Simon John, a state-level hockey player, was an economics honours student at St Xavier’s College in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu. Instead of being interested in studying the markets, he got drawn to the buzzing ambience of the department of folklore studies on campus. “They used to organise lots of activities throughout the year and go to the field (for documentation) and hold drama festivals. The department was very lively. It was (folkloristics) very inter-disciplinary and not just class-room teaching,” says John, now a folklorist from the Anthropological Survey of India (AnSI), currently on deputation at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), New Delhi.
Folkloristics is indeed inter-disciplinary. It’s field-based and practical-oriented. It’s about lore and a lot more, including traditional livelihood practices.
“It’s a study of oral tradition, whatever is transmitted from one generation to another orally,” explains John. It has four categories:
Oral literature — encompassing songs, proverbs, myths, laments, lullabies etc
Customs and beliefs — generally includes everything related to a community’s faith, such as gods and goddesses, rituals, beliefs, vows, offerings, fasts, festivals, rituals for marriage, birth and funerals
Performing arts — dance, music, theatre and narratives fall in this category. Every state has thousands of art forms. It’s related to vernacular religious practices, life cycle ceremonies and the vernacular calendar Material culture — covers all crafts, even the construction of traditional houses, says John.
Folklore is mostly taught as part of regional languages and literature. With thousands of languages, dialects and a vast maze of cultures, India is virtually a “paradise for folklorists,” says MD Muthukumaraswamy, director, National Folklore Support Centre, Chennai.
According to Muthukumaraswamy, tuning into folklore studies can clear some mental blocks people may have. “The British created a schism between our academic institutions and our folk traditions.
There’s a lack of awareness about our surrounding community. There are misconceptions about our traditions. Many people think that folk traditions are dying (in fact, they are vibrant) and that they are an expression of underdevelopment. These are misconceptions.”
Today, it’s critical to study folklore as it’s entwined with the communities’ livelihoods. “We should not segregate the form and the folk or the folk and the lore,” says John.
If you are interested in taking the plunge into this field, there are few institutes to pick from. Afterwards, career options make a short file:
. AnSI (only one post)
. Universities and colleges with this department
. All India Radio
. Departments of art and culture
. Sangeet Natak Akademi
. Non-government organisations (NGOs)
Students will most likely have to make an effort to carve a niche for themselves in this field. The enterprising kinds can start NGOs.
What's it about?
Folkloristics is the academic study of folklore, which encompasses lore and a lot more, including traditional livelihood practices
A university teacher will be required to give lectures, do research, and possibly handle administrative work.
On field visits to say a remote village, a folklorist’s average day could be as follows:
7am: Go to a teashop or grocer’s to get basic information on candidates to be interviewed (such as a temple priest) and get their addresses
8am: Locate the right informant. Explain the purpose of my visit and convince him to give me an interview. Take an appointment for the evening. In the meantime, explore other relevant things (temple or
farm) in the village
1pm: Look for a place to eat and have lunch
2pm: Talk to some villagers
5pm: Interview the priest about temple rituals
7pm: Back to the room (in a villager’s home). Check notes, file report, download photos on laptop. Plan for the next day
A research associate in the Anthropological Survey of India takes home about Rs30,000 to Rs35,000 a month. After a master’s degree, a University Grants Commission NET-qualified junior research fellow draws about Rs15,000 to Rs20,000 a month. Assistant professors earn about Rs40,000 a month and associate professors Rs70,000 to Rs80,000 a month
. Strong observation and analytical skills
. Inter-personal skills
. Be adaptable and resourceful
. Good presentation and writing skills
. Be self-motivated
How do i get there?
Study humanities in Class 11 and Class 12. Go for a degree in social science or language/literature, followed by a masters in folklore. A PhD qualification is usually required for research and academic positions. Many national and international bodies (Ministry of Culture, Ford Foundation, ICSSR, Japan Foundation, among others) offer various kinds of support
Institutes & urls
. St Xavier’s College in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu
. Gauhati University
. MA in folklore and culture studies, School of Interdisciplinary and Trans-disciplinary Studies, Indira Gandhi National Open University
Pros & cons
Involves travel and stay with different communities
Very limited career opportunities in the same field in India. However, there is scope in some western countries
Few departments of folklore in Indian institutions
It’s linked to livelihood
A folklorist throws light on the evolving trend in the field
What’s the scenario like when it comes to folklore studies in India?
Folklore is becoming a very important discipline. One of the reasons is that post-colonial study is making it important to understand our roots and culture.
The second reason is the subaltern studies movement in history — historians are interested in understanding local history through local lore, traditions etc.
(Subaltern studies refer to non-mainstream studies in history, that is, studying the masses as opposed to the elites.) Third, politically-speaking, in post-independent India, several regional uprisings led to people studying folklore because it’s linked to linguistic, sub-nationalistic identity.
What are the major employment avenues for folklorists?
They can join the Anthropological Survey of India, in museums as curators and presenters of culture. They can work in radio or TV, producing or presenting programmes. Every radio station has at least one programme on local folklore and music.
These days NGOs present an option for enhancement of livelihood opportunity. The creative energies of communities are embedded in their folklore which can be harnessed for enhancing livelihood options.
What’s the current trend in folklore studies?
There was a trend from the 1960s to 1980s to collect and record folk items such as folk tales, paintings etc; they were text-oriented. Then 1980 onwards, the trend changed towards studying text in context, where it’s essentially an anthropological study. From the late ’90s onwards, folklore is basically community work — using folklore to see how the livelihood opportunities of the community can be improved. It’s about working towards community empowerment, through the study of folklore.
Where’s most of the work in this discipline being done in India?
Most work is being carried out in south and east India — mainly in non-Hindi states.
What about the Hindi heartland?
Some work has been done but it’s not come to the fore.
MD Muthukumaraswamy, director, National Folklore Support Centre, Chennai, a non-government organisation interviewed by Rahat Bano