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Telling a Ramayana - The Hindu

G N Devy ()
September 20, 1998

Title: Telling a Ramayana
Author: G N Devy
Publication: The Hindu
Date: September 20, 1998

The literary community is now paying attention to oral literature. But
in order to understand this genre, especially that of the 20th Century,
one must examine an altogether different area of expression - tribal
languages. G. N. DEVY looks at India's love for the spoken word, which
has found a powerful means of expression in cinema for instance.

WHILE India's literary tradition is about 3,500 years old, the practice
of bringing out literary texts in print is barely 200 years old. India
learnt about printing from the Portuguese in the 17th Century; but it
was not until the British colonials started using printing for
production of texts during the 19th Century that Indian literature was
influenced by the new technology. The principal mode of literary
transmission prior to the 19th Century was oral. This is not to say that

all compositions were entirely oral. Scripts had been used in India for
recording literary and non-literary texts at least from the fifth
Century B.C. Poets recorded their texts, using the known scripts, on
strips of bark or palm leaves. Scholars, who studied and used these
texts for teaching in schools and universities, reproduced them
periodically so as to keep the written word alive. India learnt about
paper technology in the 12th Century; and paper was used widely for the
purpose of recording compositions. Multiple copies of such compositions
were made using paper. And yet, the oral tradition was never completely
replaced by the tradition of written literature.

The poetics of composition as well as the conventions of literary
reception were profoundly influenced throughout the history of India by
the orality of literature. Of the two major epics that have shaped the
Indian sensibility, the Mahabharata is an oral epic. So were the
Puranas, in their initial phase. The Suta used to narrate these orally.
They gave to the people religious and ethical instruction in the form of

stories retold from the great epics. This convention of Suta-narration
came to an end sometime during the ninth Century. Even today, every
village has an elder (man or woman) who has the function of keeping the
epic alive through the oral mode. Unlike the Mahabharata, the Ramayana
was composed by a single author and in a uniform metre. The plot and the

characters of the Ramayana show unity and consistency. Yet, even this
epic was assimilated in the Suta tradition of oral narration; and it
became common practice to listen to a learned man read out the epic to
devoted groups of Rama-lovers rather than read the poem itself.

The oral convention grew in range and variety as time passed. In ancient

and medieval India, a number of oral forms of presentation developed a
round the plot of the Ramayana. The famous Ramalila, a form of ritual
folk dance-drama depicts scenes from the Ramayana. And in every small
and big town in the northern parts of India there are groups of local
actors who produce the Ramalila even today. Some of the medieval
translations of the Ramayana in modern Indian languages were meant for
oral transmission rather than for lexical spread. Among these, the most
notable is the Tulasi-Ramayana, a composition with which every speaker
of the Hindi language is familiar with. It must be added that the
Mahabharata and the Ramayana were not appropriated entirely by the oral
tradition. They made an equally significant contribution to the
tradition of written literature. Kalidasa's celebrated literary work,
Raghuvamsha, is the best known example of the epics' contribution to
elite literature in India. Therefore, one may, say that the two epics
functioned as the unifying link between the elite and the folk.

Why did the epics get so perfectly assimilated into the oral tradition?
To answer this one must go back in history to the Vedic period. The
earliest known literary work in India is the rkveda (or Rigveda as it is

pronounced). This veda is considered to have no author, apaurusheya, as
if it was whispered into the ears of the vedic visionaries by gods and
goddesses. Its verse represents the sensibility of the earliest Aryan
tribes who settled in India. Their compositions speak of man's
primordial relation with Nature and its mysteries. These verses were
handed down generations orally. In fact, they were composed in such a
manner that they could be easily committed to memory and used in
invoking appropriate natural power. The manner of composition of the
veda determined the nature of prosody in India. Some of the metres used
in vedic poetry are still in use and they have been used throughout the
span of 3,500 years since creation.

The musical element in the vedic verses was so over-powering that the
verses were seen as being vested with extraordinary magical powers.
Having acquired this special spiritual status, the verses acquired a
hold over the imagination which the turbulent social history of India
has not been able to shake off. In course of time, the schools that
taught vedic sciences developed special methods of memorising the
verses. Books were written about the ways in which the oral purity of
the mantras could be preserved. To this day, the vedic verses are
transmitted orally and there are scholars who can recite the entire body

of this ancient poetry without the slightest change of a syllable, and
exactly in the original oral form. Rarely has any other oral tradition
of poetry been so venerated and so well preserved as the vedic
tradition. It was because the tradition was already well established
when the epics were composed that the epics too were committed to the
oral tradition. In the mantra tradition, orality was employed to
preserve the purity of the sacred and in the suta tradition it was used
to achieve effectiveness of communication. In either case, the oral
tradition was privileged over the written form.

Though poetry is easier to remember than prose, the oral tradition in
Indian literature was by no means confined only to poetic literature.
Indian story telling has been moulded to suit orality from the very
beginning of narrative fiction in India. The stories in the
Kathasaritasagara and the Jataka stories reveal that they are structured

for oral transmission by wandering minstrels. The stories themselves are

never without the motif of a long journey; they are stories that
travelled and gathered more stories around them on the way. They are
stories in which the plot moves from one character to another, one life
to another, and one place to another all quite effortlessly. They were
never constricted by the ideas of unity of place, time and theme. They
were stories to be told and retold, flexible in plot and accessible to
audiences varying in social, religious and ethical persuasions. The
well-defined conventions of gestures and the over-simplified story
structure were favoured by Bharata, which indicates that there had been
before him a long tradition of folk performances. Of course, in the
course of time, dramatic texts were produced by Shudraka, Kalidasa,
Bhavabhuti and Sri Harsha. But never was a play written in ancient India

which did not make use of folk elements and folk dialects. On the other
hand, the folk forms of drama in India freely drew upon elite
conventions, theology, philosophy and poetry. These forms continue to
survive in most languages. The Kannada language has the Yakshagana
theatre, the Gujarati language has the Bhavai theatre and the Marathi
languages has the Tamasha theatre. These are by no means primitive forms

of drama. They are extremely sophisticated in technique and performance.

Western dramatists and thinkers like Antonin Artaud and Bertolt Brecht
have been attracted by the techniques of combining mimesis and semiosis
developed by Indian folk theatre. These regional forms do not have a
fixed and written text to support the performance. They are spontaneous
and depend on improvisation by the actors. And for that reason, when
compared to plays with written texts, they are closer to the audiences.
Indian literature witnessed a great change taking place at the beginning

of the medieval period. From about the 11th Century to the 15th Century
several new languages emerged in India as literary languages, derived
from Sanskrit and Tamil. These were languages commonly spoken. It was
about the same time that India started using paper for writing and poets

composing verse in the new languages had to develop the practice of
composing texts that were at once written and oral. The poems were
written, and copies made, but the reproduction of these texts was done
mainly through the oral mode. It was for this reason that the diction of

poetry was drawn from the spoken language, and the concerns reflected in

poetry were mainly the concerns of the people.

Previously, written literature in India depended on literary conventions

for inspiration. From the 11th Century onwards, life as it was lived
became more important for the poets. New modes of music and metrical
patterns started dominating poetry. Some of the very best poets in the
history of Indian poetry - Nanak, Tukaram, Kabir, Mira, Akkamahadevi,
Narsi Mehta and Surdas - belong to this glorious period of Indian oral
literature. These group of poets are known as the bhakti poets, for they

sang of devotion in challenge to the established theology and sociology.

They humanised god, brought religion to the people and brought people
closer to religion. They worked as prophets of equality and freedom.
But, above all, they created poetry of abiding beauty in the languages
spoken by the people, and in creating it, they created new literary
languages. Their influence was so profound and pervasive that even to
this day their songs are sung in the villages and cities.

In Maharashtra, millions from all walks of life go on a pilgrimage twice

every year to Pandharpur a temple-town. As they travel, they sing the
poems composed by Dnyaneshwarea (13th Century), Eknath (15th Century)
and Tukaram (17th Century). The entire body of songs consists of
hundreds of the medieval poems learnt orally. Similarly, the poems of
Mira, Nanak and Kabir are learnt orally and sung by millions of Indians
to this day. These poems are so intricately entwined with the
consciousness of the masses that they can hardly be separated from the
thought processes. Though meant for the masses, and dominated by music
that made the lines and verses easy to remember, medieval bhakti poetry
had an amazing range and depth of philosophic, social and moral

It was a poetry oral in practice but of a remarkable aesthetic
sophistication and philosophic maturity. Besides, it was poetry that
brought about social integration as all great literature does. It cut
across the barriers of caste, religion, gender and age. And, finally, it

performed the valuable task of bringing the heritage of ancient Indian
culture to modern India. The use of paper for writing had become common
practice during the 17th Century. Poets, chroniclers and story tellers
were encouraged to write in decorated books so that they could get royal

patronage. During this century and the next, a process of canon-building

began in Indian literature, a process by which the written work was
considered more valuable than an oral composition. The force behind this

new canon building was Islam which thought the written word as sacred.
Calligraphy became a precious art and book-making became common
practice. Hence, the transition from calligraphy to printing was
extremely smooth, taking place during the 19th Century.

It was during this century again that literature became a subject taught

in schools and universities on a mass scale. Whenever literature becomes

a taught subject, its manifestation in the form of written books is
valued more than its orality. Gradually, literary scholarship forgets
the fact that the use of written books in classrooms is merely a matter
of convenience, and it starts looking upon oral literature as literature

with some deficiency. When the written word acquires totemic importance,

the spoken word is seen as taboo. This happened in India too. However it

was only in the institutions of literary education that oral literature
was seen as a sign of cultural backwardness. A ancient and medieval
literary traditions continues to be handed down from one generation to
the next through oral means. And, India's age-old love for the oral
found a powerful means of expression in cinema. Indian cinema, which is
crowded with songs and descriptive passages than narrative sequences, is

more akin to literature than to what cinema is in the western world.
However, in order to understand oral literature in India during the 20th

Century one must turn to an altogether different area of expression.
This area is that of the tribal languages.

The Constitution recognises some of the major literary languages as the
national languages. The National Academy of Letters recognises a few
more. But in addition to these, there are nearly 88 other languages
spoken by a large number of people. According to the census of 1971,
each of these 88 languages is spoken by atleast 10,000 people. These
languages are termed tribal; but they are not primitive or
half-developed languages. Most of them have literary traditions that are

oral. Scholars studying these languages have discovered that they have
developed their independent poetics and literary conventions.

Interest in these oral literatures is emerging in the literary
community. A few years ago noted poet and anthropologist A. K. Ramanujan

published a collection of folk stories in India. His stories show how
well-structured tribal narratives can be. A similar attempt was made by
the young editor, Kanaji Patel, of Gadyaparva a literary magazine in
Gujarati. Patel, a poet and novelist, observed that in the tribal
tradition of oral narratives, there is no alienation between the
narrator and what is being narrated. Just as tribals know how to put the

body in its entirety to use daily, they know how to employ the entire
body of language for literary expression.

Dr. Bhagwandas Patel is another Gujarati scholar who has drawn the
attention of the literary community to oral literature. He has published

the written versions of the epic composed by the Bhil tribals. In
grandeur of conception and the magic of their effect they are comparable

to any epic in the world. In other areas, mainly Rajasthan, Madhya
Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra, tribals continue their own
traditions of keeping alive long narrative poems through oral
transmission. In the same way, they continue their own traditions of
theatre. One of the most talented of Indian directors, Habib Tanvir, has

brought to light the elan with which tribals from the Chhattisgarh
perform in theatre. The productions of Tanvir, the epic recorded by
Bhagwandas Patel, the narratives collected by Kanaji Patel, the stories
retold by A. K. Ramanujan and all such other works go to show that the
oral traditions of literature in India are as active as the traditions
of written literature. Moreover, they are less marked by the influence
of the colonising West, and to that extent, closer to the spirit of
Indian culture and tradition. Oral literature, therefore, has a claim to

a place of importance in the tradition of Indian literature.

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