G.N. Devy is a scholar of English language and literature, Dr. Ganesh Devy’s publications include – Critical Thought, After Amnesia, In Another Tongue, Of Many Heroes and Tradition and Modernity. Awarded a number of Fellowships including Rotary Foundation (U.K.), Fulbright Fellowship (Yale), Katha Award, Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship, and Gunther Sontheimer Memorial Award.

Oral and Tribal Literature

G. N. Devy

INDIA is such a large country, and as is the case of any Asian country, with so much of a past and socially so complex that it is virtually impossible to know all about Indian arts and literature. Contemporary literary critics and art historian are, unfortunately, far too occupied with the more canonized and Western ways of perceiving arts and literature. Thus, most of our folk forms of arts and literature escape their attention. The curious intertwining of the folk and the mainstream in India as in other Asian cultures baffles the aesthetics built upon Western theories of arts. As a result, we have not made any progress in understanding folk tribal arts and literature in the desi traditions. As a matter of fact, most literary critics and art historians have so far remained unaware of the existence of tribal arts and literature, which have their own peculiar identities. When we look at them as strangers, our responses remain confined to mere anthropological attitudes. If one does not have the patience and inclination to understand them on their own terms, one is led to draw a hurried conclusion that these are art forms of communities that have fallen out of mainstream, frozen in some remote historical time. A careful study of tribal arts and literature, however, indicates that this is not the case. There is too much variety in tribal culture to admit a single definition or descriptive apparatus. The tribal communities clearly show that there are distinctive features that separate one cluster of tribal groups from another cluster in another region in the subcontinent.

One of the main characteristics of tribal arts is their peculiar manner of constructing space and imagery, which may be described as “hallucinatory”. Whether it is oral or visual representation, tribal artists seem to interpret the verbal and pictorial space as demarcated by an extremely flexible ‘framing.’ The boundaries, therefore, between art and non-art become almost invisible. A tribal epic can commence its narration from a trivial every-day event. Tribal paintings merge with the living space as if the two are no different. And within the narrative itself, or within the painted imagery, there is no deliberate attempt to follow a sequence. The episodes retold and the images created take on apparently chaotic shapes of dreams. In a tribal Ramayana an episode from the Mahabharata makes sudden and surprising appearance. In their paintings, there is a curious mixture of traditional and modern imagery. Yet, one will be wrong in assuming that tribal arts do not employ any ordering principles. On the contrary, the ordering principles are far too strict. The most important among these is ‘convention.’ Though a casual spectator does not notice it, every tribal performance and creation has at its back another such performance or creation belonging to a previous occasion. The creativity of tribal artist lies in adhering to the past and at the same time slightly, but definitely, subverting it. These subversions are, however, playful more than ironical.
Playfulness, indeed, is the soul of tribal arts. Though oral and pictorial art creations in tribal communities are intimately related to rituals, and though the sacred can never left out, tribal arts rarely assume a pretentious serious tone. Tribal artists rarely like to play the role of the Creator. Listening to tribal epics can be great fun because even the heroes are not spared from the occasional shock of the artist’s humour. One reason for this unique mixture of the sacred and the ordinary in tribal art may be that they are not created specifically for sale. One must, however, never forget that even in tribal communities artists do expect a certain amount of patronage from the community. However, given that very often the persons performing rituals themselves are artists, there is no element of competitiveness involved in the patron-artist relationship. Tribal arts, therefore, are relaxed and never tense.
One more distinctive feature of tribal arts is their attitude of indulgence towards the medium they use for creation. When a tribal storyteller narrates an episode, he likes to stop at a phrase or a word and play upon its tonal qualities exploiting its phonetic potentials to the maximum. Tribal craftsmen and painters almost like to show off their love for the colours they use. They have an intense sense of shapes and figures and an acute feel for the texture of the materials that they use for their medium in whatever they build or make, they know how to reveal and highlight the shapes, tones and textures that they handle. It is as if for them the message of the medium were far more important than the message framed in the conceptual understanding of the artist. Hence, every Adivasi artist conceals his individual identity by foregrounding the medium itself. Adivasi creations exude a certain love for the materials used, almost as if they are prayerful offerings to the elements that make this world such a mysteriously beautiful place.
One question that is