Comic Elements in the Folklores of the Tiprasa community of North-East India

By Saibal Debbarma

Folklores are stranded between life and art. An analysis of the folklore, divorcing the study of the enactment of the folklore from the context of the lives in which it is generated, seen through a focal lens (perception, theory, ‘critical apparatus’) would prove fallacious. The arousal of humour in the performance of the various genres of oral tradition is more depended upon the telling or enactment of the particular genre than the actual content narrated through the form. A textual analysis of a performance would prove false because what may appear funny in the telling may lose its vigour and tone of humour in the textual transcription. Moreover, the play of language brought through intended inflection of speech or the body movements accompanying the intended humorous speech would be lost in a textual transcription. For example, the Kokborok proverb – “Siyari mai hamya / kothoma ogo pungya” translated as “The dew does not reap one’s harvest / Tales cannot satiate one’s hungry stomach” would prove to be humorous only if placed in the right context of life- imagine an older man of a Twipra village saying it with a laughing sneer and with a sing-song voice to a newly married couple too engrossed in the bliss of the nuptial bed to notice the nearness of the harvest season. The intended satire and retort are also lost in translation and such quibbles are more effectively spoken by the elders of the village to the younger ones as a word of wisdom and also to arouse laughter in them. The grandfathers of the Twipra community also offer their wife as a way of joke to their grandson and when the grandson says that she is old that is why he cannot marry her then the grandfather says “Bwkhnai furkano bwkhale furya” roughly translated as “Though the hair has grown old but the heart is still young”. Since it is difficult to offer the context whenever we attempt to study a riddle or a folktale or a proverb it is better to confine ourselves within the limits of such proverbs, riddles quibbles, oaths, curses and tales which are funny because of their content and in which the ‘joke’ is manifested not through the telling alone but the content itself is funny.

But before that I will provide a general socio-cultural and folk context of the other genres of oral tradition such as riddles, folktales and curses etc. The Kokborok word for riddle is “kuk-cha” (this is the accepted folk word for riddles another terminology exists for literate representation of riddles – “kok-fumluk”) which roughly translates into English as “eat-grasshopper”. According to Twipra domestic and agrarian tradition elders who go to jhoom would bring grasshoppers for their young ones to eat by frying them. Fried grasshopper called “kuk” in kokborok is a delicacy for the children of the Twipra community. The younger ones often quarrel with each other to get the most of the delicacy so the elder children invent difficult riddles to puzzle the younger ones and places the “kuk” as a reward for answering the riddle, if the younger ones cannot answer correctly to the riddles, then the quantity of “kuk” placed as a bet for solving the riddle goes to the elder one’s share. I present some riddles which are generally asked to be solved when such a play begins-

1. “ bwruima’no romkheno huisao”- “A girl who quivers if you just touch her”

  2. “Nok Khungsao kwbangma khotol” – “A house with many rooms in it”

3.Borok masa ni uklog bwskang khitung” – “ A man with tails both in his front and behind”

4. “Bwruima masa poisa khi’o”- “a woman who defecates coins”

5. “Borok masani khorok thaitam” – “A man has three heads”

6. “Bwsano chao ,bumankhe sogo” –  “The son is eaten, the mother cooks”

(Answers to the riddles- 1. ‘Shamshundru’ /touch-me-not plant 2. ‘piya bwthap’/ beehive 3. ‘mayung’/ elephant 4. Poon/ goat 5. When a man squats on the verandah the shiny knee cups look like heads and therefore, we say he is sitting with three heads 6. Wa bai muya / bamboo is used as implement to cook the ripe bamboo sapling.)

These riddles are funny not only because they transgress a rigid social code or law but the context of the play within which these riddles are performed creates laughter.  Here the transgression is of a subtle nature as ways of seeing and perceiving is challenged through these riddles. One transgression which is very evident is the personification of plants and animal as in the case of the riddles of the touch-me-not-plant and the goat. These personifications of non-human living creatures are done to provide hint as to the familiarity of the objects to human life.

Here, I present a study of some songs which are sung in community gatherings in celebration of the Garia mutai. The Garia mutai (mutai meaning God) in stature, prowess and demeanour is as important for the Tiprasas as Dionysus is to the Greeks therefore there are numerous elaborate rituals surrounding him. Garia for the many tribes of Tripura is a god of fertility, war, beauty, laughter and prosperity. Some tribes like the Rupinis of Tripura also fear the god and taboo him as the harbinger of nonsensical humorous chaos and violence in the community. He is in fact the living image of the unbridled temperament of the common Teprasa individual, which is often mistaken as simplicity or savage madness by the outsider but underlying this maddening force is hidden a subtle, spontaneous wit as is evident in the following songs I present in English translation for the first time. Garia mutai is associated with the ripening of the rice harvest and the bursting of the cotton from its seeds in the months of Chaitra,Falguna and Baisakha , which in Western calendar marks the advent of the summer and rainy season after a long spell of drought during the winter.  Garia puja marks the season of the celebration of nature and its wondrous gifts. My grandmother, while she was living, often remarked that the thirst of the drought inflicted coarse ground is always quenched by rain during the Garia puja and it has been so since time immemorial. It always rains when Lord Garia comes home.

The songs celebrating the laughter loving Graia mutai are sung by a humorous fool of the village who addresses it to certain elders and youth, and all the village members belonging from all ages and social hierarchies are bound to listen to these songs after a carousal with rice wine. Some of these songs are very difficult to translate because performers of folksongs meant for ritualistic performances take pure pleasure in the semiotic, they thwart meaning and on this particular occasion their objective is to arouse laughter in the audience so any pretension towards rational, logical, didactic meaning is totally unwanted. For example, a phrase from this particular contains an onomatopoeia which is impossible to translate into English and one has to suffice with a didactic commentary   –    

 Original                                       English Translation or Commentary

                        “wanji barini moso-                      the chillies of the Bengali house

                         Wanjii barini moso      –                     -repeat-

                       Chini parani siklarogni    –           this particual line means ‘the pubic hair

                     Sikumu rocho rocho                       of the maidens in our village brush against each

                                                                             other creating a scratching sound’. The effect

                                                 Of the sound is created by the onomatopoeic     –‘’rocho,rocho’’



The god of fertility Garia always demands a certain number of lewd jokes and songs during his homecoming celebration. These songs are sung in front of everyone in the community. This ritual of performing lewd jokes and songs in the open arena before people belonging from all spheres and hierarchies of the village fulfils the important function of venting out repressed anxieties of the people. Sex which is one of the strongest principal driving forces of all human activity is also the most tabooed topic and reason of anxiety. By singing songs addressed to the youth, elderly and the respectable people of the community, the veil of taboo around this topic is lifted and its essentiality in the realm of human consciousness is made evident. Another reason of human anxiety is the constant need for human to make sense or rationalize or to create meaning out of the phenomenon, both natural and man-made, around him. The nonsensical lewd jokes and songs are apparently sung with no pretension to meaning and thereby allow them to take pleasure from the pure arbitrariness in the universe which surrounds them. These lewd songs are their way of embracing the absurdity of the universe. Here is a song which shows these characteristics-

“Nugul Bairere Khi-oi Tongmani
Sipak Talangkha Wakma
Angsai Faikha-le Hingjag Fainai
Tubui Rwifaidi wakma”
While I was shitting behind our house
A swine took away my vagina
My husband will scold me when he returns
Bring back my vagina you swine

This is apparently a nonsensical song and continues in this way for more than 100 lines. But this nonsense fulfils the important function of making everyone laugh and for a moment forget their social hierarchies and indulge in laughter. Laughter functions as a means of cleansing out the pent-up anxieties repressed in the mind so that the new harvest year can begin with a new spirit of joy and happiness.

The laughter and revels that are celebrated around the Garia Mutai functions like the western Carnivalesque. Bakhtin pointed out the importance of such Carnivalesque for spreading equality among all social classes. He saw them as occasions in which the political, legal and ideological authority of both the church and state were inverted — albeit temporarily — during the anarchic and liberating period of the carnival. For the literary theorist and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin the carnival was not only liberating because – for that short period – the church and state had little or no control over the lives of the revelers, although Terry Eagleton points out this would probably be “licensed” transgression at best. But its true liberating potential can be seen in the fact that set rules and beliefs were not immune to ridicule or reconception at carnival time. It cleared the ground for new ideas to enter into public discourse. The revels celebrated around Garia Mutai functioned in the same manner of a carnivalesque as this lewd and humorous songs were performed before all the members of the society belonging from all social hierarchy and age and the daily quest for meaning was turned into a ridicule by singing through these songs during the ritual procession of a God thereby elevating meaninglessness and laughter as the true source of regeneration and creation.

With the changing forms of society, the importance of Garia is in decline because land is no longer held to be the primary source of wealth. Earlier people used to share a part of their prosperous production with the god but now all production is traded for the sake of money. In a growing urban, industrial society Tripura faces the risk of losing its rituals which celebrated the regeneration of nature. A growing consciousness among the youth of the sate about the importance of such rituals in the society might help in the protection of these rituals. But the youth are also imprisoned in an insidious cycle of earning money and urbanizing themselves and never stop to think about their origins.

Folk songs and riddles collected from Sukanta Debbarma, residence of Durga Chowdhury Para, age -67, works as a translator, archiver, and local historian.

Saibal Debbarma is Assistant Professor, Department of English, Government Degree College, Gondatwisa.

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