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Reliving the Lost ‘Living Traditions’

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By Sunita Vijay

Dr Anjali Nauriyal’s maiden book, ‘Retelling of the Traditional Ballads of Garhwal’, is a plain-sailing read that transports us to a transcendental world of folklore, defined as ‘living traditions’ by her. These are the gaathas of Garhwal, a place Anjali rightly describes as the Ireland of India, which are retold and immortalised by the pen as fascinating stories capturing the imagination of, both, the young and the old alike. It is a sincere effort to keep the dated art of story-telling and legendary ballads alive by penning them in English before these oral narratives are dissipated. Very few amongst them would have survived the challenge of continuity. A concern Anjali voices in the introduction to her book is of losing this tradition altogether – ‘most of the present folk artists are above 50 years of age, and many have died in the past few years. With their passing away, we have already lost a part of heritage’.
Folklore has always been an integral part of all cultures. Traditional ballads are typically of unknown authorship. They survive only by being orally passed from one generation to the next. The feudal setup of these meta-historic pieces may not be relished by the younger generation, which has been deprived of the age-old practice of story-telling of historical events and characters. Maybe they have not been able to develop the taste for ballads due to lack of exposure to this art. The author has spun an enjoyable composition by singing the raga of glorious warriors, wrestlers and ardent lovers performing amidst mysticism and supernatural circumstance. It has an interesting picture on the cover of a ruler that looks more like a Rajasthani royal. The cover image of the book is quite regal and intriguing. It’s a painting of Madho Singh Bhandari, a local hero as imagined by a student. It hangs majestically at a tea shop in village Maletha, Pauri Garhwal. As we read on, we learn that Bhandari’s folklore is also the first story in the book.
This unique anthology presents a handful of carefully selected, popular ballads against a huge corpus of tales, as it is difficult to document all. Anjali’s writing style is simple and convincing, wholly substantiating her long and illustrious career as a journalist, freelancer, writer and social worker. Her intention in giving a ‘book form’ to the folklore is to enlighten the youth through glimpses of the earliest literature, historical and legendary chronicles. She lavishly employs idiomatic expressions to portray laziness, greed, arrogance and selfishness as negatively as possible with the offending characters always suffering for their imprudent behaviour. On the other hand, goodness, sacrifice, bravery, honesty and kindness are depicted as important virtues which the heroes and heroines of the tales used to overpower their problems. The effect is of successfully educating children about cultural values of the region.
Baadis, the traditional singers and dancers, praise and glorify the legends in their folk songs. They use colloquial words, names and practices to make the experience interesting. A lot of spice is added through mysticism, demons, gods, fairies, and mythological characters, while at the same time maintaining the original rustic flavour. Anjali has effortlessly succeeded in sticking to the original composition, nowhere breaking the narration’s flow. Her lucid writing and flawless description of the feelings of the characters creates a vivid imagery in the mind as one reads. She has come up with some delectable comparisons while describing the beauty of the damsels of Uttarakhand, who are known for their radiant complexion and beauty. The phrases close to nature like, ‘lotus complexion’, ‘her back appeared like the bend of the crescent moon’, ‘her cascading hair had the glare of beaten gold’, ‘her parting had the serenity of the flow of the Ganga’, ‘appeared redder than the red of Buraish, the lovely flowers that adorned the remotest forests’, decorates the writing abundantly. The unflinching character of the valiant warriors is portrayed beautifully with the use of mettlesome words.
Be it the most impressive tale of a brave man and a lover, Madho Singh Bhandari, whose innovation, efforts and sacrifice could bring water through a tunnel to the barren lands of the village Maletha, or the story of an impassioned and lustful Jeetu Bagdwal, described as ‘youth intoxicated him and he craved for beautiful flowers and lovely young maidens’, who transforms into an arrogant, conceited and corrupt leader, his rise and fall, or the bravery of Garhwal ki Rani Laxmi Bai- Teelu Rauteli, the love story of Mala Sahi and Rajula, the bravery of Ranu and Supia Rawat or several others: all create a visual image of the sequences of events.
In the times of fast-paced living, the fear of losing this part of our tradition is high. The author too understands the depleting shelf life of this folklore in modern times. The Lokgathas of historical heroes, and yarns involving local heroes and heroines singing and dancing, along with the use of folk instruments like Dhol-Damau, Dholki and Hudki, have always remained the source of entertainment and knowledge-sharing in rural Uttarakhand, but fast depleting now.
As Anjali avers, ‘The younger generations do not seem interested in the learning and the propagation of the folk tradition, while the older one is seeing it as a vocation that does not pay.’ She mentions that these tales may be ‘remote in time and spirit’ but they have an ‘abiding relevance’.
Notwithstanding this challenge, Anjali undertakes this herculean task with utmost ease through the sequence and absorbing description of the feelings of the characters in an impactful manner, which maintains the reader’s interest. A perturbed mother tells her son, ‘our beloved goat Teelu is sneezing; this is not a good sign. In foreign land even a tiny pebble or stone can prove to be one’s enemy.’ The dominating nature of the legendary personalities is highlighted in all the stories in a consistent manner. It talks about the inhibitions of families regarding unexplored areas of mysterious hills, their fears manifest as bad omens, alluring Apsaras, protectiver mantras, premonitions through dreams that show reality in advance, the haunting ambience of virgin forests, political condition of the region, the battles fought by kings, chieftains, lust and romantic tales.
The foreword by Dr DR Purohit and theatrically rich words of Himani Bhatt make it more knowledgeable. The elementary sketches by Aloke Lal and Maanas Lal lend the required simplistic touch to these poetic ballads that have charmed, entertained and glorified our predecessors for years and, if not documented, may have been lost to the vagaries of modern taste and living.
For those even remotely curious about traditions, this book is a must read to initiate one and give a window to the vast research undertaken by the master chronicler, Anjali, on Uttarakhandi folk!
Retelling of the Traditional Ballads of Garhwal
Vidya Art Press, Dehradun (U.K.) for Culture Department, Uttarakhand
ISBN: 978-93-5311-799-3
Rs.400/-, 116 pages

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