Orality, inscription and the creation of a new lore.

Author:Chatterji, Roma


This essay examines the process by which the discourse of folklore is used to entextualize and recontextualize the oral tradition in West Bengal through a discussion of two contemporary Bangla novels. Motifs from folk tales, myths, and popular epic poems are being re-appropriated by urban cultural forms- both popular as well as elite--to articulate new identities and subject positions. I selected these novels by considering the mode in which orality is inscribed and the time period. One of the novels attempts to re-constitute oral lore from a popular epic composed in the medieval period, and the other re-inscribes an origin myth that is part of folk ritual into a new genre via the mediation of folklore discourse that is responsible for the first step in entextualizing the myth. This essay concludes by suggesting that folklore's conception of tradition as being temporally disrupted has facilitated these new literary appropriations of oral lore. It is precisely because folklore's subject matter is supposed to be out of sync with the times that allows for conceptions of culture that are porous enough for innovation.

... [The] peculiar temporality of folklore as a disciplinary subject, whether coded in the terminology of survival, archaism, antiquity, and tradition, or in the definition of folkloristics as a historical science, has contributed to the discipline's inability to imagine a truly contemporary, as opposed to a contemporaneous, subject ... Folklore is by many (though not all) definitions out of step with the time and the context in which it is found. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, "Folklore's Crisis" 1998, 283

In an essay that critically reviews folklore's disciplinary position vis-avis history and culture, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1998) says that temporal dislocation between the site of origin and the present location of particular cultural forms signals the presence of folklore. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett thus conceptualizes culture as heterogeneous, layered and composed of multiple strands that are interconnected in rather haphazard and contingent ways. This sense of contingency comes about through the juxtaposition of different time scales such that the idea of locality or location becomes the conceptual frame within which the heterogeneous and circulating strands that we call culture come to cohere, if only for a moment. However, as Kirshenblatt-Gimblett points out, even before location comes to be viewed as a spatial category it is a temporal one, and by constituting the present as a series of disjunctive moments, folklore creates a gap between the contemporaneous and the contemporary.

In a different, though related, fashion students of Indian society have made a distinction between "Great traditions" and "Little traditions" (Redfield 1955, Sinha 1957); or between desha (regional, provincial) and marga (sanskritic, global). Folk rituals, belief systems, and the cultural institutions of rural India are thought to reveal an interaction between the forces of globalization and parochialization, or margi and deshi aspects (Marriot 1955, Sinha 1957, Trautman 1997). For most scholars this interaction is a long-term and largely unconscious process. However, the historian Hitesh Ranjan Sanyal (2004) holds a somewhat different view. In his study of a small principality in one of the border regions of West Bengal, he shows how the semi-tribal Mulla court, in what is now the Bardhaman district, produced political institutions that self-consciously integrated aspects of what was then thought of as "high culture"--i.e. the culture of the Mughal court in North India -with indigenous elements taken from local tribal and peasant communities. Many such peripheral principalities were declared to be tributary states owing formal allegiance to the great, though distant, Mughal Empire. The geographical distance between the central authority and these border states gave the latter some degree of autonomy. Thus, they were able to selectively adopt elements of Mughal culture while retaining much of what was traditionally available. The Mughal presence was thought to be alien but distant enough to be non-threatening, and could therefore become a site for experimentation with novelty. Traces of this self-conscious adoption of high culture aspects is, according to Sanyal, still visible in the peasant societies of these border regions, for instance in the cultivation of particular genres of folk songs that can engage with forms of novelty. Sanyal says that many genres of folk song in Bengal have been cultivated into popular forms that require different kinds of performative contexts. He suggests that folk culture is constituted at three different levels: jana (local), desha (regional), and marga (global or pan-Indian). He says that the deshi or regional level acts as a site of mediation between the local and global levels.

Unfortunately Sanyal does not develop this theme further. However, as several scholars have tried to show, the conception of a cultural region is important in the study of folklore's engagement with forms of modernity (Morinis 1982, Blackburn 2003, Chatterji 2005). Self-conscious reflection on context, style, and the process of transmission actually occurs precisely at this level. Further, this is the level at which the local is conceived of as such and thus also is the level at which "metadiscursive practices for creating, representing and interpreting" folk discourses are developed (Briggs 1993). In this essay I examine some contemporary attempts at producing new kinds of folk discourses in a deliberate attempt to empower certain marginal groups in West Bengal. These attempts, as I will show, are part of a larger movement for the articulation of a distinctive regional identity in which folk culture plays a central role.

The idea of region is not necessarily restricted to a geographical unit, but refers rather to a social field formed "by a network of governmental processes, cultural flows and forms of popular transmission shaped by oral, print and visual media" (Chatterji 2005,1). In this sense my field is carved out of a set of overlapping political regions-the states of West Bengaland Jharkhand as well as the erstwhile province of undivided Bengal of the colonial era; parts of which are now independent states in India, including the independent nation-state of Bangla Desh.

Folklore and the Literary Canon

Even though the folk have played an important part in articulating ideas about Bengali culture and tradition, there have been no significant grassroot reformist movements of the kind that have taken place in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. (1) West Bengal, governed as it is by a combination of communist and socialist parties for three decades, is typically identified with a kind of middle class radicalism. Most reforms have been top down, including those that were initiated by an "enlightened" elite in the colonial period (Basu 1992). Instead the folk are perceived as an abstract category-an aid to the process of "traditionalization"--a term coined by Shuman and Briggs (1993) to identify "aspects of the past as significant to the present" (ibid. 1993, 109). Folklore comes to represent the authentic voice of the folk, a living museum from which Bengal's history may be excavated.

In a previous paper I have shown how the discourse of folklore, reinforced by state policy, comes to constitute parts of Bengal as a folklore region (Chatterji 2005). Once constituted, this region then becomes the location for creative experimentation with the oral literature found there. Traditional folk themes begin to circulate among new publics in popular urban spaces. I will examine two Bangla novels that reinterpret folk myths as part the ongoing project of the Bengali intelligentsia to find contemporary significance in traditional lore.

In an important paper on the Grimms' anthology of fairy tales, Charles Briggs (1993) says that folklore discourses use entextualizing strategies to produce authentic folk voices. These texts are created with a political agenda in mind and the task of the folklorist is to deconstruct these texts for the powerful effects that they produce. Unlike the texts that folklorists usually analyze, the texts that I present here are explicit in laying out their political agenda. Both novels draw upon the mother goddess complex to frame their stories. The fact that mother goddess worship (shaktaism) is an important religious tradition in Bengal may have influenced the choice of subject to some extent, but more importantly, the significance of the mother goddess as a mediator between the "Great traditions" and "Little traditions" of Hinduism, or between local religion and textual, or shastric, religion gives this theme its symbolic charge (Beane 2001, Humes 1998). Coburn (1988) says that even though the origin of the mother goddess complex lies in India's non-Aryan pre-history, continuous interplay between various religious streams-local/tribal, Buddhist, and Hindu-has produced the mother goddess complex as we know it today. A point of significance for my argument is that the mediating position occupied by the mother goddess tradition allowed Bengali nationalists to claim a distinctive place for Bengal's culture within the civilizational mainstream (Chatterji 2003).

Mahashweta Devi's Vyad Kaand (The Book of the Hunter) and Nilakanth Ghoshyal's Bhumi Kanya (Earth Maiden), both fall within the Bengali nationalist tradition of historiography, which assumes Bengal's folk traditions had a seminal role in shaping her culture (Dutt 1990, Sen 1985). In keeping with a modern political perspective, they use folk tradition as a site for articulating contemporary concerns. However, in the forms in which they have become available for literary interpretation, these folk traditions have already been mediated through inscription. The role of folklorists in bringing oral traditions to print in the...

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