The North-East BlogKnow what leading academics, writers, poets, musicians, activists and journalists from the region have to say to develop an informed perspective on matters related to this part of India.
Once upon a time, a young man had a pond. It held such clear, sweet water that went down your throat smoothly and left behind a lingering taste of honey. The young man was very proud of his pond. But one day, he discovered the water was muddy quite early in the morning. This went on for a week. It meant that someone was dirtying the pond water before he could fetch it. So the man decided to wake very early the next day and keep vigil by the pond...Suddenly, there was a fine gold light close by. He saw beautiful sky-women descending to earth singing a sky-song.
(From the folktale, The man who went to heaven, Naga Folktales Retold, Barkweaver 2009)
Of the many narratives silenced by war, the folk tales of the Nagas suffered a long period of being silenced. This was because folk tales require certain settings in order to be told. The Naga war with India, after military operations began in 1956, destroyed the settings for oral narratives. One may not think that something as simplistic as a folk tale would need to be approached with ritual and ceremony in order that its narration might take place. But it does. The folk tale belongs to eras of relative peace in the village community.
The setting of the folktale is the hearth. The ancestral home of the folktale is the village-world. This is the ceremony of the folktale: After the evening meal, children gather round the hearth of a grandparent who narrates stories to them. It requires the mutual participation of both. The children need to listen attentively and the grandparent-narrator will tell the stories with the air of an entertainer, frequently using stock phrases or ideophones in the course of the dramatised narration.
In the 1950s and 1960s many Naga families were displaced by the freedom struggle. People in the villages were the worst affected and they abandoned their village homes to hide in rough shelters in the forests. They moved in small groups for fear of detection. The pattern was that two or three families sheltered together and the number of children in some groups were higher than the number of adults. Hiding in rough camps in the forests and frequently moving camp, these families survived on the meagre food rations they carried with them. They also took from the forests what food it offered in the form of herbs and berries. In that period the forests of Nagaland were infiltrated by the Indian Army so these refugee-families held very little conversation amongst themselves.
The children were discouraged from playing or talking loudly. With the ancestral hearths displaced, the folk tale lost its setting and its narrative was silenced throughout the period of displacement during the Indo-Naga war. The peace that is essential to the continuation of oral narrative was uprooted when the grandmother's hearth in the village-world was destroyed and the villages burnt and its inhabitants tortured and killed or forced into evacuation.
The war years also killed off many oral narrators so the silencing of folk narratives was further accentuated in the premature deaths of its carriers. In the 1970s, the Art and Culture department of Nagaland made a collection of Naga folktales from the four districts of Kohima, Mokokchung, Tuensang and Wokha. The crudely illustrated and coarsely told 109 stories in the collection, are nevertheless an admirable first effort at folk tale collection. Stories that would have died along with their narrators have been preserved by this effort. In 2008, Roots, A collection of Zeliang folktales, was published by Kangzangding Thou. In 2009, the Art and Culture department authorised the publication of another volume of Naga folktales. Sadly it was rewritten by a non-Naga and lacked the authenticity or cultural knowledge that only an insider can bring to such an ingrained art form as the folktale.
Barkweaver publications began its first volume of Naga Folktales Retold in 2009. The publishing house has a primary project of retrieval of Naga folktales in several volumes along with illustrations by young Naga artists. Volume two will be published in 2013. The project encourages young children to spend time with their grandparents, collecting folktales and peoplestories. There is an ulterior motive to this project. Barkweaver hopes that the children will not only collect stories but imbibe the rich teachings of culture that is passed on in folktale narration.
One form of oral narrative silenced by the war was the many and varied peoplestories. These are not mythical tales but the accounts of ordinary people and their lives. Yet I believe that people need to tell their stories and they deserve to be given the opportunity to share their stories.
A second Barkweaver project is a series of peoplestories, the first of which is being published this winter. Amongst the Nagas, for the most, peoplestories popularly deal with spirit encounters. Barkweaver is also interested in stories that people want to tell of themselves, their childhoods, their memories of their lives and events that had a big impact on them.
Barkweaver recognises the narratives of children and women as silenced narratives. These were never voiced and were suppressed under the meta-narrative of war which is a narrative of men. In my novel, "A Terrible Matriarchy", the little girl-narrator begins her account candidly:
My grandmother never liked me. I knew this when I was about four and a half. I was sitting in her kitchen with my brother Bulie, older to me by two years, when she served us food. Hot rice and chicken broth.
What meat do you want? she simpered sweetly as she ladled out gravy and meat.
I quickly piped up, I want the leg, Grandmother, give me the leg.
I wasn't asking you silly girl, she said, as she swiftly put the chicken leg into my brother's plate, That portion is always for boys. Girls must eat the other portions.
In this novel the silence of the girl-child is finally broken. Likewise, in its first volume of peoplestories entitled Forest Song, Barkweaver focuses on stories that have not been given the right to be told before.
Folktales and peoplestories are part of collective memory and recording them in print is important because of their literary relevance especially in terms of a national literature. Folktales provide readers common reference points if a writer uses folk based narratives. At the same time, peoplestories are significant because they have psychological value. Sharing is healing. For the elderly, sharing their stories and discovering they are being listened to gives back value and meaning to their lives. Peoplestories makes the statement that ordinary people and their lives and destinies are important, because that is something that the machinery of war completely disregards.
Another kind of imposed silence that the Naga people have suffered in the past is the silencing of their voices in the academic world. The Nagas have been written about in anthropological accounts of the British colonial period. Many anthropological accounts dating from 1800s can be found which were made by British political officers like RG Woodthorpe, JH Hutton, JP Mills, Christoph von Furer Haimendorf, Ursula Graham Bower and WG Archer. However, the point is there were no insider accounts for a long time. It was only in the 1970s that Naga scholars began to write about Naga customs, culture and village polity providing insider narratives for the first time.
Barkweaver wants to encourage focus on oral narratives by Nagas. These alone can be considered as authentic. In doing this it will try to address the silences imposed by the voices that claimed authority, the coloniser's voices which though very informative, unfortunately were not free of some racism, and exoticising of cultures they did not fully understand. The result was that some cultural practices which yielded meaning in the pre-Christian culture of the practisers were dismissed as barbaric fertility rites.
How can folktales be relevant in today's fast moving world? Does it have any relevance anymore? If it does not have relevance, does that mean it no longer has value? That question was answered for me at a September conference in Frankfurt-Oder where I performed stories from Naga folktales Retold. My story-telling was accentuated further when a French dancer danced to the rhythm of the stories and an Italian singer spontaneously burst into a Berber song at the end of a telling. The singer spontaneously joined in the refrain of the Naga folksong that accompanied the folktale of The fig-tree and the Zeliang man. Culture lives on if its practisers can reinvent it.
Folktales are common property. The best use of common property is to share it in appropriate ways. The setting has changed as there are few hearths around which the listeners can gather. But the listening circle has widened and perhaps it is time to take our oral narratives to an international audience. The time feels ready for it.
More about Easterine Kire
Easterine Kire, poet, storyteller, novelist, has written three volumes of poetry and four novels as well as short story collections and a novella. She is partner in the publishing house, Barkweaver which collects and publishers folktales of the Nagas, children's stories and real stories of ordinary people. She has a Ph.D in English Literature from Poona University. Her novels have earned rave reviews.