Australian researcher documents Kumaon musical folk epics | dehradun | Hindustan Times
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Australian researcher documents Kumaon musical folk epics

The author of ‘Dancing with Devtas: Drums, Power and Possession in the Music of Garhwal, North India’, which was published in 2008, has been documenting the music of the hills since his days as a PhD scholar. Over a course of more than 25 years, he was able to closely work with the Hurkiyas - who perform folk epics by singing and playing the small, hand-held hurka drum.

dehradun Updated: Oct 22, 2017 21:03 IST
Dhol-Damau artists from across Uttarakhand take part in a workshop rehearsal in Haridwar.
Dhol-Damau artists from across Uttarakhand take part in a workshop rehearsal in Haridwar.(Rameshwar Gaur/HT FILE)

New Delhi: Andrew Alter left India, but India never really left him. Captivated by the soulful tunes that resonated across the hills and valleys of Uttarakhand as a boy, the Australian researcher is now seeking to preserve local musical epics.

The scholar from Australia’s Macquarie University has been recording the lengthy epics of the Kumaon Hills for a book that will put together a collection of mythological tales that are sung and performed by villagers.

Alter, who was born in Mussoorie of Americans parents and left India for higher studies in 1978, is focusing not just on the stories of the epics but also on how they are performed in remote Kumaoni villages.

The author of ‘Dancing with Devtas: Drums, Power and Possession in the Music of Garhwal, North India’, which was published in 2008, has been documenting the music of the hills since his days as a PhD scholar.

Over a course of more than 25 years, he was able to closely work with the Hurkiyas - who perform folk epics by singing and playing the small, hand-held hurka drum.

“There are Hindi publications that have produced written versions of all kinds of local folk epics,” Alter told PTI here.

Keen to decode the stories and patterns behind the seemingly simplistic rhythms that characterised the musical epics, he spent several years recording performances that would go on all night in remote Uttarakhand villages.

“I discovered a system of different kinds of rhythms and organisations that is much more complex than what you hear,” Alter said, adding that the book -- ‘Epics of Kumaon’ -- would be ready in a few years.

The 57-year-old researcher from Sydney travelled across the hills, recorded the epics and sat down with translators to unravel the local folk musicals.

“I collected a number of these. Some I had already read about, but many were different - those were the local folk epics,” he said.

He cited the example of the Pandav Leela - a cultural ritual of Garhwal – in which the Mahabharat is performed at the village level.

“The Rajputs in the village stage the Pandav Leela and it is a chance for everyone to get together in the village,” he said. The epic would carry on for two to three weeks.

The dance performance is accompanied by so-called lower caste drummers who also recite parts of the stories, said Alter, whose interest in music was sparked by one of his school teachers in India.

Alter, who left India to pursue his Bachelor’s degree in the United States and later moved to Australia, travels to India regularly for his research work.

However, he feared the future of the folk form was grim. Because drummers from the so-called lower castes are not respected for their work, their offspring are being forced to abandon the family tradition of playing percussions, he said.

He pointed out that government support enabled musicians from Rajasthan to take traditional performances to international levels, garnering respect from local communities and allowing the musical forms to thrive.

“Government patronage is essential for raising the level of respect for these performers and preventing the culture from dying,” he said. PTI MHN BDS