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Giving life to an epic

The ten-year effort of a Finnish-Indian team materialised into the documentation of the Siri epic in Tulu. Comparable to the world's great epics, this has also been rendered into English with a transcription. An awe-inspiring work indeed, says V.R.DEVIKA.

``KEREYA Neeranu Kerege Challi varava padedavaranthe kaaniro ...'' said the melodious voice in the background which brought home the poignancy of the situation, bringing tears to some in the audience. The verse, from a Purandaradasa kriti in Kannada which extols devotees to pour water back into the river to be blessed... was sung as the Ambassador of Finland to India, Mr. Benjamin Basssin opened the sandalwood box with three volumes of the ``Siri epic'' and presented them to the singer Gopala Naika. Later, Naika was presented with a gold ring by the spiritual head of Dharmasthala, Veerendra Hegde.

Earlier, the casket was brought in a decorated palanquin in a procession led by an elephant with all the dignitaries following it. Did a book release merit such a grand function?

Consider the work. It consists of textualisation of the Tulu (a rich dialect of South Canara) Siri epic. The Finnish-Indian team that worked on the project has documented the 15,683 line (five lines short of Homer's Iliad) performance of the epic sung by Gopala Naika, a talented singer of oral epics in Tulunadu. This purely oral epic has been published in Tulu with an English translation and transcription. The cultural background, field work on oral composition and textural problems encountered in the transcription and translation of the Siri text and the nature of the ``oral text'' in general are brought into focus in the brief introduction. The primary oral textualisation and the secondary written modification of the epic are described in a separate introductory volume. Several core problems of traditional research are discussed and new concepts such as ``mental text'' and ``multiform'' are introduced for the analysis of oral compositions in the work.

``Siri Sandhi,'' says Prof. Lauri Honko, ``is one of the two truly long epics of the Tulu speaking people, Koti Chennayya being the other. Where the latter glorifies male warriors and their violent battle for justice, the Siri epic epitomises Tulu womanhood in its emancipation and non-violent fight against male supremacy and injustice.''

Describing the legend of Siri, Prof. Honko says, ``Siri is a woman of divine origin who undergoes in her human life, the typical ordeals of a woman in Tulu society with its particular mix of matrilineal and patriarchal kinship systems. Assuming the form of biographical epic, the story of Siri expands to describe the fate of her only son, Kumara, and her female descendants in two generations. This epic ranks with the world's great folk epics.''

 What emerges at the end is a set of life models for Tulu women, constantly revived in possession rituals in which the woman belonging to the Siri cult participates. In these rituals, the Siri story is performed mostly indirectly, through prayer and recitation reflecting the intensive interaction and interpenetration of the divine and human worlds.

What did a Finnish couple find interesting in a South Indian coastal legend? Finland and India share a common folk tradition of epics. Finland's own oral epic, Kalevala, is a much-celebrated one. As described by ambassador Bassin, at the centenary of Kalevala, in 1930, a competition to collect proverbs and folk beliefs was announced by the Finnish Government. He says a population of three million people had come up with more than 1.5 million proverbs. Bassin wondered aloud that if such a small population could produce so much, the vast rural population of India must possess undocumented material.

Dr. Vivek Rai and Dr. Chinnappa Gowda constituted the Indian members of the team. Prof. Haridas Bhat, Director of the Regional Resources Centre for Folk Performing Arts, Udupi, had known of the great interest in oral epics in Finland and also of the folklore research being conducted there. He made it a point to visit Finland's Turku University when he was in Europe. He appraised Dr. Laurie Honko, Professoer of Comparative Religion and Folklore at the Kalevala institute of the University about the Tulu epics and invited him to Udupi. Prof. Bhat also organised a seminar on Kalevalal at Udupi in 1985, to mark the 150th anniversary of Kalevala.

The tripartite project (the Turku University, the Mangalore University and the Regional Resources Centre) got underway with a study of the Siri epic, the documentation of the Siri Daliya at Machar and the Siri festival, their documentation, the investigation of the remains of the Satynapura palace which reveal the legends of the Netravathi region, the place region of Nandolige, Urkitota and, finally, the taping of the 15,683 line performance by the Gopala Naika of the epic. The epic is generally sung only in parts during the rituals, and never sung completely as a performance. Gopala Naika had evinced interest in recording the epic and had dictated some portions to his student living in his house at Machar in 1985.

``The singing of the Siri epic took seven days,'' says Prof. Honko. ``Physically, the continuous singing was strenuous and taxing for the singer, but as a mode of performance it was most satisfying. Gopalal Naika obviously enjoyed the chance to sing without the limiting collateral action always present both at ritual performance and the work song context.''

``Many modern researchers feel the text is outmoded,'' said Lauri Honko. ``But actually there is no context without the text.'' He spoke with humour about his experience of the new methodology in the seminar on oral epics the day after the release of the epic. ``In Europe, the oral epics are stone dead. They are alive in Asia and Southern India is a treasure trove of oral epics. People living in the treasure trove must realise the assets they have and folk scholars must concentrate within this reach.''

``Documentation seems simple but it is quite hazardous. Good documentation means a perfect phonetic transcription too. Then the document becomes independent of the scholar. And will become open for study and analysis. Documentation of the epic is just one manifestation. It is the personality and the experience of Gopalal Naika that has edited and presented the performance.''

``If I were a dictator,'' says Dr. Honko, ``I would tell all scholars to listen to the folk voice. Scholarly ideas are nothing compared to the folk ideas. We should never be the tellers of wisdom but transmitters.''

``Each epic has its own poetical structure and prosodic template. Refrain and the melodic artistry are very important here. This is the first time that the entire epic has been sung in one sitting and we are very happy to present it to the world of folklore.''

The process of documentation, study, textualisation, transcription and translation and publication has taken ten years. Veerendra Hedge, the head of Dharmasthala said when someone exclaimed that it took 10 years, I said yes it only took 10 years.

So valuable and awe-inspiring is the work .....



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