Nanzan University - Semantic Scholar

Nanzan University - Semantic Scholar

Nanzan University Banana Republics and V. I. Degrees: Rethinking Indian Folklore in a Postcolonial World Author(s): Kirin Narayan Source: Asian Folklo...

3MB Sizes 2 Downloads 41 Views

Nanzan University Banana Republics and V. I. Degrees: Rethinking Indian Folklore in a Postcolonial World Author(s): Kirin Narayan Source: Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 52, No. 1 (1993), pp. 177-204 Published by: Nanzan University Stable URL: Accessed: 15-03-2016 01:20 UTC

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at info/about/policies/terms.jsp JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected]

Nanzan University is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Asian Folklore Studies.

This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Mar 2016 01:20:12 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


University of Wisconsin, Madison

Banana Republics and V.I. Degrees:

Rethinking Indian Folklore in

a Postcolonial World


In the history of scholarship on folklore in India, little attention has been directed

towards the relationship between folklore and social change. This paper reviews

British-based folklore studies in India, identifying a paradigm of self-contained

peasant authenticity that viewed references to changing social realities as adultera-

tions that must be edited out. It then contrasts such suppressions of change with

the conscious revamping of folklore materials to disseminate nationalist, Marxist,

feminist, and development ideologies. Next, it turns to contemporary examples

of creative change in folklore, with a focus on urban joke cycles that are largely

ignored by folklorists. Finally, it ends with suggestions for theoretical reorienta-

tions breaking down the rigid distinction between "us" as metropolitan analysts,

and "them" as the folk enmeshed in tradition.

Key words: India - history of folklore - social change - colonialism

joke cycles - positioned subjects

Asian Folklore Studies, Volume 52, 1993, 177-204

This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Mar 2016 01:20:12 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

IN their introduction to the landmark volume, Another Harmony:

New Essays on the Folklore of India (1986), Stuart BLACKBURN and

A. K. RAMANUJAN surveyed the history of folklore studies in India

and suggested avenues for future research. Among the promising

areas for research they listed was folklore's relation to social change.

They wrote, "If. . . folklore must be studied in all its forms, we should

not neglect the most contemporary. How does it respond to the ur-

banization, mechanization, and cash economy that are reshaping Indian

society (or at least large segments of it?)" (27). Scanning the availa-

ble literature on folklore in India, one finds sparse evidence to answer

their question. Most collectors since the nineteenth century have

simply edited out references to social change in published folklore

materials.' Apart from scattered examples (APPADURAI 1991, DEVA

1956, FLUECKIGER 1991, JUNGHARE 1983, VATUK 1969), few scholars have

confronted the issue at any length. The result is a lamentable gap in

our understanding of how folklore is revamped to speak to changing

social realities in India.

This essay brings together scattered evidence to build a unified

framework for conceptualizing colonial and postcolonial forms of

social change and cultural mixing in Indian folklore, and, by extension,

the folklore of other Third World countries. On one hand, I address

attitudes prevalent in scholarship since colonial times which equate the

"folk" with villagers and "folk-lore" with bounded, authentic, unchang-

ing materials. On the other, I examine actual folklore texts that have

crept into the written record, as well as ones that I have gathered both

as a trained collector and as a member of various Indian folk groups.

As Alan DUNDES has forcefully argued, the "folk" are "any group

whatsoever that shares at least one common factor" (1965, 2). The

point that English-speaking schoolchildren, the apartment-dwelling

urban elite, and immigrant academics may just as much constitute

Indian "folk" as village women, tribal groups, and pilgrims has largely

been lost on scholars interested in Indian folklore.


This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Mar 2016 01:20:12 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions



So as to immediately locate this discussion in tangible specifics, I

begin by presenting two unusual folklore texts. The first is a riddle

joke. I learned this from an Indian professor who had traveled from

Delhi to New York in September 1989, shortly before the Indian elec-

tions were held. My "informant" had heard this at a party in Delhi,

and it was transmitted to me in Madison, Wisconsin, over the tele-


Why is India now a banana republic?

-Because Rajiv Gandhi is always saying "Hamein yah banana hai,

hamein vah banana hai" [We've got to make (banana) this, we've

got to make that].

Let us postpone interpretation for the moment and turn to a con-

trasting text. Here is a wedding song (suhdg) I heard in 1982 from

Swarna Devi,2 a village woman of the carpenter caste from Kangra,

Himachal Pradesh. Hearing of my interests, she had dropped in one

afternoon to drink tea and sing before my recorder. Dupatta scarf

looped over her head, her face lined from raising five children and

working in the fields, she had sung this lilting melody with solemn ab-


hamari o beti chandara rekhd

Our daughter is like a moonbeam,

chandara rekhd vara mangadi

a moonbeam, she requests a


Hay M. A. aur F. A., V. I. aur

Oh my! M.A. and F.A., V.I.


and V. P.

Itnijamati kudi vara mangadi

She requests a groom with all

these degrees!

Tusdn kajo ronde kudiye de bod

Why do you weep, girl's father?

Karma likhi aise ho chukiyd

What fate has written is what will


What do these two texts, one heard from an expatriate academic,

one from a peasant, have in common? Though they differ in genre,

language, assumed stocks of knowledge, and the social location of the

performers, they share one important trait: both are contemporary

items of Indian folklore that confound our received notions of what

Indian folklore should be. Instead of pointing toward timeless, self-

contained village traditions, elements like "banana republic" and higher

degrees reach outward, away from exotic India, and toward the cross-

cutting cultural flows of the postcolonial present (cf. APPADURAI 1991).

This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Mar 2016 01:20:12 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions



The riddle joke was shared informally between two bilingual Eng-

lish and Hindi speakers whose conceptual universes spanned Rajiv

Gandhi's national development rhetoric, the Western equation of

banana republics with island dictatorships, and the self-conscious

colonial nostalgia of American-based Banana Republic Travel and

Safari Clothing Company stores. Banana, as the Hindi "to make,"

looks ahead to the industrial growth and consumer boom Rajiv Gan-

dhi's policies as Prime Minister have brought; "banana," as the ficti-

tious republic of the travel store, looks backward towards colonialism

and the regalia of European expeditions to "savage" countries. Stand-

ing at the intersection of orientations and cultures, my friend and I

laughed, joining many other urban Indians who shared the joke in 1989,

both through face-to-face interaction and by reading it in the popular

Time-magazine clone, India Today.3

The folk song, on the other hand, mixed several languages: the

mountain dialect Pahari; the language of the adjoining state, Punjabi;

the North Indian lingua franca, Hindi, and the language of the colo-

nizers, English. The wedding song was collected in the artificial con-

text of an interview in a village setting. Transcribing it soon after

Swarna Devi had gone home, I wondered whether she had chosen this

song for me, then a graduate student entangled in the world of higher

degrees. When I had asked Swarna Devi what the F. A., V. I., and

V. P. were, she shrugged. "I don't know," she said, speaking Hindi,

"they're your English degrees. I haven't studied anything." I sub-

sequently learned that an F. A. is a now-obsolete intermediate degree,

leading to the joke, "No, no, I am not an F. A., I have two more letters

to my degree: F.A.I.L." The V.I. and V. P. are apparently not

degrees at all, but, as the son of the local schoolmaster interpreted it,

were probably the illiterate woman's scrambling of V.I.P. The degrees

seemed to symbolize the groom's status and prestige gained through

education, much as in other suhag he is depicted as a deity or a prince

(NARAYAN 1986).

The overwhelming impulse upon confronting such items of folklore

is to laugh. Even liberal anthropologists or folklorists who agree that

traditions are constantly invented and reinvented (HOBSBAWM and

RANGER 1983; WAGNER 1981) might find a village woman in the

Himalayan foothills singing of college degrees as droll as the New

Guinea highlander in the film First Contact who sports a sardine tin on

his headdress! To see elements from "our" taken-for-granted reality

relocated in the Other's imaginative world certainly makes for a humor-

inducing epistemological defamiliarization, whether "we," as scholars,

are associated with the Indian elite or with the West. But to dismiss

This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Mar 2016 01:20:12 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


such occurrences as nothing more than amusing anecdotes is to miss

what they might actually be saying about changing sensibilities and

worldviews in Indian society.

Another impulse is to equate such references with resistance. Es-

pecially in cases where a villager speaks out about Western institutions,

there is a strong temptation to view this as promising evidence of a

critical subaltern perspective. This is the framework adopted by

both Indra DEVA (1956) and Ved Prakash VATUK (1969), who highlight

the role of folklore in critiquing British rule and the city-based Indian

elite. Yet such a view overlooks the fact that the Indian elite is also

a variety of folk, and that the imbedded references may also con-

stitute a complicity with hegemonic values. Without viewing folk-

lore in terms of the particular situated subjects who use it, casting it as

resistance may be an imposition of our own progressive aspirations onto

the materials at hand.

In order to clarify why scholars find it so difficult to recognize such

elements of the present in Indian folklore texts, I first turn to the past,

reviewing British-based folklore studies in India and identifying the

paradigm of self-contained, unchanging, peasant authenticity shared by

the British and Indian scholars who have appropriated folklore texts for

their own ends. Next, I discuss how folklore has been reworked from

demarcated political platforms in order to disseminate nationalist, Marx-

ist, feminist, and development ideologies. I argue that it is partly the

political potential of "Western" or "modern" elements that has led to

the suppression or emphasis of these elements by different groups of

scholars. Third, I present evidence from contemporary India to de-

monstrate that although certain genres of folklore are constantly being

updated in everyday contexts, they remain ignored in scholarship be-

cause of the preexisting paradigm of what constitutes authentic folklore.

The paper ends with suggestions for how such elements that confound

notions of "the Indian tradition" might be analytically conceptualized.

"Indian folklore," I argue, is too unwieldy a category to theorize about

effectively: we can achieve far more by distinguishing the various

genres, folk groups, and material-updating strategies. The political

impact of folklore cannot be considered just through texts, but must

involve a careful consideration of the social location and subjectivities

of its performers.

In highlighting the presence of elements in Indian folklore that

appeared after colonial contact-whether objects, roles, practices, or

institutions-I am holding in abeyance a discussion of three crucially

important larger settings. The first is the multiplicity, intertextuality,

and crossing-over that have always been present within Indian tradi-

This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Mar 2016 01:20:12 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions




tions themselves (RAMANUJAN 1989): the processes highlighted here in

regard to the "foreign" elements brought with British colonialism also

occurred with exposure to Islamic culture, and through time have been

taking place within the subcontinent's regional, classical, and counter-

cultural traditions. The second setting involves the history of folklore

studies in Europe, which is interconnected with the discipline as prac-

ticed in India and other colonized countries (DORSON 1968). The third

setting involves developments in American folklore studies that have in-

fluenced my own thinking, particularly the democratic conception of

the "folk" and the emphasis on situated performance (ABRAHAMS 1977;


DUNDES 1980) which is being extended to sophisticated understandings

of the power relations evident within and between folk groups (ABU-

LUGHOD 1986; BASSO 1979; COPLAN 1985; LIMON 1989; WEBBER 1991).

Keeping this complexity in mind, then, let us turn back to the British

colonial setting, in which folklore as a nineteenth-century Western disci-

pline was first introduced to India.


Those who set about systematically collecting folklore materials in the

nineteenth century were a varied crew: administrators, missionaries,

and the women attached through their husbands or fathers to the colo-

nial enterprise. Indeed, the first collection of folk narratives directly

from the oral tradition was undertaken by the Governor of Bombay's

daughter, Mary FRERE, when she was bored and lonely on an adminis-

trative tour. She asked her sole female companion, a nursemaid

(dydh) called Anna Liberata de Souza, to tell her stories. Anna was a

Lingayat convert to Christianity, but the tales she told were mostly

Hindu ones she had learned from her grandmother. She used an

often ungrammatical English which Mary Frere faithfully reproduced

in "The Narrator's Narrative." For the stories themselves, though,

Frere intervened with literary rewordings. The book first appeared

in 1868 as Old Deccan Days, or Hindoo Fairy Legends Current in South-

ern India and went through several printings in London. In his in-

troduction, Sir Bartle Frere, her father, stated that it was important

for "Government servants, . . . missionaries, and others residing in the

country," to undertake such collections as a means of understanding

"the popular, non-Brahminical superstitions of the lower orders" (1898,


There was clearly a preexisting notion brought over from Europe

of who the folk were: they were not Brahman pandits of the sort that

Orientalists were consulting about Sanskrit texts, nor were they British-

This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Mar 2016 01:20:12 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


educated Indians. Rather, they were the "lower classes" steeped in

tradition. Yet the fact that her teller of tales was also Christian and

English-speaking did not worry Frere in 1868. When the Folk-Lore

Society was founded in London in 1878, however, more stringent

standards of authenticity and scholarship were applied. The journal

Folk-Lore in England became, through the use of praise and censure,

an important forum for monitoring folklore contributions within the

British Isles and the colonies. Consider the civil servant and eminent

folklorist William CROOKE's scathing review of Alice DRACOTT'S Simla

Village Tales in the 1906 issue of Folk-Lore.

Unfortunately the authoress seems to be unacquainted with the

work done by other collectors in India. If she had studied other

... well-known books... she would have avoided the risk of

repeating tales already familiar. In fact, she seems hardly to

have tapped the vein of really indigenous folk-lore, and some of

the tales which she prints appear to have been obviously derived

from the Plains, where they have been affected by literary con-

tamination ... considerable portions of the tales suggest foreign

influence ... at this stage of her career as a collector she would be

well advised to undertake a systematic study of the printed ma-

terials. She would thus be enabled to make a more careful selec-

tion from the stores at her command, to detect the traces of foreign

contamination of the indigenous folk-lore, and so to make her next

book more novel and interesting to serious students of the subject.

(1906: 502-503, emphases are mine)

Admittedly, Simla Village Tales is not a dazzling book, and com-

pared to Frere's collection it is decidedly limp. Dracott describes her

informants in the broadest of terms; her retellings lack flavor. Yet

in criticizing Dracott's book for what it is not, Crooke also reveals the

changed assumptions of what acceptable scholarship in India should

be. First, it should be scholarly, part of a "fellowship of discourse"

(FOUCAULT 1972) that-despite the presence of collectors like Mary

Frere, Maive Stokes, Alice Dracott, Flora Annie Steel, and Georgiana

Kingscote-became increasingly dominated, especially in its theoretical

aspects, by men. Second, it should present hitherto unrecorded ma-

terials, adding to the existing pool of knowledge about the "natives."

Third, it should not be tainted by "foreign" or "literary" influences.

In contrast to Mary Frere's frank acknowledgement of her storyteller's

Christian identity, the authors of another influential collection, Wide-

Awake Stories (1884), assured their readers of their own native as-

This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Mar 2016 01:20:12 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions




sistant's "ignorance of all matters connected with European life and

notions" and the "genuineness of their Collection . . . procured at first

hand from the lips of purely village children, who have never been

inside a school" (STEEL and TEMPLE 1884, viii).

Yet despite the growing concern with "really indigenous" folklore

associated with "authentic" folk, none of these collectors of folk nar-

ratives had the least qualms about doctoring their materials for a

European audience (RAMANUJAN 1987, xiii-xiv). There is an alluring

charm to most of these translations: they make easy reading as English

stories and so allow for a sympathetic entry into fictional Indian worlds.

However, with names like "Sir Bumble," "Prince Lionheart," and

"Princess Aubergine," the protagonists in these stories are more like

familiar European characters relocated in an exotic setting, an experience

paralleling that of the stories' translators. Consider the very first lines

spoken by a character in Wide-Awake Stories: "Mother . . . give me

four shillings and I will go seek my fortune in the wide world." Is

this really India? Furthermore, as Verrier ELWIN complained in 1944,

most British collectors who had preceded him systematically edited out

raunchy passages (1944, xv-xix). To deride foreign influence on a

text yet simultaneously ignore the foreign collector's own role in elicit-

ing, translating, editing, and popularizing indicates a blind spot in the

paradigm of scientific objectivity.

European-based folklore study in the nineteenth and early twentieth

centuries was believed useful for furthering colonial administration and

missionary efforts through increased knowledge of subject peoples, and

for testing evolutionary (and devolutionary) theories of the day with

evidence collected from "backward" peoples elsewhere (DORSON 1968:

333). It is not surprising that colonial administrators like Sir Bartle

Frere and William Crooke in different parts of the world were inter-

ested in collecting unadulterated cultural materials that bequeathed

knowledge and power even as they demonstrated the collectors' dif-

ference from "the natives." In India, the increased emphasis on

unchanging tradition that emerged in the late nineteenth century might

also have stemmed from the realignment in British views that occurred

after the 1857 revolt. The new outlook emphasized an exaggerated

image of Indian conservatism that Thomas METCALF (using "folklore"

as a historian might) called "a kind of imperial folklore . . .used as

evidence to support the theory of Oriental stagnation" (1964, 325-26).

William Crooke, the man who so chastised Alice Dracott, also

edited a journal himself, North Indian Notes and Queries, which ran from

1891 until 1896.4 The introduction to the first issue states the journal's

intent of providing a forum for "residents of this country and in par-

This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Mar 2016 01:20:12 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


ticular the large official class" to share materials they have collected

but have lacked the time to write up into lengthy articles. As Crooke

observes in the maiden issue of the journal, "There are very few men of

culture who do not record in their notebooks the numerous facts of in-

terest which come under their notice during tours in the camping season

and in the course of their daily intercourse with the people." In short,

like the journal Indian Antiquary, this was to be a place for British

administrators to pool their knowledge of the natives, derived both from

their travels during the winter ("the camping season") and from the

vantage point of their settlements. Ironically, as one looks through

the succeeding issues of the journal one finds that it was predominantly

Indians who sent in their notes. To be recognized as holding valued

knowledge seems to have unleashed energies of the sort known to stu-

dents whose teachers have inverted the conventional balance of power

and expertise by eliciting information from their classes. Names like

Chaina Mall, Ghulam Husain, Pandit Kashi Nath, Azizudin Ahmed,

Pandit Natesa Sastri recur in issue after issue of this journal. Some

items are presented as generalized overviews, others are attributed to

named compatriots. Though Indians write, it is never "us" but always

"them"-"the Hindoos," "the Panjabis," "the Mussalmans"-who en-

gage in such practices.

Why should Indian folklorists so readily distance themselves from

their fellows? The explanation may be that though the self-conscious

collection of Indian folklore was a nineteenth-century, British-inspired

enterprise, folklore materials had been co-opted from Vedic times by

the elite. The Panchatantra, the Kathdsaritasdgara, and other story col-

lections are examples of the way folk narratives were transformed into

literary texts. The Sanskritic distinction made between mdrga and deshi

levels of culture betrays an elite bias: while marga is the classical, pan-

Indian, righteous way (the "highway" as COOMARASWAMY [1956] put

it), deshi indicates the vulgar and provincial "by-way."5 It is possibly

because the category deshi corresponded to European notions of folk

culture that the Indian elite so readily adopted this framework in their

own collection. Yet by adopting this approach, the fluid interchange

between categories that had been recognized for centuries became con-

ceptually frozen.6 If folklore at a deshi level was to be authentic, it had

to be sealed off from contact with developments in metropolitan centers.

For Indian folklorists, as for the British, the folk were people

enmeshed in traditions and untouched by change. They were vil-

lagers, they were women, and occasionally they were even associated

with the folklorist as a vestige of the days before he had assumed a

more Anglicized urban identity. For example, when Richard Temple,

This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Mar 2016 01:20:12 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions




another prominent colonial administrator and folklorist, suggested to

the Bengali novelist and Christian convert Lal Behari Day that he

make a collection of unwritten women's stories, Day obliged with

Folktales of Bengal (1883). In the preface, Day explains that though

he had heard thousands of fairy tales from an old woman in his child-

hood, these were now all scrambled in his memory; he had moved, it

would seem, out of the "folk" category and thus had to start collect-

ing afresh. He assures the reader that none of his informants knew

English, and that he had rejected any tales with "spurious additions."

His collection is introduced as "a genuine sample of old stories told

by old Bengali women from age to age through a hundred generations"

(1883, ii). Here we have a classic view of the Indian tradition: village

bound, authentic, a carrying forward of the past, and strengthened by

the conservatism of women.

Yet despite the emphasis on authenticity, Indian collectors-like

most of their British counterparts-felt free to edit as they pleased. So

when the same Richard Temple trained scribes (munshzs) to record

the poems of bards in Punjab, he found that these literate scribes who

used the Persian script were contemptuous of the vernacular language,

and insisted on doctoring the texts they wrote down. It was with

great difficulty that Temple convinced them to record the texts without

intervention, to read them back to the bards, and to then go over the

transliteration and translation into Roman characters (TEMPLE 1884-

1900, 1, xi). The resulting three-volume Legends of the Panjab stands

out as a landmark for its careful attention to the actual performed text.

Having demonstrated the dominant conservative vision of folklore,

let us now examine situations in which texts were self-consciously

manipulated so that messages emphasizing change could be imbedded

in them.


With the rise of nationalism in urban centers, and particularly Bengal,

the potential of folklore for reclaiming an un-Westernized Indian

identity was recognized (KOROM 1989). Rabindranath Tagore is the

most widely celebrated among nationalist folklorists. He founded the

Bangiya Sahitya Parishad (Literary Society of Bengal) in 1893, and the

following year began publishing its quarterly that brought together

folklore from various regions in Bengal. He explained his mission to

a gathering of students with a rhetoric reminiscent of European nation-

alists seeking the "soul" or "spirit" of the people in folklore.7

In the Sahitya Parishad, we are trying to know our country. The

This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Mar 2016 01:20:12 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


Parishad is searching for the spirit of the country in the epics,

songs, rhymes, doggerels, legends, ritual tales, manuscripts, in

the village festivals, in the ruins of ancient temples and in the huts

of the hamlets ... if you prefer the silent blessings of your mother

[land] to the left-overs from the dinner of a queen [Victoria] then

please stand beside these volunteers, and fulfil your patriotism by

working day after day for this cause, which may not bring you

money, reward, or fame. (HAQUE 1981, 35)

Tagore modeled some of his literary creations on folklore. His

nationalist songs were derived from Bengali Baul compositions. Also,

he drew on folk narratives from regional traditions beyond Bengal for

literary retellings as well as for fiction that reworked folklore motifs.

Ironically, his knowledge of these other regional traditions was acquired

through British collections, for example James TOD'S Annals and Anti-

quities of Rajasthan (1920) and Harry Arbuthnot ACWORTH'S Ballads of

the Marathas (1894) (HAQUE 1981, 68, 75-79). Although Tagore and

his compatriots' elite appropriation of folk materials was part of a

dynamic process that had been going on for centuries, this time it was

associated with a conscious sense of the power these materials bore in

asserting a collaborative Self separate from a dominating Other. As

Jawaharlal HANDOO writes of this period, "Folklore began to be studied

from the Indian point of view. Collectors and analysts began identify-

ing themselves with the native lore and the cultural context. . . " (1989,

140). In short, with a change in the political climate, attitudes towards

folklore texts also shifted.

Folk performers in many parts of India also incorporated nation-

alist themes into traditional texts. In Maharashtra, for example, kathd

storytelling performances served as a nationalist platform through the

late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so that mythological con-

frontations between deities and demons were used "to pinpoint the

misdeeds of the British; to spread discontent among the audience, and

to goad them to suitable action" (DAMLE 1960, 68). Many storytellers

were in fact arrested (DAMLE 1955, 18). Similarly, Bhojpuri folksongs

incorporated elements critical of British colonialism (GAUTAM 1973). In

the twentieth century Gandhi began appearing in folk traditions, his ac-

tions compared to those of heroic deities: for example, using the Rdma-

yana framework, he might be referred to as Rama who fought for Sita

(India) who had been imprisoned by Ravana (the British). Or, playing

on the first part of his name "Mohan," which is also a name for Krishna,

his stints in jail were compared to Krishna's birth in prison (VATUK

1969, 10). Older tale types and motifs proving supernatural powers

This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Mar 2016 01:20:12 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions




were updated to include Gandhi; these were viewed as grassroots

manifestations of support and reproduced in the nationalist press (AMIN


All these examples show that, by inserting elements from con-

temporary realities, folklore was used as a conscious political instru-

ment. It is clear why this would seem threatening to colonial scholars,

who wished folklore to be self-contained, revealing past-oriented tradi-

tion but not present-oriented politics. Yet when the capacity of folk-

lore to sway people could serve in the colonial interest, such scholarly

squeamishness appears to have been ignored by administrators. Itin-

erant preachers (bhajnopadeshaks) and folk drama performers (sdngi)

were employed by the British to encourage enlistment in the army

during both World Wars (VATUK 1979, 145, 160; 1969, 9). Here is

such a song:

Enlist in the army!

Recruiters are standing at your door!

Here you wear ordinary, mediocre clothes,

Whatever you can get, torn, and old.

There you will get a good suit and boots. (VATUK 1969, 9)

Applied folklore of this sort carried over from colonial interests to

post-Independence attempts to seed development through preexisting

channels of transmission. Other bhajnopadeshak preachers interviewed

by VATUK in the 1960s argued for social reforms such as the abolition

of untouchability, the equality of the sexes, and the distribution of land

to the landless (1979, 137-60). DAMLE, writing about Maharashtrian

kathd performances in the 1950s, reports, "None should be surprised if

mention is made of the Five Year Plan, Development, National Sav-

ings Campaign, Literacy Campaign ..." (1955, 19). Similarly, Milton

SINGER found that a Tamil harikathd performer was planning to incor-

porate propaganda for the Five Year Plan (1972, 170). John GUMPERZ

describes an Arya Samaj singer employed by the Community Develop-

ment Block who sang bhajans about public health and the Japanese

method of rice cultivation (1964, 95-96). The value of embedding

messages for development in traditional forms of folklore to make them

more palatable has also been discussed by communications specialists

(PARMAR 1975; RANGANATH 1980). Indeed, on Indian television these

days one sees short educational clips based on folk performances.

Watching television in Kangra in the winter of 1988, I saw a skit in

which Rajasthani puppets were used to demonstrate how dirt (a fear-

some witch) brought disease to a village, but was ousted by cleanliness

This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Mar 2016 01:20:12 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


(an upright young boy).

While folklore can be assimilated for development goals advocated

by the Indian government, it can also be used to critique and contest

the centralized political order. Since Independence, Marxists in many

parts of India have employed folk media as a means of highlighting

class inequities: adopting traditional forms and learning the performa-

tive techniques, they have sought to inject revolutionary contents.

For example, the Telugu folk singer, Gaddar, used folksongs to spread

Marxist-Leninist messages before large audiences in Andhra Pradesh.8

Street theater has been another popular mode of communication, as

practiced, for example, by Safdar Hashmi, who was later brutally mur-

dered. Contemporary Indian feminists have recast traditional tales and

folk songs. The group Astha, for example, made tapes of revised

traditional stories told through song and dialogue, then played these

tapes to groups of slum women in Bombay as a means of stimulating

reflection, discussion, and collective mobilization across communal

boundaries.9 In 1990, following widespread rioting by students to pro-

test the affirmative action policies for lower castes introduced by Prime

Minister V. P. Singh, folk-art effigies of the demon king Ravana prepared

for burning during the Dassera festival were made in striking likeness

to Singh. That year, in many parts of the country, Ravana wore black

spectacles, had a clipped moustache, and wore an upturned collar on his


Following the colonial precedent, Indian folklorists have largely

tended to ignore such contemporary references in folklore texts. As

Indra DEVA observed in an overview of folklore scholarship in India,

"The collectors sometimes deliberately leave out awkward pieces and

make 'improvements' to make the material more presentable" (1972,

214). For example, having collected several variants of Swarna Devi's

song, all mentioning B.A.s, M.A.s, or other educational qualifications, I

came across a book of Kangri folk songs compiled by a local folklorist,

Dr. Gautham "Vyathit." VYATHIT'S version had cut out all mention

of degrees and smoothed out the stray Punjabi, Hindi, and English

words to reclaim a pure Pahari text (1973, 64). Here, not only is social

change denied, but also mixing between languages and dialects. In-

deed, in post-Independence India, there has been a tendency to ar-

range folklore along the borders of the states redrawn on the basis of

linguistic identity (SAKTHIWEL 1976; VIDYARTHI 1978). Looking at

English publications alone, the Publication Division of the Ministry of

Information and Broadcasting, the National Book Trust, and Sterling

Publishers all publish nonacademic volumes of Indian folklore ar-

ranged by state. In making the state the bounded unit oi enquiry,

This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Mar 2016 01:20:12 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions




migration and cultural interaction across regions is downplayed, creat-

ing a new standard for regional authenticity. In this way, the quest

for a national identity through folklore has been transmuted into the

assertion of authentic regional identities negotiated through the Indian


One way in which the government has sought to manage diverse

regional cultures while also upholding the ideal of national unity is

through the sponsorship of national folklore festivals in which various

regional states are represented. Examples are the Festival of India,

which traveled abroad, and various Apni Utsav ("our festival") per-

formed in urban centers. Selecting participants to perform in staged

settings for a fee, these festivals extricate performances from lived con-

texts even as they uphold an ideal of regional authenticity in which

hybrid or invented traditions have no consciously recognized place:

"folklore" turns into what BAUSINGER (1990) would describe as "folk-

lorismus." Furthermore, the bearers of folklore continue to be con-

ceptualized as "them"-villagers or at least a lower social class-who

will perform for metropolitan audiences. Such cultural productions

are clearly marked by a vested interest in maintaining the exotic for

cross-regional domestic as well as foreign consumption. Here then,

"the folk" is a restricted category for whom lived experience at the

crossroads of regional and global cultural currents is denied. They

are muffled and frozen in a pristine past that becomes increasingly com-



Apart from this self-conscious encoding of political messages from

demarcated performance platforms, there is the more muted but none-

theless powerful politics of people in everyday contexts creatively as-

similating and speaking out on the technological forces and relations of

power that have transformed their lives (cf. BAUSINGER 1990). For

example, many Hindi songs reproduced by DEVA talk about love and

separation, using the railway train as a symbol (1956, 50-52). Here is

one Avadhi women's song, disarming in its poignancy, that was pub-

lished in Hindi by Devendra Satyarthi in 1948, the year after Indian


From the east came the railway train,

From the west came the steamer.

The train has become my co-wife,

She has taken away my husband.

The train is not my enemy, the steamer is not my enemy

This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Mar 2016 01:20:12 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions



My enemy is money which makes him wander from land to land.

(SATYARTHI 1948, 140, cited in DEVA 1956, 51)

Trains, steamers, money! William Crooke would certainly have

barred such a contaminated song from the pages of his journal. In

this folklore text, the supposedly pristine folk reveal themselves to be

squarely involved in larger systems linking them by land within the

country and by sea to other countries; systems that are breaking down

the village jajmdni network of reciprocal services, drawing individuals

into a market economy, forcing men to seek employment through mi-

gration. The song reflects on the changes colonization has accentuated,

but rather than using "experience distant" (GEERTZ 1983) words like

"capitalism," "world system," or "exploitation," the impact of these

forces is painfully localized in lived experience (cf. VATUK 1969, 14;

DEVA 1972, 211-14).

All social change mentioned in folklore is not, however, phrased

in such negative terms. At times it may reflect the upward mobility

sought through Westernization (SRINIVAS 1962). For example, in a cor-

pus of wedding songs taped by the American ethnomusicologist Bonnie

WADE in three villages and a town in the vicinity of Delhi during the

1960s, many songs pointed towards changes in the people's sociocultural

context. An old one, still sung, depicted "a twelve year old girl who

does not want to be married but wishes to join the Congress party and

work for Independence" (1973: 63). It is to Wade's credit that she

did not switch off her tape recorder when the women gathered at a

wedding started in such songs:

Obviously... recent is a text from Singola about the bride being

educated and fashionable; also from Singola, "Dan ke no so lai

hey hey" relates how the bride's father gave as dowry gifts, a plane

to the groom, and a car to herself, and "Indira Gandhi baithi raj"

reflects the point of view of the men in the village that the educa-

tion of women is bad.... Also in Gurgaon, "Ham ko bhi bitilo

banna" depicts the bride asking the groom for a ride in his auto-

mobile and "Bijli kd pankha ghum rahd banne ke kamare men"

pictures the groom's family gathered in a room, waiting to send

him off to the bride's village for the wedding, but being cooled by

an electric fan in the meantime. (1973: 60-61)

Unfortunately, Wade does not provide enough background on the

singers or the positions adopted in the songs for us to be quite sure what

they mean. When village women sing about men thinking that the

This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Mar 2016 01:20:12 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions



education of women is bad, is this an endorsement of the men's view

or a way of showing it up as ridiculous? Or since the song appears to

feature Indira Gandhi, an educated woman who was Prime Minister

at the time, does it actually have a political bias? When the groom's

family is depicted in the presence of an electric fan, is this a way of

boasting that they are rich and worthy affines or people who, so to

speak, sport superior airs? Are these songs funny or serious, or both

at the same time? Could the women have emphasized such songs

specifically for the sake of their foreign visitor? Without notes on the

performers and informed interpretation, there is no way we can answer

these questions.

WADE makes the interesting observation that references to social

change in folk songs cannot simply be understood in terms of urban

exposure. As she writes, "the interplay of traditional and modern

references in song texts is fairly equally dispersed," a finding that ap-

plied to all three of the quite different locales where she taped: a town,

an isolated village, and a "progressive" village near Delhi (1973, 61).

Change in folklore, Wade reminds us, occurs in villages, towns, and

cities alike.

In Kangra villages, where I have worked on Pahari women's folk-

songs, the distribution of "modern" elements in the songs varied among

cohorts of performers and across genres. For the genre of suhdg wed-

ding songs for the bride, women both old and young followed the poetic

convention of referring to palace homes, palanquins with silver spokes,

in-laws on the high slopes, and ivory stools bedecked with pearls.

However, it was exclusively the younger women who sang of buses

bearing away the bride, of tarred roads, and of "lip-istick" in the bride's

trousseau (NARAYAN 1986, 65-66). Ballads called pakharu about married

women's suffering, on the other hand, tended to be of clearly older

origin and in a purer dialect form. Dance songs (ndch git) stood at the

other end of the spectrum, with a comic, exuberant embracing of ele-

ments of the present (NARAYAN, forthcoming). While some dance songs

were group renditions of the solos from Hindi film songs piped in over

the radio, others were oral compositions which tended to mix the local

dialect with Punjabi, Hindi, and English. Consider one dance song,

mostly Punjabi, performed by an uproarious group of women prancing

about in costume at a birthday celebration in September 1990:

jamdne diyd hdniydn hoya kam Oh comrades of the times, mis-

kasztd deeds are on the increase!

surkhi ldndi, paudar ldndi lama Women put on nail-polish and

ldndi tika powder and a long mark on the

This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Mar 2016 01:20:12 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions




sire chi do do guta kardi kame jo They make two braids and throw

mdrdifjutd the shoe at work.

andar sas nuh ladnd lagiyd Inside the mother-in-law and

daughter-in-law have started to


bdhar putar sutd Outside, the son sleeps,

panch sat mukkdn nue mareydn The daughter-in-law hits five or

seven blows

putare chukziyjjuta with a shoe picked up from the


In this song, women play on a well-entrenched theme of conflict

between the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, and playfully invert

the image of the ideal, modest, hard-working and submissive daughter-

in-law. The song suggests that the daughter-in-law is a shameless

user of cosmetics, adorning herself with nail-polish, facial powder, and

fashionably long marks on the forehead, none of which are traditional

in village India. She "throws the shoe" at serving others, i.e., her

tyrannical mother-in-law, apparently with the complicity of her lazy

husband. A song such as this, parodying the idea that excessive mod-

ernity corrupts women and expressing local anxieties that an increasing

value is being put on conjugal over filial bonds (midn bibi ke raj), ap-

peared to be deeply entertaining both to performers and to the audience.

Turning to the cities, an increasingly popular folklore form is the

joke (cf. BECK et al. 1987, xxix). Many jokes are short narratives with

a punch line, but the single-question-and-answer format of the riddle-

joke is spreading fast. These riddle-jokes tend to arrange themselves

into joke cycles that erupt around political or socioeconomic trends.

Many of these jokes are in English, and, as with the "banana republic"

joke, derive much of their humor from bilingual puns or regional ac-

cents. They appear to be a way for the Indian elite to both celebrate

and alleviate their anxiety about being simultaneously Indian and

Westernized, simultaneously Indian nationals and members of particular

ethnic groups. Yet while these jokes might appear in the humor sec-

tion of an illustrated weekly or circulate in joke-books, they have rarely

been acknowledged as folklore by scholars. They clearly are a folklore

form, though, displaying multiple existence and variation, and associa-

tion with particular folk groups. For example, after V. V. Giri became

President in 1969 a spate of jokes circulating among the children in

my Bombay school played on his name and his Tamilian (South Indi-

an) accent. Simultaneously, they parodied general-knowledge quizzes

This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Mar 2016 01:20:12 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions



of the sort to which we were accustomed.

"What is President Giri's favorite color?"-"Gir-een" (possibly a

reference to the agricultural "Green Revolution" being promulgated

in the 1960s, with high-yield seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers).

"Favorite country?" "Gir-eese" (Greece) OR "Gir-eenland" (these

countries appear to have been highlighted through their link to

Giri's name rather than any particular focus in foreign policy).

"Favorite game?"-"Giri-gut" (cricket-a British game that con-

tinues to be popular in previously colonized societies like India).

"Favorite actor?" "Giri-giri (Gregory) Peck" (displaying the pop-

ularity of Hollywood films among the joke-tellers).

"What do his grandchildren call him?" "Ddda Giri" ("Dada" means

paternal grandfather, while Dadagiri implies heavyweight bullying

of the sort associated with politicians or hoodlums).

Many joke cycles target ethnic groups, continuing well-entrenched

traditions of caste and ethnic stereotypes in Indian folklore. Perhaps

the best known are the infamous Sikh jokes, which fall into a world-

wide category of ethnic jokes highlighting stupidity (DAVIES 1990, 64-

65). (In light of the Sikh separatist movement these jokes have in

recent years taken a different slant as "Khalistan" jokes, named after

the homeland sought by Sikhs.) While the Sikh jokes have been re-

marked on in scholarship, jokes about other ethnic groups have rarely

been recorded. I will dwell on two cycles of jokes to demonstrate that

Sikhs are by no means alone.

Sindhis-from Sind, now in Pakistan-mostly bear surnames end-

ing in "ani." As refugees who were resettled after 1947, yet have done

extremely well in business both in India and abroad, they have attracted

an underlying resentment that occasionally surfaces in humor. The

Sindhi joke cycle prevalent in the 1970s punned in English on recog-

nizable Sindhi names by asking questions like, "What do you call

a Communist Sindhi?"-"Lal[red]vani," "A mathematical Sindhi?"-

"Ad[d]vani," "A falling Sindhi?"-" Thad[thud]ani," "A handicapped

Sindhi?" "Kripal[cripple]ani," and so on. While these jokes play on

a diversity of capabilities and attributes constituting Sindhi identity, as

ethnic slurs go they are fairly harmless. Neither stupidity nor can-

niness (two imputed characteristics highlighted by DAVIES [1990] in his

cross-cultural study of ethnic jokes) is focused on.

Another well-known cycle prevalent through the late '70s and

early '80s plays on an imputed stupidity about Western traditions in

a group traditionally construed as canny: Gujaratis, or natives of

This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Mar 2016 01:20:12 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


Gujarat (DAVIES 1990, 16). In these jokes, "Gujus" (Gujaratis) are

generally presented as lower-middle-class entrepreneurs or nouveau

riche "Ghatkopar Yankees" (Ghatkopar is an unfashionable suburb of

Bombay) aiming for upward mobility while lacking Westernized cultural

skills. Most of these jokes hinge on a Gujarati accent that has not

been smoothed out with an upper-class, English education. The peo-

ple who circulate such jokes, Gujaratis and non-Gujaratis alike, appear

to be accentuating the difference between themselves and those whom

they describe; they laugh partly out of relief that they would not make

such mistakes in their pronunciation or understanding of cosmopolitan

tastes. Here are a few examples:

"Why did the Guju go to Rome?"-" To hear Pop[e] music."

(The travelling Gujarati, striving to be cosmopolitan, mistakes

the Pope for the hip pop music he cultivates an interest in.)

"Why did the Guju go to London?"-"To see the Big Ben [sister]."

(The Gujarati does not understand that Big Ben is a tourist

attraction, and not his ben or sister.)

"Why did the wedding guests leave the Guju wedding at the Oberoi

Hotel?"-"Because they heard that snakes [snacks] would be served."

(The Gujaratis have held an ostentatious wedding at a five-star

hotel, but lack the sophistication to pronounce "snacks" cor-

rectly, thus alarming the guests who fear that they will be ex-

pected to eat "snakes," suggesting savage (jungli) customs.)

"Why did the Guju medical student walk around with a mango on his

head?"-"Because he had heard of Carry [kairi 'mango'] on Doctor."

(Aiming to enter a class of respected professionals, the Gujarati

medical student mistakes the name of a film featuring a suc-

cessful doctor with an exhortation for him to put a mango [ka-

iri] on his head.)

"Why did the Guju bring perfume bottles to the exam?"-"Because he

wanted to get [s]cent per [s]cent [full marks]."

(The Gujarati student, hoping for success, mistakes the word

"cent," from "percent," for "scent"-pronounced to rhyme

with "paint"-and so engages in sympathetic magic by bringing

along expensive perfume to the examination hall.)

With the Gujarati jokes, foreign travel, conspicuous consumption,

and higher education of the sort associated with the urbanized upper

classes are parodied. This joke cycle, based on puns and accents, is

clearly of Indian invention. Other joke cycles, however, are clearly

derivative from American or British ones, while inserting Indian con-

This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Mar 2016 01:20:12 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions




tent. So among the "height" jokes of the 1960s there also appeared

a parody of Indian patriotism and family-planning programs through

the irreverent juxtaposition of Gandhi's acclaimed experiments in celi-

bacy and his advocacy of spinning: "What is the height of patriotism?"

"Gandhiji using a khadi Nirodh [homespun cloth condom of a govern-

ment brand]." A revamping of the lightbulb joke popular in the late

1980s that commented on the separatist movements and escalating

violence of the times was: "How many Sikh terrorists does it take to

screw in a lightbulb?" "Five: one to hold the lightbulb, four to shoot the

bystanders." Clearly, these jokes are not just light and funny. They

address conflicts and concerns experienced by particular social groups,

and attention to them can provide clues to the emerging identities of

modern India. As Alan DUNDES cautions in his introduction to a book

of essays on American joke cycles, "Remember, people joke about only

what is most serious" (1987, viii).

I have elaborated on these examples to illustrate the widespread

presence of folklore that speaks to contemporary realities, in villages

and cities alike. Yet much Indian folklore study continues to hold to

a framework emphasizing authenticity in past-oriented, village-based

traditions. The impetus comes both from the quest for identity within

India and from trends in foreign scholarship, where until quite recently

the documentation of fast-vanishing traditions ("salvage ethnography")

has eclipsed interest in their transformations (CLIFFORD 1989). There

is no doubt that with every generation certain folklore forms are dis-

appearing as state-based literacy, the mass-media, and a cash econo-

my transform the rhythms of living and the sensibilities of performers

and audiences (FLUECKIGER 1991, JUNGHARE 1983, NARAYAN forthcom-

ing). The collection of folklore that has been marginalized remains

important and timely. Yet it is also important that we extend our

attention to the innovations blossoming in folklore genres all over the

Indian subcontinent.


This article has attempted to open up Indian folklore studies on two

interlinked fronts, first by extending the notion of "folk" from villagers

supposedly enmeshed in self-contained, past-oriented, authentic tradi-

tions, and second by arguing that folklore containing elements of pre-

sent-oriented lived realities is also worthy of collection. My presenta-

tional form, in which I have acted as informant as well as scholar, is

tied into my argument for the need to break down the rigid distinction

between the observed Other as authentic folk, and the observing Self

as objective collector. Though they may move in different circles,

This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Mar 2016 01:20:12 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


draw on different genres, and preoccupy themselves with different life

concerns, all Indians-as all people everywhere-belong to various

overlapping folk groups demarcated by age, profession, ethnicity, re-

gion, and so on. Having reviewed why elements that connect India

to her contemporary realities and the outside world have been sup-

pressed in scholarship, I would like to end with a further agenda

for how such elements, once they are allowed into scholarship, might

be interpreted.

"Indian folklore"-spanning riddle-jokes and wedding songs, epics

and proverbs, folk dance and counting-out rhymes-must at this point

be set aside as being, quite frankly, too unwieldy a category to work

with. It is more useful to view particular folklore forms in situated

contexts, used by particular individuals who perform and interpret

them. As Richard Handler, following Lionel TRILLING (1971) has

argued, a concern with authenticity is tied to Western notions of indi-

viduality: an authentic culture is conceptualized as a discrete, bounded

unit (HANDLER 1986). Similarly, authentic folklore is associated with

an authentic folk, which acts as a collective subject. Yet though folk-

lore is by definition shared, this by no means entails that "the folk"

who share the lore and the experiences that have grouped them in the

first place are all clones. To assert, say, that Maharashtrian folklore

speaks for all Maharashtrians is to objectify the category Maharashtrian,

to blur regional, class, caste, gender, and age differences; it is, in effect,

to deny the people who perpetuate folklore forms their individuality.

Problematizing the blanket category "Indian folklore," then, is to

invite inquiry on several fronts.

1. Variation by genre. While some genres are more open to the

influence of changing contemporary realities, others are more moored

in alternative, self-contained worlds. We need to understand why

some genres are more susceptible to improvization than others. As we

have seen, urban Indian joke cycles are closely tied to political or socio-

cultural trends. Yet this is not true for all genres. The large corpus

of Kannada women's folktales collected by A. K. Ramanujan, for ex-

ample, has not a single reference of this sort. The question we need

to ask is why a particular genre does not exhibit change: is it because of

its role in a certain arena of people's lives, the domestic or public setting

of its transmission, its association with more-or-less conservative folk

groups, or the status of its performers? Does fixity render a genre

vulnerable to extinction?

2. Variation in links between past and present. We also need to

understand the mechanisms through which a folklore form is aligned to

the present. Are new elements inserted into preexisting slots, as when,

This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Mar 2016 01:20:12 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions




in a folktale told by the Swamiji central to my book (NARAYAN 1989),

Shiva and Parvati touring the heavens were put into an "aeroplane"

that unproblematically represented a contemporary manifestation of the

mythological flying chariot or vimdn? Or is a new content given to

an older form, a content that can only be understood in terms of previ-

ous tradition, as when Gandhi is celebrated as "Mohan" in jail? Or

is an old form relocated in its setting, as when school children per-

form Kangra folk songs at official state functions. Or has transmission

changed, as when folklore exists in printed vernacular texts that also

display multiple existence and variation (WADLEY 1983)? Is the link

between past and present made through digressions that involve

stepping briefly outside the folklore frame to invite reflection (BASG6Z

1986)? Or is a new form one previously unknown, as with urban

riddle-jokes? With each folklore form there are bound to be different

conventions tied to both genre and sociocultural setting.

3. Variation among the folk. As APPADURAI writes in the after-

word of a richly edited collection of essays on Indian folklore, "The idea

of the 'folk' in South Asia creates an illusion not just of synchronic

homogeneity, but also of historical and geographic fixity" (1991, 469).

While he is dubious of the term "folk" itself, I believe that it is useful

when suitably clarified. Who performed? Who listened? What was

the wider setting? Speaking of the "folk" as a corporate group first

of all underplays power relations along such lines as caste, class, and

gender. It also undercuts the impress on folklore materials made by

the performer, each of whom brings a positioned stock of knowledge and

aesthetic sensibilities to bear on what is being transmitted. Further-

more, elements of the present inserted into folklore texts may not

mean the same thing to everyone concerned, and so it is important

to gauge interpretation, either through direct elicitation or through in-

direct contextualization. What appears in performance cannot directly

be understood as a reflection of practice. We must also keep the col-

lector's influence in view. Swarna Devi, for example, who sang of de-

grees to her educated visitor, soon after married her daughter to a

carpenter who didn't possess a single one. What is needed, basically,

is attention to the subjectivities of those who share folklore, so that it

can be understood within the shifting systems of meaning deriving from

the social location and life-experience of those who perform it.

4. Variation in political intention. In an academic context in

which the subaltern has been highlighted, it is indeed tempting to view

all folklore elements that encompass changing social realities as a form

of resistance. As a carrying-forward of familiar traditions so that they

encircle unfamiliar life circumstances, folklore is indeed a powerful

This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Mar 2016 01:20:12 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions



form of "domestification" (TODOROV 1984, 74), "incorporation" (NGUGi

1986, 23), and "encompassment" (ROLAND 1988, 174, 253-54) that

absorbs social change and domination into a system of existing beliefs.

To represent something or someone in folklore is, in a sense, to assert

symbolic control over it (BASSO 1979; WEBBER 1991). Furthermore,

given the power of performance to create and sustain compelling al-

ternative worlds, it is in performance that "the capacity for change may

be highlighted and made manifest to the community" (BAUMAN 1977,

45), an insight that in India has been set to use by nationalists, Marx-

ists, feminists, and development experts committed to social reform.

Yet we cannot forget David Coplan's injunction that "any treatment

of performing arts as an aspect of adaptation to specific conditions

must also describe the power relations within which cultural change

occurs" (COPLAN 1985, 240). This is why we need to look more closely

at who the performers are as situated subjects and actors, and what in-

terests they represent. While the symbolic encompassment of chang-

ing experience may well be a form of resistance to Western values and

neocolonialism in some contexts, it may present a complicity with

such values in others. To unproblematically associate "the folk" with

"resistance" is to deny the ambiguity and complexity of actual people

and situations.

In summary, we need to rethink the heritage of past scholarship

in Indian folklore so as to overcome the paradigm of authentic Indian

folk traditions as village-based, bounded, untainted by outside in-

fluence, and unchanging. We must pay closer attention to the sub-

ject positions associated with particular forms of folklore, whether in

the village, the town, or the city. In each case, we need to rethink the

political consequences of traditions that address the present. Only by

breaking down the rigid distinction between "us," the metropolitan

collectors and analysts, and "them," the folk entangled in traditions,

will we be able to genuinely accept that elements from "our" taken-

for-granted global realities can exist in "their" localized folklore texts.

All this will help us better understand India as a banana republic in

the sense of a country experiencing the dynamic "making" and remak-

ing of its folklore in response to changing life conditions.


The materials on which this article is based derive from both informal interaction

and guided fieldwork. I have been visiting Kangra since 1974, but only focused on

wedding songs (suhdg) between June and September 1982 and engaged in formal field-

work for ten months between September 1990 and September 1992. Similarly, I

This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Mar 2016 01:20:12 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions



began informally collecting the folk narratives of a holy man in 1980 but only devoted

myself to this as a scholarly enterprise between June and August 1983 and July and

October 1985. I am grateful for a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship,

two U. C. Berkeley Graduate Humanities Research Grants, Robert H. Lowie funds,

a Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship, an American Institute

of Indian Studies Senior Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Humanities

Fellowship. The University of Wisconsin Graduate School Research Funds allowed

me to begin historical readings in 1989 and 1990. Preliminary versions of this paper

were presented at the 1989 American Folklore Society Meetings in Philadelphia, the

Center for South and South East Asian Studies at the University of Michigan at Ann

Arbor, and the 1990 Asian Studies Association Meetings in Chicago. My greatest

debt is to Professor Alan Dundes, whose influence pervades these pages. I am also

grateful to Ilhan Basgoz, Amrita Basu, Regina Bendix, Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger,

Peter Claus, Peter Knecht, Frank Korom, Sabina Magliocco, Margaret Mills, A. K.

Ramanujan, and Narayana Rao for their extremely perceptive comments on earlier pre-

sentations and written versions.

1. An important exception is BECK et al. (1987, 203-204, 247).

2. This is a pseudonym.

3. In a short article entitled "Humour: Indiana Jokes," RAJGHATTA and

TRIPATHI argue that "slowly but surely Indians are beginning to make fun of them-

selves" (1989). This assertion overlooks the ancient traditions of humor in India (cf.

SIEGEL 1987).

4. This journal actually succeeded the less well known Panjab Notes and Queries

(1883-87), edited by Richard Temple.

5. The mdrga/deshi distinction is also perceptively discussed in terms of "Great"

and "Little" traditions by RAMANUJAN (1973, 22-25).

6. I am grateful to my generous colleague, Narayana Rao, for this insight.

7. For more on the European association of national identity and folklore, see

HERZFELD 1982; OINAS 1978; WILSON 1976, and the Journal of the Folklore Institute


8. Narayana Rao, personal communication. Also described in HALARNKAR 1990.

9. Jyotsna Kapur, personal communication.



1977 Toward an enactment centered theory of folklore. In Frontiers of folklore,

ed. W. Bascom, 79-120. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.


1986 Veiled sentiments: Honor and poetry in a Bedouin society. Berkeley and Los

Angeles: University of California Press.

ACWORTH, Harry Arbuthnot

1894 Ballads of the Marathas, rendered into English verse from the Marathi originals.

London: Longmans, Green, and Co.

AMIN Shahid

1984 Gandhi as mahatma: Gorakhpur District, Eastern U. P. 1921-2. In Sub-

altern studies III, ed. Ranajit Guha, 1-61. Delhi: Oxford University Press.


1991 Afterword. In Gender, genre, and power in South Asian expressive traditions,

This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Mar 2016 01:20:12 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


eds. Arjun Appadurai, Frank J. Korom, and Margaret Mills, 467-76. Phila-

delphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.


1986 Digression in oral narrative: A case study of individual remarks by Turkish

romance tellers. Journal of American Folklore 99: 5-23.

BASSO, Keith

1979 Portraits of the "whiteman." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

BAUMAN, Richard

1977 Verbal art as performance. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland.


1990 Folk culture in a world of technology, trans. Elke Dettmer. Bloomington:

Indiana University Press.

BECK Brenda, Peter CLAUS, Praphulladatta GOSWAMI, and Jawaharlal HANDOO

1987 Folktales of India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


1982 Folklore in context: Essays. New Delhi: South Asian Publishers.

BEN-AMOS, Dan and Kenneth B. GOLDSTEIN, eds.

1975 Folklore: Performance and communication. The Hague: Mouton.


1986 Another harmony: New essays on the folklore of India. Berkeley: Univer-

sity of California Press.


1989 The others: Beyond the "salvage" paradigm. Third Text 6: 73-77.


1956 The nature of "folklore" and "popular art." In Christian and Oriental

Philosophy of Art, 130-43. New York: Dover.


1985 In township tonight! South Africa's black city music and theatre. Longman:

London and New York.

CROOKE, William

1906 Review of Simla villaga tales. Folk-Lore 17: 501-503.


1955 A note on Harikatha. Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute 17:


1960 Harikatha: A study in communication. Deccan College Research Institute

Bulletin 20: 63-107.

DAVIES, Christie

1990 Ethnic humor around the world: A comparative analysis. Bloomington and

Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

DAY, Lal Behari

1883 Folktales of Bengal. London: Macmillan.

DEVA, Indra

1956 Modern social forces in Indian folk songs. Diogenes 15: 48-65.

1972 Folklore studies: A trend report. In A survey of research in sociology and

social anthropology, vol. 3. Bombay: Popular Prakashan.

DORSON, Richard M.

1968 The British folklorists: A history. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


1906 Simla village tales, or folk-tales from the Himalayas. London: John Murray.

This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Mar 2016 01:20:12 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions




DUNDES, Alan, ed.

1965 The study of folklore. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

1980 Interpreting folklore. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

1987 Cracking jokes: Studies of sick humor cycles and stereotypes. Berkeley: Ten

Speed Press.

ELWIN, Verrier

1944 Folk-tales of Mahakoshal. Bombay: Oxford University Press.

FLUECKIGER, Joyce Burkhalter

1991 Genre and community in the folklore system of Chattisgarh. In Gender,

genre, and power in South Asian expressive traditions, eds. A. Appadurai, F. J.

Korom and M. A. Mills, 181-200. Philadelphia: University of Pennsyl-

vania Press.


1972 The discourse on language. In The archeology of knowledge. New York:



1898 Old Deccan days, or Hindoo fairy legends current in southern India, 3d ed.

London: John Murray.

GAUTAM, Vinayshil

1973 Some aspects of folklore as an agent of nationalism in the Bhojpuri-speaking

area: 1917-1942-a case study. In Essays in Indian folklore, ed. L. P.

Vidyarthi, 180-90. Calcutta: Indian Publications.

GEERTZ, Clifford

1983 From the native's point of view. In Local knowledge. New York: Basic



1964 Religion and social communication in village North India. In Religion in

South Asia, ed. Edward B. Harper, 89-97. Seattle: University of Wash-

ington Press.


1990 The revolutionary Naxal bard. Times of India Sunday 5 August. Vol. 53

(215): 10.

HANDLER, Richard

1986 Authenticity. Anthropology Today 2/1: 2-5.

HANDOO, Jawaharlal

1989 Folklore: An introduction. Mysore: Central Institute of Indian Lan-


HAQUE, Abu Saeed Zahurul

1981 Folklore and nationalism in Rabindranath Tagore. Dacca: Bangla Academy.


1982 Ours once more: Folklore, ideology, and the making of modern Greece. Austin:

University of Texas Press.

HOBSBAWM, Eric, and Terence RANGER, eds.

1983 The invention of tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


1983 Songs of the Mahars: An Untouchable caste of Maharashtra, India. Eth-

nomusicology 27: 271-95.

KOROM, Frank

1989 Inventing traditions: Folklore and nationalism as historical process in Ben-

gal. In Folklore and historical process, eds. D. Rihtman-Augustin and M.

This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Mar 2016 01:20:12 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


Povrzanovic, 57-83. Zagreb: Institute of Folklore Research.


1989 Came, carnales and the carnivalesque: Bakhtinian batos, disorder, and nar-

rative discourses. American Ethnologist 16: 471-86.

METCALF, Thomas R.

1964 The aftermath of revolt, India 1859-1870. Princeton: Princeton University



1986 Birds on a branch: Girlfriends and wedding songs in Kangra. Ethos 14:


1989 Storytellers, saints, and scoundrels: Folk narrative as Hindu religious teaching.

Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

forthcoming. Songs lodged in some hearts: Displacements of Indian women's

knowledge at home. In Displacement, diaspora, and geographies of identity,

eds. S. Lavie and T. Swedenburg. North Carolina: Duke University Press.

NGiGI Wa Thiongo

1986 Decolonizing the mind: The politics of language in African literature.

Portsmouth, N. H.: Heinemann.

OINAS, Felix J., ed.

1978 Folklore, nationalism, and politics. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica Press.


1975 Traditionalfolk media in India. New Delhi: Gekha Books.

RAJGHATTA, Chidanand and Salil TRIPATHI

1989 Humour: Indiana jokes. India Today 31 August: 123.


1973 Speaking of Siva. Baltimore: Penguin Books.

1987 Foreword. In Folktales of India. eds. B. Beck, P. Claus, P. Goswami and

J. Handoo, xi-xxi. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

1989 Where mirrors are windows: Toward an anthology of reflections. History

of Religions 28: 187-216.


1980 Using folk entertainments to promote national development. Paris: UNESCO.


1988 In search of self in India and Japan: Toward a cross-cultural psychology.

Princeton: Princeton University Press.


1976 Folklore literature in India: A review. Madurai: Meena Pathippakam.


1948 Dhartigati hai. Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan.


1987 Laughing matters: Comic tradition in India. Chicago: University of Chi-

cago Press.

SINGER, Milton

1972 When a great tradition modernizes. London: Pall Mall.


1962 A Note on Sanskritization and Westernization. In Caste in modern India

and other essays, 42-62. New York: Asia House.

STEEL, Flora Annie, and Ricard Carnac TEMPLE

1884 Wide-awake stories: A collection of tales told by little children, between sunset

and sunrise in the Panjab and Kashmir. London: Trubner and Co.

This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Mar 2016 01:20:12 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions



TEMPLE, Richard Carnac

1884-1900 The legends of the Panjab. 3 vols. Bombay: Byculla Press.

TOD, James

1920 Annals and antiquities of Rajasthan. 3 vols., ed. W. Crooke. London:


TODOROV, Tsvetan

1984 The conquest of America: The question of the other. New York: Harper

and Row.


1971 Sincerity and authenticity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

VATUK, Ved Prakash

1969 An Indian folk view of the West and Western institutions. In Thieves in my

house, 1-34. Varanasi: Vishwavidyala Prakashan.

1979 Studies in Indian folk traditions. New Delhi: Manohar.


1978 Folklore research in India. In Varia folklorica, ed. Alan Dundes, 201-62.

The Hague: Mouton.

VYATHIT, Gautham

1973 Kangri lok geet [Kangra folk songs]. Palampur: Sheela Prakashan.

WADE, Bonnie

1973 Songs of traditional wedding ceremonies in North India. Yearbook of the

International Folk Music Council 1973: 57-65.

WADLEY, Susan S.

1983 Popular Hinduism and mass literature in North India: A preliminary

analysis. In Religion in modern India. Main currents in Indian sociology V,

ed. G. R. Gupta, 81-104. Delhi: Vikas.


1981 The invention of culture. Revised and expanded edition. Chicago and Lon-

don: University of Chicago Press.


1991 Romancing the real: Folklore and ethnographic representation in North Africa.

Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

WILSON, William

1976 Folklore and nationalism in modern Finland. Bloomington: Indiana Uni-

versity Press.

This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Mar 2016 01:20:12 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions