TRADITIONAL storytelling is not only a dying art,” laments Salil Mukhia Kwoica. To add insult to injury, “it’s not even being mourned.” Salil is co-founder of Acoustic Traditional, a unique initiative that is reviving the ancient oral storytelling traditions of the mountains. At their recent show in Delhi, a curious audience was treated to a ceremony that started with Salil swigging from a mug of millet beer. Flanked by a troubadour on either side for musical accompaniment, he let the audience know that beer drinking was simply the tradition of the shamans of Sikkim and Darjeeling as they narrated their stories. Sacred stories about their mountains and rivers, tribes and gods; even stories that cure illnesses via esoteric sound wave techniques. There are no written accounts, and only shamans have the gift. The ones that appear in print, says Salil, are misguided translations found in anthropological texts of the colonial West. But as the shamans disappear into oblivion, their craft too is teetering on the brink.
These stories are not merely entertainment. They contain in them traditional forms of knowledge, ideals of conservation, cultural practices, and the ways and workings of the social and the natural world. But the most intriguing ones, of course, are those about the Zameng Phu, the abominable snowman, the Yeti. “In the Lepcha tradition, Yetis are the gods of hunting. They are worshipped. And they’re only as big as a human being with red hair all over,” says Salil, while narrating a particularly moving story involving a man under the spell of a female Yeti. It’s a sweet tale that raises the disquieting spectre of a human-Yeti relationship, but told ingeniously enough to make it seem natural. Male Yetis, on the other hand, can be ruthlessly violent upon meeting humans. Be warned, if you’re roaming around the streets of Kalimpong at twilight, don’t whistle. That’s when Yeti spirits hover over the eerie treetops, and communicate with each other through whistling.
Acoustic Traditional, started by Salil and his friend Barkha Henry in 1999, began documenting the stories of indigenous people through visual and auditory archiving. It became a full-fledged entity only in 2009, when their work with the Paniyar tribe in Nilgiri Hills made them realise that there were far too many stories for this to be a weekend project. “The Paniyars have one surviving shaman, Amily. He is a vast repository of stories. So is each shaman, wherever you encounter one. When they die, they take a sea of stories away with them,” says Salil. He points out that so vast is the shamanic repertoire that they’ve only been able to document some nine shamans in the past two years. “Already, we have found out that a huge chunk of these oral stories are lost to us, never to be retrieved.”
At the story session, Salil makes sure all the rituals associated with narrating the sacred stories are adhered to. Apart from the beer, there are also long hours of meditation prior to the session. If this sounds too serious, the stories are peppered with jokes, and the style is beguiling and digressive.
“Shamans do many things. They are our traditional healers, spiritual masters and even wandering minstrels. They are called on to propitiate the gods before any significant event in the lives of the tribals,” says Minket Lepcha, a researcher with Acoustic Traditional. “It’s not easy to be a shaman,” says Salil, “because the age of initiation is quite young, and there are societal conflicts if someone expresses the desire to become one.”
And what would happen if the oral traditions were to disappear? “It would wipe out the diversity of a country,” says Indira Musaeva, a Kyrgyzstani scholar of folklore present at the recital. Up until the 20th century, she said, there were storytellers in her country who could recite for three days without stopping. “Kyrgyzstan had a rich tradition of shamanic religions, which thrived for centuries. But a fading oral tradition meant that all were marginalised. Now there’s only one dominant religion.” But that’s another story.