Construction of tradition

Print edition : January 09, 2015

Krishnamurthy Hanur. Photo: P.K. Ramesh

KRISHNAMURTHY HANUR, a folklore scholar from Mysore, was A.K. Ramanujan’s friend and fellow traveller during all his research expeditions in the State. Hanur, the author of several scholarly books, was not only Ramanujan’s travel guide but also a keen observer of Ramanujan, the multifaceted phenomenon. Hanur conjures up a few memories.

“Is there an Indian way of thinking?” This essay by Ramanujan was published in 1980 in the book India Through Hindu Categories, published by Mekkim Mariott. The preparation that Ramanujan did for this piece of writing and the fieldwork he did were enormous. He began his work from home, and reached the home of the folk singer Siryajji in Gollahatti village in Chitradurga district. He read through the many Ramayanas and Mahabharatas that can ever be there. Even after all this, when he failed to get an answer, he started writing this essay in which he asks himself not once, but four times “Is there an Indian way of thinking?”

Ramanujan perhaps encountered this question when he started reading up the endless versions of the Ramayana. In the Chambal valley there is a Ramayana museum. In several cities of Bengal, folk artistes occupy street corners singing the story of Ramayana as they paint. You can find sculptures in the temples of Karnataka. Villagers who have no knowledge of the Valmiki Ramayana perform the folk form Bayalata based on the Ramayana in every corner of the country. Apart from this there are leather puppetry performances. How many local traditions were born from the original Ramayana? For every creator, his Ramayana appears as the most significant. The same thing applies to the Mahabharata. According to Vyasa, Abhimanyu dies in the chakravyuha in Kurukshetra. But according to one folk narrative in Karnataka, he dies while trying to elope with the Kshatriya girl whom he loved. He is surrounded by all the warrior Kshatriyas, and he gets killed. Who knows how many local Mahabharatas are there?

If we move away from the way of thinking that is based on the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and come to the folk world, that too is attached to the tree of Indian culture, branches emanating from the same soil. There is an epic poem about the saint Male Mahadeshwara in south Karnataka. But the mythology around it is entirely different! In the narratives constructed by men, he is a misogynist, but within the temple [dedicated to him], there is a tradition of women lighting lamps thanking him for his compassion towards women. The forests are replete with saints, vachanakaras, and keertankars—truth has to be discovered in the midst of this. This is something that applies to both desi and marga traditions. Several strands emerge from a single source. It is hard to find unity in it, but there is a coherence.

(As told to Deepa Ganesh)