discussion at the workshop began with each member reviewing the work done in his
language on proverbs and riddles. Later, each member provided information from
his language about different varieties of proverbs and riddles as well as about
their function and context. The following essay is based on the material supplied
by the members of the group.
and riddles have attracted the attention of many folklorists in India. The importance
which folklorists give to this genre of folk speech is evidenced by the numerous
volumes of proverb and riddle collections which exist in the many languages of
Indian. Each member of the group recalled at least six or seven examples of published
prov erb collections in his language. The bibliography is not evidence provided
by the participants indicates that the amo unt of work done thus far in this area
is very large indeed.
on closer inspection, it became clear that nearly all the work has been limited
to alphabetical listings of proverbs, sometimes itemized by subject. Riddle collections
have always included solutions to riddles, and often, though not always, the riddles
were also alphabetized. Some anthologies of proverbs have included comparative
material from other languages to the extent that the compiler presented, along
with each proverb, proverbs from other languages which translate similarly.
It is apparent
from this information that a study of the context of proverb used and of their
function with reference to their users is sadly lacking in work done to date by
proverb collectors and compilers of proverb anthologies. An additional problem
in proverb anthologies for some language, chiefly Telugu, is that their editors
and compilers oft
en altered the text of the proverbs to conform to the standards
of accepted scholarly language. this practice distort ed the texts, making it
difficult to determine their origins. Consequently, although the work on proverbs
and riddles in Indian languages is available, most of it needs to be done again
with appropriate methodological care.
begin with, the term proverb seems to be a cover word for a complex cluster of
folk speech forms. Borrowed
by nearly every writer who wrote in English on
this subject, this term masks a number of terms in regional languages. A survey
of these terms reveals a variety of concepts. Some terms, such as kahania (Gujarati)
and soloki (Bengali), indicate a genre. kahania represents a song in couplets
sung by women. Soloki means a proverb with a story.
Words like sameta (Telugu)
and samite (Kannada) point to the concept of analogy underlying the use of proverbs.
Both of these terms are derived from Sanskrit samyata, "equivalence".
The Bengali term provad, as well as theTamil p?r?muri suggest the legitimizing
function of proverbs. The words mean "words of the ancients" or "saying
of the community". Also, sastram, used in Telugu and lokokti, attested to
in several languages, indicate a similar legitimiz
significant feature of proverbs in all the Indian languages discussed by the group
is that they are attributed to unidentified persons from the past. Also, many
proverbs, when they are used in specific contexts, are structures as reported
speech. They are embedded in sentences such as "They say
" or "It
is like saying
..", "Someone(male or female, depending on the context)
..", and so on.
example from Telugu:
tatalu netulu tagaru
ma mutulu vasana cud?amannad?at?a
say, he said, 'my ancestors ate (clarified)
butter. You may smell it from
proverb is used to comment on the futility of ancestral pride. Eating clarified
butter indicates a rich life style. One's ancestors might have been rich, but
if a person is poor himself, his ancestors' riches have no value for him. The
flavor of good food does not show in one's mouth unless one eats it himself. Similarly,
one cannot use wealth unless one owns it himself. Among many creative uses of
this proverb is the ridicule of people living with dreams of past glory. Attributing
this statement to a person from legendary times confirm it as a real occurrence.
The user of the proverb is only utilizing it as an analogy.
the previous example, proverbs which present a value to be emulated or a convention
to be observed are attributed to a group and not to a single person. This group,
by implication, is the group of community elders from unknown, old times.
ceppu unnavad?itonu vel?l?oddannaru
say, 'Do not go with one who has debts and one who has shoes".
person who owes money to people in the village takes a circuitous route to reach
a place in order to avoid meeting his lenders. If you accompany such a person,
you always walk longer than necessary to reach your destination. A useful piece
of advice, indeed, since debt is usually considered ruinous to one's finances
in the traditional economy of India. An analogous image of the converse situation
is presented in the case of a person who has shoes. His feet are protected and,
therefore, he can walk over thorns and rocks with no concern for his companions
who might not have shoes.
proverbs which look like aphorisms are not necessarily used in the structure of
reported speech. An example has been provided by Ved Vatuk in the following Rajasthani
akkhar pad?hai raja banai
do akkhar banai di"van
pad?hai banai bam?n?a
who learns one syllable becomes a king;
One who learns two syllables becomes
One who learns three syllables becomes a
from house to house".
proverb, referring to the poor life of learned Brahmans, does not seem to be used
in discourse as a reported statement. How, then, it is precisely utilized in discourse
is not clear. Investigation needs to be done to determine if such aphorisms have
an implied reported structure. Also unclear from the example is whether the proverb
functions as an analogy to comment on the condition of a particular Brahman who
may be poor and learned or if it is used more abstractly to comment on the uselessness
of book learning which leaves a person without skills to make a living, except
to beg, as Brahmans sometimes do. Monitoring the actual use of proverbs in real
life situations would give rich detail essential for determining their actual
function and meaning.
proverbs discussed by the group have an analogy either explicit or implied. If
the use of a proverb as a reported statement endows it with legitimacy, its analogical
form establishes it as evidence of the point of view presented. The following
Bengali proverb, supplied by Dulal Chaudari, is a good example.
na janle uthan banka
who does not know how to dance (well)
blames it on the platform".
is used to indicate that the person given by a person for his or her inability
to accomplish a task is only a cover for lack of skill. The situation in which
this proverb is used itself is not accompanied by any substantial evidence of
the alleged lack of skill. It is significant that the use of the proverb effectively
substantiates such absence of skill. In the past, there was a person who blamed
his inability to dance on the platform. This instance is shown to be similar to
the present situation in which a person offers a specific reason for his failure.
The analogy here is not meant to be merely illustrative; it is provided as proof
that the person in question is behaving in the same way as the unskilled dancer
in the past who blamed the platform. That such analogies function as evidence
of an accusation is characteristic of proverb use. Example from several languages
indicate that in many instances analogy serves as an equivalent for proof. This
appears to be an essential feature of folk thinking. Further investigation could
reveal significant information leading to possible application in many areas of
important aspect of the use of proverbs relates to the hierarchy of the users
of proverbs. A proverb is considered appropriate only when the user is superior
in status to his or her listeners. Like water, proverbs flow from a higher to
a lower level and never vice versa. Proverbs are used by older men when they talk
to younger persons or by socially superior persons to socially inferior persons.
Also, they may be used among social equals. But even then, the person who uses
them establishes for himself the status of a wise man. Or, if the user of proverbs
happens to be a woman in mixed company, she is either older and also of higher
status than all the men in the group or at least of equal age and status as the
men. in the case of husband and wife, a wife could, and often does, use proverbs
aimed at her husband only if such proverbs are "female proverbs", about
which more will be said later.
of proverbs by children in the company of elders is strictly prohibited, as is
their use by servants before their masters. A proverb often used to reprimand
a younger person who uses proverbs before elders is reported from Hindi.
beccese chichi matkar
egg says to the bird, 'Don't make noise.'"
with similar uses are attested in many languages. In Telugu, they say:
egg (it is reported) made fun of the bird."
konchem, kuta ghanam
bird is small but its sound is big."
servants or persons of low status ever have to use a proverb to liven up a conversation,
they often preface their proverb with a humble statement, "As they say in
the proverb" or a similar phrase. Even then, the proverbs they use may not
be critical of the actions of their listeners.
presented by Mrs. Sashikala Chandervakar, who assisted her husband in quoting
a number of Gujarati proverbs, suggests that a division exists between male and
female proverbs. Proverbs related to relationships between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law
and a married daughter's attitudes towards her father-in-law's household are included
in the category of female proverbs. Telugu also distinguishes between male and
female use of proverbs. One such proverb:
the gold be no more than a cinnam (a tiny quantity, not more than a grain).
I want it to be made into tamarind leaf (design).
It should be pure (no other
metal should be added to it),
and I want to go around my neck."
When a housewife
is asked to use a small quantity (of food or money) and make it last for a long
time, she quotes this proverb. A woman who demanded of her goldsmith to make a
necklace of intricate design using only a small weight of gold serves as an analogy
in this proverb. Proverbs of this type are not usually quoted by men; if so, this
suggests that they have an effeminate quality. Similarly, the male proverbs used
by women indicate a socially undesirable, masculine tendency in them. more evidence
is necessary to establish the context of these proverbs as well as to find out
if such division operates in other languages of India. Further, it appears that
there are only a certain number of proverbs perceived as male or female. Many
proverbs seem to belong equally to either group.
is only stating the obvious to observe that proverbs reflect the wisdom of the
community. Even a sample list of what they include is staggering. Caste tensions,
personality conflicts, relations between kin groups, self-criticism of communities,
tips about family skills, medical information including knowledge of herbs, seasonal
changes of weather, crops, qualities of food items, childrearing practices, behavior
codes for different social situations ----- these are just a few of the items
noticed in the sample provided by the group.
proverbs acquire textual status when they are perceived by the community as collective
wisdom authored by elders form legendary times is evidenced by an experiment made
by Pushkar Chandervfakar in 1936. he coined new proverbs and published them in
his journal, Rekha. He reported in the workshop that they failed to acquire acceptability
among the people of Gujarat. To succeed, proverbs must not have known authorship.
antiquity is not by itself a deciding factor in acceptance of a proverb. New ideas
and new items form new proverbs all the time. Ved Vatuk presented a proverb of
recent origin in Hindi.
khaddar me, khadar me
are thieves in khaddar (handspun clothes) and in
khadar (a place known for
this proverb incorporates the recent feeling among many people that members of
the Congress Party who wear handspun khaddar to symbolize honesty have been corrupted
by power and are no better than thieves who live in khaddar.
contrasted with the multiplicity of terms used for proverb in Indian languages,
the term used for riddle are equivalents of the English term. vid?ukathai (Tamil),
ukhana (Marathi), prahelika dhandha (Bengali), varat (Gujarati), paheli (Rajasthani),
catur (Assamese), pod?upukatha (Telugu)----- all these words, the members of the
group felt, may be comfortably translated by the term riddle.
are more formally structured than proverbs. Available in rhythmic prose, verse,
or song, they have a tighter text that is less frequently changed in use than
are the texts of proverbs. It was suggested that riddles are more frequently used
by children and young adults than by older people. Further discussion of this
suggestion indicated that children use riddles in games while adults use them
in rituals. Also, adult use of riddles occurs in tales presenting problem situations,
such as marriage, selection of a husband by a woman, selection of a minister by
a king, and selection of a successor to the throne. Utterances of wise people,
statements of lovely ladies to young men, and utterance of deities or their priests
are made up of riddles.
was also suggested that children's riddle games are close to adult rituals. A
riddle is an open-ended problem with only one correct solution. One who knows
the answer by virtue of prior knowledge alone will be able to give the right solution.
By definition, it is not resolved by intellectual abilities such as logical thinking
or methodological investigation of information. Therefore, it is significant that
riddles should be related to rituals and tales of problematic occasions. Like
terms associated with ritual around the world, may of the terms for riddle in
Indian languages literally mean some sort of opening up to find out the answer.
This suggests that knowledge pre-exists, and it is revealed to the knower. Problematic
situations such as choosing a husband, king, or minister in folk tales reflect
the world view that a certain person is predestined to fill the role. The task
is not choice of a suitable person for the position so much as learning who is
destined for that particular purpose. Viewed as such, it is interesting that what
appears open-ended is actually a closed statement to be opened by the person with
the right knowledge.
interesting aspect of the group discussion was the opportunity for each member
to see how similar or different are the text and/or the function of proverb and
riddles in the various language areas. A comparative study of proverb use in Indian
languages has immense potential for mapping folk concepts and themes. It is too
early to predict, but a dense, shared occurrence of similar proverb structures
and functions across two or more language areas would indicate a pattern of shared
wisdom or world view. In any case, it is doubtless that an exciting field of study
is available for folklorists in this area which remains largely untapped.
University of Wisconsin, Madison
The following paper was generated form the discussion at the workshop on Indian
Riddles and Proverbs held during the Indo-American Seminar on Indian Folklore
at the Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore. The participants at the
workshop were: Velcheru Narayana Rao (coordinator and editor), Pushkar Chandervakar,
Dulal Chaudhuri, Prabhakar Mande, M. Shanmugam Pillai and Ved Vatuk.