The elders of the Wancho community in a remote district of Arunachal Pradesh have taken up the task of recording their age-old folktales in digitised form with the help of a UK-based researcher.
The researcher, Tara Douglas, who spent over three years even during the COVID-19 pandemic with the community elders and workers in Longding district to document the folktales, is helping them to digitally archive the folklores.
The Wanchos have a rich tradition of oral stories, memories, and songs and Douglas was invited to assist them to make the recordings.
The knowledge of the ancestors that has accumulated over generations is a record of life as it has been lived for centuries in this little-known area of the Patkai hills.
“It is the history of the cultural practices and rituals, the precise knowledge of livelihood practices, of plants, animals, the climate and geography. It is the collective memories of the community,” Douglas said.
The researcher was introduced to the community when she first visited Kamhua Noknu in 2019 and has since been working with local project partners to record, translate and catalogue the material.
The venture that began in 2019 has led to further visits to some of the villages of the Pongchau and Wakka circles of the district to record local stories.
The Wancho tribe, with a population of nearly 57,000 members, inhabits mostly the Longding district that borders Myanmar.
“The pattern of life is changing rapidly as the district becomes more integrated and accessible to the outside world. Younger people are acquiring new priorities for education and employment, and they have much less time than before to listen to the memories of their parents and grandparents,” Douglas told PTI.
Before the demise of the tradition bearers of the village and the disappearance of the knowledge that they hold, the elders are recording their memories, she said.
Jatwang Wangsa and Banwang Losu, two teachers who also run a local organisation, the Wancho Literary Mission, have been the interlocutors for Douglas, facilitating introductions to the storytellers and sitting patiently hour after hour with her to translate the recordings into English so that the videos can be subtitled.
The storytellers whose memories have been archived include, Late Ngamchai Wangsa and Nyemnoi Wangsa, Tangkaam Pheam, Wanjay Losu, Phawang Wangham, Gamlong Gampa, Wanghom Losu and Wanchan Losu from Kamhua Noknu; Chaidang Dangam from Nyinu and Ngompha Wangsa from Longkai village.
“The archive will be expanded to include more stories from Kamhua Noknu and the neighbouring villages,” Douglas, the secretary of Adivasi Arts Trust, a UK-based charity said.
Arunachal Pradesh, with recorded 26 major tribes, 110 sub-tribes, and many unrecorded sub-tribes, is a research hub for anthropologists.
With the recommendation of Stephen Morey, a linguist who specialised in the study and documentation of various languages of the region, Douglas also stored the Wancho folk tales in the Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures (PARADISEC), a digital record of some of the small cultures and languages of the world.
PARADISEC is a consortium of three universities — the University of Sydney, the University of Melbourne, and the Australian National University.
Some of the folktales of the community archived include Folktale of the Story of the Gourd, Cultural memory of death and the soul, Folktale of Tiger Man Cicada, Folktale of the Story of the Gourd, second version; Folktale of the story of the Stone and Memories of traditional rituals.
Little is known about the rich oral traditions of the indigenous, tribal and Adivasi communities of India, the researcher said. “These traditions, increasingly overwhelmed by modern life, may even be forgotten entirely by the younger people,” Douglas said.
“I work relentlessly to record the stories from the elders of the village communities and then to translate these narratives into English. I also encourage local artists and I work with them to introduce digital tools to retell their stories in interesting contemporary formats,” Douglas said.
“This work is extremely difficult to secure support for in India and abroad, as indigenous art and culture, and also work by independent practitioners is increasingly difficult to sustain,” she added.
The objective of the project is to record, document, and translate a collection of the oral narratives from two indigenous communities of North East India — the Wancho in Arunachal Pradesh and the Tangkhul in Manipur, and then to work with members of the community to adapt one selected story from each group into a short animated film, the researcher who is also a film-maker added.