The Bard-Shamans of India

Subtitled: My Anti-Literacy Campaign

My mother alerted me to an article in the Nov. 20th, 2006 issue of the New Yorker, “Homer in India: The oral epics of Rajasthan”, by William Dalrymple.

I’ve heard plenty of stories about the amazing feats of “illiterate” storytellers, reciting twelve-thousand stanza epics, lasting days, weeks, months. In this recent article, however, I really found my hair standing on end.

The Mahabharata, a one-hundred-thousand stanza epic, more than six times the length of the bible, stands at the center of a culture of magnificent and overwhelmingly immense epics, carried on the shoulders (and in the heart-minds) of the bhopas, the bard-shamans.

The author asks of one bhopa, during a break after a couple hours of song (belonging to the episode “The Story of the She-Camels”, part of the Pabuji epic), whom he normally performed for

–the local landowners perhaps? No, he said it was usually cowherds and his fellow-villagers. Their motives, as he described them, were less to hear the poetry than to use him as a sort of supernatural veterinary service.

“People call me in whenever their animals fall sick…Pabuji is very powerful at curing sickness in beasts…[or]…any child who is possessed by a djinn…I never forget the words, thanks to Pabuji. As long as I invoke him at the beginning, all will be well. Wherever we perform, the demons run away. No ghosts, no spirits can withstand the power of this story.”

“So you are as much a healer…as a storyteller?” I asked.

“Of course…thanks to Pabuji. It is he who cures. Not me.”

The author then address the problem of literacy.

Illiteracy seems an essential condition for preserving the performance of an oral epic. It was the ability of the bard to read, rather than changes in the tastes of his audience, that sounded the death knell for the oral tradition. Just as the blind can develop a heightened sense of hearing, smell, and touch to compensate for their loss of vision, so it seems that the illiterate have a capacity to remember in a way that the literate simply do not.

To speak in particulars:

This was certainly the conclusion of the Indian folklorist Komal Kothari. In the nineteen-fifties, Kothari came up with idea of sending one of his principal sources, a singer from the Langa caste named Lakha, to adult-edication classes. The idea was that he would learn to read and write, thus making it easier to collect the many songs he had preserved. Soon Kothari noticed that Lakha needed to consult his diary before he began to sing. Yet the rest of the Langa singers were able to remember hundreds of songs–an ability that Lakha had somehow begun to lose as he slowly learned to write.

Truly, the article stunned and inspired me. Read it, if at all possible, if you have any interest in reviving spoken traditions. The bhopas’ techniques and methods hint at so many brilliant methods for holding and releasing story, to heal, transform, and sustain.

Written by Willem