Folklore finds a voice – TATA, Dec 2012

Folklore finds a voice – TATA, Dec 2012

By documenting and recording folklore, social scientists are hoping to preserve pieces of the traditional and oral cultures of some of the tribes and sects being pushed to India’s margins

In 1974, when the Kabini dam was built across the river Kapila in the Heggada Devana Kote block of Mysore district, it displaced several thousand tribals, many of whom were forced to move out of the forest area they had lived in for generations. Among them were the people of the Jenu Kuruba tribe, the honey gatherers of southern Karnataka.

“One of the major problems that tribal communities face is that of displacement from their original habitat, as civilisational development encroaches into their native forest lands in search of minerals and produce,” says Prof MD Muthukumaraswamy, director of the Chennai-based National Folklore Support Centre (NFSC). “While such displacement may be inevitable, what is important is to preserve the culture, language and dignity of the people displaced.”

Preservation of this kind tops the agenda of NFSC, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to folklore research, integrating scholarship with activism, community development and advocacy.

Founded in 1997, NFSC holds that “folklore is a tradition based on any expressive behaviour that brings a group together, creates a convention and commits it to cultural memory”. The centre has been engaged in documenting and creating community-based archives of oral histories and folk artistic and musical traditions. Its most recent initiative is the creation of fellowships for postgraduate scholars.

The fellowships programme, which is supported by the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, began in 2008 with a pilot project involving research and documentation of the living traditions of six communities of Northeast India. The research delved into a variety of practices — still extant and rooted in tradition — such as the dance of Manipur’s Roungmei community, the Angami folk music and the folk blues of Nagaland, and the folklore of the Chakmas, a tribe that is spread across the northeastern states. Today there are 30 such fellowships, with researchers studying folklore traditions in different parts of India.

The NFSC fellowship programme — as also all of its earlier research projects — arose out of the need to close the yawning gaps in folklore research in India. Explains Prof Muthukumaraswamy: “Folklore study is a multi-disciplinary subject involving historians, folklorists, linguists, artists and so on. In addition, folklorists from different areas need to work together to establish reliable contexts.”

Social activism
However, the centre went beyond the research mandate; it became a platform for integrating scholarship with activism, setting up community archives and providing research documents to social institutions, such as schools, to inform mainstream society about the little known history and culture of communities that had carried these forward over centuries, largely through the oral tradition. “It is unfortunate that there are not enough effective institutional interventions for the folk crafts people in India, who number more than six million,” says the professor. “That is only one example of the marginalisation of these communities.”

NFSC’s attempt to meld scholarship with social interventions has arisen out of this outrage. For instance, when its research found the displaced people of the Jenu Kuruba tribe marginalised and ridiculed by the very communities in whose interests they had been compelled to yield their native lands, it decided to act in support. The community’s archival material was reproduced in various formats and distributed in the schools where the displaced Jenu Kuruba children were enrolled. This helped in restoring dignity to the community members. “Others began to view them as interesting, people with a great and unusual history,” says Prof Muthukumaraswamy.

The centre has done the same for the Vaagri (or Narikurava) community, a nomadic people that originated in the Rajasthan-Gujarat region and is believed to have migrated to what is modern-day Tamil Nadu from the 16th century onwards, and in especially large numbers with the Maratha armies. That is what their songs and myths reveal, adds the professor. NFSC has also prepared detailed, research-based archives of the Seraikella Chhau tradition of Jharkhand, of communities along the river Nila in Kerala, the Gonds of Madhya Pradesh and the Gond and Bhunjia tribal communities of Odisha.

In all such cases, NFSC places the community archives within community-run institutions, and these are permitted to be freely reproduced. The establishment of community archives was a path-breaking initiative in India. Government archives are governed by the Official Secrets Act and institutional archives by copyright laws, while personal archives are accessible to a limited degree. Community archives, available to all, is a radical departure from these claustrophobic practices.

Community archives are especially valuable because they are in the primary custody of the very community whose history and culture have been archived. “This gives them pride, and also helps them take ownership of their history,” says Prof Muthukumaraswamy.

Rigour in research
Just as its scholastic activism was a pioneering initiative, the NFSC research methodology has also been a trailblazing model in Indian academia. NFSC believes in collaborative research, involving a scholar with solid credentials in working with the community (the subject of the research), who is fluent in the local language and who mentors the project.

Researchers could be from one of several relevant disciplines, and they remain in the field for the duration of the research. The research assistants for these projects are always chosen from the community and Prof Muthukumaraswamy provides overall direction and supervises the projects. Among the expert mentors that the centre has worked with are such stalwarts as Prof Narayan Kikkeri of the Mysore-based Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages, who worked with the Jenu Kuruba people before their displacement.

The preparation for the research itself is a complex process: it requires the researchers to familiarise themselves with the community and learn a new vocabulary, sufficient to communicate with the communities. This is especially important as almost all of these languages have no written history or script and follow the oral tradition. Researchers and assistants are also trained in the fine art and science of archiving before they are sent to the field. Non-academic challenges include the problems of living in primitive conditions in remote areas for the duration of the research and building a rapport with the community.

After the research is complete comes the monumental task of recording the findings, including transcription, transliteration (which is phonetic) and translation. “Something is always lost in this process,” says Prof Muthukumaraswamy, “which is why we have to be meticulous so as to minimise the loss.” One year’s basic field research takes at least two years to record, he says, and deeper analysis would require much more time. “Unfortunately, Indian folklore research is so much on the edge of subsistence that we cannot do this. India, sadly, outsources social research to foreign universities.”

Sharing with society
The centre also studies marginalised urban communities with specialised traditions. Among these is the Marana Gaana (death songs) of 18th century Sufi mystic Kudangini Masthan, whose music has been kept alive by a community of street singers in Chennai. Similarly, the centre has documented the initiation rites of a community of transgender people in Chennai (this group included Tamil author Priya Babu and television anchor Rose).

NFSC has shared its research material with the Association of Historians so as to engender interdisciplinary dialogue between linguists, historians and political scientists, folklorists, encyclopaedists, media and others.

It is in the process of preparing an encyclopaedia of Indian folklore and a thesaurus of words of several unscripted, endangered and little-known languages. It has so far finalised the synonyms for some 400 words in various tribal languages, using the collaborative Wikipedia platform. The centre publishes several journals, including the Indian Folklore Research Journal, the Journal of Ethnomusicology, and the quarterly, Indian Folk Life.

Apart from financial constraints, the other challenge folklorists often face is hostility from religious bodies, classicists, government and non-government development agencies, even political extremists such as the Maoists. “These people are happy to take the folk forms dissociated from content and context,” says Prof Muthukumaraswamy.

The content of the folklore challenges dominant traditionalists and can actually turn social sciences on their heads. For example, folklore indicates our plural culture; this is a threat to those who would like to centralise political, social and religious beliefs and structures.

The preservation of folklore and community traditions has a special value in today’s world. The media, art and culture portfolio of the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust has been proactively supporting projects related to the field of folklore in India. As Niyati Mehta, programme officer at the trust, says: “The projects supported by the trust continue to build on how a living archive can become sites of knowledge that are a part of a rich intangible heritage that is not yours or mine, but ours as a community to learn and share.” Folklore studies are, thus, especially relevant in today’s fractured times.

A dance that unfolds in the shadow of the gods

Seraikella Chhau, one of the three forms of the famous Chhau dance of eastern India and native to modern-day Jharkhand, is significant because it has been the least influenced by external forces, says Prof MD Muthukumaraswamy, director of the Chennai-based National Folklore Support Centre (NFSC). According to NFSC, which has researched this traditional art form as part of its archiving initiative, Jharkhand did not come under direct British rule and, consequently, escaped the influence of external forces on its native dance forms.

All Chhau forms originated as dances imitating everyday life, even while they celebrated the spiritual and the religious. Thus, while all Chhau forms celebrate the vasant panchami (spring) festival in a dance narrating the history of creation, only Seraikella Chhau retains footwork such as “walking like a urinating cow”, “carrying pebbles between the toes” and “stamping on cow dung”.

The Chhau dance is believed to have originated in the Seraikella region in Vedic times (the ritual is mentioned in the Natya Shastra, says Prof Muthukumaraswamy). But it is only from the 17th century onwards that there have been modern records of the form, from the time that the then royal family extended patronage.

In the Seraikella form, the dancers wear masks — depicting the shadow or chhau — and the face and the individual is shown to be in the shadow of the gods. In the other Chhau forms (Mayurbhanj Chhau and Purulia Chhau), the face is left uncovered.

In the report of their field visit (conducted in August 2008), researchers K Muthukumar and S Aruvi describe Chhau as “an art form where there is space for each and every one… Art is doing what it is actually meant to do. It is relaxing them [the dancers] from their usual routine and transforming them completely. The difference between traditional classical dance and Chhau is this.”

They go on to say: “You need not be a trained artist to transform yourself and transcend the limits of the body. Chhau allows you to dance and perform the basic movements that come very naturally to the body. You imagine a past where people working in the fields for the whole day want to relax in the way they like … and invented Chhau, which they can perform with their bodies and with few instruments. You could see the origin of dance (in everyday life).”

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