An Axis Jump: British Colonialism in the Oral Folk Narratives of Nineteenth-Century India

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Abstract

How did colonialism add on to the repertoire of Indian oral folk narratives? In its everyday life colonial society had to deal with inter-culturality at every level--from personal to social. The colonisers' narratives about this experience have been known in the vast variety of discourse termed "orientalism." What has remained obscured is the narrative expression of this experience by the colonised, specifically as oral narrative expression. This discourse of the colonised is contemporary with that of the European orientalist, but from the opposite point of view. It thus creates, as it were, an axis jump in our perception of colonial relations. In this paper are discussed some oral narratives of Indian folk about their British colonisers in the nineteenth century.

The nails of a European, like those of a Rakshasa, distil a deadly poison, and hence he is afraid to eat with his fingers, as all respectable people do, and prefers to use a knife and fork. (Folk narrative recorded in the 1880s in northern India by William Crooke [1892, 9]) Everything in the story relates to people (Rohrich 1991, 214).

An Axis Jump

Colonialism generated not only the discourse of the European orientalists but also a vast discourse amongst the colonised. They constituted the two sides of the same axis of discourse--the axis of colonial relations, perceptions and representations. In the context of colonial British scholarship of Indian folklore, this axis comprises the British folklore collectors and the Indian narrators. The scholarship of Indian folklore since its beginning in the mid-nineteenth century has proceeded on the basis of perceptions from the British side of the colonial axis. Colonial British officers and their Indian associates collected traditional folk tales in the second half of the nineteenth century from professional and nonprofessional storytellers. This article argues that there was also another discourse in the folk narrative of colonial India which concerned itself with the colonial rule and rulers, i.e. with the contemporary reality.

There is no exclusive collection of such narratives, but some instances of such oral folk narratives popular in the late nineteenth century in North India have come to my notice. Although these are few in number and can therefore provide only tentative arguments and conclusions, they are remarkable in the kind of discourse they generate. Their numbers are few because stories that portrayed the British were not documented as narratives but were considered to fall into ethnographic and anthropological categories. When they come to our notice, therefore, it is mainly by accident. However, it seems to me that they build a case for further search and research aimed towards identifying them. Lutz Rohrich's insight, "Everything in the story is about people" (Rohrich 1991, 214), offers an analytical tool; when applied to the narratives of Indian folk of colonial India, it could lead to new conclusions (Rohrich 1991, 214).

Some of the colonial British folklorists (like R. C. Temple and William Crooke) were conscious of the emergence and existence of contemporary tales, yet they did not include them in their publications of Indian folk tales. The history of folklore research has shown that, since the inception of the science, the definition of "folklore" flows from the scholar's definition of "folk," and that folklore collections cannot be defined only by what they include, but have to be defined also by what they exclude (Naithani 1996, 75). British collectors of Indian folklore were also administrators, and their narrators were their colonial subjects; their folklore collections had intentional, incidental and potential administrative implications. The collection of folklore was one of the "three systems of imperial ethnography" (Morrison 1984, 1). What was included and what was excluded was based on many non-scholarly considerations. In this context, even if without conscious design, the tales of the Indian folk, which depicted their colonial reality, were not included in the folklore materials. …