Academic journal article Cultural Analysis

Orality, Inscription and the Creation of a New Lore

Academic journal article Cultural Analysis

Orality, Inscription and the Creation of a New Lore

Article excerpt


This essay examines the process by which the discourse of folklore is used to entextualize and recontextualize the oral tradition in West Bengal through a discussion of two contemporary Bangla novels. Motifs from folk tales, myths, and popular epic poems are being re-appropriated by urban cultural forms- both popular as well as elite--to articulate new identities and subject positions. I selected these novels by considering the mode in which orality is inscribed and the time period. One of the novels attempts to re-constitute oral lore from a popular epic composed in the medieval period, and the other re-inscribes an origin myth that is part of folk ritual into a new genre via the mediation of folklore discourse that is responsible for the first step in entextualizing the myth. This essay concludes by suggesting that folklore's conception of tradition as being temporally disrupted has facilitated these new literary appropriations of oral lore. It is precisely because folklore's subject matter is supposed to be out of sync with the times that allows for conceptions of culture that are porous enough for innovation.

   ... [The] peculiar temporality of folklore
   as a disciplinary subject, whether
   coded in the terminology of survival,
   archaism, antiquity, and tradition, or
   in the definition of folkloristics as a
   historical science, has contributed to
   the discipline's inability to imagine a
   truly contemporary, as opposed to a
   contemporaneous, subject ... Folklore
   is by many (though not all) definitions
   out of step with the time and the context
   in which it is found.

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, "Folklore's Crisis" 1998, 283

In an essay that critically reviews folklore's disciplinary position vis-avis history and culture, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1998) says that temporal dislocation between the site of origin and the present location of particular cultural forms signals the presence of folklore. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett thus conceptualizes culture as heterogeneous, layered and composed of multiple strands that are interconnected in rather haphazard and contingent ways. This sense of contingency comes about through the juxtaposition of different time scales such that the idea of locality or location becomes the conceptual frame within which the heterogeneous and circulating strands that we call culture come to cohere, if only for a moment. However, as Kirshenblatt-Gimblett points out, even before location comes to be viewed as a spatial category it is a temporal one, and by constituting the present as a series of disjunctive moments, folklore creates a gap between the contemporaneous and the contemporary.

In a different, though related, fashion students of Indian society have made a distinction between "Great traditions" and "Little traditions" (Redfield 1955, Sinha 1957); or between desha (regional, provincial) and marga (sanskritic, global). Folk rituals, belief systems, and the cultural institutions of rural India are thought to reveal an interaction between the forces of globalization and parochialization, or margi and deshi aspects (Marriot 1955, Sinha 1957, Trautman 1997). For most scholars this interaction is a long-term and largely unconscious process. However, the historian Hitesh Ranjan Sanyal (2004) holds a somewhat different view. In his study of a small principality in one of the border regions of West Bengal, he shows how the semi-tribal Mulla court, in what is now the Bardhaman district, produced political institutions that self-consciously integrated aspects of what was then thought of as "high culture"--i.e. the culture of the Mughal court in North India -with indigenous elements taken from local tribal and peasant communities. Many such peripheral principalities were declared to be tributary states owing formal allegiance to the great, though distant, Mughal Empire. The geographical distance between the central authority and these border states gave the latter some degree of autonomy. …

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