Articles and Reviews

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Indian Folk Epics

Welcome to this blog for the study of Indian Folk Epics. I foresee this site as a symbol of " common pursuit of true judgment," as Eliot put it. ( However, I would like "judgment" to be replaced by" knowledge" -- I am afraid of using the word "Truth." )

Serious study of folklore in Indian languages began in India only after Independence. During the last five decades, much work has been done in terms of collection and preservation of folklore. The study of folklore is such a fascinating exercise in India because folklore is still living and functional in India. There is so much of language-and-culture specific folklore in India that sometimes, the very vastness and variety of it could be baffling, making it almost impossible for one to indulge in any kind of generalisations. In fact, one may wonder whether there is anything called 'Indian Folklore.' Anyway,I won't enter into that argument at this point of time; I might take it up later.

The linguistic diversity of India is so mind-boggling (there are 24 officially recognised languages; in all, according to an estimate there are about 1200 languages in India including those which do not have a script of their own) that even to know what is happening in other Indian languages one has to depend on Englilsh. Fortunately, much work is being done since the last two decades in this field; many scholars have spent considerable energy and time in collecting and translating, with critical introductions and notes, Indian folk epics into English.

For example, Dr. John Smith has collected and published, with extraordinary devotion and care, the famous Rajasthani epic, (The Epic of Pabuji: A Study, Transcription and Translation; Cambridge: C.U.P.,1991). Similarly, Dr.Gene Waghair has collected and translated from Telugu the folkepic called The War ofPalnadu. Very recently, the Indo-Finnish team (consisting of Prof.Lauri Honko, Prof. Viveka Rai, and Prof. Chinnappa Gowda) has successfully completed a mammoth project: collection, transcription, and translation of the famous Tulu folk epic Siri (a three-volume work published in 1999). Brenda Beck discusses extensively a Tamil epic in her work, The Three Twins: The Telling of a South Indian Folk Epic (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana Univ. Press, 1982). Still, much more work needs to be done.

Now let me come to Kanada folk epics. It goes without saying that there are innumerable forms of narratives in the oral tradition --songs, ballads, lyrics, and epics. If one can hazard a generalisation at this point, the oral tradition in Indian languages is much richer and older than the written tradition. Of course, recent scholarship has demonstrated that even the famous pan-Indian epics, Ramayana and Mahabharatha, were originally much shorter and were preserved for a long time in the oral tradition. Many of the episodes and motifs found in these epics today have been traced to varied sources: tribal myths, Buddhist Jathaka stories, and such. However, in course of time, being told and retold through centuries, these pan-Indian epics can be said today to embody the Great Tradition of India,in religion, culture, and literature.

Generally speaking, the Great Tradition represents Nationality, Patriarchy, and urban-oriented values. In contrast, the Little Tradition (by which I mean the oral traditions of vernaculars) can be said to stand for Community (and not Nation), Matriarchy, and rural-oriented values. Of course, even this statement needs many qualifications.

What we actually notice is something more complex -- and interesting. Since caste-hierarchy is the most important organizing principle of the Indian society since times immemorial, Indian folk epics reflect complex and ambivalent drives born out of mutually opposing drives; and, as a result,the Great and Little Traditions co-exist uneasily in Indian folk epics. While the Fabula -- to borrow the terms of Narratology -- of folk epics is modelled upon the pan-Indian literary epics, the Sjuzet continuously opposes and undercuts the socio-cultural values and ways of life enshrined in the literary epics.

To explain: The 'heroes' of Indian folk epics belong, generally, to the 'lower castes' of Indian society such as cowherds, cobblers, Scheduled castes and tribes. The professional singers of these epics also belong to similar castes. Consequently, they reflect two mutually opposing drives--Sanskritisation as defined by the famous sociologist M.N.Srinivas, and aggressive Nativism. Divinisation of local heroes, upgradation of local deities, appropriation of the rituals and values of the upper castes -- all these result from the desire to move upwards in the social order. At the same time, these narratives subvert and negate the values of the Great Tradition through marginalisation of the 'hero,' focus on women, debunking of pan-Indian institutions such as marriage, and celebration of local customs. It is such a dynamic contrapuntal movement between the two traditions that keeps alive the Indian folk epics.

In short, Indian folk epics seek to a) legitimise the existing rituals and practices of the community, and b) formally approve and thereby preserve the names of all the important people and places revered by the particular community. Whereas a strong sense of nationhood prevails in the pan-Indian sophisticated epics, the oral epics are informed by a pervasive sense of community, as defined by caste/sub-caste, food-habits, occupations, and customs. Hence, every performance of an Indian folk epic is simultaneously a pleasurable activity, a religious act, and an archival function.

Dr.C.N.Ramachandran

1 comment:

Sham said...

Thanks for the enlightening introduction Sir,

Sham Kashyap