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Ethnographic Museum

Lecture by Ruby Hembrom

Author and Director of Adivaani (Kolkata, India) at the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich, 13th September 2018


Ruby Hembrom during the lecture


From the Opening Address

Ruby Hembrom has been here in Switzerland in February 2018 to speak during the “Tage der Indischen Literatur” at the Literaturhaus Zurich; she returned to Zurich in July and once more in September on a Research Residency supported by Pro Helvetia. The Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich invited her for a lecture at the museum on 13th September 2018.

Ruby Hembrom is Founder and Director of Adivaani, a publishing house for literature by and about Adivasis – the „ancient peoples“ of India who defy most, if not all, clichés which make up the dominant Western image of India with its sitars and colours and cows, with its temples and mosques and caste system.

Ruby is not only a writer and a publisher – she is herself a member of the largest homogeneous tribe, or nation, of these ancient peoples: the Santals. There may be 7 or 8 Million Santals – roughly the size of the Swiss population – living in North India: in Jharkhand, West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, and in adjacent areas of Assam, Nepal, and Bangladesh.

The Santals maintain, to a considerable degree, their own language, traditional systems of self-administration, social customs, and spirituality. Locational centres of their religion are not temples or mosques or churches, but sacred groves, forests, trees; and the sacred scripts of their religion are not scripts but binti, recitations, the most important being Karam binti, recitations describing the creation of the world and the inventions and institutions of humans. These recitations are performed by Karam guru – specialists, or masters, of the text. Karam recitations take place all over the year during the big communal festivals; excerpts of the Karam story are also recited – and partly re-enacted – during weddings and funerals.

The Karam story exists in numerous modern formats and variations, but so far only in shortened re-tellings in modified ethnographic or literary language. Therefore, in 2011, Ganesh Murmu, a linguist and anthropologist of Ranchi University, and Thomas Kaiser, head of the museum’s sound archive, decided to try and audio-record a complete version of a Karam recitation. We were introduced to two Karam masters – Lukhiram Soren and Ramlal Soren – from Jharkhand.

For two days the four of us sat together in a hotel room in Dhanbad. Ganesh had strongly urged the two Karam guru to recite the complete story to the very best of their knowledge and not leave out any details. We started recording and went on recording for two days, for hours on end, twelve hours of actual recitation altogether. During the eleventh hour, Lukhiram received a phone call from his village. A girl had died from snake-bite, and he was called back, he was needed by her family now. He told them he’d return once the recitation was over; it was over maybe half an hour later.

Which, after two days sitting together, seemed like a strange coincidence. We wondered and asked them whether the story was complete, without any parts missing.

“Complete, done,” they said, “no parts missing. Except for the creation of all kinds of fish and crabs.” A longwinded and somewhat repetitive part of the story, it seems. And Ganesh and I have to figure out now how to complete the complete recording we aimed for.

Well. When Ruby and I met in July I asked her whether she could think of a way to bring the recitation out from the digital crypt of our sound archive and turn it into something accessible and useful and beautiful.

She’d give it a thought, she promised, and, for the time being, we decided to make the museum lecture happen: Ruby’s telling of her own experiences and dealings, as a publisher, as a Santal woman, with the Karam story, the Santals’ telling of how the world was created.

-- TK, 13. September 2018

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