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Indian Folklife (a newsletter of India's National Folklore Support Centre) 3, 2 (March 2004): 3-6.  Eric Miller, guest editor.

Editorial:  “The Asian Century of Folklore Scholarship: Reflections on the Chennai Conference”

In the 19th century, a good deal of Folklore scholarship around the world was carried out by people of the colonial occupations, especially administrators and missionaries.  They perceived and collected folklore as objects (such as stories) and classified these objects into pre-conceived genres (such as folktale, legend, myth, etc.).  In the latter part of the 20th century, a group of USA Folklore scholars developed the performance centred approach to folklore, which views folklore as a process of communication, and this approach has been applied around the world with excellent results.

Now we have arrived in the 21st century, and a case can be made that this might be the Asian century of Folklore scholarship.  Some evidence that might support this supposition can be found in the dialogue that occurred in and around the Folklore as Discourse conference that was held in Chennai recently.  The current issue of Indian Folklife presents this evidence.

What are some factors that might suggest that we might indeed be in the Asian century of Folklore scholarship?  Situated between Africa and Oceania, with strong cultural and other links to both of those regions, Asia is a centre of the developing world.  Many traditional forms of performance, and craft production, continue to exist in Asia.  Although folkloric processes of communication and community continue to operate wherever people live, in the West most of the traditional folk storytelling and theatre forms long ago were separated from ritual, and vanished.  The fact that so much traditional folklore -- and oral-centric culture in general -- continues to live here in Asia is a great stimulant and advantage for Asian Folklore scholars, who are living in the midst of the activity, and who have the linguistic and other cultural knowledge necessary to investigate it.

Due in part to the wonderful contribution of the Ford Foundation, Indian Folklore scholarship has had especially wide and deep exposure to the performance centred approach, and there has been a great deal of communication with members of the generation of USA Folklore scholars which originally developed this approach.  People who might not appreciate the Ford Foundation’s support of Folklore scholarship in India will be pleased to learn that the Ford Foundation has indicated that it will be reducing the level of this support.  The time is coming for Indian Folklore to be more self-supporting, both economically and in other ways, and this is all for the best.  For one thing, the case will have to be made to the Indian people that they should increase their support for Indian Folklore scholarship.

The Folklore, Public Sphere, and Civil Society symposium that was held in New Delhi in 2002 added a new dimension to Folklore studies.  In that symposium, the concept of the public sphere, which has been developed by the German social philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, was applied to folklore performance.  The public sphere approach to folklore looks at the ways folklore performances raise and discuss public issues, and at the interactions between the performers and the societies around them.  The public sphere approach to folklore is now a vital part of the new Asian Folklore scholarship. 

What might be some of the other hallmarks of Asian -- and specifically, Indian -- Folklore scholarship in this century?  Three themes that emerged at the Folklore as Discourse conference were: 1) The need to see the data from the points of view of the people who produce it.  2) The need to be open to new paradigms, models, tools, and theories that might emerge in the course of working with local data and social conditions (this might involve adding to and/or modifying already existing theoretical approaches).  And, 3) the need to use Folklore scholarship for the benefit of the community that produced the folklore, as well as for the benefit of Indian society as a whole.  This might include applying folklore (the activity) and Folklore (the discipline in which the activity is studied) knowledge to development projects (more about this below).  This theme of the social responsibility of the scholar to apply scholarship in practical ways for the benefit of people was very prominent at the conference, and appears repeatedly in the pages that follow, in the transcripts of the post-conference conversations.


What might be some practical applications of folklore and Folklore knowledge?  As mentioned, in the course of the conference numerous scholars called for practical applications -- but there was little in the way of specific suggestions or proposals.  Please permit me to state some ideas regarding this matter here.

As Desmond Kharmawphlang very reasonably points out (on p. 19 of this issue): all sorts of people have used folklore, “but as folklorists, we have the responsibility to just observe it.”  Yes, we in the Humanities, and especially we Folklore scholars, have been trained that as much as possible we should not affect the people and processes that we are studying, that our modernity would pollute and corrupt the tradition bearers.  While this still holds true on certain levels, I believe it is also true that the time has come for intervention.  If nothing is done, the people of the earth are in danger of losing their connections to the past, and also to their own humanity.  I submit that Folklore scholars need to accept the responsibility to help humanity not only to conserve, but also to plan, cultures and communities. 

Historically, ethical Folklore scholars have, with good reason, been hesitant to participate in social engineering experiments.  However, I believe that we now need to develop a section of our discipline that would do precisely this.  For even in the remotest villages, even in places where there is no electricity, people all over India are, day and night, listening to cinema songs on FM radios, and on audiocassette and CD players.  It is not that there is anything basically wrong with electronic technology such as radio, TV, cinema, video games, and computers: what is causing the cultural disruption is that at present the form and content of these media are being created almost totally from outside of the local cultures and communities.

Folk theatre, storytelling, and singing forms are endangered because the entire context of life -- even rural life -- on this planet is changing.  The old performance venues and systems of patronage are often no longer in place.  The connection of folk performance forms with ritual is often diminishing, in part because the old rituals are often no longer being conducted in the same way.

To survive, the traditional forms of folklore performance need to be transposed into the new world, including into electronic aspects of this new world.  This takes a lot of thought, planning, support, experimentation, intelligence, and talent by all concerned.  If people are left to their own devices, what we are seeing is that the traditional art forms are tending to be abandoned.  In the USA, things are left up to the “marketplace,” which is increasingly dominated by a smaller-and-smaller number of larger-and-larger multi-national corporations.  There is little support for, or tradition of, scholarly or Government intervention in cultural matters.  But India is different.  Indian society claims to want to protect its people from an impulsive rush into the soulless oblivion of mass media and materialistic modernity. 

The globe is an increasingly small and inter-connected place.  Humans are beginning to plan life and culture in our soon-to-exist (and already existing) spaceships and space stations, and in our soon-to-exist colonies on the moon and on planets other than earth.  No one is more qualified to participate in the planning of the cultural environments of these places -– as well as of communities on earth -- than Folklore scholars, because we observe from the inside how cultures work.

In the words of Roger Abrahams (my primary professor at Penn Folklore, where I am a Ph.D. candidate), culture is composed of the formulaic use of conventional units of thought, language, and behavior.  (Links to the texts of ten of Roger Abrahams’ early articles in which he discusses this theme can be found at .)  Following such principles, we Folklore scholars can help to set up the conditions under which cultures can grow and flourish.

What I am speaking of here is not only social and cultural reform, but also social and cultural creation, design, and engineering: that is, community planning and development -- in terms of both physical design and cultural activities -- based on folklore principles, activities, and processes.  We as Folklore scholars and as citizens of the earth need to help to pass on practices by which -- and help to create environments in which -- authentic cultures can grow.  As ridiculous as this may sound, we need to help people to understand what culture is, and we need to help people make culture. 

Three keys to avoiding exploitation of folklore are: 

1)  People should receive training primarily in folklore processes (of production, composition, performance, dialogue, etc.), and only secondarily regarding particular folklore objects (specific stories, motifs, symbols, etc.).

2)  People must be allowed generous amounts of free time and space, to digest the larger society’s structures and to formulate responses to these structures.  Pockets of non-structure need to be included in the design of every structure. 

3)  Critical voices must be permitted to speak and be heard in public spheres.  Healthy cultures are self-correcting: if something even possibly objectionable is going on, someone is likely to bring it up in public performance or discussion, and the group has the opportunity to make corrections.  A primary way to improve societies is through inclusion of critical points of view.  People must be given the ability to publicly comment upon the leading discourses of a society.

These principles may be difficult for some authorities to accept and accommodate in practical terms, and in such cases conditions must be negotiated.  Community and cultural design and implementation are best done in teams, including (this is an incomplete list) community members, social psychologists, engineers, and Government officials.  We Folklore scholars should be members of such teams, in which we could present and help to implement the above-mentioned principles.  Folklore scholars have the potential to be invaluable conflict resolution facilitators on these teams, as we know and have appreciation for both the language of the folk, and the language of institutions. 

How can a community be designed?  To begin to answer this question, one must ask:  What is a community?  What is a neighborhood?  How can such things and processes be fostered?  Let us not be naïve: such efforts to shape social environments are going on, in both the private and public sectors.  To ignore such efforts is to permit them to occur without our participation. 

More than ever before, it is time for Folklore scholars to apply their skills to projects in fields such as education, ecological- and educational-tourism, water management, energy production, and agriculture (including agri-forestry).  There is a need to apply folk knowledge and perspectives, and Folklore scholarship methodologies, to sustainable development projects of all sorts.  This would help to ensure that these projects, including the uses of new technology, are grounded in the humanity and cultures of the communities, and that the present is linked with the past.  It would also help people to locate themselves, and to develop their individual and community identities, in our rapidly changing world.  Cultural conservation and preservation strategies should be applied alongside efforts to protect the physical environment.  The folk, and scientific engineers share a love for ingenious and economical engineering processes, and once again, Folklore scholars can act as go-betweens to help these two parties apply their wisdom together.

The folk -- whether defined as rural and oral-centric, or in any other way -- are not simple.  They are often very shrewd and sophisticated about the ways of the world.  As such, community members should, as mentioned above, be playing real, active, decision-making roles in community design processes.  Culture does not just happen by itself.  There are many internal and external factors that may shape and influence the development of a local culture, and people in that local community should be having a large and conscious say regarding this matter. 

Fields such as the design of public space, and urban design, are eminently respectable.  These fields involve the study of social psychology.  Thus, however, they are possibly related to the potentially scary field of behavioural psychology, and to the less-than-respectable fields of brainwashing, propaganda, and manipulative cultural programming.  The dangers of these abuses are there, and we as Folklore scholars also have the responsibility to train people to be able to immediately recognise the appearance of such practices.


Speaking of designing communities and cultures:  As the topic of the Folklore as Discourse conference involved discourse, it was only natural that at times the participant scholars would turn their analytic gaze on themselves, and consider their own methods of discourse.

“Please don’t let this turn into a conversation!,” said one very well-meaning moderator to two speakers during an end-of-panel discussion period.  And I thought, “Why in the world not?!  Good public conversation is precisely what we need at a conference!”  Spontaneous comments, follow-up statements, and unfettered dialogue should be allowed during defined sections of the proceedings.  However, good public conversation requires of its participants a great deal of ongoing self-discipline and concern for the good of the group.  People must take care to limit themselves appropriately, to speak in ways that will be interesting to all, and to seek to hear the voices of the quieter people present.  It is my firm belief that generally people have the maturity to do these things in public, given the proper context.

A standard practice at academic conferences is to allow thirty minutes per presenter; with three presenters on a panel.  Typically, twenty minutes is allocated for the reading of the paper (or the giving of the talk), and ten minutes is allocated for discussion.  Sometimes the scheduled ten-minute discussion periods are held after each paper, sometimes they are held together after all three papers have been presented, and sometimes there is a combination of both of these approaches.

The problem is that twenty minutes is invariably not enough time to read an entire paper, and we as an academic community need to really face this fact and find solutions.  Because what happens at present is that people invariably go overtime in reading their papers, leaving little or no time for discussion -- and making the final presenter on the panel very nervous!  The number one complaint I have heard from fellow scholars regarding conferences in general is that there was not enough time for discussion, for the material to be digested by the group.  I suggest that we as an academic community need to change the paradigm, from seeing discussion as an expendable extra, to seeing it as the central thing that needs to happen in a panel session.

Scholars often arrive at conferences two different objectives in mind: 1) to present a paper that will be published, and 2) to initiate and lead a good discussion.  The trick is to devise ways of achieving both of these objects at once.  To this end, there have been numerous experiments in shaping and structuring discourse at academic conferences. 

One way to make conference sessions more interactive is for the papers to be available for reading in advance.  Then, during the conference session, only an abstract is read, and discussion can ensue. Another approach might be for the presenting scholar to read a brief statement (say, two minutes or less), and then lead a discussion about this statement.  This statement-and-discussion process could be repeated five or six (or any other number) of times in the course of a thirty-minute session.  In the case of this practice, the paper for publication would be submitted separately.

The subject of how we communicate -- how we convey information and relate to each other -- at conferences is a very important one.  The form of our communication comes to affect the content of our communication, as well as our entire worldviews.  Moreover, at academic meetings, as at all social gatherings, people are constantly creating society and culture anew, and in so doing we are perpetuating certain social practices and structures, omitting others, and inventing others.  We need to very consciously and seriously take responsibility for this act of social creation, as there are always consequences as a result of what is created.


As I write this editorial in Chennai, on the other side of the globe the Folklore Program of the University of Pennsylvania (also known as, Penn Folklore) is holding its 40th anniversary conference. M.D. Muthukumaraswamy, the Director of India’s National Folklore Support Centre, is giving the conference keynote address.  Before he left for this trip, I had the chance to ask M.D. Muthukumaraswamy about his thoughts relating to the work of the National Folklore Support Centre.

He spoke of the metaphor of the coffeehouse, a place where citizens can go to discuss public issues and develop public opinion.  He said he had come to realize that there are a multitude of public spheres, and spheres that are combinations of public and private.  He expressed his fondness for the discipline of Folklore, saying that it does not reduce things to abstractions, but rather that it pays attention to multiple versions of things in multiple contexts.

He noted that the New Delhi symposium (in 2002) looked at the interactions between folklore performances and the societies around them.  An output of that event had been the realisation that there was further need to study the internal processes of the performances themselves, and this was the purpose of the Chennai conference.  (In a symposium, the emphasis is on discussion; in a conference, the emphasis is on the presentation and consideration of papers.)

He mentioned that two other scholarly gatherings organized by the NFSC (along with others) in recent years have concerned 1) documenting and archiving folklore practices; and, 2) ways of presenting folklore to the public in exhibitions and workshops.  It struck me that in a small number of years, the NFSC has done a very thorough and brilliant job of investigating many aspects of the Folklore scholarship process.

M.D. Muthukumaraswamy expressed the desire to take folklore documentation back to the communities that created the folklore, and to discuss both the folklore and the documentation practices with the folk artists, and in this way help to build up the cultures being studied.  He is interested in the question of how to put recording, archiving, and communication technologies at the service of folklore communities. 

He also mentioned that the NFSC is planning to offer two courses in Chennai: one regarding video-making and other methods of documenting folklore; and the other regarding uses of folklore in education (this course would be designed especially for teachers, and would be held on weekends).  Interested parties are encouraged to contact the NFSC regarding these courses. 

It has been an incredible honour to guest-edit this issue of Indian Folklife, and I hope I have begun to do justice to the task.  My thanks beyond words to M.D. Muthukumaraswamy for enabling me to have this experience.

A final note:  The term, context, is used a good deal in the following pages, and I would like to add the clarification that two kinds of context are: the event context, and the socio-historical context.  The event context is composed of all the aesthetic things that occur during an event, including the interactions between participants; whereas the socio-historical context concerns all of the practices of the society, both in the present and in the past.  Just as other disciplines can benefit from adopting Folklore methodologies -- such as observing and documenting the mechanics of practices of production and performance, and discussing these processes with the doers of them -- so Folklore work is always enriched by thorough historical and sociological research.

Eric Miller, Chennai.
Ph.D. candidate in Folklore, University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, USA).