Voices unheard: Tribal literature from India to read now

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India is rich with a diversity of religions, arts, customs, races, traditions, and languages. While the government of India recognizes twenty-two official languages, there are over 880 languages spoken in the country. Until recently, the tribal literature created in non-mainstream languages has not been very recognized or available for an Indian or global audience. One of the primary reasons for this is that tribal discourse, including folktales and songs, is mainly oral in nature. In addition, the communities who produce it tend to be far from developed metropolitan cities, and so their creative works have been largely overlooked.

However, the Indian government and prominent personalities, including social activists and politicians, have stepped forward to encourage the conservation and translation of these unheard voices and to share their literary gems with the world. Sahitya Akademi, India’s National Academy of Letters, has developed the Project of Indian Literature in Tribal Languages and Oral Traditions to preserve and educate people about this literature. And the author G. N. Devy has been influential in translating various indigenous languages into English and Hindi. When asked why tribal literature has been less visible than that of other Indian languages, Devy says, “After print technology started impacting Indian languages during the nineteenth century, the fate of the oral became precarious. A gross cultural neglect had to be faced by the languages which remained outside print technology.”

Here are a few books based on tribal literature that will transport you and enable you to appreciate the array of cultural diversity that this literature offers.

1. Mizo Songs and Folk Tales, edited by Laltluangliana Khiangte

Mizo folk literature comes from the Northeastern state of India called Mizoram. The Mizos are well known as “the singing tribe.” This compilation includes folk narratives, songs, proverbs, rituals, riddles, tales, and war cries. A unique and interesting feature of Mizo literature is that the primary source of the songs, poems, and tales can often be traced. For instance, the first known composer of these songs was named Hmuaki. Hmuaki was not only the oldest known composer, but she was also a woman, a significant fact given that she lived in ancient times. Listen to a Mizo folk song.

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