Folklore Publication

From WikiEducator
Jump to: navigation, search

National Folklore Support Centre (NFSC) is a nongovernmental, non-profit organisation, registered in Chennai dedicated to the promotion of Indian folklore research, education, training, networking and publications. The aim of the centre is to integrate scholarship with activism, aesthetic appreciation with community development, comparative folklore studies with cultural diversities and identities, dissemination of information with multi-disciplinary dialogues, folklore fieldwork with developmental issues and folklore advocacy with public programming events. Folklore is a tradition based on any expressive behaviour that brings a group together, creates a convention and commits it to cultural memory. NFSC aims to achieve its goals through cooperative and experimental activities at various levels. NFSC is supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation.


Self, Language, Landscape and Lore

M.D. Muthukumaraswamy

Since all the interviews collected in this volume are set in the mode of personal narratives the introduction should also be in the same form. I undertook the travels for these interviews at a moment in my life that can be best described now as a spiritual catastrophe. The inner devastation every writer experiences at one point or other came as an avalanche in the year 2001 for me and it maimed and paralyzed my ability to write in Tamil. The injury caused eight years ago by the deaths of very dear ones in the family would not heal and I was completely emptied of life and its world of meaning. Eight years of struggle against inconsolable grief took away my language, my landscape and the possibility of beginning my life anew. Ironically I was successful professionally. The ordeal of parturition for establishing National Folklore Support Centre was over in 1999 itself and my attempt to find solace in excruciating work schedule was yielding rich benefits for the Centre. It is true that all these years I wrote occasional prose, poetry and short fiction in English and regularly published them in European little literary magazines but none of my colleagues at the Centre even knew anything about my writing except the editorial articles I wrote for “Indian Folklife”. Neither do my friends nor my relatives. Many Tamil literary articles that appeared in the year 2001 mentioned about me as a young writer who had shown great promise but fell into silence and oblivion eventually. At sporadic literary gatherings I chose to attend I imagined that people were suppressing a smirk and tolerating my presence. I would spend harrowing hours night after night staring into the blank page, trying to compose a Tamil sentence and failing miserably. I felt like a sparrow that could still fly with borrowed wings but had lost its familiar sky. So the innermost reason for me to undertake these travels was to see whether ‘life is elsewhere’.

My first stop, Singapore did not offer me any consolation despite the wonderful and doting hosts. Although the material success of the city-state was visible for anyone to see, it did not have anything to offer me culturally. I read Kua Pao Kun’s plays, visited Practice Performing Arts School and Singapore National Museum for the Arts and had the privilege of spending one afternoon with the visiting South Asian playwrights. In spite of these moments of respite I found Singapore to be nothing but a soulless shopping mall. For me, Singapore’s suffocating humidity because of its geographical vicinity towards the equator was not only literal but also metaphorical. Mandarin, Malay and Tamil are official languages of the city-state but I could hardly see any mixing of cultures. Television and press reflected the lack of critical thinking and the virtual absence of democratic opposition. Artificial landscaping, septic cleanliness, all pervasive technological surveillance, incredibly ruthless penal system and a powerful ruling oligarchy of Singapore are all traits drawn straight out of science fiction of ‘Brave New World’ variety and they make the country frighteningly panoptical. My attempts to see community life in the roadside music shows, collective cooking in Chinese apartment complexes, paper decorations and riverside nightlife soon met with unknown despair as I could not envision anything human behind the mechanical execution of deeds.

As I flew out of Singapore to Tokyo I had a sense of relief, normally experienced by frolicking Singaporeans who cross their borders to go into Malaysia essentially to litter in the name of weekend parties. Though I had established email contacts with Masatoshi Konishi, Shibuya Toshio, Yoshitaka Terada and Peter Knect I had not met them before and so practically I knew nobody in Japan. Through Internet I made reservation in a hotel located in the Asakusa district of Tokyo. On the flight I had prepared a stream of conscious list of things I knew about Japan: Kabuki, Noh, Ikebana, tea ceremony, Geisha women, Sumo wrestlers, Samurai tradition, Japanese pottery, miniature world of electronic products, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Sake, Kimono and Haiku. In the heyday of the advent of Tamil modern poetry much of Haiku including Basho’s had been translated into Tamil from English. Many of us who functioned within the Tamil little literary magazines had seen the films of Kurusowa and Ozu. My favorite Japanese author was Yasunari Kawabata and his Nobel Prize acceptance speech on ‘Moon and Snow in Japanese literature’ had given me clues about the landscape. Reading Kawabata had also introduced me to the wood cut prints of Yoshitoshi whose works I was determined to see. For the first time visitors Roland Barthes’ travelogue on Japan “Empire of Signs” may not be a reliable guide but for me it gave the right orientation towards the country.

Beyond Narita airport nobody conversed in English and so except for the interviews I was effectively without any language. I walked through the streets of Tokyo with the help of maps and discovered the city to be of extraordinary charm. In the Asakusa area, in the vicinity of my hotel I chanced upon Sensui-ji Buddhist temple. Luckily it was the time of their annual festival. The whole temple compound had adorned the look of a village fair. Toys, Japanese fans, paper balloons, flowers and incense sticks sold by street hawkers created a colorful festive ambience. I wanted to learn more about the festival but all my questions in English were returned with overwhelmingly polite gestures. I visited the temples several times to observe the festival and its attendant rituals. On the third day when I was listening to the Buddhist chanting I suddenly I found myself reciting a passage from “Manimekalai”, a Tamil Buddhist epic: Prema Nandakumar’s translation of “Manimekalai” renders the same passage as follows:

“But when ignorance goes, action ceases; When action is not, consciousness ceases; When consciousness goes, name-form ceases too. When name-form ceases, sense organs withdraw. When sense organs cease, there is no contact. Where contact goes, experience is not. Where experience ceases, thirst is not. When there is no thirst, attachment ceases When there is no attachment, existence Is not. Absence of existence leads to Non-birth. With the cessation of birth forms Rebirth is gone! and with this birth, sickness, Old age, death, distress, lamentation and Helplessness as also ceaseless sorrow Will all be destroyed. This is cessation.”

Picture 11 - Our Beautiful Earth.jpg

What surprised me was my unexpected discovery of my inner Tamil voice and the compulsive urge to write. I was discovering that human memory could rise to an occasion with its available linguistic and cultural resources to create or make sense of the world. Ever since that moment in Sensui-ji temple through out my travels I was remembering, recalling and recollecting innumerable passages from Tamil literature, folk tales, folk songs, poetry and mythology according to the demands of the situations. Or in other words, I was behaving exactly like a Tamil verbal folk artist. This realization of my personal experience made me understand relations between self, cultural memory, language, identity and expression. I also understood migrations, Diasporas, exiles and displacements. I thought I knew how tales and tunes travel and freely mix. The copious notes I wrote in Tokyo charted out the kind of approach I was going to adopt for the interviews. I would abandon impressionistic acceptance of cultures and their expressions. No more stream of conscious lists. I would use personal narratives, literary texts, disciplinary engagements, artistic expressions, observations on landscape and national movements to understand folklore, other cultures, cultural practices and cultural studies in general. The idea was to see the full sweep of the discipline of folklore. When I started putting together pages and pages of notes I suddenly stopped for a while remembering the Jataka tale of the tortoise that talked too much.

At the remembrance of this tale I decided to be a man of few words as an interviewer. My mission would be to bring out the artistic, scholarly and professional achievements of the interviewees. This is of special importance to the readers in India where respect for personal achievement stands considerably eroded. Regardless of my plans for the interviews and the discovery of my inner voice, my fascination for Japan grew day by day. I traveled to Osaka and Kyoto, watched Kabuki Theater, participated in a tea ceremony, visited the museum of Japanese history and ethnology and went through an exhibition of ‘Ghosts and apparitions in Japanese folk tales’. To my dismay I could not find the woodprints of Yoshitoshi. Instead I found people reading picture book novels almost everywhere- in the train stations, on the trains, in the bus stations, on the buses, in the airports and on the planes. Cell phone carrying schoolgirls, who seemed to be everywhere, were managing multiple tasks of traveling, talking through the cell phones, handling schoolbags and reading picture books. In my language less status the picture books came as great relief and I found them not to be simple comic books but serious novels. I managed to buy a picture book edition of Kawabata’s novel “Beauty and Sadness” and imagined that the illustrations were historical derivatives of Yoshitoshi’s works. Whenever I carried a picture book in my hands or leafed through one in public places people around me began to make eye contacts or smile. Slowly I began to make friends and soon discovered that despite its phenomenal economic growth Japan remained a mono cultural society. I was a total foreigner and my otherness was not even a matter of curiosity. Except from the interviewees I could not make headway in learning more about Japanese society. Japan remained a collection of fascinating but undecipherable signs.

Do not be dependent - Picture 08 (2).jpg

To reach Santa Fe from Tokyo I had to make two stopovers: one at Seattle and another at Denver. America’s South West introduced me to the incredible natural beauty of the land, Native American Indian population, their arts and culture. The expansive landscape, dramatic sky with wild clouds, virulent lightning and fearful thunders, rivers of great strength and rocks of mystic quality enraptured me completely. I read in the guidebooks “From coral reefs to glaciers,rain forests to high desert, grasslands to wetlands, sand dunes to snowfields, the grandeur of the landscape surpasses even American superlatives. A diversity of eco-systems, flowers, trees and creatures great and small await any naturalist who has ever dreamed of the American wilderness. For those who like their nature laced with adrenaline, the beaches, forests, mountains,deserts and rivers cater to every conceivable outdoor pursuit, from surfing to ice climbing, fly-fishing to competing in triathlons.” I quote from a guidebook to demonstrate how commonplace, knowledge of natural beauty of American landscape should be. Nevertheless, the popular images of the United States outside the country, especially in India do not give a clue to the panoramic wealth of the country.

Trained in the milieu of little Tamil literary magazines, I have always mistrusted popular and commercial mainstream strands of any culture and their modes of representations. On the other hand I tend to think lore and literature of a land construct and define the inner lives of the people and give significance to otherwise meaningless nature. Without William Faulkner I will not understand America’s South. Without Mark Twain, Mississippi will not make any sense to me. Without Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme, Ronald Sukenik, Jack Kerouc, Henry Miller, Alan Ginsberg and Tony Morrison –to name only a few of my most favorite authors- American consciousness, its history and its relationship to the landscape will be elusive to me. But America’s South West, its Hispanic heritage and Native American Indian life were underrepresented in the literature I knew of and I was really struggling to understand the experience I was going through. In this context I should express my eternal gratitude to Peter Mattair who with his generous hospitality and brilliant conversations introduced me to the folklore, people and institutions of the region. With his generous help, I was able to see an opera, a Broadway musical, Pow-wow festival, Pueblo pottery, Museum of International Folk Art and meet with a wide range people in Santa Fe. Thanks to his guidance I could see an exhibition of Yoshitoshi’s woodprints (which I failed to find in Japan) on the “One hundred faces of the moon” at the Museum of International Folk Art. It was a sheer coincidence that the Yoshitoshi exhibition was opening on the very next day I was in Santa Fe. It was an immensely satisfying experience to go through the exhibition and to listen to informative lectures especially after being in Japan only 48 hours ago. Why did I think that Japan was a collection of undecipherable signs when I do not actually need any meaning beyond lore and literature?

Santa Fe experience brought me into focus the limitations of my attempt to grasp a country and its culture only through its lore and literature- the limitations imposed by the disciplinary constraints of my own reading on the one hand- and my inability to grasp anything further even if there had been an opportunity. For instance, I never wanted to know how the United States had become the wealthiest nation in the world although I was all the time observing from the west coast to the east coast its telling signs of material success. Since I left Washington DC in 1993 the changes that had come about in terms of its phenomenal economic growth in the United States were also clearly evident. Moreover, the economic depression of the 1930s, end of cold war era, new world order, business at the speed of light and Internet commerce were some of the topics that were all the time there as an underlying layer of any discourse regardless of the fact whether it is literary or not. My mind failed to make sense of these details.

The Snake and the Swan - Picture 03.jpg

Reflecting back now, I realize that my sensibilities are severely conditioned by classical Tamil poetics that intimately links up human emotion, landscape and expression. Added to that there was a persistent and incantatory Tamil dialogue with my inner most self all through out the travels. These features ordered the way I carried out these interviews. I kept my understanding of the relationship between land, lore and literature always at the background and elicited responses in order to see the connections between personal histories and disciplinary engagements. I never questioned the ideological basis of the concepts discussed. One of the topics that enormously interested me especially in the United States was the public presentation of folklore and the monumental efforts that had gone into it. So I constantly pursued in my interviews the ways the public sector folklorists functioned. In a way these interviews need to be seen as products of instances and contexts rather than well carried out research projects. Because of such flexibility it deemed necessary to include interviews of personalities who are not folklorists per se, but whose views illuminated certain important topics of concern. Although products of contexts and instances these interviews are nonetheless ultimately artifacts of reflections on what it means to do folklore or to be engaged in the broad field of culture. Conjuring the promise of personal histories intersecting with national histories and disciplinary engagements of their time, these interviews chart out an alternative cartography of the discipline. Set in the mode of personal narratives public programming, engagement with other cultures, multiculturalism, intellectual foundations of folklore, cultural identity, issues of cultural funding, nation building and negotiating cultural otherness become issues of current interests in these interviews. As colleagues in conversation the interviewees expand the discipline of folklore to have valuable bearing on cultural studies. Perhaps this volume will stand as an eclectic testimony to the fact that the folklorists are the new public intellectuals of the twenty-first century addressing issues of integrity and representation, cultural freedom and justice, aesthetics of tradition and change and contributing to the development of civic republicanism. England and France were holidaying when I landed there in August 2001. So I could not carry out as many interviews as I initially planned. Since notes on my travels to these countries do not seem to be relevant to the present collection of interviews I avoid presenting them now. I have also avoided presenting folklore discussions in these pages of introduction, as the interviews are full of them.

Because of these travels and interviews, my consciousness has become nomadic, my inner voice has become awakened and I have become acutely aware of the importance of folklore and its practices in the public domain. I have not yet started writing in Tamil again but I am no longer anxious about it.