Indian Folklore - 1
The Uses and Misuses of Folklore

What good is folklore? Before one can answer this question, one must clarify it by asking several others, such as, To whom? Now, or in the past? As a phenomenon, or as the academic study of a phenomenon? In summarizing the discussion that took place on this issue at the Indo-American Seminar on Indian Folklore at the Central Institute of Indian Languages in Mysore on August 22 to 26, 1980, it will be useful to separate few of the defining issues:

a) What does folklore do for the folk? How is this different from what it has done in the past for the folk? There are several subsidiary problems caught up in this question, such as the argument that folklore is antiquated and is no longer useful to people, or the counter-argument that folklore constantly revises itself and adapts to contemporary issues. In addition, it is probably best to distinguish practical issues. In addition, it is probably best to distinguish practical uses of folklore (political, materialistic, socializing uses) from spiritual uses (the creating or enhancing of a sustaining world-view or sense of identity).

b) What does folklore do for the folklorists? This implies both the question of why we should study folklore (what use it has for the academic community) and of what folklorists do for the folk (what use the study of folklore is to the folk). Here, as in question (a), it is essential to distinguish folklore itself (the phenomenon that is produced by the people) form folklorists (the study of the phenomenon), and to assess their uses separately.

c) What changes or adaptations can or should be made in folklore to make it more useful? This question hides a number of treacherous shoals, among them an implicit answer to one of the questions in (a) (i.e., the implication that folklore has not been able to remain relevant to the changes that have accompanied modernization) and the implication that the two questions in (b) are interrelated (i.e., that by studying folklore, folklorists are in a position to advise about changes that should be made in folklore for the sake of the folk, as well as of the folklorists).

To begin with (a): what does folklore do for the folk? Numerous examples arose form the field data presented at the conference: folk-games that perform a socializing function (allowing the families of bride and groom to become better acquainted in a safe, ritualized setting); the creating of a sense of group identity on the one hand (a shared body of "our" stories, often about "us" and "them" [the aham and puram dichotomy]), and, on the other hand, creating a sense of national solidarity through the broad corpus of folk materials that are recognizably pan-Indian. A kind of national solidarity is further enhanced by the way in which chauvinistic jokes of the "we-are-s-much-cleverer-than-they-are" genre served as a safety-value to defuse aggressions that might otherwise erupt in communal violence. Folklore serves to express life-values and to offer metaphors for the shared understanding of life; it beautifies the banal (one thinks of the decorations on bullocks' horns and tractor pistons); it sharpens wits and provides a natural outlet for artistic talents. It also preserves the past in areas where there are no historical records, linking the past to the present; and even where there are such records, it provides an alternative history, a democratized history that tells quite a different story from the facts selected by the journalists and historians. To the argument that "education is detrimental to folklore" (either by replacing it with other kinds of history, or by scorning it as "low"), the folklorist points out that folklore is education; folklore is the way that people have always educated themselves and their children, and even when other forms of knowledge are available, the vivid charm of the folk tradition serves often to sugar-coat the pills of philosophy and utilitarianism (as witness the Panchatantra and Hitopadesha).

From this summary, it should be clear that the overwhelming opinion of the members of the conference was that folklore is by no means archaic, though it does indeed preserve the past; that it up-dates itself in various ways (such as the proverbial blessing, "Be a king," that was changed to, "Be a police-inspector"; or, more complex, the rebounding into archaism from modernity: the introduction of the classical Navagrahas on Assamese folk-paintings as a reaction to the interest in planets created by the space programs). Though there are numerous examples of superficially antiquated petrified survivals (such as the now rather inappropriate benediction, "Have a hundred sons," throwing down the gauntlet to the birth control problem), these were by far out-shadowed by the ways in which folklore remains highly relevant, either by preserving values which have not changed (largely spiritual and psychological values) or by adapting to social and practical areas that have undergone change.

To go on to question (b), the uses of the academic discipline of the study of folklore (folkloristics), examples were equally forthcoming. We learn much from the folk; it is not our job to teach them. The study of folklore is an important branch of the study of human knowledge for its own sake (are gratia artis). And it is essential that the material be collected now, while it is still there, before it succumbs to the pressures of social change that threaten to dilute it, at the least, or even to destroy it.

In addition to this use (which must always be primary), it is necessary to understand the folk tradition in order to understand the so-called "Great Tradition" properly. Indeed, as we have come to understand more about the "Little Tradition" (and more about the "Great"), we have come to realize now misleading and inadequate this dichotomy is; the two interact at almost every stage. Thus we must study oral epics in order to understand how Valmiki composed the Sanskrit Ramayana; we must hear folk glosses to illuminate unclear passages in the Epic. We must learn to "understand India from the bottom" as well as from the top.

Finally, it could be argued that it is indeed good for the folk to have folklorists study folklore, that the academic study of folklore encourages those who create it to value and preserve what they have; that the study of folklore nourishes folklore as it is, working against the natural attrition caused by the adoption of modernized values. It could also be said that the study of folklore educates the "educated" (where folklore itself educates the "uneducated"), that it teaches the soi-disant élite of India to respect parts of their own heritage that they might otherwise scorn. Thus, for example, the scholarly attention paid to the paintings of the women of Mithila has encouraged them to preserve their art and to understand ways in which they can use it as a means of livelihood, at a time when they were beginning to discard it in favor of other, more lucrative occupations.

Other examples of practical uses of folklore (as opposed to purely spiritual uses) began to spill over into the third category, the "adaptive" program. the "soft" version of this program required no change in the actual content of the folk material (i.e., this program was not based upon the assumption that folklore is archaic and must be up-dated), but rather required the mere introduction of folk material into areas of public life where it has not yet naturally penetrated. Thus it was suggested that folklore could be incorporated into medical programs to help people find metaphors to express their illness and to accept medication; that it could be used on questionnaires in order to present contemporary issues in ways that would be more emotionally stirring and more likely to trigger genuine value judgements than conventional questionnaires can do; that it would be wise to integrate a knowledge of folk traditions into government planning programs in order to avoid failures based upon unanticipated reactions to the programs on "non-scientific", traditional grounds (such as the disastrous treatment of white leghorn chickens introduced by the government in village that be lived that white-legged animals were inauspicious). Finally, it should be possible to fight fire with fire, to use folklore on the media against the media that threaten it (television, movies); this is amore preservative and conservative program than the first three, designed on the "run as fast as you can to stay in the same place" principle, merely to keep folklore alive, where the others would attempt both to do this (to pump new life into folklore by giving it new tasks to do) and to enhance other aspects of Indian life through folk traditions.

The members of the conference expressed general approval of these measures, though some warned that such self-conscious programs often failed ludicrously (a puppet show put on by the government was so poor that on one went to it). A more serious doubt was expressed about the potential effects of the "hared" version of the adaptive program: the use of folklore as propaganda (birth control posters, political advertisements, school textbooks with specifics "socializing" goals). That such uses came to mind so easily for the members of the conference is evidence of the degree to which folklore has already been used in this was, as well as, perhaps, an indication of the need for self-justification that folklorists feel at a time when there are so many other claims on government funding. Nevertheless, it was strongly felt that this "hard" use of folklore was likely to lead to numerous evils of various sorts:

1. It was not likely to be successful even as propaganda. Folk themes by their very profundity are ambiguous, and likely to have different meanings in different parts of the country; this can lead to grave misunderstandings when they are lifted out of their proper context and twisted to make new points.

2. By flooding the culture with "false" folklore, one would be diluting and ultimately destroying "true" folklore (Gresham's law: bad money drives out good).

3. The moral issues raised by this use of a natural folk expression are complex, and the moral issues implicit in the involvement of "pure" academics in a program of specific political goals in a hazardous one indeed.

Finally, it was felt that folklore did not need to tart itself up to be "relevant"; its usefulness, sociological and otherwise, has been demonstrated beyond doubt. So, too, the existence of folklore studies as an essential link in the chain of human civilization need not be justified, any more than the existence of the study of literature of sculpture or religion. There are enough legitimate uses of folklore and of the study of folklore to justify a plea for every possible source of support to keep both of them alive.

Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty
University of Chicago