chasing a deer. The hunter upon spotting Valli was so smitten by her that he proposed marriage. Before much else could happen, though, Valli’s tribe folk returned, and the hunter slipped away.

The hunter would return several times, seeking Valli’s hand in marriage. Valli also grew fond of the young hunter and accepted the proposal. The Kuruvas came to know of this and were infuriated that a ‘foreigner’ had dared approach one of their girls.

However, on learning that the hunter was none other than Murugan, their warrior god, their anger turned into joy, and they celebrated the wedding with great pomp and splendour.

Many contemporary movies still follow this storyline in which boy meets girl, boy falls in love, girl falls in love, girl’s family does not agree to their marriage, girl’s family realise their folly, girl is married to boy, they live happily ever after!

The oral traditions of Kerala sing the songs of Manikanta, an orphan boy, who was adopted by the childless king Rajasekara and his queen. However, in time, the queen gave birth to a baby boy. She wanted her own son to ascend the throne and hence wanted Manikanta out of the way. The queen feigned a strange ailment that required tiger’s milk as a cure and requested that Manikanta go to the forests and procure tiger’s milk for her. The queen’s ploy was that Manikanta would surely be killed in this endeavour and he would not return.

Manikanta took up the task of getting the tiger’s milk for his mother, despite knowing her misguided intentions. After many an adventure, Manikanta returned home triumphantly, riding a tigress. The queen realised the divine nature of her foster-son. Rajasekara and his queen requested Manikanta to take over the kingdom. Prince Manikanta demurred, installed his younger brother – the queen’s son -- on the throne, and left for the hills of Sabari, where he is worshipped eternally as Ayyappan, the divine yogi.

This story is a little more complex but is still a part of our ethos as that of the responsible adopted son, a stepmother whose affection for her own offspring clouds her judgement, the adopted son shows his greatness, the stepmother repents, the adopted son renounces wealth and walks away into the sunset.

While our oral traditions may not disappear and do get embedded into our current storytelling, it is still incumbent upon us to save the beauty of the original storytelling that has been passed on by previous generations. These oral traditions preserve history, knowledge of the times, lifestyles, and our connection with other cultures. How do we make our oral traditions more mainstream today? That is the known unknown for me.

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