Tribal Literature: Identity Crisis

Prof. Rajendra Gautam

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It is a matter of pleasure that in the last few years, tribal literature has come to the center of discussion rapidly, but along with this discussion many controversies have also arisen. The question of acceptance of tribal literature is related to the identity of tribal society. The basic problem is that non-tribal society has many misconceptions about tribal society. A misleading belief is that tribal society is a dancing-singing society in the lap of prosperous nature. The second fallacy is that this society has no literary-cultural identity, as it has been disconnected from the developed environment of modern life. It has also been assumed that it is a marginal society, not a mainstream one. There is not much respect for the tribal society in the mind of a large section. This disrespect is also expressed in the names given to tribal literature and it is evident in most names like Slave Literature, Black Literature, Aboriginal Literature, Indigenous Literature, Colored Literature, First People Literature and Tribal Literature. But the correct view of the picture is that tribal society is going to be synonymous with labor, struggle and harmony amidst all the inconveniences and deprivation, withstanding the invasions of the outside world, countering atrocities, exploitation and suppression. Water, Forest and Land – these three are its surroundings signifying its identity. Nature's everlasting companionship is its soul and the simplicity of life is its melody. Although many similar characteristics are there in the tribal societies of the world, which proves their universal equality yet geographical and linguistic variations also underline the individuality of each tribal society. Here, despite the linguistic diversity, our aim is to identify the basic features of tribal literature.
Although the tribal society is a primitive society and the history of its creative literature can be of thousands of years, the activities of its study became more intense in the last 30 years. And it has reasons. Compared to the rich Aboriginal oral (Oreture) tradition of tribal literature, its documented literature created by contemporary writers is less in quantity. The original material for the studies of various trends of tribal literature is available in oral tradition only. This material transferred via tradition to the next generation, has been protected and preserved in original form as its transformation takes place in a primitive environment. In this, the sounds of present echo the reverberating soul of the primitive.
The socio-political agenda of the world has changed rapidly half a century ago. But in India, the signs of this change have appeared with some delay. In the global context, the impact of the linguistic theories that were propounded in the beginning of the twentieth century took place especially in the latter part of that century. When the transformation of industry-based modernism took place in the form of information technology revolution, the world was flooded with new discourses and discussions. It is true that the expansion of capitalist empires were the worst hit on the tribal society and it is also true that the late capitalism and the crony  capital endangered the existence of very large tribal society, tribal literature, tribal languages, consequently tribal literature itself. However, the discourse of Asmita-- the identity, has forced the development of an immune system in tribal society also. On the other hand, anthropologists such as Levi-Strauss in the middle of the century, and later Roland Barth, made interpretations of tribal narrative literature which revealed the fact that tribal literature is not neglectable simply because it is oral. Its motifs are related to the same psychological concepts to which the so-called mainstream literature is connected. If Structuralism explained the motifs of tribal literature, the post-structuralism challenged the culture of hegemony and domination. The concept of "the other” became the basis of the relevance of tribal literature. These studies inaugurate the ruthless and cruel truth of power and civilization and revealing that global economic development has been possible only by exploitation of natural sources. Tribal society had to suffer the most for this. This pain is of displacement and of exploitation as well. Many times this pain has also been expressed in tribal literature. The struggle between power-establishments and tribal society in India has become very complex in the last three decades.
Like the question related to women and Dalit discourses, the first question is raised, who should be considered tribal literature? Should it be assumed here that like the aforesaid discourses, only that literature is tribal literature which is composed by tribal? Or literature composed on tribal subjects can also be called tribal? A third question has been raised in the past regarding the tribal philosophy and tribalism. Actually, the literature written on tribal subjects is of secondary importance because it only gives explanation of primitive life. The primary importance is of tribalism and certainly it will be possible to bring this tribal in literature only by the person who has lived it. Yet, we cannot ignore the exceptions because the creator's attribute of "entering the soul of others” is not merely a theory. But eventually it is also not of primary importance in reference to tribal literature. The basic reason for this is that tribal literature has its own definition and interpretation of "Maukhiki" –the Oreture . Actually, tribal literature is not only the "word". Nor does it contain literature falling within the classical definition, but its 'orature' contains words, dances, songs, music, pictures, primitive beliefs, nature and tribal society, that is, tribal literature is organic in its nature and this organicism can not be obtained without living it. The question can be raised why so much emphasis on ‘oral’ in tribal literature?
The very obvious reason for this is that tribal society is a level-less society. “Speech” is respectable in that society. There exists the value of the spoken word in it. Written agreement, written promise or written document is unimportant for them. The tribal society also developed the signs, but it did not have any emphasis on writing rather they converted this ability also in the form of cave-paintings. In short, it can be said that all art forms are included in tribal literature. There is a Munda proverb: "Qazi gay durang, senge susun, kumuni dumang". The meaning of this proverb is: “Speaking is song, walking is dance and kumuni dumang is music. This gives the feeling that tribal life is creative in itself, this creationism is inherent in each of its actions –the karma. Certainly, this karma is not just literal, so it cannot be written only. Adivasis do not express the imagination, impulse, feeling, emotion, thought and sensation only in a literal form, so we have called tribal literature a composite concept. It is a performance rather than a writing. This entire performance occurs in the companionship of nature, the companionship of the living world. Therefore, as Vandana Tete has said, "In the art-tradition of the tribal world, it is necessary to dance to sing, and to dance it is necessary to sing and to play it is necessary to sing and singing, dancing, playing is not possible without the surroundings. The environment means that nature is composed of songs (literature) only when all these are united in one tone and rhythm. In this way literature is the result of the incorporation of all art forms.”[1]
It is not appropriate to classify tribal literature under folk literature. Experts of this literature have emphasized on calling it 'Purkha Literature'. This is true in many respects. Tribal literature has been entrusted to the progeny only through ancestors. This handing over is not just a handing over of the word, but a handing over of performance based totality.
As it has been said, the basis of the identity of tribal literature is given by some scholars to the philosophy of tribal life. The essence of that life-philosophy is that the philosophy of tribal society is basically naturalist philosophy. All the activities of human beings are for the preservation and supplementation of nature and not against it. A Tribal will never cause a serious harm to nature even for his livelihood. Along with the acceptance of this positive vision, a point of controversy also emerges in the context of the identity of tribal literature. Vandana Tete, rejecting the antagonistic tone of modern printed tribal literature, wrote: “In The prevailing system, the exploitation-oppression and denial against it and rebellious postures and activities are not the basic trends of any society. If people are saying that the aim of literature is revolution, new social system and new human creation, then according to tribal world view, it is an immediate task, not a permanent value of life. That is why the permanent values ​​of tribal life are-- collectivity, co-living, coexistence. The same is the purpose of all its manifestations. It also includes literature.”[2] These establishments are only elemental or theoretical representations of tribal life, but will the denial of retribution in tribal literature not support the status quo? Will it not happen that under the guise of status-quoism, some clever and vicious exploitative powers continue to perpetuate the oppression and exploitation of tribal life?
The documentation of literature received a lot of support from the printing machine, but there is also no doubt that the oral literary tradition was also harmed by the arrival of the print technique. This also influenced the writing of the history of literature. The history of Acharya Ramchandra Shukla in Hindi is a proof of this. This 'historical' history has completely neglected oral literature and limited the history of literature to the history of written literature. As a result of adopting this vision, only the literature of the regional dialects of Hindi has not been neglected, but no notice has also been taken of the literature of oral “Purakha” tradition of more than two dozen tribal dialects. Tribal creativity has often been neglected not only by the history writers of literature but also in government schemes and projects. Now some work is being done in this direction. Sahitya Akademi has taken a step towards the documentation of tribal literature under the "Translation of Unheard Voices" project. Preservation and documentation of this literature is also surrounded by many questions. It has been observed that the goal of its preservation is not pure literary, it is under the capitalist agenda and somewhere its commercial use remains in disguised form. Distortion is also visible in the original tribal literature in the collections done for these hidden purposes. Honesty is seen only there, where the goal is pure academic.
The script is a fight against oblivion. But it also does a conditioning of human beings. It frustrates the intensity of the taste of sensuality by abstracting the experience. This is the biggest limitation of documented tribal literature. The literature is merely neither a song, nor a story. It is a synthetic fluid. It is a very interesting subject of study that there is a lack of prohibitive words in tribal languages. The root cause of this is the tribal life-vision. There is a sense of satisfaction with the natural resources found in it, as well as the association of that Nature which is represented by resonances, rhythm and dance. This fills their life with a positive impulse. Tribal society cannot stay away from pleasure for long. Agility and speed make his life flourish and this is reflected in tribal literature. This literature is basically literature of glee. Many quotes can be given to express this jovial impulse, but I am giving a different type of quote. Here, in the context of the study of tribal literature, some writers have been in the focus of discussion who depict tribal life in their writings, yet they have written in a defined style. Seventy years ago, when the writing related to discourses did not begin in India a Hindi poet Thakur Prasad Singh has presented Santhali life in the songs of his collection: 'Vanshi aur Madal'[3]. Here I quote a song of this collection:

कब से तुम गा रहे,
कब से तुम गा रहे,

जाल धर आए हो नाव में
मछुओं के गाँव में
मेरी गली साँकरी की छाँव में
वंशी बजा रहे, कि
कब से तुम गा रहे

कब से तुम गा रहे,
कब से तुम गा रहे,

घनी-घनी पाँत है खिजूर की
राह में हुजूर की

तानें खींच लाईं मुझे दूर की
वंशी नहीं दिल ही गला कर
तेरी गली में हम बहा रहे
कब से हम गा रहे!

सूनी तलैया की ओट में
डुबो दिया चोट ने
तीर लगे घायल कुरंग-सा
मन लगा लोटने
जामुन-सी काली इन भौंह की छाँव में‘
डूबे हम जा रहे,
कब से हम गा रहे 

(you've been singing for so long,
you've been singing for so long

Net placed in the boats then,
In the villages of fishermen,
In the comforts of my narrow bylane,
Playing the flute and,
You've been singing for so long

How long have we been singing
How long have we been singing!

Dense date trees stand,
In the beloved's land,
Distant tunes calling me and,
Heart melts like the flute,
And watch how it is flowing,
So long, have we been singing…
How long have we been singing!

In the shadows of the
Berries-black eyebrows
I am drowning
How long have we been singing!)

[1] Tribal Philosophy and Literature, Ed: Vandana Tete, p. 20
[2] Tribal philosophy and literature, Ed.: Vandana Tete, p.26-27
[3] 'Vanshi aur Madal' (1958), Thakur Prasad Singh, Bhartiya jnanpeeth Publication


  1. This is a beautiful article that give us fresh insight into Tribal Literature. The style of the research paper is simple and lucid and that contributes to its charm.

  2. This is a beautiful piece of writing on Tribal Literature. The style of the writing is simple, lucid and continuous.The information about tribal literature is illuminating.


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