Drums, cymbals and stories

Kaushik Das Gupta attends a festival that celebrates endangered stories

By Kaushik Das Gupta
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

“Let's walk with the rains. Not try and run from it,” said Salil Mukhia. Few seemed to pay heed. A persistent drizzle had turned into a downpour and participants at the Confluence of Indigenous Story Tellers were making a rush to the nearest shelter. Unfazed at the silencing of the drums and cymbals, Mukhia smiled and said “we will continue in the hall. Only it won't be an open air session. At least the elements have not interfered in a ritual that involves seeking permission from the mountain gods to tell the stories.”

“These stories are considered sacred,” Mukhia continued as the music resumed, though in a closed setting. “Each story has some message, some moral, some scientific, some spiritual”.  His eyes twinkled when I asked if it was necessary for a story to come with a message? “Of course not, many of our stories are just that. Stories,” he said as a co-organiser dragged him away.  Mukhia promised to continue the conversation.

I could sense the organisers were having trouble arranging a Skype interview with a story teller from  Sikkim. It was a session many people attending the three day meet in the outskirts of Benguluru were looking forward to. They were agog with questions on what the calamity meant for the hydro-electricity projects in Sikkim.

And no sooner had Kachyo Lepcha from the earthquake-ravaged state stood to narrate his story, he was besieged with queries about the earthquake. “Any idea why the government is being so foolish?” “You think there is a lesson to be learnt”. Kachyo Lepcha had a dreamy look that seemed to convey irritation. I was to learn later that wasn't the case actually. He was patient with the queries, but he was really keen to get on with his story “Let's see, we have been agitating against the projects for long. I hope the government mends its ways,” he said and turned on to talk about yetis with the same dreamy expression. But there was a twinkle here and a twinkle there and sometimes his hands would point to the sky and sway left and right like a music conductor. “Yetis are not the monsters that Western scholarship has made them to be. They are mischievous creatures. As mischievous as the weather or the forests.” Soon the audience was more interested in the story of yetis helping a lazy man find his way in a forest than in hydro-electricity projects.

Kachyo is an assistant professor of history at Sikkim Government College in Gangtok and has some training in matching the demands of the modern discipline with the narrative requirements of folklore. A story on yetis would be interspersed with a documentary on traditional healers or ways of building a bridge. But he would never point out allegories outright. It was for the audience to decide if faith in the mythical creature had something to do with the self-assuredness of a bunch of young and not-so-young men who venture into dense forests for a fortnight for a seemingly arduous task of constructing a 20 km-long bamboo bridge.

I do not know if it's a similar faith in his shamanism or just a love for the rains that made Salil insist we walk in the downpour. More interested in his views on folklore, I completely missed out asking him that when we resumed our conversation. “I am not comfortable with terms like traditional knowledge. Once we slot stories as traditional knowledge and document them, we tend to fix them for perpetuity. But stories change, many over a period, some with narrators and some even in a day.”    

In 1999, Salil and his friend Barkha Henry started a classroom-based project in Nepal to document and archive mountain music. It is now a dedicated research-based storytelling project, Acoustic Traditional, that looks towards generating public interest in indigenous communities and their environmental knowledge. Now based in Bengaluru, Accoustic Traditional organised the September 30-October 2 Confluence.

“My ancestors were shamans and storytellers. But my father lost interest. I am trying to do some learning,” he said. There was a glint in his eyes when he talked of the little hand drum he beats while engaging his audience in a shamanistic trance. “My people in Kalimpong think it's a toy. They are used to beating large drums.”

But Salil is careful of the sanctity of the instrument. “It's not a musical instrument. We use it when only we are narrating stories.” The next day when all participants create an impromptu percussion orchestra, Salil prefers to use a bucket for the music.

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