Todas and their songs – Notes from an article

I got curious about the Toda people after noticing in a dictionary that there are 50 or more words related to Buffalo in their language. So, I started reading through the Wikipedia article on them which had a reference to the following article:

Oral Poets of South India: The Todas
M. B. Emeneau
The Journal of American Folklore
Vol. 71, No. 281, Traditional India: Structure and Change (Jul. – Sep., 1958), pp. 312-324
Published by: American Folklore Society
DOI: 10.2307/538564
Stable URL:
(It is free to read if you create a login)

I am just listing a few notes I made to myself while reading in this post here. Some of them are direct quotes from the article and some of them are my summaries.

* The language and culture are apparently quite different from others around.

“The culture of the Todas is just as divergent from its Indian roots as is their language, because of their long isolation (since the beginning of the Christian era, as I think I have now proved) from the general streams of Hindu culture. This isolation was produced both by their geographical situation on a lofty, 8ooo-foot-high plateau and by the general framework of the Hindu caste system within which they and their
few neighbors live. This social framework favors diversity within unity, and on the Nilgiri plateau, an area of forty by twenty miles, has allowed four communities to live symbiotically, but with four remarkably different cultures and four mutually unintelligible languages”

* It is amazing that a community of 600 people have a complex caste system with sub-castes and clans (“right down to the individual family”)

* When I saw a Toda dictionary earlier this week, I wondered at the number of words referring to Buffaloes in their vocabulary, and thought it should have some religious significance. Here is what Emeneau says:

“The care of the buffaloes has been made the basis of religion. Every item of dairy practice is ritualized, from the twice daily milking and churning of butter to the great seasonal shifting of pastures, the burning over of the dry pastures, and the giving of salt to the herds.”

* Songs seem to be a very important part of their culture

” It was not long after my work started on the Toda language that I found that the utterances of greatest interest to the Todas themselves were their songs, and that here was a new example of oral poetry.”

* Linguistic structure of these songs is described in detail by the author. I don’t think I fully understood, but there are things that fascinated me at the first glance:

“Sentences consist of from one sung unit to as many as five or six or even seven, with a possibility of quite complicated syntax. But, one very striking feature of the structure, no such sentence may be uttered without being paired with another sentence exactly parallel to it in syntactic structure and in number of units.”

* They seem to have a song for every event in their culture, and specific words and phrases for such events.

“We do not know much about the history of the song technique, but it became clear after a large number of songs had been recorded, that in the course of the presumably long development of the technique, every theme in Toda culture and every detail of the working out of every theme have been provided with
one or several set patterns of words and turns of phrase for use in song.”

* Found these remarks on the role of songs in their culture quite amusing: “Given the technique and the interest in the songs, a corollary but perhaps unexpected consequence is that every Toda can and does compose songs” and “Every Toda can be his own poet laureate.

* What was interesting was this comment on the music of these songs:

“I was told, however, that ideally every new song that is sung should have a new tune. One composer went so far as to tell me that only the tunes matter; anyone can compose the words.”

* Finally, the concluding remarks had a very curious observation:
“There is in their world view no urge to universalize the themes of their culture and the verbal expression of them. At the same time there is no urge towards self-expression; it is, in fact, an urge that would be out
of place and might even be divisive in the closed culture of a small community. Their poetry then is strictly a miniature and provincial, even parochial, art with many limitations. … .. ”
– I found it pretty cool – not bothering about universalizing their themes. Not bothering about too much of self-expression. But just depicting their own world, community and culture.

Overall, pretty interesting stuff.

Published in: on September 3, 2017 at 7:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

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