Nandini Sahu
Folklore and its problems and perspectives: Eminent folklorist Nandini Sahu in conversation with Sunil Sharma
Nandini Sahu is a major voice in contemporary Indian English literature.

Sunil Sharma, renowned poet and critic, is the Editor of SETU, one of world’s most popular e-journals.

In this short interview with Sunil Sharma, Nandini Sahu candidly discusses the issues and challenges of being a folklorist, especially as a teacher and researcher of folklore studies.

Sunil Sharma

Sunil: How did it happen, your venturing into a field, not yet mainstreaming in the academic spaces of the world?

Nandini: Thank you Sunil ji! I face this question more often than not. My basic training wasn’t in folklore studies, though since my childhood I have taken keen interest in reading folktales of my region, Odisha, and have watched the folk and tribal artists, their performances, with great admiration. In due course of time, I did extensive research on folklore studies, read and wrote research papers and books on the subject, and designed academic programmes on Folklore and Culture Studies for my University, IGNOU, New Delhi, India. I am only happy to inform you that the courses have been very well received by academia, and folklore has taken me to places. I am humbled by the appreciation, admiration and attention I have been receiving as a folklorist. It’s one of the most promising and upcoming areas of research and pedagogy today. UGC Net examination has complete papers on folk literature, and many Indian universities are following suit, introducing folklore as a part of their syllabi. Coming to your question, I admit, it was a big challenge to introduce folk literature into the ‘mainstream’ syllabus of a university of repute, in fact the world’s largest university in terms of students in-take. I started with a Diploma programme, and then designed a very important course, Indian Folk Literature, as a part of MA English, and there is overwhelming response from the learners. I feel fortunate that I got a platform to design such academic programmes, and thus, was instrumental in taking the so-called marginal studies, folklore, to the mainstream. Folklore is a very visual subject, so I have consciously attempted to get an exposure to the oral, written and the performative art forms vis-à-vis folklore studies.Classics or classicus means belonging to the highest, thus it has a position of its own.Classical literature denotes to the great masterpieces of the Greek, Roman, and other ancient civilizations, like Homer's Iliad, Ovid's Metamorphoses, Virgil's Aeneid, or Oedipus the King by Sophocles, or works by other ancient writers in epic, lyric, tragedy, comedy or pastoral. In Indian literature, it can be the Ramayana, the Mahabharat, the Vedic texts and many such. Classical literature builds up the base for all other literatures. The most interesting fact is, all our classical art and literary forms have a folk background. Starting from our universities’ syllabi to our coffee tables, classical literature always asserts its position, though we have failed to pay the due credit to folk literature.I do not intend to give teleological account of history, but yes, tradition shapes our modern literatures. A literature, the product of and is a representation of mass culture, is definitely authentic and full fledged. Since there is this aspect of faithful representation of the ways of life of communities at the core of folk literature, I consider it as literature that is autonomous.As a folklore researcher, I experiment with a flexible view of folk, removing notions of folk as part of marginal literature. My strong belief is, folk is not something out there in a museum, it is a part and parcel of our lives, and thus, fit enough to be our mainstream literature. The modern literary texts that have made explicit use of the folk traditions to make it available to the readers today are also treated at par with the folk texts that have only the oral tradition, called the ‘pure folk’.

Sunil: What are its major themes and concerns? Their immediate or long-term relevance to the post-industrial audiences, especially the new- millennial denizens of the digital societies, with notoriously short-span attention and memories?

Nandini: A significant trend that emerges from the review of folklore is that in any period of human history, knowledge about theory, data and method is insured by the socio-cultural conditions specific to that period. India is a country with incredible cultural diversity. Each culture has its own traditional knowledge system. You are right when you say that people in the new- millennial denizens of the digital societies have a notoriously short-span attention and memory, and folk traditions are a part of endangered and dying cultures. Given such a situation, folklorists and folklore researchers are vulnerable to multiple challenges with regard to archiving, documentation and dissemination of the folk material. The greater challenge is—convincing the modern generation that folk, our traditional knowledge system, is our root.

Over the years, tribal ethnicity, class and status have undergone remarkable transformations. Folklore studies and tribal studies mainly focus on the system of knowledge construction embedded in a socio-cultural context.Indigenous people are contending with the impact of modern development resulting to their further discrimination, exploitation, oppression and marginalization. They continue to remain subjected to the whims of the globalization that continues to create chaos on their already deplorable condition. Our shifting attention from indigenous to urban culture eventually affects indigenous identity and cultural countenance. This poses a serious threat to the survival of folk culture. In addition, oral traditions in many ways are being removed from the treasure and trust of most indigenous groups. Fast emerging globalization has been striking a strange form of hostility to non-written forms, trying to to term them as ‘knowledge-blanks’, which accelerates decline, and further marginalization of the folks, threatening the sustainability of their cultures. Therein lies the important role of the folklorists towards the preservation of folk cultures

Sunil: Problems faced by you as a specialist and Director of the course at IGNOU? Highs and lows as a kind of pioneer?

Nandini: I have already discussed the challenges I faced as an academician taking the marginal to the mainstream. I had to go through fire-tests at every step academic platform. I was never tired of answering this one question to everyone in the syllabus framing committees—“Why folklore?” I am happy and contented today to share with you that those phases are over, and folklore research has gathered momentum. There are scholars like you who are promoting folklore in a changing world now. I am very grateful to you and team SETU for taking out this special issue on folklore studies. I won’t claim that I am a pioneer, there are wonderful senior scholars of folklore, and I am a committed researcher, trying to add to folklore research in my squirrel way. One cannot deliberately renew folk literatures, so ‘pioneering’, again, is a subjective interpretation. We can only preserve them, interpret them, find elements in them that are meaningful, and hand them over to progeny, so that those rich cultures do not die a natural death.

Sunil: Can such a field-study lead to some good careers in the job market that denies autonomy and value to the liberal arts, as fields of proper studies, in India?

Nandini: Yes, folklore is getting a lot of attention in the job market in India.Folklorists work in a diversity of locations, including many academic, teaching and research departments in colleges and universities, libraries, museums, archives, historical associations, culture councils, national centres of arts, publishing houses, funding agencies, and the central and state government institutions, Agriculture, Rural Sociology, and Extension, Medicine and Nursing, Women's Studies, African American Studies, Popular Culture, English and Foreign Language/Literature Departments as translators,interpreters,curators, musicologists, teachers, researchers, artists, performers, and many more.Film industry and TV channels also have a high demand for follklorists. Folk Entrepreneurs are coming up in a big way as job creators/providers.

There are several factors behind this resurgence of interest. I will refer to only two of them. Politically and socially we are in an era of democracy. This naturally spreads the interest of the educated and the elite into the masses. We become conscious of their philosophy of life which is intrinsically mixed up with the folk traditions. Secondly, the modern educated man is not so enamored with his own values today as he was, say, at the beginning of the 20th century. He is looking for his roots, for alternative values. And this quest leads him to the folk beliefs and philosophies of which the folk literature is the repository, creating avenues for the folklore enthusiasts.

Sunil: As a leading poet and academic-critic, what insights have you gained, over the years of teaching and writing, from the folklorist material? Insights that can equip its devotee with dealing the pressures and setbacks of a mercenary culture, tech-and profit-driven, almost post-human in nature?

Nandini: Years of teaching and writing the folklore material has helped me in understanding and developing a better sense of the material culture of the range and subjectivity of folklore, allowing me to create a far more balanced sense of appreciation of folklore as a discipline.

To understand the traditional stories and beliefs of a culture shared by a particular group of people and how they are transmitted requires identification of the meanings attached to any action, so that we can consider its significance as an expression of a shared identity of a given community. The present day culture is more individual-oriented, capitalistic and utilitarian in its function, with an importance of the notion of communal living. This is also central to the existence of the folkloristics, and has become secondary to the idea of creating a shared community culture. People don't realise the importance and the historicity of the transmitted behaviour. The fact that man is a social animal and this fragmentation, isolation has created a mercenary (individualistic) culture where the virtual identity has become more important hindering the process of this shared existence. Socialization, which is almost post-human in nature, has replaced real people in real life with an endless list of friends online, a virtual reality, sans any connection to reality. The arrival of globalisation which functions on liberalisation and privatization of the individual and social behaviours has further created a tech savvy and profit-driven norm adding to this conundrum. The devotee of folklore requires to understand that the meaning of existing as a human is to exist and behave in a cumulative tradition of give and take where every individual has to be a part of a community and understand the significance of its shared actions and has to be "a cog in the wheels" for transmitting the same.

Since liberal individual is the centre of existence, a folklorist should also be able to discern between what is a folk and what is fake. S/he should be able to settle this positivist question as globalisation is already causing and giving birth to language death, generalized and linear social patterns of functions etc. Therefore, to understand what qualifies as folk is also to be understood in this transitional paradigm. In a nutshell, the folklorist should be able to understand that s/he depends on his/her pedigree of understanding, communicating to create a common social fabric and in this changing world, s/he needs to put his/her force behind the social man rather than the material man. In this current scenario, a perspective needs to be put in place for the future generations and folklore studies is the only way out.

With due respect,the term ‘post-human’ is a misnomer and despite the changing times, a human being can never be devoid of his/her humanly qualities. Consequently, we have a question of whether one can limit humans to a fix set of behaviours and patterns. Evolution and assimilation are the benchmarks of humanity, therefore it is untimely to use the science fiction term "post-human" vis-à-vis liberal arts. We need to understand the present day human in his /her realities of existence rather than brooding over the loss of a past. The constructive aspect of folklore studies plays a vital role here,as it is not rigid in defining anything, be it modernity or even the tradition, rather it is sensitive to the subjectivities of the situation by taking into account all the sources of studying a human being ranging from ethnography to anthropology, or be it hermeneutics itself.

The key idea is—folklore is flexible.

Sunil: How the field can be made more visible and a popular choice in the metropolitan and no-metropolitan spaces of discourse, debate and further dissemination?

Nandini: The metropolitan and no-metropolitan spaces of discourse, debate may make a conscious attempt to maintain equilibrium, as does folklore, and thus, it stands for true solidarity. Folklore echoes the realities of our society in its own way. So in Indian folklore, various shades of life can be comprehended. In the Indian folkloristic, the loka and Shastra (folk and elite) contrast is different from the western contrast between the great and little traditions. India does not believe that non-literate cultures are ‘knowledge blanks’ which need to be filled in with the modern knowledge of different disciplines and prevailing cultures. Cultures are never ‘blanks’. In the ecological management practices used by tribals, women are far superior to men. The tragedy is that modernism has executed a single perception in dealing with gender studies and today this kind of an immobile outlook is confronted by the void of knowledge. In reality, the traditional Indian mind thinks that loka or desi and sastra or margi dichotomy symbolizes two different languages of the same tradition and not of two dissimilar traditions. These two literary terminologies of core and periphery are taken together in Indian folk context, of course not as some immobile accordance but as assorted measures adding meanings to each other. The complementariness of loka and shastra is complex. In the folk stories of the marital relations of Shiva and Parvati, the words of approbation for Shiva are adapted to shastra, but the words of tribute for Parvati are folk in language and exhibition—thus the two genders maintain balance in Indian folkloristic.

Sunil: How does digital content interact and intermix with folklore in the current media-driven entertainment?

Nandini: Bollywood and Hollywood music is the best example of the queer amalgamation of folk and modern.

Sunil: How different its contours with enduring myths made fashionable in Hollywood and even, Bollywood? An age of entertainment resurrecting and re-imagining mythic universes, like the Nordic or Indian myths and/or creating its own myths from, one example, out of the stables of Marvel Comics?

Nandini: Marvel Comics have popular characters and well-known superheroes as Spider-Man, Ant-Man, Iron Man, Odin,Thor, the Hulk, Captain America, the Black Widow, the Wasp, Wolverine, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Doctor Strange, Ghost Rider, Blade, Daredevil and the Punisher. Superhero teams exist such as the Avengers, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and the Guardians of the Galaxy. They have negative characters like Joker, Doctor Doom, Magneto, Thanos, Ultron, Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Red Skull, Loki, Hela, Venom, Dormammu, Galactus, and Kingpin. They have a world of fantasy, the Marvel Universe, and they have caught the imaginations of children and teens worldwide. Marvel has published licensed properties including Star Wars comics twice from 1977 to 1986 and again since 2015. Both Hollywood and Bollywood are using sources from these characters. They are a part of urban folk culture, and they are here to stay, flourish in the most interdisciplinary and flexible manner.

Sunil: Thanks Prof. Sahu. I believe this dialogue is going to create interest in the researchers, teachers and students of folklore studies to approach the subject with creativity, innovation and challenges.

1 comment :

  1. Great interview and exciting things to come it seems, Rob :-)


We welcome your comments related to the article and the topic being discussed. We expect the comments to be courteous, and respectful of the author and other commenters. Setu reserves the right to moderate, remove or reject comments that contain foul language, insult, hatred, personal information or indicate bad intention. The views expressed in comments reflect those of the commenter, not the official views of the Setu editorial board. प्रकाशित रचना से सम्बंधित शालीन सम्वाद का स्वागत है।