Acoustic Traditional believes oral tribal stories can tell us about conservation
"A long time ago, before there was the Earth, the Sun, the Moon, the Sky, the Animals ... there existed a void.”
Thus starts the translated verse of Tiyaripchi, the first story in the publication The Lost Stories, a collection of stories passed down orally through generations, by communities living in mountain areas.
The publication has been brought out by Acoustic Traditional, a Bangalore-based organisation working to document the work of tribal oral storytellers in the Himalayas and the Nilgiris.
Tiyaripchi is a Nepali tribal story that narrates the formation of the universe and life. Though it attributes the process to goddess Ninnamma, its description of a “blinding light” and “fragmentation of pieces” at the beginning of the universe is a possible reference to the Big Bang; its mention of a life-giving light that moved round and round refers to the sun.
The chosen ones
“That is the technique used by these storytellers — take the help of the supernatural, and narrate with mystery and paraphernalia, just to awe people into listening and respecting the information passed on,” says Salil Mukhia Koi Eche Lo, founder of Acoustic Traditional. Hailing from a ‘mukhia' or a headman family in Darjeeling himself, he has known the reverence with which such oral storytellers are treated.
“The storyteller, known as the ‘shaman' or the ‘ban jhankri' in the north and the northeast is a ‘chosen one', supposedly bestowed with the knowledge of the supernatural to educate his tribe about the environment that they live in,” he explains. “They undergo rigorous training on the science of nature and how to protect it, before they are awarded the privilege of practising their profession.”
Focus of stories
Mr. Salil documented such stories as an academic in 1999. After a chance meeting with Barkha Henry, who shared his curiosity in tribal storytelling traditions, Acoustic Traditional was founded in 2001, with a core group of five members.
In 2005, the group expanded their reach to the Nilgiris to listen to stories from the south. “It is fascinating how the stories from the Himalayas are all mystic and mythological whereas those from the Nilgiris deal with animals, particularly the fox,” says Ms. Henry.
Abhishek, another member adds, “The creature most mentioned in the Himalayas is the Yeti.”
Last September, the organisation held a three-day confluence of storytellers from the north and the south in Bangalore.
There, Piribai, a storyteller from the Lambani community in Doddaballapur said, “These are more than stories, these are our community's experiences passed down.”
Acoustic Traditional sees much relevance for such stories today, when the idea of a forest and its conservation has been hijacked by modernity and traditional wisdom goes unheeded.
“Forest dwellers are fast losing the rights they held over their homes, and these stories help us understand their deep connection to their environment and their sound knowledge on how to preserve their valuable resources,” Mr. Salil says.