The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, October 27, 2002

Poetic and lyrical tribal tales
Harbir K. Singh

Painted Words
An Anthology of Tribal Literature
edited by G. N. Devy. Penguin Books. Pages 302. Rs 295.

Painted WordsTRIBAL arts or artists interpret verbal or pictorial space in a very flexible frame. The main and beautiful characteristic of tribal art is its explicit manner of constructing space and imagery, which is almost hallucinatory.

The book paints an attractive picture of tribals. It is a compilation of tribal songs and stories from different states of India. The narration is simple and different as the tribal tradition of telling stories is oral. Most tribal communities of India are similar to other communities elsewhere in the world. Tribals are basically agriculturalists who live in cohesive groups. They do not have much interest in collecting wealth. They believe that nature, man and God are interlinked. Tribals have an intense sense of shape, colour and texture, which they use in their paintings, stories and poetry. Their love for the material used makes their creations seem like offerings to the elements.

This book has been divided into seven parts, which contain tribal stories, myths, poetry, drama and autobiographies. The part relating to myths narrates the stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. These stories have their origins in oral traditions. Many of them appear in tribal languages. Mahabharata is from Bhilli. The stories of Santanu and Ganga, Kunti and Gandhari, Panduraja, Karna and Pandavas, Draupadi and Vasuki are told in a very interesting and descriptive manner. The tale of Ramayana comes from the Kunkuna tribe. There are stories relating to the life of Sita, describing her birth, childhood and marriage. This chapter contains prose and poetry together. The volume also contains two Kannada epics Manteswamy and Male Madeshwara. These have been written in the Bhrathari tradition. Both epics have an oral tradition and hold a very important place in religious tales.


There are five legends from different parts of India. Tejan Bal comes from Pawari language, which is mostly spoken by Pawara Bhills in north-western Maharashtra. Mansinha and Salvan is oral in tradition and comes from Dangs district in the south-eastern part of Gujarat. The Tale of a Takalong Cucumber is from Khasi and Chhura. Their alluring culture is very much in evidence in the description of Mizo legends. Kaba and Baji describe Dhanger aspirations for martial success.

Songs have a special place in tribal lives. These songs describe the tribals’ feelings of love, sadness, loneliness and happiness. The metaphors that they use are earthy. It has songs in about ten tribal languages, which are sung at various functions. There are Garhwali, Saora, Chhatisgarhi songs.

The autobiography section has four parts. Koletyache Por, Tanda, Uchalya , Upara are all by eminent writers. Budhan, a drama, is by denotified Chharas. Budhan who belonged to the Sahar community in Purulia district of West Bengal was killed in February 1998. The last part of the book, Makar Saver by Mahasweta Devi, is the story of a man belonging to the Saver community of Purelia. In this Mahasweta Devi has exposed the atrocities committed by the government during the Emergency period, especially during the nasbandi campaign.

This book makes for an interesting reading and gives an insight into the lives of tribal, their culture, way of life, hardships, status of women, joys, expressions, traditions, literature, art, etc. Their way of telling stories is descriptive because of their closeness to nature. All epics, legends, myths and songs have been translated into English in a descriptive manner. These are poetical, lyrical and picturesque. Though the songs have been translated beautifully and the tribal atmosphere has been captured but one cannot sing them as the original versions were sung. The name Painted Words seems apt, as while reading it seems as if pictures are moving in front of one’s eyes.