Tribal art of living

Oral poetic tradition in Bastar provides insights into the origin of song and dance and their relation to life. Poetry for Bastar tribes is more than a smart processing of words.

The tribal's disinterest in theological discussion may be frustrating to an academic, but it is typical of the Bastar world view: Be! Just be in the wonderful brotherhood you have been placed in. This brotherhood extends beyond the home, clan, tribe... to include the forests, beasts, birds, rocks, hills, stream and rivers. It is a large undivided family mothered by the Earth. As Grigson puts it, for the Maria tribes in Bastar, children are also one of the crops of the Earth.

If the great approach to life is to be, then life becomes an endless festival. Living becomes a celebration of being. Song and dance spring forth naturally with such a world view.

Kinship in Bastar extends to the inanimate world. Every stone pulsates with life. Humans, birds or beasts turning to stone is common in Bastar legends and poems. Although the poems abound in references to somebody cutting somebody 'into seven pieces', and the pieces becoming 'stones', the word `killing' is generally not used as it connotes the end of life. Here there is no end, only transformation. The stone is as 'alive' as a person. Interestingly, the transformation is reversible. In one poem, a legendary hero gets bored in the grave and returns to society!

The dead do not go away: transformed, they become more powerful. The current crop of humans cannot afford to neglect those that preceded them. In the tribal world view the spirits of ancestors retain human values and passions. The concept of salvation or moksha is alien to the tribal. If life is a continuum, then salvation from what, and to where?

The songs and dances have an earthy power. Images and similes are audacious and drawn from open-field nature. Infant boy not grown enough to marry is 'raw like a banana'. A youth says his heart was 'uprooted' when he saw his girl. Uniformed forces going on a campaign remind the Bastar songster of 'black ants moving in a file'.

There are four oral epics that are ritually sung by special women called 'Gurumai'. These relate to vegetation rites. Ballads are recited at paddy fields to add value to farm labour.

Most of the short songs, however, relate to dances performed in ghotul, the village youth dormitory. These songs are significant not so much for their text as for their tonal quality. The words relo re re relo set the tone. It can produce various rhythms to support the dance. These songs are subordinate to the dance. The song gets drowned in the sound of drums worn by dancers as they step forward, backward and sideward to a complex footwork and gyrate, always in the anti-clockwise direction. The entire performance is a celebration of life upon the lap of Mother Earth.

There is not a single traditional song in Bastar that has the complaining strain, whether it is addressed to a lover or God. There is no supplication to change the present condition of existence, as, one finds in, say, Surdas's songs. In the district where most of the people are listed as poor, there is no aarti or other song of supplication to God for grant of comforts and sukh-sampatti or wealth common in mainstream societies. For Bastar tribes, creation is perfect; the art of living is to gratefully celebrate life with song and dance.

The writer, teaches English in a Jagdalpur college, is working on a UGC project on oral poetic tradition in Bastar.