Folk Songs, Language and Community Concerns amongst Adivasi Communities

Ishmeet Kaur Chaudhry
Ishmeet Kaur Chaudhry

The present paper attempts to bring out complications in the collection and translation the of folkloric songs of Kunbi tribes of the Dangsdistrict in Gujarat. Along with pointing out at these complications, the significance of folklore, its importance as a storehouse of alternate knowledge-systems, understanding of environmental concerns and preservation of socio-cultural concerns and relationship of the community to language has been studied with an example from a song from the Gavarai festival celebrated by the Kunbi. Such ethnographic studies of the folklore are crucial in reviving the oral cultures of the natives of India and indigenous people across the world. They provide an exposure to the world that has faced exclusion from the main stream for centuries together.

With globalization and cosmopolitanism at an increasing pace, the traditional spaces are being compromised at large. The conflicting dilemma faced by the indigenous, Adivasi or native communities regarding modernization and tradition is alarming. On one hand, the claim for universal uniformity in terms of education, laws and language is unable to justify the indigenous or local concerns of these communities, and on the other hand, non-involvement with the majority trends and new technological tools or advancements is widening the distance between the old and the new. The situation is so precarious that people belonging to such communities would tend to stand “no-where” neither “here” nor “there”, thus the in-between-ness for such communities is a dangerous proposition. It is also important to understand as to why are such communities more threatened in comparison to other communities? The reason for this is that such communities are deeply rooted in their past owing to the richness of their folkloric tradition that is embedded within their daily routines and festivities observed by them. The modern transition and changes incurring the society fails to address the nuances of these communities. Also, the relationship that they share with their language goes totally ignored in the lure of accepting standardized regional languages or English that are becoming a centralized force. Language, therefore is the most important factor in uniting these people to their culture and community. In fact, they share a deep psychic relationship to their language as the language is orally transmitted from generations to generations. Many of these communities don’t have written scripts and are dialectic and oral in nature. Rout, relevantly comments:

Oral tradition performs various functions. Myth explains the universe and provides a basis for rituals performances and religious belief systems. Folk tales instead are of secular character. The folktales are regarded as unwritten records of tribal history. These tales serve to maintain a sense of group identity and unity. (Rout 339)

This paper focusses on one such concern of documenting the folk songs of the community of the Kunbi tribes of Dangs district in Gujarat, India,collected by Hemant Patel. The complications faced have been in terms of selection of script while writing the songs; issues of translation of such works; untranslatability of certain words whose meanings have been lost in the parlance of time; and finally, whether writing as a means of documenting is sufficiently an accurate method of preserving or would recording serve as a preferred mode?

Most of the native communities in India have remained rooted to their culture through language. As a part of anthropological linguistics, ethnolinguistic as a discipline is a “study of the interrelation of language and the cultural behavior of those who speak it.” (Britannica)Particularly India, a country which is polyglossic, the communities can be defined through a study of these languages. Particularly with regards to tribal languages, Ganesh Devy brings out the varied availability of them as follows:

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

The languages also at times have been important connecting points for several communities that witnessed mass migrations and dispersed to different regions. Such communities could identify each other through a common language. For example,the speakers of Balti language mostly around Jammu and Kashmir in India identified with the people of their tribes across Sino-Tibetan, Tibeto-Burman, Western Tibeto-Burman, and some Pakistani regions only through their language. (Colleen Ahland and Michael Ahland)

The linguistic content also determined the cultural nuances of such people. Therefore, certain pivotal concerns arise. Is language central to culture? How does language support culture? Can culture be understood with language and vice versa? The challenge many communities faced in India pertaining language is how the technological transition and globalisation led to transformation of language which endangered several folkloric languages and hence also began influencing their culture. It may seem to be a chicken and egg situation if debates regarding language first, or culture first, emerged. Both are interdependent as language tends to register cultures and cultures are often spelled out through languages. The symbols contained within languages accrue into the cultural assembly of signs within it. Ismael Silva-Fuenzalidaexplains this by elucidating that a speaker of any language participatesin representing the ways of life as experience is communicated by means of language and “there are verbal symbols that co-ordinate by means of a system to express mutual relations.” She clearly states that

Language is thus the regular organization of series of symbols, whose meanings have to be learned as any other phenomenon. The implication of this is that as each culture has its own way of looking at things and at people and its own way of dealing with them, the enculturation of an individual to a foreign body of customs will      only be possible as he learns to speak and understand the foreign language and to respond with new selection and emphasis to the world around him-a selection and emphasis presented to him by this new culture. (Silva-Fuenzalida 446)

Therefore, in the study of folk cultures, the study of language, signs and symbols are equally important to preserve and identify the cultural nuances of a community. The indigenous communities have been occupants of the land for centuries and are considered to be the oldest occupants of this earth. Unfortunately, a sense of exclusion is gripping them with the paradigm changes in the mainstream societies and cultures. Narugopal Mukherjee quotes Andrew M. Greeley, who suggests that “one of the most extraordinary events of our time has been the resurgence of tribals in a supposedly secularized and technocratic world.”(Mukherjee 235)At the same time, these communities are the storehouse of the older and the ancient knowledge systems and beliefs. As the world is advancing towards a more generic and uniform lifestyle, the indigenous communities are also presenting an alternate life-system based on their belief and knowledge systems available to us through their language and way of life. Since the paper focuses on the folk songs of theKunbi tribe of the Dangs district, Gujarat, it is evident these songs depict a close relationship to language, nature and environment. Where the world is facing a great challenge in preserving its environment, cultural practices of the Kunbi tribes, makes it evident that how this community has been seminal in preserving the close-knit relationship between nature and community through language system particularly through the songs accompanying festivals of nature. It is interesting to note that the dialect of the people of this tribe is apparently a mix of two languages, particularly Marathi and Gujarati as Dangs is situated in between the border of Maharashatra and Gujarat. Hemant Patel in his thesis “Oral Cultural Expressions: A Study of Folk Songs of the Kunbi Tribe of the Dang’sDistrct” the only source for these songs [1], suggests that the dialect is close to Gujarati language in terms of vocabulary and therefore they have been scripted in Gujarati Language. According to Patel, “The Dangs include 94% Adivasi people including the tribes like Kunbi, Bhil, Varli, Gamit and Kotwaliya.” The Kunbi tribe particularly have more than 51% population. (Patel 1-2)
Hemant Patel introduces that the tribes are farmers by occupation and the culture of farming is evidently available in the folksongs of this community. Also, G.N. Devy suggests thatthere is a special importance in “tribal imaginative transactions” of these songs as they connect to every aspect of life.(Patel 9)(Devy, Painted Words 151)Patel brings out the significance of the songs as follows:

The people are forgetting their culture with globalsization; urbanisation and technology. The songs of the Kunbi people are the sketch of the Dangs culture. Sometimes they also represent the Dangi mythologies, history and societal matters of the Dangs district. They are instrumental in the revival of the culture of the Dangs people. Hence, there is a need to relocate the culture.(Patel 9)

For example, the Kunbi Tribes celebrate a festival called ‘Gavarai’. Hemant Patel suggests that:

(‘Gavarai’ is a festival named after the grown seeds of five kinds of grain) having depicted the agricultural relevance … The use of these metaphors depicts the literariness of the folk songs and the culture of the Dangi people. Women are compared to ‘Gavarai’ (five kinds of grain), depicting the importance of women in society just like the fertile seeds that are productive and symbolic of growth.(Patel 10)

Hence, the metaphors though embedded within the language depict the socio-cultural aspects of the community. The several Gods are also associated to the festival. The festival revolves around the God of grain ‘Kanasra’ who in return will make sure that the community remains prosperous in every season therefore, the God is worshipped at every stage particularly before and after harvesting. Along with the God of grain, other village Gods are also worshipped. (Patel 14)Patel explains the procedure before the festival and also how the songs themselves describe the procedures of cultivation as follows:

These people offer a hen before Gods to please them for a good grain in the following season and also promise them to offer more offerings if grain is good. These songs tend to describe their procedures of cultivation; and rituals and offerings before gods and goddesses in order to please the deities as their faith is all visible in the festival songs.(Patel 15)

The fauna and flora is also widely visible in these songs as God Tiger is worshipped in the festival of Waghbaras, similarly, Cobra is also considered as God and worshipped. The practices around Gavaraialso help predict the seasonal rains and adequate environment for the farming seasons etc. Patel suggests that based on the signs received from these practices the community takes its decisions for example “if the prediction is of scanty rain they cultivate crops that require lesser rain and vice versa.For example, they may cultivate ‘Nagli’ (a kind of grain) and ‘Udid’ (Phascolies) which are cultivated in slopes and do not require much rain. Thus the ‘gavarai’ (five kinds of seeds cultivated in baskets) is helpful in forecasting rain.” (Patel 16)

The songs are centric to these practices and they accompany every practice as is carried during the festival. For example, the festival begins with the following song:

Time for ploughing; start ploughing the farm women, start ploughing the farm.
Come women, sow the seeds here and there, sow the seeds.
Come women, sprinkle the ‘Ganga water’on the seeds, sprinkle the seeds.
New shoot sprout from the seeds, sprout a shoot;
Those plants have leaf, women, a leaf.
Those plants have two leaves, women, two leaves.
Those plants have three leaves, women, three leaves.
Those plants have four leaves, women, four leaves.
Those plants have five leaves, women, five leaves.
Those plants have six leaves, women, six leaves.
Those plants have seven leaves, women, seven leaves.
Those plants have eight leaves, women, eight leaves.
Those plants have nine leaves, women, nine leaves.
Those plants have ten leaves, women, ten leaves.
Those plants have eleven leaves, women, eleven leaves.
Those plants have twelve leaves, women, twelve leaves.
Those plants have thirteen leaves, women, thirteen leaves.
Those plants have fourteen leaves, women, fourteen leaves.
Those plants have fifteen leaves, women, fifteen leaves.
Those plants have sixteen leaves, women, ‘sixteen leaves’.
The plants keep growing.
A ‘minde cow’ eats the ‘Gavarai’, women, eats the ‘Gavarai’.
The ‘minde cow’ becomes pregnant, women, the cow becomes pregnant.
There is swaying a ‘harda’to ‘chilarikati’, women, to a ‘chilarikati’.
Take a white horse and keep holding the mane, women, keep holding the mane.
And run with a force as the white horse do women, as the white horse do. (Patel 32-33)

It is clearly evident from the song that it is about the ploughing season. Embedded within the flora, the ecological concerns are main focus in the song. The beckoning of women who are also symbolic of fertility and growth are the main proponents who carry out this practice. There is a reference to “Ganga Jal” but in the footnotes Patel clarifies that though the literally Ganga Jal has been mentioned in the song, practically water from any river can be poured. There is no bounding on pouring water from river Ganga alone. Therefore, it is important to understand that the song does not offer any religious affiliation. The repetition of the words is linked with the increasing number of leaves indicating step by step growth and prosperity. The repetition of words is also an important folkloric element essential to preserve the tonality and the rhythm in a song. Along with the flora, the fauna is also visible in the song. The Gavaraicrop leads to fertility as the ‘minde cow’ having consumed the Gavaraicrop becomes pregnant and thus the whole process supports the ecosystem.
Patel mentions the limitation in not being able to connect certain words and the mention of the white horse in the last five lines of the song. Interestingly, the culture remains alive in the songs despite the lost connections or loss if meaning with the progression of the times. Therefore, it is important to note the several complications in the study of folklore as follows:
First and foremost, the choice of the medium in which the folk needs to be preserved is crucial. Since folk is oral in its content and has been passed on for several centuries through the word of mouth. The conflict between the standardised language and the dialect seems widening with script writing and new digital advancements as well as technological advents. Though many of these songs are still alive in the cultural practices but urbanisation is also endangering these languages and traditions. Cecile Sandten observes that “Central to this [large scale widening of the metropolitan and the urban] development is also the fact that the social, territorial, and cultural reproduction of group identity has dramatically changed.”(Sandten 118)A seminal attempt to preserve these songs (whatever remains of them) in the present form has been recorded by Prachi Dublay[2] inorder to preserve them but a linguistic understanding and preserving of these words and their referential context is equally important lest they lose their meaning with the widening gaps. Many a times, the songs are never dictated but only sung. They are transcribed after recording them and then duly translated.
Secondly, the scholars in this field are confronted with the choice of script in which the songs should be documented. Since, the dialects lack a written script, many sounds and vowels remain missing in the standardised scripts, therefore no matter what script the scholars chose to write in, there are always concerns of matching the right pronunciations and sounds. For example, Patel chose to document the Kunbi songs in Gujarati rather than Marathi (as the dialect is in between both the languages) owing to the closeness of vocabulary and words of the dialectinto Gujarati. Patel’s expertise lies in the fact that he had knowledge of all the three languages Gujarati, Marathi and the Kunbi dialect. At the same time, it is very important to preserve the cultural words from the dialect itself as the standardised language many a times tendsto dominate the dialect. Referring to Ngugi waThiongo’s opinion that language is disruptive as it has the “power to upset, to uproot, and to shackle…” (Thiong'o Homecoming, 41) suggesting elsewhere that the dominant linguistic group tends to implant its “memory on the top of another memory, their linguistic layer on top of the smaller layer.”(Thiong'o Decolonising, 19) The only way to save the dialect from the dominance of the standardised language is to retain the cultural words and nuances and provide a detailed glossary of words with the text.
Thirdly, since the insiders who are acquainted with the language, the subject (meaning people of the community) and who can adequately transcribe and translate the folklore with the modern education are able to carry out such complex study. The major concern here is that of representation. As to who represents whom? Therefore, it is also understood that at certain level subjectivity is bound to have influences in the such a field of research that is based on experience.
Fourthly, translation itself poses difficulty of equivalence of words and meanings as much words don’t have equivalent words in the targeted language. Also, sometimes the meanings or contexts are found missing as is the case with the Gavarai song that has been taken as a case study for this paper. Since the context is lost in the scripted language which in itself is foreign to the oral culture, the translation appears to be doubly removed from the original at times.
Nonetheless, such ethnographic studies of the folklore are crucial in reviving the oral cultures of the natives of India and indigenous people across the world. They provide an exposure to the world that has faced exclusion from the mainstream for centuries together. Nilanjana Deb also points out that the “writing of local and culture-specific histories of aboriginal literatures is one of the ways in which alternate discourses on aboriginal literature and cultural theory can develop.” (Deb 47) Therefore, along with that these cultures provide alternate belief systems that remain substantial in providing guidelines to sustain environmental concerns which has become the dire need of the urbanised world today.

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Silva-Fuenzalida, Ismael. “Ethnolinguistics and the Study of Culture.” American Anthropologist 51.3 (1949): 446-456.
Rout, Gyanendra Kumar. “Oral Literature of the Tribes in Odisha.” International Journal of Tribal Literature and Culture Studies 1&2.1&2 (2016): 329-339.
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Deb, Nilanjana. “People-centric Hostories of Indigenous Literature: Thoughts on Theory and Praxis.” G.N. Devy, Geoffery V. Davis and K.K. Chakravarthy. Indigeneity: Culture and Representation. New Delhi: Orient Black Swan, 2012.
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Dublay, Prachi. “Pratisaad: In Tune with Adivasi Music (CD & Book).” Prod. Purvaprakash Publication. 2011.
Thiong'o, Ngugi Wa. “Homecoming Address.” The Niarobi Journal of Literature 3 (2005): 36-43.
—. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Nairobi: Heinemann, 1986.
Sandten, Cecile. “Contemporary Nomads, or Can the Slum-Dweller Speak?” Narrating Nomadism: Tales of Recovery and Resistance. Ed. Geoffrey V.Davis, K.K. Chakravarthy G.N. Devy. New Delhi: Routledge, 2013. 117-132.
Mukherjee, Narugopal. “Shabar Kharia: An Ethnolinguistic Study.” Narrating Nomadism: Tales of Recovery and Resistance. Ed. Geoferrey V. Davis, K.K. Chakravarthy G.N. Devy. New Delhi: Routledge, 2013. 233-246.
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[1]It is for the first time that these songs have been documented in writing and translated into English. Therefore, this thesis is the only source available on the Kunbi Tribes.
[2]Prachi Dublay “Pratisaad: In tune with Adivasi Music” CD & book; Purvaprakash publication, 2011

Setu, January 2020

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