Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Cambridge News carries our centre's photograph!

Out of the 6,700 languages spoken by people all over the world, a third are in danger of extinction.

Preventing this, or at least slowing the process, is the massive challenge faced by researchers and academics at the World Oral Literature Project, which was established by Cambridge University in January 2009.

Dr Mark Turin, director of the project and research associate at the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, said the project has attracted much interest since its inception.

It works with local communities and fieldworkers who are now collecting and recording texts, myths, songs, legends, proverbs, narratives and other various literatures that can be used to save a language from vanishing without record.

Dr Mark Turin
Dr Mark Turin
Dr Turin said there were many reasons for preserving and documenting endangered languages.

He said: “Each and every language is a celebration of the rich cultural diversity of our planet and an expression of the unique ethnic, social, regional or cultural identity and world view of a people.”

The project is funding fieldwork and other projects through grants in locations all over the world, including Colombia, Malawi, India, Mongolia and Nepal. It has so far supported the documentation of the oral literature, traditions and languages of some 15 communities.

The work of preserving the world’s languages, time-consuming and intensive, comes with a sense of urgency. According to Dr Turin, the process of extinction can be quite rapid.

He said: “We should remember that the evolution of a species or a language takes much longer than its extinction.”

However, determining whether a language is actually endangered is not a precise science.

Researchers need to not only look at the total number of people who speak the language, but their ages as well. If the majority of people speaking a language are elderly or above the age of reproduction, the language is at risk of dying off with the living population.

Village elder Ranki
Village elder Ranki
Researchers also study the rate of transmission between parents and children to establish whether the language will be actively used by subsequent generations.

Another key determinant of the survivability of a language is whether it has a writing system. Some languages are only spoken or signed. In Nepal, for example, only 10 per cent of the more than 100 languages spoken in the country have writing systems.

Geographically, endangered languages are thought to be concentrated between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, especially around the Equator.

Dr Turin said: “Recent scholarship on language endangerment points to an intriguing correlation: language diversity appears to be inversely related to latitude, and areas rich in languages also tend to be rich in ecology and species.

“Both biodiversity and linguistic diversity are concentrated between the tropics and in inaccessible environments, such as the Himalayas, while diversity of all forms tails off in deserts.”

Globally, the majority of people speak just a handful of languages. In fact, 95 per cent of the world’s population speaks just 5 per cent of world’s living languages.

The world’s most popular languages, such as English and Spanish, are often second languages for many people, but can quickly become primary languages out of necessity. Because of this trend, there has been a growth in “heritage languages” – those in which people only know how to say a few select words, such as grandmother or grandfather. Once a language has reached this phase, it can quickly become extinct.

And the risk of extinction is now more prevalent than ever. Globalisation, although also a key element in preserving languages, has caused a massive cultural and geographical shift. People looking for a better standard of living move from rural to urban areas, often cities, where they need to speak the most common urban or national language.

There is also a perception that traditional languages are outdated or unfashionable, whereas widely spoken languages are seen as worldly and sophisticated.

Dr Turin said: “People think that to be modern they have to leave their old ways at the doorstep of modernity.”

The project is trying to counteract this trend and has received support in its efforts from some unexpected sources. For example, a man from Taiwan – a member of the Paiwan ethnic group, which had a total population of just over 70,000 in the year 2000 – walked into the project’s offices with tape recordings of songs and prayers in his traditional language, which he wanted the project to help him preserve.

Judging from these types of responses, there is a strong desire to keep the world’s linguistic diversity from fading.

The project has been holding workshops and lectures to provide an opportunity for researchers and academics to share their knowledge and findings with the public and each other. The lectures are free and open to the public – the workshops cost £30 for registration. The next workshop, in December, will focus on the distribution of oral literature through traditional and digital media.

For more information, see www.oralliterature.org.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Searching Ethics of Documentation

The video derives the ethics of video-documentation in ethnography. The 5.55-minute video is the analysis of videography done by fieldworkers at Mudugar-Kurumbar Research Centre, Attappady.

The presentation is one of the outcomes of the research done by Justin Raj (our intern at Mudugar-Kurumbar Research Centre) and Sachindev P.S. (Media Officer, Mudugar-Kurumbar Research Centre). The show gives a comprehensive idea of what "occupation" means to Mudugar.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

World Oral Literature Project: An Internship Experience in Jungle.

A few months ago, when Rayson K. Alex, the Principal Researcher of the project briefed me about World Oral Literature Project and asked me to join the team, more than the international relevance of the project, I was attracted to the offer of staying inside jungle, having adventurous treks, camping and finally making a videodocumentary. Moreover, I found it interesting to have a productive vacation.

The focus of my documentary or internship was the occupation of Kurumbar Tribal Community dwelling in deep jungles of Attapady region. We have made contacts, planned to stay with them and wrote the script for the documentary. After that meeting, every day I dreamt of great tribal adventures and a great documentary shooting.

All those jungle-dreams got shattered into air when we were stopped by the Forest Officers at the Forest Range Office and rejected our request for going into the jungle. We didn’t have sufficient documents to enter the jungle. That was the reason, officials had said. I was deeply disappointed that day. I had no other go other than changing my focus from Kurumbar to Mudugar. Mudugar hamlets are closer to mainland compared to Kurumbar’s.

Focus had changed. Mind set had changed. Thrill of going inside deep jungle and meeting up with Kurumbar had subsided. I had a big job at hand and the next challenge arose: lack of manpower. Especially, when it comes to making an anthropological documentary, we need good support and help from the indigenous communities. Without a guide or a member of indigenous community, going into their hamlets is bit difficult. It doesn’t matter how many contacts you have, you are still a stranger in their eyes. Gradually, I came to know that it is very difficult to swim against the tide and it is better to swim along with it.

For first few weeks, Sachin, the Media Officer, and I went to few hamlets where contacts have been previously made by the Principal Researcher and the Collaborator. We talked to them, interviewed them and took footages for the documentary. Even though we could capture good footages, I always needed more.

Fortunately, the project got a great momentum when a young Mudugan named Raghu voluntarily joined our team. He was very enthusiastic and knowledgeable on Mudugar culture and history and also very well aware of the world outside. Without his support and help I never think my documentary would have been completed successfully.

Life at Attapady

Green mountains covered with fog and waterfalls flowing down rocks, green lush meadows, chirping of birds on tall teak trees, splashing of streams carrying crystal clear water; old and young at a local food stall, discussing daily news while sipping their regular dose of tea; laborers moving in a slow and steady pace with tools hanging on their shoulders. In the midst of all these natural beauties, there stand windmills, electric transformers, DTH satellite receivers and mobile towers as symbols of a modern world outside. Life at Attapady was great but slow. With no network coverage for my mobile and a slow internet connection, I was totally disconnected from the outside world.

Cheap and mouth watering local food was another attraction apart from the beautiful sceneries this place always offers. I could see all aspects of a village life there. No one is in hurry like in cities. Everybody has luxury of time to talk to their neighbors and have fun with their children. This slow paced life was bit boring but it gradually became a habit for me.

Every morning I woke up seeing the mighty ‘Maleeshwaran Mudi’, the mountain to which all the myths and history of Mudugar and Kurumbar is related to. The days which I had a shoot was enjoyable with treks, funny jeep rides and lonely bike rides. A day without shoot is nothing more than a limbo. Watching movies or surfing on net usually gets disturbed with fluctuating electricity. So, for me, only feasible past time activity was reading.

Making of Bele.

Bele means ‘occupation’ in Muduga language. It is a 20 minute bilingual documentary which features both traditional and progressive occupations of Mudugar community. Karara, Karuvara, Thundoor, Jellipara are few of the Muduga hamlets we have visited to shoot.

Mudugar were very friendly people who, when we explained to them the significance of this project, were seemed very cooperative. Although they were shy to face the camera, they gave good interviews for us.

The main challenge we have faced during the shoot is the indifference and intolerance shown by some Mudugar. One day we even had to hear and bear bad words from them. I was really glad that since those bad words are in Muduga, the language which was not easily understandable by me.

I agree that documentary making is not an ecological process. But at least we are making a sincere attempt to digitally document and archive these vanishing cultures. There is always a linguistic and cultural barrier between us and thereby it was little bit difficult to make them understand the significance of the project we are carrying out.

However, with the support and help of Raghu and some other forward thinking people, we have carried out the shoot without much trouble. We have explored hamlets like Manjacholla, Kallamalla et al from where not only we got great footages but also an amazing, breathtaking trekking experiences.

We braved the swamps, rain, steep climbs and blood sucking leeches to gather information, to take photographs and to capture footages for the documentary. In certain places and events we were not allowed to shoot by community members. In such instances we just switch on the camera and recorded their songs and music.

The editing part was the most tiresome part in the whole documentary making process. I have to watch all the footages with a strange language which we had taken for the past 60 days. Raghu had rendered a great help by staying with us for two days to translate and give voiceover for the documentary.

I should have completed the documentary within one month, but with lack of proper information and guides, the shooting has dragged to more than two months.

Collaboration with Moon TV

Moon TV is a local cable television channel in Attapady which boasts of a subscription base of more than 8000 households. Media has power, a wonderful power to change. I have learnt it from my experiences as a media student and also as a freelance journalist.

With the support of Rayson.K.Alex I initiated collaboration between Mudugar Kurumbar Research Centre and Moon TV. The collaboration includes telecasting the documentaries which have been made by the Research Centre.

As a part of this initiative, I have helped Moon TV, which has been suffering from lack of manpower and ideas, in covering some important events happened in the region. After checking their programme schedules, I could find number of gaps which they are filling by merely relaying Tamil movies and music. I suggested to them that it will be better if they can relay some informative programmes on Muduga, Kurumba and Irula communities and make it more interactive for the local viewers. They accepted the idea.

After pondering over these gaps, I have designed for them two programmes called ‘Thanathu Geethangal’, a programme which showcases singing talents in tribal communities and also their folklore and songs. Another programme I have designed is called ‘OoruKootam’ which explores and showcases each hamlet in Attapady. There are nearly 150 hamlets in this region and this programme will help to showcase each hamlet’s and its people’s stories and life style.

The people behind this television channel had given me full support and help to carry out the shoot. I have made two episodes of ‘OoruKootam’ covering two hamlets namely Sambarkode and Thundoor.

Tribal Life

“Forest culture is the mother of all culture”- unknown author

The quotation mentioned above is the one which I had read on the walls of Mukkali Forest Range Office, Attapadi on the first day of my arrival in that scenic place. Each day with indigenous community members and involving in most of their important events, I came to know that the quotation is true.

In jungle, everything from birth to death is a celebration. They have no yesterday and tomorrow, they have only today. They worship the jungle and its unseen forces and these forces give them what they need for their living. The mountains, trees, animals and even small insects are their gods. They are deeply devoted to their gods since they know very well that without gods their life will be in peril. They possess the greatest wisdom, which we, modern men lack: without nature, there is no life; nature is not to be conquered but to enjoy and preserve for posterity.

They dance. They sing. They rejoice. Women and men, old and young, as a whole community, participate in all events. They make a living together. Community feeling is so strong in their hearts. Women enjoy the same freedom as men. They play a major role when it comes to taking important decisions.

I got rare opportunities to have food with them and take part in their festivals and ceremonies. Words are not enough to express the love and care they show towards me. They shared with me forest fruits which were very tasty compared to what we get in markets.

One day, while shooting under a jackfruit tree, I just mentioned to one of young Mudugar who gathered there that I love jackfruit. As soon as I uttered those words, the biggest jackfruit on that tree was under my feet! It was tastiest jackfruit I have ever had in my life!

I was amazed to see their intelligent indigenous traps and weapons. They have shown us how they use those tools and also give us invaluable interviews.

One day, I got an opportunity to attend a death ceremony also known as ‘Cheeru’ in Muduga. That day and the event altogether taught me a different lesson and altered my viewpoint on human life. I have seen women and men dancing, rejoicing and using intoxicants together. Even the modern day pubbing and clubbing, I think, originated from jungle. Some people say, ‘western culture’ has invaded our country and our rich culture. Now I tell those people to look into tribal culture. I feel that so called ‘western culture’ is prevalent in jungles long ago without attention of our modern society where isolation has become a reality and community life has become a distant dream.

I was also really impressed with the boundless enthusiasm and energy Muduga children possess. They were really entertaining and interactive even to strangers like us. Whenever there is a shoot these kids often bring us very sweet mangoes and cashews. They were surprisingly camera friendly and even took our photos!

In global context, World Oral Literature Project is a great initiative. In the name of modernism, number of rich and vibrant cultures in this world is perishing. It seems impossible to preserve these cultures in its real form. Only feasible option for amateur film makers and freelance journalists like us is to digitally document these cultures and make it freely available to future generations. Even though I had my own share of boredom, loneliness and hardships, I’m really happy to be a part of this great project.

Now, while sitting comfortably on the couch at my home and happily typing this blog post, only one thought persistently troubles me: I COULD HAVE DONE MORE!
Written by Justin Raj

Image Courtesy: Sachindev, Dilip and Dinesh

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Our Photograph becomes the theme of the Conference at University of Cambridge

This is the promotion material of the International Conference on "Archiving Orality and Connecting with Communities: World Oral Literature Project 2010 Workshop" held on 10th and 11th December, 2010 at University of Cambridge. The photograph used for the poster is taken by one of our intern, Mr. Dileep Kumar. In the photograph are (From Left) Mr. Kiran Tom Sajan (Intern), Ramu (Field worker belonging to the tribal community, Mudugar) and Ranki (an elderly woman in a hamlet of Mudugar).

Archiving Orality and Connecting with Communities: World Oral Literature Project 2010 Workshop

Friday, 10 December and Saturday, 11 December 2010
Location: Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), 17 Mill Lane, University of Cambridge

This workshop explores key issues around the dissemination of oral literature through traditional and digital media. Funding agencies, including our own Supplemental Grants Programme, now encourage fieldworkers to return copies of their work to source communities, in addition to requiring researchers to deposit their collections in institutional repositories. But thanks to ever greater digital connectivity, wider internet access and affordable multimedia recording technologies, the locus of dissemination and engagement has grown beyond that of researcher and research subject to include a diverse constituency of global users, such as migrant workers, indigenous scholars, policymakers and journalists, to name but a few.

For more details check: http://www.oralliterature.org/research/workshops.html