Monday, Jan 17, 2022

How Folklores Formulate Our Identities

A look into folklores' meandering existence in India’s cultural terrain

How Folklores Formulate Our Identities

Every child in India is familiar with the stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata influenced by regional anecdotes. One is not only intrigued by the art of storytelling but soon there is a realization that the regional narratives tend to operate in a way that some trends become so common yet powerful within the community itself. The uniqueness of these folkloric narratives is that they open new and independent structures of analysis. From addressing the function of folk narrative as a potent agent in formulating a community’s identity, these stories present the analytical tools and theories which could equip one in understanding the impact of these narratives tied up with the lives of the communities.

Often folklore foregrounds the compelling constructs of identity and gender through the narratives collected in the forms of folk stories and legends. There have been many foreign visitors and settlers who have curated these stories. Ivan P. Minayev, the Russian Philologist who was an expert in Oriental languages and texts, is one such name. Minayev travelled through Garhwal and Kumaon in 1875 and recorded about fifty folktales, legends, and songs[1]. It was a time when the Himalayas were uncharted territory stuck in ‘the great game’ between Britain, China, and Russia. An analysis of these stories enables the readers to understand the identity shifts and changes whilst negotiating their position within the transforming socio-spatial landscape in post-colonial India.

At the time of Minayev’s visit, the Kumaon and Garhwal was a thriving center for trade and travel. Despite its isolation, it was visited by both Indian and foreign travelers wandering out of religious obligations (Devabhumi or the ‘land of Gods’) or out of curiosity. Folklore studies were picking its pace with nineteenth-century German romanticism acknowledging it as a ‘pure’ form of local cultures and works of literature. 1812 to 1857 witnessed this rise with the Grimm Brother’s collection of more than 200 stories and established the foundations of methodology and research practices about folk narratives. Ivan P. Minayev collected fifty folk tales and legends while venturing into the middle Himalayan terrains of the Kumaon hills from Nainital to Srinagar in Garhwal via Tehri and finally to Mussorie.

These narratives have an unstructured, liberated, and flowing form interspersed with themes ranging from religion, superstition, wit, and humor. The clever wives, gullible sons, cunning mothers, wise old men, wandering fakirs, and village half-witted fools are persistently reappearing characters in several tales. The boundaries between human, animal, supernatural and psychic worlds are also fluid. There are also meandering rakshas (demons), pari (fairies), bhoot (ghosts), and pishachas (non-earthly beings). These repetitive tropes leave a fertile territory for the readers to derive a pattern.

It is important to study the interaction between Minayev and the Pahadis (hill-folks) as it is constructed to posit the Occident against the Orient.  There is a need to look beyond the binary oppositions to inspect the junctures and punctures when such ‘self’ versus ‘other’ identities are charted out in the folk narratives. With Minayev, there is a constant need to distinguish the differences between Europe and Asia, between Asia and between India and Russia and China. Each of these bifurcations enables a bond, not a difference, between the ‘foreigner’ and an imagined sense of their racial, national, and imperial identities. In due process, the sociological, historical, and literature have been subsumed under the overarching umbrella of colonialism which has diminished the identity of the region or the people of the region.

About the question of gender, voice, and agency, there is an attempt to showcase what constitutes a gendered perspective of the women figures talked about in the stories. This helps to trace the female legacy in terms of the performance of gendered roles in the communities. It is largely to interpret what forms and de-forms the lives of contemporary Pahadi women as they are constantly constructing and de-constructing their roles as daughters, friends, daughters-in-law, mothers, or even grandmothers. This inherently shapes their lives and the lives of the people around them. These structures are stemming from a certain level of role-playing adapted from the stories which are closer to their understanding and therefore, a sense of derived relatedness. Their sense of agency is not only relying on human relationships but mythic constructions or spiritual beings.

Stuart. H. Blackburn asserts ‘geographical distribution, narrative consistency, and cultural significance’[2] throw upon the recurrent patterns, but the stories are somehow always unique in their crafting. This is also indicative of the fact that the conventions of folklore traditions, and the nuances of local perception, are at constant play with each other. These narratives should be studied independently as there are several possible voices with which one can interpret folktales and their associative effect on the readership. They carry with themselves a plurality of perspective built into their very textures of narration. The meaning is created by the characters and the reader together; that narrative exists in the precise way that it does because the listeners or reader within the tradition could relate to a community’s experiences. In short, such stories present themselves as being open to interpretation.

[1] Minayev, Ivan. Clever Wives and Happy Idiots: Folktales from the Kumaon Himalayas. Ed.Sergei Serebriany, Trans. Bulbul Sharma & Madhu Malik. Yatra Books, 2015.

Minayev, Ivan. Kumauni ki Lokkatahen tatha Dantkathaen (Stories and Legends from Kumaon). Trans.Hem Chandra Pande. Notion Press, 2016

[2] Blackburn, Stuart and Alan Dundes. A Flowering Tree and Other Oral Tales from India.Gurgaon : Penguin,1997.


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