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Writing Identities (Folklore and Performative Arts of Purulia, Bengal)

Writing Identities (Folklore and Performative Arts of Purulia, Bengal)
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Item Code: NAD188
Author: Roma Chatterji
Publisher: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and Aryan Books International
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 9788173053788
Pages: 148
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 9.0 inch X 5.9 inch
weight of the book: 415 gms
From the Jacket

This work attempts a historiography exploration of Bengali folkloristics through of Purulia. Positioned outside the mainstream of Bengal’s culture and society, Purulia has traditionally been characerised as her ‘primitive’ alter. Folklorists this image by selecting precisely those genres for analysis that best conform to this image. An unintended consequence of such selective representation is that the forms come to mirror scholarly descriptions about them over time. Thus the chho’ dance, described as a tribal war dance’ by Ashutosh Bhattacharya, the doyen of Bengali folkloristics has come to acquire this image losing some of its subtlety and local nuance in the process. But as a’ tribal dance’ it has also acquired greater visibility than some of the other dance forms in this region. Folklorists are sensitive to the changes that the introductions of new media bring to traditional forms of performance. However, they are less conscious about the changes wrought by their own writings. By describing the different representations of community and society in the writing on folk culture and in tracking some of the trajectories of their circulation in the publish sphere the author shows how purulia is re-constituted as a folkloric region.

About the Author

Roma Chatterji teachers at the department of Sociology, Delhi University of Economics, Delhi University. Apart from an abiding interest in folk culture she has also worked on medical anthropology and collective violence. Her current research is on ‘Fold Art in Bengal and Madhya Pradesh. She is the author together with Deepak Mehta of, Living with Violenc: An Anthropology of Events and Everyday Life.


Chho dance, [humur songs, Bhadu puja in Purulia have served as platforms in this volume for a historiographic exploration of folklore studies and performances in West Bengal, Bihar and jharkhand. The exploration situates itself in the history of the passage of oral into print culture. It speaks of the use of folklore for political, social, economic or intellectual movements. It shows how folk art has been harnessed to objectives of strengthening feudal hierarchy, promoting social ascent, boosting national or regional self esteem, or ensuring appropriation of orality in self reflective intellectual or semiotic discourse. It also reveals the tremendous energy of folk art forms that have enabled them to survive and recharge themselves, like Antaeus drawing strength from the earth.

The discourse is an embattled arena, agog with the babble of voices. There are strident protests about tribal folklore being taken over by non-tribals. The tribal voice of Gambhir Singh Mura is reported to have been misappropriated by a castest political agenda according to scholars such as Pashupati Mahato, a self-professed tribal scholar. A tribal agricultural festival is alleged to have been colonized by Hindu rajas of Kashipur for encouraging the planting of bhadui dhan or the post monsoon paddy harvest. Tribal personifications of forces of nature have been expropriated for presenting Hindu Gods and Goddesses. Worship of Siva has been substituted for worship of the Sun. Rain making rituals of the Dom infantry of the local chieftain has been exploited in the ritual calendar to avoid rebellion according to the influential folklorist Ashutosh Bhattacharya. Primitive Christian, ethical, non- anthropomorphic or Promethean elements have been transplanted in Munda religion and origin myths, in an attempt to domesticate tribal folklore in Christian religion as exemplified in the works of Hoffman and Van Exem. Pantheistic elements in the Baha festival have been misread for domestication in global environmentalism.

If there are allegations about misuse of tribal folklore for extraneous objectives, tribal voices have been raised to claim affinity with non-tribal society in an urge for Rajputization or Sanskritization. Bhurnijas in Birbhum, according to N.K. Bose, have claimed kinship with the Bagmundi rajas. Siva has been viewed as Kirata, a tribal hunter, leading to the use of Purulia chho in films by Ritwik Ghatak, and Kshatriya status has been asserted by Kurrni Mahatos in the Jharkhand census. Radha-Krishna have been metamorphosed into a tribal couple in Jharkhand.

In a further ramification of the discourse, the following suggestions have been made about the politics of cultural nationalism. Tribal and folk dance has been incorporated in the Sahaja-Swadeshi synthesis of Gurusaday Dutt's Bratachari melas. The IPT A has harnessed folk songs to socialist realism in histrionics on the Bengal famine of 1943. Coomaraswamy has reconstituted folklore as sacred,marga and classicist, in reaction against colonial, orientalist construction.

A resurgence of regional, sub-regional and primordial identities has been counter posed against the reassertion of cultural nationalism. The Tushu satyagraha of the early sixties, has united Muslim and Hindu peasants, in a demand for integration of PuruIia with Bengal rather than Bihar. The Dom is the Pashan jati in the Sharaboli text or the bhumij jati in Gambhir Singh Mura's village Chorida as interpreted by the choreographer of his Chh6 dance troupe, Anil Shutradhar. Mahasveta Devi says that the Shabara oral tradition has been resuscitated on the foundation of epics such as the Mangala Kavyas and novelists such as Nilankatha Ghoshal have constructed characters such as Bhurni Kanya on the basis of Bhadu myths.

There is a substratum of gender reconstruction of history. The feminine has been suggested as the other in a gender oblivious, revivalist Hinduism. Bhadu is a woman, transformed into a Goddess, on death. Radha's identity is submerged in [humur, a male preserve. Authoritative, patriarchal structures are subverted by breaking conjugal silence, imposed by society in proscribed songs. The feminine voice of Sati, Parvati or Sita has been quoted as one of doubt and interrogation.

Transcending the printed work of individual folklorists, folklore institutions, or folklore journals like Chhatrak and Lokshruti and the cacophony of debating voices, raises the unmistakable voice of the people. Brahmins and Bhats perform rituals, Shutradhars make chho masks and Doms and Ghasis make music and mingle their voices in symphony. Kobywala competitions, Khemta or Jhumurwali dances, Hanka, Gaha, Bhaduria, Dandshalya, Nachnishalya dances are performed in step with the rhythm of seasons, work and festivals, Jharkhandi kirtan and Vishnupuri gharana, courtly and rural styles, deshi and margi genres corne together in anorchestra. Sensual and spiritual elements, egalitarian and exploitative approaches, narrative and spectacular presentations, Gods, animals and human beings, Muslim, Buddhist, Brahmin and tribal ethnoses, primordial and contemporary imagination, converge filrni and folk music. The polyphonic mix of bhavas, Zayas, drum beats; exaggerated chala gestures, threaded with the colourful iconography and dramatic succession of characters; the breathless build up and denouement - these are the vital pulsations that corne out inexorably through the maze and weave of debates. Katha and Kahani, history and story join hands. The poignant narrative of the death of Bhadu, the princess, the stark detail in [humur songs on Bon [hara akaZ or forest famine, hits us hard. The intimate, personal involvement of Parvati with her worshipper, or the death of Sati, in a question mark on the authority of Siva and Daksha, wring our heart strings.

The hierophantic presentation of myth as part of reality, the paratactic chain tying domestic and public events in a ritual space, use of social imaginary and cultural alterity as part of a contested territory between universal and local values, the incorporation of a new aesthetics in the public domain through folklore studies, or the folk critique of bhadralok society are elements of the discourse, that recede into the background. We stop and listen to the poetic and musical voice of the people of PuruIia, regale ourselves with the spectacle staged by them, and vibrate with the gamut of emotions traversed by them in their cultivated but frenetic movements.


I researched the folklore of Purulia in the early 1980s as a Ph.D. student from Delhi University. The choice of subject and location were partly determined by the paucity of literature on this field and partly from the fact that my department laid great emphasis on the fieldwork tradition. Apart from a few intrepid geographers and some folklorists who wrote in BangIa, Purulia was virtually unknown in the scholarly literature. This was so in spite of a vibrant tradition of debate via the print media within Purulia itself. I realized within the first few months of fieldwork that I could not treat my field location as an isolated face-to-face community within a predominately oral tradition. It was a centre of discourse that encompassed not only other local traditions in the wider cultural region of Jharkhand and Bengal but also a print culture that was using folklore as a site on which to reflect upon itself. The biannual journal Chhatrak edited by Professor Subodh Bosu Roy of J. K. College, Purulia, became the forum through which Purulia itself could be thematised as an object of study. Fifteen years later, when I re-visited the field in 1999 I realised that Purulia was no longer considered marginal to the intellectual discourse in Bengal. I found a wealth of literature on the folklore and culture of Purulia, written in Bangla and published largely by the Government of West Bengal. What brought about this new interest in Purulia? It is this question that provided the initial impetus for my work. At first sight it would seem that government policy and the cultural politics of the region were being thematised in the print culture here. A closer reading of the published material however, does not reveal a one-to-one connection between the two. There is a remarkable continuity in the way that Purulia is presented in these works - from the early writings of Ashutosh Bhattacharya, one of the first scholars to write about the folklore of Purulia in the 1960s and 1970s to more recent folkloric accounts. What accounts for this representational stability? I argue that it is the discourse of folklore that is largely responsible for this fact. It is Foucault who first said that discourse creates its own "pre-existing forms of continuity" - a synthesis based on the "already said" (1972:25). I would extend this further to say that "communities of discourse" such as those constituted by folklorists, are created through the selection not so much of modes of representation but rather of the expressive genres themselves. Thus folklore, at least Bengali folklore can be thought of as constituting a genre in itself.

Bakhtin (1986) broadens the concept of genre to include everyday forms of utterance, saying that the specific contexts in which language is used develop stable genres of speech. The focus on genre foregrounds the sensitivity of language to context as well as to the intentions of the users, in that speakers actively choose the genres in which they wish to couch their utterances. Bakhtin's formulation focuses on the ideological standpoint of the addresser - on his or her work plan reflected in the choice of genre. But equally it is the choice of audience, the addressee one hopes to reach out to that forms a potential community of discourse.

Contemporary scholars like Flueckiger (1994, 1996) have made creative use of folklore genres to problematise the notion of 'community'. Writing about Chhatisgarhi folklore she says that there is a strong identification between genre and community. This principle, in fact, underpins the indigenous performative system. In my previous work on the performative tradition of Purulia, I found that even though indigenous classifications of folklore genres tend to privilege links with groupings based on caste and gender, there are also some cases of cultural transgression. Thus women, for instance, sometimes compose and sing in genres of songs that are proscribed according to tradition (Chatterji 1987, 2002). In this volume my interest in genre is of a somewhat different order. I show how Bangla folkloristics first presents Purulia as a cultural region through the description of certain performative genres and then constitutes these genres as boundary markers. Thus the choice of genre for description delineates 'community' in a certain way. The performative genres that are the objects of folkloric discourse become the prisms through which the 'folk community' is constituted. I do not mean to imply that this community is presented as a seamless whole. Rather each genre that is described presents the community in a way that is singular and different from its presentation through the lens of the other genres.

I examine folklore writings on three important genres, viz. the chh6 dance, the jhftmftr song and the myths and songs associated with the Bhadu ritual (pftjii), to describe some of the ways in which community comes to be represented in Purulia. My selection is based on the fact that these are the genres most often used to constitute specific representations of community life. Interestingly, these are also the genres that have been the subject of institutional forms of patronage for a considerable period of time - a fact of some importance for the print culture of Purulia.

Let me now give an account of some of the institutions and activities that have shaped the ways in which Purulia is represented in the print culture. Institutionalised forms of patronage have a significant role to play in the development and stabilisation of the idea of culture as an isolable sphere. In this work I describe this process in terms of two systems of patronage, that is, the government bureaucracy, in the post-Independence period and the feudal courts that emerged in Purulia about two hundred years ago (Sinha 1995). Both systems have had seminal influence in giving shape to the three performative genres that I have mentioned.



The Folk and Tribal Cultural Centre of the Government of West Bengal was established in the early 1980s for the promotion and publication of research on the folk culture of West Bengal. In an interview, Professor Mihir Bhattacharya, who has been associated with this centre since its inception, told me that the first attempts at establishing government institutions for the preservation and study of folk culture began in the late 1970s. An advisory committee called the Loksanskriti Parishad (Folk Culture Committee) was set up to explore possibilities of district level interaction. Members of this committee organised workshops in the different districts of West Bengal to facilitate interaction between folk artists, local scholars and government agencies. By the late eighties, the district level bodies were sufficiently 'sensitised', to use Professor Bhattacharya's words, to organise and fund their own local assemblies with local artists and with the help of local panchayats. The government also set up a series of awards for folk artists and has instituted scholarships and pension schemes for folk performers. Lokshruti, the biannual journal brought out by the Centre, has become an important forum for intellectual debate and reflection on the folk culture of West Bengal.

The significance of such forms of government intervention lies in the fact that it creates sites on which a new form of local self- knowledge can emerge. Most of the scholars who contribute to Lokshruti have a moral and political stake in the constitution of folk culture itself. For them, folk culture embodies the symbolic imaginary through which they can critique certain trends in bhadralok society. Folklore then represents the site which is both of Bengali society and yet not fully in it. The folk become a virtual community used to delineate the spiritual qualities not just of the region, but also through the mediation of state agencies, of the nation itself (Dutt 1990).

Clearly government intervention in folk culture has allowed the latter to be transposed on a different register such that it can be co-opted by new forms of institutionalisation. The print media is one such form. Since Anderson's (1983) seminal work, its role in the articulation of new political entities has been extensively studied. In India, forms of folk culture have been re-articulated by print media in the service of new political formations (Ashley 1993). In the process they also acquire a new kind of aesthetic autonomy such that can absorb new contexts of performance. It is often assumed by folklorists that state intervention is the sole agent responsible for the aestheticisation' of folk culture. However folk societies are usually part of larger political formations that have over time led to the transformation of folk culture (Rappaport 1994). In Purulia, as this volume will show, the performative genres that have lent themselves to appropriation by the print culture had already undergone a process of aestheticisation in the courts of the feudal chiefs in this region and have been successfully reincorporated into the folk communities in which they originally took shape. In Purulia, at least, as I will show, an impulse towards aesthetic autonomy was already present in the folk society.


Purulia was part of the Jungle Mahals - the hill areas that ranged from Birbhum, now in the state of West Bengal to Ranchi, now in Jharkhand - until this district was dissolved in 1833. It then became part of the district of Manbhum in Bihar. Manbhum, in turn, was dissolved in 1956 and Purulia became a separate district in the state of West Bengal. It still has strong cultural links with the state of Jharkhand, which was carved out of Bihar a few years ago.

The tribal belt of Central India, of which Purulia forms a part, is of great significance for understanding the process by which the aestheticisation of folk culture takes place.' Surajit Sinha (1995) is one of the few scholars in India who has discussed the relationship between the agricultural tribes of Central India with feudalistic institutions of the state - a process that he calls the 'Rajputisation' of the tribes. This refers to the development of an aristocratic stratum within the tribes of this region. He does not discuss the influence of this process on tribal culture per se but it is probable that the process of Rajputisation went hand-in-hand with the emergence of a regional courtly culture (Bhattacharya 1986). The courts of the tribal chiefs or zamindiirs were important centres of patronage where performers and poets congregated. It is important to remember that the forms that became the object of royal patronage were folk forms, such as the chh6 dance and jhumur song and so on. Thus local styles of music and dance developed in these courts. Bagmundi, a relatively small zamindiiri of eighty three mouzas (revenue villages) developed its own style of rendering the jhumur that is called the Biigmun4yii and was able to attract the best dancers and jhumur singers to its court (Bhattacharya 1986). However, the links with folk culture were never severed and even today, when the tribal zamindars have disappeared, the musical tradition that they nurtured has become, as it always was, the heritage of the folk. In my opinion, it is precisely those forms that had already acquired an autonomous aesthetic through royal patronage that lend themselves most readily to outside intervention. Thus, the chh6 dance has adapted to new performative contexts in such a way that its popularity is enhanced in its own regional base. "This has not happened with the niituii dance, for instance. It does not travel well and its popularity at home has declined. The chh6 developed into a form of high art in Bagmundi, the niituii did not, even though stylistically they are very similar.

The village Chorida, where I lived for a year and a half, was inhabited by groups of service and artisan castes that had been settled there by the riijii to serve the Bagmundi court. Brahmins and Bhatts performed the court rituals and the Shutradhars made masks for the chh6 dance and sacred images of Bhadu for the annual Bhadu pujii.3 Doms and Ghasis served as court musicians. Some families of Bhumij, who are thought to be the original inhabitants of Chorida, claimed kinship with the Bagmundi riijiis. They said that the riijii's lineage had diverged from their own three generations previous to the present generation, when the riijiis had become "Kshatriya" and began to intermarry only with other Kshatriyas (see also Sinha 1995). The simultaneous articulation of two cultural registers - tribal and caste Hindu - in the expression of Bhumij identity is also reflected in the domain of aesthetics as I have just said. It also means that categories such as folk and classical must not be seen as mutually exclusive. Musical genres like the jhurnur can be heard as both folk as well as classical depending on the particular form of sociality within which they are thought to be embedded.

How are different forms of sociality to be addressed anthropologically? What are the kinds of representation within which they can be anchored? In the last section I examine the space of discourse and the constitution of the public as the space within which such questions can be posed.



How is the establishment of an autonomous aesthetic principle related to the modem discourse of folklore and the transformation of folk culture? Once these cultural forms begin to be thought of as autonomous entities, they become free to circulate in other spheres and become incorporated within other forms of sociality. These new forms of sociality could be thought of as publics constituted through the circulation of discourse itself (Warner 2002). I think of the institution of folklore studies in West Bengal as contributing to the development of such a public. The discourse of folklore co- exists with the folk traditions that it supposedly represents and in the process impinges on the forms themselves.

Folk culture no longer thought to be embedded exclusively in tradition. Through the intervention of folklore studies, it has become part of the public domain and in a sense contemporaneous with more modem forms of culture. This is reflected in the writings that I discuss here. There is an attempt, in these writings, to break away from the representation of folk culture as being embedded in an idyllic and timeless face-to-face community and link forms of folk culture to contemporary assertions of identity and belonging. However, in the process, these forms become essentialised in new ways, as I will show. In the first three chapters, I show how a set of discourses selectively constitutes a specific cultural form as an iconic representation of the 'folk' or 'tribe'. Each one of these forms is used to represent a particular dimension of folk culture such that they seem to function as a set of sliding frames within which contradictory aspects of 'folk' culture are successively foreground. In each of these chapters, I juxtapose these representations with ethnographic description culled from my field notes written in the 1980s. By doing so I hope to demonstrate that it is only in the concatenation of different voices that a more complex picture of folk society will emerge.

The particular representations of folk or tribe that are foregrounded in the descriptions of these forms also have to do with a larger thematic, that is, of Purulia as a cultural region. As I have shown in a previous work BangIa folklore scholarship, supported by state policy, has created a discursive field in which the category of folk is used to conceptualise a region. (Chatterji 2005,2003). The historical process by which particular areas come to be perceived as folklore regions is an issue that I will briefly touch upon in the concluding chapter. Suffice it to say here that in Bengal folklore continues to have an important ideological role in the articulation of regional identity. Academic writings on folk culture have also emphasised the conception of 'cultural region' as a source of folklore's engagement with modernity (Morinis 1982, Blackburn 2003). It is precisely at this level that self-conscious reflection on context, style and the process of transmission actually occurs. This is the place at which the local is conceived off as such and thus also the point at which "metadiscursive practices for creating, representing and interpreting" folk discourses are developed (Briggs 1993).

The last chapter is, stylistically speaking, in a different key - it discusses the subversive potential of the feminine voice and its significance for our understanding of folk culture in general. I have included it in this collection to foreground the problematical relationship between individual voices in the field and the representations of tradition that we produce through our scholarly writings. By showing the dialogical potential within folklore genres themselves I wish to problematise the way in which the notion of collective voice is presented as a given in most writings on folklore and the oral tradition. Instead, I argue that spaces of individual self-reflection are already available within the traditional folk genres themselves, so that the 'new' modes of reflection provided by folklore studies can be accommodated within these spaces without much dislocation.

Finally, in conclusion, I examine the ideas of some important nationalists whose writings have had a seminal influence on the development of folklore studies in Bengal. Even though their work has no direct bearing on Purulia (most of the important folklore collections before independence were carried out in East Bengal), it has influenced the way in which Purulia is conceptualised as a olkloric region. I also contrast this genre of folklore writing with another body of writing that has emerged from the Catholic church based in Chota Nagpur, on the assumption that the silences within a particular kind of discourse can only be foregrounded through a juxtaposition with a discourse that is entirely different.


1. By 'aestheticisation' I mean the process by which an independent measure of evaluation is developed for cultural forms like dance and music, outside the context of participation usually associated with folk forms.

2. The development of an autonomous aesthetic domain in folk culture may help in resisting the 'folklorisation' of folk culture.

3. In fact one of the Shutradhar families in Chorida still lives on the Bhadu biiri (Bhadu house), that is land that was given by the chief for making the royal Bhadu image every year.


This book has been a long time in the making and there are man people who have contributed to it. I must begin by thanking tl Member Secretary, Dr. K.K. Chakravarty of the Indira Gandl National Centre for the Arts whose support made this proje possible. I also express by deep gratitude to Prof. [yotindra [ai and Ms. Aditi Mehta for their support and co-operation. I owe special debt of gratitude to my friend Molly Kaushal and the sta of the [anapada Sampada. Molly was instrumental in bringing th work to fruition and the staff of the Janapada Sampada have helps with the administrative details that I did not always understan Veena Das, Deepak Mehta, Mani Shekhar Singh, JV. Meenaks and Rimli Bhattacharya have all been generous with their tim Over the years the discussions that I have had with them have bee invaluable. Ranen Das has always been available for support ar advice. In Calcutta conversations with, Mihir Bhattachary Divyajyoti Mazumdar and Pashupati Mahato have helped crystallise many of the issues discussed here. Abhijit Dasgupta gal me my first introduction to the print culture of Calcutta. Lectur and presentations at the departments of English and Modem Indi: Languages, Delhi University, the department of Linguistics ar Literature, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and the department Anthropology, University of California at Berkeley helped me clarify the ideas presented here. I must thank Charles Brigg and P. Patnaik for inviting me to share my ideas with their colleagues and students. Mr. Golok Sarkar came with me to Chorida village and took the photographs reproduced here. My parents, grandparents and relatives in Calcutta have been a source of encouragement from the very first time I set foot in Purulia. I owe a debt of gratitude to Ivy and Nataraj Chatterji, Manushi, Kamalika and Shagarika Lahiri, Monotosh Mukherjee, Sambhit Chatterjee, Saumitra and Deepa Chatterjee. Finally, apart from the staff of the IGNCA, I must also acknowledge the support of the research and administrative staff of both the Institute for Socio-Economic Research on Development and Democracy, Delhi and the Folk and Tribal Cultural Centre, Calcutta without whose help this work would not have been undertaken.


Note on Transliterationxxiii
1The Chh6 Dance and the Public Sphere1
2Between Myth and History: The Making of a Goddess Tradition25
3Jhumur and the Aesthetics of Folk Poetry47
4Feminine Figures in Narrative Forms71
5Conclusion: Folklore and Border Crossings85
Appendix One105
Appendix Two107
Author Index121
Subject Index

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