ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Songs at the Confluence

Say to the Sun, "Don't Rise," and to the Moon, "Don't Set": Two Oral Narratives from the Countryside of Maharashtra edited and translated by Anne Feldhaus with Ramdas Atkar and Rajaram Zagade, Primus Books, 2015; pp 632, 2,395.

Oral history in South Asia has a rich tradition. The Vedas are collected songs of the Sanskrit-speaking pastoralists whose culture was evolving about three and a half thousand years ago. Under conditions of colonialism and orientalism, and even thereafter, the Vedas held the haloed position of being the sacred books of the East. It was indeed a happy day for a number of academic disciplines, including History, when Gunther Sontheimer, inspired by the unorthodox ideas of D D Kosambi, thought of recording the oral narratives of another, albeit less haloed group of pastoralists, the Dhangars of Maharashtra. Performers of the Dhangar caste sang their traditional songs called ovis in the 1970s for Sontheimer to record. They are now preserved in the Sontheimer Archives in Pune as also in Gurgaon and Heidelberg. Noting the “increasingly normative Sanskritization of popular beliefs,” and the fast disappearing lifestyle of the world depicted by the Dhangars, I M P Raeside had hailed Sontheimer’s study (1976, translated 1989) based on some of these recordings as a significant exercise in “rescue archaeology.” In the post-globalisation Indian cultural landscape, heterogeneous traditions are facing a greater challenge of sanskritisation and hinduisation. Hence, a book on the oral history of pastoral deities serves to make an important statement about India’s multicultural past.

Two Oral Narratives from the Countryside of Maharashtra takes off from where the work was halted due to Sontheimer’s untimely death in 1992. These ovis along with a few others were first published in Marathi and edited by Sontheimer’s collaborators Ramdas Atkar and Rajaram Zagade and his colleague Anne Feldhaus in 2006. In the present volume, Feldhaus has edited with Atkar and Zagade two of the ovis from the Marathi publication, one dedicated to god Biroba and the other to god Dhuloba, translated them with extensive notes and provided a scholarly introduction. The book is divided into three parts. The Introduction examines the relationship the Dhangars share with their ovis. Based on an empathetic understanding of the ovis, it describes the pastoralists’ way of life that is so important in formulating their world and their ideas of gender, purity, chastity, their very identity. The second and the third part consist of translations of the ovi of Biroba and ovi of Dhuloba—two important Dhangar deities. The translated ovis form a significant contribution to published primary source materials for understanding the Indian society.

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