Without a script until the later part of the 19th century, Naga tribes attached great value to oral tradition. For generations, they passed on their history, poetry, folksongs and ancient wisdom that way. Much of this vast treasure trove of knowledge and information has already been lost because of the dying art of storytelling and the zeal of the early Christian missionaries. “Though they introduced script to the Naga people, the early missionaries saw everything traditional as anti-Christian and prohibited it, from traditional songs to hairstyles to rice beer,” said Tuisem Ngakang, a doctorate on Naga culture and former assistant professor with Hindu College in Delhi University.
So, camcorder in hand, 42-year-old Ngakang goes to distant Naga villages, interacts with elderly residents and requests them to sing old songs. “Among Nagas, it is considered a duty of the elders to pass on what they know to youngsters. So, these people, mostly in their 70s and 80s, are only too happy to share,” he said. Ngakang is on a mission — to document and preserve whatever is left of the fast-vanishing folklore of the indigenous people.
A deep sense of urgency is visible among Naga tribes as they race against time to record whatever they can. But it’s not easy, going by the vast number of local languages and dialects they have. There are about 35 Naga tribes in Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Arunachal. D Koulie, professor of linguistics at Nagaland University, said there are 89 dialects in 89 villages of just the Angami Naga people. Koulie is also secretary of the Ura Academy which works to preserve Tenyidie — the mother language of 10 tribes, including Angami, Chakhesang, Rengma and Zeliang.
In earlier times, when villages got congested, a member would venture out to establish another settlement. But it was taboo to set up a village without a new language. So, the same tribe would speak different languages in different villages, giving rise to numerous dialects. “These dialects are morphologically similar but different phonologically. To preserve folklore, we ask students to visit their village homes, listen to the elderly and document stories and poetry,” Koulie added. The Ura Academy regularly brings out journals and books documenting poetry, stories and dramas in Tenyidie. Easterine Kire, one of the foremost writers from the northeast, has collected 200 poems in Tenyidie that had been passed on orally.
Tangkhul Nagas of Manipur have embarked on a similar mission. Members of the Hao Folklore Society (HFS), formed in March this year, have visited 15 Tangkhul villages in the last five months. “We met senior residents, recorded and archived folksongs, folktales, histories and genealogies,” said HFS president Raising Shimri. HFS also tries to preserve traditional houses and artefacts. Members of the society include lecturers, media professionals, photographers and lawyers, and live in cities across India but return to villages to document and record the oral history of their people. Armed with sound recorders, DSLR cameras or just their cellphones, HFS members fan out looking for elderly people and requesting them to perform traditional songs and dances.
But there is a Himalayan task ahead of them — they need to cover about 206 Tangkhul villages, each with different dialects.
Not all tribes, however, are so organised. The Konyak tribe of Mon district in Nagaland were the last to get introduced to the modern education system. Only some individuals have taken it upon themselves to preserve their folklore. Phejin Konyak has written a book on the last of the tattooed headhunters of her tribe, describing in detail the rituals involved and what the tattoo patterns mean. “It is a solo effort,” said Phejin.
Nzanmongi Jasmine Patton, an assistant professor at Gargi College in Delhi, too has taken the solo route. She has published a collection of 30 stories from her Lotha tribe in ‘A Girl Swallowed By A Tree: Lotha Naga Tales Retold’. Though Lotha Nagas have Kyong Academy that is supposed to work towards preserving their culture, the 35-year-old writer said most effort regarding documentation is being made by Lothas individually.
As early missionaries prohibited institutions like morungs (traditional Naga youth hostels) and indigenous rituals, songs and music too disappeared soon. “We have lost most of ritual music associated with events like rice-pounding or house-building,” said Ngakang.
Koulie, who has written 21 books of which 18 are in Tenyidie, said, “If you look at school curriculum, there is no material on tradition and folklore. Every Sunday we gather for sermons, but have no time for traditional stories,” he said.
H Khehovi Yepthomi, advisor to the Nagaland government for tourism, art and culture, admitted nothing much has been done till now and Naga folklore “is going to be extinct” if proactive steps aren’t taken. “I have asked cultural officers to identify heritage sites and look for experts willing to document oral history.” The government has now decided to hold three-day mini Hornbill festivals in all the districts spread all though the year.
But hope comes with anxiety. Shimri said, “Time is against us. It is disappointing when we reach a particular village to find a majority of the elderly have passed away, and along with them stories that have got buried forever.”