US funds digital preservation of traditional Maldivian love ballad

The United States Embassy in Sri Lanka has awarded Maldives’ Hulhevi Media US$25,000 towards their project, “Research, Documentation and Preservation of the Buruni Ballad.” Over the next five months, the team will produce the first digital recording, transcription and documentary video of the traditional love epic, “Buruni Kamana Raivaru.”

The 6-hour oral history has never been transcribed. It has generally been considered the Maldives’ version of “Romeo and Juliet.”

The tragic love story of Dhon Hiyala and Alifulhu is set against a background of magic, jealousy and revenge. After rejecting the king’s advances, the heroine Dhon Hiyala and her lower-class lover Alifulhu are forced to commit suicide by jumping onto a giant, poisonous jelly fish.

Experts view the epic as more than a literary treasure; it is also a guide to cultural history. Told in great detail, the epic describes ancient Maldivian customs such as feasting, marriage, fishing, and arts.

The US Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation has supported over 640 cultural heritage preservation projects in over 100 countries for the past 11 years, donating approximately US$26 million to these endeavors.

“Heritage is a reminder of the historical experiences and achievements of humanity,” said US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives Patricia  Butenis at today’s ceremony. “The more we know about each others’ traditions, the more common ground we share.”

The ambassador noted that this is the first time the fund has supported intangible heritage. “This project in the Maldives is about culture in its most basic form – the spoken word,” said Butenis.

This year, the Fund for Cultural Preservation awarded funding to three projects, two in Sri Lanka to preserve historic sites and one in the Maldives. Director of the American Center in Colombo Christopher Teal called the Buruni Ballad project an original and exciting first for the fund.

“We believe this is important, and we strive to provide funding to support the desire and expertise that is already there,” said Teal.

Hulhevi Media is an independent film group which produces documentaries on a wide range of issues including domestic violence, sexual abuse, and disabilities. The group has worked with NGOs including the Red Cross and the United Nations, and has been selected at several international film festivals. The team of four will travel to islands related to the oral history to record it in digital format, along with interviews.

Sharif Ali, Ibrahim Yassir, Ahmed Shafeeu, and Yumna Maumoon will be working on the project, which they described as “urgent.”

“There are only a handful of people who can tell the story today, and many of them are quite old, so time is critical here,” said Ali. “Working on a cultural preservation project, we will be going back to see what we have lost.”

The team aims to produce an audio CD and a transcription of the epic. “We do hope the book will be used extensively for literary analysis, and can be integrated into the education system,” said Shafeeu.

The epic has been used in secondary schools, but the team hopes it will be used more broadly in the education system.

The story was published as prose in 1976 by the renowned Dhivehi language scholar Abdullah Sodiq.

“I heard this same ballad (raivaru) being sung by the famous Kafa Kuda Thakkaan in a house in the Galolhu ward of Male’. As I listened my heart went through inexplicable feelings. This was no longer just a ballad, it was a fascinatingly beautiful romantic story told in a special raivaru form of rhyme and rhythm,” Sadiq said in a press statement.

Sadiq will advise the Hulhevi team on the Buruni Ballad project. “I never thought it would get this kind of help, I am very excited about this,” said Sadiq after today’s ceremony.

The Hulhuvi team said they were “elated” to receive the award after submitting their proposal a year ago. “It came out of the blue. And it’s great because it’s different from what we normally do. We are essentially a video production group, but with this project we’ll also be collaborating on linguistics and audio,” they said.

In September, the Maldives signed the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. It is already a participant in the World Heritage Convention and the Cultural Diversity Convention.

At the time, Minister of State for Tourism, Arts and Culture Ahmed Naseer said no efforts had been made in this department. “It is very easy to see things like poetry, music, language, and dance disappear if they are not practiced. We need to have a law enacted to outline these practices.”

A draft of new legislation promoting the preservation of intangible cultural heritage is currently before parliament, Naseer said previously.