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past decade has witnessed a renewed interest in the orality of speech and
oral traditions. Scholars of culture, language, human psyche and history
have delved into areas they term as pre-literate, non-literate and
pre-historic. Although the discourse on orality has deepened our
understanding of its nature, functioning and relationship vis-a-vis the
written word, it has also problematized it further by advancing a series
of dichotomous categories: oral-verbal; oral-aural; oral-literate; primary
orality - secondary orality; pre-literate consciousness -literate
consciousness and so on. How useful are these categories in understanding
the dynamics of orality? How legitimate is the European hermeneutics in
the context of other cultures, specifically South Asia? To what extent do
studies of orality and oral traditions represent/misrepresent the
perspectives of the participants and bearers of these traditions?
international workshop on Sruti -Transmission of Oral Tradition, was an
attempt to bring to focus various debates relating to Orality and to raise
relevant methodological and epistemological issues. The workshop was
jointly organized by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and
the South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg from 19-23 November
2000. In a way this workshop was in continuation of a previous dialogue on
Orality initiated during the International workshop on ‘Katha Vachana
aur Katha Vachak -Exploring India’s Chanted Narrative’ held in 1997
jointly by the IGNCA and UNESCO. Whereas this workshop was rich in terms
of empirical data, Sruti was an attempt at an in-depth discussion and
debate. However the workshop’s uniqueness lay not only in the debate it
generated, but also in the authentic experience of the’ chanted sacred
word’ made available to the participants by the practitioners and
bearers of various traditions.
workshop which was conceived as a body with four parts, began with
reverberations of sacred verses in Sanskrit, Avestha, Hebrew, Arabic,
Prakrit, Pali, Bhot and Gurbani. Selection of the verses, and the dialogue
that took place between the preachers/priests and the scholars helped
reveal the deeper essence and meaning of the ‘uttered’ and the spoken
‘word’ in different traditions and the inherent transforming power of
this ‘word’ , which is often equated with the divine himself.
The next four days were
devoted to themes: Sruti; Transmission of Sacred Traditions; Concept of
Sruti in Music; Listening to the Oral and Transmission of Knowledge.
Papers in the first and second sessions explored the multiple ways in
which orality expresses itself. The first session concentrated on the
relationship between the
‘written’ and the ‘oral" word and stressed the primacy of the
oral word in transmission and preservation of different religious
traditions, the written word notwithstanding. These papers also explored
the concept and the hidden essence of the ‘sound’, which in many
traditions is seen as a ‘manifestation of Being’.
The papers under these sections also explored
the relationship that exists between the performer and his audience,
multiple ways in which oral compositions are created, performed and
transmitted .But more importantly these papers shifted the focus from the
textual-oral debate to the realm of experience, communication, emotions
and transformation of the self that Sruti generates. Here the focus of
discussion were concepts like ‘bhav’, ‘rasa’ , satsang’
sankalpa’ , archana ‘ and’ samalpan ‘ , that
make the realization of Sruti event possible and different in essence from
what is understood through a term like ‘Performance’ .
debate from here logically moved towards critiquing of academic
understanding of orality. The papers under the section ‘Listening to the
Oral’ critically reflected upon approaches influenced by text oriented
methodologies and explored the perspectives offered by the framework
provided by notions of’ ‘intertextuality’ ‘simultaneity’
‘reflexivity’ etc. Here along with sruti, the aspects of smritis were
taken up. Role of cultural memory, individual creation, myth and history
and the multilevel dialogical interaction that takes place between the
text, context and the community were explored here.
here the workshop moved on to traditional modes of learning and
transmission of knowledge. The papers here focused on two different
issues: one, of the role of rituals, oral communications in preservation
and transmission of traditional knowledge, and second, of the importance
of indigenous knowledge systems and the need to preserve and make them
available for contemporary socio-economic management.
The workshop thus generated a meaningful debate on the nature of orality in the context of expressive traditions with special reference to sound, music oral narratives, traditional knowledge systems and modes of their transmission at the same time raising questions about the appropriateness of methodologies rooted in ideological and culturally situated research traditions which may in fact misrepresent the perspectives of the participants and bearers of oral traditions.
Molly Kaushal is a Research officer in J S Division
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