Preserving orality in the modern era

Ever since the Macaulayite era, the oral has been misconstrued as rote, repetitive and redundant. But It actually invents variants around a standard narrative.
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip sinha)

Sometimes I feel like an “outdated” man while everyone is discussing and celebrating technology. I sit quietly, watching an array of technological spectacles. One has felt this way, especially after Covid, when technologies were literally hawked as a solution to everything. Today, reform becomes a technical answer to a technical question, and progress a standard linear narrative. Anyone who questions these is seen as a Luddite. But I am not one. A Luddite confronts you with an “either/or” vis-à-vis technology, while a pluralist seeks the music of alternatives. I want to question the recent hype surrounding technology, especially the craze behind AI and digital solutions. I want to see if we can broaden the narrative. I believe the idea of the oral and the spoken has to be revived to sustain a different creativity.

Firstly, one has to begin by questioning the idea of the oral as redundant. The oral is primordial. It brings voice to the innermost domains of modernity. Yet it sustains the intimacy of the voice and the encounter of face-to-face, defining intimacy and communication in a very different way. Orality demands the listener’s attention and thus becomes an instrument for the community, while the printed word invites privacy. Simply put: When you read, you want to be alone. But it isn’t the same when it comes to orality.

Ever since the Macaulayite era, the oral has been misconstrued as rote, repetitive and redundant. The oral is actually inventive. It sustains memory by inventing variants around a standard narrative. As the musicologist Sumithra Vasudev put it: “My music is oral and orality creates a new epistemic reality.” She argued that music would not be music without the intimacy of the Guru-Shishya relationship. Orality, she suggested, has its own sense of pedagogy, invention and community. As a result, one can memorise a few thousand lines and seek different forms of meaning in them.

Albert Lord, in The Singer of Tales, demonstrated this in a study of Balkan music. He showed that the written word or digital music does not have that sense of personal immediacy. Orality links the spectator to the listener in a very creative way. There is an implicit pedagogy here. Orality is fundamental to teaching and it is orality that gives power to pedagogy. The teacher was seen as the archetype of the performative ritual we call the lecture.

The other day, one of India’s leading legal scholars, Amit Bindal, described it this way. Coming out of a digital lecture, he said, “We have drained drama out of teaching, it’s no longer an initiation rite.” What was once a ritual of initiation, is now abstract information, a byte.

The tragedy of orality comes out in a different context. Today, with the strong emphasis on development and the impending sense of displacement of many people, storytelling and the story also disappear. Orality sustained a kind of living memory which disappears today as an anonymous statistic. Dams and other development projects not only create displacement—the spoken word is vulnerable to the technical power of these projects and needs to be preserved and sustained as such.

Let me put it bluntly: Modernity treats the oral in a genocidal way. As literary critic Ganesh Devy pointed out—if the government defines language as a form of expression with a script, then orality is doomed. The Indian government has erased around 2,000 languages by legislating through textuality. Kannada writer U R Ananthamurthy follows this up with a powerful argument, saying that in a country like India, literature cannot be equated to text. It has to embrace and include the oral to stay creative. Memory and orality, Ananthamurthy believed, were sibling processes. He shows that Dalit literature and its search for justice are embedded in memory and orality. He suggests that modernity confuses information with memory. Information is abstract, while memory has to be relived as orality to come alive.

My father had a powerful memory. He recited poetry while driving, his voice loud and clear as it recited everything from Slokas to Shakespeare. On long drives, he would recite Hamlet and other Shakespearean plays, underscoring the need to recite Shakespeare in order to remember the playwright. He said to remember is to relive the world and to recreate it through the drama of words. Essentially, the text is brilliant—but remember—that text has to come alive as performance.

I remember watching scenes from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission televised live in South Africa. Its coordinator Bishop Desmond Tutu did not condone forgetting. Forgetting becomes erasure. One recounted the Apartheid to remember it and confront it. Memory becomes a creative path for the larger performative context called justice. Memory creates a ritual for forgiveness. The Truth Commission shows you cannot deliver justice with erasure.

Often, I feel that institutions today are ham-handed because they do not know how to remember. Anniversaries are too truncated. They cannot create a commons of memory because the official text amputates orality. Tutu read the Apartheid as a fable, a folktale and a memory rather than as a legal text. He showed how the folktale could both forget and forgive. It had the normative power to go on. It is a cultural skill that modernity lacks. The Truth Commission displayed the power and creativity of memory in a way that the Holocaust could not. The Holocaust constructed memory literally as a monument, but the Truth Commission as folklore let the mind recollect the Apartheid orally. Therefore, it had the element of forgiveness.

It was while talking about the law and the Constitution that a philosopher friend of mine claimed that law needs an ecology of memory. Law needs orality as a tacit Constitution. In fact, he added that our Constitution should create a new social contract with orality, textuality and digitality. Only then can craft and folklore, which outlines memory as a moral construct, work fluidly. We should remember this if we ever have a Truth Commission in India. One must learn from Tutu, who by enacting the Apartheid as oral memory and embedding it in folklore, created a moral space to liberate South Africa.

I am recollecting these events to tell you that orality as a culture has to encode society. I remember asking a student once to tell me about his grandmother. He dismissively responded that she was old and all she did was watch TV. On a sudden hunch, I asked him, “Tell me about the pickles she made.” The boy stood silent, weeping. I realised that pickles are more than a preservative—a living memory.

Shiv Visvanathan

Social scientist associated with THE COMPOST HEAP, a group researching alternative imaginations

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