Vedas, Ragas and Storytellers CD set and MP3
oral cultures of India are a radio producer's dream. There are so many,
so varied, so full of vitality. Personally, they contain some of our fondest
memories of recording in India over the years: for example, the drive in
the black of night across fields and over dried up river beds in southern
Gujerat to find a mysterious band of traveling puppeteers; or having breakfast
with Ravi Shankar while he ate and played his sitar in the dewy freshness
of a November morning in his garden.
But memories aside, there is also something deeply ambiguous and troubling hidden within the very notion of Oral Culture. At root is whether culture is more compatible with literacy or illiteracy. I know this may seem daft. But think about it. All the great cultures of the world have emanated from cultures that were by and large illiterate in the formal definition of the word. Many of the creators of poetry, epics, music, and plays were themselves illiterate. Why and how were their works preserved? Of course they were written down and preserved. But they became classics, part of a living and cherished culture, not because someone said, "These are great works that must be preserved," but because they became part of a living oral culture.
They were sung, performed, danced, played by ordinary but usually illiterate people. If folk music is one of our Western oral cultural forms remember that most of these songs came into existence and were then passed down by word of mouth by people who couldn't read or write. Their longevity, their hold on the popular imagination, their familiarity (how much Shakespeare can any of us still recite from memory?) are almost entirely due to orality.
In other words, the richness, the depth of much of world culture is due precisely to its oral nature. Once you start to write things down, culture becomes an individual exercise, a form of social atomization. Obviously, if the only way to hear music is to make music with friends the cultural and social consequences may be vastly different than if I put a compact disc on and sit back alone to listen to Beethoven or Led Zeppelin.
Literacy is a vital necessity for all sorts of reasons: it enables women and the disenfranchised to read, to empower themselves; they have the potential to become full citizens. But what does literacy mean for the vitality and longevity of culture? Think what forms of music or poetry or writing you can actually retell to yourself or an audience. I bet it will be a pop or folk tune from adolescence, something we sang or recited or acted in or watched at the movies or on TV. In other words, the culture we really carry round with us is still profoundly oral and visual. It has almost nothing to do with being able to read or write. Oral culture is not a sign of backwardness. It's a cultural form universal to all societies.