Folk in Modern Indian Literature
Dr.Nandini Sahu, Indian writer in English, in conversation with Prof.Manoj Das, renowned bi-lingual writer, Padma Awardee ,Sahitya Akademi awardee, Saraswati Samman winner and recipient of Akademi’s highest honour, the Fellowship as well as D.Litt (Honoris Causa) from five universities.
The tribal communities in India remain as the most neglected stratum of the society. They need immediate and urgent attention as they are on the verge of losing the original characteristic of their primitive nature and their indigenous characteristics. Any attempts to assimilate them into the mainstream population do not nurture their interest, rather they are being suppressed by the dominant urban culture. In order to uplift their standards of living and working conditions we need to raise their socio-economic standards and explore the present living and working conditions of these ethnic groups before we proceed with any policy decisions or major government initiatives. Literature can be instrumental in achieving this as it truly mirrors the society. Manoj Das is one such writer whose writings sensitise the reader with the issues of the marginalized.
A significant trend that emerges from the review of literature is that in any period of human history, knowledge about theory, data and method is conditioned by the socio-cultural situation specific to that period. India is a country with tremendous cultural diversity. Each culture has its own knowledge system. There are several cultures, which are relatively ‘closed’ to the outside world and continue to follow their own traditions despite changes and development in the country as a whole.
Over the years, tribal ethnicity, class and status have undergone transformations as is evident from the rich ethnographies about the class, ethnicity, social structure, lifestyle and cultural patterns among the tribal groups. The discussion that follows mainly focuses on the system of knowledge construction embedded in its socio-cultural context. Indigenous people are grappling with the impact of modern development resulting to their further discrimination, exploitation, oppression and marginalization. They continue to suffer and remain subjected to the whims of the globalization that continues to wreak havoc on their already deplorable condition. Thus shifting from indigenous to urban culture eventually affects indigenous identity and cultural expression. This poses a serious threat to the survival of indigenous 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 imposing a peculiar form of alienation, which accelerates deterioration and further marginalization of the tribal people by threatening their continuity and sustainability of their cultures. Taking these issues further, I would be discussing with Prof.Manoj Das as to how literature can be instrumental in the restoration of the culture and folklore of the indigenous tribes.
NS: Prof. Manoj Das, I welcome you to this conversation on the relevance of folklore studies in modern Indian literature. Does the recent interest in folklore shown in several countries bear any special significance?
MD: 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 enamoured 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.
NS: Are the studies in folklore in India proceeding in right direction?
MD : Sorry. I am not abreast of the academic developments in this regard. Since this is a recent interest I hope through falterings and fumblings the right course will be chalked out in the course of time.
NS: You said in one of your talks that the Indian consciousness was steeped in the influence of the two great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Do you think that this special feature of Indian life had any impact on the development of its folklore?
MD : Yes, indeed. Literary traditions in several of our modern Indian languages began with – or achieved maturity with – retold versions of the epics. Apart from the the written forms of these regional versions of the epics, the plots of the epics were presented in different languages through operas, ballads and songs. The vast plots had much scope in them to accommodate several local stories and anecdotes. The local poets used examples familiar to their own audience for illustrating some of the ideas or ideals presented by the epics. As a result these extraneous elements received a status, often a touch of sanctity, by their association with the epic themes. That certainly contributed to their longer life.
NS: You have created a new genre of stories. You have chosen some ancient stories from the Jatakas and the Panchatantra, etc. and have developed them forward from the points where they ended. What motivated you to launch such a series? You story collections ‘The Lady who Died One and a Half Times’ and ‘Tales Told by Mystics’ deal with folktales from the Panchatantra, the Jatakas and the Kathasaritasagara. Please give a few comments on this.
MD : The stories in “The Lady who Died One and Half Times” were prompted by my feeling that our literature was an unbroken tradition. I saw that some of the classic stories of the folk genre – stories given to us by great minds of the past – could be an excellent basis for presenting a comment or two on the present, our own conditions. This bunch constitutes an exclusive kind. However, the second book you referred to, “Tales told by Mystics” is a collection of tales that mostly prevailed as oral traditions and were used by the lost tribe of wandering mendicants to educate and enlighten the folks. I have retold them in my own style, but unlike the stories in the earlier collection, I have not added any new phase to them. Only a few of the tales in this book are from our famous fold classics such as the Jatakas or the Kathasaritsagar. They were collected from various sources.
NS: One of the very interesting characters you have created is ‘abolakara’, literally meaning the disobedient. Is he a real life character whom you have come across in some Odishan rural village, or is he pure imagination for you? Can we compare him to Shakespeare’s Puck? Puck, also known as Robin Goodfellow, is a character in William Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream . Puck is a clever and mischievous elf and personifies the trickster or the wise knave. Also, is Abolkara a folk hero for you?
MD : The name “Abolkara” is not my invention. There was a series of folktales prevailing in Odisha since centuries in which each story is bracketed two characters: Samanta and Abolkara. The former is a nobleman who had a great love for traveling across the land and gathering knowledge of so many things. However, he had settled down at home for many years. But in his ripe old age he once again feels an irrestible urge for traveling. Though physically strong enough, he new needs an assistant to accompany him, carrying his luggage and looking after him. A rustic youth agrees to do his bidding on condition that whenever and wherever he sees something intriguing, he must have it explained by Samanta; otherwise he would not budge. The nobleman agreed to the condition.
I adopted this frame and placed inside it either new themes I developed in continuation of some of the ancient tales or themes entirely mine own (“The Lady who died one and half times” for example, which is an original story.)
But a particular story to which you have referred which bore the title Abolkara at its first publication but which subsequently I changed to “The Submerged Valley” is a character of our own time. He is mentally challenged and is quite whimsical. The story in which he figures, apart from showing the social realism of our time, is to show the submerged aspect of the character of the narrator’s father- apparently rude and practical but inwardly lovely. Yes, the permanent sacrifice of the rural area to a modern project and the psychological turmoil the natives had to undergo were outcome of observations of some of the contemporary events – including one in Odisha during the construction of the Hirakud Dam.
No, my Abolkara of his story cannot be compared to Shakespeare’s Puck.
NS: Can we justify the presence of an individual in folk literature? If yes I would like to conclude you as an instinctive insider of folk literature. Some critics view you as a ‘home bound pilgrim’ due to your concern for the Odisha rural life. In the story ‘Abolkara’ you have talked about the flood problems in Odisha and how the villagers have to vacate their houses for the construction of the dam. Please talk about your role as a writer on social themes.
MD : It is clear that nobody today can write a folktale; by its very definition a folktale is one that had prevailed from an unknown past and its author, in most casa, is unknown. We attribute the stories in the Panchatantra and the Kathsaritsagara to Vishnu Sharma and Somadeva. Well, some of them may be theirs. But most of them were in circulation before they retold them. And those which were their original contributions have also deserved the status of folktales because of their popularity among the folks for hundreds of years. A modern writer can only retell a folktale or give it a different orientation. In the second case he should not call it a folktale, but state clearly, as I have stated in my series of Abolkara stories, what exactly he has done, with what purpose he has handled the old stuff in a novel way.
NS: In most of your stories you use recollection as a mode of redemption. Reminiscence of your childhood memories plays a vital role in your narrative. Does memory help you in building up your characters in a more meaningful way?
MD : Memory, undoubtedly, has proved a vital source for my original stories. What matters is how one uses it. The precious moments and experiences of childhood has special interpretations and revelations for a creative writer.
NS: One of your characters claims that the jackals and ravens talk to him, which adds a pinch of mystery to his character. Do you create such mysterious characters because you empathize with them or do the characters are created to add humour and a kind of supernaturalism to your stories?
MD : The character you refer to is Abolkara – the one outside the series. His abnormality is looked upon by the folks as something paranormal in nature. Their belief that he could communicate with ravens etc. add to the mystery around the character concerned. This is a reality of the folk psychology.
Who knows! Abolkara himself might be under the impression that he can understand the language of such creatures. That is a subjective confidence that radiates its influence on others. Such indeed is the marvellous complexity of human impressions of one another.
NS: I am quoting from Ablokara: “We heard that on the eve of their departure most of the people rolled on the ground, crying and beating their heads against it and smearing themselves with the soil. We never saw our village again.” The love of the villagers for their motherland is well depicted in these lines. Are you able to write such lines due to your personal experiences and involvements with the people? You create a consciousness among human mass to love the motherland, home, nativity and the roots through your short stories. You also justify the presence of an individual through your folk literature. Please comment.
MD : For any realistic narrative practical experience of situations and characters is a must. However strong may be the idea or the ideal that constitutes the soul of a work of fiction, be it a short story or a novel, its physical body ought to be equally strong – I mean credible – at its own external level. Yes, I have experienced the rural life in its natural environment as well in the chaos that ensues when that environment is disturbed; in my younger days I was intimately involved in leftist political activities and had developed close rapport with the mind-sets of different shades of the down-trodden and people in general. They have been of indispensable help for my fiction. Presence of an individual as a medium is a must when you have some concrete experience to convey.
NS: Your feelings for the rich indigenous tradition is expressed in your own words “My personal passage through the literary heritage of India brought me several moments of amazement and joys of discovery.” (Preface,vii)… “The more I have delved into the world of Indian myths and legends, the more amazed and overwhelmed I have felt by their cosmic sweep, complexity and profundity.” (Preface vii).
MD: That is right. I have my psychological support at the backdrop of my creativity the vast and intimate world of our myths and legends.
NS: You best represent the tradition, culture, folklore of India in a very effective and elaborate way. You are well versed with the classic literature of the east and the west. You simply can’t resist “the mighty tradition of Indian literature”. (as told in an interview with P. Raja.)
MD: Thanks for the observation. ‘Well-versed’ is a big term. I am well-acquainted with the Indian traditions. So far as the Western traditions are concerned, my acquaintance is, academically speaking, not at all satisfactory, but I have the faith that I understand their spirit.
NS: The values the folk elements in literature carry not only guide the present generation but also beacon the generation to come. Their appeal remains precious as they inspire other art forms to emerge with the passage of time. Inspired by Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy and his felicity on English language, you have followed his way of living and expression and tried to keep both the “spirit of English language” and “the spirit of rural India” intact in your writings. Your fiction is very much discerned with indigenous folk tradition. You have effectively blended the old art of storytelling with modern ideas and techniques. Please give some comments on this.
MD : This is an observation from a kind mind. The truth is, I have not brought about any fusion or synthesis consciously. I have been guided by my creative inspiration. But because of the life I have lived, the ideals I trust, what you observe must have come about.
NS: Folk narrative mostly exhibits in oral tale-telling and is usually spread through word of mouth. Folk culture always carries the emotion and feeling of its community. It becomes vibrant with the emotional zeal, vigour and deep involvement. Native folk tradition is transmitted from generation to generation and takes its form accordingly. Do you think that the modern literary texts, like yours, who use the folk elements exclusively, can be treated at par with the pure-folk literatures which have only oral traditions. Also, what role can the writers play in the preservation of the folk cultures?
MD: We cannot consciously renew folk literature. We can preserve them, interpret them, find elements in them they are meaningful. Much that was oral is already lost. The village life is changing. There was a legend behind every shrine, every forest, every rivulet and hill. Local stories were there behind some of the landmark trees and creatures man encountered – a fox or a jackal or a vulture. Numerous shrines have disappeared; forests, rivulets and even hillocks. Trees with hoary traditions behind them have fallen. You rarely come across jackals and vultures now roaming the outskirts of hamlets. Along with their departure the legends too are lost.
No, our use of folk elements cannot be counted on par with the folk literature proper. The two are quite different genres and they must be allowed to remain so.
NS: Though Manoj Das’ narrative is set in the local background of his birthplace, they carry the spirit of the whole world in a rational way appealing the whole humanity. Chasing the Rainbow: Growing up in an Indian Village (2004) is a collection of his memoirs about his early childhood spent in his village of India. This collection describes his experiences in rural India and some of the characters and incidents leave a deep impact on the reader’s mind. Rooted firmly in his native background his characters and setting are true representation of the rural and sylvan entity. Though they set and origin from a local background they have a universal appeal. I would conclude by saying that Manoj Das is not only a writer per excellence, born in India and a trend setter for the world, he is a movement.