Vietnam revives Xoan singing, India should follow example to boost Vedic culture


xoan singing

By Nithin Sridhar

In 2011, UNESCO had added Xoan singing, a genre of Vietnamese folk music to its list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding”.

The list includes not only those art forms that have intangible heritage value but also those that are on the verge of extinction and hence need immediate safeguarding.

Vietnam took it as a challenge and after four years, the dying folk music has witnessed a massive revival, thanks to the efforts by the government and the people.

India can learn a few lessons from this huge achievement of Vietnam in reviving and reclaiming their ancient heritage.

What is Xoan Singing?

Xoan Singing is a traditional ceremonial art that combines both music and dance. It originated around 4000 years ago during the time of Hung Kings. In essence, it is spring singing that originated in and is unique to Phú Thọ Province of Vietnam.

A popular story regarding the origination of Xoan singing is that when the pregnant wife of a Hung King whose name was Xoan (meaning spring) was unable to deliver, the King invited a beautiful girl named QuếHoa to sing and dance that made the Queen relax and give birth to three sons.

The King asked QueHoa to teach singing to his daughters. Henceforth, the tradition of Xoan singing started. Xoan, literally meaning spring, was called so because it was sung first time during spring or because the Queen’s name was Xoan.

There are three types of Xoan singing- those that are sung in honor of Hung kings and guardian spirits, those that are sung as a prayer for good crop and health and those that are song as part of festive courtship.

Another classification of Xoan singing is based on melody- recital melody (hat noi), chanting melody (hat ngamngoi) and praising melody (hat xuong).

Originally, there were four Xoan music guilds originating in the four villages of Phú Thọ Province- PhuDuc, Kim Doi, Thet, and An Thai.

Each guild consists of around 15-18 people headed by a leader called trùm. The tone was set by male instrumentalists called kép and the singing was done by female members called đào. The singing and dance was accompanied by various musical instruments like clappers and drums.


What did Vietnam do to revive Xoan Singing?

This Xoan singing was about to die out when UNESCO decided to add the folk music to its list of Intangible cultural heritage.

In 2012, there were only 120 professional practitioners of Xoan singing and just 13 temples where they could perform. However, today, there are a total of 115 Xoan clubs with nearly 1300 members in Phú Thọ Province.

This phenomenal rise was possible due to dedicated and sustained efforts of the government and the wholesome support of the people.

In 2013, PhuTho People’s Committee built a US$7.85 million project-“Maintaining and Developing Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity – Xoan Singing in Phu Tho”which was funded by the Government.

Xoan singing has been introduced in the school curriculum and various performances of Xoan singing has been organized by the Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

The department has also collaborated with experts and musicians to collect and publish various CD’s and books on Xoan singing. Further, the Xoan singers are being financially supported and various training classes have been organized.

Through a series of collaborative efforts involving all parties- artists, writers, musicians, government and the general public, Vietnam has been successful in reviving a dying musical heritage.

Now, the People’s Committee of Phu Tho is preparing to request UNESCO to remove Xoan singing from the list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding” to a list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage”,  Xoan singing, though endangered, has come out of the threat of immediate extinction.

The Indian Situation

India is the land of Sanatana Dharma that is rooted in Vedic philosophy and life values. Vedas are not only a heritage of India, but its very life-force. The art, music, religion, culture and society as a whole derives its inspiration as well as its existence from the Vedas. Manu has called the Vedas as the source of all righteous values.

The Vedas are considered as “Apaurusheya” or “without human origin” whose truths were realized first hand by the Rishis.

Veda Vyasa divided a single Veda into four parts- the Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and the Atharvaveda. Each Veda in turn contains four parts- the Samhita, Brahmana, Aranyaka and the Upanishads.

Patanjali Mahabhshya states that there were 21 Shakhas of Rigveda, 9 of Atharvaveda, 101 of Yajurveda and a 1000 shakhas of Samaveda, taking the total number of Shakhas to 1131.

A Shakha is basically a branch or a particular school of recitation that has been passed on from father to son and/or teacher to student. Hence, there were a total 1131 branches of Vedas that were transmitted and preserved according to Patanjali. Of these 1131 shakhas, only 14 of them survive to this day.

The 14 Shakhas that are still alive are-

  1. Rigveda- Shaakala, Bāṣhkala and SaamkhyaayanaShakhas.
  2. SuklaYajurveda- Kanva and MadhyandinaShakhas
  3. Krishna Yajurveda- Taittirīya, Maitrayani, Kaṭhaka andKapiṣṭhalaShakhas
  4. Samaveda- Kauthuma, Jaimini and Rāṇāyanīya
  5. Atharvaveda-Paippalāda and Shaunakīya

Even the existing Shakhas are dying out fast as there are not many takers. There are only a handful of Vedic Gukulams run by private organizations that are trying to protect and transmit the knowledge of the Vedas.

The situation is still deplorable with regard to study of Samkhya, Mimamsa or Tarka.

Sanskrit has been reduced to a third language that is optional for people to study. Though government has set up various organizations for propagation of Sanskrit as well as Vedic studies, their impact has been minimal.

With every passing day, the number of people interested in Vedic learning is dwindling and those who do learn and teach Vedas are facing innumerable hardships, socially and economically.

UNESCO has added Vedic chanting to its List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. But if things are not improved, very soon the Vedic chanting and the tradition of transmission of Vedic knowledge will sink into oblivion.

What can India learn from Xaon revival?

India can learn various lessons from Xaon revival in Vietnam. Xaon revival was seen as reclaiming and preserving ancient heritage by the Vietnamese. They identified with their traditions and culture and chose to preserve and propagate the same.

It was seen as an attempt at writing the countries’ narrative and upholding of its ancient heritage.

India must begin to see its diverse cultural, religious and spiritual elements as a heritage to be practiced and propagated and not as a burden from the past that must be dumped.

Further, Indians must realize that practice and propagation of these elements are very important for writing India’s own grand narrative.

Some of the steps that India can adopt to revive Vedic learning are:

  • The propagation of Sanskrit must be promoted and encouraged as without Sanskrit, Vedic preservation is impossible.Various activities and training programs must be taken up to help children learn and converse in Sanskrit.

Many private organizations like Samskrit Bharati are already conducting spoken Sanskrit sessions. Similar measures need to be adopted by the government nationally.

Additionally, Sanskrit conversation competitions, Sanskrit Drama and Essay competitions etc. must be organized and promoted. Conversational Sanskrit must be introduced in School curriculum and students must be encouraged to take it up.

  • The government should revive the Traditional Gurukula system. It must set up various Gurukulams across the country to teach Vedas as well as other traditional Indian knowledge systems like Tarka, Vedanta, Mimamsa, Ayurveda, Tantra, Agama, Samkhya, Yoga etc.

Private organizations and religious institutions that are involved in these tasks are to be financially supported.

  • Further, the students who pass out of these Gurukulams, must be supported by various means.

Some of them may be absorbed into various universities and research institutions and some others into various pathashalas.

Students who wish to practice Vedic karmas must also be financially supported as Vedic Karmas are inseparable from Vedic knowledge.

  • The government should set up institutes or start courses in universities that teach various aspects of Indian Knowledge systems, be it art, music or philosophy. These institutes should collaborate with traditional gurukulams to train students in both modern academics as well as traditional knowledge.
  • Nation-wide seminars, debates and discussions must be organized on various aspects of Indic knowledge both in traditional format as well as modern format. This will result in exchange of ideas between modern scholars and traditional practitioners.
  • Original research must be conducted in various topics ranging from religious to scientific in Sanskrit. Journals must be brought out that will publish these Sanskrit research papers.

The measures, if implemented in a systematic and sustained manner, will bring out a gradual but definite revival of Vedas as well as various allied elements like Sanskrit and Yoga