Temsula Ao: Voice of the orange tree

The poet, writer, and ethnographer brought the Naga sensibility to the attention of the nation.

Published : Apr 06, 2023 11:00 IST - 7 MINS READ

Temsula Ao

Temsula Ao | Photo Credit: V. Sudershan

If I were asked to choose only one sentence of the Constitution as its essence, I would certainly choose “India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States.” The “union” did not come about in a single historic moment. Different parts of India have their own distinct histories of coming together with the “idea of India” to form the Union; and in each case, the process has been complex.

In the current mood of an aggressive nationalism, we tend to forget the complexities and differences which require patient understanding and nuanced handling in order to keep the Union together. This also requires Indians in one part of the country to know the life and culture of all other parts of India. When a nation starts overlooking the differences, its unity tends to become fragile.

Take the case of Nagaland. How many of us know enough about the State’s people, their history, languages, and culture? Do we know, at least, the names of their languages such as Angami, Konyak, Chang, Wancho, Phom, and Tenyidie (with its 16 varieties)? Do we know that it is the third smallest State in terms of territory and has only a couple of large towns in it? Or that the formation of the State and its assimilation with the rest of India remained a big challenge even two decades after Independence?

The ‘other India’

We often speak of Indian literature as literature in the main languages, but have any Indian magazines and newspapers given space to reporting on native Naga writers such as Mmhonlumo Kikon, Avinuo Kire, Easterine Kire, Piyong Temjen Jamir, Senka Ao and others like Kishore Jadav from Gujarat who made Nagaland his home? This “other India” is still waiting for its proper cultural recognition. The social media circulation of photographs of a Prime Minister wearing Naga headgear is not going to bring about the “union” of the mental states of the people in different States.

Many Naga intellectuals, peace-builders, and creative writers have attempted to bring the people and culture of Nagaland to the attention of the nation. The foremost among them was Temsula Ao (1945-2022).

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I first heard of Professor Ao in the 1990s as I was preparing to launch a series of bilingual volumes on literature in tribal languages and oral traditions of India. The series of books I was preparing required me to interact with a variety of scholars, most of them from tribal communities. A few among them had already distinguished themselves as writers or scholars and Temsula Ao was one of them. I had seen two of her poetry collections published by P. Lal’s Writers Workshop.

Although by this time I had forsaken my academic career for engaging with tribal and oral literature, I had not given up the deep hunger for intellectual company. Therefore, I kept the practice of inviting such distinguished scholars to Baroda to spend a few days at the Adivasi Academy, which at that time was no more than a one-room community centre.

In the initial years of the Adivasi Academy, I had hoped to invite to Baroda three women whose work had a great significance to the themes I was trying to grapple with: the historian Romila Thapar, the activist-writer Mahasweta Devi, and poet-writer Temsula Ao. Romila Thapar and Mahasweta Devi visited the Adivasi Academy, but my attempts at bringing Temsula Ao to Baroda did not materialise. Those were the days when one corresponded through typewritten letters, and letters took a long time to travel between Baroda and the north-eastern region, and perhaps longer the other way round.

In 1999, I received a manuscript from Professor Ao on the oral traditions of the Ao-Naga people, the result of her research at the University of Minnesota. It was written in an extremely accessible and lucid style, the kind of style that her predecessors in Ao-Naga ethnography such as J.P. Mills and E.W. Clark had never attained. The contents had been chiselled to avoid any excess, any temptation to show all the accumulation of scholarship that had gone into the making of the book. Thrilled, I decided to have it published through the newly set up Bhasha Research Centre as its first English publication.

Sangharsh Shatak

Beginning with The Ao-Naga Oral Tradition, the Bhasha Research Centre went on to publish several other titles in the years that followed. In 2005, my Adivasi colleagues and I decided to put together a single-set library of the most significant hundred books under the title “Sangharsh Shatak”. The title implied “a century full of conflict” as well as “a hundred classics”.

We conducted wide consultations with scholars, readers, students, publishers, and tribal communities to shortlist the titles. TheAo-Naga Oral Tradition figured prominently in all those lists. Clearly, it was seen as a “classic” by all those involved in the tribal struggle in this country, as well as those who longed for an active dialogue between the north-eastern region and the rest of India and valued a synthesis of modern scientific ethnography with an inwardness to tradition.

“The ‘Ao-Naga Oral Tradition’ was seen as a classic by all those who longed for an active dialogue between the north-eastern region and the rest of India.”

I had the opportunity of meeting Temsula Ao when she visited us in Baroda for the Bhasha Sangam (“Confluence of Languages”) in 2010, which was attended by representatives of over 300 languages from all over India. She did us the honour of inaugurating the book exhibition. In a touching gesture, she presented me with an autographed copy of her collection of stories, Laburnum for My Head. On the last day of the conference, she planted three saplings at the Bhasha Vana (“language forest”), one each for Mongsen, Chungli, and Changki, the language varieties spoken by the Ao-Nagas. These have now grown into trees and continue to adorn the Bhasha Vana.

The book she presented me reminded me of A.K. Ramanujan who has a lovely poem about the laburnums in Baroda that gives the city dazzling hues in the middle of harsh summers. In another of his poems, Ramanujan writes: “You can sometimes count every orange on a tree but never all the trees in a single orange.” Nagaland was for Temsula Ao the “orange tree” that remained with her, in Dimapur, in Shillong, in Minnesota, and in Baroda.

In the early decades following Independence, the gender composition of teachers of humanities in India was seriously lopsided. A Kamal Wood here or an Irawati Karve there were more of an exception than the norm. It was during the 1970s that liberal studies in India witnessed a seismic shift. The new sensibility transformed the field of literary scholarship and took the discussion on postcolonialism beyond the mere dialectic between tradition and modernity which it had been for the previous generations.

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A corresponding shift took place in creative writing. Temsula Ao belongs to that period of transition in literary sensibility. Among her contemporaries, she enjoyed a rather exceptional place for two reasons: one, she was at once a poet, fiction writer, and ethnographer of a high standing; and two, she brought the north-eastern region into the literary arena.

The “notes from the north-east region” that had been entirely missing before her time, and the sensibility of the Naga civilisation of which Indian literature has been pathetically unaware, were stoked to life in Temsula’s writings.

Over the last half century, her contribution as a professor, researcher, ethnographer, poet, fiction writer, and cultural leader, has come to be accepted as a definitive voice of the region. No ordinary achievement, considering the great apathy Indians have towards knowing the people in the twilight zones of India.

Ganesh Devy is a cultural activist and founder of Dakshinayana.

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