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