The Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL) was established in Mysuru,
India, on the 17" July, 1969, on the recommendation of the Kher Commission of the
Government of India and The Official Language Resolution of 1968, with a view to assisting
and coordinating the development of Indian languages. The Institute was charged with
the responsibility of serving as a nucleus to bring together all the research and literary
output from the various linguistic streams to a common head and narrowing the gap
between basic research and development research in the fields of languages and linguistics
in India. The Institute is also to contribute towards the maintenance of multilingualism of
the country through language teaching and translation and to strengthen the common
bond among the Indian languages.
The work of the Institute consists of research, training and production of teaching
materials. The result of these activities can be seen in its more than 300 publications and
many thousand teachers trained in the Regional Language Centers. The Institute has
been able to make an impact in language teaching in schools making it skill based and
function oriented. It has brought audio visual and computer technology to aid the teaching
of Indian languages. It has helped many tribal languages to be codified, described and
used in education. The Institute’s research and training programmes in social, physiological
and folkloristic aspects of language and culture have introduced new dimensions to
research in Indian languages. Various International and National seminars and conferences
organized by the Institute in sociolinguistics, semiotics, phonetics, folklore and other
areas have helped development of the languages and also human resources in these
areas. The Institute and its seven Regional Language Centers are thus engaged in research
and teaching which lead to the publication of a wide ranging variety of materials, from
language teaching, linguistics, folklore to translation.
The Institute has given equal importance to the study of Folklore and it is evident
from the numerous publications of folklore materials in different languages of India. The
present publication, Assamese Folktales: A Structural Analysis, by Dr. Mrinal Medhi,
Guwahati, Assam is another addition to it. I hope this book will further contribute to the
study of Folklore.
The concept of studying narrative structures of oral narratives, particularly
folktales, initiated by Shklovskij, Volkov, Nikiforov, Veselovskij and many others
and blossomed at the hands of Vladimir Propp in Russia, is now nearly one
hundred years old. Vladimir Propp with his epoch making work Morphology
of the Folktale in 1928 heralded a new era in the study of oral narratives
and revolutionized the entire gamut of folktale study. He began his theory of
investigation with a critique on Aarne’s taxonomy of folktales (1910) in
particular and on the Historical Geographic method in general. Unfortunately,
this big leap in folkloristics from historical to descriptive and from diachronic
to synchronic era of analysis and study was not seriously felt even in
Russia. Besides other reasons, one important reason of this was that folklore
Studies in all over the world was not prepared to receive the benefits of this
big leap, and had to wait for thirty years till 1958, when Propp’s ‘Morphology’
was translated. Later, the formalist mode of structural analysis has not only
highly influenced folklore studies, but also literary theory and other related
The narrative world of Assamese folktales is not fully explored yet
except a few attempts, although collection of Assamese tales began in the
beginning of the twentieth century by collectors like great nationalist
Lakshminath Bezbaroa. After Prafulladatta Goswami’s typological study of
Assamese tales (1960), however, no full length analytical or interpretative
study of Assamese folktales has been attempted so far.
My first encounter with structural analysis was when I was introduced
to it in my theory classes while pursuing M.Phil course in Folklore in Gauhati
University. The wonderful and bewildering world of folktales and the approach
of structural analysis to study these fascinated me so much that it resulted
to my working on twenty Assamese wonder tales in the Proppian scheme
of analysis and the examination of the cross-cultural validity of this scheme
(1999). This was my first experiment.
This book is based on my Ph.D. thesis. It is the result of inspiration
and encouragement. I have received from many persons. Firstly, I shall be
failing in my duties if I do not mention that when I approached Prof. Udaya
Narayana Singh, the then Director of Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore, for publishing my thesis, he promptly sent me an encouraging and
inspiring mail and asked me to submit the manuscript. I express my immense
gratitude to him. I also take this opportunity to express my gratitude to
Prof. Awadesh Kumar Mishra, present Director, CIIL, for taking initiative to
publish the book. I thank all concerned officers and staff of CIIL, particularly,
Dr. K.Srinivasacharya, Dr.M.Balakumar, Head of the Publication unit,
Mr. R.Nandeesh, Mr. M.N -Chandrashekar, Mr.H.Manohara and Smt. J.Shobha,
Smt.R.Nagamani of the Publication Unit. I also express my heartfull gratitude
to the organization as a whole for co-operating and publishing my book.
I am indebted to a very distinguished scholar, Prof. A.C. Bhagabati, a
noted Anthropologist and former Vice Chancellor, Arunachal University, who
always insistently prodded to complete my thesis as soon as possible and my
intimate relationship with him has always put me in an advantageous edge.
My supervisor, Dr. Kishore Kumar Bhattacharjee, Head, Department of
Folklore Research, Gauhati University, has helped all along and contributed
a lot to the successful completion of the thesis. I, therefore, dedicate this
book to him.
I am also indebted to Prof. Ulo Valk, whom I met several times during
his visits to Assam and discussed about my thesis, for his constant
My sincere thanks also goes to Dr. Anil Kumar Baro, a teacher in the
Department of Folklore Research, Gauhati University and a friend, who
always showed keen interest in the completion and publication of the book.
I have no word to express my gratitude and thanks to my mother Mrs.
Prabha Medhi, wife Mira and son Bitopan, without whose constant
encouragement, co-operation and help, this work would have never been
The folktale is one of the genres of folklore, which is also popular in printed
forms, and some oral versions exist as active tradition in many areas of the world.
This genre has been appearing in the printed form since the 18" century (Stein
2000: 167). Publication of collections of oral folktales in printed forms is drawing
a large number of readers. Blackburn (2003) argues that in India printing helped in
the popularization of folktale. Scores of animation films are being made on popular
old folktale plots. Folktale plots are also a favorite subject of children plays. Weighty
statements on the importance of folktales to the development of children’s mind are
being made by the social scientists, psychologists and child psychiatrists (Apo
Folkloristic research of folktale has shown just how important folktales were
in the old folk-culture based on oral tradition.
"The need for a form of entertainment set apart from everyday life is no
doubt as old as human culture in general, likewise, the ability to invent stories, to
create fiction, to unleash the imagination by means of speech, pictures or writing.
Inventing, performing and listening to imaginary tales have many functions: to
provide aesthetic experiences, joy at the commanding and varying of form, to express
and concretize the problems and conflicts arising in a culture and to suggest
imaginary solutions; to crystallize the prevailing concepts of the fundamental
phenomena of life and to pass them on to future generations; to break the daily
monotony and to transport the narrators and listeners to a different reality, a world
of narrative. Sometimes, the telling of folktales also acquired magic overtones"
Apart from these functions, scholars have suggested some other functions
folktales seem to have performed in the primitive folk-culture. According to Dimitri
Zelenin, hunters in the hunting cultures of Eurasia used suggestive narration in
order to transfix game animals or their spirits (Lauri Honko 1986, cited by Apo
1995: 255). Leea Virtanen says that narrator’s comments have been recorded in Russian Karelia indicating that the telling of folktales was believed to protect the
house and its inhabitants from evil (Virtanen 1978, cited by Apo 1995: 255).
Traditionally, folktale is the domain of the tellers or narrators. A good narrator
or teller has a place in the society.
"Whether among the peasants of Western Ireland or among the
natives of Lapland, India or Alaska, folktales are much more than a
casual part of the life of those who tell them and hear them. Even
where the reciting of tales is to be expected of everyone, there is every
effort to make a story interesting and pleasing to the audience. And
where tale-telling is the function of a chosen few, professional or semi
professional, it is cultivated as a serious art. Voice, gesture and
narrative effects are carefully studied and practiced. The man, who
excels, is rewarded with the esteem of his fellows and with much
coveted prestige" (Thompson 1977: 449).
The narrative techniques of folktales of different people can be studied.
Thompson writes, ‘It is possible with considerable success to make comparative
studies not only of the themes of folktales, but also of the narrative techniques
among people of very diverse cultures, from the simple Australian Bushman to the
peasant of Modern Europe and even the professional story tellers of the bazaars of
Cairo’ (Thompson 1949: 409).
Folktale is a universal phenomenon. Although according to some research
into folktale narrators, the need for folktale is particularly felt in communities,
where life was harder and burdened with numerous restrictions, mental and physical
pressures. Juha Pentikainen says that Marina Takalo of Russian Karelia found her
most rewarding audiences among the men at a winter logging camp in Russia
(Pentikainen 1978: 266-67). But folktale telling has not always been accompanied
only with the harsher side of the life. Its chief attractions--the chance it provides
of breaking free from the everyday reality and certain universal problems in a
positive way, has drawn all groups of people, and not only the lowest strata of the
society, as its listeners. Folktale is also able to bridge the boundaries between
social classes and eras as it strives as a form of entertainment among the children
of different classes (Apo 1995: 14). Thompson says, "All people, irrespective of
age, sex, colour and religion, like to listen tale and a good teller of stories has
everywhere and always found eager listeners. His tale may be a mere report of a recent happening, a legend of long ago, or an elaborately devised fiction, people
his words and satisfy their yearnings for information or amusement to heroic deeds
or religious education, or release from the overpowering monotony of their daily
lives" (Thompson 1977: 3). He adds, "In villages of Central Africa, in outrigger
boats on the Pacific, in the Australian bush and within the shadow of Hawaiian
volcanoes, tales of the present and of the mysterious past, of animals and gods
and heroes, and of men and women like themselves, hold listeners in their spell or
enrich the conversation of daily life. So it is also in Eskimo igloos under the light of
seal oil lamps, in the tropical jungles of Brazil, and by the totem poles of the
British Columbian coast. In Japan too, and China and India, the priest and the
scholar, the peasant and the artisan, all join in their love of a good story and their
honour for the man who tell it well’’ (idem).
The study of folktale as a subject of folklore began at the beginning of the
19" century. Of the three main oral prose genres, myth, legend and folktale, folktale
has received the most critical attention in folklore scholarship. Although orality is
the forte of folktale, however, for the purpose of study, scholars have always
depended on printed or literary sources of folktales. Folktales are mainly collected
from oral sources, then rewritten and edited by the collector. Folktales, like legends
and myths, have been noted down at a period of cultural history, when oral narration
was complemented by written communication in the form of newspapers and
journals, popular books and magazines. Oral folktales blossom out into rich lively
narrative when collected or recorded in an oral performance, or when written down
by a writer editor, as was the case with the creative editing of the Grimm Brothers
and Eero Salmelainen (Apo 1995: 15). Stein writes, "‘From the beginning, fairy
tale research was text-centered: oral tradition was rendered as text, preserved in
archives and published in collections for general as well as academic reading
audience. Only towards the middle of the 20" century did the paradigm, with the
aid of modern recording technologies, yield to more context-sensitive and
performance centered aspects of story-telling" (Stein 2000: 168).
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