When a neighbour died last week, Kasang Teronpi, was summoned immediately. The news was shocking, but the call was routine.
For years now, the 80-year-old resident of Taralangso village near Diphu in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district, has been visiting the homes of the dead — relatives, friends, strangers — on call.
“If we don’t do it, who will?” asks Teronpi.
Teronpi is a charhepi, or a female dirge singer, who plays an important role in the death rituals of the Karbi tribe, one of the largest ethnic groups in Northeast India.
It is something she always wanted to be — ever since she was 10, and she first heard the Kecharhe Alun, or the Karbi funeral epic, when a relative had died. “I never went to school, I never learned how to read or write, so I thought to myself that I must master the art of dirge singing,” says Teronpi.
In Langokso village, where Teronpi grew up, she says that being able to sing the Kecharhe Alunwas an honour for women, almost “equivalent to getting an educational degree”.
After she got married, she went to a master to learn the oral epic, and soon could remember it by heart.
According to the death rituals of the Karbi tribe, it is only when the Kecharhe Alun is performed that the soul of the deceased is able to journey to the village of ancestors (‘village of the dead’) — a mandatory journey for the soul to rest in peace. “If not, the soul will be stuck between the world of the living and the world of the dead,” says Teronpi, “That is why it is important we never forget the Kecharhe Alun.”
Over the last two years, Teronpi has been working with a group of people to do just that: record the Kecharhe Alun for posterity. For that, they have traversed into the most secluded forests of Karbi Anglong — the rules don’t allow the dirge to be chanted within the village boundaries — where Teronpi has sung, explained and recorded, the 32-hour-epic from memory.
In the rich oral repertoire of the Karbi tribe — referred to as the Mikirs in the Constitution Order of the Government of India — the Kecharhe Alun is perhaps the most important, on account of its ritualistic significance as well as being the longest single piece of chanted poetry.
“We all have heard of epic poems such The Iliad and The Odyssey,” says Diphu-based DS Teron, an independent researcher of Karbi folklore. “But we don’t realise that we have an oral epic — twice the length of The Iliad — right in Karbi Anglong.”
Since 2017, Teron has been working with Michael Heneise of The Kohima Institute (a research group aimed at promoting indigenous knowledge in the Northeast), to document the Kecharhe Alun, in a project funded by the Firebird Foundation of Anthropological Research. “We have a team of seven young translators who have worked through the last two years,” says Teron.
While in August, they reached a milestone when the group finished the transcription of the epic, the following months will have them work on the translation before it is finally published in the form of a book: Kecharhe Alun: Annotated Transcription and Translation of the Karbi Oral Epic.
For Teron, the project is extremely important not just because of its ritualistic significance in death, but also as a repository of Karbi culture. “The oral epic guides a dead person’s soul on a ‘journey’ to his/her ancestor’s village — across mountains, across rivers, across plains,” he explains. As a result, it also describes names of ancient terrains, landmarks, and its inhabitants — be it fauna or spirits.
“We often believe the dirge to be a very European concept. But with our book, my hope is that it will contribute to lament studies on an international level,” says Teron.
While the Kecharhe Alun is sung right after the death of a person, it also plays a significant role in Karbi funerary ritual that follows: the Chomangkan. “This ritual can happen a few days after the death, or even a few years,” says Teron.
The chant follows the “entire sequence of rituals performed after an occurrence of death till the cremation” from making the bed for the deceased, to guiding the soul through the terrain, and to the final farewell.
“During the Chomangkan, there is no dead body — it is like a secondary cremation and all rituals are representative. The charhepi’s song is accompanied by heart-rending weeping of the relatives and family members. This ritual weeping is not symbolic (as in some other cultures), it is for real,” explains Teron.
Over the years, the epic has undergone many regional variations, on account of being sung across Karbi Anglong. “It is only natural to find variations as this is not a written text and has been passed verbally from generation to generation,” says Teron, “A couple of books and transcriptions have been attempted for parts of the epic, all in Karbi language. Ours is a variation as well, and a complement to what already exists. The difference is that it will be in English, and thus reach a wider audience.”
For the project to happen, the cooperation of charhepi Kasang Teronpi was paramount. At 80, the researchers wondered how amenable she would be to the idea — would she remember everything by heart, would she want to sing it even if was not for a death?
“But it was amazing. She was cooperative and actually understood why we were doing this project. She never fumbled or forgot, not even a line,” says Teron, who selected a group of young researches, teachers, poets, activists, and journalists, all in their twenties and thirties, to execute the project.
“To even transcribe this song, one needs to understand it, watch it being performed live,” says Teron, “So it is not like one person would record it and the other would transcribe it. Each member was present when the dirge was sung. Everyone had to be involved.”
By the end of it, the group had a 32-hour-long clip — painstakingly recorded over a course of 19 days. “We knew the language, yet we did not understand it. Many times we had to ask her to stop and explain,” says Welsing, a high school teacher, part of the group. “The epic has ancient words not part of our local dictionaries. But once we began to understand, it was eye-opening.”
At home, when the group would listen to recording, relatives would say fearfully — “Don’t listen to it here” or “Put on your headphones.”
“We too were scared in the beginning but later as the epic unfolded we understood the beautiful journey of death. Now I feel like death is nothing,” says Longbir Terang, a poet, who is part of the team.
A few years ago, Teronpi, performed the Kecharhe Alun for her brother-in-law. The octogenarian admits that sometimes she feels sad when she is singing the Kecharhe Alun but it is also when she feels the most at peace. “Death is sad, but we must learnt to accept it,” she says.