Book Review

Santhal Perception of Sound

Pranjali Bandhu

by Onkar Prasad
Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation, 2016 (HB; pp. 135; Rs 750) ISBN: 9789350502686

Dr Onkar Prasad, the author of this *book, is an anthropologist who has specialised in ethnomusicology. During his tenure at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, he undertook research projects pertaining to Santhal music and the Santhali perception of sound as part of a broader anthropological study of sound, that is, humans' perception of it using field level data. As a result of these studies a few publications came out and the book at hand is one of them.

Much has been expounded on sound in Oriental (including Indian, i.e., Vedic and Tantric) and Occidental philosophy and theology; but ethnographic studies in this field are rare, especially so with regard to the innumerable ethnic communities and the so-called tribal peoples of India. In this respect the findings of Professor Prasad and his team (that included Santhali academics also) on the Santhal community's relationship to sound present a novel and interesting effort.

In his Introduction, Prof Prasad touches upon the notions of sound in both Occidental and Oriental philosophical traditions as well as on aboriginal perceptions from different parts of the world, and finding commonalities in them all, he bases this particular study on the following hypotheses: (i) The basic universal principle of differentiation as well as unification of all things is inherent in sound. (ii) Sound is causal to the cosmological processes of creation, dissolution and recreation. (iii) Sound can be auspicious or inauspicious. (iv) Sound, possessing power or potency, can be efficacious.

The author examines these working propositions in the distinct cultural context of the Santhals–a large and ancient Proto-Austroloid Adivasi community of India, whose language along with Mundari belongs to the Austro-Asiatic family of languages. Living in Santiniketan, Birbhum district of West Bengal, Prof Prasad focuses on three Santhal villages of Bolpur-Sriniketan Block for the purpose of the case study, but covers some other villages also for the cross-checking of findings. He informs us that the people of these villages are, in majority, illiterate and work as agricultural labourers. Though more than one script is available for the Santhali language, most Santhalis are still not versed in any of these, and continue to follow a more or less oral culture. This is rather astounding in the context of Visva-Bharati, which has a Santhali Language Department.

The sense of sound is a core one for humans and majorly influences their cognition and conation in everyday life. An anthropological investigation of Santhali people's perception of various kinds of sounds is, therefore, bound to throw much light on their world view and way of life.

The Santhals use three words to denote sounds emanating from different living and non living sources. The term Aran is used for the human voice; Rak for calls and sounds produced by animals, birds and insects; and the word Sade for sounds produced by humans, animals and insects in interaction with inanimate objects. The term Aran, however, does not include just human speech (Ror), but also melodic sound (Rar) produced through various musical instruments. But the painful cry of humans is included under Rak, and there are some animal calls that do not come under any of these categories. The implication follows that the categorisation of sound by the Santhal does not have rigid boundaries, which the author thinks is a validation of his first hypothesis that the basic principle of differentiation as well as unification of all things of the universe is inherent in sound.

The author also points out that due to their closeness and attentiveness to Nature they not only have words for particular sounds such as the falling of Mahua leaves, but they use different words to distinguish between various sounds coming from a single object or phenomenon. For example, they have different words to denote the specific sounds made by sudden rain, a drizzle, rain accompanied by wind, or the continuous rainfall during the rainy season. In some cases, the name of the animate or inanimate object follows from its sound. For example, their drum Tumdak is named after the sound Tun produced on its right face and Dak on its left face.
Similarly, the different sounds produced in interaction with Nature are also noted: the sound produced by the leaves of a tree when throwing a stick to knock down fruit; the rustling sound of dry leaves when walking over them; the sound of cutting grass. They have also coined words for sounds made by modern machines such as a watch/clock or a sewing machine. The author has painstakingly collected the Santhal terms for the large number of human sounds made in the course of various activities, in illness or old age. The terms for different sounds made by animals and birds are also catalogued. All these come under the category of Sade as they involve material objects in the habitat.

Another list of sounds (coming under the category Aran) made by humans calling to other humans, animals and birds is provided. Examples of these are the different kinds of calls to cattle, goats, domesticated fowl, dogs etc. Animal, bird and insect calls are also listed, along with human sounds indicating suffering (sobbing, crying, snivelling of children etc), all of which come under the category of Rak. Among these we find that the Santhals have words for the sound made by the cobra; those by frogs that signal rain in a day or two; the call of a particular type of toad during heavy monsoon rains and so on. Calls of different birds are understood to herald the onset of different seasons, or could be a warning sound indicating the presence of a wild animal. The timings of calls of the cock have different names and the one before sunrise is taken to be a wake-up and get-down-to-work call. Some of the sounds are considered inauspicious and verge on superstition. The author has made a detailed analysis of sounds by animals and birds that are considered auspicious and inauspicious in relation to the time, place, and direction by the Santhal and tried to link them to variables such as totemic-non-totemic, sacrificial-non-sacrificial, polluting-non-polluting, eatable-non-eatable etc., and has derived certain conclusions thereof. His finding is that animals have greater significance than birds in their lives that the majority of the animals (80%) having inauspicious sounds are non-totemic, non-sacrificial and intelligent.

One chapter of the book is devoted to delineating the different channels and techniques used for transmitting knowledge about sounds to members of their society. Sounds like of animals and birds are taught to children through lullabies, songs, or games. Younger children are taken along with older ones for hunting birds and in the process are taught and learn the sounds and names of different birds. In this way children are made familiar with not only names and sounds of creatures, but also with their habits and traits, helping them to develop a relationship with their natural surroundings.

Another chapter is devoted to the Santhal perception of the sounds they make with their drums (Tamdak and Tamak) in different ritual and social contexts. Like in many other cultures the sounds of musical instruments along with song and dance are perceived as 'sacred-effective' in their connection with the transcendental during rituals such as for bringing rain during times of drought. Drum-playing accompanied by singing and dancing bring joy and pleasure, the ultimate objective of life in their worldview.

Santhal mythology, like that of many other peoples, traces their knowledge of music and dance as a gift bestowed by their spirit-gods, such as Jaher Era (the Lady of the Sacred Grove), Maran Buru (the Great Mountain) and Gosae Era (a female deity), to some of them who transmitted this knowledge more widely among their people. One Santhal clan has the name Tudu (sound of the drum) as they were manufacturers of drums. Today, and since quite some time, the Santhals do not manufacture their own drums, but commission them from Muchis, the local leather workers. The author ascribes this giving up of drum making by the Santhals and its transfer to the so-called polluting castes as an influence of caste Hinduism. The work is usually done on a Jajmani basis, that is, the Santhals give a certain measure of paddy or a fixed amount of money on an annual basis and the Muchis are expected to keep the drums made by them in good repair. Though the Tumdak is generally purchased and owned by an individual, every member of the community is allowed to play it. In case it is damaged by anyone that person has to replace it.

The author goes into great detail regarding the intricate and skilled process as to how the Santhal drums are manufactured and describes the various parts also diagrammatically. The body of the Tamduk drum is made with a special type of clay provided to the Muchis by local potters, who dig the particular type of soil required from the local Kopai River and mix it with fine sand. The Muchi uses goat skin for the side strips and bullock hide for the drum faces. The body of the kettle drum (Tamak), which is beaten with a pair of sticks, has a body made of metal sheets provided by blacksmiths and uses buffalo or bullock hide for the mouth.

The rhythmic patterns of the drum beats are associated with the context of performance, such as Baha (spring festival of flowers in Feb.-March) and Sohrae (post-harvest festival in the month of Pous–Dec.-Jan.) The author observes that the span of time covered by each drum syllable is relatively large because of the free and relaxed temperament of the Santhal. The drum beats are also symmetrical and become asymmetrical only temporarily while altering the form. He traces this trait to the fact of their society being strong and closed influencing their aesthetic temperament. Furthermore, he finds both completeness and continuity in their rhythms which are cyclical in nature, always coming back to the original beat; and he links this to the Santhal following recurring season-based activities. Finally, Prof Prasad says that their drum beats follow the basic principle of the cosmic order, viz. creation, destruction and recreation. The four steps the drum beats take are as follows: form creation, elaboration, destruction or break to create a new form, and then a return to the first original form. In some dances, the fourth phase is omitted. He has illustrated these steps with the help of some Baha drum beats collected from one of the villages under study. The fundamental physical elements of the universe that play an important role in the life of the community are sought to be aligned with through evocative performances involving song/speech, music and dance in a ritualised context.

In the penultimate chapter Prof. Prasad discusses four forms of human sounds among the Santhal: Bakher (invocations), Mantra (spells), Jharni (chants) and the Baha and Sohrae songs. The Bakher and Mantra come in the category of Ror (speech sound) of Aran (human sounds). The combination of Ror and Rar (speech and melody) make a Seren (song). The Serens are of various types depending on the festival or social occasion at which they are sung. The Jharni (literally meaning blowing away) that is sung or recited to ward off disease can come either under Ror or Rar.

Already existing literature on the subject by academics from India including Santhal and Europe, is referred to here. In line with the scholar, Sitakant Mahapatra, Prof Prasad says that Bakhers are used to propitiate the spirit gods-the presiding, local and familial-and align the individual, society and physical order with the intrinsically moral supernatural order. Their purpose is to induce the evil spirits to stop doing mischief and ensure the well-being of Santhal society and their domestic animals.

The author compiles a list of the occasions and places where Bakhers as a special language of communication with the spirits are uttered, by whom, and for what purpose. They can be uttered by the village priest or headman, household head or the Ojha (medicine man). It could be at the Jaherthan (sacred grove), Manjithan (sacred place inside the village), Akhra (a space temporarily consecrated), the home or the paddy field. The village priest has to belong to some specific septs; women are prohibited from uttering Bakher. Observation of strict rules is necessary before their utterance on festive and ceremonial occasions in order not to annoy the Bongas (spirits) and avert mishappenings. As illustrations the Santhali version and English translation of some Bakhers that are enunciated during the Dasae festival propitiating the Dasae Bonga in Sept-Oct. are given. Some translations of Jharnis are also given.

The author then goes into the various purposes for which Mantars (charms or spells), originally learnt by their ancestors from Kamrup Kamakhya in Assam, are used. They are used for sealing/shielding the home, village, paths, country, earth, human body, etc. from harmful spirits, enemies, diseases, snake bite poison or to save a dying person and such like. They are also uttered before opening a space such as an Akhra before any training session for Ojha science or learning acrobatics.

In the Santhal worldview a human being may fall ill, become sick or even die due to the displeasure of the Supreme Being for his/her sinful acts. Certain evil spirits and enemies can also harass or eat people due to their displeasure or hunger. Muttering Mantras these spirits can be entrusted by 'witches' or operate through them to cause harm. The author cites the various methods used by the Ojha to diagnose the cause of illnesses or afflictions and then describes the method of treatment of the patient, which usually involves exorcism of the malevolent spirit through Mantras.

In this chapter Baha (Spring) and Sohrae (post-harvest) festival songs are given in translation and analysed along with the dances and other festival activities in their mythico-ritual contexts to reveal their true significance. Baha as a celebration of the re-manifestation of life on earth marks the beginning of the agricultural calendar in which water or rain plays a crucial role. The Sohrae festival is held in honour of Sohrae, the eldest daughter of the primeval couple, who was left unmarried and is remembered on the occasion when the earth is also left barren after the harvest of the paddy crop.

During this festival, usually observed for five days, two other forms of songs (and dance)–the Lagre and the Don–are also performed. Lagre is associated with the rain-making ceremony and Don with marriage. These performances symbolise the resurrection of the earth which can come only through representing the primal marriage of the sky (male) and earth (female) mediated by rain. From this the author infers that in the Santhal thought process creation is not a unitary process but possible only through 'pairs', which is asserted in their origin myth. Similarly, sound as a potent force is one of the creative pairs of the universe, the other being Jivi (Prana or breath of life). He concludes the book with the observation already mentioned in the beginning that the ideas and thoughts of the Santhal relating to sound are in conformity with the philosophical traditions of mankind as a whole.

As is usual in many publications, avoidable typos are there, particularly in Chapter 4, which careful proof-reading could have circumvented.

Vol. 53, No. 22-25, Nov 29 - Dec 26, 2020