I saw this non-emphasis of permanence reflected in the tribal’s use of oral tradition (as opposed to written tradition) to pass on culture, mythology and knowledge, says Ramya Ranganathan
Last week, I had a wonderful opportunity to visit and stay at the Buda Folklore Centre in Honnavar for 3 days. This centre, run by Savita Uday and her parents, is a window of insight into tribal culture, traditions, and practices. Savita’s parents have been learning and documenting the lesser-known treasures of tribal practices for the last 40 years. I was both moved and privileged to be able to share some of their learnings and perspectives.
One of the high points of my experience was to be able to interact with and learn snippets of craft, dance, and music first hand from some of the lovely tribal men and women that Savita introduced us to. I was particularly mesmerized by graceful Hanmi Akka (pictured in the accompanying photo), and the patience and perfection with which she weaved blades of paddy and grass to form intricate designs and mats. Just observing her state of relaxed concentration while she was weaving shifted was a mesmerising experience.
While we learnt several facts about the actual traditions and rituals of the Halakki tribal people, an extra something that has rubbed off on me after this interaction is a new perspective on the word ‘craft’ itself. I now see the word ‘craft’ as a verb more than as a noun. Usually, during visits to handicraft fairs and exhibitions, my focus would be primarily on the ‘product’. I was an ardent appreciator of bags, mats, fabric, decorative pieces and toys, etc. that were made of grass and bamboo and other natural material. I used to look at these pieces of art, and admire their beauty and reflect on how many uses are there for simple natural materials. However, after witnessing Hanmi Akka and others at work, and dabbling in my own weaving experiments too, I now see craft as the process itself. I am not in denial of the beautiful final product, but that is more of a side effect. My son and I jointly wove a little mat that is awkward shaped and dotted with gaps and holes, and we will probably never use it. Nevertheless we loved the experience of letting our fingers, eyes and imagination play with the cool fabric of the grass, and that is the experience of ‘craft’ that we savored.
My second learning related to craft was in the context of longevity. Quite a few of the tribal artifacts that we observed were not particularly durable. When we questioned Savita about this, she told us, “They (tribal people) are not obsessed with permanence and longevity as we are. They create, destroy, and create again!” This idea left a deep impact on me. Throughout the trip, I was observing various instances where this difference in attitude towards permanence would come up again and again. Sometimes it showed up in the design of dwelling units, sometimes in clothing and sometimes in decorations like the mud paintings. I even saw this non-emphasis of permanence reflected in the tribal’s use of oral tradition (as opposed to written tradition) to pass on culture, mythology and knowledge. The oral tradition is subject to changes and morphs each time it passes from ear to mind to tongue to ear again. We now know from research that ideas and stories change and morph even as they are being re-narrated multiple times by the same person.
Reflecting on this idea of different attitudes towards permanence made me wonder whether these tribal people would actually be able to face death more gracefully than we would. Would not a person who is habituated to continuously allowing his or her possessions and beliefs die and decay be more open to allowing his or her own body die and decay when time comes? I certainly think some prior practice in letting go of things we identify with will help us look at death with greater calm and fortitude.
Nature too seems to adopt a similar approach of gracefully allowing transformation and metamorphosis from one form to another. The tree regularly sheds old leaves and grows new ones while water flows from glaciers to rivers to the sea and into vapor. Even the human body renews itself by continuously allowing old cells to die. So the tribal people just seem to be more in touch with nature’s own way of being, where things are not tightly held on to – rather they are allowed to transform from one form to another according to their own inherent rhythm of life and death.