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Oral Traditions and Cultural Spaces


Smita Jassal Tewari


In recent years, anthropologists have drawn widely on women’s narrative traditions. Significant in the genre are Lila Abu-Lughod’s, Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories (University of California Press 1993), Gloria Goodwin Raheja and Ann Grodzins Gold, Listen to the Heron’s Words: Reimagining Gender and Kinship in North India (University of California Press 1994), Joyce Burkhalter- Flueckiger’s, Gender and Genre in the Folklore Middle India (Cornell University Press 1996) and Ann Grodzins Gold and Bhoju Ram Gujar’s In the Time of Trees and Sorrows: Nature, Power and Memory in Rajasthan (Duke University Press 2002). Notable exceptions to the works based on women’s song repertoires are Peter Manuel’s Cassette Culture: Popular Music and Technology in North India (University of Chicago Press, 1993) and Edward O’ Henry’s Chant the Names of God. Music and Culture in Bhojpuri-Speaking India (San Diego State University Press 1988).   In identifying the range and reach of oral traditions that precede literacy and the new culture of writing among dalits, it was oral traditions which provided the cultural spaces for interrogation of mainstream knowledges and traditions. These not only existed but were deployed even by women, in astonishingly diverse ways. This is especially significant in the context of the emergence of a rich dalit literature, in opposition to mainstream understandings of caste by a new generation of dalit writers. The oral material in response to hegemonic brahminical knowledges provides supplementary source material for understandings gleaned from works such as Multiple Marginalities: An Anthology of Identified Dalit Writings edited by Badri Narayan and A.R. Misra (Manohar 2004 ) or Sharmila Rege’s Writing Caste/Writing Gender: Narrating Dalit Women’s Testimonies (2006 Zubaan).   Oral texts bring forth the perspectives of women who may appear to have been silenced simply because what they have to say has not been of interest to upper castes. Just as upper caste exclusionary practices have socialized people into not seeing, so also hierarchical modes of thinking tend to cultivate a capacity of not hearing. What is missing from the current articulate viewpoints within the dalit women’s movement in several pockets including UP and Maharashtra are the perspectives of labouring women that pre-date the rise of political consciousness.   Within these narrative traditions, the masculine and feminine traditions placed alongside each other, offer methodologically innovative ways of understanding the interface of caste and gender. As a reserve pool of folk resources and folk wisdom that may ...


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