As a cousin of the « Titim ? Bois sec ! » of the Caribbean people, or possibly of the hain teny tradition of the Merina of the Malagasy plateau, and a question and answer ritual game popular in oral traditions, sirandanes are a typically Mauritian form of an art practiced since the days of slavery, letan margoz.
The sirandane, a type of riddle based on daily life, dates from the French colonial period (1715-1810) and is most probably closely associated with the emergence of the creole language. It provided relief to the slaves during their veillées or evening gatherings, highlighting their sense of humour regarding their own plight, as well as their mischievousness and irreverence toward their owners. In Mauritius, the sirandane allows the whole population to remember its origins, the shock of cultural differences on which the country was built, the throes of slavery, and the tutelary wisdom deriving from ancestral memory. It also plays an important role in the transmission of memory, of a people’s imagination, and of a local lore often marginalized because it was not part of the written tradition. This form of oral expression enables all Mauritians, regardless of origin, to become a single unified people. Just as creole is a language without borders, just as creole culture was able to condense the best of many worlds into a shared creative space, the sirandane world links French word play to African animism and to the local environment: influenced by the fantasy world of tales and legends, the riddles erase borders between man, beast, flora and the realm of spirits. The sirandane is, by definition, creole, that is, plural.
The storyteller of Mauritian folkloric tales begins with the traditional cry, “Sirandanes”, to which the assembly replies in unison “Sanpek”. A dialogue commences, there is a sense of complicity. The narrator no longer has a mere spectator facing him, but an actor who commits himself in his reply first to listen attentively, and then to participate in the ritual. This is the very foundation of the sirandane, often a prelude to a longer tale or legend shared by the storyteller.
It is impossible to discuss the topic of sirandanes without mentioning Charles Baissac, whose Le folklore de l’Ile Maurice contains 29 pages dedicated to sirandanes, written in the Frenchified creole typical of the 1880s. Most of these sirandanes are still familiar to the Mauritians although some are less used nowadays. The Mauritian nation owes him a debt of gratitude for having compiled on paper the tales, legends, sirandanes and songs intrinsic to its cultural heritage. Already in his preface, Baissac mourns the fact that his work is 50 years too late; he speaks of a “post mortem” inventory (iv) handed down to him by two older people, “Ppâ Lindor et mmâ Télésille” whose “memory is [no longer] their finest attribute” (ix), whilst the creole language has already evolved and History is already influencing and transforming its folklore. As examples, we will mention the ever-present “Dilo dibout ? Kann” (“Standing water? Sugarcane”) and the lesser known “Ena kat frer, de gran de piti. Zot tou galoupe ensam, piti divan zame gran kapav gagn zot ? So kat larou enn kales” (“There are four brothers, two big and two small. They run together, the little ones in front; the big ones can never catch up. The four wheels of a horse-drawn carriage”, a sirandane whose meaning is lost in the modern context).
In 1990, J.-M.G. et Jemia Le Clézio assembled a booklet of sirandanes, dedicated to “Marie-Michèle de Blue Bay”. The sirandanes are followed by a short glossary of Mauritian birds as well as half a dozen expressions from the island’s various languages. A preface summarizes the historical pedigree of riddles in various geographical areas, underlining its function as a repository of memory and cultural belonging. As a close mirror image of those known by generations of Mauritians in the form compiled by Charles Baissac, and followed by a likewise traditional French-Creole translation, the sirandanes collected by J.-M.G. and Jemia Le Clézio are illustrated with watercolours by J.-M.G. Le Clézio (birds, stylized Mauritian scenery) as well as by reproductions of traditional Malagasy embroidery.
Other collections of sirandanes have been published, such as the 220 Sirandanes Sampek de l’Île Rodrigues by Chantal Moreau, in Creole and French as is the custom. Here we find more modern sirandanes as they refer to radios or motorcars, amongst other objects. It is interesting to focus on the steady evolution of the sirandanes, of the population’s sense of humour as well as on present concerns; similarly, the Creole language itself is clearly evolving, whilst seemingly finding stability in a new transcription which differs from traditional French spelling.
BAISSAC, Charles,Le Folklore de l’Ile Maurice, Paris, Maisonneuve et Leclerc, 1888 ; LE CLÉZIO, J.-M.G. et Jemia,Sirandanes suivies d’un petit lexique de la langue créole et des oiseaux,Paris, Seghers, coll. « Volubile », 1990 ; MOREAU, Chantal,220 Sirandanes Sampek de l’Île Rodrigues, Île Maurice, Collection « le Solitaire », Roches Brunes, 1999 ; ROUSSEL-GILLET Isabelle,Le Clézio, écrivain de l’incertitude, Paris, Ellipses, 2011 ; LOHKA Eileen, « Insaisissable et multiforme : L’art de J.-M.G. Le Clézio », in Thierry Léger, Isabelle Roussel-Gillet, Marina Salles (dirs),Le Clézio, passeur des arts et des cultures, Rennes, PUR, 2010, p. 29-42.