Oral Culture and Literacy
Prof. Vinay Kumar Srivastava
The second day of the Two Week Capacity-building Workshop started with a lecture on ‘Oral Culture and Literacy’, delivered by Prof. Vinay Kumar Srivastava from Department of Anthropology, University of Delhi. He commenced the discussion with the Greek philosopher, Socrates’s famous quote, ‘writing is inhuman’. With this statement he unwrapped two lines of enquiry – one that believes that oral tradition is superior to literary tradition and second that argues in favour of fossilisation or museumisation of words i.e. literary tradition. He further narrated: there is an emphasis on the skill of speaking if the culture is oral whereas in print culture, the emphasis is on writing skills. The supporters of oral culture argue that print is invading and colonising the oral tradition. Those who are in favour of writing, say that orality hampers the development of a society at a time when writing is essential to communicate to the world. He cited examples of philosophers who had used orality as the form of communicating their ideas, one of them being Socrates. Socrates never wrote anything. It was his disciple Plato who converted his work in writing. Similarly Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian-British philosopher and also a student of Bertrand Russell, dictated philosophical manuscripts to his students instead of writing them because he thought orality was the best way. So, on the one hand we have such great philosophers who preferred orality than writing while on the other hand, there are philosophers like Jacques Derrida who gave primacy to writing.
Prof. Srivastava explained in detail the arguments put forward by American historian and philosopher Prof. Walter J. Ong in his book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. In this book, Ong divided oral culture into three categories :
- Primary Orality
- Residual Orality and
- Secondary Orality.
Primary orality applies to those cultural situations where there is no invasion of any form of writing. There are cultures which are still dependent on primary orality such as Jarawas of Andaman Islands in India who largely depend on orality. Secondary orality is just the opposite of primary orality where television, dictaphone, etc. may have entered into the realm of recording the words. In other words, secondary orality implies a society where oral tradition is technologised, so everything becomes fossilised and museumised. Residual orality lies in between these two categories. It applies to those social situations in which orality coexists with writing but writing is still confined to certain social strata. There are communities which are entrusted with the work of scribing.
After this he moved on to the question of why people find writing onerous. Why is it that people plagiarise? To address these questions, he spoke of five ‘gifts of nature’ that Anthropologists have outlined to differentiate human beings from animals. The first such ‘gift’ is change of posture. The change of posture has freed the limbs of man that entailed a complete revolution in the organization of the human body. With the evolution of the upright erected posture, the opposable thump evolved that facilitated in the grasping power. With the development of the opposable thumb, human beings could use it in tool making. The tool-making role of the thumb was so significant that humans were called ‘Homo faber’ which means that human beings control their environment through tools. This was the second ‘gift’ of the nature.
According to Prof. Srivastava, this exemplifies that humans were not programmed for writing but for tool making. The next ‘gift’ is that humans have the ability to speak. So, in addition to tool-making, speaking differentiates humans from animals. Humans can use both sentential and non-sentential forms of communication. This means orality is an aggregation of both sentential and non-setential aspects which they learn through apprenticeship. Through this biological evolution, Prof. Srivastava substantiated his argument that humans find writing onerous.
With this background, he discussed dynamics of conflict between orality and print culture after oral traditions came into contact with print traditions. He noted that British colonisers were able to exploit tribals and usurp their land because of their domination of pen and paper. He concluded the lecture with the argument that oral traditions are superior to print tradition as they are humane. This argument is in continuity of Socrates’s statement with which Prof. Srivastava began his lecture.
Communication Studies: An Interdisciplinary Reflection
Prof. Biswajit Das
Prof. Biswajit Das, Director, Centre for Culture, Media and Governance, began his lecture by emphasizing on the notion of ‘Communication Studies as a Scholarship’ and distinguishing it from journalistic or media ‘training’. He raised his concerns at the prevailing condition of Mass-Communication education in India and highlighted that mass-communication institutions did not evolve from their mere role of building skilled labour force for the media industry. This claim can be substantiated by the kind of skill based degree and diploma courses running across the colleges throughout India. Earlier, these skill based programmes were run by state-funded institutes like IIMC, but with the coming of private players – colleges and especially schools setup by media houses, the scope of scholarship got further reduced.
According to him, ‘communication’ is not a new conception; it was there since inception of human species. It is not only an object matter of literate societies but also existed in the era of ‘orality’. He quoted several authors such as Harold Innis’ The Bias of Communication, Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word and many more who had extensively worked and theorized the basic essence of communication i.e. to talk or to share experiences among species.
He further added that this line of enquiry was pursued in the post-independence India by a number ‘sociologists’ who had tried to theorize the ‘sociology of communication’ and tried to relate the advancement in the medium of communication to its impact on the society. Initially, scholars who worked in this direction included P.C.Joshi, Mehra Masani, B.G Verghese, etc.
Prof. Das cautioned that one should not be carried away by the thought that communication was only the sub-domain of sociology rather, he emphasized, it was an interdisciplinary subject where its aspects could be understood and theorized by using interdisciplinary approaches. He admitted that the theories of Communication had similarities with theories of Sociology but he also stated that scholars across the world attempted to relate different disciplines with communication. For example, Robert Ezra Park’s work in Chicago elaborating the role of ‘press’ in enforcing a sense of community among people, Nobert Weiner, and Shannon and Weaver’s work on ‘Cybernetics’ developed by relating perpetual control theory of cognitive psychology with sociology etc.
In a nutshell, communication is a discipline where scholarship can take new directions and evolve by relating it with various conceptions associated with politics, economy, psychology, public policy, etc. and it is not only restricted to social sciences but its relation to natural sciences can also add a new kind of knowledge to the field.
Film Title: Echoes of the Past (Documentary)
Director: Merajur Rahman Barua
The third session included the screening of the documentary film, Echoes of the Past, by award-winning independent documentary filmmaker Merajur Rahman Barua. This 52-minute film, financed by the Films Division of India, revolves around the gradually dying behrupiya/impersonator art form practiced in the northern states of India. Although there is no fixed historicity to locate the origin of this traditional performance art, it is believed that it has a legacy that started and flourished from the royal courts of kings and maharajas of North India.
From the past glory that came along with royal patronage, today this art form has fallen into bad days. The Behrupiya community has today dwindled in size as well as in reputation. Only a handful of them continue to pursue this craft of street acting enduring economic hardship and a generally apathetic audience. This film captures the lives of two travelling Behrupiya performers, Sikandar Abbas and Mehmud, as they assay characters ranging from Hindu Gods and saints to popular icons like Amitabh Bachchan and Raj Kapoor, in the rural hinterlands of the country.
The film shows how these Muslim impersonator actors negotiate with their chosen profession in the face of a changing India, characterized by an increasingly polarized narrative perpetuated by radical voices belonging to both Hindu and Muslim communities. The art as well as the artiste today suffers from an existential crisis. The forces of globalization engulfed with mass media entertainment have pushed this traditional performance art form to the margins. Through Sikandar and Abbas, the filmmaker contends that a growing tendency of dogmatic religiosity in India is hindering an artiste’s execution of the full range of his impersonating skills to eke out a livelihood.
The screening was followed by an extended interactive session where the filmmaker discussed the filmmaking process and the rationale behind taking up this project. Issues on current trends in documentary filmmaking as well as the nature of representation and the issue of authorial voice in non-fiction filmmaking were also discussed.