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Script Boxes and Story Boxes: The Material Culture of Oral Narratives in India

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How are the oral repertoires of cultures reconstituted by their acts of writing? Writing, this paper argues, is a sort of ‘box’ that serves to contain the creative productions of script cultures. Like a box, it stores and preserves the legends and stories, the quotidian speech acts of greeting, declaring, promising or ordering as well as the fundamental scientific conjectures and dreams that animate all speech communities. Unlike a run-of-the-mill box, however, writing acts upon and redesigns the cognitive materials that it holds, formatting inchoate information into ‘knowledge packets’ that can be efficiently transmitted across time and space. In this unique characteristic lies its almost unlimited power over the human imagination. Yet it is worth noting that writing is a relatively recent linguistic invention which experts calculate is no more than eight or nine thousand years old at most. To put things in perspective, written scripts came along at least 40,000 years after humans began to talk and exchange meanings.

This paper will examine some of the cognitive and cultural issues that arise from a near exclusive concentration on the powerful and often hegemonic, yet still evolving, medium of writing in a region like the Indian subcontinent that comprises nearly half the formally illiterate population of the world. It will do so by looking at a device commonly known as a kavad or ‘story-box’. The kavad, sometime also called a ‘portable shrine’, is used to illustrate and amplify oral performances of story-telling. In contrast to the metaphorical ‘writing-box’ that I have invented for the specific purposes of this paper, it is a longstanding and integral part of material culture in northern India and in particular the state of Rajasthan. It has a tangible presence and can be handled, opened, closed, broken, mended, reassembled and even carried on one’s shoulders. Most importantly, it is a shared narrative resource and a reservoir of emotional empathy.

This talk is part of the World Oral Literature Project series.

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