Kaliyamma M.K.’s lean, weathered frame reflects a lifetime of arduous labour. Her toothy laugh, though, not only exudes charm but also makes others smile.
A 65-year-old dalit, Kaliyamma cannot read or write―she never had the opportunity to learn. Yet she is a treasure trove of wisdom. Etched in her memory are stories and songs that carry the essence of her ancestors’ experiences―from moments of joy and sorrow to tales of bonded labour, and resistance spanning generations.
On May 26, Kaliyamma was invited as a special guest to a summer camp held at T.R.K. Upper Primary School at Vengad in Kerala’s Malappuram district. There, with her songs and stories, she regaled her audience―a group of “lore-keepers”, or children recording the session with their cellphones. As the session progressed, the lore-keepers playfully asked Kaliyamma to perform a song traditionally sung by those who toil in paddy fields. Kaliyamma laughed and said, “If I were to begin, the song would last for countless hours. So perhaps it is best I refrain from it.”
‘LoreKeepers’ is a one-of-its-kind initiative by Archival and Research Project (ARPO), a nonprofit dedicated to digital archiving, multimedia storytelling, community engagement and conserving cultural heritage. Its primary objective is to gather oral traditions passed down through generations, and involve younger generations in preserving them for posterity. The emphasis is on collecting oral traditions from historically marginalised groups.
“Even those who are now in their forties or fifties did not know many of these stories and songs. So if we do not archive them now, they would be lost forever,” says Majeesh Karayad, artist and project manager at ARPO.
Before independence, extreme forms of untouchability and discrimination prevailed in Kerala. Oral traditions have preserved the harrowing tales of oppression that communities have endured over centuries. Archana K.P., a class seven student at T.R.K. School and a LoreKeepers volunteer, says some of the stories left her bewildered.
“An ammama [elderly lady] told us the meaning of a song, describing how they were compelled to work in the fields of thambrakkans (upper-caste landlords), but were forbidden from even entering their courtyards. She also said that they were not even allowed to be within the vicinity of these thambrakkans,” she says.
Such songs not only depict the struggles against discrimination, but also the intense resistance against it as well. For instance, a protest song collected by ARPO speaks out against landlords beating dalit farmers for wearing clothes that covered their knees.
Sruthin Lal, ARPO cofounder and former journalist, says the organisation has been preserving oral traditions since 2021. The Vengad camp was the third held by ARPO to build a team of lore-keepers. At the camp, led by Karayad, young volunteers were taught the importance of oral traditions and folklore, along with the basics of videography and digital archiving.
“We wanted to involve children in this process of collecting and storing the stories and songs,” says Lal. “There have been many efforts in the past to document oral traditions. But this is a [large-scale] process that requires a collective effort. Also, we now have technology-driven methods to record, collect and curate these traditions and make them available for researchers and libraries.”
Lal’s journalism background played a crucial role in shaping the project. In 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic was at its peak and the migrant labour crisis was unfolding, Lal and his colleague Dibyaudh Das cycled 600km from Delhi to Lucknow to capture the heartbreaking trek on their cellphones. He has utilised that experience in lore collecting and archiving, and equipped young students to become lore-keepers.
Lal explained why educational institutions are key collaborators in the project. “Children like to hear stories, and an educational institution would provide many collectors from one place. Also, this is a project funded by the Faizal and Shabana Foundation, which is involved in initiatives related to education and youth,” he says.
According to Subhash P.K., headmaster at T.R.K. School, the LoreKeeper project helped bridge generations. “A student would make a conscious effort to talk to a person from an older generation. This communication is so important. Also, the project requires a student to find a person who knows many stories. This exploration is not easy, and there are chances of failing in it. Even that failure is a learning experience. There are also the possibilities of using digital devices as a tool to produce something creative.”
The power of creativity can perform miracles, as the LoreKeepers team recently found out during a visit to Kootalida, Kozhikode. The team was there to meet Balakrishnan T.M., a 66-year-old master of a unique form of kolkali (a folk dance using sticks) performed by Pulayas, a dalit community. Multiple strokes that Balakrishnan suffered two years ago had robbed him of the ability to perform kolkali and made him reliant on a walking stick to move around.
Rajani, Balakrishnan’s daughter, recounts the day the lore-keepers visited him to document his repertoire of songs. As the conversation veered towards kolkali, Balakrishnan began singing and demonstrating hand gestures. “Then, astonishingly,” says Rajani, “he got up from his seat, first leaning on his walking stick, and then he discarded the stick and started a spirited display of footwork. He executed kolkali steps with perfection and left all of us in awe.”
The lore-keepers believe that the world will soon look in awe at their expanding archive of stories and songs.