Wealth of wisdom – tribal literature

August 7, 2008

If the visibility of tribal languages has remained somewhat poor, those languages need not be blamed for want of creativity. The responsibility rests with the received idea that literature, in order to be literature, has to be written and printed as well. Tribal literary traditions have been oral in nature. After the print technology started impacting Indian languages during the 19th century, the fate of the oral became precarious. A gross cultural neglect had to be faced by the languages which remained outside the print technology.

The reorganisation of Indian States after Independence was along linguistic lines. The languages that had scripts came to be counted for. The ones that had not acquired scripts, and therefore did not have printed literature, did not get their own States. Schools and colleges were established only for the official languages. The ones without scripts, even if they had stock of wisdom carried forward orally, were not fortunate enough to get educational institutions for themselves. It is in this context of gross neglect that one has to understand the creativity in India’s tribal languages.

Story of perseverance

The history of tribals during the last 60 years is filled with stories of forced displacement, land alienation and increasing marginalisation, eruption of violence and the counter-violence by the State. Going by any parameters of development, the tribals always figure at the tail end. The situation of the communities that have been pastoral or nomadic has been even worse. Considering the immense odds against which tribals have been fighting, it is nothing short of a miracle that they have preserved their languages and continue to contribute to the amazing linguistic diversity of India.

The number of languages in which Indian tribal communities have been expressing themselves is amazingly large. Though there are usual problems associated with marking the mother tongue in a multilingual society, the successive Census figures indicate that there exist nearly 90 languages with speech communities of ten thousand or more. When one speaks of Indian tribal literature, one is necessarily speaking of all these.

Humbling experience

Some 20 years ago, I decided to approach the languages such as Kukna, Bhili, Gondi, Mizo, Garo, Santhali, Kinnauri, Garhwali, Dehwali, Warli, Pawri and so on, expecting to find at the most a few hundred songs and stories in them. Having documented over a ten thousand printed pages of these, publishing a dozen magazines and 50-odd books containing tribal imaginative expression, I am a much humbled man. If a systematic publication programme were created to document tribal literature in India, easily several hundred titles can be launched just containing the oral traditions in them. The story does not end there.

Tribals have taken to writing. Many tribal languages have now their own scripts or have taken recourse to the State scripts. Some four decades ago, when Dalit literature started drawing the nation’s attention, it was usual to think of even the tribal writers among them as part of the Dalit movement. In Marathi, for instance, Atmaram Rathod, Laxman Mane, Laxman Gaikwad, all from nomadic tribal communities, were hailed as Dalit writers. At that time, the northeast was no more than a rumour for the rest of India. One was perhaps aware of the monumental collections presented by Verrier Elwin, but there was no inkling of the tribal creativity. It is only during the last 20 years that the various tribal voices and works have started making their presence felt. Thus, Kochereti from Kerala and Alma Kabutri from the north surprised the readers almost the same time when L. Khiangte’s anthology of Mizo Literature and Govind Chatak’s anthology of Garhwali literature appeared in English and Hindi translation, respectively, making it possible for me to bring out Painted Words, a national anthology of tribal literature.

The last two decades have demonstrated that tribal literature is no longer nearly the folk songs and folk tales. It now encompasses other complex genres such as the novel and drama. Daxin Bajarange’s Budhan Theatre in Ahmedabad has been producing stunningly refreshing plays, modern in form and contemporary in content. Little magazines such as Chattisgarhi Lokakshar and Dhol have started appearing which provide space for tribal poets and writers. Literary conferences providing a platform for tribal writers are being frequently held at Ranchi in Jharkhand and Dandi in Gujarat. In January this year, a global conference under the title ‘Chotro’, devoted to tribal literature and culture, was held at Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts at Delhi.

There is now a greater understanding among tribal activists all over the country that tribal identity and culture cannot be preserved unless the tribal languages and literature are fore-grounded. Over the last four decades, a mainstream writer like Mahasweta Devi has been writing on behalf of the tribals. That situation has changed now. The voice of the tribals themselves is now beginning to be heard.

G.N. DEVY (The Hindu)

Siddhartha’s Saga

August 6, 2008

Were he alive today, the Buddha would be in jail for child-support violations. Two-and-a-half millenniums of adoration and mythology have obscured the unflattering fact that the Buddha was a deadbeat dad. So a shimmering new English translation of the Buddhacarita, the 2nd century Sanskrit poem chronicling his life, reminds us that in his search for enlightenment and release from samsara — the wheel of rebirths that condemns us to endless lives and thus suffering — he cruelly abandoned his wife and young son Rahula (whose name, making a not-so-subtle point, means “fetters”).

The 28 cantos of the Buddhacarita are spectacularly imagined. The theologian Ashvaghosha’s ancient epic courses over 80 years, the entirety of the Buddha’s journey toward nirvana and death. It fleshes out, warts and all, the more popular image of the Buddha as an eternally serene spiritual master. First, there’s his auspicious birth, as Siddhartha Gautama, in the 6th century B.C. in what is now Nepal. His family is so obscenely rich (“like the Indus with the rush of waters”) that they sacrifice 100,000 milk cows for the occasion. A diviner foretells Siddhartha’s salvific destiny: “This sun of knowledge will blaze forth/ in this world to dispel/ the darkness of delusion.”

Not that you would guess that from his dandyish youth, which is a period of panting indulgence doing whatever he pleases and to whomever. Dad Suddhodana, who would rather Siddhartha become an earthly king, manufactures this hedonism, hoping to shield his son from the world’s anguish and thereby stanch any desire of Siddhartha to redeem it.

But things quickly turn from Confessions to The City of God as Siddhartha, like Augustine, abandons adolescent excess (and, don’t forget, his new wife and son). The fateful decision is made when his curiosity about life outside the palace walls overwhelms him and he decides to take a look for himself — only to witness firsthand the ravages of disease, old age and death. Disillusioned with “the perishable world,” he suddenly renounces his princely surroundings for a life of famished mendicancy.

It’s a bit like flipping from cable soft-core straight to Masterpiece Theatre. Siddhartha, “under the spell of liquor and love,” is petting concubines one day; the next, disgusted with it all, he’s galloping on his noble steed Kánthaka far away from his father’s opulent digs (“with his yearning aroused/ for the dharma that’s imperishable”) and making for the woods, where he turns away from material delusions.

This business of going forth into the woods is a universal symbol of spiritual quest. Thoreau used it in his years at Walden Pond. And as translator Patrick Olivelle — who in his rendering of the Buddhacarita has stressed its exquisite literary qualities — notes, Siddhartha’s departure into the forest from his father’s palace is itself “modeled after that of Rama in the Ramayana, although cast within a Buddhist theological and moral background.” The Buddhacarita, Olivelle argues, is both an extension of Brahmanical texts and a potent challenge to them — repudiating Vedic conservatism and its emphasis on family units.

The epic is part of the Clay Sanskrit Library, a new series that aims to do for Sanskrit literature what the Loeb Classical Library — publisher of those pocket-sized, green and red volumes found in many a university reading room — has done for Greek and Latin texts over the past century. As such, it’s geared more toward lofty specialists and Indiana Joneses than curious general readers. The poem is cluttered with arcane history, dry scriptural debate and explanations of Buddhist doctrine — the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path and the Triple Refuge — that can be meticulous to the point of opacity.

But you needn’t be a scholar to enjoy this wondrous poem, which continually marvels us with its grand gestures: moments of divine intervention, political assassination plots, infernal visions and hellish battles with chimerical fiends. Recent pop culture has tackled the Buddha, from fantastic depictions (see Osamu Tezuka’s eight-volume manga interpretation of his life) to the absurd (one thinks of a bronzed Keanu Reeves strutting as Siddhartha in Little Buddha). Yet you would be hard pressed to find anything that ranks close to the Buddhacarita, which still mesmerizes with its vividness and sheer audacity.

(Source: The Time)

Chandan Sen: Focusing on contemporary issues

August 5, 2008

Bahubachan Theatre Festival ’08

Renowned Indian playwright-director Chandan Sen was in Dhaka to attend the theatre festival by Bahubachan at the National Theatre Stage. This was his second time in Dhaka along with his troupe HaZaBaRaLa. Earlier HaZaBaRaLa participated in another theatre festival organised by Nagorik Natyangan.

Of the four plays included at the Bahubachan Theatre Festival, Chandan Sen was the playwright of three. Bahubachan staged his play Daibaddho on the opening day of the festival. HaZaBaRaLa staged the 296th show of Aniket Shondhya last Thursday and its sequel Phire Esho Prem yesterday at the festival. Chandan Sen shared his views on several subjects.

Chandan Sen has been active in theatre for 40 years. Initially he was an actor, however, he has achieved popularity as a playwright. He also directs HaZaBaRaLa’s productions.

So far he has written 27 plays, of which 15 are original and the rest are translations and adaptations of international classics.

Most of the plays written by Sen have attracted audiences in India and abroad. Sen informed that his play Daibaddho has had over 700 shows in India. Twenty-two plays by Sen are available as books. These plays are popular literature in Indian, informed the playwright.

What’s the secret to this popularity? Sen’s response: “Most of my plays feature a contemporary issue: Solitude and suffering of the elderly in a materialistic social structure, which touches the heart of the viewers.”

“People these days are losing values, forgetting the traditions. Everyone is becoming self-centred like the westerners. I focus on these issues in my plays,” said Sen.

“My plays have become so popular among the Bengali communities all over the world that two essays have been published on my dialogue dictions. Even youngsters use dialogues from my plays in their text messages.”

Chandan Sen said that following his footsteps, many contemporary Indian playwrights are also writing these types of family drama.

As a playwright Chandan Sen has received many awards such as Natya Academy Padak and State Academy of Art Award.

(Source: The Daily Star)

Chandamama goes digital with portals in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu; more to follow

August 4, 2008

Chandamama, the 61-year old children’s magazine, is now going ahead in its cyber avatar. The publication has launched its online portals in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. It already has a portal in English and will soon launch websites in Marathi and Oriya languages.

And if one is expecting only age-old, yet popular stories of Vikram and Betaal and other characters from mythology, then there is some pleasant surprise. The site has a contemporary look and feel, featuring stories in different categories like mythology, history, folk tales, humour, adventure, contemporary, etc.

This apart, the portal is a treasure trove for those brought up on Chandamama as it features an archive going back 60 years. At present, early editions the magazine in Hindi, English, Kannada, Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu can be found on the site. Other language editions as well as all the back issues in the past 60 years would go live soon.

Commenting on the archives, L Subramanyam, CEO, Chandamama, said, “There is a huge demand for classical Chandamama stories. By putting our archives up online, we hope we are in some way able to satisfy this demand. We have only put up six languages now, but eventually, our entire 60 years will be available online.”

On the launch of Tamil and Hindi portals, Subramanyam said, “We like to reach out to children in an environment they are most comfortable. The message of Chandamama is relevant across language and cultures. The Tamil and Hindi sites contain original stories written for the Tamil and Hindi publications, and in many cases these are different from the stories you will find on the English and Telugu sites.”

From Geetanjali – Ravindranath Tagore

August 3, 2008

हे जीवन के प्राण

हे जीवन के प्राण ! मेरा अन्तर विकसित कर !

निर्मल कर, उज्ज्वल कर, सुन्दर कर, जागरित कर,

निर्भय और उद्यत कर, निरालस और शंकारहित कर !

हे जीवन के प्राण ! मेरा अन्तर विकसित कर !

मेरा अंत:करण सब से जोड़ता, मुझे बन्धन मुक्त कर !

मेरे सब कामों में तेरा शांतिमय छंद भर जाय !

अपने चरण-कमल पर मेरा चित्त स्थिर कर !

मुझे आनन्दित कर, आनन्दित कर, आनन्दित कर !

हे जीवन के प्राण ! मेरा अन्तर विकसित कर !

अनुवाद: सत्यकाम विद्यालंकार, इंदु जैन

Sony opens up e-book Reader to other online booksellers

August 2, 2008

With the market for electronic books still relatively sleepy, Sony Corp. is trying a new tack: untethering the latest model of its e-book reading device from its own online bookstore.

On Thursday, Sony will provide a software update to the Reader, a thin slab with a 6-inch (15-centimeter) screen, so the device can display books encoded in a format being adopted by several large publishers. That means Reader owners will be able to buy electronic books from stores other than Sony’s.

“This upgrade opens the door to a whole host of paid and free content from third-party e-book stores, Web sites and even public libraries,” said Steve Haber, senior vice president of consumer product marketing for Sony Electronics.

With the move, Sony is partly letting go of its e-book business model, under which it sold the $300 device and the books that could be read on it. It’s also a challenge to Amazon.com Inc., which last year put out its own e-book reader, the Kindle, and tied it to its own online store. Amazon, however, makes it relatively easy for publishers and individuals to submit books to sell through the store, with Amazon taking 65 percent of the proceeds.

Opening up the Reader could also help Sony catch up to the $359 Kindle in terms of book selection _ Sony’s store, which it will keep running, has about 45,000 books available, while Amazon’s Kindle store sports more than 140,000.

Sony’s move could also help energize the e-book industry, which has yet to take off, despite the investment of big-name companies like Sony and Amazon. Neither has released sales figures for their reading devices.

(Source: The Hindu)

Confronting realities

August 1, 2008

Freedom’s Ransom traces the orbits of two distant worlds, India and Bharat, as they weave their different ways and finally overlap.

Freedom’s Ransom, Prafulla Roy, translated by John W. Hood, IndiaInk/ Roli Books, p.313 pages, Rs. 295.

Chhath, the holiest of the Hindu festivals celebrated in Bihar, climaxes with the worship of the rising sun on the fourth day of rituals. Though the post-Diwali observance is the more popular, another Chhath is marked just ahead of the onset of summer, in the month of Chaitra. In common with agrarian societies across the world, the festival pays obeisance to the sun for its munificence and magnificence.

Significantly, there is no mention of Chhath in Prafulla Roy’s Freedom’s Ransom (originally published in Bengali as Akasher Niche Manush, literally the People Under the Sky), though the action takes place in the height of summer. One of the reasons could be the fact that the sun that beats down on the human drama played across the fields of undivided Bihar is anything but merciful or generous. It is a cruel, unrelenting force of nature, as demanding and as unbending as any of the powers that rule the land.

The physical breadth of Roy’s novel is limited. At one point, one of his protagonists defines his world thus: “To the north was Manpatthal taluk, to the west was the Bijuri railway station, to the east was Hanthiagunj and to the south was Naosheraganj.” Within these boundaries lies the even smaller fiefdom of Raghunath Singh, archetypal old-school landlord who must now look to electoral politics for validation and protection of his heritage. And caught in vicious circles within that fiefdom are Raghunath’s bonded labourers, India’s most wretched.

Distanced world

Roy’s novel is curiously undated, a fact that works both for and against its narrative. India is independent, we gather from the mention of the five-year plans and the excitement over elections. For a narrower time-frame, we have to look to the introduction by translator John W. Hood, who says the novel is “set at the end of the third quarter of the twentieth century”. But since there are few identifiable trappings of the early-70s in the book, the timelessness works as a distancing factor as well: The modern reader would be hard pressed to regard the story as a reflection of the recent past, let alone anything more contemporary.

That is rather ironical, for, the purpose of the translation is surely to point to the existence of the land called Bharat beneath the glitter of the nation called India. As Roy states again and again in the book, in this tract of Bihar — or in any part of invisible India — there is no law but the landlord’s, no democracy but of the goons, no rights but of the rich. That’s the way it has always been; that’s the way it will always be.

Yet, when Dharma, one of Roy’s protagonists, lets it slip to the reader that he is collecting the two thousand rupees that will buy freedom from bondage for his and his betrothed’s families, a knot of tension builds up. It is a fight so uneven, so unfairly loaded, that you know the outcome even before the first salvo has been fired.

As Dharma collects his ammunition in secret, Raghunath Singh, his owner, prepares to fight a very public battle: that of the vote. While Dharma works overtime, trapping birds in the forest to feed the ever-hungry contractors building the other India’s roads and bridges, Raghunath plots and plans and manipulates his chances of victory. This, too, is a result one can predict long before the first vote has been cast.

Distant as the two worlds are, their orbits overlap the day Raghunath Singh appreciates that each of his bonded labourers — overlooked, ill-treated and dehumanised for generations — too, is a vote. Apparently overnight, he morphs from master to mendicant: Who is to know that the sudden humility comes with a catch?

No place for sentimentality

Winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2003 for his novel Krantikal, Roy’s evenhanded story-telling is a lesson in objectivity. In depicting a relationship as skewed as the landlord-labourer one, it would have been easy to use broad brushstrokes in black and white. Roy resists the temptation — though he makes no secret of where his sympathies lie — but he respects the history that has shaped these people. Freedom’s Ransom is a compelling bit of story-telling not because of the suspense or the shock value of its pages, but because it looks reality unwaveringly in the eye. Sentimentalism or wishful-thinking does not have a place here: At the end of the novel, when Dharma raises his voice against Raghunath Singh, it has all the impact of a sledgehammer because it’s entirely plausible.

A novel that is so deeply rooted in the author’s first-hand experiences always runs the risk of losing something in translation and, in this case, it is perhaps the ease and immediacy of the vernacular. Hood is an Australian scholar who now spends six months a year in Kolkata; he has written extensively on Bengali art, cinema and has books on Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Buddhadeb Dasgupta to his credit. (Interestingly, Roy himself has been adapted extensively for the big screen.) But this book, somehow, leaves one with the idea that a second, less-literal reworking of the text would have erased some of the irritating Bengali-isms (the multiple references to “fourteen generations” of lineage, for instance) and made for a smoother read.

(Source: The Hindu)

Hamburg University honours Dr Nishank

July 31, 2008

Health Minister of Uttarakhand and noted Hindi writer and poet Dr Ramesh Pokhriyal “Nishank” was honoured by Hamburg University of Germany for his commendable work in the field of literature as well as propagation of Ayurveda. The German translation of his story collection, Tum Aur Main was also released under the German title, Du und Ich, on this occasion. Dr Nishank was also honoured at a function in Berlin. English translation of his book was also released at a function held in Berlin.

The function at Hamburg was organised by the Afro-Asian Institute, University of Hamburg. After felicitating Dr Nishank, Professor Tapania Aarkaya of the University said Du und Ich and Nur Ein Wunsch were German translations of two fine Hindi books authored by Dr Nishank. She said Dr Nishank always wrote about human sensibilities and, therefore, attracted a good readership. Prof. Aarkaya stated that the other books written by Dr Nishank would also be translated into German language and the Hamburg University would help set up an International Hindi Research Centre in Uttarakhand. This would attract scholars from across the world to Uttarakhand for research. The Centre would serve as an institute not only for Hindi but also for several major world languages.

The English version of a collection of stories authored by Dr Ramesh Pokhriyal “Nishank” titled, the Crowd Bears Witness, was released by renowned Ayurvedic and Vedic scholar Dr David Frawley. The book is an English translation of his Hindi book, Bheed Sakshi Hai.

Speaking on the occasion, Dr Frawley noted that literature and politics rarely mingled but Dr Nishank was an exception to the rule. Dr Nishank was a well-known author and poet too besides being a politician. He also reiterated that Dr Nishank had been awarded and honoured by three Presidents of India.

India is LBF focus for 2009

July 30, 2008

India is to be the Market Focus at the London Book Fair next year, while South Africa will take centre stage in 2010. The India Market Focus will take the theme “India Through Fresh Eyes”, and will include an examination of linguistic, economic and demographic issues, with visits from Indian writers and a publishing training programme for Indian publishers and printers.

A spokesperson for the Federation of Indian Publishers (FIP) said: “India has a vibrant book publishing industry and the London Book Fair will provide a great opportunity to our publishers and also to old and emerging authors to showcase their latest titles and highlight progress made in India in the book publishing industry.”

In 2010, which will also be the year in which South Africa hosts the soccer World Cup, the theme of the South Africa Market Focus will be diversity, emphasising languages and non-English writers.

Dudley H Schroeder, executive director of the Publishers Association of South Africa, said: “At a time when the publishing industry in South Africa is experiencing real growth and development, we see this as another opportunity of showcasing our established and emerging authors, and the exciting range of literature of South Africa.”

Emma House, head of international development at the London Book Fair, said: “We are excited at the prospect of being able to focus on two such rich and diverse publishing industries.”

Great Temple of Somnath as Described by Muslim Historians

July 29, 2008

As part of Hinduism Today’s research in Indian history, Hindustan Press International has been exploring the eight-volume set “The History of India as Told by Its Own Historians” edited by Henry M. Elliot. This 19th century book contains translations of extracts from mostly Muslim chroniclers of the Muslim times in India. The following extract is from “Wonders of Things Created, and marvels of Things Existing” by Asaru-L Bilad, a 13th century Muslim geographer. It contains the following description of Somnath temple and its destruction:

Somnath: celebrated city of India, situated on the shore of the sea, and washed by its waves. Among the wonders of that place was the temple in which was placed the idol called Somnat. This idol was in the middle of the temple without anything to support it from below, or to suspend it from above. It was held in the highest honor among the Hindus, and whoever beheld it floating in the air was struck with amazement, whether he was a Musulman or an infidel. The Hindus used to go on pilgrimage to it whenever there was an eclipse of the moon, and would then assemble there to the number of more than a hundred thousand. They believed that the souls of men used to meet there after separation from the body, and that the idol used to incorporate them at its pleasure in other bodies, in accordance with their doctrine of transmigration.

“The ebb and flow of the tide was considered to be the worship paid to the idol by the sea. Everything of the most precious was brought there as offerings, and the temple was endowed with more than 10,000 villages. There is a river (the Ganges) which is held sacred, between which and Somnat the distance is 200 parasangs. They used to bring the water of this river to Somnat every day, and wash the temple with it. A thousand brahmans were employed in worshipping the idol and attending on the visitors, and 500 damsels sung and danced at the door–all these were maintained upon the endowments of the temple. The edifice was built upon fifty-six pillars of teak, covered with lead. The shrine of the idol was dark. hut was lighted by jeweled chandeliers of great value. Near it was a chain of gold weighing 200 mans. When a portion (watch) of the night closed, this chain used to be shaken like bells to rouse a fresh lot of brahmans to perform worship.

“When the Sultan Yaminu-d Daula Mahmud Bin Subuktigin  went to wage religious war against India, he made great efforts to capture and destroy Somnat, in the hope that the Hindus would then become Muhammadans. He arrived there in the middle of Zi-l k’ada, 416 A.H. (December, 1025 A.D.). The Indians made a desperate resistance. They would go weeping and crying for help into the temple, and then issue forth to battle and fight till all were killed. The number of the slain exceeded 50,000.

“The king looked upon the idol with wonder, and gave orders for the seizing of the spoil, and the appropriation of the treasures. There were many idols of gold and silver and vessels set with jewels, all of which had been sent there by the greatest personages in India. The value of the things found in the temples of the idols exceeded twenty thousand thousand dinars. (Elliot’s footnote: The enormous treasures found at Somnat have been a theme of wonder for all who have written on that conquest.)

“When the king asked his companions what they had to say about the marvel of the idol, and of its staying in the air without prop or support, several maintained that it was upheld by some hidden support. The king directed a person to go and feel all around and above and below it with a spear, which he did, but met with no obstacle. One of the attendants then stated his opinion that the canopy was made of loadstone, and the idol of iron, and that the ingenious builder had skillfully contrived that the magnet should not exercise a greater force on anyone side-hence the idol was suspended in the middle. Some coincided, others differed. Permission was obtained from the Sultan to remove some stones from the top of the canopy to settle the point. When two stones were removed from the summit the idol swerved on one side, when more were taken away it inclined still further, until at last it rested on the ground.”

(Source: http://www.hinduismtoday.com/hpi/2008/7/22#2.shtml)