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Why Tribal Literature Cannot Be Divided Into ‘Folk Literature’ And ‘Nobel Literature’

Adivasis don’t fall into the lingual traps of modernity. In their philosophical tradition, they are more realistic and scientific than any society

Santhal Dance, 1947, Nandalal Bose from The KNMA collection
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All speak in creation. All living and non-living beings have access to gestures, sounds and music that constitute any language. But linguists often credit only humans with the capacity for language, despite knowing it’s not solely their creation. Language, in fact, is the music of creation (the cosmos) created in equity altogether. Not only Adivasi ones, but languages created by every human society on the planet have been sourced from natural environments, experiences, relationships with the biosphere, everyday activities, art skills and techniques. We Adivasis make use of this musical language in many forms and ways, which then constitute the making of our oral tradition. Our oral literature. This is why we Adivasis address this collective tradition, which includes the oral literature of our ancestors, and today’s written modern literature, as orature and orature cannot be considered to be ‘folk literature’.

As non-Adivasi literature constantly looks upon ‘folk literature’ in isolation from ‘people/folks’, folk literature often ends up denoting an illiterate, rural society, unfamiliar with script and grammar, whose culture lags compared to city folk. Cultures considered simple because their language knows no twists.

From a philosophical standpoint, it is far more complex to define ‘folk’. In philosophy, there is both ‘worldly’ and ‘otherworldly’, both reality and imagination. The ‘folk’ in non-Adivasi societies and civilisations belongs to either humans or gods. ‘Folk’ is a mishmash of earth, sky, underworld and heaven. Indian philosophy and literature have such a conceptualisation of ‘folk’.

Among Adivasis, ‘folk’ doesn’t hold a similar conception. Here ‘folk’ is reality. There is no space for fantasy and the unreal in their world. This is why Adivasis do not categorise or keep their literature in the ambit of ‘folk literature’. They call it purkha sahitya (literature of the ancestors). In Hindi, their literary tradition, (which includes both ancestral and modern-day literature), is called ‘Vachikta’. In English, orature.  Because orature isn’t just language, but rather sounds, letters, music, movements and songs. It comprises the languages of animals-birds, rivers-mountains, forests-settlements, planets, sun, moon and the wind. And all this is real, absolutely true. No element is supernatural or even divine. Not miraculous. Each of our moments is connected to all these elements of the cosmos, and we touch and feel them in our day-to-day life. This is why the cultural world of Adivasis is artistic, multicoloured, and multilingual.

Without knowing the nature of language, its mutual associations, the nature of its duets, and its innate contradictions, it is not easy to understand the oratorial tradition, Adivasi ancestral literature and its modern-day works. Speculating from the criteria of so-called mannerly, modern literature, from the aesthetic norms of Hindi literature and culture of India is fruitless.

The conceptions of Adivasi philosophy are different from dominant Western, Indian or Marxist ideas. It neither accepts ‘Satyam Shivam Sundaram’ like the East nor truth and beauty as in the West. Nor does it consider human beings as the eternal truth like Marxists and Dalits. Adivasi philosophy is creationist and naturalist. Adivasi society holds the highest value for known-unknown directions, disciplines, and provisions of the planet, nature and cosmos. There are no concepts around truth-falsity, beauty-ugliness or human-inhuman in their philosophy. It doesn’t consider humans to be great because of their intelligence or ‘humanity’. It firmly believes that everything living and non-living in the universe is equal. Neither is anyone big nor small. All things present in the universe are meaningful and have equity in existence, whether an insect, a plant, a stone or a human being.  It accepts knowledge, reason, experience and materiality within the discipline of nature, not against it.  Adivasi philosophy does not look at exploration, testing and knowledge in terms of convenience and usefulness, but as symbiotic harmony and existential association with the earth, nature and the entire living world. It looks at the activities and behaviours of the human world, the entire evolutionary process, not against nature and existence but complementing it. It brings things to utility as long as there is no sense of serious damage to any object or creation, to nature and the earth. It follows that there is no degradation or decay of nature and life.

Adivasis don’t fall into the lingual traps of modernity. In their philosophical tradition, they are more realistic and scientific than any society

This is why Adivasi literature cannot be divided into ‘folk literature’ and ‘Nobel literature’. It stays in unanimity. Adivasi thinkers and writers around the world consider their oral and written literature to be inseparable. The difference in thoughts between tradition and modernity in non-Adivasi literature finds no ground in Adivasi society. The coming of new material resources does not completely change a tradition. It doesn’t bring forth any substantial change in one’s philosophy of life. The making of vision, aesthetics and philosophy does not occur overnight. This process is extremely slow and long. From this point of view, the concept of modernity seems like an illusion. If the coming of technical inventions and luxuries like fridges, TVs, mobile phones and the internet guaranteed ‘modernity’ then there’d be no killings in the name of race, religion, caste or gender in Indian society. There wouldn’t have been such continuity in atrocities and discrimination against women, Adivasis, Dalits and backward communities. Our daily behaviour is governed by our philosophy, not by motorcycles, scooters and cars. Air conditionerss can only regulate temperatures outside oneself, not value systems, thoughts and ideas. Those result from one’s philosophical tradition and religious philosophy.

Adivasis don’t fall into the lingual traps of modernity. In their philosophical tradition, they are more realistic and scientific than any society. They never search for truth, experiment with truth and look for humanity. For them, the sun is the sun, the moon is the moon. Water is water. Blood is blood. Human is human.

Adivasi literature is the bearer of its philosophical tradition. There is no place for false modernity with the glitter of materialism there. Marathi Adivasi author, Vahru Sonvane, says, “It is incongruous from the point of view of Adivasis for literature to only be written.  Thousand-year-long traditions have never stopped. Those traditions are still an integral part of Adivasi life in an inseparable way.”

Mamang Dai, Arunachali adivasi writer, writes, “I am Adivasi, and geography and landscape, the myths and stories of our ancestors… all of these shape my thought process.”

Canadian Aboriginal thinker and author, Akiwanji Dame, says, “Literature is a creative activity. Literature as a unit of creativity is a part of our culture, and we always express it through many ways and mediums. By singing, speaking or writing, all are ultimately part of a unique creativity’.

The oratorial art and literary practices of Adivasis are a set of diverse art forms in which nature plays a major and assured role alongside all other art forms. In the art traditions of the Adivasi world, dancing is necessary for playing, playing music is necessary for dancing, singing is necessary for playing music, and singing, dancing and playing are not possible without the natural habitat. Water, forest and land are the main elements of Adivasi philosophy and art. To look at Adivasi orature in isolation from all these is to deny its philosophical discourse.

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(This appeared in the print edition as "Redefining the Literary")

(Translated from Hindi by Pratyush Pushkar. Views expressed are personal)

Vandana Tete is a poet, journalist, publisher and cultural activist

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