Cover Story

In Search of Roots

A coalescence of tongues and traditions, songs and dances, art and culture, Northeast India has always been a hub for leisurely as well as scholarly pursuits. However, the gradual obliteration of the ancient tribal folklores and folktales of this region, for many palpable reasons, has become a cause of concern for many conscious souls. 
A ray of hope has recently emerged with many writers, activists and scholars fervently rallying to extricate preserve and promote our lost cultural traditions. One such noble soul in our midst is Mr. Dharamsing Teron, who has always strived to promote the rich cultural history and tradition of the Karbis. 
This unassuming research activist, with a rich history in administration, has brought out four series of the 'Karbi Studies', which are all about Karbi memories, myths, metaphors and folktales. He is currently working on documentation of Karbi Folklore and Oral History in a bid to sustain the vanishing oral traditions of one of the oldest tribes of the region.
A research activist based in Diphu, Karbi Anglong, Teron had earlier been selected into the Assam Civil Service-1 in 1985. But he declined to join the prestigious services so that he could join the movement for autonomous State which was at its pinnacle at that time. Before he shifted his interests and work towards research activism, he was the longest-running Chairman (1989-2006) under the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council (KAAC). He also represented the Howraghat LAC of Karbi Anglong district as a legislator (2000-2005) of the Autonomous State Demand Committee (ASDC) party. 
Here's a one-on-one with the notable writer, research activist, and folklorist - one among the very few connoisseurs of Karbi oral folklore.
Q. Can you give us a peep back into your childhood?
Ans: What more could a man ask for, than to fly back through mazes of memories to a childhood where love, laughter and joy beckons you back? It takes me back to a far-flung, swampy, desolate, yet cool, calm and salubrious village called 'Jor Teron', 90-kms away from Diphu, the headquarters of Karbi Anglong district. It was a tiny, yet peaceful hamlet established by my grandfather, his clan members and other kins around 1920s. And I was born there 60 years back, on April 7, 1957, as the third child to Lt. Khoiyasing Teron and Lt. Kave Singnarpi. My father was a man with not much formal education, but he had a rare blend of gallantry and generosity. I can still remember vividly how the villagers would recount the story of my father who discontinued his education to nurse his elder brother Niyasing, who was then suffering from leprosy - a much dreaded disease in those days. 
When my father was offered the job of a Leprosy Injector, our family moved to Den'Arong in 1963, where I started my formal education at Merok LP School and stayed there till 1967. From 1968 to 1970, I went on to Don Bosco (Tezpur) boarding school for my ME School level education. In 1971, I went back to Den'arong for my High School education, from where I appeared for my matriculation in 1975. Thereafter, I pursued science at St. Anthony's College, Shillong, with the bubbly dream of a typical youth to serve the downtrodden. But I had to leave midway following the unrest caused by the AASU-led anti-foreigners' movement. I came back to Diphu in 1978 to start Pre-University afresh in Arts stream in Diphu Govt. College, and later graduated in History in 1983.
I never had English education during my school days, not even at Don Bosco. But my brief stay in Shillong helped me immensely in picking up the language. I still remember bunking classes and going for movies. I always avoided taxies as they charged a lot, but preferred walking or hopping onto city buses to save money for my reel world. But those exercises have helped me in the long run - I could still walk for long hours while exploring the remote villages for my research works.
I had a penchant for music too, and I still do. I love both Western as well as Hindustani music and all forms of experimental music as it has become such a wonderful and powerful medium to break and transcend all kinds of barriers in this age of globalization. Besides movies and music, I had an ardent interest in books though I was a picky lover. I wasn't drawn towards any of the western fiction of my era by Louis L'Amour or the thrillers of Agatha Christie; I was more into a wee bit of history, politics and science. The first big book I read was 'O Jerusalem' by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins, a historical account on the events and struggles surrounding the creation of Israel. It partly snowballed me into studying history in later years, though DD Kosambi, a mathematician-turned-Marxist politician motivated me in my practical lessons. 
Q. Who are your sources of inspiration? Why do you think that folklore-ism can uphold a culture from the ravages of time?
Ans: As I've said earlier, my father has always been my idol and source of inspiration. His unbendable independence and integrity have taught me that one must always stand upright for that one thing called 'self-respect'. I hold up high Lt. Semsonsing Ingti, founder of Karbi Anglong district, who fought for Karbi pride and paved the way for generations. I admire Ru Bonglong Terang, the first Karbi folklorist, who with very little formal education had authored more than 15 books and started his solo effort in 1937 - much ahead of his own time. He exclusively made a remarkable contribution to Karbi language, religion, culture and history. He showed to posterity that one doesn't need much formal learning to do notable works, but what is more important is passion and grit.  
The Karbi Youth Festival, no doubt, was notable in bolstering cultural awareness; but, beyond a certain point, it ceased to satiate the escalating need to explore our cultural heritage. Many reflect and deliberate on the exigency of sustentation of one's culture and tradition, but few take the effort to actualize it. I consistently and vehemently feel that we are precariously hanging at the edge of a steep precipice, from where there would be no returning back once we fall down; our name would be completely wiped out from this planet. That is the reason why I resolved to zero in on documenting folklore - to find the wellspring in our creation stories, migration memories, sacred prayers, folk beliefs and rituals - to accentuate the meaning of being a Karbi. The quandary lies in lack of methodical documentation of the obliterating traditions; yet, there seems to be no serious effort to sustain the cultural legacy. The few attempts that we see lack intellectual content.
Q. Can you tell us about the 'Centre for Karbi Studies', the books you've brought out and your present work in folklore?
Ans: The 'Centre for Karbi Studies' (CKS) was especially founded in 2015, to document extensively the otherwise neglected traditions, which have been orally passed down through the previous generations. But we must join forces from all quarters to fortify and fructify this task. In fact, I've been trying to engage young people to get into this vocation by organizing workshops and seminars through the CKS and other fronts.
Today, the nature of my struggle has changed - from a political movement for Autonomous State to a intellectual struggle by wielding the pen. As I've said earlier, the struggle has to continue. Ample mutilated stories about Karbi culture, religion, language and history have been represented; it's time someone takes up the pen and mirrors the tribe in its true light. Karbi folklore has so much to offer - it is home to Karbi history, religion, culture and philosophy. But folklores in Northeast India is vanishing at a fast pace; if everybody continues to be just spectators of their flickering singularity, one day it would just get snuffed out. Here's where organizations like CKS must take the mantel of resuscitating and revitalizing the disintegrating culture of any community.
The four volumes of Karbi Studies series which include 'Memories-Myths-Metaphors', 'Reclaiming the Ancestor's Voices', 'Folktales from the Fringe', and 'In Search of the Drongo and Other Stories' have been published in collaboration with young writers and translators.
I am currently working on the documentation (transcription, interlinear translation and literary translation with annotation) of the Karbi funeral epic poem 'Kacharhe Alun' with Michael Heneise (University of Edinburgh) of Kohima Institute in collaboration with CKS. The project is funded by USA-based Firebird Foundation. A group of talented and highly motivated Karbi young writers are involved in transcribing the Kacharhe Alun, which stretches on for more than 30 hours. The song, which is twice as long as the Greek epic of Homer's Illiad is sung by a lone singer Kasang Teronpi (78 years). It is a herculean job, but we believe, the project will be worth a place in Karbi literary history.
I am also working on another Karbi folk epic called Sabin Alun (Karbi folk Ramayana) in collaboration with a team of dedicated young translators. I am gearing up to wind up the next volume of Karbi Studies (Volume 5). Of course, right now, 'Kacharhe Alun' is my prerogative.
Q. In your opinion, what must be done to strengthen the indigenous cultures and traditions of our region, with special reference to the Karbis?
Ans: It is paramount that indigenous groups build up a strong circle of writers and engage them in writing language text books for introduction in school curricula - starting from primary to high school levels. I strongly feel that the current confusion and anarchy in Karbi orthography must be cast away as we already have scientific descriptive grammar adopted by Karbi Lammet Amei (Karbi Literary Organisation) in 2014. 
The government concerned cannot afford to be impassive to the plight of the indigenous people of the region as 90% of the world's minority languages are dying away within the next fifty years. It is also paramount that language teachers need to be groomed and trained systematically to revive indigenous languages, with sufficient patronage from the government. 
Progression in the society or among the indigenous communities can fructify only when youths take the mantel to usher in the winds of change in their world.