History & Culture

Australian indigenous storytellers narrate forgotten histories in Chennai

Do you know how a koala came to be? Or why a koala does not drink too much water? Amidst flailing arms, hop-skips, and stuffed animals, Uncle Larry Walsh, with his long white tresses and equally long beard, begins his story in a distinct Australian accent, punctuated by the occasional ‘yeah’.

Many years ago, there was an orphan boy named Kubra. He was taught by the elders in his community until he was about eight years old. When he turned eight, the elders told him, “Kubra! We are having a big meeting. You are to gather some food from the woods.

As he travelled through the woods, it started getting hotter and hotter and he craved for some water. That is when he spotted a pond. And lapped all the water up. But, water is meant to be shared, isn’t it? And so, Kubra was punished and asked to sit atop a branch. He repeated the mistake again — and so up he went the branch with small canisters of water. But this time, he taunted the elders and yelled, “I have your water, I have your water!” Slowly, his fingers closed up and his eyes bulged out while his ears perked up. And Kubra turned into a koala.

“This is why koalas don’t drink water. They remember being punished,” narrates Uncle Larry in his baritone to a boisterous college crowd. This indigenous storyteller, who was accompanied by didgeridoo player, storyteller and educator Ron Murray, was brought by the Consulate of Australia for a session with the students of the University of Madras’ Centre for Australian Studies.

Indigenous storytelling is a genre in itself. It is rather a tool. And, most importantly, a trial at reconciliation for these storytellers. Moreover, the Australian indigenous people’s histories are not documented; they are passed on orally. “I try to look at the ‘youngness’ of the story, old legends tend to have lessons and elements of history woven in. Environment is another aspect I look at, considering how bad the situation is right now. Our country is our mother, and if our mother is sick, how will she take care of us, her children?” To that end, native animals and birds also feature as characters in their stories.

Australian indigenous storytellers narrate forgotten histories in Chennai

Ron, who also makes didgeridoos, is a Wamba Wamba man (Swan Hill area) living at Yapeen, near Castlemaine, in central Victoria on Jaara country. A few minutes into the session, Ron sits down with his didgeridoo, a wind instrument made of wood, which is approximately 60,000 years old. He blows into the wooden hollow, while tapping on the sides with his fingers and swaying as he does so, introducing the crowd to the incongruous, yet raw and welcoming tunes. Music, rhythm and movement are unavoidable elements in these tales.

Though the stories are structured to engage a young audience, they also have traces of historical facts. Uncle Larry, who is one among the Stolen Generations, a Nirae Baluk man of the Taungurung language group, says, “26,000 years ago, what is Victoria now was hit by a severe drought. The koala story is attributed to that. It’s all about how we observe the world. The availability of water, as a resource, is a world-wide problem now. We have creation stories, and stories which often discuss the tussle between good and evil. In fact, the latter is a common thread in Indian stories as well, innit?”

Australian indigenous storytellers narrate forgotten histories in Chennai

Are the following generations willing to consider storytelling as a way to propagate their forgotten histories? “When I used to visit my village as a child, there were at least 20 storytellers around, but when I go now, there is no one. Which is what I wish to change — I go around, visiting kindergartens and have covered around 30 of them. Even if one child remembers me and my words, it’s a win for me!”

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Printable version | Jul 24, 2021 9:11:04 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/australian-indigenous-storytellers-narrate-forgotten-histories-in-chennai/article29726349.ece

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