Temsula Ao, possibly Nagaland’s most eminent contemporary folklorist, academic and poet, writes, ‘the inherent instability of any oral tradition needs no great elaboration. In the context of the Ao-Nagas too, the inevitable variables in human memory and performance led to a gradual depletion of the literary contents and poetic language of the tradition. Added to this some inexorable facts of history further hastened the process of deterioration.’

Temsula Ao emphasises, ‘it is an undeniable fact that the rhythm of the tradition is disrupted and its relevance certainly diffused. In many ways, it finds itself out of step with the modern world and it is at a stage where, ostensibly, the only acknowledgement it receives is in the wearing of traditional garments and ornaments on special occasions. Old songs and dances are re-learned in a hurry and presented awkwardly. But on another level tradition, one believes that the moral values imparted by the tradition are still relevant and they continue to govern the people wherever they may live, not because they are the values of a certain people but because they are universal values.’

The Ao-Nagas say that they once had a script which was inscribed on a hide and hung on a wall for all to see and learn. But one day a dog pulled it down and ate it up. Since then, the people say that every aspect of their life, social, political, historical and religious has been retained in the memory of the people through the Oral Tradition.

I have lived my life believing

Story-telling was my proud legacy.

The ones I inherited

From grandfather became

My primary treasure

And the ones I garnered

From other chroniclers

Added to the lore.

When my time came I told stories

As though they ran in my blood

Because each telling revitalized

My life-force

And each story reinforced

My racial reminiscence.

The stories told of the moment

When we broke into being

From the six stones and

How the first fathers founded

Our ancient villages and

Worshipped the forces of nature.

.

Warriors and were-tigers

Came alive through the tales

As did the various animals

Who were once our brothers

Until we invented human language

And began calling them savage.

Grandfather constantly warned

That forgetting the stories

Would be catastrophic:

We would lose our history,

Territory, and most certainly

Our intrinsic identity.

So I told stories

As my racial responsibility

To instil in the young

The art of perpetuating

Existential history and essential tradition

To be passed on to the next generation.

But now a new era has dawned.

Insidiously displacing the old.

My own grandsons dismiss

Our stories as ancient gibberish

From the dark ages, outmoded

In the present times and ask

Who needs rambling stories

When books will do just fine?

The rejection from my own

Has stemmed the flow

And the stories seem to regress

Into un-reachable recesses

Of a mind once vibrant with stories

Now reduced to un-imaginable stillness.

So when memory fails and words falter

I am overcome by a bestial craving

To wrench the thieving guts

Out of that Original Dog

And consign all my stories

To the script in his ancient entrails.

From Songs From ‘The Other Life’

Written by: Heritage India Team Special
Photographs: Namrata Khandekar
Copy editor: Alice Agarwal

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