Retelling Traditions

On 'World Book and Copyright Day', falling on April 23, The Morung Express published an extensive report on the need for Nagas to tell and amply produce their own stories and preserve indigenous languages. The UNESCO has declared the theme for this year's observance as "Indigenous Languages," aligning with their International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-32) to promote linguistic diversity and multilingualism. 

Telling own stories raise two pertinent questions: How they are told and how there are transmitted, to both new listeners as well as outside world. To this end, retelling traditions’ or the practice of reimagining and retelling stories from different cultures and time periods in literature, through books assume utmost importance. Among others, this involves taking stories or folktales, songs, poems passed down through generations, often through oral traditions, and making them more accessible or relevant to the contemporary world by transcribing them into written form and sharing them in different mediums and languages.The primary objective is to preserve and share these stories on knowledge across time and space and enable readers to engage and learn from cultures and histories that may be unfamiliar to them. In societies with oral traditions like Nagas, this is crucial as dilution occurs with each retelling.

Out of many, two approaches are updating the setting or characters and making them more relatable to contemporary audiences, and retelling a story from a different character's perspective, offering a fresh perspective and challenging the dominant narrative. Both are equally relevant, however, the second approach has more resonance in the Naga society.

Again, retelling traditions or stories involves interrogating what is the present status of the body of literature concerning Nagas and how to historicise, chronologise, and contextualise oral traditions in modern society. These are pertinent as most existing histories of Nagas are written from the outsider’s perspective.

Many Naga writers, anthropologists and scholars have highlighted the issue. For instance Naga anthropologists Dolly Kikon once shared that as a young student, elders often recommended British colonial administrator JP Mills as the ‘authoritative book on her tribe.’ Besides him, accounts of John Henry Hutton, Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf, and Verrier Elwin etc or accounts of missionaries are often cited.  

Such accounts are often from the ‘prism of the colonial lenses,’ a scenario once implied to by Naga writer, Easterine Kire as a ‘writing down” and ‘nagli’ (unreal) history, without insider’s perspective, citing the Battle of Khonoma, which among others was against imposition of house Tax, demands for free labour, burning of sheds, and -interferences the way of life etc, though other records may imply otherwise.

On the other end, for various reasons, perceived or otherwise, Naga researchers hardly go in migration or origin stores, and limit their scholarship to looking at cultural materialism, political structure, and other social milieu. Such oral narratives are also considered a male-domain. 

In this context, writing or retelling ‘history’ with new perspective is paramount. Kire offers some perspectives on writing history from an insider’s perspective and start ‘owning history.’ Accordingly, she recommended oral memory harvesting citing her early novel “Mari” was one such venture, but stressed on the importance of verification through multiple sources, and not just one narrative. While people will continue to colonial accounts, Kikon called for ‘writing parallel narratives” and producing meaningful education and scholarship in Naga society centered on the inter-generational Naga indigenous world.”

Hence, to preserve cultural histories, indigenous languages and promote cultural diversity and multilingualism, retelling traditions and own stories. This would enable readers to learn from unfamiliar cultures, while preventing the dilution of oral traditions. Collaborative efforts between writers, researchers, students, and members of the community are also crucial to establish verifiable historicity of such endeavor.

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