Kaustav Chakraborty

Assistant Professor in English, Southfield College, Darjeeling (W.B.)


Seen from the stereotyped binary of savage/civilized, the tribal people always get labelled as the martial figures of corporeal skills and, therefore, without any other delicate endowments. Based on the select folktales of the two indigenous communities—i.e. Limbus and Rabhas—this article, attempts to prove that more than the physical it is the musical skill which facilitates means of enablement for the tribal men. The paper wants to underscore the folktales of Rabha and Limbu people through translation by critically challenging the polemic between the folk and the classic. By associating ethnomusic with the tribal male, the objective of the study is to show how these folktales seem to combat with the ‘mainstream’ stereotyped notion of tribalism to be mere martial. Ultimately, this endeavour is aimed at de-stereotyping the ‘tabooed’ perspective through which music is often labelled as an effeminate/emasculated art.

Keywords : Ethnomusic, Tribalism, Limbu, Rabha, Folktale

The Indigenous communities of India are often assumed to be the martial representatives of the formerly hunter inhabitants of the forests. Despite the works carried out by Levi-Strauss to annihilate the stereotyped dichotomy between the nature and the mind, there is a categorized notion among the polemical ‘mainstream’ that the tribal people by virtue of being ‘natural’ as opposed to being ‘cultural’ are, thereby, essentially ‘animalistic’/ ‘savages’ as not being ‘civilized’: “a man who spends his whole life following animals just to kill them to eat, or moving from one berry patch to another, is really living just like an animal himself” (Braidwood, 22). Seen from the stereotyped binary of savage/civilized, the tribal people always get labelled as the martial figures of corporeal skills and, therefore, without any other delicate endowments. The folktales of the indigenous communities, however, prove that more than the physical it is the musical skill which facilitates means of enablement for the tribal men. By associating ethnomusic with the tribal male, these Rabha folktales (of Coochbehar and Jalpaiguri districts of West Bengal) and Limbu folktales (from the ethnic people residing in Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts) also seem to combat with the ‘mainstream’ stereotyped notion of music as an effeminate/emasculated art.

Music as the Weapon

In case of the human protagonist of The Herdsman and the Last Ape-man it is the playing of his flute that mesmerizes the nonhuman listener.

The Herdsman and the Last Ape-man (A Limbu Folktale)

There was a time when the last ape-man (Yeti/Sokpa) used to stay alone on the top of a hill, without knowing where the others have gone. One evening a herdsman arrived with his cattle to graze on the hill. He made a small hut for himself. In the evening he counted all his cattle and was happy to feel that there were no animals nearby, else they would have taken away a sheep or a cow. He assembled some dry leaves and branches and created a fire in front of his hut. Then he brought out his bamboo flute and started playing it. The ape-man got attracted by the music and he came close to the herdsman. Looking at the ape-man, which was very furry with the heals facing the front and the toes facing backward, the cows started mooing, the black yak snorted angrily, the one horned yak rolled its eyes and starred furiously, the sheep froze and turned pale with panic. The herdsman was very scared to find the yeti sitting next to him, but he kept on playing his flute. When he became too tired, he stopped playing the flute and placed it on the ground. The ape-man picked up his flute from the ground and signaled him to play it again. Thus the herdsman had to go on playing till it was morning when the yeti ultimately left. Next day again Sokpa visited the shepherd and urged him to play the flute. When the shepherd got tired of playing his flute he kept it down on the ground. The ape-man took the flute and attempted to play it, however, without any success. The herdsman got an idea. He went inside the hut and brought a container full of butter. He sated rubbing butter all over his body from tip to toe, including his face. The yeti started to imitate him. Soon the fur became brown with butter. Then the herdsman took out a burning twig out of the fire place and pretended to roast his body. The yeti did the same, but the thick fur soon caught the fire. The Sokpa ran far away towards the frozen mountain peak in order to get cooled down. From then onwards one cannot find yeti anywhere nearby since even the last one has moved far away on to the frozen mountain peak.

The herdsman’s connectedness with nature is evident not only by his profession but by the unpremeditated way his music unintentionally impresses the Yeti. The ape-man’s appreciating of the herdsman’s music along with the herdsman’s fearful fatigue and desperateness to get rid of the Yeti reveal the ethnocentric viewpoint where the nonhuman is not solely brutalized but seen from the perspective of “a relationship based on companionship [that] is voluntary, freely terminable and involves the preservation of the personal autonomy of both parties” (Gibson, 392). The playing of a flute that has been the chief allure for the ape-man also becomes the antithetical-weapon that assists the herdsman to beguile the Sokpa in imitating each and every of his actions resulting in the last ape-man’s distant refuge to a far off place around the snowy peaks.

Musicality and Agency

In The lazy-gallant, the tag of laziness is labelled to the youngest brother due in his withdrawal from the practising of ‘manly’ skills like woodcutting and cattle rearing that are supposed to be vigorously laborious and thereby masculine, with his engagement with alternative, non-manlike, habits like slumbering, catching small birds and playing dotara.

The Lazy-gallant (A Rabha Tale)

This is of long time ago. In a Koch village there lived six brothers. The first five brothers were very hard working while the youngest one was very lazy. He would sleep all through the day. In the evening, idly he would roam around playing his dotara (a two stringed instrument) or at the most catch a few birds since he could not eat rice without meat. Because of his ability of hunting only some small birds, people used to call him, jokingly, the lazy-gallant. The five brothers did all the laborious works like cutting the logs, rearing the cattle and their wives did all the household chores like cooking and weaving. The five brothers and the four wives were very annoyed with the lazy-gallant. Only the eldest sister-in-law was very affectionate; she used to weave him clothes and served him the major amount of meat and rice every day. The elder brothers tried their best but could not mend his sluggishness. Finally, one day they came to the conclusion that it was better to get rid of him than to continue with him by serving the largest portion of meat without any output. They planned to stab him that night after having the dinner. The eldest among the wives came to know about the plan and warned the lazy-gallant not to sleep on his bed. He slept in another room, keeping a hug pillow covered with a blanket on his bed. The five brothers came to the youngest brother’s room and stabbed on the pillow. Thinking that the lazy-gallant was dead they went off to sleep. Next day, to their utter surprise, they found their youngest brother alive. The promised to kill him that very night. But the idle boy’s eldest sister-in-law, advising him to spend the night in the animal shed, put stones and bricks on his bed and covered them with a bed sheet. The brothers returned back, and after having the dinner entered the lazy-gallant’s room. They hit the stones and bricks with their swords thinking that it was their youngest brother. Next morning the eldest brother’s wife suggested the lazy-gallant to stay away from the house for some days. He carried his dotara, clothes, some fair amount of food supplied by the eldest sister-in-law and entered the forest. Right through the day he just played his dotara. In the evening he felt that someone was touching his shoulder. Turning back, he found a beautiful girl sitting behind him. The girl introduced herself as a princess who had to leave her house due to the murderous plan of her step mother and on the way got attracted by the beautiful notes of his dotara. She proposed the lazy-gallant to marry her. They were married and lived well with no work for some days, surviving on the food packed by the eldest brother’s wife. Soon there was no food left. The lazy-gallant asked his wife to visit his eldest sister-in-law for help. The eldest brother’s wife was very glad to meet the wife of the lazy-gallant. She instructed the youngest brother’s wife to burn the forest and sow the seeds of maize and rice, which she had packed and handed over to the princess. According to her direction the lazy-gallant and his wife learnt jhum cultivation and lived happily ever after.

The five elder brothers of this tribal tale, who seem to be all for an externally standardized ‘status position’ in their performing of the categorical masculinity along with their mimicking of the colonial desire of erasing out the effeminate-unmanly-man, represent the new adults who internalize the norms of the ‘mainstream’/colonizers, while the last-born indigenous male with his musicality representing “the reversed mirror image of the rejected norm” (La Barre, 40) symbolizes a minor yet steady tribal resistance against non-ethnic invasion. The elder brothers’ multiple attempt to kill the unproductive youngest brother also shows how the colonizers have installed the capitalist notion of counting worth on the basis of value judgement. The five Rabha brothers underscore the fact that how the ethnic space with differences has been slowly appropriated by the mainstream (British colonizers, and other non-tribal intruders) on the basis of arguments put forward in the name of “those justifications of modernity—progress, homogeneity, cultural organicism, the deep nation, the long past–that rationalize the authoritarian ‘normativizing’ tendencies within a culture in the name of national interest” (Bhabha, 4). The matrifocal tribal notion of a fluid gender role in the conventional Rabha society has been deliberately replaced with patrilineal models as non-indigenous culture along with the “Christian religion, brought by colonialism, carried rigid gender ideologies which aided and supported the exclusion of women from the power hierarchy…The rigid gender system meant that the roles are strictly masculinized or feminized; breaking gender rules therefore carries a stigma” (Amadiume, 185).

The youngest brother’s dependence on women in the form of the sister-in-law and wife, both for his physical and emotional sustenance, yet again, makes him appear as a degraded male devoid of manhood in the eyes of the invaders. However, this Rabha sixth brother displays the tribal nonconforming attitude that does not consider manliness as to be played in an oppositional relation to femininity. With the calibres like that of playing a dotara, which seem to be unproductive and therefore valueless from the eyes of the non-indigenous settlers, the youngest brother’s final development into a prosperous man, married to a princess and possessing enough of harvest, brings out this folktale’s motif of privileging the Rabha gender-fluid skills over the newly introduced stratifications by the immigrants. The skill of playing a dotara which has marked the boy as lazy finally, enabling him to come into contact with the princess, provides an agency to the tribal boy—an agency that is acquired through musicality.

Skill as Enhancing Capability

In the folktale A Tale about Buying a Song, music is seen as a skill in two different ways: first by an utilitarian mode of income generation as done by Tulmon by his music, and secondly by Shilmon’s preference of adoptability as portrayed through his willingness to buy a song and subsequently enhancing his capability by trying to learn it from the sly man.

A Tale about Buying a Song (Rabha Folktale)

Two brothers used to reside at a village. They were Shilmon and Tulmon. Both of them were married and lived in spate houses. Their condition was quite miserable. The elder brother Shilmon earned a little wage by labouring at other’s land all through the day. The younger one carried his livelihood by singing and begging. However, Tulmon and his wife was contented with their poverty and stayed blissfully.

The elder brother’s wife was not at all happy finding the younger brother residing happily with his wife. She often used to complain: “How simply by singing Tulmon is keeping his wife happy. And look at my man! Toiling three times a day, my husband fails to buy me a saree. Such a hopeless man he is!”

The elder brother was very uncomplicated and naive in nature. Being rebuked by his wife, he felt very miserable. Hence, after thinking for a while, he said—“Ok. Tomorrow itself I will move out to the town in order to buy song. After that, I will also earn a lot by singing. I will keep you happy with the money”.

The very next day, Shilmon left for the town to buy song. Before leaving the house, whatever money he saved, he carried along with him. On his way, he met with a man. He was very sly.

The man asked Shilmon: “Where are you going?”

Shilmon replied, “I stay at that—that village. After slogging all through the day, the amount I earn, with that I cannot even buy a saree for my wife. Hence, I am going to the town to buy song.”

Listening to him, the man surprisingly stated, “Buy a song!” Then he realized in no time of Shilmon’s essential imprudence and simplicity. He could be easily deceived. Then he uttered, “Why will you suffer going to the town for just buying song? I will teach to sing you here itself”.

Shilmon gladly said, “It’s a wonderful proposal indeed. Will you teach me to sing here itself? Its fine then. I need not go to the town in that case!”

The man questioned, “How much have you carried along with you to buy song? Hand me the entire amount.”

Shilmon at once took out the intact money and handed over to that man.

Taking the money, the man suggested Shilmon to go to a place where he could teach him singing. They went and sat under a tree by the side of a river. Then the man began:

Catch catchcatch them

That is it, that’s it—

Catch catchcatch him

Cane field, cane field, cane field

Catch, catch, catch him

Cane forest, cane forest, cane jungle

Catch, catch, catch him

Some thieves were hiding there with stolen money. They heard the song and left the money and ran away. Shilmon found the money and he spent a happy life with his wife.

The fact that Shilmon’s wife prefers a to have a husband who earns by singing over the one who earns by his physical labour shows the de-stereotyped craving for “transgressing the restrictions imposed on the everyday existence and critically long for the objectionable” by “effectively behaving in a new way… [for] the denunciation of traditional schemas of classification” (Chakraborty, ix). The involvement of Shilmon with music, comically portrayed in his apparently foolish attempt to enhance his capability through his purchasing of the singing skill, ultimately is rewarded by his acquisition of wealth, enough to please his complaining wife. Shilmon’s enforced good fortune by chance can, nevertheless, be seen as a clear indication of maintaining the tribal man’s attachment to musical skills which is often stigmatized as an unmanly skill by the non-indigenous outsiders. The well-heeled elder brother conveys the Rabha people’s “expression of psychology” relating to their “collective objectifications” of “desire, on the part of the social group” to defy the politics of de-stereotyping of the ethnic skills.


Inspired by the works of Vladimir Propp and Max Lüthi, Marie-Louise Tenèze has defined folktale as the tale of a hero who is in a difficult situation but ultimately overcomes the adversities through some kind of a support attained through skill, that is, ‘the means employed’. It cannot be denied that the tribal folktales with their obsession with king, princess, minister on one hand and the orphan, bird and tree on the other, become the narratives that address primarily the question of power relation. The ‘mainstream’ with a stereotyped notion of tribal sturdiness often try to categorize the ethnic skills for empowerment essentially in terms of indigenous physicality. These tribal folktales, however, by their celebrating of musical skill as a de-stereotyped expertise of enablement assist in refuting the ‘mainstream’ bias. For the nonconformist located in the ‘mainstream’ these folktales of de-stereotyped perspectives provide ‘political’ alternatives “of the untutored folk still intact and resistant to all manner of sophisticated (and corrupting) influences” (Edmonson, 34).

Works Cited :

Amadiume, Ifi. Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society. London and New Jersey: Zed Books. 1987.

Bhabha, Homi K. ed. Nation and Narration. London: Routledge. 1990.

Braidwood, R.J. Prehistoric Men. Chicago Natural History Museum Popular Series, Anthropology, 37. 1957.

Chakraborty, Kaustav. ed. De-stereotyping Indian Body and Desire. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 2016.

Edmonson, Munro S. Lore: An Introduction to the Science of Folklore and Literature. New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta etc.: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. 1971.

Gibson, T. “The Sharing of Substance versus the Sharing of Activity among the Buid”.Man (N.S. 1985) 20: 391-411.

La Barre, Weston. The Ghost Dance: Origins of Religion. New York: Doubleday Press. 1970.

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