By: Usha Bande
A decade or so ago to counter the threat of the divisive forces, a catchy slogan on buses and public places read “from Kashmir to Kanyaumari India is one”. Incidentally, around the same time, V S Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now (1991) was released, visualising a strong and unified India despite its “million mutinies” threatening its very existence. The mutinies, he said, are a process of integration and restoration and are not to be wished away. “These were a part of a new beginning, of a new way for millions, part of India’s growth, part of its restoration”. It is true that “a central will, a central intellect and a national idea” has always prevailed underneath Indian culture lending cultural wholeness to the country.
A mother from the Kangra region of Himachal Pradesh is tenderly bathing her infant and singing sonorously of a bird which says: ” I have taken my bath, diving in the Ganga, I have said my prayers, eaten my rice and am ready, while the lazy ones are still asleep”. The organisation of the words in the local language is rhythmic and the child is tickled.
One remembers then a mother in far off Maharashtra, feeding her child and singing of crows and sparrows and mynahs, inviting each to come, eat the offered grain, drink water and fly away. The words are again rhythmic, the musical notes tickle the child and he/she laughs. These activities are not mere futile exercises, we know. They establish a bond between the child and the mother and help in developing the child’s Intelligence Quotient (IQ).
These two situations make one aware of the similarities between the folklores of the two States – Himachal Pradesh and Maharashtra. It indeed makes one realise that culturally, India has always had a continuous and dynamic dialogic relationship.
Considering the geographical situation of Himachal Pradesh and Maharashtra (the distance from one nearest point to the other could well be over 1,500 km), and the near on-existence of an effective communication system in centuries past, it is surprising that the folklore should have identical strands to an extent. The translation process – not only linguistic translation but also thematic – may have taken place effectively at a certain stage. These transactions have contributed greatly to inter-cultural relations between the ethnic groups living far away from each other. This is, in fact, the “contact zone”. The place where cultures come together and establish a relationship, which binds the members of a national community as a coherent group. The cohabitation of the purity of codes and languages along with the ethnic identity and the constituent difference make India a mosaic of culture, an immense contact zone.
Rali from Himachal Pradesh and Bahuli from Maharashtra are usually termed as play or games because they are young girls’ festivals (between the age groups of 7 and 15 years roughly) are celebrated with the gusto of games. The religious sanctity of yore associated with both has now taken the shape of social convention and group entertainment though the basic religious and ritualistic structure remains intact. Both Rali and Bahuli are forms of Goddess Parvati, the consort of Lord Shiv and by worshiping Shiv-Parvati the girls are supposed to get the blessings of the divine couple for a happy married life.
Both these festivals have many things in common apart from the Parvati puja for getting a worthy husband and the religious sanctity. The making of clay idols, decorating the areas, stringing flowers in garland, are artistic activities which not only satisfy the innate human urge for beauty but also train the girls culturally. It is a play school for them. While making clay idols the girls get in touch with the earth and though not consciously realising its impact they get a cosmic awareness which psychologists say denotes a unifying sense of oneness with the elements. Decoration of floor with Rangoli patterns in Maharashtra and the Likhnu in Himachal Pradesh have a symbolic significance. These patterns contain swastikas, dots, lines and circles. The dots, for example, denote oneness of all, while the swastikas stand for the movement of the sun from east to west.
The songs sung on the occasions also have aesthetic significance. In fact, the entire play of Bahuli and Rali is lyrical with songs sung in unison with each activity- plastering the floor with cow dung, drawing floor or wall designs, offering flowers and so on.
Some folk narratives from Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh also make interesting reading. These are two identical stories about old couples. Both in the Marathi and the story from Himachal the couples are poor. One day the wives discover that they have wheat flour enough to make only five chapattis. The chapattis are made but the question crops up who would eat three and who two? In the Marathi story the woman says she will eat three because she has to do household chores. But the man resents it and puts forward his case. Ultimately, they decide to go for a walk. The condition is that the one who speaks first would be the loser. For miles together both keep quiet. But while they cross a field with bright red chillies hanging on green plants the woman cannot contain her curiosity. She asks her husband ” what is this red fruit dangling on the green plant?” She loses the bet. In the Himachali story also they go out for a walk. The woman loses the bet but in that case she is benefited because she can eat three. The stories are not only hilarious, they are a pointer towards significant social aspects as well. In the Marathi story the female has been given a voice to put forward her claim. In the Himachali story, both are shown as caring for each other, ready to sacrifice his/her share for the other.
There are two allegories – the stories of the crow and the sparrow which, though not identical, speak of the transmission of culture across the regions. The Marathi story of Cau Chieu (the crow and the sparrow) is popular all over Maharashtra and almost every child is told this story. In the story, the crow has evil designs and plays wicked to the sparrow. But when the horrified sparrow, seeing through his evil designs resolves to punish the crow, he has already disappeared. The sparrow realises too late.
In the story from Himachal Pradesh, the wicked crow gets the right punishment for his evil intentions.
It is not difficult to understand the allegorical allusion- the crow stands for wickedness and selfish motives, the sparrow denotes weakness and credulity. Recently women writers have explored rich feminist inclination in the stories. Particularly, the Marathi story has been thrashed by writers like Shashi Deshpande, Gauri Deshpande, Sanya and others. In one of her short stories Gauri Deshpande raises a tirade against the society for distortion of facts. The Chieu (Sparrow) has a beautiful house of her own. But in reality do women have a house of their own? And, if at all they have, the male, Cau (crow), encroaches on their domain, spoils it and leaves everything in a mess. The sparrow (female) can ward off the male temporarily by delaying tactics but the help must come from the society (Himachali story).
The two folk games for girls and the stories recounted here are the most structured and socially oriented form of folklore to portray the social dynamics of the areas. These folklores may or may not have been literally translated as we understand translation today. But they do rise out of the natural contours of the land and reject the unnatural geographical boundaries. Folklore is oral literature but how it has been transmitted and translated across the region is a multi-dimensional question. As Redfield, a scholar of culture and society, points out in his book Peasant Society And Culture, traditions, culture and folklore seep slowly into the communities and get translated according to local dialogic process, “In a civilisation there is a great tradition of the reflective few and there is a little tradition of the largely unreflective many. The great tradition is cultivated in schools or temples, the little tradition works itself out and keeps itself going, in the lives of the unlettered in their village communities”.
It is not necessary to have a written text for translation. Written texts, hallowed by time and tradition are not the only kind of text in a culture like India’s. Oral traditions of any kind produce texts of their own cultural performance of every kind – plays, rituals, games-which are texts by themselves. In the context of the Indian heritage where the interplay between the national vs. regional, local cultures is a vital factor, the transmission of folk text is an interacting continuum.
* The author is a Shimla-based academician.