June 20, 2013 | 06:59 AM (BD Time)
20 June, 2013 Thursday
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The study of folklore
Saifuddin Chowdhury :
Folklore has developed into a discipline for academic study. Dan Ben-Amos, an American folklorist of international fame, defined folklore as "artistic communication in small groups." This definition, though very short, has received wide acclamation in the academic circles. Ben-Amos has admirably explained the rationale of this definition in folklore scholarship. For the folkloric act to happen, as Ben-Amos holds, two social conditions are necessary: both the performers and the audience have to be in the same situation in which "people confront each other face-to-face and relate to each other directly." Firoz Mahmud, while recognising the merit of this definition, has shown its weakness in the social context of Bangladesh. Mahmud writes:
"In the social context of Bangladesh his conditions seem to be too rigid. In Bangladesh the overwhelming majority of the population live in villages where the lifestyle is still very much traditional. Here the communicative process of social interaction is so widely diffused that in many cases face-to-face interaction between the performer and the audience is not absolutely necessary for the folkloric act to happen. A baul does not require an audience as he sings while wandering. But he is heard by people, many of whom are unseen by him"
What about a metalworker? Although he is involved in folk art/craft, he is not necessarily a folk performer. As Mahmud points out, his activity is not audience-oriented. When he works in his atelier, he is not expecting an audience to observe his skill. "His skill is appreciated through his creations. He does not communicate directly with all his consumers, since his products are available to them in bazaars-permanent stores, periodic hats (rural bazaars), and melas (annual fairs)."
"Customarily folklorists refer to the host of published definitions, add their own, then get on with their work, leaving the impression that definitions of folklore are as numberless as insects," says Henry Glassie. "But all the definitions," according to Glassie, "bring into dynamic association the ideas of individual creativity and collective order. I have deliberately chosen a long definition of folklore given by Benjamin A. Botkin. He defines folklore in these words:
"Folklore is a body of traditional belief, custom, and expression, handed down largely by word of mouth and circulating chiefly outside of commercial and academic means of communication and instruction. Every group bound together by common interests and purposes, whether educated or uneducated, rural or urban, possesses a body of traditions which may be called its folklore. Into these traditions enter many elements, individual, popular, and even literary, but all are absorbed and assimilated through repetition and variation into a pattern which has value and continuity for the group as a whole."
Bangladesh is a living museum of folklore. Expressions of folklore, time-honoured and hallowed by tradition, form part of our cultural heritage as a whole. Our own economic infrastructure has been built on the tradition of our glorious past. It reflects our food habits, dresses, and cultural beliefs. To preserve and cherish them freely, we had to struggle for both cultural and political freedom. We had to fight for the right of our mother tongue in 1952 and for our independence in 1971. The main goal of our continuous struggle was to preserve our own pattern of life. Folklore plays a leading role in the preservation of our pattern of life. Hence Botkin's long definition of folklore fits well into our framework of understanding the folklore of Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is enormously rich in folk songs, which are a spontaneous outpouring of the simple spirit of smaller, more homogenous cultural groups. Folk songs deal with themes pertaining to communal activity, mark the significance of certain times in the calendar, exemplify the moral code of an entire group and its shared heritage, or bind the life of an individual into the wider life of the community. Of the folk songs, particular mention may be made of alkap, barongasi, baramasi, baul, bhadu, bhatiyali, bhawaiya, bolan, chatka, dhamali, dhan bhanar gan, dhan katar gan, gajan, gajir gan, gambhira, ghatu, jag, jari, khemta, madar peerer gan, marfati, murshidi, sakta, sari and sapude.
As folk songs are transferred orally rather than in writing, they are subject to alteration and development with the passage of time, even with each performance. At present, as a result of the changes in public taste and aptitude, folk songs are being influenced by the popular musical traditions. Many folksingers are now reluctant to use those age-old products.
Folk art produces functional, handmade objects for a variety of purposes within the community, reflecting its needs and aesthetic preferences. These objects range from pottery to metalwork, from painting to weaving, from children's toys to religious images, and so on.
The producers of folk art, called folk artists, utilise imagery and symbols meaningful to the community. Folk artists generally do not concentrate on originality but rather on conservatism, preserving the traditional forms and designs taught by the previous generation. However, like folk songs, folk art is also subject to fluctuations of fashion and external influence. With the rise of industrialisation and increased communication in Bangladesh, pure folk art is dying out in the face of functional items that are being made available more quickly, cheaply and with a higher technical standard than the handworker can really compete with. In the study of folk art it is of utmost importance to compare and contrast objects from different regions. The variations in shape, design, and decoration, if any, represent regional contexts of folk art, and on a larger scale these variations indicate different cultural traditions based on local materials and the basic technologies that are useful to the harnessing of those materials.
Folklorists are generally divided into literary and anthropological categories. The prevalent notion is that each group of folklorists has its own methodology appropriate for its interests. Alan Dundes has challenged this notion. According to Dundes, the basic methodology of studying folklore in literature and studying folklore in culture is almost exactly the same; in other words, the discipline of folklore has its own methodology applying equally well to both literary and cultural problems. "There are only two basic steps in the study of folklore in literature and in culture," says Dundes. He writes:
"The first step is objective and empirical; the second step is subjective and speculative. The first might be termed identification and the second interpretation. Identification essentially consists of a search for similarities; interpretation depends upon the delineation of differences. The first task in studying an item is to show how it is like previously reported items, whereas the second is to show how it differs from previously reported items-and, hopefully, why it differs".
In the past, folklorists went into the field to return with texts collected without their cultural context; they plunged into literary sources and emerged with dry lists of motifs and proverbs lifted from their literary context. As a result, for many folklorists identification became an end in itself instead of a means to the end of interpretation.
In the study of folklore, it is important to analyse content, structure, and context. A focus on cultural aspects and an emphasis on behavioural attitudes will make the study of folklore lively. Expressive culture is one domain that embodies social structure. As one of the means through which soci
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