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In Session: Instruments of Cultural Adaptation: Paratexts across Asia
3: May We Become the First Ones: A Case Study in Oral Paratextuality in Late Bronze Age South Asia
Monday, March 22, 2021
12:30pm – 2:00pm EDT
Caley C. Smith
University of Washington, United States
The Rigveda is believed to be the oldest poetic text in South Asia. It was orally composed, and it has been passed down to present times by means of memorization and oral transmission. It appears to be an anthology dating back to the late Bronze Age. Its poetry was used in political rituals; these texts were produced by nameless bards who most often praised the manliness and power of their human patron metonymically by singing the laud of the god Indra. The contents of the Rigveda, however, necessarily antedate their anthologization and their relative location within that anthology. This talk queries the content of that form.
In this talk I will argue that the textual division known as the maṇḍala (lit. “circle” often translated as “book”) is a kind of oral paratext employed by the redactors of the Rigveda to marks where one figure of memory ends and another begins. From an otherwise undifferentiated mass of poetry, the paratext cuts out seven paper dolls. These figures are impersonated by the seven priests during the ritual sacrifice. In order to adapt Genette’s “canal lock” model to oral literature, whose support is exclusively memory and recitation, as opposed to paper, bamboo, silk, or stone, I will explore a “ship of Theseus” model of paratextuality.