My Folklore Novitiate

Dr. Biyotkesh Tripathy

    When I retired after well nigh 38 years of teaching, I had taken steps to wind up that life and start on another phase of my life in order to pursue new things which had been my interest but which I had not been able to pursue with any consistent application because my pedagogic pursuit had held me happily in its coil. Myths, legends, and ancient knowledge had long been my interest. Listening to stories had been my childhood passion. Tribal civilizations had been a constant source of fascination for me.

    So when I retired I decided to devote myself to the collection, documentation and preservation of the myths, legends, tales, songs and lore of our tribal people before they vanished in another generation’s time due to aggressive pressures of acculturation. My funds were meager but my desire insuperable. Fortunately, some funding came my way and I started on my project which I called, "From the Margin to the Center: the Myths and Legends of the Tribal People of Orissa." I had no funding for a team or for associates. Ignoring the advice to seek the help of government officials, I reached out to the college teachers in the colleges in tribal areas. They came forth with unexpected enthusiasm to give me logistic and information support. Then, out of the blue, a former student of mine, Dr E. Raja Rao, who had become a professor at the time, came forth to help me in the fieldwork in spite of the fact that there was no funding for him. His help was invaluable.

    I was a "books and library" kind of scholar of literature, innocent of fieldwork. I knew nothing of its nuances or the difficulties of the field or even of the kind of equipment we would need. So I read up on it as much as I could and we started on our first adventure, for adventure it was for me.

    I started at 6 on a winter morning (December 1997) in a hired Ambassador taxi, having decided to explore southern Orissa on this our first exploratory trip. With me volunteered to come Dr Hruday Ranjan Satpathy, a Reader in English of Khallikote College. Picking up Dr Rao and Dr Satpathy at Berhampur we proceeded toward Kasipur, reaching a small railway station town which had cropped up when the new Raigada railway line was being constructed. There we spent the night in the house of a Lecturer of Kasipur College, who was our contact person in the area. He gave us his bed while he and his wife bedded down on the floor, the driver sleeping in the passage room.

    Early next morning we started out toward a village called Tikiri, up in the hills, which had been identified for us by our contact person. Hardly did I now that the Ambassador, sturdy though it was, was ill suited for the terrain we were to visit. But the driver was a brave hearted person. He urged his vehicle up the steep gradient of a hill road portions of which had been washed away by a stream that ran across it. We walked up the last part of the road fearing that the vehicle might break down under the load of five fair-sized people being carried up the gradient.

    Tikiri was a nice village with three rows of thatched houses located on a ridge bordering a stream. The village was nearly empty with only a handful of people visible here and there. It was a Kandha (Kondh) village with one row of Pana houses. The headman was a Pana. The Panas were the tribe’s contact persons for the outside world and traded their produce.

    The headman was asleep on the veranda of his house on a rope cot. It took a little time to wake him up as he had been up most of the night because of the month long festivity they had during this time of the year. Finally, he was ready to talk to us. We told him that we wanted to collect myths, legends and tales, so could he call the people who could talk to us. He mumbled and grumbled and said this was not the way to do it. He suggested that we stayed there for a month or two, so that some evenings he would call up some people from nearby villages in the evening. When we sat together some things might come out sometime.

    I was a man in a hurry and wanted targeted collection: this is what I want, so I must home in on it and gather it. Such was my ignorant desire. I was sure I could not do a Verrier Elwin, spending a year with Bondas or a lifetime with another tribe. That way I would need at least 62 years for the 62 tribes of Orissa. I must do what I had to do in three four years. So I was getting pissed off.

    In the mean time, Dr Rao and Dr Satpathy had started conversing with the small crowd of men and children which had gathered around us and were gleaning information about tribal customs of marriages and such, which was not on my cards. This information was coming forth easily enough. But no myths or legends or stories were coming forth. I was a story man and my project was to gather myths, legends and tales, or so I thought. Even songs were out unless they told stories. However, I took some fieldnotes, for so the books had told me to do.

    There was also some difficulty of communication. When we asked for stories we used the Oriya word "gapa." It did not communicate. The Oriya words for myths and legends were even at more atrocious distances. In two three hours, I decided to close shop there and retired disgruntled. There were not even enough men and women in the village to talk to. The headman told us that everyone got up at 4 or 5 and gathered in the village street after freshening up. The village street was a wide area between the two rows of houses. There they decided about the daily community chores, like what is to be done for the festival, dance, feast etc. Then they went to their respective fields, or hill slopes. At 8 they came back to eat something and then they started out again and were lost in the hills until they came back in the evening.

    As we drove back many thoughts were jumbled up in my mind. But in general I was sad and disappointed, not having been able to bag even one story. However, we had a busy schedule that day of visiting a few other villages identified for us. So, snatching a few moments under a tree to munch some bread and banana, we moved. We went to three tribal villages in the plains of Kasipur, fairly isolated villages. But everywhere we drew a blank. No myths, no legends and no tales. Some material on life-style and customs, but absolutely no narrative material, no "gapa." Not even a song. And in all these places there were very few people in the villages.

    On our way back to the place of our night halt I told my team that I should have to abandon my work because there were no stories out there. I had earlier volubly harangued them on how the earlier scholars had goofed up in not collecting stories, for in them lay the real stuff of life, ancient life. They took the easy option of listing their rituals and customs, demography, their social organization, size and shape of their houses, and their agriculture, which facts were easily obtainable, but they had made only very scanty collection of narrative material: myths, legends and tales. Now, with my tail between my leg, I started recanting.

    ‘I was wrong,’ I said on our way back, after the first day. ‘There are no stories out there. That’s why the earlier scholars had not been able to collect any. How can they have stories? They have no kings, queens, princes and princesses, no ministers and courtiers, no palaces, no palace intrigue, no wars, no nothing. How can they have stories! I have to wind up this project or do what others have done, collect inane facts that are pointless for me.’

    No one contradicted me. No one so much as moved a muscle. The car moved on back to our place of rest in the evening darkness. Only, I had a suspicion that the driver was smiling as he let the car lurch onward.

    ‘I was a fool,’ I said wisely after a while.

    No one contradicted me.

    Back in our place of rest, after getting rid of the day’s sweat and grime and after lubricating our interior with a little alcohol, we started planning for the next day. We had several stops, starting with the Sarpanch of a village and ending with a visit to the Kasipur College, where our host worked. His principal had invited us to come and I also wanted to speak to the students who were from the local tribes, mainly from the Kandha tribe. We decided we would be a little more focussed in our queries and still look for stories as our main object of search.

    As on the previous day, we started out at 7 A.M., reaching the Sarapanch at 8. He had no myths or stories but he was able to give us some legends about the goddess, who had been enshrined there, apart from giving us some information on the local tribes, their marriages and such. Then we did a couple of more villages and drew blank, that is, nothing of much importance could be gathered. There were also very few people in the villages. Finally, we arrived at Kasipur College at about 2 P.M. The Principal and members of the staff offered us some refreshment, but more importantly they had arranged a meeting for us with the students.

    I thought we would get somewhere with these young people. Initially they were shy. But with a lot of persuasion we drew them into conversation and finally they told us a few stories. Then they dried up and we let them go, as some of them had to go a fair distance to their homes and should reach there before dark.

    At this time I noticed a group of tribal people, mostly girls, working at the college boundary wall which was being constructed. I asked about them of the Principal and he told us that they were tribal girls of a nearby village on the slope of the hill at the foot of which the college was situated. I asked if it would be okay to talk to them. Maybe they or someone in their village knew stories. He came with us walking through the paddy fields within the college compound. Reaching the place, we talked to the contractor to let us talk to the girls. With great reluctance he let us talk to a group of girls. They said they did not know stories but they could sing some songs. Seeing their enthusiasm we indulged them to sing. They stood right there and sang, surrounding Dr Rao who stood with our portable recorder in his hand. Songs were not my priority, but I could not shoot down their enthusiasm. And, when they started singing, the songs were so beautiful and they sang so well that I did not want to stop them. Only the grumbling of the contractor who wanted to extract another hour or two of work from these girls made us stop. The girls wanted us to come to their village in the evening so that they could sing some more and find storytellers for us. We agreed.

    We were there right at sundown. The girls had just finished washing up and had changed clothes. They found us a young man in his middle thirties to tell us stories. I sat down on a veranda and started recording the story that he told in his own language which I did not understand, but recorded for later translation. The others of the team went scouting. It took an hour and a half for the story to be completed. I noticed that during the telling the enthusiasm of the teller waned. I did not understand the reason then, but understood clearly that something was not right in the situation.

    No other teller was found. But the girls offered to sing and Dr Rao recorded another batch of songs standing there in front of a row of houses. Then we recorded the mumbling of some mantras where a puja was being conducted by the "disari" (priest). We broke camp with the girls offering to sing more songs if we stayed back or came back at another time. Their enthusiasm had not waned. They were so free with their songs and so ready to share them with us.

    Back at our place of rest certain things were growing in my mind. While we had gathered a few stories, the thought persisted that not many stories were out there. Or, perhaps, storied material was hard to come out for not everyone knew them and not everyone could tell them. It needed a teller to tell a story. And it needed a knowledgeable person to tell us about myths and legends. Not everyone would know. Questions like why not many people were there in the villages when we went there nagged me. The fact that they were so eager and able to give some material like songs led me to think that I should, perhaps, be more open in my search than targeting only narrative material. In any case we slept that night readying ourselves to leave for Malkangiri via Koraput the next morning, for the Bonda Hills were our next stop.

    Grabbing our lunch in the hill town of Koraput, we headed for the Bonda Hills in Malkangiri. We had Dr Satpathy to guide us. He is something of an expert in tribal dances of Koraput. We reached Mudulipada near Kudumuluguma at dusk and found accommodation in a one-room guesthouse of the Block Office. The water was to be brought from a well. There was in the village only one thatched restaurant run by a family, which lived in the rear of the one room restaurant. He could rustle some chicken for us once in a while if someone had a chicken to sell. Meat and fish were rarely available. All of us bedded down on the floor.

    Next day, we met the Project Officer of the Bonda Project and proceeded into the hills along with him and the local police Inspector, having been properly warned that the Bondas were rather insular and a little volatile. The tires of a jeep of some visitors had been slashed two days earlier. There, wandering among the villages ensconced helter- skelter on the hill slopes and collecting only random information, we finally reached a small hamlet called Bandhaguda. There with a lot of persuasion a stately middle-aged lady with a kind face, called Sukri Majhi, finally stood persuaded to tell us a story. She had little Oriya and agreed to tell us a story in her native language. We sat down on a circular earth and stone platform raised around a banyan tree at one side of the little hamlet of a few families. And then, when she started telling her story, though I could understand nothing, I knew I was in the company of a true storyteller. The story was interspersed with songs, which she sang charmingly as she warmed into her story. We recorded some stories from her and a few more from her mother-in-law, Budhei Majhi. I was a little heartened. There were stories, maybe a few, but they were there. Then we trudged through several villages, but collected little of import.

    We started back by about 3 P.M., our police Inspector warning us not to stay longer. We left the Inspector at Mudulipada and took the Project Officer back to Kudumuluguma where his project office was located. Having left him we did a few more villages with little success. When evening had set in we decided to pack up and go back to our Block Office guestroom in Mudulipada. It was dark and we were returning reasonably tired and with a reasonable load of mixed feelings. At this time I spotted a pathway going right toward the Bonda foothills. I looked at Dr Rao inquiringly and he nodded his head without too much enthusiasm. A Project Office clerk, who was accompanying us to Mudulipada where he lived, told us that the path led to a village called Oringi a few kilometers into the forest at the foot of the hill. He could not say if there were any storytellers there. On an impulse we turned and went toward Oringi and fetched up under a huge banyan where the road ended. We had arrived at Oringi.

    The village, if there was one, was dark. No one was about. A small locked tiled structure with a veranda and steps leading to it stood to our left, apparently a school. Slowly, a few people trickled out from the surrounding darkness where their houses sat spread out among the trees. We told them what we wanted and asked about anyone who knew any stories, using the word gapa. They did not understand. We explained as best as we could, until one of them said, ‘Oh, you want kathani?’ We cried, ‘Yes, yes.’ We were told that there was a woman named Parbati who knew stories. We sent word to her. We were told that she was cooking rice and would come after she had eaten. In the mean time a goodly crowd had gathered around us. Every new arrival asked us what we wanted and told them we were looking their myths, legends and stories, their kathani, which we would preserve for times to come.

    Then, suddenly, from the back of the crowd a voice said, ‘I know stories.’ It was a middle-aged man called Butia Palasi, thin and wiry but with bright eyes. We pounced on him and ushered him in and made him sit on a rope cot that one of the villagers had brought in for us along with a lantern. Dr Rao sat by him holding the cassette recorder and I continued with taking field-notes in the darkness. When Butia Palasi started telling his story, I again knew I was in the presence of a real storyteller. A crowd of over fifty people had gathered by then and Butia warmed into the crowd. Some things were getting into my head; bits of perceptions were piecing themselves together in me. Butia’s story continued for over an hour.

    In the mean time, Parbati Majhi arrived. She was a well-built woman of forty with a kindly face. I made her sit on the boulder on which I had planted myself. When Butia finished, Parbati took his place on the cot and started, thrilling the crowd with her masterly storytelling. We had a story-telling festival going and we had real storytellers, a lively audience and above all stories were out there. More people were volunteering to tell stories and some were moving in the periphery gathering courage to commit themselves.

    My day was made and my project was saved. I threw up my hands heavenward.

    It was 11 P.M. when we struck camp there and returned home to the guesthouse room. The clerk, who had been stuck with us, was restless to get home. The restaurant owner had closed the door. We got him up and her served us happily, for he had thought we were gone and the food we had asked him to cook for us (he had cooked chicken for us that night) would never be paid for.

    The next morning we were to leave for the Lamtaput area, a good half-day’s travel form here, to lay siege of the Gadaba tribe which is famous for its dances. At night I had sounded my team on whether we should raid Oringi again, in the morning, before we left. There were no clear answers. In the morning, however, the team woke up ready to raid Oringi. We reached the village before 8 A. M. and lo and behold, while we did not have as big a crowd, since people had already gone out on their chores, storytellers came forth and we did a good three hours of work before we thanked them and moved on. Oringi is rich, with rich loads of oral cultural heritage material. Our baggage had already been loaded in the car and we moved on to yet another uncharted territory smiling for a change, for we were in business again.

    Oringi had not only made my day, but was an eye-opener for me in many ways. It told me that stories were there plentifully and that good storytellers were out there. I also learnt that not every village was rich in the kind of oral heritage material we were seeking. We had to seek out the right places and the right people. There were no such identified places. We had to take our potluck. I also learnt that a lone one to one recording as I did in Kasipur, where I saw the teller’s enthusiasm gradually wane through the telling, is not the right way. A storytelling festival, like we had in Oringi, was the right environment. An audience was needed for a storyteller. The teller’s enthusiasm does not wane but is fired up with the responding audience, urging, commenting, correcting, prompting, and cheering. I also learnt at what time I can catch people in the villages and at what time the villages would be empty. I also knew by now that Dr Rao was a much better interviewer than I was. So I knew who should do what in the field. My methodology was set. I had known what to do, but now I knew how to do it. I also knew that I did not have to stay a year or two in a tribal village to get what I needed. Villages are as various in their culture content and people are. My method of raiding as many villages of a tribe as possible was far superior for my kind of work to staying in one village and one area.

    I was learning. And hopefully I shall continue to learn. My novitiate continues.

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