What is Oral Tradition?
The oral tradition of the Baloch belongs to an ethnic group speaking a northwest Iranian language called Balochi and inhabiting Balochistan, a country now divided among Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. It was until recently—and to a great extent in many parts of the country it remains even now—a living art. It is, however, an art that is losing ground rapidly to the written word and to modern means of communication and entertainment.
A few decades back oral tradition was present in a Baloch’s life from cradle to grave. It was so diffused, authoritative, and highly esteemed that among some Baloch tribes a newborn baby boy was presented with the recital of several heroic epics—either three or seven—by an old man in place of the call of prayers, azan (the proclamation of faith among Muslims saying that Allah is the only God and Muhammad is his only prophet), as is usually done in many other Muslim communities. A special session of epic recitation would be arranged and male elders of the family would be invited, animal(s) would be sacrificed, and a male elder of the family or someone else from the family or tribe would recite these epics for three to seven nights (Badalkhan 1992:38, n. 39). This was the first lesson the newborn boy would receive from the elders of his family, who expected him to behave accordingly and to follow in the footsteps of past Baloch heroes who left their legacy in historical epics with heroic deeds that safeguarded true Baloch values (balochiat). After that, the baby was sung lullabies by his mother, sisters, and maidservants until he grew old enough to be circumcised, wear trousers, enter the ranks of men, and assume all the obligations and duties that a man of the tribe had to manage. From then on, he was expected to participate in tribal warfare and other affairs of the tribe and to involve himself in cycles of revenge as necessary. Before that age he was considered a child and there was no consequence to any of his actions. [End Page 229]
A boy’s circumcision ceremony was in itself a great moment for his parents and family members, and also an event of even greater importance for his tribe in that a new man was entering their ranks and strengthening the tribal body. In such festivities, the whole tribe participated and often it was the tribal chief who sponsored the whole ceremony and covered all of the expenses. Famous minstrels would be invited by well-off families and local female singers would perform, accompanied by other women. Among poor families only the local female singer, usually the wife of the village blacksmith (Badalkhan 2000–01:163–64), would sing along with women of the village and the neighbourhood; no circumcision or wedding ceremony went without singing and music lest it be considered an ill omen for the boy and his family.
Similar oral traditional performances accompanied other life-cycle activities of the Baloch. Weddings were one recurring site for such activities. In some parts of Balochistan, especially in the north until recently, mourning, mostly of men but also of women if they belonged to an important family, included sung elegies, in some places accompanied by drums if it was the funeral of a tribal chief. Although the birth of a girl was not celebrated except in those families with no child at all or in the upper-class families, a daughter’s wedding was celebrated by her family with much singing and dancing, as well as animal sacrifices.
Oral tradition has been very important for the Baloch as an ethnolinguistic group. It served them as their history when there was no written history in their language. It was also the record of their cultural values, a mark of their identity, a guideline for the younger generation, and a check on their behavior and way of conduct. Oral tradition also “flavors” assemblies via taletelling, the recital of poems, and the quoting of proverbs or excerpts from past poets; in this way various speech-acts are strengthened and opinions can...