Folk Literature in Orissa

Girija Shankar Roy

    Orissa is a small province, in the eastern part of India. It contains about two crores of people scattered about in villages and mainly employed in agricultural pursuits. The even tenor of their life has not been broken up by political squabbles or by industrial occupations. Towns are few and far between, factories are only now coming into existence, foreign culture has not as yet permeated into the villages, luxuries are almost unknown. The hurry and hustle of modern life, the craving after speed and the infinite striving after artificial embellishments which are integral parts of modem civilization have not affected the people of the countryside. It is a land watered by many rivers, its has magnificent forests and hills, rich with hoarded wealth which nature has as yet kept concealed in closely guarded mines. It is a holy land, which changed the ruthless world conqueror Asoka, feared by men, into a gentle religious monk loved by the gods. It is a land where skilled workmen have built up exquisitely carved temples with perfect sculptural designs that excite wonder and extort admiration from countless visitors. King have fought for empires here. Conquerors have come and gone, neighbouring princes have tried in vain to subjugate the land. Its soldiers have died for their country, it preserved its independence long after provinces had come under foreign sway, it has a glorious tradition extending to the dim past, but the people have moved along the cool sequestered vale of life without being allured by the glamour of the heights and without having to face the terrors of the deep.

    It is in such a province that we can have folk literature in its most thriving state. The Oriya peasant sings while he ploughs his field the Oriya, Jogi chants his song while he goes from door to door with his begging bowl. In the villages the birth of a child, departure of a daughter to her husband’s house, the death of a loved one, the seasons as they come and go, one festivities which enliven the countryside, all have due share in the web of life, the warp and the woof are made up of these changing topics, and the folk songs treasure up the sentiments of the people. I very evening the 'Bhagabata Ghara’ becomes the scene of assemblage, villagers gather there for spiritual enlightment and this literature. The rude forefathers of the hamlet did not care for the pageant of the seasons, abstruse interpretations of philosophy or the luxury of rhetorical ” devices, they wanted plain statements of simple joys and sorrows, they preferred an unvarnished tale of their daily life played a prominent part. The embellishments had to be rough out of life in order that they could appreciate them, they had to be substantially connected with the life of the villagers themselves.

    This brought on the folk literature. Away in the dim past in language which the Bengalees and the Oriyas are both claiming exclusively to be their own, certain mystic poems were composed. These are the Charyapadas. Whatever be the final decision as to the language of these poems, there is no denying that many of the poems were composed by the people from Orissa. In these, relation of man to God has been expounded with rural pictures in a language which the rustic people can associate with their own life. The idea of a mysterious being who rules over the Universe was sought to be brought vividly before the unlettered villagers in simple and effective symbolisms.

    For centuries after this we lose trace of literary developments. After long years Oriya folk literature is presented to us in two unrivalled poems. One of these treats of the marriage of Gouree, the daughter of the Himalaya, with Siva who appears in the guise of a very old man*. Unequal marriage was a problem then as now and the mother’s sorrow and anger at finding an old man selected as a bridegroom for her daughter has been very vividly portrayed. The father is as usual to blame, the mother is disconsolate, the daughter says little but hints at suicide, her companions give a humorous sketch of the old bridegroom to the youthful bride and the whole scene is one which may be enacted in any Oriya home. The other poem is really a monologue of Yasoda when her son Keshav goes over to Mathura and does not return. The mother’s lament for her son who does not come back is full of poignancy which is peculiarly its own. Oriyas in these days were a martial race, they served in distant places, many Oriya home were disrupted here, it is the mother’s darling Keshav in whose absence the father Nanda does not think his home worth habitation. Yasoda thinks that because she had given the boy a stroke with a cane many years ago, he has sullenly left his home and this makes her more disconsolate. However this was a common motif told in a simple language which every Oriya could understand and appreciate. These two poems came at the very beginning of Oriya literature when the ornaments of speech had not made poetry only the delight of a cultured few. There was nothing heavy about these poems, nothing theoretical, no artificial embellishments weighed down and strangled the thoughts and sentiments and even now, almost Eve hundred years alter, these are sung in every village home and taught in every village Pathasala. Most of these poems are written in lines which begin with the letters of the Oriya alphabet, in serial order and this is no doubt a great advantage because it enables the rustic people to remember the order of the lines and to learn the alphabet through their medium.

    After these two poems, Orissa was fortunate in having a poet who brought the two immortal epics- the Mahabharata and the Ramayana – before the Oriya masses in a form which made these part of the folk literature of Orissa. Towards the middle of the 15th century Sarala Das told the story of the two epics in his own inimitable way. He did not follow the original, he introduced stories of his own, he adapted the epics into something, which the Oriyas could easily appreciate. The frame—work he retained, but the fillings were all his own. He was not translating an epic nor was he writing a learned treatise, he was writing a storybook, which his countrymen could enjoy. One such story in the Mahabharata bears repetition. After Yudhisthira had been enthroned there was famine in his kingdom and he had to send his brother, the mighty Bhima, to borrow one lakh bharans* of paddy from Kubera to feed the hungry people. Bhima naturally did not kike the borrowing mission but he had to obey orders. At the doorstep of Kubera’s house he saw an ugly man picking out paddy grain by grain from the muddy courtyard. These grains had fallen during the loading and unloading of grain and the black ugly fellow was picking them from out of the cart ruts. Bhima asked to see Kubera and could not believe his ears when he was told that the man who was picking the fallen paddy, grain by grain, was Kubera himself to whom his brother had sent him to borrow ten lakh maunds of paddy. However he explained his mission and Kubera agreed not only to lend the paddy but to find a lakh of bullock carts to carry the grain. The carts were loaded and Bhima was about to start when it was discovered that about a mile off there was a marsh over which the carts could not pass. What was to be done? Bhima could not suggest a way out but Kubera advised him to fill in the marsh with the paddy in fifty thousand carts so that a pathway could be made and he also promised to load these fifty thousand carts over again. Bhima was surprised. Here was a main who picked paddy out of the I mud grain by grain advising the pouring into a marsh of fifty thousand cart load. He questioned Kubera and Kubera said that this was the ideal which men have to follow i.e. they must carefully pick out and save grain by grain so that when need comes they can easily bear the loss of thousands of tons. Stories like these the Oriya peasant could easily appreciate and mass education became easy with stories of this sort. The same is true of the Ramayana. The imagination of the Oriya, peasants was not sufficiently stirred by the ten headed Ravana of Lanka and so the poet conceived following a Sanskrit original of a thousand headed Ravana who had his capital at Bilanka. This Ravana could not be killed by the prowess of Rama although there was tight for many years and it was only when Sita appeared before him in all her beauty with the flower bow and the arrows of love that Ravana owned defeat and brought on his own death. Stung with the arrows of love he became weak in body and mind and when he blindly rushed at Rama in this state he could be easily killed. The Oriya peasant knew the wiles of women and could not fully appreciate the ideals of the original Sita and as a story was devised for his delectation. These two epics formed the national literature of Orissa and even now in the muffasil villages these are more highly appreciated than the translations of the original epics. 

    Towards the end of the 15th Century Chaitanya brought in a new mass awakening. He visited Orissa in 1505 and died in Orissa in 1529. About this time two great poets arose in Oriya literature who converted the abstruse philosophy or religious teachings into real folk literature. The teachings of the Vedanta were made available to the masses by Balaram Das who also wrote the Ramayana which really took the frame work of the Sanskrit epic but was filled in by stories of his own which the people could easily appreciate. The homely life which Rama and Sita lived at Malyagiri and Chitrakuta as a contrast to their luxurious court life at Ayodhya was on a par with the life of the Oriya peasants and the picture must have pleased the audience who gathered round Balaram to hear his Ramayana. The other great poet of all times, is Jagannath who wrote the Bhagavata in the simplest possible language and brought the deep truths of life before the people in a language altogether homely and unadorned. Even now the simplest peasant in the remote villages knows by heart some lines of the Bhagavat and finds consolation in these lines whenever he is in sorrow. 
From the middle of the 16th century literature in Orissa became more full of learned devices. Conventions became established, literary models began to be imitated, ‘learning’ became common, competition in the literary Held led to cultivation to artificial beauties and the language became more and more removed from that of the common people. Already the barrier between the cultured few and the illiterate many was becoming established, already the ‘the few' were weaving words round unreal thoughts and uncommon aspirations, the few wise men who thought and sang could no longer find joy in the sweet simplicities of day to day life in the villages and while trivialities were dressed up in gorgeous words, the strong emotions of the mass which could be readily expressed in the simplest language were regarded as unworthy of being classed as literature. The artificial literature of this and succeeding periods has been preserved for us in numerous palm leaf manuscripts and printed books. Many of them have been printed, many others which were supposed to be lost have been hunted up and are awaiting generous patrons who can undertake the cost of printing, but the folk literature seems to be dead and buried and forgotten.

    And yet folk literature has not really died. The peasant still sin s his song, the villager still has his joys and sorrow; to which he must give expression, the village school master still has an appreciative audience whom he has to please. The seasons come one after another, the seeds of the com are sown, the plants grow, the corn ripens and is harvested; the daughter has to be married and leaves her home for strange environments which because of their very strangeness she finds to be fill of evil things; the son has to go to other places to earn a living; there are deaths and births, there are the bickerings between loving ones, there is satire and sarcasm at the expense of others. All these have to be given expression in words and the result is an abundant folk literature which blooms unseen, uncared for by the urban polished populace imitate foreign manners and encourage strange tastes. This literature has grown and developed through the last three hundred years, eve villa has its favourite songs and each, region its favourite songster. Many of these songs have been forgotten, many discarded as unsuitable for modern life, and many changed beyond recognition and appropriated by other authors. Nor can these be found only in the form of songs. There are ‘Suangas‘ or folk dramas, there are folk tales, there are folk poems and Orissa is peculiarly rich in all these three forms of literature.

    The ‘Suangas‘ are village dramas composed by village authors and acted without a stage to the accompaniment of rural musical instruments. Elaborate stage connection and plot construction with the necessary conflicts and balances are unknown in the village dramas. A village barber had composed many of these 'Suangas’, a village priest had composed many others. Most of these borrow their story from the two epics made familiar to the populace by the folk versions common in Orissa. Many dramas are however l out and out satire on fashionable society - they are villagers' comments on the life of urban people. The death of some demon or hero, the carrying off by force of some maiden for the purpose of marriage, the traditional battle between two kings are some of the Pauranic, mythic stories embodied in these dramas, I but more interesting are the social condition in the villages. It will not be out of place here to give the story of one such folk drama to show what sentiments and emotions actuated the village people. A certain person was very ill, his mother was agitated and went round asking for medical help, his wife sat by his side and nursed him day after day but his condition grew worst. At this time a vaidya came from Bengal and showed great skill in curing serious diseases. The villagers asked him to cure the ailing person in the village but when the vaidya saw the wife he told her that he could cure the husband only if she would consent to satisfy his lust. The wife agreed because there was no alternative to save her husband, the vaidya gave medicine, the husband was cured and the vaidya claimed his reward from the wife. But at this stage villagers intervened, a chowkidar was called but was bribed, a Jamadar arrived at the scene and the vaidya was punished for his roguery. It is a simple story of village life but the drama has many comments on the social degeneration of modern times; the lustful Kaviraj and the corrupt chowkidar are only two of the character which must have been common before such drama could be written. On festive days in every village these ‘suangas‘ kept the villagers awake all the night only thirty years ago. Even now the ‘suangas‘ are not altogether dead, but the original flavour of these folk dramas has been lost as later poets have brought in redactions which seek to introduce some of the glamour of modern theatrical displays into real dramas. A study of these later versions and redactions is worthwhile for the serious student of literature as showing change of taste. 

    Orissa has a rich collection of folk tales. The late Gopal Chandra Praharaj who has compiled the biggest lexicon in the Oriya languages has collected many of these tales in the form of a book. Many of these tales have some historical basis, many are based on forgotten myths, many however are mere stories of the domestic lives of simple villagers and tell us their belief in
witches and demons, of their faith that men can be converted into birds and beasts and trees and flowers, and of their conviction in the innate goodness of human life. The folk tales of Orissa have some resemblance with the tales of neighbouring provinces but some of them are singularly fresh. The wise man of the village who keeps his mouth shut and wins respect by his very silence, the bad king who has a foolish minister to advise him, the demon who lives in the mountain caves but has to be appeased by regular offerings until it is killed, are personages whom we meet with in these tales. However the common village motifs desire for a son in the sonless wives, quarrel among co—wives, ill treatment of a young daughter-in-law by a cruel mother-in-law, the small children who are left to wonder in Aganagni forest until they come to their own are also very usual themes round which the stories are woven. It is difficult to explain why most of the stories which end with the happy re·union or prosperity of princes who had to suffer because of family intrigues end usually with ingratitude of these happy people towards the story teller. This is so common that the possible explanation is that the young listeners would be moved by this ingratitude to love the story teller all the more. Other stories end with some sort of pinching of the young listeners and this is to keep them awake while the story is proceeding. It has to be remembered that these stories are mostly told by old women to young children as a sort of lullaby and so the demon motif comes in handy to make the boys less frolicsome. Any way the stories are so varied and so well known that a summary of any one of them would be out-of-place in this short article.

    But it is in poetry that the richness and variety of folk literature in Orissa is very easily perceptible. Even to-day in many villages the songs of the Rama Navami festival are sung every night by village folk of about a fortnight in the village streets. Many village poets have contributed their song offerings to these festivals, and many interesting pieces of folk literature have come into existence. One one such festive occasion I have seen that the village poet (Sadnanda Kavi Surya, who is a well known Oriya Poet) has made Rama and Sita meet accidentally on the eve of their marriage in a mango tope near the flowing river. He has also brought in many unconventional kings to the Swayambara Sabha- a king who had just died but woke up to life when he heard of the Swayambara Sabha - a king who had just died but woke up to life when he heard of the Swayambara, another king who to show his prowess had to knife in one hand and a bundle of straw in the other which he constantly cut to pieces and scattered just to make an impressive display of strength and a third king who could not walk owing to old age but said that the mere rememberence of his youthful prowess will make all the other kings fly away in dismay. The festivities of the marriage ending with the Betals coming to beg, the Pa/a etc. which king Dasaratha ordered are all meant to appeal to villagers who gather to take part in thest festive occassions. The Holi festival has its own song, the Kumar Purnima its own folk songs sung in chorous by village maidens and on these occassions it is usual to see people forget all their daily duties in their desire to join the song processions. The village poet cannot rest contented with traditional tales but most needs make Rama bring fodder for the cows and Sita to milch them in the Dandaka forest. The variety of the songs is however best seen in recent collections which are being printed. First of all comes the ‘Kandana', the songs of sorrow, some of them meant to be sung by ladies going to their husbands' home and facing the strange environments or a stranger's home, some others are meant to be sung by maidens who have just returned from their father-in-law’s house and are describing the tortures they have encountered. These are the usual motifs -the sorrow themes which are familiar in Orissa village homes. There are however many other sorrows - the grief of the wife at the impending separation from her husband, the sister weeping for her brother going on a journey – all these are many of the other motifs for grief. Weeping is however a womanly quality it betrays tenderness of heart and a certain amount of helpless despair so that we usually do not find songs in which a male person weeps for anybody. The only exception to this is a song in which a Rajah is supposed to weep for his dead queen but this is probably a later limitation in which the author makes the Rajah name in detail the ornaments which his dead queen is still wearing so that there is not much sincere grief in the weepings.

    Apart from these lamentations many of the folk songs are concerned with the seasons, The season of the villagers whether in monologues or in the dialogues begin with the month of Margasira which corresponds to the Agrahayan. This is a strange thing but is not difficult to explain. Either it corresponds to the harvesting seasons or it is a remembered conventional relic of the ancient astronomical calculations which is embodied in the use of the word Agrahayan. in any case, in the numerous poems the order of the seasons begins with Margasira. Another interesting factor is that the folk songs relating to the seasons are not concerned very much with the pageants of nature, they are always full of human interest, although very often the interest is that of physical conjugal love. 
There are again quarrel songs - quarrels between loves, quarrels between relatives among whom conventional quarrel motif exists, quarrel motif exists, quarrels between two objects as regards their utility. These quarrel songs the village folks certainly relished because they afforded a contrast to their own quarrels in life. The homely life of the peasants, their affection for the bullocks, their joy in the milch cows, their daily simple unalloyed joys and sorrows found expression in conventional songs connected with the God Krushna who is the favourite God of the villagers symbolising the life of the villagers. The peasants sing of Krushna while tending their cows, the wives sing of Krushna while attending to their household works. In the holy land of Orissa, the cult of Krushna verily permeates and pervades the life of the people.

    There are many wise sayings in the form of folk poems these have become proverbial. The custom of the Bengalees of eating small quantities of food is satirised in one couplet in which they are represented as drinking a glass of water with half a slice of a small sandesh. In a triplet another poet lays down that a song is lost in the roadway, the water stagnates and is lost in a marsh and woman is lost (loses her womanly virtues) in the market place. Many of these are in four—lined stanzas. In one the poet says that where small boys are talking the tendency is to quarrel, where youthful persons are talking the tendency is to outdo one another in some matter, where grown up boys are talking, the result is laughter and where old men are talking, the conclusion is coughing. There are hundreds of these wise sayings in Orissa in which the wisdom of the villagers is garnered in language which the simple folk can easily remember.
It is easy to be contemptuous towards these instances of folk literature, it is easy to brush them aside in our desire for progress, it is easy to forget them in our love for the gorgeous pageantry of literature. Many meteors shine in the sky, they dazzle us, they blind us to the glimering twilight they shine brightly and leave a void, an unrelived darkness behind them. Many whirlpools appear in the streams of life never helping the waters to go forward but in their impetuous movement gathering up all the little things which float on the surface and making them forget that their part is to float with life and not move round and round a powerful but wasteful energy. The simple joys and sorrows endure as permanent motifs of literature, we may add colour and intensity, but our study of literature will be incomplete if we forget that underneath the gaudy colours and imaginative weaving of words there is life itself -life led by our own countrymen in the multitude of villages which the townsmen have never, seen and which they can never properly appreciate.


Note: This paper was written in between 1961 and 1967. The manuscript was deposited at Pragati Utkal Sangha, Rourkela by Prof. Nabin Kumar Sahoo. ln 1969 this was published in the Souvenir of Pragati Utkal Sangha.