Ground work imperative to understand tribal poetry: Odia poet

New Delhi: Exploring the intricacies and layers constituting tribal poetry from Odisha, eminent scholar and Odia poet Sitakant Mahapatra said it was important to be “on the spot” to truly understand the cultural fiesta that the tribal belt has to offer.

Mahapatra was delivering Sahitya Akademi’s annual ‘Foundation Day Lecture’ on ‘Love and Prayer in Primitive Poetry of India’ here recently.

Having spent two years studying tribals of Eastern India on a Homi Bhabha Fellowship from 1975 to 1977, the writer’s work covers major tribes of Odisha, including the Santhals, Oraon, Gond, Munda, Kondh.

Drawing from his experience, the former IAS officer lamented the lack of “field work”, and a growing dependence on scholarly work in ethnography and anthropology, and said that that did not allow one to truly understand the symbolism and layered meanings of tribal poetry.

“I have worked, understood their tribal lives, stayed in their villages, collected their songs…they can’t be asked to come to a PWD bungalow or a circuit house to sing. You have to be there on the spot at the festival time when they are singing, celebrating life,” Mahapatra said.

The writer said that knowing the local languages of the tribes was an “asset” and often it was an advantage as it enabled him to be taken into confidence by the villagers.

“I had learnt one of the major tribal languages of the region, Santhali. This enabled me to have the privilege of being taken into confidence and living in their villages for over a period of two years.

“It made intimacy and sharing of thoughts possible. One needs a bird-watcher’s patience to know and understand them, and knowing their language is an asset,” he said.

Mahapatra spoke of how from the circuit house, he heard a group of women singing as they were returning from work in a district in northern Odisha at an Oraon tribe-dominated area where he was working.

On asking for a translation of the “mellifluous” song, he he learnt “it was poetry”.

“These people are talking poetry their whole lives without being aware of it,” he said.

It was this discovery that made him take a sabbatical to immerse himself into Odia poetry and narrative, opening a door into understanding tribal groups.

“When I studied their songs, I realized there were occasional and sparse sprinklings of improvisations and interpolations from the new world growing up around them: the world of development blocks, jeeps, village-level workers, of government, fertilizers and even birth control pills,” Mahapatra said.

The Padma Vibhushan awardee’s fluency with the Santali language and his proximity to their culture led him to publish nine anthologies of oral poetry of the tribals which he collected and translated.